John SINGER SARGENT

Some years ago I went to an exhibition of water colour sketches painted on his travels by (in my opinion) the greatest ever artist produced by these islands – J M W Turner. Although they were just quick impressions produced for the artist’s own pleasure, they captured the essence of each place, and I was interested to note that where I had also visited the location, although over a century had passed, my impression of it was much the same as Turner’s.

Last week I went with my daughter Elisabeth, and John and our grandson William, to an exhibition of watercolours by the American portrait painter John Singer Sargent, at the Dulwich picture gallery.

These were largely small landscapes (sketches) executed by Sargent at the end of his career when he had had enough of the demands made by sitters wanting their portraits painted, and took himself off, switched to watercolours and did landscapes.

I am a big fan of John Singer Sargent. In any exhibition of portraits, his will stand out in their excellence. He seems to have the knack of creaing a portrait that is a beautiful object in its own right; a reliable likeness of the subject; presumably a reasonably flattering portrayal because the clients liked them; BUT we the wider audience can see that, for example,  despite the youthful prettiness of the sitter, she is a shallow young woman thinking largely of how to satisfy her desire for clothes, jewels, social prominence etc.

The exhibition paintings are not what I expected. They do not have that deceptively fragile appearance of some watercolours which are misty and almost translucent. These are far brighter and deeper in colour than I had imagined. Some of them are unconventional in their presentation, looking at the subject from below or cutting it off where you don’t expect it. The written commentary in the art gallery suggested that the artist was forcing us to look at things differently. However I don’t believe that he was thinking about future audiences at all. I think he was acting entirely to please himself and what attracted him to these particular subjects was their degree of technical difficulty. He, of course, entirely overcame that.

I came across a sketch from his travels, of somewhere in Scotland. The British countryside is so diverse that if you have travelled through the UK extensively you know whether a picture is of Scotland, Yorkshire or Dorset, even if they are all apparently of the same tree. Sargent’s picture of Scotland lacks authenticity. It does not feel of heather and gorse and Atlantic wind. It is just a tree.

I have often wondered if a portrait painter makes a judgement of his sitter or if he just paints what he sees. John got a chalk drawing done of me once in Waverley Market in Edinburgh. I thought I would give the man doing the work the benefit of my wit and charm so having ascertained that if I held my position, conversation would not put him off, I set out to entertain him. I was however considerably taken aback when I asked him what he found most difficult about doing a portrait of someone and he replied: ‘Sometimes it is difficult to avoid being beguiled by the sitter.’ (We were pleased with the result, which is as grave and reflective a representation as I most truly am; but most friends have regarded it as not flattering.)

So, returning to Sargent, I came to the conclusion that his was a technical excellence; he was supremely good at putting paint to canvas in the image of what lay before him. So, in my opinion, John Singer Sargent is still very, very good.

Just not as good as Turner.

PS William is not (yet anyway) an admirer of John Singer Sargent. As soon as we entered the exhibition rooms he began to shout, Bye bye (which is his way of indicating that an interview is at an end,) and his melancholy and irritated cry punctuated our entire visit. Somehow I doubt if he would have been any more impressed by Turner!

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HEREWARD-THE-WAKE COUNTRY

HEREWARD-THE-WAKE COUNTRY

 

On our recent holiday in Scotland, we had planned to break our return journey at Blair Drummond, and at Berwick on Tweed, and at Cromer in Norfolk. However, events conspired against us. We were coming through Glen Coe, in heavy rain and with equally heavy traffic when one of our caravan tyres blew out. John was able to keep control of the outfit and there was a layby near us, but in such foul weather with poor visibility and fast and heavy traffic on a two lane road, we were obliged to drive to the layby. This proved damaging to the wheel. John was unable to remove the wheel because the layby was on a slope, so we sent for the Green Flag people. They arrived in abut 4o minutes (their service was excellent throughout.) The spare tyre (which in a caravan is stored in a very inaccessible place underneath) proved to be low in air but we pumped it up and set off gingerly to Blair Drummond where staff (and indeed fellow caravaners) were extremely helpful.) We were fortunate that we were in a centrally located site with the cities of the central belt available to us. The site proved very accommodating and helpful and we stayed there for several days while we obtained a new wheel and tyre. (I won’t bother you with the tribulations involved there.) Everyone was however extremely competent and attentive and eventually we were ready to proceed with everything in order.

By this time we had missed our slot at Berwick upon Tweed, so we obtained earlier entry to our site near Cromer, Norfolk. We generally plan when touring to leave about 9 – 10 am and arrive at our destination for the night at about 2 pm; or to drive about 200 – 250 miles. Today however we were coming from Stirling to Cromer which was far too long and we were therefore extremely tired when we rolled in to that site.

