postcards from our past for the present

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

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

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

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

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

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

And so, in 1999, I felt the need to celebrate with this set of colourful, impasto gouache sketches, done as postcards; intended to express our sense of freedom and joy at the regaining of our lost paradise. But never in our wildest dreams could we have imagined, even in that seminal year of 1999, just quite how fortunate we really were…

Not until experiencing the madness of three months of semi-house arrest in a small Oxford apartment (I refuse to dignify the “L” word by using it), followed by the oddly, even more disturbing new “normality”, did we truly grasp how blessed we are to have our little, private, mask-less, socially intimate, sanctuary of peace and sanity.

(I should add, that I still have the entire original set of 10 postcards, signed, titled and dated, and in near-mint condition, and far brighter and more charming in real life. I had originally intended to send them to select friends and family, but for some reason never got around to it. So now, I would be happy to sell them as a set for £200 – or other currency equivalent – plus postage. If anyone is interested please contact me through the “Purchasing artwork” link at the top of this page.)


…and the stark difference between copying and INTERPRETING.

This is not the post I had planned. But that was before I had the great misfortune, not to say fright of seeing the latest portrait of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. A few posts ago I discussed how I came to paint from photographs, and how and why it can work brilliantly in the right hands. What I did not discuss however (and perhaps I should have done), was the converse of this, when photographs are simply copied as a form of craft, with the art all but forgotten.

Well, this latest portrait of HRH (https://ewn.co.za/2020/07/26/queen-elizabeth-sees-new-portrait-unveiled-at-britain-s-foreign-office) not only manifests as easily the lousiest in a long line of dire images of the United Kingdom’s longest serving sovereign, but also exemplifies all the worst elements of painting from photographs.

The “artist” has succeeded in confirming every prejudice I ever had thrown at me by detractors of “photograph-method”, and arrived at a plasticised and peculiarly scary image, obsessed with technical finesse while utterly devoid of empathy and artistry. This is not so much a majestic portrait as a grotesquely kitsch, 2-dimensional waxwork. This is the produce of a copyist and not an artist all, and says much – none of it complementary – about the judges of the BP National Portrait Award; the winning of which landed the alleged “artist” this most august of portrait commissions.

As I attempted to illustrate in a previous post, copying from photographs offers so much more than the absolute stability of the reference material (i.e. total stillness and unchanging light). IN THE RIGHT HANDS – from Vermeer (with his Photo Obscura) to Rockwell – it offers up an essence and intensity of “moment” that resulted in some of the most empathetic and compassionate pictures ever achieved.

While I would never be so hubristic as to place my own photograph-method creations on a par with those of the great masters of the past, I dare to claim, that at their best, my efforts do at least show some of the positives of the genre. Three of the pictures below were not only exciting and fun to create, they are human expressions accentuated by technique rather than masked by it. The fourth picture is an example of my own, of what happened when I allowed technique to subsume the human moment.

Jolanda – 1983 – oil on canvas:- Jolanda was the first love of my life, as I hope and believe this tender portrait betrays. Using a tiny snap from a then-recent visit to Cremona, I wanted to capture the romance of her, bathed in the Renaissance tones and light of her native Lombardy.

Lynne – acrylic on board – 1996:- Lynne was an ex-ballet colleague of my wife Dido and a close friend. I can’t recall if this was a commission or a gift, but it comes from a series of images of her, and her and Dido, dancing for my camera at our house in Spain. Again, I used the photo as a sketch upon which to elaborate both Lynne’s graceful movement and her vibrant personality, and all drenched in the bleaching Andalusian summer light.
Marie and Juan Junior – 1998 – oil on canvas (detail):- Juan and Marie were our only full-time neighbours when we first moved to our country home in Spain. However, unlike us, who sought solitude and lived remotely by choice, they were outcasts from the local village and desperately poor. Nevertheless, they were a cheerful and extremely loving couple, always pleased to offer us the modest hospitality they could. In this picture of Marie feeding her new baby boy (and second child) I tried to express a mixture of our compassion for their kindness, and our admiration for their dignity, despite their arduous circumstances.

