ALEX’S HOLY-OF-HOLIES DESPAIR…

EXERPT 3 FROM MY NOVEL “ARK” *

Once in his study the first thing Alex did was head for the sideboard and pour a generous glass of Dimple. He took two deep slugs then sat down at his large French walnut desk.

He stared at the parcel for a few moments and smiled wryly. Its considerable thickness brought to mind the single-page scrawl Ruiz had sent him that morning back in April.

Alex’s hands trembled slightly as he tore open the package like they had years before when he opened the letter from St Catherine’s College Cambridge bearing the news of his being accepted onto their master’s program. He had a strong sense that whatever was enclosed in Malcolm’s parcel would have at least as equal an impact upon the immediate course of his life.

At the top of a stack of files was an envelope containing a four page hand-written letter from the curator of the world’s greatest general collection of Near Eastern artefacts.

He took another swallow of whiskey and began to read:

Dear Alex

Firstly, my profound apologies for the delay in getting back to you but unfortunately I was away in Melbourne when your package arrived. I was overseeing the “Origins Tour” and the damn thing took up the best part of three months of my time so I was unable to open your parcel until the middle of July. Anyway, better late than never and all that…

I am writing to you with the full backing and cooperation of Ron and Omri. They too send their apologies and you will not be surprised to learn that they were both in the field in April on their latest projects (Ron on the eastern delta and Omri at Tel Aphek) and only returned to their respective offices in August.

In the event we thought it would save further time and avoid needless repetition if just one of us sent you a letter which combines our joint findings. The fact that we three concur on just about every aspect regarding the remarkable samples you sent us (an amazing fact in itself) makes this approach especially logical and practical.

Your instincts regarding the trapezoidal structure (your “canopy”) and the reason you thought that here was material for our particular fields of expertise belies your position as a mere medievalist! Perhaps you should think of changing tack and move up to the higher echelons of pre-Christian Near Eastern Archaeology…’

Alex chuckled as he read these words. His friend often teased him over opting for what Malcolm referred to as the ‘safe option’ of ‘modern archaeology’ where there was ‘nothing left to discover’ and where ‘one ended up as a mere cataloguer of what was already known; a kind of archaeological librarian.’ 

The letter continued with a summary of the main technical reports and test results:

‘All three of us had the timber independently radio carbon tested and dated. Omri at the lab at Bar Ilan, Ron at Nevada of course and I took mine across to Imperial. All three results placed the timber in the late 13th/early14th century. This, as you well know is consistent with the age of the Transito Synagogue but rather interestingly the timber turned out to be cedar; Cedar of Lebanon to be precise and not any old Cedar of Lebanon. The samples actually come from a tree or trees grown and felled in the Levant and most probably Lebanon itself. You will have a better appreciation than any of us of the difficulty not to mention the expense of acquiring such an exotic timber during the 14th century. It seems an astonishing length to have gone to.

However, this is far less astonishing than the lengths gone to for acquiring the masonry!

As I presume you also know the stone is limestone but what you may not have discerned is that in common with the timber it is also of Middle Eastern origin. According to our geological reports it is a highly specific form of yellow limestone known to archaeologists as “meleke”; more commonly referred to as “Jerusalem Stone”.

Omri is the world’s leading expert on meleke and had no doubt the minute he set eyes on the sample you sent him. To be absolutely certain though and to determine the age of the dressing marks and to identify from where the stone originated we all had geological analyses done. Omri had his sample tested at the Hebrew University, Ron sent his to Caltech and I had mine examined at the geology department of the Natural History Museum here in London. Again, all three test results formed a consensus. Give or take fifty years either way, from the nature and wear of the cut markings the stones must have been dressed sometime during the late 10th/early 9th centuries BC. Moreover, the stones were almost certainly quarried in the mountains of southern Judea.

Finally, we were all able to have the gold leaf samples assessed in situ respectively.

While it was impossible to determine the geographical origins of the metal, from its level of purity and consistent colour we suggest it probably originated from somewhere in equatorial Africa. However, to judge from the thickness of the leaf and having done some calculations with regard to the internal surface area of the canopy I estimate that around 600lbs of gold were used; more than twice the amount in Tutankhamen’s innermost coffin! Given this, it would not be going too far to say that pro rata your little canopy has the most expensive wall paper in the world. One can only imagine what such opulence was intended to contain???

Bearing in mind all of the above, the final piece of information I have for you should now come as no surprise at all despite the fact it appears to represent the earliest and potentially most significant inscription from the “Land of the Bible” from the time of the first Hebrew kings.

In short your inscription says something simply amazing. It’s the sort of thing that Omri and Ron have only dared to dream of ever discovering. It is no exaggeration to state that this little scrawl might be the “Rosetta Stone” of biblical archaeology.