We had problems with our ‘mover’ (a boy’s toy where a remote control moves the caravan ) but again our fellow caravaners were helpful and 5 men materialised from around us and manhandled the vehicle into position; John was able to fix that problem himself but it was not welcome as yet another problem at just that point. (You have to be practical and able to fix things in order to caravan).

So it was with a slightly jaundiced eye that I viewed the map of Norfolk the next morning for our five days that we were due to spend here.

One of the many things I love about England is its extreme diversity. Even 50 miles can produce an entirely different landscape and one county is unlike every other.

Considering that Cromer is famed as a beach resort, and there are several coastal resorts here, I was not at all impressed with its beach credentials. I suppose this is a matter of expectation. As a Scot, I expect a beach resort to have a small attractive town with ancient stone houses, and a wide sandy beach heavily covered by clean white sand, with free and easy parking access. The beach to be enclosed on two sides with ranges of rocks big enough to give shelter, and a tolerable hotel or restaurant within driving distance. You will understand I’m sure that this utopia is not readily to be found in modern England. Norfolk beaches, so far as I could see, were mud with pebbles on them, featureless and without shelter.

Sherringham is a middle range resort, with many cafes, icecream parlours and bucket and spade jobs. It was amiable enough. It had a steam train and a market.

When you arrived in Cromer itself you were on the level of a high cliff with a series of ramps to get down to the ‘sand’ which was largely small pebbles. It was on a point, and big waves slapped into the walls and men were surfing on these. There was a breeze. We sat on the pier and had an ice-cream.

We went to Caisters (depressing and horrible) and Gt Yarmouth (horrible and depressing) and just fled away. But then we chanced on Horsey Windpump with its lakes, rivers and canals, plus a wind/watermill being restored, which was lovely.

We visited a lavender farm which had lovely gardens but was grossly overcrowded. I ate a scone with lavender in it and thought, after a few mouthfuls) – you could have too much of this!

We went out on a boat on the Broads (where memorably we were luckless enough to encounter the penetrating tones of the extremely observant grandmother of Mary and Tracy ) and that was relaxing for an hour (once we go out of earshot.)

Holt was an upmarket inland village with nice shops and unbelievably expensive clothes.

We visited the exquisitely beautiful l6th century Blickling Hall, all the more surprising because it’s made of bricks. Robert Adam had a hand in it, as had Capability Brown. It had been gifted to their creatures by both William the Conqueror and Henry VIII so it had certainly attracted some negative vibes. They were all naval men, able administratively, who had made the family prosperous through hard work and steadiness and judicious support of the ‘right’ (ie the winning) side. They were none of them oustandingly goodlooking but they obviously had excellent taste through all their generations. The final one was the last Deputy Vice Roy of India. I could find no reason why everything was so beautiful. On the whole, it had a peaceful history.

We also visited Sellrig Hall. Similar to Blickling but not half so beautiful and more pretentious.

There were some fine and ancient churches with their walls pierced by enormous clear glass windows. They were light and airy and were protestant for what that’s worth, as it was of the variety that is just a spitting distance from Rome. Some of the churches had round towers, and these were noticed by John who made off to examine them. He came back and reported that the round towers were much older than their attached churches and that there was a Society for the Preservation of round-towered churches and Prince Charles was its President. We figured he would be.

 

Norfolk is lovely in its way. It’s flat and water-lidded. As with any drained marsh, it is lush, full of flowers and trees, It’s not on the way to anywhere, so if you’re here you have to have business that’s to do with Norfolk. It’s still heavily agricultural; they were rushing to gather in the harvest. There is an old-fashioned air which is not unattractive, a warm bucolic accent, and loads and loads of sheep.

We did not exhaust all its possibilities; it would be nice to return.

I have one other small connection with Norfolk. One of the book groups of which I am a member was registering with the Library so that we could borrow books for longer than the time generally allowed. We decided to call ourselves West Sussex Book Group. The Librarian was one of those I remembered from school, whose main purpose was to prevent pupils from reading as far as possible. She was able smugly to inform my friend that, No, she could not register under that name, it was already taken; and no she could not borrow books until she had registered. Three times she refused us. She also declined to give us the list of names already used – Data Protection wouldn’t permit it. It appeared to me that she could refuse us in perpetuity – not to mention what a fruitless waste of my friend’s time it was. I had a burst of temper and said to my friend, We’ll sort her out. Tell her we’ll be the Hereward-the-Wake book group. Carole went back and waited patiently until the unhelpful librarian could no longer put off seeing her. “Yes,” she said with the smug air of one who can refuse as much as she chooses. Carole said quietly, I’d like to register our book group as the Hereward-the-Wake book group. The librarian was gob-smacked. “You can’t call it that.” she said. “Is some other group using that name also?” enquired Carole, pleasantly. The librarian had no option but to register us. I’ve had an affection for Hereward-the-Wake (of West Norfolk) ever since.

