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The Olive

All Southern cities are hot in summer, but New Orleans is in a meteorological class all its own. In many ways, I am not sure that the Quarter ever cools down. To be sure, the artists, collectors, and lore of New Orleans have given me more than my fair share of entertainment and enterprise, and I usually drive away from the Crescent City with a story or two to swap. I offer the following as a “for instance.” A local collector of some reputation, William Eugene Groves had no idea who I was when we first encountered one another back in the mid-1980s. He was, after all, much older and his collection, assembled over a lifetime, ran the gamut—good pictures and simple stuff. He had his sources, and I was foreign to him.

An auditor by trade, Groves worked from a leaning wooden building on Frenchman Street, beyond Esplanade. When I occasionally called on him during my visits to the city, he would welcome me, though it was clearly understood that I was not there to sell but, more likely, to buy. The New Orleans Museum of Art’s wonderful 1847 Alfred Boisseau painting, Louisiana Indians Walking Along a Bayou had come from Mr. Groves, and Roger Ogden had picked off some fine things as well. The only piece I ever acquired from him was a Helen Turner, which, as it turns out, was too much of a portrait of a rather plain woman and not enough of a work of art. The illustration provided here, a more representative and admirable piece by Turner, is offered as contrast to the Groves’ example.

As a rule, Mr. Groves would invite me in and then proceed to fill a martini glass with gin, despite the mid-day hour, and drop in a dark olive. As he prepared his refreshment, I was left to take in the overwhelming display. The walls were hung salon style with paintings that spanned the entire quality spectrum. Prizes were there for the plucking, to be sure, but there were so many bottles dug from privies and piles of random paraphernalia that it was hard to focus on any one thing. There was an upper story to the left of the storefront where dozens of paintings were stacked helter-skelter—screw eyes abrading canvas and worse.

On a particularly hot and un-airconditioned afternoon, I worked through those stacks in hopes of finding something worthwhile, with Mr. Groves in close attendance. He was good company, regaling me with stories of his early days as a collector and of other personalities in New Orleans who shared his interests. There was Malcolm Monroe—and his family before him—who had amassed works by William Aiken Walker, a collection now at the Historic New Orleans Collection, as well as Felix Kuntz, another early fan of Walker’s and all things New Orleans. Much of the Kuntz collection is now at the New Orleans Museum of Art.

Now, Mr. Groves’ martini glass featured a hollow stem and, with the gin depleted, that single olive had lodged at the base. This became an object of concentration for Mr. Groves as he would, time and again, throw his head all the way back and tap the bottom of the glass trying to coax the gin-soaked olive to slide down the stem and into his waiting mouth. He just couldn’t make it happen. As I continued my hunt for a good picture, Mr. Groves eventually took up a hunt of another kind. After riffling through yet one more pile of what-nots, he produced a blond wood, flat-blade screwdriver and speared the olive as if he held a silver toothpick, satisfied at last. He never offered me a drink.

Helen Turner (1858-1958)
A Long Time Ago (1918)
Oil on canvas
26 1/4 x 22 1/2 inches
Signature Details: Lower left
Owner: Private Collection, Greenville, South Carolina
1451 River Road · Yemassee, SC 29945 · 843.412.8738
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