In the summer of 1979 I spent two weeks with a friend in his apartment on the south western outskirts of Jerusalem. My host shared a studio with me at art school (in London) and had been whetting my painterly appetite with descriptions of the scenery in the hills close by his apartment. Although I was already developing into a studio-based artist, the thought of walking out into the Jerusalem forest, portable easel on shoulder and painting box in hand seemed exotic and enticing. And so it proved to be.
Every day for around a week we rose at the crack of dawn and walked across ancient pine-wooded terraces to a shaded clearing perched dramatically above the picturesque village of Ein Kerem and sketched madly from morning to sunset. The combination of the dappled light, the changing colours and tones as the sun traversed the sky, the constant humming of the cicada and the aroma of pine needles intoxicated our spirits. And as we ate our rustic picnic lunches, washed down with wine and then dozed, we dreamed we were reincarnations of Gauguin and Van Gogh.
I did all my sketching in pen and coloured ink. I found the intensity and the fluidity of the ink perfect for expressing the colours of the landscape and capturing the immediacy of the given moment. Then later, early the following year, back in my studio in London I found I could use the ink sketches to transfer that sense of moment onto canvas – thus capturing the moment and giving it both permanency and with expanded depth and breadth.
Presented here is one of the original ink sketches, and the culminating oil painting I made from them. I felt that the device of a triptych would give me the scope to represent not just the colours, and flow of the landscape, but also its altering mood across the course of a single day. This was my first attempt at a triptych and looking back at it now, although far from fully resolved,the sheer unadulterated joy of it does nevertheless bring a smile to my face. Whether or not Paul or Vincent would smile or smirk is another question altogether.
Of all the photos in my extensive archive of old camera film, there few that still excite me as much as those I took in the Atacama Desert in 1991. Regular visitors to this site will know that I have something of a passion for deserts and wildernesses.
Rather than try explain in words what it is exactly that gets my juices going (and to be honest, I’m not even sure I fully understand myself) here are a set of images from that trip. I made a series of mostly huge canvases together with a complementary set of small gouaches from these pictures, and they were the basis of two of my last one-man shows as a fine artist – one held at the Chilean Embassy in 1992. The first picture presented here (91 Chile Atacama) was the basis of the super-large canvas that eventually found it’s way to an architect’s studio in Seattle, as payment for the designs for our house in Spain.
The original images were taken on my then-antique Nikon FE using Agfa chrome slide film, and one day I hope to have a scanner with sufficient power to faithfully reproduce the pictures digitally — or better still, pay the Atacama a return visit with my current camera. Nevertheless, I think that with these pictures I’ve managed to reproduce some of the magic of Chile’s genuinely awesome “Mars on Earth”…
Virtually penniless, we could not afford nor did we wish, to place our Maremma Sheepdog, Aura into the-then obligatory six-months of quarantine in Britain. We were in a pretty desperate situation, and if desperate situations require desperate measures, then the one we came up with was a genuine peach, although it did not seem so at the moment we conceived it.
Firstly, Dido took a job managing a paediatric occupational therapy department in Folkestone on the Kent coast, just a 40 minute Seacat (hydrofoil ferry) hop across the English Channel from Boulogne. Traveling as a foot passenger was cheap, and with a health-authority car provided at the English end, the daily journey would be both inexpensive and quicker than most commutes from the London suburbs into the City. It appeared to be totally reasonable solution to a tough problem; six months living frugally in a tatty loft then once we were more comfortably off, moving into a nicer flat in the charming old citadel above the port. Aura our dog was already 11 years old and towards the latter end of her life expectancy, and who was to know? Two or three years living in the charming quarter of an historic French town might actually be rather pleasant. The plan even seemed sufficiently fool proof that Dido need not disclose to her new bosses the fact she was living in France and risk their disapproval(the requirements for the post were that she lived within 30 miles of work… there were no stipulation as to whether the miles were measured across dry land or water). But then, to paraphrase a famous remark of a late British prime minister, “events” intervened to devastate our plans.
