A “ROSIA” FUTURE FOR GIBRALTAR – and a rock-solid present…

Following on from my earlier post on our initial return to Gibraltar after a gap of over twenty years, we have managed to visit several more times, and on each occasion, we have become increasingly impressed with life on the Rock. There’s no doubting that the drab and dreary Gibraltar of last century has been consigned firmly to the past and that a new, confident and energetic modern little city is rising in its place. Moreover, the once-faded and shabby old town centre has been sensitively spruced up and now stands above its modern surrounds like a proud grandparent watching over its thriving progeny.

“Unique” has become a much overused and abused term, but in the case of today’s Gibraltar it really is just about the only adjective that does the place justice. From its airport runway pedestrian crossing (sadly, to be lost very shortly to a new tunnel) to Rosia Bay, where one swims alongside giant container ships, not to mention it being Europe’s only truly harmonious “multiculture”, Gibraltar is a total one-off.

The iPhone snaps below hopefully transmit some of that uniqueness, and a sense of its intoxicating optimism…

Looking south from Rosia Bay, across the Straights toward Jebel Musa (the “other” Pillar of Hercules) and the Moroccan Coast. An anglers and swimmers idle, a mere fifteen-minute walk from the old town…
Looking north-west from Rosia Bay toward the southern Cadiz province coast. My intrepid wife Dido can just be made out taking a choppy swim to the right of the photo. The waters here, where the Mediterranean meets the Atlantic, are very cold this early in the year, and the only other person in the water was a retired Royal Navy diver, and he was in a wet suit – the wimp!
A decaying old mooring jetty between Rosia and Camp Bays, one of the few remaining monuments to the “old Gibraltar”…
Concrete picnic tables at Camp Bay, looking remarkably like an Anthony Gormley sculpture (only better, for being accidental), with the busy Straights in the background…
For those craving authentic Spanish beach cuisine, but too lazy to traipse across the border into neighbouring La Linea, Gibraltar is now blessed with a handful of genuine frieduras and chiringuitos, such as Cabana on Camp Bay. The only difference from La Linea, is that here your waitress or waiter is as likely to have a Scouse accent as an Andalusian lilt, but never fear! The fried boquerones (whitebait) and the grilled calamares are every bit as delicious as along the coast…
Meanwhile, just a short stroll away in the old town, one is suddenly in a different world, that feels something like a cross between Hampstead (in London) and Valetta, with a touch of Toulouse, depending upon the light, the weather and the time of day. The one place it doesn’t feel anything like, despite being filled with Spanish workers and tourists, is southern Spain!
The old centre of Gibraltar has been blessed with fine English buildings since the Georgian period, but again, it’s only in the past two decades or so that both its government and its people have restored these architectural gems to their former glory. This house is an excellent example of what I mean, and with it’s Decimus Burton-style balconies and iron work, it has a fabulously classy colonial look…
And I could not end this piece without a couple of views of Gibraltar’s most famous feature. This one, taken early on a chilly late Spring morning, with a high sea mist clinging on to the Rock like grasping fingers…
And finally of course, a slightly unusual shot (from Western Beach) of what is arguably the most famous sphynx-like profile in the world (except of course for that of the Sphynx itself).

“HOPE SPRINGS ETERNAL…”*

as early signs of spring offer a little hope…

Despite some recent inclement weather, including frost and even a dusting of snow, the Axarquia is showing early signs of Spring. The pictures here, all taken over the past week, on and around our finca (small holding) in the foothills of the Sierra Tajeda remind us of nature’s imperviousness to the current dystopia we find ourselves condemned to inhabit for the foreseeable future.

Sometimes, pictures (even enhanced iPhone snaps) are far more eloquent than mere words…

Our hilltop finca, looking south west…
(Looking west) An almond tree, already in leaf
Marcona (almond) blossom…
(Looking north-east) Our local pueblo, Canillas de Aceituno, sitting beneath Mount Maroma and the Sierra Tajeda, from our house…
(Looking north-west) The pueblo of Periana and the Alfarnate countryside…
(Looking south-east) across our “main road” toward Arenas…
(Looking south-west) From our south vineyard, a neighbouring cottage and the Rio Velez valley beyond…
Fresh orange juice every morning, assured…
(Looking east-by-south east) But it’s the almonds stealing the show…
“Shepherd’s delight”? Here’s hoping…!

* From Alexander Pope (An Essay on Man – 1734)

“PARADISE REGAINED…”

postcards from our past for the present

It took us about six years to fall in love with our Spanish home and to begin to appreciate its full value to us as both somewhere to escape, and to recharge our intellectual and emotional batteries…

Arriving at this point we had survived the physical and mental exhaustion of the eight-month build itself

Followed by the despair of being virtually penniless and then learning we had no professional future in Spain…

Then the seedy drudgery of our sojourn in Boulogne-sur-Mer

Followed by the reestablishing our lives in London (via-Tunbridge Wells) and getting ourselves back on our feet financially…

Until eventually, the resentment we had felt toward our distant Spanish home, for being the ruination of our lives, very gradually transformed into yearning, as we came to understand the sanctuary it offered us from our daily grind

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.)