NO MEAN CITY

I have written about the flora and fauna of our recent holiday. Let me now turn to the people – do they come under ‘fauna’, I wonder?

We were travelling with Joanna, Lawrence and our grandchildren, and therefore we were obliged to go within the school holidays. It was a great pleasure being there with them. Lawrence and John golfed; Joanna and I chatted, had coffee, shared cooking; Alexandra read, undisturbed; and the younger girls ate their meals with us and then cleared off the entire day to play with a gang of other children on the beach. I had gone with English and craft projects for the girls; John had planned waterborne activities. None of this was required: they had far more exciting companions than elderly grandparents! So it was definitely well worth the price we paid which was that we were away during the ‘Glasgow Fair’ – traditionally a time when the great industrial companies had their annual holidays, and which still seems to be when Glaswegians take their holidays although those industries are no longer present. My idea of a busy site is that I can see, about 12 stations away, another family in both directions so you will appreciate that to have the site absolutely full, with people being turned away and the resultant press of people at the local sights or sports points is not my ideal situation.

I should make haste to point out that the collective crowd did not produce the type of person who was ahead of us in the queue for a boat on the Norfolk Broads on the latter part of our holiday on our way home. This lady, who sounded as if she came from some part of the Midlands was a kindly soul, a nice person I’m sure; she fell into conversation with a little boy beside her and his mother. She had a grating accent and no volume control. She noticed that the boy was blonde haired but brown eyed; his mother remarked that his father was dark haired, and this brought forth a torrent of conversation about the likelihood of having brown eyes and blonde hair, and whether the blonde hair would survive into adulthood. The lady considered the fairness or otherwise of herself and her brother; her four children; her ten grandchildren; her brother’s children. She could (and did) detail the exact colour of each person’s eyes and hair, (Now Robin has blue eyes, but paler than Tracy’s…) at what age the blondeness had ceased; what degree of darkness their hair now boasted. I was just coming to screaming point – who cared what colour any of their hair was? – when the boat fortunately began loading and she drifted out of earshot. I was reminded of an excruciating evening I had passed some years ago when a woman monopolised the conversation to tell each new arrival of a minor road accident which had happened to her grown up son, in which she began with what she had given him for breakfast, and traced his journey village by village to the actual incident, how long it had taken the police to arrive; no detail too small, while I reflected that this could easily have been summed up in ‘Bobby had a driving accident but he’s OK’.

Your Glaswegian is not garrulous like this.

Glasgow has a reputation (not entirely undeserved) for drunken violence and it is certainly a city where you have to have your wits about you at certain times. As a theatre audience for example it has a fearsome reputation and takes no prisoners.

But on the other hand, if you pass muster with them and they accept you, there is no finer body of people. The men may have scars on their faces from fights they have fought in their youth, but they are gentlemen in the best sense of the word; and the women, though they can be fierce celtic viragos sometimes are also bighearted and generous.

So here we are on this site, full to the gunnels. Clearly they did accept us, for it was like belonging to a large family group. Arriving families would check in as it were with their neighbours, and exchange brief information about who they were, where they came from, how long they were staying, (no intrusive questions asked) and then go off about their own business. When it came to putting up awnings in the ever present wind, help would materialise as if by magic and set about the anchoring of the flapping sides unasked. Services we ourselves rendered to others included charging phones for people with tents and no electricity; the usual help with awnings; we lent our whirligig to a lady with too much washing, putting it up for her in their area; they returned it to our section and put it up; we saved our old 1pound coins and exchanged them with people who needed them to use washing machines; we kept an eye on other people’s children on the shore line as well as our own. When we left we had bought a new larger kettle, and we donated our old one to the communal kitchen so that people camping could have tea two at a time. We also donated our magazines and books. Everyone else was doing much the same.

It made you tolerant of the occasional late night party (nothing exceptional, just people drinking and laughing together) – it was still quite light at 11 pm and dawn was at 3 am!) and you felt protected and comfortable in this body of people.

I myself am not a daughter of the city of Glasgow and have never been mistaken for one. But I would regard it as an honour to be so counted.

As the verse says, Wha’s like us? (However, the answer is, Gey few, and they’re a’ deid.)