Having committed ourselves to the minimum six-month rental contract, we moved into our dingy lodgings the week before Dido was to start her new job. The flat was unfurnished, without even a kitchen, and so we spent the whole of the first few days madly rushing around in a rented van, using our credit cards to purchase the basic essentials to make the place habitable. Amongst other things, we got a type of sofa-bed (known as a clic-clac in France) and a tiny Baby Belling oven with a double hob. We couldn’t afford luxuries like refrigerators then, and still couldn’t afford one by the time we eventually left the flat at the end of the six months. Nevertheless, after we had scrubbed the flat half-a-dozen times and got our few pieces of furniture set up (including a table improvised from a lacquered MDF board) the place seemed habitable. That, in addition to the fact it was only a five minute walk from the Seacat dock gave us reason to think the next six months would be reasonably tolerable. However, it must have been the Thursday or the Friday when we made that walk down to the port for the first time since settling in that the bottom fell out of our world.
Without notice of any kind the Seacat company had cancelled all runs to Folkestone with immediate effect. Dido had talked to the ferry people just a week earlier—days before we had signed the contract on the flat—and they had made no mention of their plans to cut back their service. It seemed like a sick joke. We were now tied into living in Boulogne for six months, and the only morning and evening transport across the Channel anywhere near practicable for Dido’s requirements was a 40 minute drive up the coast at Calais. Moreover, the only affordable foot passenger service was on the regular ferry boats, which took-one-and-a-half- hours to Dover. Suddenly, Dido’s easy two-hour daily return journey, now with the commute to Calais and the 20-minute drive from Dover to Folkestone added to the mix, had mutated horribly into a return journey taking five hours—on a good day.
But, with no money, and Dido’s job starting on Monday she had no alternative but to do the Calais crossing.
As it happened, the commute turned out to be just one of the many grim and farcical components of what was to prove the most miserable period of our marriage—the details of which will be the subject of another future blog. Enough to say for now, that the France most people experience as tourists has little in common with the dingy, rough, criminal-infested street we inhabited during our sojourn in Boulogne sur Mer.
The origins of the pictures below lie in my numerous walks on Boulogne beach with Aura and apart from being a modest nod to great Dutch painters like Jacob van Ruisdael, express both the blueness of my mood in Boulogne, and my ever-growing yearning to cross that 20-mile strip of water back to England…
The image of someone walking away into the distance has stirred my artistic sensibilities since early adulthood. I’ve returned to the subject photographically and in paint pretty regularly since about 1979, from when the first picture presented here dates (Astrud at Tel Hai).
Several of these pictures are of loved ones, past and current, walking into a variety of landscapes, urban and open, and I guess that with them in particular, powerful feelings of vulnerability, both as a partners and individuals are aroused.
Two of the photos here have special poignancy: The one of my mother Hannah with my grandfather Harry was taken on a stroll in my home town of Edgware in the early 80’s when they both still had many years to live. I took the photo on my old Cannonette camera by accident. I was meaning to line up a shot of the lake we were passing when I must have clicked the shutter too early. It was only when the film came back from the developers that I saw the photo, and even then I instantly realised that it was a happy accident in that it had somehow captured the essence of them and their relationship in a way that no face-on portrait ever could have matched. The fact they are both now dead has made this image increasingly precious to me as the years have passed. The picture of my wife Dido walking her old and frail father into his house in Little Rock is even more poignant in that it represents the last photo of them ever taken together. About an hour later we returned to the airport, never to see him again.
All the pictures here, even those of total strangers, like the chap on Hampstead Heath, have a quiet melancholia about them in that they share a sense of our human transience.
I was only five years old when my first headmaster, Chaim Beckman, described me as “the complete illustrator and cartoonist”. However accurate he was in that appraisal there was no doubt that I was certainly able to capture a person’s likeness – in comic or serious form – from a precocious age. And, although I never made much money from portraits it was nevertheless a skill which served me well in some quite surprising ways.
