THIS GREEN (AND GOLD), STILL PLEASANT LAND…

At the risk of breaking my rule of keeping this blog strictly apolitical, I feel the need to point out that these images date from December 10th – just two days before the recent UK general election.

It isn’t giving much away (especially to those who know me), to state that the weeks and days leading up to the election were among the most nerve-wracking and traumatic I have experienced in my life. Conversely, the moment the exit poll was announced, was one of such joyous and euphoric relief as I can recall.

Yet, at the time of the walk in my local Oxford park when I encountered these sublime scenes, I was so convinced by the narrowing of the opinion polls and the broadcast media mood-music that the election result would mean us having to pack up and leave England for good, it was as if the fates of nature were tormenting me with what I would be losing.

Looking at them now however, the images seem to offer the hope of new dawn for this remarkable little country that once again feels like my green and still pleasant home.

A "NUANCED" HAPPY HANUKKAH…

…FROM A LATTER-DAY “HELLENISTIC” JEW

As seasonal happenstance would have it, while thinking of a subject for this post I came upon slides of two Hanukkah-related pictures I made many years ago in my mid-teens. My original intention had been to create an epic account of the Hannukah story in the form of a heavily illustrated book-cum-comic, however, I soon found the task to be overwhelming and abandoned it after just a few weeks.

The unfinished project coincided with my growing interest in biblical and ancient history and this had a strong influence on the way I considered the story of the Maccabees and their war of liberation against the forces of the Seleucid Empire. This meant that I was passionate about executing not only an accurate visual portrayal of the Hebrews, their Macedonian foes, and the Judean backdrop, but also an historically objective account of the story itself.

This is my take on the gruesome climax of the highly apocryphal story of Hannah and her Seven Sons. Within the Hannukah context, the episode is set before the Maccabee Revolt, and presented as one of its precursors. There are several versions of the story, and in this one I went for a touch of historicity by having Antiochus IV (Epiphanes) use crucifixion and impaling – a favoured Macedonian method of execution – to kill the seven sons for their’s and their mother’s refusal to submit to the will of the king by transgressing their religion. The scene is set in the western Jerusalem foothills and intentionally contextualises a later, far more famous such execution of another Jew at the hands of a later occupying power…

As a little Jewish boy I had received the traditional, pious version of the story based on the first and second books of Maccabees, in which Judah Maccabee and his family are presented as flawless heroes, struggling against an evil foreign enemy and even wickeder “Hellenised” Jewish collaborators. Until I was about twelve, the Hasmoneans (Maccabees) were totally good and all those who opposed them, totally bad.

This more stylised image was intended as the cover plate. It’s a depiction of Judah Maccabee in the full armour of a Macedonian hoplite (heavy infantryman). Originally, Judah and his fellow fighters would have been lightly armed guerrillas, but with each victory, would have acquired both battle experience and the armour and weaponry from those they defeated. It’s unlikely however that the Hebrew forces ever fought in classic Macedonian phalanx formation, hence the shortened sarissa (pike-spear) for close-order combat.

But as I grew older, and read more deeply into the history of the period I came to understand that the truth was – as it usually is in these sort of encounters – far more nuanced, and that if I’d been around at the time I might very well have seen the Hellenised Jews as enlightened and civilised, and the Maccabees as reactionary, intolerant and often cruel. Evidence for this probability lies in the fact that once the Maccabees were victorious and came to power, they too surrendered to many of the intellectual temptations of Greek culture and thought. Moreover, once the Hasmonean’s established their royal dynasty, the more powerful they became, the more they emulated their Seleucid and Ptolemaic imperial neighbours, including the hiring of large Greco-Macedonian mercenary armies – the very troops they had once fought against – to protect and expand their kingdom.

