When my mother died, I moved with my young son from our large family home into a small house in Cowes on the Isle of Wight. I took with me the chest freezer from the family home. The only place I could put it was in the kitchen diner, and it rather dominated the room with its plain white bulk.
I had met the artist Jo McPhilbin many times around Thorness Bay on the island. He painted wonderful pictures of the bay and the cliffs, and I admired his skill. My family commissioned a picture for my mother’s birthday. My sister still has the picture. Jo had some standing as an artist on the Isle of Wight and I went to several exhibitions that people hosted for him. I bought a picture of a fox and a crab on the beach, which I still have and love.
I remember that Jo once picked up a badger that had been hit by a car and kept it in his freezer, so that he could paint pictures of it, especially its fur. He was a keen runner and used to go out with the Isle of Wight Harriers to run. I liked him very much.
Jo was painting and living with his family when I was working in the Pathology department at St Mary's Hospital. I was sometimes needed to cover out-of-hours work and was on call during the night.
I asked Jo if he would come and sleep in my spare room on these nights so that, if I was called out, there would be someone in the house with my son. I would give him part of my call-out fee to buy paints and materials.
I mentioned to him that I would really like some sort of picture on the freezer, so that it was more of a feature in the room. Jo painted the picture of the Draught of Fishes over a number of evenings and nights, while I was in the lab working. It wasn't quite what I was expecting! The very stylised figures are not at all like Jo's other pictures.
One evening, I came back from the lab to find that his style of execution was quite different from previously. He was working on the nets and was aggressively streaking through the paint. I asked him if there had been a problem and, after some time, he told me that a family member was suffering from an illness.
I believe that I know the models for the figures in the boat. The older, white-haired man resembles an island local, Ken, and the younger man resembles his son. They had a fishing boat out at Thorness bay.
Ken passed away a few years ago, and his son still lives on the Isle of Wight. He drove the Cowes ferry across the Medina for many years. I don't know if he still does. The brown-haired man resembles a man nicknamed Bigfoot (on account of his very large feet and sometimes bushy hair and beard) who was a frequent visitor to Thorness Bay at the time.
When the freezer stopped working I tried offering it to Tate as an intact piece. I didn't get a reply from them, so the picture was cut out of the freezer with a jigsaw and offered to Healing Arts at St Mary's Hospital. The collection accepted it, and it was hanging in Newcroft, the psychiatric hospital, the last time I saw it.
I don't know where Jo is now. I left the island over 20 years ago, and I made one attempt to find him to show him that the picture was in the PCF’s Hampshire and Isle of Wight catalogue. I bought a copy of the catalogue and I wanted to give it to him, but I couldn’t find him.
Editor's note: This story was first submitted through Art Detective. If you know any more about the artist Jo McPhilbin, please start an Art Detective discussion.