With one or two educated guesses vis-à-vis conjunctions etc. Ron and Omri render it thus:

‘‘[By the] grace of [the] hidden one Am[u]n [this] cornerstone [for] Yahweh’s House and [his] holy Asherah [in] the king’s name [in] the name [of] the House [of] David.’’

Alex gasped audibly when he read the translation. His head span. He did not know whether to laugh or cry.

The letter went on:

“The biggest surprise of all was the dedication to the chief Egyptian God Amun rather than the typical “Amen” affirmation (which may or may not be derivative in any event); confirmed by the fact that whoever carved the inscription used the ancient Egyptian designation “hidden one” when describing him. This throws the whole “Hebrew God” debate wide open and I can tell you now there is a small minority group of “out of Egypt” scholars who are going to crack open the bubbly when they learn of this (our own Ron classes himself as a “sympathiser”). I can almost hear the “we told you so’s” already!  In that one little dedication there’s more information regarding the nature of the official Israelite state religion at the time of the early Hebrew Kings than in all the museums and in all the texts throughout the world.

 My dear fortunate Alex, for some weird and wonderful reason you now find yourself sitting on what could be, from a Judeo-Christian perspective the single most important archaeological discovery this century. What you have there in Toledo is an incredible gem of a find. A structure built and decorated exclusively from the same materials alleged to have been used in the First Temple and some of them perhaps actually retrieved from that same building. Your little trapezoid might very well be the key for corroborating the existence of David and Solomon while at the same time confirming that the early Israelites were anything but monotheists. The importance of this find for biblical archaeology and for increasing our knowledge and understanding of Israelite history and the origins of western religion is inestimable.

Finally, I presume you are by now fully cognisant of the implications of your canopy being a trapezoidal structure. That fact taken in conjunction with all our findings is to quote Ron, simply awesome!

You’ll find all the data and all the analyses in our three reports attached to this letter.

Please get back to us as soon as possible. We are desperate to come over and pay a visit to your remarkable canopy. We presume the reason you have not yet published a report on the find has to do with the “intrigue” you referred to in your letter?

In the meantime our continued discretion is assured but we are only human and we are beside ourselves with excitement over your discovery.

Gratefully (and my love and a kiss to your beautiful Elena),

Malcolm

There was a ‘PS’:

‘Omri just this minute phoned to remind me that the debir (the inner sanctum / holy of holies) in the Yahweh temple which you and he worked on in the sixties at Arad was 5ft²; identical dimensions to the internal space of your structure in Toledo. Not to get melodramatic about this old chap, but my goodness me…’

Alex placed the letter down on his desk and sat back in his chair.

All he could visualise at that moment was the JCB and its claw smashing the canopy into a pile of rubble.

He thought of the exquisite gold leaf and the Lebanese cedar wood and the three thousand year old ashlar blocks and finally he remembered the inscription.

Then as his entire body began to convulse he leant forward and put his head in his hands and sobbed. He sobbed dry painful tears like retching on an empty stomach.

‘What have they done?’ he cried out loud. ‘What have those moronic bastards done?’

* Header picture shows the holy of holies of the Israelite/Judahite temple (circa 700 BCE) at Tel Arad (southern Judea/northern Negev).

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)

IS THIS THE FACE OF KING DAVID?

or PERHAPS king saul…?

Since the publication of my book, King Saul in 2007, I’ve occasionally been asked about my cover illustration and the inspiration behind it. I’ve even given talks to universities, and more recently an online presentation, to the Mosaic Reform Jewish Community in which the cover came up, although I never fully explained the thinking behind it.

When envisioning the first kings of Israel of the late 11th and early 10th centuries BCE we have very little archaeological evidence to help us, and that’s why I got so excited the first time I saw a grainy, black and white photo of the limestone bust below. The picture was in Moshe Dayan’s (otherwise unremarkable) book, Living With the Bible, and listed by him as possibly the head of an Israelite monarch – perhaps even king David. However, since then, the academic consensus feels it is more likely an Ammonite relic (Dayan obtained it from a dealer in Jordan), and of a deity, not a mortal ruler. In addition, whereas Dayan dated the bust to the late 11th century BCE, the scholastic majority decided it was of a later provenance – late to mid 8th century BCE.

The bust, as it stands today in the extraordinary Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

Nevertheless, there remains a minority of respected academics who agree with Dayan, that this is indeed a “portrait” bust, of a very human king, and from the time of Israel and Judah’s first three kings; Saul, his son and successor, Ishboheth, and David. And although the majority of this minority maintain the bust is Ammonite, and not Israelite, there are a few voices who tentatively suggest this could actually be a likeness of one of Israel’s first kings.