Margaret and Pete’s Party – 1994 – gouache on Daler Board:- In fairness, this was always intended as more of an exercise in technique and excruciating attention to detail, than as a work of artistic expression. The drawing alone took me the best part of a week, and I think I spent over four months on the piece altogether (it was also intended as a way to help me pass the days during the months of depressing boredom while stuck in Boulogne sur mer ). Although not quite so dire as the Queen’s new portrait, it is equally sterile, and that probably explains why I never completed it. Interesting to note, that the hands on the nearer completed figure (actually yours truly), despite being immaculately drawn/copied, have the same “banana bunch” feel as those of Her Majesty in the new portrait.



In previous posts I have described the frustrations I often experienced at the hands of unscrupulous greetings cards companies (of which there were a surprisingly large number), who would reject my artwork but then use my jokes and ideas without paying me. As described, I would submit a folio of cards designs; the company would sit on them for several weeks (sometimes months) and then return them with barely an acknowledgement (sometimes none); and then, a month or two later, cards with my jokes and ideas would suddenly appear on the shop-shelves made by different (presumably in-house, and thus far cheaper) artists.

“Love skiing”

I don’t know if things have changed since, but the problem back in the late 80’s, early 90’s, was that, unlike in almost all other areas of commercial art/illustration, there was no formal contract system in place for freelance artists doing work for greetings cards companies. Normally, you sent in your work on “spec”, and took a chance on the integrity, or otherwise of the company.


Thus it happened, that around 1990, I found myself with a pile of ideas and jokes, but wary of being stung yet again, I decided to try a different tack.

“Ashes to… ashes” (This could be a touch oblique for non-cricket lovers, however for those in the know, the bowler is of course the one and only Jeff “Thommo” Thomson.)

I telephoned the-then biggest card firm in the UK (they might still be, for all I know now) and asked to speak to their art director. I had never approached them before because I knew they only used in-house artists for their finished cards, but as I’d now reached the point where I would be content with at least earning something for my ideas, I guessed I had nothing much to loose.

I was put straight through to the lady in question, and told her of what I had experienced at the hands of several of her rival companies, and asked her frankly if I would be taking the same risk sending my material in to her for consideration.

When I told her of my “Polar” series of Christmas card designs she said she knew of them, and from then on took me very seriously.

My guess was, perhaps naively, that such a large company would be more straightforward to deal with, for the sake of their professional reputation if not for their innate honesty. However, she explained that they could not enter in contractual arrangements with freelancers as this undermined the morale of their in-house artists. Nevertheless, she offered to put a non-binding assurance in a hand written letter that her firm would definitely pay me a fair price for each and every idea of mine they liked.

(There’s a cereal ad currently on UK TV which tells a similar joke…I wonder?)

Good to her word, the letter arrived a day or two later, containing her assurance, and a request for sketched roughs of my jokes and ideas – about 12 of which I duly dispatched to her, albeit on a wing and a prayer.

“Birdy – no birdie”

After hearing nothing for weeks I began to think the worst, but about two months later I was pleasantly surprised to not only receive back my roughs, but also a cheque for the half-dozen or so ideas they had decided to use.

Wrong ball!

Several of those roughs are displayed here, and I wonder which, if any ring a bell…?



I nearly titled this as a third straight “yearning” post, in the sense that after three months lock-down here in Oxford we are desperate to get back to our finca in southern Spain. But seeing as we are actually returning there tomorrow I decided on a catchier and hopefully more optimistic heading.

In fairness, when we’ve been in Spain for as long as we’ve now been in England there’s plenty I miss about our other lives in London and Oxford, but the longing is rarely as intense as what we are experiencing right now for our Andalusian home.

And perhaps there’s the clue; the fact that our little farm in the foothills of the Sierra Tajeda is the nearest thing Dido and I have ever had to a settled home. We’ve certainly owned it for more than three times as long as any of our previous homes (separately or together), and then there’s all the sweat and blood we’ve dripped into the building of our house and the rocky soil upon which it stands.

But perhaps, more than all of that, it’s simply the way the setting of our finca has ingrained itself into the fabric of our being through the sheer power of its ridiculous beauty.

