FINCA-ING OF YOU ALL – New Year’s greetings from Finca Carmel

No time for a proper post I’m afraid with so much work to do on our little farm. Fortunately, the hard labour has its rewards such as the fabulous 2018 vintage port (pictured here) we barrelled in August and is now looking and tasting delicious.

A hearty cheers, lechaim, salud, and whatever your favoured salutation may be, to all my followers, accidental readers and passers by for a happy and healthy 2019!

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BEER AND BIROS –  or how I learned to prioritise my student grant spending…

I don’t know if it’s the same today, but when I was at art school it was constantly drummed into us students to carry a sketchbook, “always and everywhere”, and to use it frequently. For some reason, this was a habit I found hard to acquire, and thus an early indicator perhaps that I never had the mentality of the true artist.

Sitters 1
Bar Props 9 – pencil sketch

It wasn’t so much the issue of self-discipline – I had plenty of that when sufficiently motivated to a given (normally non-art-related) task – it was the somewhat ironic fact that I felt that sketching was more of a barrier to, than an absorber of, the world around me.

Bar Drinker 1
Bar Prop 8 – biro sketch

Perhaps part of my problem was that although only 16 when I started my foundation course at Harrow School of Art, I was already an experienced photographer and had become used to having a camera with me much of the time. Ditching my elegant Nikon, and its power to capture everything I saw at the press of a button for a sketchpad and assorted, often unwieldy drawing implements seemed a retrograde and pointless drudgery.

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                    Thoughtful Couple – biro sketch

Of course, deep-down, I recognised the wisdom of my tutors’ insistence on me interpreting the world I saw through the point of a drawing implement as a fundamental prerequisite for learning the language of picture-making. Yet I remained resistant for a long time into my art education; a bit like the reluctant music student longing to skip his/her daily four hours of practising scales. Eventually however, although never an enthusiast, by the time I started my degree at Saint Martin’s I’d found a way to become a regular sketcher.

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Bar Leaner – Conté sketch

The “way” I’d landed upon was to lubricate the grind of the actual sketching by means of large doses of simultaneous self-gratification and self-stimulation in the form of pints of my favourite beverage at the many hostelries adjacent to my Soho-based art school.

Sitter 5
Bar Thinker – biro sketch

In authentic and time-honoured tradition, I found wiling away hours of time in saloons rewarding both sensually and artistically. And while my fellow pub punters may not have offered up images as exotic as those that greeted the French Post Impressionists in the clubs and dives of 19th century Paris, they did nevertheless provide an endless source of unwitting, and thus natural model subjects.

Sitter 4.jpg
Paper Reader – Conté sketch

Needless to say, this element of my nascent art career necessitated a significant chunk of my student grant. How good or not this investment was, is a matter for debate. From my, admittedly biased point of view, all these years later, the examples shown here don’t look too bad, and if nothing else, they do go to show that even the humble biro, can be an effective artists tool…after a glass or two of fine English ale…

Sitter 3
Greasy Lunch – Conté sketch (done in a Soho cafe or “greasy spoon”)

STALIN, IN THE LIBRARY, WITH A BOUNCING BOMB – or the weird and wonderful incarnations of my old school…

I rarely get to the cinema these days and do most of my catching up with the latest films on the two or three long-haul flights I do every year. So it was last Spring, I found myself 33,000 above the North Atlantic Ocean, watching The Death of Stalin. The film itself was somewhat disappointing, and I was considering changing to another movie when something caught my attention. It was a scene in a study in Stalin’s quarters, in which Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) was talking to Maria Veniaminovna Yudina (Olga Kurylenko), but it wasn’t the “drama” that caught my attention; it was the study itself.

The room was somehow familiar, and then, in following scenes set in the tyrant’s abode, I saw other rooms that I thought I recognised. However, my mild curiosity over the apparent familiarity of the movie-set for Stalin’s quarters was insufficient to maintain any interest in the alleged black comic-drama and a short while later I was watching something else.

