WHAT l KNOW AND MY NEW NOVEL…

“I loved it! This is a great story with a wonderful concept and excellent background.” Readers’ Favorite 

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As they continued slowly down the centre of the aisle Omri resumed his photography taking pictures of each of the six apses, of the ceiling, of the floor and the seating and then the stairs leading up to the transept and the choir. They passed behind the raised altar and stared up at the cupola before arriving at the two marble slabs denoting the tombs of Franco and de Rivera, about ten yards apart. ‘So where exactly is our object?’ asked Omri in a lowered voice. ‘You’re standing on it now’ Alex said looking at the slab beneath Omri’s feet. ‘You’re right on top of it.’

 

The Ark Mosaic Continue reading “WHAT l KNOW AND MY NEW NOVEL…”

THE DUKE, THE DUCHESS, THE LOO AND THE BATHROOM (and me) (part I)

The amusing tale of how i acquired my most illustrius patron…

Although I failed to make the big time as a fine artist, I did nevertheless manage to acquire one or two illustrious clients/patrons, and the most prominent of these was a certain Andrew Robert Buxton Cavendish, 11th Duke of Devonshire.

In 1983, a couple of years following my graduation from Saint Martin’s, I had just been part of a major exhibition at the Ben Uri Gallery in London’s Soho (all, landscapes of Israel). However, despite a healthy number of sales, I was left with about a dozen canvases, several of which I thought were far better paintings than most of those that had been purchased.

My page from the Jewish Chronicle colour magazine’s article on the “Four Young Artist’s show at the Ben Uri Art Gallery in Soho.

About that time I read an article in the paper about the Duke of Devonshire covering a trip he had recently made to Israel, in which he was revealed as being a keen admirer of the Jewish State – making him a very rare beast indeed within the ranks of the British upper class. But for this fact alone I might have not have given the Duke much more thought, but the piece also discussed his passion for 20th century art and his support for aspiring British artists. While I was well aware, that his ducal palace of Chatsworth, had one of the finest private art collections in Europe, the fact that he was a collector in his own right was news to me. Thus I thought, as an aspiring British artist, with a hat-full of 20th century landscapes of a place he liked, might it not be worth my while approaching him. After all, what did I have to lose, except a wasted letter?

And so, after some research on how to address such an august personage in writing, I wrote to “[His] Grace”, at his home at Chatsworth in Derbyshire* It was a short letter, and to the point, appealing both to his love of art and his affection for the State of Israel. I also enclosed a handful of photos of my paintings, and a copy of a magazine with an article about me and my exhibition at the Ben Uri.

The late Duke and Duchess (Andrew and Debs, to their friends – Debs being originally Deborah Mitford, the youngest of the famous, and infamous “Mitford Girls“) in the Chatsworth library, with Hans Eworth’s fine copy of Holbein’s original portrait of Henry VIII.

About a week later, I was deeply engaged in my morning visit to the smallest room in the house when the telephone rang. I heard my mother answer it (I was still living at home in 1983), and then a few seconds later she banged on the door and demanded I take phone from her, immediately, whispering loudly, “It’s the Duke of Devonshire!”

Twice in my life I have been compelled to hold seminal, life-changing conversations while seated on the lavatory – the first being this one, with the Duke of Devonshire, and the second, with the publisher-to-be of my book, King Saul. I’ve often mused, that if I’d spent more time on the loo, I might have enjoyed greater success in my professional life!

Fortunately, given my state of indisposition, the conversation with His Grace did not take too long, and by the time it was over, he had invited me, and two examples of my oil paintings to his London home, the following week.

What occurred there, goes down as one of the more interesting and eccentric episodes of my professional life, and will comprise part II of this little tale…

*(all those wondering why the seat of the Dukes of Devonshire is in Derbyshire please see here)

MY BEST WORST-PAID JOB – and how I cracked Krak…

In my previous post I discussed some of my work on book covers back in the late 1980’s, which also happened to be among the best paid work I ever did. Best paid, both in regards to the amounts, and the time-to-work ratio. I think that the longest I ever spent on a cover was about two days, with the pay, rarely less than four-figure sums, and in the spectacular case of Billy Bathgate, just 20 minutes work for over £3000!

