Outdoors: The artist, the missing horse and the clairvoyant

When a favourite portrait was stolen, the painter and huntsman Raoul Millais took unusual steps to find it.
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THE PAINTING shown here was stolen from the home of the veteran artist Raoul Millais in the early hours of 1 November last year, a couple of weeks after his 96th birthday. Thieves broke into his 15th-century manor-house in Oxfordshire at about 3am and made away with a haul of paintings, ceramic figures and sculpture worth many thousands of pounds.

Later that morning his step-daughter, Karol Maxwell, remembered that a medium who lived in Welsh castle had once located two terriers which went missing from a cousin's home. When Karol rang Mrs Sullivan and asked her to help, she said she needed a piece from one of the stolen objects to work from, so into the post went the toe of a Chinese ceramic figure broken off in the raid, and a nail from which one of the pictures had been hanging.

A couple of nights later, Karol and her husband Simon came home to find a message on their answering machine. Mrs Sullivan reported, with precise directions, that the hoard was in a barn - one of a group of disused farm buildings - on the Swinbrook estate, only 10 minutes' drive from Raoul's home. Luckily Simon knew the agent, so he rang and asked the man to meet him at the barn immediately.

A search of the building revealed nothing. But almost before it had been completed, Mrs Sullivan was on the line again to say that the stolen goods were by then at Minster Lovell, a couple of miles farther east. Next she saw the loot in a white van, heading southwards down the M25 and the M2 into Kent. Finally she said that the pictures had been shipped abroad through Ramsgate, but that the other objects had gone to Folkestone.

The police did not discount Mrs Sullivan's commentary; indeed, they let on that they had used a clairvoyant to help locate bodies buried by the Gloucester mass murderer Frederick West. But they are now confident that they know the identity of the thieves, and they believe that the loot is still in England, held by some receiver or shady dealer until the air clears.

The villains must have known that the man they robbed was extremely old, because they had staked out the premises beforehand. What they could not have been aware of was that the picture they stole was his absolute favourite, with a fascinating little saga behind it.

Raoul found Greyskin in 1933 on a mountainside in Wales. His owner claimed that he had won all but two of his 22 point-to-point races, and was so full of energy that he often tried to go round the course again. Raoul bought him for pounds 35 and brought him back to hunt in the Beaufort country, where he went like the wind for several seasons, only just under control, with his rider usually managing to pull him up "just before we reached the outskirts of Bristol". Then in 1937 Greyskin put his foot in a hole at full gallop and turned two forward somersaults. The local parson, riding behind, began mentally reciting the funeral service, for when Raoul came up for the first time, still in the saddle, his head seemed to be 6in lower than before. The horse was unhurt, but Raoul was carried off on a gate, with a bone in his neck broken and his back dislocated.

Although the accident effectively ended his hunting career, it by no means shortened his life. Sixty-one years later, he looks back on that slight mishap with memory undimmed. In general, possessions now mean little to him, but he is seriously disheartened by the loss of this one glorious picture, which he painted after the Second World War in affectionate memory of the animal that nearly killed him.

I can vouch for the fact that Raoul is an amazing survivor, for I have been working with him, on and off, over the past 18 months, writing an illustrated biography of him.

He was already 94 when I began work on the book, and at the outset I had to make a tricky decision. Since he was still very much alive I could hardly write in the past tense, as if he were dead - yet, equally, it seemed risky to use the present ("He fires off witty letters every day", and so on) as neither I nor his family could be sure that he would live to see publication.

I took the risk - and happily he is still with us. Even better, we are still on speaking terms: I have had four letters from him in the past week alone, all full of ridiculous jokes. Although a bit bent, and less now than his original 6ft 4in, he is still a commanding figure, his beautiful manners those of the archetypal Edwardian country gentleman.

In some ways writing his life was a nightmare, for he never retained letters or other papers, and he scattered his own pictures about with abandon. For 50 years, from the Twenties to the Seventies, he painted sporting pictures with immense industry; yet he kept no records of where they went, and he gave away dozens to people who incautiously praised them. A visitor had only to say, "Isn't that marvellous!" for him to reply, "Oh - do you like it? Do have it, then."

On the other hand, he had repeatedly written up episodes of his own life, polishing and repolishing draft after draft. The trouble was that, although he commands a sharp and humorous turn of phrase, he has never had the knack of running short pieces together into a continuous narrative.

Thus I took over a huge bundle of papers which contained four, five, six versions of the same stories, each slightly different, and usually losing vitality the more the were worked over.

Our hope now is that the book, if it does nothing else, will flush out the painting of Greyskin, and restore it to its rightful place on the wall of Raoul's sitting-room.

`Raoul Millais: His Life and Work' is published by Swan Hill Press, pounds 35