And so, in 1999, I felt the need to celebrate with this set of colourful, impasto gouache sketches, done as postcards; intended to express our sense of freedom and joy at the regaining of our lost paradise. But never in our wildest dreams could we have imagined, even in that seminal year of 1999, just quite how fortunate we really were…
Not until experiencing the madness of three months of semi-house arrest in a small Oxford apartment (I refuse to dignify the “L” word by using it), followed by the oddly, even more disturbing new “normality”, did we truly grasp how blessed we are to have our little, private, mask-less, socially intimate, sanctuary of peace and sanity.
(I should add, that I still have the entire original set of 10 postcards, signed, titled and dated, and in near-mint condition, and far brighter and more charming in real life. I had originally intended to send them to select friends and family, but for some reason never got around to it. So now, I would be happy to sell them as a set for £200 – or other currency equivalent – plus postage. If anyone is interested please contact me through the “Purchasing artwork” link at the top of this page.)
I nearly titled this as a third straight “yearning” post, in the sense that after three months lock-down here in Oxford we are desperate to get back to our finca in southern Spain. But seeing as we are actually returning there tomorrow I decided on a catchier and hopefully more optimistic heading.
In fairness, when we’ve been in Spain for as long as we’ve now been in England there’s plenty I miss about our other lives in London and Oxford, but the longing is rarely as intense as what we are experiencing right now for our Andalusian home.
And perhaps there’s the clue; the fact that our little farm in the foothills of the Sierra Tajeda is the nearest thing Dido and I have ever had to a settled home. We’ve certainly owned it for more than three times as long as any of our previous homes (separately or together), and then there’s all the sweat and blood we’ve dripped into the building of our house and the rocky soil upon which it stands.
But perhaps, more than all of that, it’s simply the way the setting of our finca has ingrained itself into the fabric of our being through the sheer power of its ridiculous beauty.
So, although we missed wonders like the almond blossom display this year, thanks to about thirty years of memories, and images like the ones on show here, we can never truly miss them – they live inside of us, rendering us unusually fortunate.
WIshing all my friends, viewers and followers a happy 2020
The single most impressive feature of our lives since we purchased our mountain finca (smallholding) in southern Spain, and becoming part-time farmers in 1993, is how it dramatically increased our awareness of the passing seasons. A perception intensified by having planted the best part of a thousand trees, and then watched as they gradually transformed our immediate environment.
While there are many sobering aspects to the passing of the years, we have found both solace and joy through the metamorphosis of our humble hilltop. Hopefully, it will continue past a good few new years yet!
During my ten years or so as a commercial artist I had spells with two top London artist’s agents. The main and obvious advantage of having an agent was that they went out and got you commissions. Most artists by definition, tend to be ill equipped, emotionally and attitudinally for the tasks of both finding and especially negotiating with clients. Artist’s agents on the other hand, often with backgrounds in advertising and / or art production have extensive lists of contacts and the wherewithal for exploiting those connections.
The big disadvantage in the artist / artist agent relationship however was the near-total lack of control the artist has over the process, from commissioning to payment. And, it was ultimately the payment issues which trumped the advantages and convinced me to toughen-up and go it alone. My final artist’s agent’s commission was a case in point and also the last straw. What began as an unusually free brief – to paint a series of of 24 poster-style gouache paintings to decorate 12 luxury, first-class cruise liner suites for a seriously good fee, manifested as an exercise in frustration and acrimony. The fact I had to resort to the threat of lawyers against my own agent to extricate partial payment gives a good idea of just how sour things got.
In the normal course of events, I worked directly with the clients, and delivered my work to them myself. For some reason never fully explained, on this occasion I did not get to meet the client and instead dealt exclusively with my agent. What exactly went wrong between the time of me handing over the finished pictures to the agent, and her passing them to the client – or indeed, if she ever handed them to the client, I never discovered. All I did know for sure, was that two months of hard work was never fully paid for. Fortunately, during my ongoing film-to-digital trawl, I recently came across colour slides of several examples of the artwork from that fateful commission and the original photographic templates.
If I was ever to receive a similar commission again, apart from making sure to deal with the client on a one-to-one basis, I might also decide to produce Photoshop images (presented on the similar art papers to the original gouaches) rather than paintings. For me the finished results, especially with these highly graphic, minimalist images are at least as good as paintings, and in the awful prospect that I again would not be fully recompensed, would have expended a fraction of the time.