Thus, what I planned to do was to offer the first objective version of the epic struggle, which neither glossed over some the undoubted barbarities of the Macedonian occupiers, nor the fanatical fundamentalism of the Maccabee resistance fighters – and crucially, all wearing the correct gear, and inhabiting the genuine landscape. Looking at the two plates presented here, if I had completed the project, I might have created an early form of graphic novel. On the other hand, perhaps, my teen-self wasn’t yet ready to reveal myself as the “de-constructor” of a cherished myth and so risk the ire of many of my more traditional fellow Jews, something I did eventually manage to do thirty years later with my history of King Saul…

TWO degrees of synchronicity…

and how i nearly know judi dench

There’s nothing remarkable about spotting famous people in Hampstead and its environs; especially people famous in the performing arts, for whom it’s something of an English Beverly Hills. At one time or another, NW3 has been home for everyone from the Pythons and Peter Cook to Daniel Craig and Ridley Scott, and hundreds more. So, the fact I’ve had an unplanned beer with Robert Plant, and almost had my head removed from its shoulders (accidentally I hasten to add) by Ricky Gervais (whilst performing some kind of Capoeira-cum-Taekwondo / jogging exercise in the street) is hardly surprising.

The walk up Holly Hill…

In fact, it’s no exaggeration to state that I spot at least one notable each and every time I take a stroll down the High Street. However, in all these years of involuntary celebrity spotting there’s one such incident that stands out for the way it highlights both Karinthy’s hypothesis of six degrees of separation (more properly just two in this case) and perhaps also a classic “Jungian” synchronism…

Approaching the pub in Holly Mount…

The Holly Bush was and is Hampstead’s quaintest and most picturesque public house. Originally part of the home of the great portrait artist George Romney, it retains an 18th century charm and warmth irresistible to lovers of traditional English watering holes. And being just such a fan, I would often go there during my lunch-time break from my work in a nearby picture framery.

So it happened on one such occasion, when sat in the main saloon, I looked up from my newspaper and spotted a familiar face propping up the corner of the bar, who I instantly recognised as the actor Michael Williams. Although I knew him from his TV roles, he was more famous to me as being the husband of Judi Dench, already established as one of the greatest stage actresses of hers, or anybody else’s generation. Funnily enough, it wasn’t so much Michael Williams who caught my attention as it was his drinking partner – a gentleman in late middle-age with a strikingly luxuriant mop of silver hair.

The corner of the bar where Michael Williams and Leonard Nicholson used to drink…

Over the following weeks, during subsequent lunch-time visits to the pub, I was greeted by this same scene on a regular basis – Michael Williams, and the silver-haired gentleman, always at their allotted places, at the corner of the bar. All of which would have remained nothing more than several in a long list of similar such celebrity sightings during my time in Hampstead.

However, the following year I met my future-wife, Dido Nicholson, whose mother and younger sister it turned out had been at school, with none other than Judi Dench. The fact that Dido’s aunt remains close friends with Dame Judi to this very day is merely interesting of itself, but what is far more intriguing, was the fact that Michael William’s silver-haired drinking partner turned out to be none other than Dido’s paternal uncle John Leonard Nicholson (a noted professor of statistics who had worked for several British government administrations in the 60’s).

The front of the building on Holly Hill with the blue plaque indicating this was once the home of the great portraitist George Romney.

In other words, about a year before I met Dido or knew anything about her, I had regularly shared a pub bar with both her uncle, and her aunt’s best friend’s husband. And perhaps even more remarkably, Leonard’s friendship with Michael Williams, and Dido’s aunt’s friendship with Judi Dench were totally unrelated to each other – the former having met socially in Hampstead, while the latter met at school as explained above.

Despite this apparent synchronicity I remain separated from Dame Judi by those aforementioned two degrees, as I have yet to meet her in person…

FOUR-SEASONS GREETINGS

About this time, two years ago I wrote a post related to the Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashana) and the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) from my perspective as an amateur biblical historian, and illustrated with dramatic images of the Negev Desert ( https://adamhalevi777.com/2016/09/29/the-wilderness-of-zin-yahwehs-kingdom/ ).

