Published: Selina’s Search – Debbie PSL #91 (1985)
Reprint: Selina’s Sketches – Mandy PSL #249 (1996)
Mr James is a struggling, ailing Victorian artist. He has been commissioned to paint a picture of the opening of the new merchants’ hall. But during the ceremony he finally collapses, leaving the sketch six people short for his painting. If he can’t finish it, this will mean no payment, and they really need the money.
Fortunately the Guild of Merchants provided a preliminary plan of where the dignitaries were during the ceremony. His daughter Selina is going to use it to track down the six people and take sketches of them. But tracking them down is only half of it. Somehow, Selina has to get these six important-sounding people to sit for her. And she does not think this will be easy.
Selina’s first stop is a servant named Jem, who was a page at the ceremony. However, the maid won’t let her in to sketch a picture of Jem. Fortunately Jem overhears, and arranges a secret meeting with Selina. He does not have enough time to be sketched, but Selina finds a way to change the maid’s mind and let her in to sketch Jem – a drawing of her and her sweetheart. All of a sudden Selina is a welcome guest and given all the time in the world to sketch Jem in the outfit he wore at the ceremony.
Next is the French ambassador, who will be returning to France next day. But the constable at the French embassy won’t let Selina in. Then a coach knocks over a road sweeper and Selina sketches its coat of arms to identify the reckless driver. Impressed, the constable finds a way for Selina to sketch the ambassador: at Waterloo station where the ambassador is boarding his train for home.
Two down, but the merchants want the picture done in five days. So, although Dad is still not well enough, he has to start painting it now, and he is. The race against time has Selina braving the streets after dark for number three, Dr Armitage, who is the medical advisor for the guild.
Unfortunately Dr Armitage is out on call at the arches under the bridge. Selina finds this means he is tending to homeless children under the bridge, and he is more concerned with treating them than helping her with her sketches. To win him over she entertains the children with shadow pictures to help them forget the pain while he treats them. Dr Armitage agrees to the sketch on condition she also draws a poster to raise funds for the children. Dr Armitage also gives Selina’s father some medical treatment.
Number four is Septimus Swann, a leading member of the Guild and owner of a posh ladies shoe shop. However, Swann has left instructions not to be disturbed while he selects designs for his next collection. Then Selina discovers Swan has rejected the latest designs from his shoe designers and hits upon the idea of asking the customers what they want in a Swann shoe to design a shoe for Swann that will meet the customers’ wants. Swann is impressed with the design – and surprised that all Selina wants in return for it is a sketch of him for it rather than the ten guineas he offers.
However, Selina is rather annoyed that the conceited old peacock keeps her hours drawing copies of him to show his friends. This has eaten up valuable time she needs to track down the remaining two.
Dad anticipates no problems with number five, a Mr Toby Maitland. But he has not counted on Maitland falling ill too. Selina discovers Maitland is ill because he was put in charge of minding the guild regalia from the ceremony, but someone has stolen it. On the case is the constable from the French embassy, and he has to tackle the problem of conflicting descriptions of the thief, which sound pretty pantomime. Selina uses her sketches and pantomime posters to put together a composite, which matches the description of a criminal named Beanpole Beckett. Sure enough, they find the regalia when they raid Beckett’s house. In return, Maitland not only sits for Selina but also gives her a letter of introduction to the last person on her list: the Duchess of Dorian.
But even with this letter of introduction there are problems in getting the sketch. The duchess is up at Dorian Castle, Sussex, which is miles away. Fortunately, Selina matches to get a lift from her town residence, which is packing up and moving to the castle. However, the duchess is in the middle of organising a banquet and a bit busy to sit for a sketch. Then Selina uses her sketches to help a lady organise the flowers for the table. It turns out to be the duchess herself, and she is so grateful she is only too happy to sit for Selina.
Thanks to Selina’s sketches, Dad is able to complete the picture in time, and he acknowledges it at the unveiling. Dad is paid handsomely, and now many of the merchants want Dad to paint pictures for them too. But there’s more – the duchess was so impressed with Selina’s sketch book that she has the Director of Sarum School of Art award Selina a free scholarship.
This is a delightful, engaging story, and it has nice, simple artwork that lends itself really well to the setting. It’s a race against time that becomes a rags to riches story in the end. Selina didn’t quite intend it that way; she just wants to help her father get his work done in time and save face and receive his much-needed payment. We feel for Dad too, who is struggling with ill-health as well as poverty, and though he is still sick, he still has to get that painting finished on schedule. And no matter how sick he is, he has to make that painting a masterpiece.
The story doesn’t delve too far into the dark side of Victorian times. However, we still get hints during Selina’s search of it with the lives of servants, the homeless waifs under the bridge and the doctor who wants to help them, and Beckett the thief. The Jameses themselves are part of the dark side of it. They clearly live in poverty, have little money, and it’s no wonder Dad’s health is suffering. He not only needs the payment from that commission but the prestige and hope of more work from it as well.
There are some touches of humour, such as Jem the servant who’s a likeable scallywag to boot and is not going to have the maid turn Selina away like that. And there is the crook who looks like he’s straight from a pantomime, and pantomime posters help bring about his downfall.
Of course everything comes down to Selina not only being a brilliant artist who is able to sketch well enough to help Dad, but also use quick wits to get those people to sit for her. Getting the people to sit for her or overcoming difficult people who stand in her way turns out to be easier than she thought, even if it is extra work, because she uses her artwork to do them good turns first, from tracking down criminals to doing fashion designs. It always seems to happen that way. So they all get something out of having Selina sketching for them, and it is only fair that Selina receive an extra reward – the art scholarship.