As a young artist I went through numerous phases and enthusiasms, the briefest of which, being a desire to master the portrayal of animal-kind. I think my “animal period” lasted about five months in all, but despite its brevity, I still managed to fill several sketchbooks and give myself highly useful reference material for my later professional career.
Sadly, I have since mislaid two of the main sketchbooks, and could only find a handful of pictures as examples for this post. Nevertheless, I think they are sufficiently worthy, and interesting to be reproduced here.
I’ve talked about the distinctive qualities of black and white photography before on these pages, and how it has an uncanny ability to capture the spirit and mood of a subject far more intensely than colour. It’s something the greats of the genre understood and exploited brilliantly; from the epic landscapes of Adams, and the deeply personal portraiture of Karsh to the lyrical life observations of Bresson; they all utilised the cleansing distillation of grey-scale-monochrome to the ultimate dramatic effect.
However, while the great masters took black and white photography to the level of high-art, equally nostalgic monochrome images were being snapped countless millions of times by less gifted photographers across the globe. And while their results might not classify as works of art, they nevertheless rarely fail to evoke and to entertain.
The images presented here are intended as a case in point and offer a small glimpse into my childhood, growing up in suburban London, which for all its fatherless challenges was almost as idyllic as it looks…
Oxford has been our on and off home now for the past ten years, and as someone from a family with far more connections to “the other place”, it has taken me most of that decade to come to really like and appreciate the city.
Typically, as luck would have it, my liking of Oxford has more or less coincided with our leaving the city for pastures new.
And pastures don’t come much more picturesque, or quintessentially English than those of South Park on the eastern edge of the ancient town centre.
And as for those famous dreaming spires, there’s nowhere they look dreamier than from the steepling fields of South Park on a late summer’s evening.
This view of Oxford; largely unchanged since Matthew Arnold penned his famous verse; and not that different from when Oliver Cromwell’s besieging army was camped on this very spot; and when this great dead English oak was a foot-high sapling, has gradually ingrained itself into the core of my consciousness, and something I shall carry with me and treasure for the rest of my days.
Whenever people ask us about our commercial crops on our little Andalusian farm, we always mention olives and our almonds. Grapes were once a commercial crop for us – in the form of our Malaga-style wine – but that was many years ago. And, while it’s true we also once sold a bushel of pink grapefruit to a greengrocer in our local village, the only other crop we ever used to sell regularly was carob (algaroba in Spanish). Known as boxer in Britain, carob was best known as a chocolate substitute, especially during wartime, when supplies of the real stuff were sparse, and these days, it’s popular as candy (in the States), ground for flour, eaten as a dried fruit and made into syrups and even alcoholic drinks. But, in the 90’s it’s popularity seriously waned, and the price for the brown pods and seeds fell so low, it cost us more in diesel to get the carob to the factory than we got paid for it.
However, the emergence of veganism has seen a massive spike in the demand for carob, and a corresponding rise in its value, making it a worthwhile crop once again. And, in the event we were paid a handsome €60.00 for our modest three sacks, giving us in turn, a pleasant excuse to continue along the road, to spend our earnings – somewhat ironically – on some delicious, decidedly non-vegan Malagueño cuisine…
We’ve been to Gibraltar several times over the past two years and each time we seem to discover something new. For such a small territory it’s surprising how many little secrets it manages to keep from the general tourist and day tripper, who’s itinerary seems restricted to a cable car ride to the top of the Rock, finished off with a pint at the pub and a plate of fish and chips. Not that there’s anything wrong with these activities, which do at least ensure the preservation of hidden gems like Rosia and Catalan Bay for the lucky few.
Our discovery of Catalan Bay was particularly accidental, as we had to arrange a last minute trip to Gibraltar, and the only room available was at the Caleta Hotel, on the relatively remote (remote only in a Gibraltarian sense), sparsely populated, eastern side of the Rock. But while the the bay on which the hotel sits may be named for Catalonia, the seaside hamlet along which it resides is far more reminiscent of a Sorento on the Italian Riviera – albeit, in microcosm.
Moreover, with the Caleta Hotel being Italian owned, with an Italian head chef, this tiny enclave has a feel and an atmosphere all of its own.
I would recommend the hotel as a decent place to stay (comfortable rooms and a bar and restaurant with a stunning, maritime outlook), but it’s to be torn down in January, with a Hilton rising up in its place. Nevertheless, for those visiting Gibraltar for more than a day or so, Catalan Bay is a charming place to visit.
Despite the overcast skies, I think these photos offer something of the peaceful, secluded atmosphere of the place.
Before my uncle Sidney became one of the star commercial photographers of “swinging sixties” London, he qualified as a dentist. He had wanted to be a doctor, but despite his stellar exam marks, as a Jew, he fell victim of the wicked anti-Jewish quota that was (quite incredibly, given the historical post-WWII context) still in force in 1950’s Britain, so he had to settle for a career in dentistry.
