One day, long ago, a famous artist returned to the place of his childhood. To reach his home he had travelled in a great circle. When he left, he was poor and unknown, but now—many years later—he was recognized wherever he went.

The whole town came out to welcome him. They lined the streets and threw flowers around. Once this had been all he wanted, but now it meant nothing. His name was Bartholomew Brown and he had come back to paint the greatest picture in the world.

At the first of a dozen banquets in his honor Bartholomew Brown stood up. “Thank you, people of Bington,” he said. “I know what you’re thinking. Why have I, of all people, returned to this grim little burg, this dull, provincial town? I’ll tell you why. I have come back…” he paused for effect, “TO PAINT THE GREATEST PICTURE IN THE WORLD!”

Everybody gasped in wonder. What would it be? A huge portrait of the mayor and his family? A fantastic painting of fruits and flowers with every detail, even a tiny fly or a drop of water on the side of a plum? A lovely view with cows and sheep and big fat clouds? A poor, sad clown beside the sea?

Finally, someone asked the artist what he intended to paint.“That,” shouted Bartholomew Brown, “is the surprise!”

And everyone cheered, though goodness knows why, because the whole town had been hoping for a great big painting of the town hall to go inside the town hall. Now they had no idea what they would get.

Bartholomew Brown’s servants prepared the studio for him. They lined the shelves with jars of paint. The pigment, like spoonsful of brightly colored dust, was ground up with oil to make the paint. Some of the colors were very expensive. They were made from the rarest things: a purple from the tiniest part of a tiny seashell, a deep red ground up from real gems. There were paint brushes of every kind: huge flat brushes to paint all the blue in a sky, tiny pointed brushes to draw in the eyelashes of a greyhound. The studio was ready.

“How big do you think this painting is going to be, lads?” shouted Bartholomew Brown. He shouted a lot.

They shook their heads.

“Gigantic, boys! The biggest by far. Twenty times, you heard right, son, twenty times bigger that anything I’ve done!”

And all the servants slapped each other on the back and grinned like wild men, though goodness knows why, because they were going to have to stretch the canvas. Before you paint on a canvas you have to stretch it over a wooden stretcher and nail it down good and tight on the back. They spent another week crawling all around and under and over the massive sail-like sheet and the huge beams of the stretcher. When that was done, they had to paint the whole canvas white. Twice!

Then Bartholomew Brown ordered a magnificent picture frame to be made for the painting that he had not even started.“Think how long it will take to carve the frame,” he explained. “It has to be at least three feet thick and I want all manner of twiddly little bits carved into it. And it will have to be covered in gold. “

“It will weigh a ton,” said one of the servants.

“At least!” laughed Bartholomew Brown. “Pity the poor wall that has to hold it up.”

“And the poor nail,” added another assistant.

But when the morning came for the famous artist to start work, he did not know where to begin. The canvas was as big as the side of a house. It was so white his eyes were full of those strange, floating, wispy things you sometimes see on a bright day.

“It’s a biggie,” he told the mayor. “Oh, it’s a big ‘un all right.”The mayor nodded and smiled. “Will it have clowns?” he asked the painter.

“Probably not,” said Bartholomew Brown, rolling his eyes. Clowns? he thought to himself. Seriously?

In fact the maestro should have welcomed any suggestion. Anyone could see the master had bitten off more than he could chew. You would have seen it too. He was in trouble.

Poor Bartholomew Brown. He went for a walk to clear his head. For the first time he wished he were a little less boastful. Now everybody expected great things from him. In fact, they expected the greatest painting in the world. The truth was he really preferred to paint little pictures. The truth was this glossal painting frightened him. He walked round and round the park. Even the pigeons seemed to guess his plight.

Weeks went by. Months went by. Years went by. Though he had worked as hard as he could, every morning Bartholomew Brown rubbed out what he had painted the day before. He looked stranger and stranger. His hair grew long, and his clothes needed changing. He had paint on his face and food on his shirt. What had he done so far? The famous artist would let nobody know, not even his assistants. In front of the canvas he had put a huge curtain and no one, absolutely no one, was allowed to look.

Many years went by. Bartholomew Brown had become a great mystery. “What could have taken so long?” People asked. Some said he had run away.

Behind the curtain the painting looked very odd. It looked like twenty paintings all jumbled together. There were soldiers and horses and a dragon. The sun shone in one corner and the moon in another. There was a banquet table and a storm, chickens and a sailing ship. Bartholomew Brown was just finishing a butterfly when the curtain shook.

“Maestro Brown?” he heard the mayor’s trembling voice. “Hello, Maestro Brown?” It was an older voice now and the mayor had become a tiny shrunken old man. Then suddenly, to the artist’s horror, the mayor crawled under the curtain.

“You can’t come in here!” shouted Bartholomew Brown.

“I’m sorry,” said the mayor, “but it’s been twelve years and…” He stopped and stared.

Bartholomew Brown stopped shouting and watched the mayor. He swept the hair off his forehead, which left a long yellow streak of paint across his brow. “Well,” he asked the mayor, “what do you think?”

“Magnificent!” said the mayor, though goodness knows why, because it was certainly the craziest, busiest painting he had ever seen, impossible to hang anywhere or match to any sofa. Then he told Bartholomew Brown the bad news. The town had decided that twelve years was long enough. He was to get no more money until he had something ready for the town hall. The painting must be finished in a month.

Bartholomew Brown screamed. Then he pulled down the curtain and tried to wrap himself in it, but it was just too big and heavy. Still yelling, he turned over all his jars of paint and threw his brushes at the ceiling. He rolled around in all the mess until he was a hundred different colors. The assistants and the mayor just watched. Then Bartholomew Brown looked up and said quietly, “How big does this thing have to be?”

“Any size,” the mayor said, crossly now. “Just finish it!”

Bartholomew Brown lay on his back and looked at the painting for a long time. The dragon looked good. So did the basket of fruit. The chicken was one of his best.

“Gather ‘round, boys,” he said. The assistants hurried over and stood in a ring, looking down at the brightly colored artist.

“Hugo, get the scissors, the big ones!” Bartholomew Brown shouted. “Finchley, get the straight edge! Bramwell, get the picture framer! We have work to do!” And he leapt to his feet like a yellow and orange, gold and green firework.

The great day came for the town to see the painting. People came from miles around. Children had grown up hearing about the mystery artist behind the curtain, and now they brought their own children to see the masterpiece. The doors to the hall opened and the crowd swept inside.

What a sight met their eyes! There was not one, but twenty paintings! Round and round the people went, whispering their amazement.

“Did you see that dragon?” one asked.

“What about the chicken?” said another.

Then Bartholomew Brown entered the room, and everyone cheered. Flowers were thrown at him and they caught in his hair like a crown. Only the mayor knew that he had chopped one painting into twenty smaller ones, but he said nothing. Bartholomew Brown smiled. He was scrubbed and clean and happy for the first time in twelve years.

All those paintings hang in museums now—but hidden away in the great attic in Bington’s town hall behind one enormous dusty curtain is an old picture frame. It has never been used, though goodness knows why, because it is possibly the greatest picture frame in the world—as long as a house, still bright gold, and covered with all manner of twiddly little bits.