Although, as an amateur biblical historian, I can add little to the debate over dating the relic (although I would say that the stylisation of the beard looks earlier than 8th century BCE to my eyes), as an artist, with a familiarity with the archaeology of the ancient Levant I can dare to say very firmly, that this is definitely a representation of a powerful human being, and not a god. And given that, and the fact it is indisputably Ammonite or Israelite, it must therefore be a likeness of anyone from Saul of Israel (circa 1020-1010 BCE) to Uzziah of Judah (circa, anything from 783-736 BCE).

My cover design, based upon the bust, and assuming the side wings were metallic, like the helmet itself, and not in fact feather plumes.

A major factor in my identifying the bust as a human likeness is the headgear, which seems to me to be a typical ceremonial crown of the time and the region. In my book, I went so far as to describe it – with its central helmet and side-wings – a form of “double crown”, resembling the Egyptian “pschent” worn by the pharaohs, to symbolise their rule over Upper and Lower Egypt – but in this case, possibly symbolising the wearer’s dominion over All Israel – i.e. both Israel and Judah. More recently however, I’ve considered the possibility of it being in fact, and more obviously, a triple crown, with the helmet representing Israel, and the two wings, Judah and trans-Jordan Israel respectively. And in which case, given it’s Ammon-geographical provenance, combined with a consideration of the biblical/historical context (far too involved to go into here), I feel certain that we are actually looking at a likeness of Saul’s son and heir, Ishboheth.

At first, this realisation disappointed me. After all, I had so wanted this to be Saul, even adapting it for the cover of my book. But in retrospect, the irony of this being the bust of the one early king of Israel virtually no one has ever heard of, has it’s own level of satisfaction, and moreover, if Ishboheth looked like his father, which is highly likely, it does offer us a fair idea of what All Israel’s first king looked like too. In any event, given it’s general dating and where it was discovered, at the very least, it gives us a damn good idea of what Saul or David would have looked like, and to someone like me, this is a thrilling concept.

Rembrandt’s famous painting of David playing the harp to sooth Saul’s troubled mind. This was the picture my publishing editor had actually wanted to use originally, forgetting that this was exactly the craven, pathetic image of Saul my book was written to challenge (anachronistic dress and harp notwithstanding!). Fortunately, I got my way, and in a highly unusual gesture, the publisher’s went with my own (the author’s) cover design.
The grovelling profile of King Jehu of Israel – The only known definite representation of an Israelite monarch is this image of Jehu of Israel making abeyance before Shalmaneser III of Assyria (c. 841 BCE), from the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser (to be found in the British Museum).

COME FLY WITH ME?

in my dreams at least

With all due apologies to Greta Thunberg and her righteous minions, the thing I’m missing most during these dystopian times is travel – in particular, travel by air. I find myself staring up at the eerily silent skies above our Spanish home, longing for the return of vapour trails scratched out by distant aeroplanes, like small gleaming arrowheads, hurtling toward myriad destinations. Raised in the 1960’s and 70’s, I am an unreformed creature of my era and my conditioning, brought up to regard jet travel as the ultimate expression of independence and the gateway to adventure. And deprived of it now I feel caged in and frustrated, to the point where I find myself craving the most mundane of things, like the regular noise of the jet engines approaching and leaving our nearby airport, and even the smell of aviation fuel at the airport itself.

One of my most vivid childhood memories, is from my second ever flight in July of 1967 to Tel Aviv, on arriving at Lod Airport (as it was then – since renamed Ben Gurion) late at night. There were no airbridges in those days at Lod, and I can never forget, as we walked down the stairs, onto the floodlit apron, being instantly engulfed in a blanket of humid, oven-hot air, laced with the scent of kerosene. These intense sensations – startlingly alien to a little boy from north London suburbia – had a deeply intoxicating effect that lives with me to this day.

However, attitudes and perceptions have greatly altered in recent years, and what I still look back on as a happy memory that shaped my future, would, in these apparently more enlightened times, be considered by some as a scarring and damaging episode, which condemned me to life as an environmental criminal.