I also made many illustrations for the inside pages of books, and these were often less well rewarded financially. Normally, if one was contributing a single illustration to a text-book, the rule of thumb was £250 for a half-page, and £500 for a full plate. And even this, seemed pretty good most of the time, when the typical job took less than a day to complete. However, on one occasion, in 1996, I received a commission for a half-page illustration which turned out to be the polar-time-to-work-ratio-opposite of the Billy Bathgate job.

My half-page reconstruction of Krak des Chevaliers – the original being pen and ink, with ink wash.

The commission offer was for only £150 (the lowest offer I ever accepted in my ten years or so as an illustrator), and I knew from the brief, that it would be enormously time-consuming. But, just as struggling actors, never turn down a role, however bleak, so it is with most freelance illustrators (as I then was).

Fortunately, as things turned out, what the commission lacked in remuneration, it more than made up for in job-satisfaction. For, not only was the illustration for a Thames and Hudson publication – the sort of encyclopaedic book I’d devoured as a child – the subject matter – the great Crusader castle of Krak des Chevaliers, in modern Syria – was truly thrilling, and not to mention, extremely challenging.

My task was to draw and colour an accurate as possible reconstruction of the castle based on two large black and white photographs, supplied by the art director, of its ruined state. Fortunately, I dug up some additional colour photos from my local library, and with just a touch of artistic license, after nearly three weeks of hard work, I arrived at a plausible vision for the how Krak would have looked in its intimidating pomp.

When, a little while later, I received my complementary copy of the book, I can honestly say, that seeing one of my own, lovingly executed illustrations, gracing the very sort of book which had thrilled me as a little boy, I have never experienced more gratification. Which all just goes to prove, it isn’t always only about the dosh!

Incidentally, for those interested in some photographic record of how the castle looks today (fortunately, I believe it has escaped the ravages of the civil war) do take a look at my cousin Ian Harris’s recent post from his 1997 trip to Syria and beyond…https://ianlouisharris.com/1997/03/06/journey-to-lebanon-syria-jordan-eilat-israel-day-four-tripoli-krak-des-chevaliers-on-to-homs-6-march-1997/

GETTING IT COVERED

Book covers were generally my most fun jobs as a commercial artist and illustrator, and I think it shows in much of the work that resulted. The main reason for the success of these commissions was the fact that I was employed by art directors, who were often artists themselves, and who thus gave good, clear briefs.

My first job as a professional commercial artist. The original artwork was gouache on board.

I’ve already discussed my successful partnership with George Sharp for Pan Picador in relation to my cover for the novel Billy Bathgate, but that was just one of several enjoyable collaborations. In fact, my first ever professional commercial art commission (soon after I joined the Virgil Pomfret Agency in late 1989), was for another Picador publication, called The Fruit Palace by the noted travel author, Charles Nicholl. In this case, George simply wanted me to copy the author’s own photograph of a Bogota street corner, in my classic poster style. It was an easy, dream first commission.

At the outset of my career as a freelance artist, I targeted several travel companies, sending them mini-folios of my travel poster artwork. Within days of my first mail-shot, I received a phone call from Thomas Cook Publishing, who went on to commission a series of covers from me for their new set of travel guides. They were all done in oil pastel, again, on board. This I always felt was the most successful of the group.

However, things got even better a few years later, when I tried my hand at freelancing, and found that I could target publishers and companies that appealed to me and my personal travel and epicurean related enthusiasms. Hence, for a period of about two years I became something of a go-to artist for those wanting hand-conceived images for the covers of travel guides and the like.

This was another of those exciting coincidences that seems to have occurred throughout my adult life, as within days of handing this in to Thomas Cook – having never been to the USA before – I was on a plane flying out to Seattle.

Book covers, as opposed to general illustrations (of which I also did plenty) were well paid and particularly gratifying. Short of seeing one’s own book in the window of your local book store, spying one’s own cover comes a very close second. The fact that I was often stimulated by the subject matter also didn’t hurt.

I love pubs and British beer almost as much as I love travelling. In fact, after nearly every spell abroad, my first port of call on my return to England will be to my local pub for a pint of fine ale. I did two covers for CAMRA (the Campaign for Real Ale); one for their cider guide, and this for family-friendly pubs. In this case, the model family entering the pub were our friends, the Crouches, from Tunbridge Wells in Kent, and that’s our late Maremma Sheepdog, Aura, sleeping on the lawn. The irony behind this particular cover is – being an adult (and well behaved dog) only pub seeker – that I tend to avoid family-friendly pubs at all costs, and thus I actually used the guide to help me steer clear of such terrifying establishments!