So, although we missed wonders like the almond blossom display this year, thanks to about thirty years of memories, and images like the ones on show here, we can never truly miss them – they live inside of us, rendering us unusually fortunate.


…and a nostalgia for drab normality

A fact of the current restrictions upon our normal lives is at once curious, obvious and virtually universal; that being the loss of, and consequent longing for, normal, boring, and even tedious everyday experience. Missing erstwhile unremarkable pleasures of life, like going to the pub, restaurants and concerts is bad enough, but when one starts to get nostalgic over things like hopping on and off buses and even journeys on the tube, it’s apparent that the present regime is really starting to bite.

This nostalgia struck me keenly the other day when I was trawling through slides of old sketchpads dating from the time of my commutes to art school (an incredible forty-plus years ago). And, as an artist’s sketchbook is often a tool for magnifying the seemingly mundane into something more meaningful, it occurred to me that the drawings from those old books might provide a peculiarly apposite reminder, for all its apparent dinginess and dreariness, of the glory of normality…

Buses – 1978 – (blue) pastel on paper This and the drawing below date from toward the end of my two years foundation course at Harrow School of Art when I travelled from my home North London suburb of Edgware to Harrow on the 288 bus. I rarely sketched on the buses as it was mostly impractical and nausea-inducing…
Friday’s Bus – 1978 – Charcoal on Paper …Judging by the folio case between his legs, I’m guessing that this guy might have been going to the same place as me…
Person in a Paddington Bear Hat – 1979 – Felt-tip on Paper (Gouache hat paint, added later) …Following my foundation course at Harrow, I began Saint Martin’s in the autumn of 1978. I swapped from the bus to the Northern Line tube for the journey from Edgware to Charring Cross Road (I can’t recall why I did what I did with the hat, or when)…
Spectacled Reader – c1980 – Charcoal on Paper …Although I was never as prolific a sketcher as I ought to have been, I did a relatively large amount of drawing on the tube...
Scarf with a Lady – c1980 – Charcoal on Paper …By going into school early and returning late (usually after a few pints and a frame or two of snooker at the Cambridge Pub), I managed to avoid the crush and could observe and draw in relative comfort…
Lady with Earring – c1981Biro (ballpoint pen) on Paper …I generally used whatever drawing implement I had to hand for sketching and I particularly enjoyed using a Biro. I think it was because a Biro is so unforgiving and tests an artist’s confidence and instinct to the ultimate degree…
Girl with “Two Mouths” – c1981 – Conte on Paper …Having said that, Conte sticks could also prove somewhat committing, as seen here. Of course, the girl only had one mouth! Unless my memory deceives me…
Girl with Large Book – c1981 – Biro on Paper …One of the paradoxes of using Biro was how one generally ended up with a strong likeness of the subject – again, most probably something to do with the way the limited medium forces the issue…
Lady with Large Bag – c1981 – Charcoal on Paper …The complete opposite of charcoal, where gesture and mood takes over from technically clean drawing, resulting in more drama, if less refinement.

A birthday surprise for Dido

a PICTORIAL celebration of my WIFE DIDO’S sixtieth birthday*

2020 is a particularly auspicious year for my wife Dido and I, for, not only do we both turn 60 this year, on New Year’s Eve we will have been married for 30 years. As a rule, we don’t pay too much attention to birthdays or anniversaries, but for this rare accretion of events we had for once made some serious celebratory plans. However, Covid-19 has meant that both main birthday plans have been (in my case), and will be (in Dido’s case) put on hold for the duration, to possibly both be enjoyed together with our anniversary – a kind of 150 year grand party.