Nevertheless, during the 80’s and 90’s, when my painting career was in full swing, flying opened up an almost infinite canvas for my colour-hungry brushes, as expressed below in eight examples from those exuberant and innocent times. And so I would hope, even the most virtuous of those reading this piece, would at least own that some good came out of what they might otherwise regard as merely evidence of my multiple re-offending…

BATHERS AT KINNERET – 1982 – oil on canvas: As mentioned before on these pages, the Sea of Galilee has proved a fertile source of inspiration for my art, over many years. This typical Shabbat scene, of three generations is hugely evocative for me. I’m particularly pleased with the way I captured the large bulk of the grandmother, deftly negotiating the stones, while carrying her grandchild with almost nonchalant aplomb.
HOTELS, SAND, SEA AND SKY (Tel Aviv) – 1992 – oil (impasto) on canvas: Tel Aviv is an addiction for me. I crave to be there when away, and yet the place drives me half-nuts when I’m there; partly through sensory overload and partly through it’s 24/7 urban intensity – like New York City, on steroids. It’s of no surprise to those familiar with Israel’s second city, that National Geographic regularly lists it in its top 10 “beach cities” of the world. This is the closest I ever got to revealing its brutal-yet-beautiful physicality in paint. One can almost feel the hot summer breeze, and taste of salt in the turbulent air – and as for the light…
OUTSIDE THE ALCAZAR (Seville) – 1985 – oil on canvas: “I fell in love with Seville” is one of those traveller’s clichés, like “I love Paris” (which I do not), or “I love Rio” (which I need to visit again to be certain). But in my case, this is the truth, partly, perhaps because I also experienced romantic love in Seville; twice. Generally, I’m not one for painting anything through rose tinted spectacles, but in the case of Seville, it’s virtually impossible not to. Perhaps that’s why I’ve sold every single painting I ever made of the place. People just love a bit of rose, and bit of ochre, and touch of sienna, and certainly a great deal of violet…
JOLANDA AT GARDA – 1983 – oil on canvas: If anywhere in the world can compete with Seville for romance, then the Italian lakes is that place. But, whereas the feel of Seville is defined by strong colours, bright light and deep shade, the Italian lakes are bathed in subtle, seasonally shifting tonalities. If Seville is all about the passion, than Lake Garda, seen here in mid-winter, is all mellow contemplation. Love takes many forms, after all.
DIDO AT COQUIMBO (Chile) – 1992 – oil on canvas: Sadly, this photo is slightly out of focus, but the painting remains the one I was most pleased with from our time in Chile. The region of Coquimbo (in common with much of the southern Atacama Desert) had just experienced its heaviest rains for over 40 years, resulting in the greatest cactus flowering most Chileans had ever witnessed. I’ve rarely felt more privileged as a traveller, before or since, and together with the Sinai Corral Reef remains the most wonderous display of nature I have ever seen.
DIDO AND LYNNE AT TONGOY1992 – oil on canvas: Back in 1991, when we were there, Tongoy was somewhere between a sleepy fishing village, and an even sleepier seaside resort. It felt a bit like entering a scene from a Steinbeck novel, and I half expected to see the skeleton of a giant marlin lying on the pearly white sands. It was off season, and we (and the fishermen too of course) had the place to ourselves. A precious and serene memory.

SYDNEY OR MELBOURNE?

LOCAL / NATIONAL RIVALRIES between urban giants

Cities that enjoy unrivalled pre-eminence within their countries are rare and especially in many of the lands of the newer worlds. As a native of London – a city which similarly to Paris and France, enjoys sole national supremacy – this phenomenon has always interested me. While this development seems natural in geographically enormous countries like Russia (Moscow and Saint Petersburg), China (Beijing and Shanghai) and the USA (New York City and Los Angeles) it is also true of smaller nations, such as New Zealand (Wellington and Auckland), Spain (Madrid and Barcelona) and Italy (Rome and Milan).*

City rivalries develop for a whole host of reasons, including geography, internal competing nationalisms, politics, local nationalisms, commerce and of course, history. Occasionally these rivalries can blow up into full blown rows, and given sufficient regional identity, even war. Often, newer countries with two or more “competing” cities have avoided potential trouble by creating distinct administrative/political national capital cities – such as Brasilia, in the case of Brazil (cf Rio versus Sao Paulo); or by elevating a non rival city to the same position – such as Canberra in the case of Australia (cf Melbourne versus Sydney). Even in newer countries with relatively long-established capitals, such as Washington DC (USA) Durban (South Africa), and Ottawa (Canada), these cities rarely evolve into their respective nations commercial or cultural urban powerhouses.

Presented below are my thoughts on three famous urban rivalries I am familiar with…

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is melbourne-v-sydney.jpg
MELBOURNE AND SYDNEY – I seem to recollect the late, great Clive James once describing Sydney as appearing like a fabulous jewel neckless from the air (or words to that effect), and while there’s no doubting that Australia’s largest city wins hands down in the beauty stakes, I have enjoyed my visits to its great rival, (and nearly as large) Melbourne far more. Apart from its truly iconic architecture and geography, Sydney seems parochial and dull compared to its cosmopolitan and vibrant Victorian neighbour. Not only is Melbourne the beating heart of the Aussie arts and culture scene (with all due apologies to the Sydney Opera House), it’s also the sporting capital; not just of Australia, but of the entire southern hemisphere; and not to mention, a gourmet’s paradise – I mean, where else in the world (including Greece) can one find a truly great Greek restaurant?!

