Another workout with my new pastels. I'm trying to explore what's possible in this medium both in stylistic and practical terms. Saint-Émilion is another preferred stop on our journeys through France, not only for the charm of the village, but of course, for it's fabulous product, it's wine. Saint-Émilion's history goes back to prehistoric times and is a World Heritage site. It has fascinating churches and old, ruinous buildings stretching along steep and narrow streets. Since Roman times there were vineyards on it's slopes. The photograph, from which I have taken this image, was taken near a lovely bistro/cave called L'Envers du Décor, where you can take your meal andyour glass of Grand Cru ClasséChâteau Soutard wine in the troglodytegarden, a small outside space at the back of the cafe overshadowed and enclosed by the 8th Century carved hermitage. The poster was a gift from the proprietor, I admired the design and loved the "English spoken with a French accent" finish.
My birthday is on the first day of Spring. I was serenaded each teenage birthday, causing typical youthful embarrassment, by my Dad singing Harry Secombe’s ‘If I ruled the world, ev'ry day would be the first day of spring, ...’ in his sweetheart tenor voice, oh, how I miss it now. Nick and Dan once made me a fabulous birthday card, the surface made of Astroturf with carefully wrought springs bobbing up and down with paper birds, inside this verse, Spring has sprung The grass has ris I wonder were those birdies is Some say the birds are on the wing but that’s absurd the wing is on the bird. There is something so glorious about receiving a card, hand crafted, just for you… and clever to boot! This weekend I feel Spring is nearly here, it gladdens the heart. There are snowdrops under the apple trees and my neighbour’s orchard is festooned with crocuses. I read long ago, that one is most happy and content at the same time of year when one was born. Maybe that’s why Nick wants to grow grapes for the harvest time, his birthday, and I’m transported by a simple vase of daffodils?
The room that sealed the deal when we were reconnoitring our present house to buy, was the butler’s pantry. Just a small room off the dining room, designed to catch the cool northerly breeze though vents in the wall, a cold room or larder. Nick, however, realised at once, he could use it as his ‘cave’. The alcoholic equivalent of the garden shed. It immediately became a shrine to Ricard, Pastis 51, Gauloises, Gitanes and his best vintage, laying down wines. He can trace this addiction for all things French and Bar, to his first days on tour in France on the road in the 1960’s, when the advertising was hand painted on the sides of houses. (Most have now disappeared, see a couple of survivors we snapped along the Loire, below.) There was a need in him to drink the drink of the French movies of Jean-Pierre Melville and smoke the smoke of ‘À bout de soufflé’;-) In trying to re-live a lost age of La Belle France we scoured the flea markets and bricolage, to find the advertising ashtrays, glasses and water carafes to set the scene. Then there are the bottles of aperitifs bought, seduced by their old world labels. Of course, one needed the appropriate glass for each and every drink. All French bar memorabilia found it’s way to Nick’s ‘cave’. With the Euro rapidly becoming equal to the Pound, trips, 'en vacance' in the camper van, buying ‘produit de région’ is fast becoming a bygone age in itself.
The first time I visited the Basque, I both astounded and irritated my husband and son, in equal measure, by my oft-repeated mantra “I know this place”. As we journeyed about highways and byways of the Basque country the landscape seemed just shockingly familiar to me, a strong feeling of déjà vu or more correctly déjâ vécu (roughly translated as ‘having already lived through’) or could it have been inherited memory? Whether I believe in ancestral memories or not, and after this experience I am leaning towards belief, the consequence of this feeling was to make me believe I had returned to a long forgotten home. The Basques say when God created Adam, he got his bones from a Basque cemetery, certainly the question of their heritage and genetics is still being researched, but all agree they are amongst the oldest Europeans with a language with no demonstrable genealogical relationship with any other living language. Basques have a close attachment to their homes and the family house names have transmuted in to Basque surnames, much the same as my own family who took the name ‘woodhouse’ or ‘wodehouse’ from the ancestral home in Wombourne, Staffordshire in the 13th century. I love the Basque country and long to return for another psychic fix.
I took a photograph of Nick beside a beautiful advertisement we found down an alley in the old town of Pamplona. This week, looking for a subject to test out some new pastels, a medium I’ve not used before, I decided to try to reproduce it. The advertisement, produced in the 40’s or 50’s, was a reverse glass painting, a great survivor, undamaged by vandals, bulls or runners! Realistic reverse paintings are challenging to create, as one must, for example, in painting a face, put the pupil of an eye on the glass before the iris, etc, exactly the opposite of normal painting. If this is neglected the artist will not be able to correct the error as he or she will not get in between the glass and the paint already applied. Anyway, above is the result, I hope I have done the original painter justice.
I promised (myself) I would keep posting my life drawings, however painful to my pride. I'm a little disappointed by my lack of progress so far. I think it's because I've made my living as a so called artist, albeit, without often putting pencil to paper. I'm trying lots of techniques, papers, mediums, including photographing the scene, in the hope of checking the perspective, but in the end it comes down to me needing a lot more practice. Must try to be kind to myself and less frustrated!
I was amazingly lucky to study under two maestros of art who conducted me though my time at Chelsea School of Art. I was excepted to study ceramics but was talked into switching to Surface Design by the great Steven Sykes mainly because his course was looking depleted as only one student had signed up for his three year DipAD Surface Design. In the end he managed to talk two others into trying the course making the four of us probably the best taught ever, as the student to teacher ratio, including technicians, was 1:1. Part of the problem was that nobody knew what Steven had in mind with ‘surface’ design, but the truth was just about anything. These (late1970’s) were heady days in art colleges, decisions on direction, aesthetics, materials, influences were left to students, all things were possible, the staff helped you fulfill your wildest dreams by nudging you along the route. Turning you on to obscure art, suggesting resources and also, in Steven’s case, introducing you to respected artists in your field. To help him there was Lesley Sunderland, a master of textiles and all their ramifications. I remember, with her encouragement, one of our number choosing to dye some cloth by leaving onions, beetroot and other colour-giving botanicals, encased in bags made in the plastics workshop, which hung across the room to stew in the heat and light of the studio for three terms. In the end the bags with their coloured grunge became the art and a distinction mark followed. Experimentation leads to virtue, it frees the mind. Steven’s course was so before it’s time, nothing we made would be out of place in a so-called Brit Art collection now. Steven lived at Hopkiln, near Midhurst in Sussex, a house and garden he created with his usual flare for surfaces out of a piece of rough ground he bought in 1967. “It was a triumph of bricolage and improvisation, incorporating a maze, a grotto, a waterfall and small raised canal, statues and mosaic work. To meet him (naked) beside his swimming pool, which was embellished with a gold peacock, was to encounter a charming sun worshipper from some ancient lost culture who had taken up unexpected residence in a fold of the South Downs”.* The house was amazing and I could try to describe it’s art and design given half a dozen paragraphs, but instead I’ll just mention the swimming pool. Hand made of course, tiled in ceramics, also hand made, of course, but what attracted me was his design solution for heating the water. He had cut the bottoms off wine bottles and threaded them closely on to a hose, then wound the whole into a huge bee-hive looking structure, solar heating long before I ever hear the expression or saw the concept. And this, I think, helps to explain what made him a genius tutor.