ROCKY REASSURANCE

There are rare things in life that never lose their impact, no matter how many times one experiences them, and for me, these have usually come in the form of a handful of visual experiences. Sometimes, it’s just the sheer majesty and or beauty of a vista that never pales, while at other times it has something to do with the emotional context of the scene, and occasionally, it’s a combination of the two. For instance, due to my lifelong fascination with King Saul, standing at the top of Mount Gilboa in northern Israel, looking out across the Jezreel Valley has been top of my enduring impact chart for the past forty years or more, but lately, running it a close second is our now oft-repeated approach to Gibraltar on the highway from Spain. This latest viewing was the most memorable yet, with the rock adorned by a plume of cloud, blown backwards like a massive shock of silver hair.

Perhaps, in this lunatic, unpredictable world, the sight of the great rock, immoveable and timeless, boldly withstanding all that the elements can throw at it, offers a sense of reassuring permanence which only seems to increase with repetition.

BBC RADIO 3, RON GEESIN, UNCLE SID, AND CHOPPED LIVER IN KOVNO…

Like one of those ingenuous celebrities at the beginning of an episode of “Who Do You Think You Are”, it turns out that I too have carried a deeply ingrained misconception concerning my ancestry.  In my case, while I knew that my maternal grandmother’s family were Litvak, I had always believed them to be Latvian Litvak, probably hailing from Riga. But then, a few months ago I published a post on my grandmother’s brother, the violinist Sidney Marcus, and that sparked off a chain of communications and discovery which revealed my quarter Litvak self in fact hails not from Riga in Latvia, but from Kaunas (Kovno) in Lithuania.

While, in and of itself, this is of no great interest to anyone except me and my close family, the story of how I was disabused of my misconception, and by whom, is truly surprising and worthy of repeating here…

As happenstance would have it, one morning, about two weeks after I published my post on Uncle Sid, making mention of his prowess on the musical saw (in addition to the violin – he was first violin of the orchestra at Covent Garden in the late 70’s/early 80’s), I was listening to Georgia Mann’s “Essential Classics” show on (BBC) Radio 3, when she played an old recording of someone playing the musical saw. The recordings had been sent to her by the composer Ron Geesin (famous for everything; from his work with Pink Floyd on the album Atom Heart Mother; his movie and TV scores, including for Sunday, Bloody Sunday; and a vast, eclectic and innovative body of work; plus being probably the world’s foremost authority and best selling author on the adjustable spanner!). Both Georgia Mann and Ron Geesin wondered if anyone listening might know the identity of the mysterious saw maestro, and even as I was listening to the piece, it occurred to me that it was almost certainly Sid. Thus, I immediately emailed Georgia, who then put me in touch with Ron, who after further research, using additional leads I was able to provide him with, confirmed that the eerie sounds on that old recording were indeed being produced by my late great uncle. Subsequently, I am the proud owner of all six Parlophone sides (of Sid), nicely restored digitally by Ron.

In addition to being an all round mensch and hugely gifted, Ron happens to have a voracious interest in musicology and music-related history; and wanting to learn more about Sid and his life and career, he turned up some revelatory facts about that branch of my family – including the fact that they originated from Kovno and not Riga.

Ron managed to turn up this copy from the 1921 UK Census, which revealed that Sid’s parents (my great-grandparent both hailed from Kovno – interestingly, in these chilling times, described here as being part of “Russia”). Of added interest was that my great-grandfather, Max, was a musician in the Regents Hotel Orchestra, then the largest hotel in Europe and known as the “palace for the people”. While I always knew that Max was a professional musician, like his son Sid, and that the Marcus branch of the family were mostly highly musical, it was exciting to learn where he actually plied his trade.