And, until yesterday, when I began preparing my next post for this site, the film and the film-set had completely slipped from my mind. The post I was preparing was to have been a brief history of my old school, Carmel College, and my experiences as a pupil there. But, when researching some details about the Victorian mansion that I had known as School House, I made some discoveries which seemed to offer me the prospect of a  more interesting piece than the one I was originally working on.

Presented below are several photographs of locations from the late Carmel College with captions describing their respective roles in 20th century British architecture; inspiring the world’s longest running play and indirectly one of the world’s most successful board games; in British Cinema; and finally, in military history…

School House
The Victorian mansion (that I knew as School House) has the richest history of all the Carmel College buildings. During the Second World War it was HQ for No. 2 Group, RAF Bomber Command, and in 1943  the final reconnaissance briefing for the  Dam Busters’ Raid was conducted in what I knew as the headmaster’s study. A few years later it became Agatha Christie’s template for the house in her world record breaking 1952 play for the longest West End run, The Mousetrap. Christie had a huge influence upon Anthony E. Pratt, the creator of Cluedo in 1949. Far more recently , among other things (as mentioned above) the interior of the mansion was the set for Stalin’s quarters in the 2017 movie, The Death of Stalin. The grand entrance hall and staircase, the library and the aforementioned study featured heavily…

Shul on frosty morning
The Carmel Synagogue was designed by architect Thomas Hancock who also masterminded the entire Carmel Campus. It’s now a grade II listed building and remains one of the most stunning and beautiful Synagogues anywhere in the world. Hancock’s concrete amphitheatre, built at the same time, can just be made out to the left of the picture. Hancock, a Buddhist, developed something of a niche for himself designing houses of worship. including a Hindu temple and most famously the Peace Pagoda in Milton Keynes. The Synagogue’s interior was used in the 2011 film The Iron Lady as the scene where Margaret Thatcher (Meryl Streep) received voice coaching , and its exterior featured in the 2016 film, Mindhorn…

The Pyramid
Another grade II listed masterpiece, we just referred to as”the Pyramid”, was actually an art gallery and named in honour of  patron of the arts ,Julius Gottlieb  and gifted to Carmel College by his son Lieutenant Commander E. J. Gottlieb. The Pyramid and the boathouse upon which it sits was designed by Sir Basil Spence, and is one of the smallest, and  best resolved works of Britain’s foremost brutalist architect.

Pool and Gymnasium Building
The Sports block which contains a large gymnasium, a 25 metre swimming pool and a squash court has been the setting for  pop videos and movie scenes. Kylie Minogue and The Kaiser Chiefs shot promotional videos there in 2013 and 2014 respectively, and the pool featured in the 2018 movie, Annihilation (with Natalie Portman)…

Carmel Gardens.jpg
The exterior of the mansion and its gardens was the setting for the the final part of the 2016 film, The Darkest Dawn.  The grounds’ arboretum is most famous for its fabulous Ceders of Lebanon…

 

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.

 

ADAM IMITATING ADAMS – and the sublimeness of black and white

It’s always intrigued me that the greatest photographs of landscape ever taken, by the incomparable Ansell Adams, were all in black and white. To this day, when scenes of Yosemite or the Grand Tetons enter my my mind’s eye I invariably see them in Adams’ deeply contrasted, brooding monochrome. For me, as for so many others no doubt, American Sublime is at its most sublime in Adams’ black and white.

Banff Mountain View 1p.jpg

Hence, it might surprise some to know that with the advent of Kodachrome film in the late 1930’s, Adams also took thousands of pictures in colour. His main reason for not publishing most of them seems to have had something to do with the lack of control he felt had over the finished image. Whereas with his black and white work he had total mastery over the entire process, he found colour film (especially early colour film) unreliable as a medium of his vision.

