Weird Norfolk: The ‘cursed’ painting blamed for a Yarmouth fire

A portrait of a crying boy sits on top of a skip full of rubbish.

No takers for the "curse" portrait of the crying boy, found dumped outside the Radio Norfolk offices in Great Yarmouth. Date: 31 Oct 1985 - Credit: Archant Library

It was the blazing curse of the crying boy, a painting said to have the power to survive – or possibly even cause – terrible fires that reduced everything else to ash.

Such was the belief that the eerie prints of children in tears were haunted by spirits or damned that a national newspaper held a ‘Crying Boy Amnesty’ which saw 2,500 copies burned on a bonfire to ‘end the curse’.

But was it the curse of the Crying Boy that led to a fire at a Great Yarmouth restaurant? Can a painting be possessed with evil powers?

At the end of the Second World War, Spanish artist Giovanni Bragolin began to paint portraits of Italian street orphans with heartbreaking tears in their eyes.

Other artists followed suit with their own paintings of forlorn toddlers, such as Scottish artist Anna Zinkeisen: there were said to be dozens of different variations of the tear-soaked portraits of children.

Hugely popular, the mass-produced prints were bought by thousands of householders who fell in love with the tragic youngsters: and then the fires began.

In the 1980s, a national newspaper noted that firefighters were reporting Crying Boy prints as the only items that survived blazes.

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In one case, firefighters found a print of the picture still in its frame, face down on the floor completely untouched in a house that had otherwise been destroyed by fire.

Psychics began to claim the paintings were haunted by the orphans and that their misery and despair was ‘attached’ to the prints.

In October 1985, the Eastern Daily Press ran a story about a house in Merseyside which had been burnt to the ground: everything had been destroyed – apart from several ‘Crying Boy’ pictures which were still hanging, untouched, on walls where even the wallpaper had been reduced to ash.

Father-of-three David Amos explained that when he saw the paintings amid the smoking rubble of his ex-wife Lynn’s house, he had felt a chill.

“I just smashed them up,” he said, “I never want to see them again.”

Lynn added: “I really liked the paintings. The little boy looked so real. It’s very strange.”

A matter of days later, on October 21, the bizarre ‘curse’ was believed to have struck again – this time in Great Yarmouth.

Fire broke out at Parillo’s Pizza Palace in Regent Street in the early hours of the morning, just a week after the owner was warned that the picture could bring him bad luck.

The crying boy and a similar painting were hanging just feet away from where the fire started...but were left untouched by smoke or flames.

Owner Domenico Parillo smashed the picture and vowed: “I don’t want anyone else to have bad luck”, adding: “last week a customer asked me what bad luck I had had because of the picture, but we said don’t be ridiculous.

Domenico Parillo holds the pieces of the "crying boy" painting he smashed after the fire.

Domenico Parillo holds the pieces of the "crying boy" painting he smashed after the fire. Date: 30 Oct 1985 - Credit: Archant Library

“I’m not superstitious, but I’m going to take them off, break them and throw them away to make my friends happy. This is happening too many times now.”

A friend of the family said he believed the pictures could have carried a curse.

“I believe it happened to this place and I would not buy the paintings. The fridge and bottles around the paintings are blackened with smoke, but the paintings are untouched,” he said.

Station officer Ron Harris, who attended the fire, said he had never heard of the curse of the crying boy. “This is the first time I’ve ever heard of it, but I will keep my eye open now and I will take better notice of it.” he said.

Just hours after the restaurant fire, another crying boy painting was found dumped in a rubbish skip outside Radio Norfolk’s office in Whitefriars Court, Yarmouth.

Dennis Fuller, who was working for building contractors on the site, said that no one had claimed the strange print.

“The picture has been standing here since Tuesday, and so I stuck up a sign saying ‘nobody wants me,’ but it is still here,” he added.

A portrait of a crying boy sit on top of a box which reads "nobody wants me".

No takers for the "curse" portrait of the crying boy, found dumped in Great Yarmouth. Date: 31 Oct 1985 - Credit: Archant Library

It was the Yarmouth incident which prompted Sun editor Kelvin MacKenzie to call an amnesty: “Enough is enough, folks, if you are worried about a crying boy picture hanging in YOUR home, send it to us immediately. We will destroy it for you – and that should see the back of any curse.”

Within days, Crying Boys were stacked 12ft high in the newsroom. They were later burned on a pyre near Reading on Halloween in 1985 by “red hot Page Three beauty Sandra Jane Moore” (supervised by the local fire brigade).

There were many theories offered as to why the painting was cursed: some believed the boy was a Romany whose family had cursed the paintings, others that the boy himself had died in a fire or that the artist had made a pact with the Devil.

Regardless of speculation, in November 1985, Arthur Webster of Norwich made it his mission to pursue any surviving Crying Boy portraits for his private collection.

The EDP of November 19 read: “Mr. Webster, 67, is racing against time to fulfil his bizarre ambition because many of the worried owners are burning or smashing up the paintings.

“He already owns one and is hoping to collect enough to line the walls of a whole room in his house.”

Arthur Webster with two of his Crying Boy paintings.

Arthur Webster with two of his Crying Boy paintings. Date: 19 Nov 1985 - Credit: Archant Library

The former groundsman explained: "I feel there is a lot more to these paintings than we think. There are loads of people who have told me they have chucked them out and said they are afraid of them.

"One lady told me she believed her painting did have a curse on it, but I do not believe it.

"I think that if that boy is in his room by himself and is crying then he is crying to the Lord. If the paintings are surviving the fires, then it means the Lord has answered the boy's prayers."

Mr Webster received 30 replies from people keen to offer up their ‘cursed’ paintings.

In subsequent years, stories have evolved: some people now believe that if you are ‘kind’ to the print it protects you or that if you place a crying boy next to a crying girl, they bring you good luck.

Some owners of the print are frightened to remove it from their home in case “something bad will happen” – in such cases, the picture is often hung in sheds or garages or facing the wall so that no one can look at it.

Experts came forward to suggest a fire retardant had been used in the construction of the pictures which offered an explanation of their ability to withstand flames, but the power of suggestion is very frequently stronger than science.

It is estimated that more than 50,000 ‘crying boy’ prints were sold in branches of British department stores from the 1950s onwards.

Author MR James, who lived in Suffolk for many years, wrote a chilling tale about a haunted painting which was published in 1904 and will, this year, be adapted for a BBC Christmas ghost story.

The Mezzotint is about a man called Williams who acquires pictures of buildings for a university library and is sent a mezzotint print of a large English country house.

Williams is unimpressed by the print and its lack of figures, but his friends insist there is a figure on the print and that it looks somewhat gruesome.

The academic then begins to realise that not only is there a figure, but it is moving…and it is coming to claim something inside the house.

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