In the meantime I didn’t feel I could let Dido’s big day pass without some kind of surprise acknowledgement of the 32 of those 60 years I have been privileged to share with her. So, with apologies to any strangers happening upon this site, I am dedicating this post to a series of highly distinctive picture impressions of my remarkable life companion and love…

When I met Dido I got two beautiful female companions for the price of one, as she came together with her fabulous Maremma Sheepdog, Aura
Waiting for laundry to dry on our first trip away together – a modest skiing excursion to Les Deux Alpes
December 31st 1989; our first evening of wedded bliss – understandably, the happiest of my life, albeit from the little I can remember of it…

Working with the orphaned and abandoned boys at a “hogar” in Santiago, from our first trip as a married couple to Chile in 1991…
Dido relaxing by the pool of our hotel in L’Hospitalet de l’Infant on a 1992 trip which was to prove to be the beginning of half-a-lifetime’s involvement with Spain…
My sleeping beauty just after we’d moved into our new home in southern Spain in 1993. We slept on the floor of the half-ruined cottage for the several months it took us to find a builder prepared, and sufficiently competent to build our house
After being forced to abandon our original plan of permanently settling in Spain, we spent several years driving to-and-from Boulogne-sur-mere, and then later to England. This picture dates from about 1994/5, during a one-night stay at the-then faded-but-pleasant Chateau Rosay in Normandy, and captures our mood at the time, perfectly…
During that transitory period, whenever we had the money, and needed an emotional pick-me-up, we would stop in Montreuil for a comfortable night and a good meal. This photo, from about 1994, would have been on a pre-supper stroll through the pretty old citadel section of the town, with Dido looking suitably enchanting…
Despite not being able to live full time in our Spanish home, we have always managed to find the time for several visits a year, including a long one at the end of the summer for the grape harvest. This dates from about 1998/99 during just such a visit, and illustrates perfectly why Dido finds our finca to be the perfect place to recharge her mental and emotional batteries…

We always tread our grapes in the old way, as here in about 2000. I think that’s a tequila and lime helping Dido’s treading rhythm
After we settled back in London and Dido’s career took off, we got to travel all over the world for her work. Between the conferences and meetings there was always plenty of time to explore and have fun, such as here in Melbourne, in 2008, at the top of the Eureka Tower…
Apart from London and in Oxford, Dido has held academic posts in Israel and Sweden. This dates from 2011, when her time at Tel Aviv University gave her plenty of opportunity to indulge her passion for wild-water swimming. Here she’s enjoying a post-swim beer at the beech-side bar near our apartment in Netanya…

This is photo is particular favourite of mine, although I don’t believe Dido has ever seen it. I think she looks suitably stylish for our brief 2016 stop in Venice…
Finally, Dido doing what she enjoys most – some of the time…working.

* Header photo shows Dido approaching the Great Crater during a drive through the Negev Dessert in 2011


…and the bitterness of life without hand-drawn bitter

The “lock-down” started to really get to me about a week ago. It actually hit quite suddenly, as we stepped out on a balmy April evening for our “permitted” once-daily ration of exercise, and I had an overwhelming desire to walk down into the centre of Oxford, to The Bear Inn for a pint of beer. It was the impossibility of enjoying that simplest, most basic of pleasures which hurt in a way more serious deprivations had failed to register.

Sure, I miss things like travelling, and meeting up with friends, and I miss terribly our Spanish finca. Yet, none of these “misses”, and many more “misses” besides brought home the severity of the restrictive regulations than not being able to go for pint on a whim.

One of the persistent observations made of current British public opinion, justly or not, is that it reveals a country that has become timid and which is governed by fear. Some observers have remarked how the recent Victory in Europe Day commemorations, rather than jolt our collective backbone, merely resulted in a mass national wallowing in sentimental nostalgia. And in the midst of all of this, as I struggle to make up my own mind about the accuracy of these opinions, my craving for a hand-drawn pint of bitter reminded me of a little poem I learned at school. The poem, “Strong Beer”, by Robert Graves is particularly apposite to my current condition, for not only does it imply a link between courage, and lovers of good ale, but also the fact that it was written when he was a student at Oxford, and was perhaps inspired by a session at the same “beerhouse” I so longed to visit the other evening. The poem could have been written for this very crisis.