Banff Mountain View 3 p.jpg

Bearing this in mind, it would be fascinating to know what Adams would have made of the digital photographic world of today? While I suspect, in common with many current “film-purists”, he would have been inherently suspicious of film-less images, I also think it’s possible at least, that he would have been equally intrigued by the almost limitless control offered by tools like Photoshop. Whether or not he would have been sufficiently titillated to swap the darkroom for the desktop I somehow doubt, but it’s fun to ponder.

Banff Mountain View 4 p.jpg

Apart from the fact I share the singular form of Adams’ surname as my forename, my own photographic offerings have little in common with the great late master, either as to quality or as to ambition. However, the hypothetical conundrum I pose for Adams above, is something that I, and thousands of my contemporaries – professional and amateur – have actually had to confront. In my own case, I at first resisted the transition from film to digital, until one day, during the early 90’s, a retired professional photographer friend scanned an old film of mine, for me to “play with” using the hitherto unemployed Corel software on my Gateway computer. I was hooked within moments and traded in my old Nikon film camera for a Nikon digital camera the next day. And, over the subsequent years, as I’ve gradually upgraded both my camera and my computer software, I’ve never once regretted the decision.

Lake Louise C p.jpg

The photos here were taken on that first, crude Nikon digital camera, and remain to this day the closest I’ve ever got to emulating Ansell Adams himself – at least with subject matter (the scenery around Banff in the Canadian Rockies) if not in quality. They are presented in their original colour form, side-by-side with Photo-shopped monochrome twins. I upped the contrast to deepen the shadows and dramatise the tones in an attempt to give them a more “Adams feel”, and to see whether I would prefer them, or the original colour images. In the end, for me at least, there is no contest, and thus much to consider for my future landscape photography…

(Camera used: Nikon Coolpix 990)

BEHIND THE SCENES – painting with oils on different surfaces…

When one thinks of an oil painting, one generally thinks of a picture painted on canvas, but across the centuries since artists first mixed coloured pigments with oil they have applied their oil-based paints to a large variety of surfaces, including things like metal and glass. These days, especially within typical art school settings, the most commonly used materials in addition to canvas are, cotton duck (a cheap-yet-similar cloth cousin of true canvas), board (usually either plywood or stiff backing board), and paper. When I started out as an art student in the autumn of 1976 at Harrow School of Art, I had never painted an oil painting – on any surface – in my life.

Bottles with Fruit.jpg
Still Life with Bottles and Lemons – oil on paper – 1980.  Paper makes for a super slick surface, so that the brush or the palette knife has a tendency to “skid” across the surface – great for fast, energetic gestures.

Although I’d had in my possession a box of half-used oil-paints since I was a babe in arms (left behind by my father when he disappeared from my life) I’d never known what to do with them. Somehow, painting with anything but watercolours had always seemed mysterious and slightly scary. But all this changed in the second year of my foundation course when I realised that if my aspirations of a career in fine art were serious I’d have to learn how to paint in oils. However, my foundation student grant was only sufficient to fund the paints themselves and not the surface materials upon which I was to apply them. Fortunately though, Harrow had a junk room crammed full of backing board, So, my first experience of oil-painting was on board, primed with two or three coats of liquid PVA glue.

Ceaseria - Girl Leaning on Sculpture.jpg
Dido at Caesarea – oil on board – 1991  Board has some of the slickness of paper but conversely the brush tends to “stick” toward the end of the stroke. It’s rigidity makes it unresponsive to palette knife.

When I began my BA course at Saint Martins the following year my student grant was substantially improved and I was able to “progress” onto stretched cotton duck (or poor-man’s canvas as Sam, our school technician and unofficial canvas-stretching instructor used to refer to it). Nevertheless, large pieces of cotton duck (and I was already working on extremely large-scale pictures) cut a substantial swathe into my grant, leaving precious little for another essential “tool” of the young art student – that being copious amounts of ale every evening at one of the many wonderful local Soho pubs. This meant that I did much of my oil sketching on paper, which, when sufficiently sized, took the paint pretty well. In fact, I did not get to paint on actual “canvas, canvas” until around ten years after graduating from Saint Martins when I at last had enough dosh of my own to afford the real thing, ready-stretched, and ready-sized and primed.