Funnily enough, there was no such quota when it came to National Service. As far as the recruiters for Her Majesty’s armed forces were concerned, so long as you weren’t flat-footed, just about anyone would do, including criminals – and even Jews. Fortunately for Sidney, as a recently qualified medic – though a humble dentist – he was assured a highly enjoyable and adventurous two years, that were to enrich his life in many unforeseen ways.
In Sidney’s case, he was drafted into the medical corps at the rank of lieutenant, and following some very basic military training, was soon promoted to captain, before receiving a dream posting, to a grand schloss, in the Black Forest (in Germany), as part of a medical team.
When not examining mouths, which was not all that much, Sidney’s “onerous” existence included hardships such as learning to drive, and being taught to ski in the nearby Bernese Oberland (across the border in Switzerland), and perhaps worst of all, being put in charge of the schloss’s vast wine cellar. But perhaps the biggest change in Captain Pizan’s life – a seismic change in fact – was to his diet; from that of an observant, kosher, North London Jewish household, to that of a British Army officer’s mess; and thereby hangs an amusing and delicious little tale…
Sidney’s schloss-full of medical officers was commanded by a Colonel (let’s call him) Mackenzie, who happened to be an extremely proud Edinburgh Scot. And like all proud Scots, he loved his Scottish traditions, the most important of which was the piping in of the haggis on Burns Night. However, having little trust in the Sassenach mess cook’s abilities to produce the genuine article, Colonel Mackenzie had his mother’s haggis flown over from Scotland.
And thus, on this particular Burns Night 1954, the entire medical team, in full dress uniform – Mackenzie in his kilt, lined the lavishly presented long dining table. The company then stood to attention, as two squaddies carried in the steaming haggis, born upon their shoulders, on a large silver salver, preceded by a finely regaled Scots Guard piper playing the stirring strains of A Man’s A Man For A’ That. Then, after coronating the delicacy with a dash of flaming whiskey, the colonel himself cut up the haggis which was then distributed among the diners.
But, as a waiter approached him with his portion of sheep’s stomach stuffed with offal and oatmeal, a wary Sidney declined his serving, thus triggering the following exchange between Colonel and captain…
“Captain Pizan” said the colonel.
“Yes Colonel?” replied Sidney.
“Are ye nay gonna eat me mother’s ‘aggis?” asked Mackenzie in his heavy Edinburgh brogue.
“I apologise sir, but my religion forbids me from eating it.”
“So ye say Captain Pizan.”
“Had I nay seen ye tuckin’ into yer bacon and eggs this mornin’ with such relish, I would nay insist ye eat me mother’s ‘aggis. But as I did see ye tuckin’ into yer bacon and eggs this mornin’ with such relish, ye will not only eat me mother’s ‘aggis, you will like me mother’s ‘aggis!”
And so Sidney was involuntarily introduced to the delights of Scottish cuisine, which turned out to be a very good thing indeed, as not only did he indeed like the haggis; he loved it.
Somewhere in all of this there might be a moral lurking, but I can’t quite put my finger on it?
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)
Since the publication of my book, King Saul in 2007, I’ve occasionally been asked about my cover illustration and the inspiration behind it. I’ve even given talks to universities, and more recently an online presentation, to the Mosaic Reform Jewish Community in which the cover came up, although I never fully explained the thinking behind it.
When envisioning the first kings of Israel of the late 11th and early 10th centuries BCE we have very little archaeological evidence to help us, and that’s why I got so excited the first time I saw a grainy, black and white photo of the limestone bust below. The picture was in Moshe Dayan’s (otherwise unremarkable) book, LivingWith the Bible, and listed by him as possibly the head of an Israelite monarch – perhaps even king David. However, since then, the academic consensus feels it is more likely an Ammonite relic (Dayan obtained it from a dealer in Jordan), and of a deity, not a mortal ruler. In addition, whereas Dayan dated the bust to the late 11th century BCE, the scholastic majority decided it was of a later provenance – late to mid 8th century BCE.
Nevertheless, there remains a minority of respected academics who agree with Dayan, that this is indeed a “portrait” bust, of a very human king, and from the time of Israel and Judah’s first three kings; Saul, his son and successor, Ishboheth, and David. And although the majority of this minority maintain the bust is Ammonite, and not Israelite, there are a few voices who tentatively suggest this could actually be a likeness of one of Israel’s first kings.
