Dear Friend: How an old letter in an op shop led a Taranaki woman on a quest

Op shop finds, to those in the know, can often be a cause for excitement and wonder but when New Plymouth woman Sue Page picked up an unremarkable-looking watercolour in an op shop several months ago, little did she know she had just begun a search that would lead her to a small village in Denmark.

Sue was browsing the shelves at the Stratford Hospice shop when an original painting caught her eye. In actual fact it wasn’t the painting, which was of buildings covered in snow, but the tattered hand-written letter pasted to the back of watercolour that piqued Sue’s interest.

“It was the letter that intrigued me. I thought I’m willing to pay $10 to get to the story behind this.”

Sue took the painting home and read the letter, which was simply addressed to “dear friend” and said the painting had been created by the letter-writer’s uncle and was of a scene across the road from his home in the village in Denmark where he lived. The undated letter also mentioned the painter was from Denmark, was 80 years old and had, in his youth, been to Africa with Stanley on his search for Livingston.

The painting was signed P.H. Harlow and dated 1935. For many people this might leave them with few clues of where to start looking for information, but Sue is an experienced librarian and researcher so she launched into this puzzle with relish and tenacity.

“I realised I needed to find some key information about this painter, like his real name, before I could go any further, so I began to research through the Danish census records available online.”

Sue began her search by beginning at dates 80 years before the date of the painting, to 20 years after.

“I did end up against lots of road blocks along the way and I nearly did give up, but I kept on thinking, ‘maybe if I just try this,’ and I kept on going.”

Eventually after plenty of searching she found a Peter Henrik Herlow (alternatively written has Herlov). Confirmation she was on to the right person came when a genealogy site included the key detail that Peter Henrik Herlow had been to the Congo as an adventurer.

“The dates and details matched and from there the story started to unfold,” said Sue.

Leaving old technology and recording keeping behind, Sue then used Google maps to find Peter Herlow’s house, as listed in the census records. She identified a cluster of houses in the village that matched the painting and noted the name of the village, Den Gamble By.

Now that Sue knew the name of the village she then managed to find a photo of the village online that matched the exact view of her painting, which is now a group of buildings preserved as a type of living museum. It was across the road from Peter Herlow’s home.

Further digging produced some information about Peter’s son, August Herlov, which revealed he was noted for his humanitarian efforts during World War Two in saving Jewish lives. She could not however find out much more about Peter himself though, nor about any other works of art by him.

Sue said she then puzzled over why the painting had ended up in New Zealand and wondered what she should do with the painting now.

“I couldn’t let it rest there so I ended up contacting the local newspaper in the town, the Arhus Stiftsden, just on the chance someone might know more about the painting and its creator.”

Local Danish journalist Hans Petersen picked up the story, contacted Sue and ran the story of Sue’s find, plus a photo of her holding the painting outside the Stratford op shop, in his newspaper. That’s when the search took on another level.

A relative of the painter, 83-year-old Jorn Kejlstrup spotted the story in the paper and got in touch with Sue asking if he could buy the painting. He revealed that Peter Herlow was his wife’s grandfather and was a factory inspector, but had also been an adventurer and had sailed up the Congo River. While in the Congo he had painted more watercolours, some of which the family still have. They were keen to get the painting to add it to the collection they already have of their relative.

“Our oldest daughter has a watercolour of this kind, so now our youngest daughter must have the picture that has returned home,” says Jorn.

In another twist the painting also meant a lot to Jorn and his wife because the couple had lived for some time in the same house that Peter Herlow had lived and painted the watercolour from. The view painted in the watercolour was very familiar to them.

When Sue heard the request from the relative she immediately arranged for it be packaged up and sent back to Jorn and his family as a gift from New Zealand. Just how come the painting ended up in Stratford still remains a mystery though and not one the Peter Herlow’s family have been able to shed any light on.

“Oh well, some things can just never can be explained,” says Sue. “But this painting was a long way from home. It was so satisfying to send it back home to where it belonged and to people who know the story behind it.”

Not bad for a browse in a Stratford op shop but not totally unexpected, Sue says in her experience interesting stories crop up everywhere, and op shops are full of such treasures.

Words by Louise Pease