Funnily enough, I have never been to Riga, but in 2009 I did visit Kovno (or Kaunas as it more commonly known today) and although I found it interesting and highly photogenic (see below), I was oblivious of the city’s relevance to my ancestry. Had I been aware, imagine how I might have felt when at the hotel in Kovno, I was confronted with chopped liver as part of the breakfast buffet – chopped liver that looked and tasted exactly like that which my grandmother Becky (Sid’s sister) used to make every Friday for our Shabbat dinner. Now I know why!

Charming downtown Kovno (Kaunas) in 2009. So far as I know, all four of my grandparents’ families moved away from their respective homes in Lithuania, Galicia and Russia (in the case of my father’s family to South Africa) around the turn of the last century, and primarily as economic migrants, rather than fleeing persecution.

GO TELL THE [WEST]…

I first saw the film, The 300 Spartans when I was seven-years-old, and (as I’ve mentioned before on this site) it determined the future course of my life, both as an artist, and an amateur scholar of ancient history. So fascinated by the story of Leonidas, one of the first books I bought was the Penguin Classics edition of Herodotus’ Histories , which in turn opened up to me the historical context of not only of the Battle of Thermopylae itself, but the whole concept of the sadly eternal battle between freedom and tyranny.

This is written with the presumption that all of those reading it are aware of the basic story of the battle (even as depicted in the more recent and bizarre movie, 300) and the fact that although Leonidas and his tiny army were overwhelmed, their heroism inspired Greece onward to eventual victory over the invading Persian empire. With the passing of time, the stand of the 300 at Thermopylae became a metaphor for freedom defying tyranny, so poignantly exemplified in the stark words of Simonides’ epitaph to the fallen Spartans; “O stranger, go tell the Lacedaemonians that we lie here, obedient to their words…”

Bearing in mind numerous powerful caveats; including that a) most of our free “western societies” today are hardly comparable with ancient Sparta (or any of the other Greek states), and that b) Xerxes had no nuclear option to fall back when his invasion plans went awry, the lesson of Thermopylae has rarely seemed more instructive.

The big question remains however, if Kiev is a modern-day Thermopylae is the West prepared for a Salamis and a Platea?

The Last Stand at Thermopylae; a pencil drawing I did as an eleven-year-old. It depicts the Persian’s pouring down from the goat track (revealed to them by the traitor Ephialtes) and cutting off the Greek rear. The defenders in this picture are not the Spartans themselves, but the equally brave 700 Thespians, whom Leonidas had sent to cover the retreat of the remaining Greek contingents. The Thespians too, were wiped out.

EXAMPLES OF TEMPERA

OR SHOULD i SAY egg-samples…

It’s a well known fact that up until relatively recently, painters made up their own colours from ground pigments and whatever carrier mediums they preferred; most commonly oil, water or egg yolk. One of the marks of the successful artist was being able to afford an apprentice (or two, or three…) to do the blending of the paints for them, and so the acquiring of the skill of paint blending became a crucial rite of passage for all aspiring painters.

By the time I entered art school however, the era of commercially produced, convenient pre-prepared paints, of all media was firmly established, and pestles and mortars had long disappeared from our studios. Nevertheless, I, and one or two fellow students of a more traditional persuasion were curious to experience, at least fleetingly, both making and using our own paint.

Fortunately, our school was close by an art shop that still supplied raw pigments, so we were able to have some fun making up our own oils, watercolour and egg tempera and then trying them out on paper and canvas.

Presented here are the results of my own experimentation with tempera and watercolour. Because water was free, and even back then eggs were relatively expensive, I was able to create a far broader palette in the latter, and had to restrict myself to just two colours in egg tempera – Prussian blue and burnt umber – hence the several monochrome sketches…

Becky – tempera on paper – 1981
Hannah and Harry – tempera on paper – 1981
Hannah – tempera on paper – 1981
Hannah on the phone – watercolour on paper – 1981
Ruth – tempera on paper – 1981

THE FOLKS WHO WOULD LIVE ON THE HILL (reprise)

The story of the building of our home in southern Spain – in pictures

We’re often asked by people we meet, and who are familiar with our life story, if we watch the TV show, Grand Designs (on the UK’s Channel 4). For the uninitiated, in 1993 Dido and I together with a small team of local builders and on a limited budget built a house on a rugged hilltop in the south of Spain. Grand Designs is a program which follows people – often young-to-middle aged couples (as we then were in 93) – as they undertake unusual and ambitious house-building projects similar to our own, with much of the drama emanating from all the trials and tribulations of the process. Invariably dreams turn into nightmares and then finally – though not always – the original dreams are more or less attained. And perhaps because there was so much pain, mental and physical, during our building experience my answer to the question is that I rarely watch the program. The few times I have it usually culminates in me experiencing a mild form of post-traumatic stress disorder, especially when the subject suckers – I mean subject couples – go through their own darker moments and mini-disasters.