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is toronto-v-montreal.jpg
TORONTO AND MONTREAL – With the risk of this beginning to seem like an exercise in contrary-ism, I often find myself not liking the cities I’m “supposed” to like, while preferring their less hyped rivals. In truth, this might have more to do with the fact that I have always had a conditioned reflex against hype of all kinds, in all walks of life. Thus, I guess that I was always going to be one of those oddballs who much preferred Toronto over Montreal. In fairness, and unlike with Melbourne and Sydney, there isn’t much to distinguish the two Canadian giants vis-à-vis appearances – although even the most die-hard Montreal lovers would probably own that Toronto’s lake-front profile gives it the edge in looks. No, it wasn’t the appearance of Toronto that got under my skin so much as, like Melbourne, it has that almost tangible zing of a happening, swinging town, in stark contrast to Montreal’s overwhelming atmosphere of stale lethargy. Moreover (and this also resembled the Aussie cities), whereas Toronto felt confident and assured, Montreal felt arrogant and complacent.

TEL AVIV AND JERUSALEM – Of the six example cities discussed here, I know these two the best. Having lived in Israel on two occasions and having spent months of my life in both towns, not only do I understand their “todays”, I also have a first-hand knowledge, going back half-a-century of how they got there. For all sorts of obvious, geo-political, geo-religious and geo-cultural reasons (far too complex and difficult to enter into here) Jerusalem is not so much a city, as an agglomeration of fractious urban communities, crammed uncomfortably into a relatively small area. For all its stunning beauty, this has been Jerusalem’s problem for the best part of the past 2000 years, and doesn’t look like resolving anytime soon. Everything about Tel Aviv however, exists in the starkest of all contrasts. While Jerusalem could be as much as four-thousand years old, Tel Aviv is barely one hundred! Whereas Jerusalem is defined by religion and cultural conservatism, Tel Aviv is aggressively secular and culturally progressive (in the good, true sense of the term!). While Jerusalem is aesthetically exquisite, Tel Aviv is an urban dichotomy of 20th century ramshackle and dusty, and 21st century jagged and shiny. The two cities could not be more different, and reveal the two faces of Israel. Which face the visitor prefers will depend much upon their own peculiar political and religious sensibilities. As for me, these days, in beautiful Jerusalem I feel disconcerted, saddened and alienated, while in ugly Tel Aviv, I feel energised and optimistic, and very much at home.

*Apologies to residents and fans of cities like Chicago and Vancouver, who could justifiably argue that in North American terms at least, I have overlooked these towns equally valid competing statures to those named – perhaps in the interest of preserving my hypothesis. However, while there can be no doubting either city’s cultural and commercial importance and influence, in a broad metropolitan sense, not to mention for sheer industrial and commercial might, they are dwarfed by the cities mentioned.

SURFACE DEEP

expressive impressions

The “problem” of figures in landscape fascinated and challenged me in equal measure. After all, without the notion of a literal narrative theme to the picture, the human figure always seemed to be merely an additional element – actually part of the landscape that she/he inhabited. This was not to depersonalise the figure so much as to find a way to harmonise all the elements of the image, whether vegetation, rock, sky or/and living figures.

The Tiyul (Tour) Party – 1983 – oil on canvas – 102 x 153cm This was my first palette knife figures-in-landscape painting. It was on my-then-typical rose madder ground, and at the sketch stage when I decided to “attack” the canvas with the knife. It was applied in one session, lasting about 3 hours – I realised immediately, that speed, in combination with paint application was key. This remains my all-time favourite painting that I ever executed in oils.

From the time of the Impressionists onward, artists have found increasingly ingenious – even gimmicky – ways of resolving the problem. Artists like Renoir and Monet would blend their pictorial elements through a uniformity of paint daubs, and later, Seurat by “distilling” those daubs into dots. Then, Picasso and Braque contorted and warped their figures into the very space they inhabited, leading finally to Matisse, whose contrary method was to turn everything into a jigsaw of flat shapes.

The Swimmer – 1983 – oil on canvas – 122 x 122cm I found water to be a natural “animated” environment for my new “animated” figures. By now I had moved to a deep black ground, setting off increased colour contrasts.

My earliest representational combinations of figures with landscape in oil paint were none of the above, but both romantic, and traditional, whereby the figures inhabit their environment rather like actors on an enormous stage. And, while this was great for creating a form of visual counterpoint and deeply spatial scenic drama, it ignored the potential of the paint itself for creating a vivid, “living” surface.