Juanita Restaurant.jpg
Restaurant Juanita – oil on cotton duck – 1992   Duck is a cruder weave than canvas so that it’s slightly rougher to work on. Fine for free, painterly brush work and palette knife but not so much for fine work. No use at all for the photo-realist.

The four paintings presented here are examples of each of the four surfaces I used. In the flesh it’s easy to tell the difference, even between the one painted on cotton duck and the one painted on canvas – but that’s a whole other story, perhaps for another time…

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Wild Flower and Almond Trees – oil on canvas – 2000   Top notch canvas is worth the extra cost for those artists striving for total control over the paint. When correctly stretched and sized with rabbit skin, its smooth-yet-holding surface allows for the complete range of “attack”. 

CAMPSITE / CAR PARK / QUEUES and LED ZEPPELIN’S UK SWANSONG…

A major part of the allure and enduring reputation of  the British rock band Led Zeppelin was down to a carefully crafted blanket of privacy and secrecy woven by guitarist Jimmy Page and manager, Peter Grant. Unlike most of their rival bands who used publicity and commercialism to boost their image and their album sales, Page and Grant masterfully strode a counter-intuitive path of obfuscation and opacity in both their dealings with the media, and with the recording company that released their music. And in so doing they succeeded in enhancing the undoubted brilliance of the band’s music with an air of mystique and mystery.

Knebworth 79 LZ 8
For those too stoned to recall where they were?

Accordingly, the facts and statistics concerning their appearance at Knebworth in the summer of 1979 are hard to pin down.  The main dispute was over how many people attended the two concerts? According to official ticket sales around 120,000 turned up for each concert, but unofficial estimates were virtually double that figure stating more than 400,000 people saw the two gigs (over 180,000 the first night and around 220,000 the second).

Knebworth 79 LZ 12
Japanese were well represented…

All I can say, as one of the bonafide possessors of a ticket for the second concert, was that I witnessed a constant stream of fans breaching the perimeter hedges and boundaries of the Knebworth site throughout the day and then again scaling the fence that contained the concert area itself. The exact figures, like so much else to do with Led Zeppelin became yet another element of the band’s mythology.

79LZSimon
My old pal Simon and a sustaining can of Newkie Brown…

What was not mythological however was the fact that  Led Zeppelin’s Knebworth appearance turned out to be their final concerts in the UK. Within weeks of the gigs John Bonham, the band’s irreplaceable drummer was dead, signaling the end of one of the most influential ten years of music making of the 20th century.

79LZGreenTent
A fabulous array of old Fords, Hillmans and Vauxhalls …

My own infatuation with Led Zeppelin had begun four years earlier when my brother took me (then, a particularly callow 15-year-old) to see the band at Earls Court. It was my first rock concert of any kind and it proved to be the proverbial life altering event.

Knebworth 79 LZ 2
Beyond the hordes and note the “Zofo” (Jimmy Page’s rune) painted on the oak tree…

I’ll never forget, when, about six songs into the concert (it took me three or four songs merely to come to terms with the shock of the volume and the novelty of the spectacle) they broke into Trampled Underfoot and for the first time in my life I experienced something which I guess was close to religious ecstasy. Then when this was followed by In My Time of Dying – and somewhat ironically given the theme of the song – I underwent something akin to a spiritual rebirth. My life had changed for ever.

Knebworth 79 LZ 7
This queue was for programs –  I think?

As it happened, Earls Court more or less coincided with my atheist “awakening” and Messrs Page, Plant, Jones and Bonham proved a more than adequate substitution for my previous notions of deity.  Not that I ever worshiped them, but they certainly provided me with an often powerful, sometimes lyrical outlet for my youthful passions and sensitivities. My feelings for Page and Plant in particular was a kind of love or adoration which only faded when I began dating girls a year or two later.