In all seriousness, I do believe, that the prompt reopening of our pubs and taverns is essential for the intellectual and physical health of the nation. One only has to consider the many great advances in the arts and in the sciences which were achieved with the help of a refreshing pint or two in the pubs of places like Oxford (e.g. King James Bible – at The Bear), Cambridge (e.g. DNA at The Eagle) and London (e.g. Penicillin at the Fountains Abbey), to appreciate the urgency of restoring hand-drawn ale to the national palette ASAP. Judging by his poem, if Robert Graves were still alive, he would agree most strongly…

A pint of HSB (Horndean Special Bitter – by George Gale and Company) – possibly the very “brown beer” of the poem? A masterpiece of a beer in any event, on a table at The Bear Inn.


A poem by Robert Graves

“What do you think
The bravest drink
Under the sky?”
“Strong beer,” said I.

“There’s a place for everything,
Everything, anything,
There’s a place for everything
Where it ought to be:
For a chicken, the hen’s wing;
For poison, the bee’s sting;
For almond-blossom, Spring;
A beerhouse for me.”

“There’s a prize for every one
Every one, any one,
There’s a prize for every one,
Whoever he may be:
Crags for the mountaineer,
Flags for the Fusilier,
For English poets, beer!
Strong beer for me!”

“Tell us, now, how and when
We may find the bravest men?”
“A sure test, an easy test:
Those that drink beer are the best,
Brown beer strongly brewed,
English drink and English food.”

Oh, never choose as Gideon chose
By the cold well, but rather those
Who look on beer when it is brown,
Smack their lips and gulp it down.
Leave the lads who tamely drink
With Gideon by the water brink,
But search the benches of the Plough,
The Tun, the Sun, the Spotted Cow,
For jolly rascal lads who pray,
Pewter in hand, at close of day,
“Teach me to live that I may fear
The grave as little as my beer.”
Beer pumps at The Bear Inn – Oxford’s oldest pub, dating back to 1242. It’s a tiny warren of a place with a subsequently small, but high quality selection of beers, including the superlative HSB. Long since the days when Graves would have drunk here, The Bear was taken over by the London brewers, Fuller’s, and hence, this selection on offer. No bad thing though, as all of Fuller’s beers are extremely good, with their very strong ESB almost as delicious as its Gales neighbour.

Three different “daddies” for the daddy-less child…

My “first career”, MODELLING rubber products and other things…

In an earlier post I wrote about my wife Dido’s work as a model during her time in the ballet. What may be much more surprising for many of my readers and followers, is that I too had a brief career in front of the Hasselblads and Rolleiflex. For the first four or five years of my life, I was an occasional child model. In my case however, unlike my gorgeous wife, it was less to do with my photogenic qualities and more to do with the fact that the photographer in question was my mum’s brother, Sidney Pizan.

While the fact I was a cute baby and toddler (well, it’s true) was undoubtedly helpful, the main advantage for an aspiring commercial photographer based in the highly competitive world of 1960’s London advertising, was the fact my services came for free! The pictures here offer a record of what was in effect, my first career, and looking back at some of them now raises a whole gamut of emotions for reasons explained in the captions…

The man in this photo is my actual biological father, seen here together with your’s truly, my older brother and my mother. This was a government sponsored ad for the London Rubber Company (now known as Durex), as part of their 1960 “family planning” drive. Thus, the four of us represented the ideal British family, which was exquisitely ironic, given that my father’s take on family planning was of a very different order to that of Her Majesty’s Government. Within days of this shot being taken he had upped and left, and I was never to set eyes on him again. Even more paradoxical is that this is the only photo I have of him with me. The fact he’s actually holding my hand makes this an object of peculiar fascination. It’s also interesting to note in this context that my father was an advertising man, and years later, when we watched Mad Men, my mother would point out the uncanny similarities between her ex-husband and the Ted Draper character…
These are from an ad for Johnson’s Baby Powder. They date from shortly after the Family Planning shot. The hands and head are those of my much-missed, late mother, and for me there is a powerful poignancy in these images, well beyond any commercial “message”…
An ad for a very different kind of rubber object from the first. This was for Pirelli tyres and the guy driving is “my Pirelli father” – a fact I was blissfully unaware of during the shoot…
These photos with the late model and actor Norman Lambert, were my final turn as a child model. The ad was for Van Huesen shirts and if you look carefully at the image on the left, you can see that my eyes are swollen. Unfortunately, the director, innocent of my family history, early in the shoot, instructed me to “smile at daddy…”, causing me to burst into tears! Not only did it take about half-an-hour for me to regain my composure, it meant hours of work for Sidney’s touch-up photo-artist to “fix” my eyes. I should say though, that my Van Heusen “daddy”, Norman, was exceptionally patient and kind, and moreover, I was allowed to keep the set of wooden blocks. But after that, Sidney mostly resorted to professional child models, presuming they were made of sterner stuff!