Waiting to Jump – 1983oil on canvas – 92 x 61cm My new way of painting coincided with one of my longer trips to Israel. The previous picture, this painting, and the one below are all in and around the pool at Kibbutz Ayelet Hashachar, in the Galilee.

I must have painted dozens of such “theatrical” images when one day, I was confronted by a sketched ground for yet another scene of young people in Israel, and made a change of plan. It was a simple thing really, but with exciting consequences for the evolution of my art. I simply put down my brushes and picked up my favourite, medium-sized, trowel-shaped palette knife, and made the whole finished painting with that instead. The resulting picture was a revelation to me, with the paint, and the surface of the canvas elevated from a means to a pictorial end, to the end itself. In the process, the figures were transformed from “actors on a stage” into animated, vibrant entities, at one with their landscape. Suddenly, my pictures, and the figures within, looked alive.

The Jump – 1983 – oil on canvas – 122 x 105cm

Looking at these pictures now, with objectivity borne of time and distance, the significant influence of Impressionism is hard to dispute, yet my own, innate Expressionist instincts are equally evident, and even now, that still gives me a tingle of excitement and pride. Ultimately, they’re not half-bad, and that is all that really matters.

Family at Kineret – 1983 – oil on canvas – 122 x 98cm Kineret (The Sea of Galilee) was a recurring theme / backdrop to my Israel-sourced images. It’s atmospherics (light, colour and water) are an artist’s dream.

PAINTING FROM PHOTOGRAPHS – mundane craft or true modern art?

Photography has played an ever-growing role in my picture-making since the first day of the second term, of my second year at Saint Martin’s School of Art. It was a bleak winter’s day in 1980 and I remember feeling particularity depressed about the direction – or lack of direction to be precise that my painting was taking. For the past four terms at the school I’d walked a wobbly tightrope between the pressure to emulate my tutors’ abstract expressionism, and my own innate passion for making representational images. The resulting stream of paintings echoed this dichotomy, rarely convincing as abstract or figurative; more often than not, a clumsy, unresolved mishmash of the two forms. If, as occasionally happened, I turned out a pleasing picture, it was always more by luck than by design, with me clueless as to how or why I had achieved this. 

THE COACH PARTY (detail) – 1980 – oil on canvas
This was the first painting I made after my talk with David. It was huge (the foreground figures were to-life scale) and liberating in equal measure. I was rarely happier or more stimulated when working on a painting.

Then, on that winter’s day in 1980, while I was pacing back and forth, dreading the coming weeks and months, a new tutor called David Hepher walked into my studio space, and my art career was changed forever. David, unlike all the other tutors at Saint Martin’s was a figurative artist and to this day I have no idea how he came to be teaching there, but for me, his sudden appearance was as timely as that of an Old Testament angel. I distinctly recall his expression as he first set eyes on my paintings – large canvases full of expressively, heavily painted figures of young people hurtling boldly through a romanticised Israeli landscape.

RESTING AT MONTFORT (detail) – 1980 – oil on canvas
This was the third painting in what I still think of as my “Hepher Series”, and I was already discovering, as he surely knew I would, that “copying” would provide its own form of interpretation…

A warm quizzical smile came across his face like that of someone unexpectedly bumping into an old friend. Then I remember that he sat down on my rickety paint-spattered moulded plastic chair. During the previous four terms at the school not one tutor had ever smiled this kind of smile when looking at my pictures, let alone sat down in my space. By the end of the ensuing conversation it became apparent that he was almost as relieved to see my work in that school, as I was thankful that he was now teaching there.

The Banyas Waterfall – 1981 – oil on canvas
One of my favourite spots on Earth; the source of the River Jordan, and almost believably, as the Macedonian soldiers believed two centuries before Christ, the birthplace of the god Pan. Notice the way I played with tonality and shadowing to create more drama…

The first thing he asked me was who my favourite artists were, and when I said Vermeer and Hopper he looked curiously at my wild and frenzied pictures. He then reminded me of Vermeer’s reliance on the camera obscura for achieving these perfectly painted captured moments and asked me why I didn’t use my own photos in a similar fashion?

CHURCH OF SAINT MARY MAGDALENE & GARDEN OF GETHSEMANE – 1982 – oil on canvas
This painting was commissioned, paid for and then returned back to me as a gift, when my patron’s new girlfriend took against it. It could even yet prove to be the first and only painting I sell twice!

While I’d already been using photographs for the past year or so as a form of rough reference, in the same way I worked from my sketchbook, David convinced me  to try something “bolder”, in his words, but hugely controversial; especially within such a temple of conceptualism and abstract expressionism as Saint Martin’s. He suggested that I take my favourite photographs and copy them as faithfully as possible in oils, like huge painted photographic enlargements. He felt certain that in this way I would find the inner artistic peace I was craving.