WHERE THE GRASS IS (nearly) ALWAYS BROWNER…

…BUT WHERE THE ALMOND blossom is ALWAYS WHITER

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.

STARTING OUR 28th YEAR AT FINCA CARMEL

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!

The house and finca in the summer of 1995, two years after our move to the Axarquia region of Andalusia, and 18 months after completion of the house. Some of our new trees can just be made out, such as the young cypresses lining the edge the drive. At this point, the farm comprised primarily the existing north vineyard (to the lower left of the house) and almond trees. We relied totally on solar energy and rain water, collected in a large tank constructed beneath the house…
…and this is virtually the identical scene taken this Boxing Day in the winter of 2019. The north vineyard is still there, and some of the almond trees, plus the cypresses are now 25 years older – and taller. However, in 2004 we were finally attached to mains electricity (and the Internet) allowing us to set up a remote control irrigation system and thus plant orchards (mostly olive, citrus and avocado) and a garden of sorts, and to surround ourselves with tall trees.

TRIPLE-TAKES AND DOUBLE CHOICES

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. 

This scene from a street in the Andalusian town of Arcos se la Frontera remains my favourite image from the series…

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.

This is a scene from a courtyard restaurant in Granada, right by the Alhambra Palace…

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.

The delightful “balcon” at Arcos…

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.

And finally, the Bishop’s palace in Seville.

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…

BLOOD, SWEAT AND LAUGHS – wine making at Finca Carmel

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.

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The north vineyard came with the property and is predominantly Moscatel (Muscat). The 500-or-so vines are all non-staked and pruned right back early Spring. This picture dates from May 1994 and Dido’s blonde mop can just be made out upper left…

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The Moscatel harvest is picked typically late September when many of the berries are turning to raisins. However, we prefer our “Malaga” drier than the locals go for, and pick at the start of the month. Though the wine is unfortified (no brandy or grape spirit added) it still attains a strength of over 17%  – apparently breaking all the laws of natural fermentation…

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.

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We planted out the south vineyard in 2000 and it comprises 300 Cencibel and 200 Moscatel vines. Digging 500 holes half a metre (20 inches) deep into rocky terrain, using a mattock and pickax was the toughest physical task of our lives. This picture dates from the Spring of 2002, just after we had pruned the plants and dressed the mounds. The weeding was yet to be done…

 

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One our first Cencibel harvests (I don’t think we have felt greater pride in anything we have ever produced). Cencibel is a sub-type of Tempranillo (the “Merlot of Spain”), and ripens a fortnight or so before the Moscatel…

In addition to our grapes we also grow olives (for oil), almonds, citrus, and a variety of other fruits including avocado.

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We de-stem the grapes by hand. Dido here ably assisted here by our friend Valentina and her sadly, late husband, Jean-Claude. Each and every stage of the wine-making process, from harvesting to barrelling  is highly international at Finca Carmel. Fellow-Brits, Russians, Belgians, Israelis, Americans, Australians and of course, Spanish volunteers have joined us over the years…

 

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.

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We still crush the grapes using the timeless method of treading. Here Dido is assisted by Jane and Pepa, our most dependable volunteer of all. A steady flow of ice cold beer and appropriately rhythmic music blasting out from the house above is essential to the efficiency of this process…

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Once crushed, the fruit is poured into baskets for pressing…

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.

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When the press is full we use the ratchet and oak blocks to apply extra pressure. Typically we fill the press twice for the Moscatel and having applied the final turn of the ratchet leave it overnight to exude every last drop of must…

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The final precious stream of must is referred to as lagrima in Spain – alluding to the tears of Christ…

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.

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We make sure to feed and water our workers well, seen here for instance enjoying a light lunch of Dido’s delicious ajo blanco (cold almond and garlic soup) washed down with copitas of our own Malaga, with freshly picked figs for pudding…

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…

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Our barrels containing our Malaga solera (“super-blend”). Malaga, like its much younger cousin Sherry, is not released as a vintage but is re-racked and blended annually. Each new wine is evenly distributed into the previous years’ blends to ensure a consistent and hopefully, perfect wine.

VINTAGE VACATION

 

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.

Enjoy…we do.

 

“YOU SAY MERON, I SAY MAROMA – let’s call the whole thing a tantalising 2800 year-old probability…”

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.

6 Meron - Mount Meron detail
Mt Meron from Sefad – distance detail

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.

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Mt Meron from Sefad – middle distance detail

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.

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Mt Meron from Sefad – foreground detail

[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.

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Mt Meron From Sefad

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.

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Maroma Sunbathed

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…

A PARADISE LOST, AND ANOTHER “REGAINED…”

Seville Alcazar Garden Pond and Cypresses

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.

Seville Alcazar Exit

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.

Seville Alcazar Garden Arched Folly

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.

Seville Alcazar Garden Folly Arch

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.

Seville Alcazar Garden Iron Gate

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.

Seville Alcazar Garden Small Fountain