Nevertheless, at the risk of sounding clichéd, for us, as with most of the Grand Design people, it all worked out in the end and we now have an extraordinary house and home. The question of whether or not it was worth it, and if, given the choice we would do it all again is something of a moot point. Certainly, we wouldn’t do it the same way again. We wouldn’t restore an existing ruin and tie it into a new additional structure – a process that doubled both the time and cost of the project, and necessitated Dido and I becoming labourers on our own build to speed things up and to save costs. No, if we did it again, we’d do what the locals here do – bulldoze the site into a flat platform and build a completely new structure.

This is something of a second instalment to an earlier post called Walking over Almonds and some of the background, including what the original semi-ruined cottage looked like can be found there. Suffice to say here that with one or two expedient modifications from the original plans the build took around six months, beginning in the summer of 1993, and used up every penny we had (although at least we didn’t go into debt). Our architect was the gifted – Bartlett trained – Seattle-based Mark Travers (who we paid with one of my huge oil canvases of the Atacama). Between the three of us (with some help from a structural engineer friend of Mark’s) we came up with a well-built house exactly suited to our needs and passions, and, for a contemporary Andalusian dwelling, unusually sympathetic to its immediate environment.

This is an unavoidably larger post than usual, though I hope there is much of interest here, for those who know us as well as for those who do not, and perhaps even one or two useful pointers for those thinking of embarking upon a similar project…

Our hilltop property was only accessible by a goat track so the first thing we had to do was get a JCB to cut us a drive. For some reason, our beautiful Maremma Sheepdog Aura liked taking naps underneath it and getting covered in grease…
Said driveway…
The first priority was to build our main water tank. Until it was completed we had to schlep over to the local spring three or four times a day to provide the builders with water for cement etc. It took several weeks to finish. Here is the tank progressing. With all its steel it was the most expensive element of the build…
Here’s the JCB just about to demolish the old pigsty…
The water tank and bodega were excavated beneath the east side of the old cottage. They would eventually become the ground story of the east side addition, comprising our bedroom and library. That’s me inspecting the completed water tank. With its 38,000 litre capacity (designed to capture rain water from the roof and terraces) its completion represented significant progress…
It didn’t take long for us to realise that to stay on time and on budget we would have to get involved physically in the building. This was my “first day” and I’m using a pickaxe to make a pipe channel for the 5,000 litre grey water tank…
Here’s Dido cleaning hundreds of roof tiles reclaimed from the old house. The finished roof eventually comprised 1 in 3 old tiles and looked all the better for it…
One of dozens of truck deliveries…
Baldomero (our foreman), Paco and Pepe eating their lunch and taking shelter from a sharp north wind by one of Dido’s dry stone redoubts…
Two thirds of the house beginning to take shape – looking across the main room (the restored old cottage) towards the library and main bedroom…
A beer break – Dido up an almond tree, as usual…
We had to remove the old wooden roof of the original cottage then rebuild the tops of half-meter thick walls. Much of the resulting rubble was reused as aggregate in various parts of the new construction. However, this entire process was hugely time consuming. Mark and his engineer buddy (who had also worked on the Seattle Space Needle) came up with this trussed roof solution for preserving the old walls and making sure they could tolerate the weight of the new steel and concrete roof. The rods were meant to be temporary, but we liked them and kept them. Dido is standing in our front door…
The east addition roof taking shape…
We loved seeing the tiles go over the screed – real progress at last (one in three tiles was from the original house). Incidentally, Dido was on hoist duty, and we later estimated that she winched up more than 2,500 buckets of cement and mortar all told during the roof construction…
The trussed roof allowed us to have very high ceilings without the need for supporting walls or pillars. This is the restored main room. The original cottage was a warren of four tiny rooms…
Fortunately the library was sufficiently finished for us to move into it by the autumn. The stove in the background (christened Dalek) was a reclaimed BBQ and it doubled up as our oven…
These gesso’d book shelves looked great, but during the wet winter months they absorbed moisture like a bath sponge, ruining hundreds of our books into the bargain. You live and learn I guess…
Aura loved lying on the cool sand, much to the annoyance of the builders trying to finish our floors…
Our kitchen was constructed entirely from local materials including a fine wood-burning stove from Asturias, only cost us about £450 with labour!!
The south aspect taking shape, with the “original cottage” section and old casemate wall already rendered, while Dido works on her drystone redoubt
The east addition nearing completion. Here one can see how the library and bedroom form an upper story above the bodega and water tank. The little window is our en suite bathroom…
This is how the main room looks today…
And the bar and kitchen…
And the library, now with modular wooden shelving…
And our bedroom…
And finally, our emerging garden,
about five years ago. Welcome to Finca Carmel!

