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A Flash in the Pan
by Jilliana Ranicar-Breese

Claude Lyons, my uncle, my mother Peggy’s elder brother, was a practical joker. As a child in Liverpool, I recall my uncle visiting ‘Beach Lodge’, his brother Lewis’s big mansion with grounds and a tennis court. I remember I would sit on his knee and he would reveal six penny pieces from behind my ears. Obviously Uncle Claude was an amateur prestigitateur. He convinced me that he had tea at 3.00 every Wednesday afternoon with the Queen. I believed him when I was about 5 or 6 and bragged to all my school mates that he went to Buckingham Palace for tea and scones served on a solid silver platter. Decades later I inherited a limited edition self published soft back illustrated book of a playing card game he had invented. Uncle Claude must have been into tricks and playing cards.

Claude Lyons was a master electronics engineer and a member of The Worshipful Masters in London. He had set up the Claude Lyons electronics factory in Hoddeston, Hertfordshire with his brother and partner Lewis at the Liverpool office. There was a Paris office in Avenue Foch, so my uncle must have made a few shillings or francs in his time.

I think my uncle must have been sadistic too because I remember him carrying me outside as a child in my very short dress during a hot summer to the driveway where his posh car was parked and firmly placing me on the scorching hot bonnet. I screamed and he laughed.

Then there was the Lyons scandal in the late 60s before divorce was legal. He was married to a demanding harridan of a woman called Zia who gave him 2 sons, William and Edward, my dear first cousins who were decades older than little me. Both sons eventually went into the family business and were on the board along with Uncle Lewis and his materialistic well endowed wife Auntie Tillie. We called her cash till Tillie because she only spoke of money and stocks and shares.

Claude was so unhappy with his wife who would not divorce him, that they split the large house in Hendon in two. Claude lived on the ground floor while Zia had a separate life upstairs visited only by her doting son Edward.

What a dysfunctional family! Edward and William loathed each other. William fell out with his father because at 72 Claude had fathered a son nicknamed Gino after he began to live contentedly with his uneducated Italian housekeeper Anna from a village near Salerno. How he despised his father and would have nothing to do with the baby, his half brother.

When Gino was 7 or 8 he began to show some artistic talent under his elderly father’s watchful eye. His black ink watercolour sketch of ‘Trees and monkeys’ was so professional, that Uncle Claude decided to submit it into the Summer Exhibition at The Royal Academy. It was chosen! There were no restrictions on the entry age so the mischievous Claude Lyons did not divulge his son’s age. He was such a joker so why not trick the stodgy Royal Academy?

The opening vernissage took place with the press, art critics and journalists. Gino was too young to be present but as my uncle, who was a Board member, was admiring and discussing Gino’s masterpiece to a journalist, the man asked how old Gino was when he painted it. Uncle Claude paused and thought for a moment and then declared Gino was 12 now and must have been 7 or 8 at the time.

All hell broke loose that evening. The boy became a flash in the pan star of the media, on TV, on radio, Cardinal Henan was called in as the boy was half Catholic and half Jewish. Kandinsky from The States wrote wanting Gino as a child prodigy, American art investors contacted my uncle wanting to buy more artworks as the original was never for sale.

The submission regulations for the Royal Academy were altered as Millais had been the youngest at 12. I never checked but probably Gino that year in the 1960s, would have got into the Guinness book of records.

Inevitably my uncle fell out with me as well as his sons William and Edward and Zia. It was not until decades later, a journalist friend of mine traced Gino, known as Lewis Lyons, to London after Anna his mother had died, where he too is a journalist. We met in Brighton and spent the day together. He told me he never took up painting and it was indeed a flash in the pan!

Written for Hove Writers Group 2 November 2018.