FLORA

Flora

Last week I wrote about the pleasure I had obtained from the birds on our holiday in the North West Highlands of Scotland; but I also enjoyed the wild flowers. Their profusion took me back to the flower filled meadows of my childhood which I had all but forgotten.

On the mainland of Scotland you do not get the yellow ‘machair’ of the Western Isles – a mass of flowers, predominantly yellow that covers the short grass, but there is still a wide variety. Right by the shore there were patches of bog cotton with its wispy white heads. There was plenty of clover – the shorter, fragrant white that makes good honey, and the taller vibrant red. Everything seemed to be out at once. There was that heady scented, creamy flower, Meadowsweet which makes a good country wine, and which we called Queen of the Meadow, as well as the taller patches of the pink Rosebay Willowherb, which we used to call Wildfire. There were the less noticeable Shepherd’s Purse which I have not seen for many years, and the brown headed flower we used to call Soldier’s sticks, and you could play a game with them where you knocked the head off the other person’s flower. There was the golden yellow tansy with its rich spicy smell and which when you squeezed the flower head gave a satisfying pop.

When we drove down the Ardnamurchan peninsula I spotted a ‘stand’ of the dainty harebell, the Scots ‘bluebell’, which is of a delicate but very intense blue; and there were pink foxgloves on a bank literally thousands strong, so much so that you doubted your own eyes. There was also blue speedwell, and I discovered a patch of wild violets growing in a ditch.   And there were the lovely white water lilies  on the still ponds.   As the song says,

Like the  white lily floating on the peat hag’s dark waters,                                                        Is the face of my Mairi, my Mairi, my beloved…

There were ‘forbidden’ flowers too – the statuesque Giant Hogsweed which tends to grow near streams, and standing about 6 feet tall with its huge flat white flower as big as a dinner plate, is a magnificent sight, but now tends to be obliterated when seen as it is poisonous (we called it, incorrectly, ‘hemlock’).

I thought of my childhood, where I observed all these things and took them quite for granted – thought everybody’s world was filled with wild flowers and birdsong, and how we assume these delights will last forever and be enjoyed by future generations: whereas this is by no means certain.

Let us stay where the wild things are.

Photographs are courtesy of John M Armstrong and were taken on the Ardnamurchan Peninsula.

FAUNA

We were in a lovely campsite earlier this month, on the West Highland mainland, north of Ardnamurchan and beside a sandy beach with a huge tidal rise and fall, and with a golf course in our view (very heaven you will understand,)

There was time to sit and watch the sun cross the sky (when it deigned to put in an appearance at all) and to watch the bay emptying and huge, malevolant rocks emerge and then see it fill up again and appear deceptively benign. The water was very clear.

The bird life was enjoyable to watch. Our bay had a resident heron,who flew in about 7 – 9 am from some wooded site inland, (rather as if he were a commuter coming in to work) and fished on some of the rocky islands. He was about 6 ft tall, very elegant in his grey and white, with black floating plumes crowning his head. We knew there were fish because we would see him stab his long beak into the water, and then swallow.

We saw the common gull quite a lot.

There were birds, handsome in grey and black, which I took at first for jackdaws, but they were larger and more powerful, and I think they were carrion crows. There were curlew with their quivering, haunting call, and our girls came across a nest on the ground, from which chicks ‘with very long beaks’ ran away.

At Glefinnan there were gangs of robin, which is rather unusual.

We heard larks. We saw pied wagtails with their flicking tails. There were flocks of oyster catchers who would pass overhead at night calling out loudly – they are very noisy birds!

One day in late afternoon I looked up and saw that a little flock of unfamiliar birds was present in our bay. They were black; there were three family groups – two of four, parents and two juveniles, and one of parents with one juvenile. To my surprise they dived; and all together, so that for a moment the space was empty and I thought I’d imagined the whole proceedings. But then they gradually surfaced one by one, only to dive again en masse after a few minutes. A diving bird is normally built like a submarine, very narrow and low slung to the water, whereas they were chunkier and had quite round heads. Looking them up, I came to the conclusion they were Common Scoters, a bird I had never seen before. They fished for about half an hour, and then they swam out of the bay; I never saw them in flight. I watched over the next few days, but they never returned.

It’s a great pleasure to sit in some remote and lovely place and just watch the light move across the landscape; see the grasses toss in the wind, and be pleasantly surprised when, as you sit there, some unexpected creature suddenly hoves into view, quietly going about its own business.

The photographs, the first being the view of the bay, and the second the monument at Glenfinnan, are courtesy of J M Armstrong.