PROJECT EDGWARE

Occasionally, our teachers at my boarding school would give us projects to do during the holidays, and although these were never arduous tasks, I always resented them as intrusions into our precious time at home. Nevertheless, being the conscientious little chap I was, I always did them as best I could, as the one presented here bears testimony.

As far as I recall, this was the very first such project I was assigned, back in the Christmas new year break of 1971/72, making me 11 at the time. Certainly, my use of felt tip pens would be consistent with that dating, making these pictures exactly, an incredible 50 years old.

Looking at them now raises a mixture of emotions; of nostalgia for a happy and safe childhood on the one hand, and a reminder of the sense of relief I felt a few years later at escaping from dreary, peripheral suburbia into the city itself.

In any event, for better or for worse, here is Edgware; famous for it’s eponymous Roman road; boasting one of the oldest avenues of sequoias in Europe, being the home of George Fredrick Handel, and indisputably, “My Home Town…”

FRONT COVER
The closest Edgware had to a cooperate skyscraper was the UK Green Shield HQ.
The war memorial.
Stonegrove Park
Edgware had one of the UK’s biggest Jewish communities, and consequently, several synagogues, including this – The United Synagogue – the largest synagogue in Europe at the time.


The parish church of Saint Margaret’s is one of the few reminders of Edgware’s picturesque village past.
My old primary school, Rosh Pinah, since moved to a new site, and more evidence of Edgware’s then-thriving Jewish community.
Most of houses in Edgware (in common with several other outer-London suburbs) were built to one of two architectural “formulae” laid down in the 1930’s. This was a typical “mock Tudor” house by the building company Curtain…
…and this, more appropriately deco style house by the Laing company.

A POSTCARD FROM “BC”

AND WHEN LONG-HAUL FLYING WAS ALMOST FUN

Not wishing to bore anyone with all the tedious whys and wherefores (which will be pretty obvious to many), suffice to say here, that long-haul travel – even when “turning left” onto a brand new 787c Dreamliner is something we will not do again until normal/normal returns – which probably means never.

Our recent flights, to and from the United States, to scatter my mother-in-law’s ashes, among many other essential tasks related to her passing 13 months ago would have been a sombre experience in any event, but with the added maelstrom of Covid-19 related dos and don’ts, a sad business was transformed into a sinister taste of dystopia.

But never mind all of that; these posts were never intended as platforms for my views on anything more serious than daubs of paint, poor grammar and the correct way to render chicken fat. Although, over the past two years I have hinted at my opinion on Covid, and our various governments attempts at dealing with it, I realised by the first April of the crisis, that my views were at odds with the consensus, and thus I risked being regarded as a hopeless heretic – at best! So, not wishing to alienate or offend many of the readers of these pages, I have thus far kept my feelings more or less to myself, and this post will be no different.

One of the things many of us can agree upon, is what a miracle of modern life long haul air travel used to be BC, especially if one was fortunate enough to travel at the front of the aircraft, when the getting to wherever, could be almost as much fun as the destinations themselves. However, nothing epitomises for me what we are missing from our lives more starkly now – from a UK perspective at least – than the current inaccessibility of the extraordinary lands of the Antipodes. Hence this offering of a series of my favourite scenes of Australia (Victoria, New South Wales and Western Australia, to be precise), which either offer longing for a return to a normal future, or images of a golden past, lost forever…who knows?