My two favourite painters, Vermeer and Hopper, shared an amazing knack for turning unremarkable moments and scenes into images packed with dramatic nuance and eternal resonance. Their most famous paintings offer graphic testimony to the enormous power of the “small still voice”, where the importance of the message belies its volume.
Lacking those two gentlemen’s genius, and in common with most regular artists, I was typically more of a megaphone artist when attempting to get my own pictorial messages across, relying on devices like huge canvases and epic subject matter.
However, even an artist of my own normal abilities could occasionally succeed in imbuing the mundane and the ordinary with a little charm and presence, especially, when I resorted to watercolour. For me, watercolour painting was an antidote to everything else I did, in oils and even gouache – a therapy almost – a sort of breathing exercise with brushes and colour, whereby I visually inhaled a scene; processed the scene in the blink of an eye; and then exhaled the scene through my water-sodden brush.
The pictures presented here are good illustrations of how a few simply applied watery daubs can raise a mundane suburban sitting room into a theatre of colour and light. No overthinking; just a touch of keen observation and easy application, and the everyday is morphed into the exotic. These watercolours are the closest I ever got to successful whispering.
(Incidentally, I should mention that I still have the originals of most of these images from my old watercolour sketchbooks and I’m happy to sell them for £400 each, plus, they reproduce beautifully as digital prints on fine papers for £100 each, plus postage and packing. All images, original and repro’ about 25 x 18 cm)
plus several other famous historical battles through the eyes of a battle movie crazy youth…
In addition to the remarkable Mary Poppins (1964) the other two films that first set my spirits soaring – though in a markedly different way to Mr Banks’ joyous kite – were The 300 Spartans (1962) and Zulu (1964)*. Like most little boys growing up in the 60’s (and some little girls too in my experience of the time), I was thrilled by epic cinematic depictions of battle. But, whereas movies like Ben Hur (1959), Cleopatra (1963) and even the extraordinary Spartacus (1960) did that Wagnerian thing of interspersing the brilliant battle and action scenes with boring half-hours of tedious “drama” (or so I thought as a child), The 300 Spartans and Zulu were vehicles for the (beautifully staged) battles themselves – Thermopylae and Rorke’s Drift respectively – with the drama, merely the filler. In other words, perfect films for little Adams everywhere.
The most ambitious film ever made about a single battle was Sergei Bondarchuk’s enormous Waterloo (1970), which I first saw as a ten-year-old on its UK release. But even then, as much I was awestruck by the superlative battle scenes, I was irritated by the stodgy script (actually, just an endless seam of historical quotes) and the awkward caricaturesque acting, which lurched wildly between the histrionic French and the aloof British.
With more modest budgets and far smaller casts, by canny use of camera angles, stunning photography, beautifully paced editing, and (certainly in Zulu’s case) thrilling musical scores, directors Rudolf Maté with his Spartans, and Cy Enfield with his handful of red coats, made films that felt far larger and much grander than they actually were.
But perhaps the greatest testimony to the enduring appeal of all of the above is how well they stand up against their modern CGI equivalents. For example, Frank Miller’s 1998 Thermopylae film, 300 – allegedly inspired by Maté’s 1962 version – despite its having a virtual cast of millions and “authentic Spartans and genuine battle violence” is – apart from one or two scenes – utterly forgettable. Most interestingly of all is how “small” and claustrophobic the later, studio created film feels by comparison with its location-shot forerunner. And similarly, for all the earlier film’s wooden acting and heavily tableau’d dramatic interludes there is a dignity and humanity totally lacking in Miller’s animated comic book treatment.
The pictures presented above date from about 1970 – 75, and reflect the obsession I had as a 10-14 year-old boy for attempting to recreate the battles that had thrilled me so much on the cinema screen. Sometimes, I would base my pictures on famous historical battle paintings, using the figures in the original artwork as templates for my own infantry and cavalry, often for battles of different eras. Those wonderful “templates” – all of which influenced my childhood self almost as much as the movies above, are included below.
*Other films which are worth looking out for as noble – if imperfect – examples of pre-CGI historical battle movies are: Clive Donner’s 1969 Alfred The Great – a turgid film, but with decent battles; Tony Richardson’s 1968 Charge of Light Brigade – marred by Richardson’s anachronistic, relativist, anti-war message, laid on with a trowel, but largely successfully staged, and a genuinely epic charge; Cy Enfield’s return to Natal for his 1979 (“prequel” to Zulu), “grittier and more historically accurate” Zulu Dawn – compares poorly to the near-perfect Zulu, only proving yet again, that grit and accuracy (and vast numbers of extras) alone do not guarantee a great picture. Worth seeing though, just for the British scouts first sighting of the massed Zulu impis (11,000 warrior extras) – an astonishing cinematic moment.
