This old print of Russian Cossacks has been in the family longer than me; I suspect my father had it in his school or student rooms and later it fired my half-brother's childish imagination. The picture's foxed and faded now, and so familiar to me that I scarcely notice it any more. But today I took a magnifying glass to it and discovered the artist's signature in the left hand bottom corner "Hess pinx. 1800". Google told me that Carl Ernst Hess's original watercolour etching is held by the Hermitage in St Petersburg - there's a splendid enlargeable image of it here.
Now that I've reached the stage when everything sparks memories, the Cossack picture reminds me of my eight-year old self when I was, briefly, a make-believe Cossack. I lived at a time and in a place where all little middle-class girls were enraptured with ponies. I wasn't (I preferred cats) but I went along with my mother's earnest desire that I should fit in socially. We couldn't afford to own a pony so we would borrow one in exchange for grazing, and I didn't even have a proper leather saddle, just a felt one. I wasn't much interested in Pony Club activities - learning about withers and fetlocks - nor did I do well in the equine events we were urged to take part in. Other mothers boasted about their daughters' prowess in dressage and show jumping but there was no way I was ever going to match them. So, when the annual gymkhana (a major social event for horsey types) came round, my parents set their sights on the one competition in which I had a chance: the mounted fancy dress class. Yes I was a Cossack and I carried the day!
The extra shows me in my costume, based closely on the archetypal Cossack outfit shown in the etching: droopy fur hat and high-collared shirt (sewn by my mother from one of my father's cut down to size), dagger from the family collection, whip fashioned by my father with the leather thong correctly wound around the handle, and black welly boots (model's own.) A great deal of effort went into getting everything exactly right: for my Russian father it was a matter of personal pride and for my mother a chance to cock a snook at the snobby set.
For me, wearing the dagger was the main thrill.