Artistic Family

In common with many children born to missionaries in colonial times, my childhood was rich in experience, but fragmented. Born in 1946 in Ruabon, North Wales, Great Britain, I spent most of my early childhood in the Niger Territory of French West Africa in the town of Dogondoutchi, just north-west of the ancient city of Sokoto, in Nigeria.

van Lierop wedding

Jos, Nigeria, 10 December 1941.

My mother Gwedoline (‘Gwen’) Muriel Tester (1911-2005) was born in Wimbledon, South London and my father John Bernard (‘Ben’) Henry van Lierop Jr. (1915-60) was born to Dutch immigrants who had settled in Holland, Michigan, U.S.A. My parents met as students at the Missionary School of Medicine in London in about 1939-40. As fluent French speakers, they were chosen by the ‘Sudan Interior Mission’ to join a small team striving to extend protestant evangelism into “French country”, where they arrived soon after Hausa language school and marriage in Nigeria in 1941.

Wedding menu

One of the menus made by my mother, Gwen.

Both my parents were artistically gifted. My mother produced many pieces for special occasions throughout her life, and in retirement revived her childhood love for watercolour painting.

Pencil portrait of Gwen by Ben

Pencil portrait of Gwen by Ben

This is the pencil portrait that my father drew of her on honeymoon. Unlike my mother, who could sometimes be seen at  work with a fine paintbrush, we children were unaware of my father’s skills as a draughtsman, apart from his trick of quickly drawing an accurate postage- stamp-sized caricature of himself in profile.

However,  my prime childhood artistic influence came from my Dutch-American grandmother, born Johanna  (‘Hannie’) Catherina Hamel (1893-1992). In her eighteenth year, she had attended an Art Academy for one year, whereupon (according to family tradition) she was removed by her father lest she be exposed in the following year to naked life models.

Johan Bernard Hendrik van Lierop and Johanna Catharina Hamel

My grandparents, Ben van Lierop and Johanna Hamel, an engaged couple in 1912, from a Hamel family group portrait.

She was soon married to my grandfather, John Bernard Henry van Lierop Sr. (1880-1957), a successful cigar manufacturer who was a protestant convert from Catholicism in the evangelical revival of 1906. The couple emigrated together to the U.S.A. in 1914 and within a few years my grandfather had re-trained in theology at the Moody Bible Institute, Chicago. After some happy years as minister to a Dutch community in Washington State, he accepted a missionary call to Belgium, re-settling his family in Ghent. The family lived in a domed seventeenth century palace which doubled as their church. When he first arrived in Belgium, my father faced three new languages in school: French, Latin and Greek. He became a keen cyclist and frequently visited Antwerp, becoming an admirer of the painter Rubens. However, he decided to follow his father’s vocation, also training at the Moody Bible Institute. Meanwhile, as United States citizens, his parents were evacuated from occupied Belgium to the U.S. in 1940. Retired by 1955 to Holland, Michigan, they looked after my sister and me for eight very happy months, while our parents toured their support churches in the U.S.A., taking our younger brother with them.

Charcoal drawing by my grandmother, Johanna Catharina Hamel in about 1912

A still life drawing in charcoal made by my grandmother in the first year course she attended at the Art Academy.

Noticing my interest in drawing, my grandmother, showed us her carefully preserved portfolio of drawings and design studies from the Art Academy 43 years earlier. I was overwhelmed by her amazing skill. Stimulated to draw more ambitiously, I filled many sheets of unlined writing paper with wax crayon drawings.  Finally, she allowed me to deposit my entire childish output into her precious portfolio before we left for boarding school in England, catching the liner for Europe in New York. While in New York,  my father took us up the Empire State building, to the Natural History Museum and to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.