Knebworth 79 LZ 4
Members of our group, including dear old – and since sadly departed – Mick “the Head”, with his famous cap. In his other existence he was a highly skilled engineer working at the Rolls Royce aero-engine plant. I never did find out how he acquired his nick-name, but it had something to do with his time in India…

But, if my adoration of the band members had faded by the time of the Knebworth event, if anything, my appreciation of their music had grown. My only problem was, I hated Knebworth itself; the sights, the sounds, the eternal queuing for absolutely everything, the incredible array of smells (I’ll never forget the peculiar blend of marijuana and faeces that permeated around the latrines) created by so many people in such close proximity.

Knebworth 79 LZ 11
I don’t think they sold a single piece of fruit the entire day. The burger vans on the other hand…

Basically, I found the entire experience to be overwhelming, from the initial period of weird car-park camping, to the concert itself, which I was too weary, too distant from the stage and probably too sober to truly enjoy.

Knebworth 79 LZ 10
A group of ticketless fans can be seen about to climb the fence at the right of this picture…

Whereas Earls Court had been intense, personal and a strangely intimate sensation (given I was sharing the space with 20,000 others), Knebworth seemed intangible and dreamlike from the start. My one consolation remains that I was one of the privileged  people to witness the final act on home soil of the world’s greatest rock band. Whether or not I was one 120,000 or 220,000 remains a mystery…

Knebworth 79 LZ 6
Not exactly glamping…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

WINTER WONDERLANDS – ITALIAN STYLE sepia memories of a magical trip

The travel destinations I have liked most have had two things in common; good food and drink, and dramatic landscape. For me, these are the two essentials that not only ensure an enjoyable trip, but also make me want to return again and again.

1 Cresta Yula
Cresta Yula

Thus far in my life, no country has consistently epitomised those two qualities more than Italy, and one trip there in particular stands out for me as an exemplar.

2 Setting off from Hel Brunner
Setting off on Hel Brunner

During the late 1970’s and early 1980’s I was fortunate enough to ski Christmas and New Year at the Italian Alpine resort of Courmayeur. And although the skiing itself was not particularly challenging, this was more than compensated for by Courmayeur’s spectacular location at the foot of Western Europe’s tallest mountain, Mont Blanc (Monte Bianco) and the hearty, local Valdostana cuisine. Days spent skiing through landscape straight out of a Martini commercial, followed by evenings dining on rich chamois stews washed down with copious amounts of black-red Nebbiolo wines made for exceedingly happy times.

3 Monte Bianco from Courmayeur
Mont Blanc (Monte Bianco) from Courmayeur

Then, in 1981, I had an Italian girlfriend from a village near Cremona, only a three-hour drive from Courmayeur, and so decided to take a few days off from skiing to visit her.

3 Garda Dusk
Girl and Garda Dusk

She, in turn took me to her family apartment on the shores of Lake Garda where we spent an idyllic 48 hours where, among other wonderful things, I had my first taste of genuine Italian home cooking. But even more special than the food was the fact that we had the magisterial lake, and its enchanting winter light all to ourselves.

4 Lake Garda
Lake Garda

Fortunately I had my camera with me for both parts of what transpired as a trip of two deeply contrasting parts. The pictures presented here are digitally enhanced, sepia-filtered examples of some of the photographs I took then, designed to emulate my memories of a special time…

6 Girl at Garda
Garda Dusk

I REALLY DON’T KNOW CLOUDS AT ALL…or why I tried to capture nature’s atmospheric ephemera in paint.

 

“I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now
From up and down and still somehow
It’s cloud’s illusions I recall
I really don’t know clouds at all…”

Joni Mitchell  1969

Clouds 2

As we flew into Madrid a couple of flights back we descended through a dense and towering bank of clouds. From above, bathed in late afternoon sunshine the great stacks of vapour were a kaleidoscope of whites, golds and deep shadows. After a couple of minutes of being buffeted we emerged from beneath what appeared as an upturned flat grey carpet. The contrast between the two views, from above and below the clouds was stark, and as we made our landing approach the Joni Mitchel song From Both Sides Now came into my head (although I should say that I was hearing Sinatra singing Don Costa’s more schmaltzy arrangement).