Presented here (within the text) in triptych form are four of those very images. The photo templates comprise the central images, with the original gouaches on the right, and my new Photoshop treatments on the left. See what you think and don’t be afraid to let me know…
Regular readers of these posts will know all about our finca (small holding) in southern Spain and especially the adventures we had building our house. However, what I haven’t done thus far is said that much about the little farm itself.
Our biggest crop is from our two small vineyards (about 1000 vines in all), one preexisting our move (in 1993) and the other planted by us in 2000. The older vineyard comprises mostly Moscatel (Muscat) used for making the traditional local Malaga style sweet wine and the one we planted ourselves which is a third Moscatel and two thirds red Cencibel (a varietal of Tempranillo) with which we make a strong red fortified wine similar to port.
In addition to our grapes we also grow olives (for oil), almonds, citrus, and a variety of other fruits including avocado.
We harvest the almonds from about mid July through to mid September, the olives around the new year and the grapes, depending on the vintage, from late August when we also make our two wines.
The pictures here are a montage of our annual vendimia (grape harvest and wine making). Although we appreciate help from our friends with all the annual farming tasks it’s only the wine-making that people actually return for. The work is hard, and depending upon the weather – which can vary from sunny and hot to chilly and damp (like this year), sweaty, monotonous at times, but always rewarding once the must (mosto in Spanish) is all safely in the barrels.
Over the years various rituals have developed around the process, the most enjoyable of which is Dido’s Mexican feast on the final night, when the work is over. We’re not quite certain how this particular tradition started, but somehow delicious treats like tamales, enchiladas and re-fried beans washed down with margaritas provide a uniquely festive climax to several days of hard labour.
On behalf of Dido and myself, I would like to take this opportunity to offer special thanks to all those friends, who have helped us over the past 25 years, with special mentions to Pepa for returning every year and Valentina for her technological innovations. We literally, couldn’t do it without you! Finally, all volunteers welcome for next year…
Apologies to my loyal followers but the wine making and other arduous – sometimes pleasant – farming tasks have left me little time to devote to this blog. Normal posting will resume next time. For now, here are a few striking images of the local environment around our small finca in the heart of the Axarquia in southern Spain.
In 1983 I painted one of my largest oils on canvas, and at over seven feet high (about 2.1 meters) it was certainly the tallest oil I ever did. It dates to the height of my post Saint Martin’s landscape period, intended as the centre piece for a proposed exhibition of my works at the Israeli embassy in London (why that show never materialised is a story for another post). At the time, I still harboured a naive ambition to become a sort of 20th century successor to artists like Claude Lorraine and William Turner, and was thus obsessed with the spectacular, the epic and visions of the sublime. As with the subject of an earlier post , I was still, at this stage, exclusively applying the paint with brushes, and consequently, my pictures could take weeks to complete.
Mount Meron from Sefad manifested as one of the more arduous pictures I painted, taking around a full month from sketch to final brush stroke. But, it was also one of the most satisfying experiences of my painting career as regards both making the painting, and my contentment with the finished work. My “technical intention” had been to draw the viewer in from the bottom of the picture and then send them on a virtual journey down into the valley and then upwards towards the distant mountain. My “intellectual intention” had been to stir the mind of viewer by the use of “sublime” tonality and rich graduated colour. Whether or not I succeeded as well as I believed back then is hard to tell without standing in front of the painting itself (last I heard, residing on the walls of a private home somewhere in France), but from the little one can tell from this format I didn’t do too badly.
Ten years later, toward the end of 1993 I made another large oil painting of another mountain, but for very different reasons, and with a very different approach. Around the mid to late 80’s I’d become bored with brushes and moved on to the more immediate and primal method of applying thick daubs of paint with palette knives. My mostly large canvases, were still spectacular and even epic, but “the sublime” had been replaced with raw painterly passion. The spacial illusion of the former supplanted by a flat tapestry of thick impasto.
[Mount] Maroma Sunbathed turned out to be the final large scale oil on canvas I ever painted – or “knifed” (about 4 foot square). I did it the first day my studio was set up in our then-brand new house in southern Spain. After eight long, hard months of building the house and living rough the work was a celebratory expression of pure joy and relief. I merely pointed the easel at the mountain across the gorge from our home and proceeded to pictorially express the view before me. It took only about two hours, from start to finish.
Two oil paintings of two different mountains; executed in two hugely contrasting styles, separated geographically by 3000 miles and ten years in time. But here’s the funny thing; the genuinely wondrous thing. For, totally unbeknownst to me until I prepared and researched this post; I was painting two mountains with the same name!