Spring, in London’s glorious Regent’s Park, bedecked with prunus blossom and daffodils (gouache on paper)

As made plain in that post, my interest in the origins of those and other Jewish / Hebrew / Israelite festivals is now purely of an academic nature – in the literal sense of the word. And in truth, I think it always has been, going all the way back to when, as a little boy, I sat and stood, dutifully at the side of my righteous Zaida (grandfather), in shul (synagogue) for hour-upon-hour in a state of abject boredom.

Summer was often a sandy beach in Israel – here with me and four friends at Ashkelon in 1981 (oil on canvas)

As I expressed in the introduction to my book on King Saul, I only survived the tedium by reading my Zaida’s Tanakh (Jewish Bible), which he permitted me to do rather than pray, as a kind of compromise, in the vain hope that I might one day see the light. Although, from a precocious age, I generally skipped through the supernatural stuff and miracles, which I always found unconvincing, I was excited by the narrative and the stories. By the time I was in my very early teens I became fascinated with the two books of Samuel in particular, sensing in them the grains of a history for the birth of the first nation of Israel.

Autumn (or in this context, more properly Fall) in North America, is a sight beyond compare – as here, in the Ouachita Forrest in Arkansas (enhanced photo)

My own writings on King Saul, and my novel about the Ark of the Covenant are my ultimate expressions of that continuing fascination and interest. So, in a way, I suppose I am indebted to those countless hours in synagogue and my forced intimacy with my Zaida’s Tanakh.

Winter was for many years a ski resort, most often in Italy, like here in the Apennines at Bormio (gouache on paper)

Despite my own acquired indifference to the many annual festivals of my people, I do sometimes miss the sense of the seasons they used to evoke. Pesach (Passover) for instance was always the herald of Spring, while Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and the close-ensuing Succot (Tabernacles) resonated with the feeling of Autumn and the approaching dark days of winter. This somewhat rambling post is thus intended as a seasonally inspired salutation to all my readers and followers, whatever your beliefs or none…

HATRED TO LOVE TURNED…

Falling in love with a once-loathed painting – of my first love

I first fell in love about the time I turned twenty. The relationship was as torrid, as it was brief and was doomed from the start due to irreconcilable logistics – among other things. I was a near-penniless artist, starting out on my career in London, and she was farmer’s daughter from a village near Cremona in northern Italy.

We’d met in London where she was au-pairing, and enjoyed several weeks of passion and fun. She barely spoke a word of English, and my Italian was all-but non-existent, but verbal communication was never an issue, for the simple reason, we didn’t spend much time attempting to talk. Rather, it was the very cliche of the shared language of love and a fizzing chemical attraction.

A short while after her return home I broke off from a skiing holiday in the Italian Alps to visit her , and despite having a wonderful time, I left her knowing that there was little chance of the relationship continuing.

Until recently, I had always regarded a set of pencil portraits, and some romantic gouaches of her by Lake Garda, as my most pleasant mementos of that brief encounter (some shown here: https://adamhalevi777.com/2018/06/29/winter-wonderlands-italian-style-sepia-memories-of-a-magical-trip/) . But then, a few months ago, trawling through slides of some forgotten oil paintings from that period, I discovered a life portrait in oils I had done of her back in London.

At the time, I had dismissed it as clunky and awkward, and I put its “failure” down to me being too stimulated and emotionally agitated by the sitter, and I loathed it so much, I painted over it within days. However, seeing it again, for the first time in 28 years, I found that I actually quite like it, and that in an albeit quirky way (perhaps slightly derivative of Mark Gertler?), it captures something of the tenderness and fascination I had for the sitter. Although I hadn’t realised it at the time, the portrait was as pure an expression of my love as I could have hoped for…

NO SAD HILL, SADLY

WHAT WE DID NoT SEE AT SANTO DOMINGO DE SILOS

Normally, my travel themed posts concentrate on things we’ve done and seen. However, while I was preparing this short piece on our two stays in Santo Domingo de Silos I discovered that what is arguably its most interesting feature – and certainly it’s most famous tourist attraction – is something I never knew was there!