One of the silver linings to our current regime of semi-internment is our daily walk around our local park, and our subsequent reacquaintance with one of world’s genuinely iconic (a much overused and abused term) urban views. Fortunately for us, our local green space is South Park (no relation to its animated Colorado namesake) and the view it offers is over the venerable and elegant city of Oxford and its famous “dreaming spires”*.

*…And that sweet city with her dreaming spires,
She needs not June for beauty’s heightening…

From the poem Thyrsis, by Mathew Arnold, 1865

From the highest point in the park, just before sunset; the steeply sloping greensward foreground, leading gently yet intently to the gleaming city and shimmering spires and towers of the middle-distance; with the hazy cobalt-tinted Cotswold hills rising in the west; the visual effect has a kind of confidant and – in these anxious times – reassuring drama about it.

It is almost as if, this most famous of university cities, with all its generations of accumulated human wisdom, represents a salutary counterpoint to the current narrative of our apparent ephemeral humanity.

Whether or not these rather flat iPhone generated images can give even the slightest impression of this heartening scene is another matter altogether, but I do hope so.


…and getting things in proportion

Since the coronavirus crisis has taken hold, like the editors of The Archers*, I’ve been agonising over whether or not I should keep this a virus-free zone? Then, as often happens to me when planning these pieces, I was distracted / motivated by something unexpected.

In this case I was mulling over whether to do another art-related post, versus a new recipe, when my attention was caught by a tiny, long-forgotten, ancient photo of my maternal grandparents working in their grocery shop. The photo was on top of a pile of similarly old and decaying pictures I’ve been in the process of digitising for posterity. All the photos are personally fascinating to me in their own different ways as they offer a tantalising, often deeply atmospheric glimpses of my family’s history since their arrival on these British shores.

However, the thing which was different, and instantly relevant about this particular, overtly unremarkable image, was its remarkable context. For, what on the surface is simply a scene of ladies shopping at the local grocer’s is actually, ladies shopping at a grocer’s in the Mile End Road of London’s East End in the January of 1941. Anyone reading this with any semblance of knowledge – British or otherwise – will realise that this was at the height of the London Blitz, when thousands of bombs were being dropped on Britain’s capital on a nightly basis.

My maternal grandparents, Harry and Becky Pizan (booba and zaida to me) behind the counter of their grocery shop during January of of 1941. My zaida took up smoking at the beginning of the war and gave it up before the end. “Health and safety” meant something altogether different during the war years…

My point is not to minimise the current crisis, or to suggest we carry on “cautiously regardless”, as my grandfather and his customers did during the Blitz (for one thing, then they were being driven together, while today we are being urged physically apart). Rather, I am simply pointing out that many of our parents and grandparents went through far worse and more dangerous times than we are today (over 40,000 British civilians were slaughtered by the “Nazi virus” during the four months of the German raids on Britain’s industrial cities in 1940 and 41).

It’s the very ordinariness of this scene therefore, which makes it so eloquent, and to my contemporary eyes at least, all the more instructive, especially given the moment in history we are living through today. And although, as my grandfather often told me himself, the famous “Blitz Spirit” wasn’t quite all it was cracked up to be, there was sufficient determination, good humour, common sense and sheer guts among the majority of the people to ensure the nation survived the German onslaught relatively unscathed.

It shouldn’t be any different now…………………………..

*For most (but my no means all) of my non-British followers, The Archers is a soap opera, broadcast daily, on BBC Radio 4 continuously since 1951, making it the world’s longest broadcast soap.

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