MOUNT MERON FROM SEFAD – 1983 – oil on canvas
In a similar way to the Casino painting below, I seem to have slightly shifted the angle of the tombstones, and altered the line of telegraph poles – I’m guessing to increase the sensation of being drawn down into the valley, before being swept up again toward the distant mountain.

And cutting a long story short, David’s empathetic advice proved successful, even though the pictures I went on to produce with this new method ensured that I would prove even more of a problematic enigma for most of his colleagues. Presented here are several of the large canvases I painted as a direct result of David’s tutelage. Some them have appeared on this site before, but never side-by-side with the “offending” snaps! 

THE OLD BRITISH CASINO – HAIFA – 1985 – oil on canvas
In some ways this is the most faithful photographic copy I made in the entire series of pictures (the removed fisherman notwithstanding), yet the subtle shift in angle and perspective is stark – and effective – I think?

“WORKERS IN THE FIELD”

AND THE “LITTLE RED” ICE LOLLY

I think I’ve mentioned before on these pages how, very occasionally, I had my uses to the powers-that-be at Saint Martin’s School of Art. While generally I was shunned by most of the tutors for my work being “hopelessly representative”, every-so-often, when they required the services of someone with common-or-garden drawing and painting skills they came to your’s truly.

The story of my mural in Covent Garden was the most high-profile example of this expediency, but there was another occasion when my usefulness to the school was probably far more significant.

Apple Pickers at Rest – oil on canvas – 48″ x 72″ (122 x 183 cm) 1980 – the painting that caught the attention of the Chinese delegation…

It was shortly after the Easter break in 1981 when St. Martins received a visit from a delegation of Communist Chinese dignitaries from their ministry of culture, led by the minister himself. Although I was blissfully unaware at the time, the visit was part of a drive by China to open up access for their top students to elite academic institutions in the UK and North America. I subsequently discovered that their “shopping list” of British institutions comprised, Oxford and Cambridge, University College London, Imperial College, the LSE, the Royal Ballet School, and (incredibly to me at least) Saint Martin’s School of Art. I was equally ignorant of the fact that the visit mattered at least as much to my school as it did to the visitors, as even back then, foreign students were a lucrative source of revenue.

…A detail from the painting, with the ice lolly “mistaken” for a Little Red Book at the top of the image…

Thus, in effect, I was an unwitting cultural/commercial ambassador for St. Martin’s. The fact that my work was the polar opposite of everything that St. Martin’s stood for mattered not. That it was “safe”, accessible, “good of its kind” and most important of all, unlikely to be considered “decadent” by our communist guests mattered a great deal. When I later asked my head tutor John Edwards, why they didn’t simply visit the Slade School or the Royal Academy Schools, where nearly all the art was like mine, he pointed out that St. Martin’s was “so much more than a mere school of painting”. And that its fashion and film departments, in addition to its art and sculpture “made it uniquely attractive” to the Chinese. “In truth”, he added, “the art department was the least significant element” of the school and the main thing was “not to rock the boat”. As things turned out, not only did my work prove the steady ship my superiors had hoped, one of my pictures actually ended up pleasing our visitors more than anyone could have predicted.

“Workers in the field…” – actually local Druze hired labour – with ice lollies.

On the afternoon of the visit, the art department was cleared of students except for me, and the delegation was brought up directly to my studio. There were about ten Chinese, all men and all wearing expensive English-cut suits, and they were led into the room by John Edwards and the principal of the school, Ian Simpson. After some words of introduction from John, the visitors began to notice my pictures, which wasn’t difficult, as at that time I was working on a series of monumental canvases. However – and it’s a moment I shall never forget – as their eyes (and I mean their eyes, for they turned their ten heads as if a single organism) landed on “Apple Pickers at Rest” they let out a collective “ahhhh…” and all broke into broad smiles. Then, the leader of the delegation (the minister himself as it later turned out) looked at me and asked, or perhaps stated, “workers in the field yes?”. I think I just nodded. He then walked up to the picture, and pointing at one of “workers” contemplatively holding a raspberry ice lolly, he turned to me, and grinning and nodding enthusiastically queried, “Little Red Book, yes?”. Before I could respond, he’d already uttered something to his compatriots, to which they all responded with an even bigger collective “ahhhh…”, followed by more smiles and nods of approval. Finally, after each shaking hands and bowing their heads to me in turn, the principal led them out of my studio to continue their tour. The last person to leave was John, who, as he walked out the door, turned around and gave me a big thumb’s-up.