Plus, two more CGI fiascos to avoid at all costs: Oliver Stone’s 2004 Alexander the Great – should be retitled, Alexander the Petulant, and as for the cartoon-filled battles!; Also, the woeful 2004 – Wolfgang Peterson’s Troy – which has to be the leading candidate for worst adaptation of a great and immortal work of literature ever executed. Brad Pitt’s appallingly miscast, pouting, kung-Fu-fighting super hero, isn’t even the worst characterisation in the film!!
Finally, one exception to prove the rule, although CGI is mercifully absent from the superb opening battle scene, is Ridley Scott’s exceptional 2000 film, Gladiator (actually, a close reworking of Anthony Mann’s terribly dull, 1964 Fall of the Roman Empire) – which introduced the historical battle movie genre to a whole new generation of little Adams…
“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
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
In April of 1973 I became 13 and was subsequently bar mitzvahed (yes, it is a verb in the Anglo-Jewish vernacular) . The event itself was typical of most traditional bar mitzvah celebrations, and followed the orthodox coming-of-age for boys format in most respects. This included all the usual suspects vis-à-vis the presents I received – except for one wonderful surprise gift. Unbeknownst to me, my mum and uncle (her brother) had planned a five day visit to the Lake District especially arranged around two of my passions; of landscape photography, and far more importantly, an abnormally precocious love of gastronomy.
Since my first visit to France three years before I had developed an unusually sophisticated palette in a juvenile, so much so, that it formed almost as important a part of my early teenage years as more typical factors such as a parallel ever-growing fascination with members of the opposite sex.
Many reading this now, especially non-British readers might be surprised that my mum and my uncle didn’t take me back to France, or to Italy or Spain, or just about anywhere in the world beyond the British Isles – if not for the photography element of the trip, certainly for the cuisine component. And while it is undeniable that in that dark long-ago of 1973, a full decade before the reawakening of fine British gastronomy, good British food was hard to find, there did exist a few pioneering outposts of fabulous British cooking.
Of all the pioneers manning these few gourmet mission stations none played a more heroic role in the resurrection of fine English fair than the formidable Francis Coulson at his famous Sharrow Bay Hotel on the shores of Lake Ullswater in Cumbria, in north western England. Since 1948, ably assisted by his life-partner, Brian Sack, he reminded the British of the fact that their countryside and its surrounding waters comprised a national food larder as rich as any on the planet. Furthermore, he devoted his life to demonstrating exactly how to make the best culinary use of that copious store cupboard.
When mum took me to Sharrow Bay in 1973, Coulson was in his pomp, both in regards to his international reputation and the output from his hotel kitchen, and thus I was one privileged bar mitzvah boy! Not that the my rabbi back in north London would have approved, but to this day, my first taste of a Cumberland sausage, in the heart of Cumbria, at our first breakfast remains one of the many abiding and formative food memories of those fantastic five days. Manx kippers, and fried duck eggs were other breakfast wonders but after days walking along the lake shore and up and down the local fells it was the suppers that really sent me into bouts of ecstasy. “I’ll never forget” is possibly the ultimate cliché, but I can’t think of any other way to phrase my first experience of British game in the form of Coulson’s famous roast grouse, and the intense redcurrant jelly accompaniment. Other gamey wonders included saddle of hare and the finest venison stew I was ever to taste – at least up till now, and as for the Herdwick lamb chops and the trout, fresh from the lake itself cooked to perfection. And then the steamed puddings – simply the lightest, most unctuous, most well-crafted puddings in the universe. And I could go on, and on.
But oh, I almost forgot! There was also the photography, and while sadly for you, I can’t share the experience of the Sharrow Bay’s phenomenal kitchen, I can at least reveal something of the stunning scenery in which it sits. I’ve rendered these ancient images (originally taken on my trusty old Canonet 28) in a watercolour style, which I believe faithfully captures the dramatic beauty and changeability of the Ullswater environment.
In the mean time, anyone reading this with a curiosity for traditional British food at its finest or the majestic wonder of Lake Ullswater and its surrounding countryside, could do a lot worse than saving up for a few days at the Sharrow Bay – the best Bar Mitvah gift or any gift for that matter, ever!