Although, as an amateur biblical historian, I can add little to the debate over dating the relic (although I would say that the stylisation of the beard looks earlier than 8th century BCE to my eyes), as an artist, with a familiarity with the archaeology of the ancient Levant I can dare to say very firmly, that this is definitely a representation of a powerful human being, and not a god. And given that, and the fact it is indisputably Ammonite or Israelite, it must therefore be a likeness of anyone from Saul of Israel (circa 1020-1010 BCE) to Uzziah of Judah (circa, anything from 783-736 BCE).
A major factor in my identifying the bust as a human likeness is the headgear, which seems to me to be a typical ceremonial crown of the time and the region. In my book, I went so far as to describe it – with its central helmet and side-wings – a form of “double crown”, resembling the Egyptian “pschent” worn by the pharaohs, to symbolise their rule over Upper and Lower Egypt – but in this case, possibly symbolising the wearer’s dominion over All Israel – i.e. both Israel and Judah. More recently however, I’ve considered the possibility of it being in fact, and more obviously, a triple crown, with the helmet representing Israel, and the two wings, Judah and trans-Jordan Israel respectively. And in which case, given it’s Ammon-geographical provenance, combined with a consideration of the biblical/historical context (far too involved to go into here), I feel certain that we are actually looking at a likeness of Saul’s son and heir, Ishboheth.
At first, this realisation disappointed me. After all, I had so wanted this to be Saul, even adapting it for the cover of my book. But in retrospect, the irony of this being the bust of the one early king of Israel virtually no one has ever heard of, has it’s own level of satisfaction, and moreover, if Ishboheth looked like his father, which is highly likely, it does offer us a fair idea of what All Israel’s first king looked like too. In any event, given it’s general dating and where it was discovered, at the very least, it gives us a damn good idea of what Saul or David would have looked like, and to someone like me, this is a thrilling concept.
My mother’s uncle, Sidney Marcus was a gifted musician and an accomplished violinist, and like many gifted people, he was also slightly eccentric. Occasionally, his eccentricity and his musicianship would overlap, such as when he led the band at my mother’s wedding; not with his fiddle, but on the musical saw! To this day I’ve yet to learn of another wedding, or function of any kind, where the opening dance was Begin the Beguine, to the eerie strains of a vibrating hand saw. And then there was the incident at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, with Sid and the Christmas Cake…
However, before I relate this tale I should perhaps provide some illuminating context: Firstly, we’re going back to the late 1960’s, around the time Sid rose to be first violin of the Royal Opera House Orchestra; Secondly, the fact that this elevation coincided with my mother and her brother Sidney’s (my family went for a narrow range of names back in the day) infatuation with grand Italian opera; Thirdly, that Sid became a source of complementary tickets for productions of those very works; And finally, that Sid’s non-Jewish wife Edie provided us with a fabulous Christmas cake every December. Thus, the scene is set…
It’s a late December evening, shortly before Christmas at the Royal Opera House, ten-minutes before the curtain is due to rise on a production of Aida, or Tosca, or something along those lines. My mother and Sidney have just settled down into their fifth-row stalls seats, eagerly anticipating the approaching performance when they spy uncle Sid peering over at them from the orchestra pit, presumably from the conductor’s rostrum. As soon as Sid sees they have spotted him, he firmly beckons Sidney to come to him, which he dutifully does. Sid then produces a large box, tied with a ribbon, and hands it over to Sidney. The box turns out not only to be very large, but also very heavy. “It’s from Edie” says Sid to Sidney, “Keep it this way up, it’s a Christmas cake…” and then, without further ado, about turns and disappears into the bowels of the orchestra pit, leaving his suddenly-burdened nephew to negotiate his way back to his seat past a host of bemused fellow opera-goers.
The box was too large to put on the floor, and thus poor, red-faced Sidney had no choice but to sit with it on his lap throughout the evening. By the time opera was finished, his legs had gone to sleep and he could barely stagger to Covent Garden Tube to get the train home. Fortunately, he did get it home though, and in one piece, for Edie’s cake was as delicious as it was enormous.
On a more serious note, it would be remis of me not to mention, that in addition to being an exceptional violinist, and an eccentric, great-uncle Sid was one of the gentlest, kindest and most generous people one could hope to meet.
And when melancholia was a pleasurable indulgence not a permanent state of mind…
So far as its visual content is concerned, this post follows on from a piece I did a few years back, and as with that one, I will allow the photographs to do the most of the talking. During our current dystopian circumstances, I find these images of bridges have taken on added poignancy as symbols of freedom, and most pertinently, of travel. While I yearn for signs of a return of some basic common sense from both those who govern us, and most of those they govern, these low-key “BC” photos of bridges from a dream-like past help me retain a degree of sanity if not much hope…
From top to bottom: Amsterdam, Newcastle Upon-Tyne, Prague, Padua and Dusseldorf.
Cameras used, Nikon FE (using Agfachrome), Nikon D80 and Canon EOS 5