I was left feeling peculiarly frustrated, having been completely unable to explain what the painting was in fact depicting – a scene of Druze labourers, hired by the kibbutz on which I was a volunteer, enjoying a rest from picking apples with a refreshing ice lolly (ice popsicle). In retrospect, my being tongue-tied was a blessing, as Ian later informed me that the minister had described their visit to my studio as the highlight of their tour of the school and even inquired about the possibility of purchasing the painting. I declined this however, when it was made clear all the proceeds would be pocketed by St. Martin’s. After all, I thought, I had already done more than my bit for insuring the future prosperity of the school!

KINNERET THREE WAYS – a portrait of the Sea of Galilee in three media…

The Sea of Galilee (known in Hebrew as Kinneret, due to its having the shape of a harp – a “kinor”) is well known to most people in the “Abrahamic” world as it played such a crucial part in Jewish, and especially Christian tradition and history. For followers of Jesus it is of course famous for being the actual site and / or backdrop for several of his miracles, while for Jews, its main city of Tiberius was a post-biblical centre of learning and culture.

Arab boy looking east, from Ginosar – ink on paper

For the modern State of Israel, Kinneret is a major source of both pious and recreational tourist revenue, in addition to its crucial role as the country’s primary fresh-water reservoir.

Kids on the Eastern Shore – ink on paper

Sitting as it does towards the northern tip of the Great Rift Valley; filled by the creeks and streams of the western Golan and the Upper Galilee to its north; at its southern point, spilling into the River Jordan and; surrounded on three sides by steep escarpments, the inland lake (for that what it actually is) has a geography to match its epic traditions and history.

Girl on a Raft – Ein Gev – ink on paper

As an artist, and a romantic it was always the stunning physical beauty of Kinneret which excited me most. To this day, I can still clearly remember my first-ever sight of it, from high up above, standing on the Horns of Hattin (where Saladin defeated a Christian army in 1187) – a dazzling smear of precious turquoise sitting deep within a heat-hazed frame of ochres and pale greens.

Three Generations – Eastern Shore – ink on paper

That was in 1967, when I was seven, and it is a view which I have never tired of since, and which I have been fortunate enough to revisit on many occasions, and never more so than during the summer of 1980…

Mother bathing Child – gouache on paper

It was in that year that I and three friends decided to walk the entire circumference of Kinneret – starting out from, and returning to, Tiberius over the course of two days.

Mother bathing Child – oil on canvas

We decided to do a clockwise circumvention and so set off heading north along the west shore of the lake, with only the clothes on our back, two rucksacks (a couple bottles of wine, cans of beer and packets of crisps and Bissli falafel chips in one, and music cassettes and radio batteries in the other) and a small ghetto-blaster…

Ein Gev Bathers – gouache on paper (commercial poster)

As it turned out, these meagre provisions and sparse equipment helped generate one of the most pleasurable 48 hours of our young lives…

Family Group – oil on canvas (palette knife)

The fact we were two boys and two girls; the wine and beer (chilled each evening in cool water of the lake); two lingering golden evening swims; and some incredibly empathetic music provided by the likes of George Benson and Carlos Santana made for an intensely sensual experience…

Danish Girl at Ein Gev – ink on paper

…So much so, that even though it all happened the best part of 40 years ago, whenever I think back to that walk it still makes me smile.

Ein Gev Girl – oil on canvas

Thanks to the fact that I made many sketches and paintings of Kinneret, and the people I witnessed playing on its pebble beaches and bathing in its refreshing waters, I get to smile on a more less a daily basis. I hope that the pictures shown here provide an equally happy reminder to those of you fortunate to have been there, and an enticement to those of you thinking of going…

“THERE IS ANOTHER SKY…” *

With the festive season well underway (Hanukkah is already over) and the year wrapping up, we now find ourselves dashing madly between Jönköping, London, Oxford and finally Malaga. All of which means that once again I have only a little time for writing these posts.

Normal service will be resumed in the new year, but for now and the following post, my pictures will have to do most of the talking for themselves. In this case, here is a collection of amazing skies I have been fortunate to find myself beneath from time to time, both at home and on our travels…

*Emily Dickinson

Altocumulus floccus – Antofagasta – Chile

Pisa – Italy

Altocumulus lenticularis duplicatus  at sunset – Axarquia – Spain
Winter Sky – Canillas de Aceituno – Spain
Lorne Pier – Victoria – Australia

Winter Sky – Netanya – Israel
Sun Break – Southern Ghaats  – India

Altocumulus stratiformis translucidus undulatus – Atacama – Chile
The Golden Hour – Netanya – Israel

The Sea and Hills of Galilee from the Golan Heights – Israel

Water Spout about to Hit the Shore – Netanya – Israel