Briefly; the name of the Galilean mountain, Meron is recorded in the Bible, in which it is also known as Merom, which itself (and this is the bit I was ignorant of until very recently) is an ancient Hebrew derivation from the earlier Canaanite Maroma.
The Canaanites in question were either identical with, or at least closely related to the Phoenicians of ancient Lebanon, and who ruled over what later became Galilean Israel well into the time of the early Israelite kings – perhaps as late as around 950 BCE.
About 800 BCE, Phoenicians settled along the southern and south western coast of Spain and quite possibly, in a way identical to European colonisers of the New World, brought the place names from their old world with them for recycling in their new land.
Bearing in mind the similarities the settlers would have noticed between the two mountains; both being the tallest in their native locales (the Galilee and the Axarquia respectively) and both sharing strikingly similar physical form, it seems highly plausible that they named their new mountain after the original Maroma.
This is at least as plausible as the currently accepted theory, that the word maroma (which means a rope or a cord, or a twisted flax in modern Spanish) has vague Arabic origins, but with no apparent etymological evidence for such a linkage. Far more likely it seems to me, that just as the Phoenicians indisputably named the nearby city of Malaga (Malaka – mlk), so too they named the region’s most imposing mountain, Maroma! The fact they were the subjects of my two most ambitious mountain landscapes proves nothing on the other hand, but it is one hell of a coincidence…
One balmy September morning back in 1983, my then-girlfriend and I were incredibly fortunate to have the Generalife (the famous gardens of the Alhambra Palace in Grenada) all to ourselves. In the years since, I must have visited the Alhambra half-a-dozen times but never again been anything like so lucky. In fact, on each successive visit the palace complex was becoming increasingly crowded until the final visit, when the experience resembled more being in the London Tube at rush hour than a gentle amble around one of the most serene man-made outdoor spaces in the world.
These days, people wanting to visit the Alhambra complex have to book a slot, similar to the system adopted by the authorities at Saint Peter’s in Rome, but all this really achieves is a regimented crush as opposed to a free-for-all melee.
While I wouldn’t wish to deter those visiting Andalusia for the first time from seeing one of the architectural and horticultural wonders of the world there are, dotted about the state other beautiful Moorish influenced gardens which still offer the kind of serenity the Generalife was designed to inspire. My favourite of these is the garden of the old castle (or Alcazar) of Seville.
In stark contrast to the mathematical perfection and order of its famous Granada rival, the Alcazar garden in Seville has a relaxed, informal and even ramshackle quality which has a calming effect the moment one enters its precincts. Even in the height of summer, its mature old trees, elaborately arched follies and numerous ponds and fountains offer a tranquil and fragrant, shaded refuge from the extreme heat which afflicts the city. It’s a fabulous place for a spot of contemplation and meditation away from the concerns of everyday life and thus also a fantastic place to sketch and paint.
I made the pen and ink pictures presented here in the early 1990’s during my second visit to the gardens. I’ve often found that deeply coloured inks have an immediacy and fluidity perfect for capturing scenes of exotic nature, man-planted or wild, as I hope these images confirm. And I’m guessing they do, as they comprised the major part of a sell-out exhibition in London later that year.
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 and the photos of the build, being from (crudely ) digitally converted old film, are not up to my usual standards. Regardless, 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…
I’ve saved the most prosaic of my 1994 “Dog Days” comic strips for last. Prosaic in the sense that this is an experience, that to one degree or another almost everyone viewing this site will have gone through themselves – that infuriating feeling of the last, biggest, juiciest fruit being just out of reach. Perhaps, the only difference with almond trees though, from say apple, cherry or even blackberry picking, is that one does not customarily shake and whack the b’Jesus out of the host plant to acquire every last fruit. Professional farmers even have specially designed, automated tree-shaking machines for doing the job.
However, down here at least in the Axarquia region of Andalusia almond trees are not irrigated during the drought season, and while this ensures the almonds have a richer more intense flavour, it also makes the trees highly resinous, thus causing many of the nuts to cling stubbornly to the branches.
Basically, the work is hot, sticky, scratchy, itchy, back-breaking and in the past, financially unrewarding. So, about six years after I made this comic we replaced our main almond orchard with a vineyard, the planting of which was also back-breaking, but with the promise of greater fulfillment – through the act of wine-making – and a hugely greater income. But, as our luck would have it, the market for traditional Malaga wines collapsed about the time I planted our last vine, with the almond price (due to the fruit’s recent elevation to “super-food” status) rising exponentially in the last ten years.
Still, at least we have enough Malaga wine for six lifetimes…