Because I’d been living abroad for most of the previous year I missed being streamed in that first fateful year of English and Welsh comprehensive education in 1971 and so found myself “defaulted” into class “G” at my local ex-grammar school in Edgware (north London). Nearly all my friends from primary school had been streamed into classes “A” and “B”, with the few relatively “dumb” ones ending up in “C” – so you can only imagine how isolated and strange I felt finding myself cast five rungs further down the intellectual ladder. The fact that all of my new classmates were from the other side of the north London social and cultural tracks, and that I was the only Jewish kid in the group made for a potentially dangerous educational experiment – dangerous for me that was. But fortunately, my drawing (and my portrait skills in particular) was to prove to be my guardian angel.
On my very first day in class, the alpha male of stream”G”, a boy mountain called Kevin approached me menacingly. Towering over my desk – and in what was my first personal experience of antisemitism directed at me – he said, ‘Oi you – Jew boy!’ But before I had time to feel fear or shock, he continued; ‘I ‘ear you’re-a-bit-of-a-fucking artist’ (he used that expletive or worse in every utterance he made), to which I mumbled back something like; ‘er…yes…I guess so…”
‘Well fucking are-ya-or fucking arnt-ya?’ he demanded.
‘Yes’ I replied, perplexed and intimidated in equal measure, ‘I’m quite good at drawing’
‘Fucking draw me then!’
‘Are ya fucking deaf? I said draw me ya little Jew bastard!’
‘Er…draw you? When?’
It’s never ceased to amaze me, the things we can achieve whilst in a state of abject fear.
Somehow or other, I remained composed enough to invite Kevin to take a seat at the vacant desk next to my own, remove a new pad of lined paper from my brief case, take a felt tipped pen from my inside school blazer pocket and even to ask Kevin if he wanted me to do a caricature or something more serious.
‘A carick-what?’ he asked me.
‘Like a cartoon…like in the comics’
At this he smiled for the first time and said ‘Yeh! Make me into a cartoon, and put me in an Arsenal strip!’
Fortunately Kevin didn’t yet know that I was a Spurs fan. That heinous fact on top of everything else might have pushed him into doing something rash before I got a chance to win his favours with my drawing. But, to cut a short story even shorter, and spare you all from more of his expletives, my drawing of Kevin’s head on George Graham’s body, doing amazing things with a football impressed him so much that from that moment on, apart from having the honour of being “Kevin’s Jew” I was also designated by Kevin to be stream “G”s official artist. “Working for Kevin” (that was the way he termed it) was a bit like being the court artist to Henry VIII (they even looked a bit alike), with all the pressures and stresses that particular job must have entailed – only it was more the threat of having my head “beaten to a pulp” than having it removed which kept me on my toes.
As things turned out I only had to survive two terms at that school, but by the end of my time there, Kevin had – albeit somewhat inadvertently – helped me hone my drawing skills to a whole new level.
This selection of portraits (including sketches of one or two quite well-known people), covering about two decades and done in a variety of media, formal and rough, is dedicated to the late Chaim Beckman (one of the subjects presented here) for believing in me from such an early age, and also to Kevin, for teaching me to work well under pressure. Sadly, I don’t have any of the dozens of drawings I made of Kevin as he kept them all…
One of my first girlfriends, more years ago than I care to remember, got into Homerton College, Cambridge about the same time I started at Saint Martins in London.
Sadly, our relationship did not survive long into our enforced “academic” separation, but I was privileged to visit her once during her first term at Homerton, and very enjoyable it was too. Not only did my girlfriend manage to sneak me into her all-girls halls of residence, but I was also able to stay the night.
Obviously, everything was above board, and we were the models of decorum and virtuous behaviour, but I can’t deny that I found the company of her and her equally clever and gifted and pretty friends hugely stimulating. And, as was often the case for me in those days, I would channel my stimulation through my drawing and painting.
So, when looking at these extremely modest pastel sketches it’s important to remember that they were done by a young man in his late teens while in a highly “stimulated state”. Whatever their quality (and I have no illusions about that, I assure you), they remain a treasured memory…