Briefly, Santo Domingo de Silos is a small town (more of a large village in actual fact) near the ancient royal city of Burgos in the north of Spain. Until 1968 it was most-known for its ancient Benedictine monastery (which closed its doors in 1835) and for possibly being within the estates of one Rodrigo de Vivar – otherwise known as Charlton Heston…I mean El Cid!

All this changed however in 1968 when the local cemetery, known as Sad Hill (Cementerio de Sad Hill in Spanish, apparently?) was used as the location for the final scene of the movie, The Good, The Bad and the Ugly. The combination of Sergio Leone’s super-terse direction; Enrico Morricone’s slow-build-tension music; the three actors involved (Eastwood, Wallach and Van Cleef); and the surreal cemetery itself created one of the most memorable – not to mention imitated and parodied scenes in the history of cinema.

Until this morning, I had always assumed that the scene was filmed somewhere in the Almeria region, like the vast majority of Leone’s “Spaghetti Western” location shots. I’d also assumed, given its unusual configuration, that the cemetery was an outdoor set created for the film. Never did it occur to me that it was an actual place, and one that I’d been a mere five minute walk from on two occasions.

Unfortunately, my past obliviousness means that the pictures illustrating this post, of the picturesque town and its other environs, do not include any of Sad Hill Cemetery. Fortunately though, we plan to pass through the area again in the near future, and although our main reason for doing so had been to sample the delicious local roast lamb, we now have Sad Hill firmly on the agenda.

MODEL GUESTS

and the perils of amateur photography for commercial purposes…

We spent November of 2003 in the Tamil Nadu city of Coimbatore, India’s 16th city and the home of the “wet-grinder” – a kind of food processor for making dosa batters among other things… Our visit had little to do with dosas (although we did enjoy them as a regular lunch snack) and was primarily concerned with Dido supervising the setting up a clinic of her own design, for children with autism – the first of its kind in that region of India.

Composition wasn’t one of the manager’s strong points…

It was an exciting challenge, but also an exhausting one so after two-weeks work the chance for a few days break at the nearby “hill station” town of Ootacamund – affectionately known as Ooty by most people – was welcome and timely.

…Composition, and lighting too, not his thing…

During the time of the British Raj, dozens of hilltop towns in India became popular escapes, especially for the administrative classes, away from the heat and bustle of the cities. Over the years several of these towns developed into luxurious resorts known as hill stations, with perhaps the two best known in India being Shimla and Ooty.

Love the parasol pole bisecting Dido’s shoulder…

Before our visit, the only thing I knew about Ooty was that it was where the game of snooker was invented in the 19th century, by British army officers bored with playing billiards. That it was also a much used location backdrop for the Bollywood Film Industry, and the site of India’s finest boarding schools, where the country’s elite send their children, was all new information.

And the poor waiter serving us plastic food…great acting though!

We ended up staying at the Holiday Inn, which despite its IHG associations felt like an authentic Indian hotel, with a particularly good kitchen, turning out excellent Tamil and Kerala cuisine. It also had a terrific little bar overlooking the lush Nilgiri hillsides, where we were introduced to the local version of the Polly’s Folly cocktail, (comprising, Vodka, soda-water and very spicy green chillies!)

Yup! Plastic kebabs on the grill…

It must have been about our third or fourth evening at the hotel, sipping Polly’s Follies probably, when we were approached by the hotel manager, who asked us if we would be happy to to model for the new online hotel brochure he was preparing. He wanted pictures of a “nice European couple” enjoying the cuisine of the hotel and he thought we “were just the ticket!”