Clouds 3

This in turn reminded me of my first year as a fine art foundation student at Harrow School of Art and the weeks I spent that autumn sketching clouds from my vantage point in the library.

Clouds 4

The library was on the top story of the building, and with its large picture windows offered unimpeded views of Harrow Wield and the constantly changing big skies above.

Clouds 5

At this time in my burgeoning art career I was still steeping myself unashamedly in the grand English landscape painting tradition established by the likes of William Turner, John Constable and the sadly, mostly overlooked, John Crome.

Clouds 6

The importance these painters placed on accurately depicting the skies which illuminated and shaded the earth below is attested to by the reams-upon-reams of their cloud sketches still adorning the walls and the display cases of galleries throughout the land. And for me, as a student of English sky painting, it was the eternal freshness of these sketches which excited me so much more than most of these same artists finished masterpieces, which often appeared so formal and contrived by comparison. I remember the thrill I experienced the first time I saw Constable’s watercolour cloud studies at the Tate Gallery (now Tate Britain) as a child, and how these 150-year-old pictures looked as if they had just been painted. I could almost feel the frantic movements of the brush across the paper as Constable raced to capture a single atmospheric moment.

Clouds 7

It was either Constable himself, or one of his equally gifted colleagues who once said “the more I paint clouds the less I feel I know them” – or words to that effect. For his part, Turner, in his desire to understand the nature of clouds attended the Royal Society lectures of pioneering meteorologist Robert Fitzroy.

Clouds 8

The one thing that both Constable and Turner did know about clouds was the part they played in defining English landscape. Virtually ever-present in our skies; masking and or diffusing the sunlight; constantly shifting the colour and tone of the land; the atmosphere’s grand controller of dramatic effect; the need to portray clouds accurately in paint was key.

Clouds 9

Anyway, the point of this appropriately rambling post, like banks of cumulonimbus scudding above the Harrow Wield, is to explain why I too, for a relatively short while at least, became obsessed with clouds, and despite studying them in watercolour for weeks on end came away realising the wisdom of Joni Mitchell’s lyric…

A BREAKFAST WITH A VIEW…and a small window onto Tel Aviv

As a rule I avoid posting travel diary-type articles on the hoof. For one thing, I don’t think I’m particularly good at it. In journalistic terms I’ve always been more of an opinion piece writer than a roving reporter. However, the piece I was preparing for this particular post has gone the way of the defunct memory stick I’ve just thrown into the trash and so I was forced, just this once, into doing something spontaneous.

Fortunately I just happen to be based for these last few days in a place perfectly suited to spontaneous outbursts of all types; pictorial, literary and just about any other format one cares to imagine. For, if constant change, municipal renewal and incessant architectural upheaval are the mothers of urban reinvention, then Tel Aviv must surely rank as a grand civic matriarch.

As a regular periodic visitor to Israel’s cultural and commercial first city for the past fifty years my mind’s eye (not to mention my various cameras) has become a kind of time-lapse observer of  Tel Aviv’s astonishing physical evolution. And while this is not the place to attempt a full description of that development (it requires a long book) I have over the three years or so of this blog attempted to give at least an occasional impression – in words and pictures – of what I’ve witnessed and continue to see.

Because this addition to that “series” is so unplanned (I didn’t even bring a camera on the trip and had to rely on my iPhone for the images), I’m hoping that in its own small, colourful way it will more faithfully transmit some of the atmosphere of this amazing coastal city.

These pictures are all taken from rooftop breakfast decks of our otherwise unremarkable little downtown hotel. I think they offer a distinct, technicolor and interestingly optimistic Tel Aviv tableaux…