This is the story of The Little Red Fiat. You’ve probably seen it, haven’t you, in the Tate Modern? It was painted by my little boy – not so little now, but he was back then. Probably about twelve I think, when he painted that one. But he started painting them when he was only three.
We’d bought him a painting set, nothing fancy, for his third birthday. We needed something to keep him occupied after his little sister was born. He hadn’t taken too well to the new member of the family and we couldn’t deal with a demanding toddler and a new baby. So we sent Joseph off with his painting set. It seemed to absorb him and he did a painting of our little red Fiat – we used to have one back then. This painting wasn’t quite like the one you’ve seen in the Tate, just blobs of red in a box shape. It took a bit of working out what it was, but we said well done and stuck the picture to the fridge, like all good parents do. We encouraged him to paint some more and over the next few weeks he painted and painted and painted. But all he’d paint were little red Fiats.
At first we were just grateful we’d found something to keep him occupied. But then, after his little sister had grown up a bit, we started to worry. We tried to encourage him to paint other things: a tree, the house – other cars, at least. But no, all he wanted to paint was our little red Fiat. He painted all day sometimes and the paintings did improve, he put in more details, made it look more realistic, but it was always the little red Fiat. When he was about six, the painting (for their was only ever one painting really) had crystallised in its final form: the little red Fiat with the the doors thrown open and a boy in pyjamas standing with his back to the painter, looking at the car with his hands folded behind his back – you would recognise it, I’m sure. And so, for six years, that’s exactly what he carried on painting, doing three or four a week. We didn’t think much of the paintings themselves, except as a cause for worry over our son’s mental state, but then we weren’t an artistic family.
But then, one day, something extraordinary happened. Joseph was twelve by then and had just finished one of his paintings and, as usual, it was of the little red Fiat with the doors thrown open and the little boy in pyjamas facing it with his back to the painter and his hands behind his back. This one didn’t seem much different to us from the very first one he’d painted, certainly not in the subject matter. He’d got better with the brush, of course, but you can imagine our frustration as parents. But that evening we had a couple of friends over for dinner and they saw the picture on the fridge (Joseph put them there now, a new one every couple of days) and they remarked how good it was. This must have been almost the first time we’d had friends over for dinner, Joseph now old enough to look after himself and Sarah upstairs while the adults ate. Of course, we just thought they were being polite and we thanked them and carried on serving chicken in white wine. But the husband couldn’t keep his eyes off the painting and it started to irritate us, we wanted to enjoy the evening, but he was obviously totally distracted by the painting. Then, in the middle of dessert, he stood up, quite rudely I thought, went straight to the fridge and stared intently at the painting for a couple of minutes. “You must take this to a gallery!” he declared and his wife nodded, equally hypnotised. We could not believe it and just said, “Oh, don’t be silly,” annoyed more than anything.
Even so, we were rather taken aback by their reaction to the painting and we wondered what to do. Perhaps we should take Joseph to a psychologist, find out what was wrong with him. Over the next few days, though, something even more remarkable happened. Our friends started showing up at our door unannounced, obviously a little embarrassed, asking to see ‘The Little Red Fiat’. Baffled, we opened the door of course, took them to the kitchen and showed them the fridge. Some of them we had to forcibly eject from the premises, they stood staring for so long. It was nice to have friends, and we were oddly proud that our son was attracting their admiration, but the disruption was a little annoying and we were scared that one of them might tell social services that our son was mentally unstable. But then, after the friends, came the strangers. Complete strangers, not even acquaintances, coming up to our door asking to see ‘The Little Red Fiat’. Some even offered to buy it for extravagant sums of money, some people left money on the kitchen table in entrance fees, everybody said how brave we were to keep it in the house and not secure in a gallery. We were on the local news, then national, then the BBC came to our door asking if we would be happy to take part in a documentary about our artistic prodigy son. Of course not, we said, we’re not an artistic family.
Well, we knew it was getting out of hand when an elderly woman fainted – she could have knocked her head and done some serious damage. As it was, she got away with a cracked hip and breathless said, “It was all worth it!” And then of course we had all the doctors around, gawping at the painting – a child’s painting!
So we decided to get rid of it. We asked some auctioneers to come over and value the painting. It sold, quickly, for 1.2 million pounds. That just about knocked our socks off. It was immediately donated to the Tate Modern, a ‘national treasure’. You’ve probably seen it, haven’t you? A little red Fiat with the doors thrown open and a little boy with his back to the painter and his hands folded behind his back.
Our son doesn’t paint any more. He’s grown out of it, I suppose. After we sold the Fiat painting, we also sold the real-life Fiat and bought a Bentley. A few weeks later he came home from school saying he’d finished with painting. He never painted anything else, just our little red Fiat. Just one of those things, isn’t it? We still make a living selling the hundreds of other paintings he did during those nine extraordinary years. We’re glad he’s normal again, though, imagine how he would have been bullied at school, doing those funny paintings.
Everyone always asks why I didn’t paint anything else, why I don’t paint any more at all, why it was always the Fiat. I only understood when I got to secondary school, I didn’t have a clue why I was painting at the time. Mum says I was three when I started painting the car. I just remember being so confused by it. The colours were insane. I was scared of what I’d seen. I knew it wasn’t right and I sensed at the time that I couldn’t ask mum and dad about it. And then, when my sister was born, I was even more afraid. It scared me, that scene, the red Fiat with the doors thrown open, like it was abandoned, dad jerking away on top of mum.