I think the drinks were real – or at least they were actual liquid…

We agreed, and the photos presented here are the slightly surreal fruits of the manager’s own sincere but amateur camera work, plastic food and all. Sadly, I don’t think these pictures of the “nice Europeans” did much to help his booking figures as the Holiday Inn morphed into the Gem Park a few years later. As for us, we did rather well from our half-an-hour being served plastic delicacies, for, to show us his gratitude, the manager gave us each a gold IHG loyalty card loaded with thousands of priority points. The following year we used our booty from Ooty for a free stay at the Intercontinental Hotel in Singapore. A restful and rewarding experience all round…

At least you can make out the chef, even though Dido is in near-total darkness. The moral being; it’s always best to hire a professional photographer, even when using top models !

VARIATIONS ON THEMES

obsession or INTERPRETATION?

Generally, one associates the concept of theme and variations with music. From Classical to Heavy Rock (e.g. Brahms’ wonderful takes on that tune of Haydn’s or more recently Leslie West’s fabulous live improvised versions of his own Swan Theme on the album Flowers of Evil) and all idioms in between and beyond, most composers have enjoyed playing around with a basically good tune (their own or other people’s) and taking it to new places.

This is the original photo of Dido in that doorway somewhere in the Alcazar gardens in Seville. This was our first trip abroad, soon after we met, and we could not have picked a more romantic city (including Paris!!)

However, this is hardly unique to musical composition and if anything, an exercise exploited far more by visual artists, and most famously by both the Impressionists (e.g. Monet’s Waterlilies) and then the post impressionists (e.g. Cezanne and Mont Sainte-Victoire).

This was my first take on the photo, in oils, using a palette knife…

The greatest distinction between the musical and painterly approaches is that in the former the variations are normally presented together within a single work, whereas in the latter they typically appear as a series of individual pictures.

My favourite of the four versions here (there were several more in other media) – a roughly painted gouache

As a regular practitioner of the latter painterly approach in my past life, I often mused whether or not I was merely obsessed – struggling for an unreachable perfection – or rather practising the artistic imperative of interpretation.

1989, was during the height of my poster phase – hence this version

In the end, I came to conclusion that it was a mixture of the two and that in fact, the secret of all good art, and good science too for that matter, is an obsessive love of a particular subject and the interpretive skills to channel that love into something coherent and meaningful. The four pictures shown here present my first ever paintings of Dido, before we were married, standing in a doorway in the gardens of the Alcazar in Seville: The object of my love, obsessively interpreted…

EASY MONEY

THE dream commission WHICH went like a dream…

Checking back on posts dealing with my experiences as a commercial artist they nearly all describe dealings with dreadful and unscrupulous characters. They comprise a rogues gallery of capricious and lazy agents; self-adoring ad men and women; inarticulate, jargon-laden briefs; slow-paying and non-paying clients and, worst of all; copyright and ideas thieves.

However, there were some good and honourable people out there too, and small wonder that it was they who got the best results out of me. Significantly, ALL the latter worked in book publishing as art-directors and had a grounding in art, while ALL the former worked in advertising and publicity-related companies with little if any understanding of art processes.

I first crossed paths with George Sharp, the art-director at Pan Books in 1987* when he hired me to do the cover for The Fruit Palace (by Charles Nicholl). It was at the outset of my career as a professional illustrator and the process went so smoothly, from brief to payment, it lulled me into a false sense of security about my future in commercial art.

Sadly, as I was to find out during the course of my very next commission for the UK’s then-top advertising agency everything about working for George and Pan was atypical – from George’s clear and concise briefing to Pan’s prompt payment .

Especially during my time with artists’ agents, as a commercial artist I was exposed to a higher proportion of jobs from ad agencies than book publishers (something I endeavoured to rectify once a freelance), so when my agent called me early in the Spring of 1989 with the news that George Sharp wanted me for another job I was naturally delighted.

My excitement increased however, when I met up with George in Pan’s West End offices and he told me the nature of the commission – to illustrate the book cover for the UK edition of an American best-selling novel. The fact that the author was E. L.. Doctorow and the novel was Billy Bathgate (his take on the New York City gangster, Dutch Schultz) was virtual fantasy land for me. It was exactly the kind of illustration job I had dreamed of doing when I left fine art for commercial art. The £1000 fee was simply the icing on the cake.

Then, unbelievably, the job went even more smoothly than the Fruit Palace. George talked to me for no more than ten minutes as he must have sensed my innate feel for the brief, which I began working on the moment I arrived back at my house in West Hampstead. After about half-an-hour I was already faxing a sketch of my idea through to George, who immediately phoned me with a enthusiastic thumbs-up. A mere twenty minutes later I was waiting for my finished gouache painting to dry.

I was back in George’s office less than two hours after I had left it earlier that morning, and he was as thrilled with my image as I was. In fact, it remains the only illustration job I have ever done which did not require even the slightest of tweaks.

Within a month I had the pleasure and pride of seeing Billy Bathgate, plus my cover in the window of every book store I passed and my image on posters advertising the book throughout the Tube. Within six weeks (super fast relatively) I also received a cheque from Pan for £2500, far more than I had expected. Then my agent explained that I had earned an extra £1000 for the poster rights, plus another £500 syndication fee from a Danish company who wanted to turn my gangster image into some sort of comic strip (I never did find out what they eventually created…).

Although Billy Bathgate did not enjoy the same success in the UK which it had in the States, and that the movie of the novel two years later was a total flop (despite the best efforts of Dustin Hoffman and Bruce Willis), I was more than happy to console myself with the knowledge that it had seen me earn the quickest, easiest fee of my career. I think that even Dutch Schultz would have been impressed!

* Many of you may be familiar with George’s own book cover artwork…* https://www.tikit.net/Later%20PANs/George%20Sharp.htm

HELSINKI’S MODERNIST “FIN(n)ISH”

THREE ARCHITECTURAL ART déco and modernist GEMS IN FINLAND’S CAPITAL CITY…

One of the ironies of preparing many of my travel-related posts is that the process of the travel itself often leaves me little time to devote to writing my pieces for these pages. Right now for example we are in Jönköping having returned from a week in Finland, and preparing for a flight this evening to London, to then catch a plane on Friday for Malaga. And that’s nothing compared to what we have coming up over the next two months (many trees have been and will be planted!).

In other words, the next several posts will return to being more picture based and less wordy (a good thing many might feel) and fortunately, our recent stay in Helsinki provided me with some excellent visual material.

Parliament House or Eduskuntatalo (Neo-Classicist / Modernist) – Johan Sigrid Siren – 1926

In this post I wanted to show off some of the Finish capital’s superb examples of early 20th century architecture, which were something of a surprise, to me at least. While I had a preconception of elegant 19th century waterfront facades, spectacular cake-icing churches blended with hard-edged, glistening glass and steel temples of contemporary Nordic minimalism, for some reason I had arrived ignorant of Helsinki’s handful of Déco and Modernist jewels.

Central Train Station (Art Déco ) – Eliel Saarinen  – 1919
The station’s interior matches the exterior, and reminded me of Grand Central in New York. Thus, perhaps appropriately it provides one of the more spectacular settings for a Burger King that I have come across, and certainly enhanced the enjoyment of my Whopper!

My being so uninformed is especially damning when one discovers that the Finish parliament house ( Eduskuntatalo in the native idiom) is itself as bold a statement of Neo-Classical lines as one is likely to see anywhere this side of the Atlantic Ocean. And while that building might prove a tad brutal for some (not for me though as I’m a sucker for “power architecture” of all eras and styles), the two other examples I highlight here should prove charming enough for most tastes…

Currently, the Virgin Oil Company Building
(All additional information regarding the Architect, the building’s original purpose and its date are welcome…)
Sadly, I have no idea who designed this exquisite building which these days is the home of the Virgin Oil Company and their restaurant. Any additional information welcome…