Monday, 24 December 2012

First Plantings 2

From In A Tuscan Garden, published anonymously 1902
My great difficulty then, a difficulty that in a certain degree has continued to this day, was to get the old trees about us cut back and thinned out.  Shade, in a climate such as Tuscany, where the hot summer is so prolonged, is of great value, but we were buried among old trees and foliage; they literally ate all the air; and their old roots were a terrible nuisance.  The owner was absolutely devoid of any gardening instincts, but he had a horror of anything being cut away, and his gardeners were always in league to prevent anything that I wanted being carried out.
However, by dint of great energy, I did succeed in persuading the secretary to consent to clearing out the shrubbery, on our side of the avenue, to a depth of about seven feet, which gave us a good border, running down the whole length of the garden.
Just as the villa gardeners had finished this work, I heard of a good gardener, who was available for a job, and engaged him temporarily to put the place into something like order.   He was with us for nearly three months, when he left Tuscany to take up a permanent post with some of the Borghese family in Rome. Labour is still very cheap in Tuscany, but I could not have afforded a permanent gardener, nor was there enough work for one at that stage of the proceedings, least of all for a man of such qualifications as his; but I thought myself very fortunate in getting him, as so much depends on the way first plantings are done.
The ordinary garden soil in these parts is, as the head of the Botanical Gardens at Hong Kong lately described what he has to do with, “very extraordinary indeed”, and is only good for vines and tea-roses.  Almost everything else must have its own particular compost; good garden soil, such as we should take in England as a matter of course, does not  exist out here; indeed many of the gardens are formed of a few feet of earth on a  foundation of rock.  It is partly owing to this, and partly to the want of water, and also for the convenience of shifting from sun to shade, that so much of the Tuscan gardening consists of plants grown in pots.  In our own case we had not the difficulty of the rock foundation to deal with, for the great distinction of this property is, that it possesses an extent of level ground most unusual in this mountainous region.  But wherever we dug seemed a kind of Monte Testaccio: the most extraordinary deposits of broken crockery, old wine-flasks, stones of all sorts and sizes, - in short everything that ought not to have been in a garden seemed to be there.   The earth was of a sticky yellow substance, though not clay, and was unlike any soil I had ever seen before; but after fifteen years of constant manuring and attention it is now quite possible.  Having no stable, all the manure has to be bought, and that, as well as many other composts, come from a great distance, so that we turn, as much as possible, everything to account.  And it is surprising how much good soil can be got out of such spazzatura as, in England, would go into the dust-bin; all this, as well as the decayed leaves and ordinary garden refuse, are buried in one or two pits dug at the bottom of the garden, and well turned over from time to time; and of course the wood ash, of which we have quantities from the winter’s firing, is of itself a most valuable manure.
One day last year as I was showing my little garden to a great botanical authority he looked at the soil, remarked on its superiority, and said that, with such soil as that, one might grow anything. I wished he had seen it in its original condition!

Sunday, 23 December 2012

First Plantings 1

From In A Tuscan Garden, published anonymously 1902
Two months went by before I was sufficiently free from the plague of work people to have leisure to turn my attention to the out-of-door department.  No doubt, even in civilized England, workmen now-a-days require some supervision; but here, in democratic Tuscany, where the “I am as good as you” spirit prevails, if you leave them alone for ever so short a time, you will find something has been done the direct opposite of what you wished and intended.  Italians are the most conceited people on the face of the earth, and have a very annoying habit of finishing your sentence for you, instead of listening to what  you wish to say, and it is best to wait till they have finished assuring you that they perfectly understand your wishes, before quietly, but very decidedly, requesting them to listen to your explanations instead of favouring  you with theirs.
The English idea that foreign workmen are better “all round” men than us, is a great mistake, and in no country are trades more specialized than in Tuscany, where an upholsterer capable of making up carpets and curtains knows nothing of polishing furniture.  For that a polisher must be called in, and he, in his turn, is quite ignorant of the mysteries of varnishing.  To find a “handy man” in a Tuscan country district is very rare.  We had to buy our experience of this sort of detail; and once, in early days, when I had settled with an upholsterer to polish up the old furniture left in the house, it was  smeared in such a way that it had all to be re-scraped.  The excuse given by the individual was that it was not his trade, and to the further question why in that case had he undertaken the job, the reply was, “that it was necessary to leave something for the others to do”.  This benevolent view did not commend itself to us, and, later on, when this man called to ask if we had no work for him, he was told that his services would not again be required.
We had an excellent cabinet-maker in the house, repairing the old furniture which had been left in it, for about six weeks; this man was quite an exception to the general rule, always came for orders before beginning any job and went carefully into measurements with the Junior Partner. And our Scotch maid was clever at upholstery, but even with these advantages we found it better that one of us should always be at home during these first months, for, so surely as we were both absent, something was done that had to be undone the next day.
But in January I began to think it would be well to take advantage of the magnificent weather to have the ground well trenched and manured.

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Strictly Stunners

 Some historical moments have a soap opera’s ongoing appeal and, as Henrietta Garnett remarks in Wives & Stunners, the Pre-Raphaelites and the Bloomsbury Group have become ‘modern mythologies’.  Each has an interrelated, interacting cast-list, whose tales are told and re-told, in narrative, fictional and filmic form, with embellishments, interpretations  and inventions.  They attract scholars and bloggers and followers of a ‘Strictly’ kind, who adopt favourites.
Wives and Stunners focuses on Effie, with her two marriages, Lizzie and Janey’s lovers and husbands, and the tussle between Georgie and Maria Zambaco for possession of Burne-Jones.  The aptly-described ‘sub-plot’ concerning Annie Miller adds occasional diversion but, despite her current champions, Fanny Cornforth is not a contender here.  
With regular bulletins on her wardrobe, the longest section draws on Millais family papers now loaned to Tate Archive to chronicle Effie’s marriage to and escape from Ruskin.   The much-debated question of Lizzie’s pre-marital relations with Rossetti ‘can never be established for certain’ and ‘just because family anecdotes are repeated doesn’t make them necessarily true’.  Indeed.   Henrietta, whose own Bloomsbury ancestry informs her understanding of modern mythology, offers prime acknowledgement to her late uncle Quentin Bell who published A New and Noble School in 1982.
The inimitable footnotes, ranging from a protest that custard powder failed to ignite revolution to conversations with Diana Holman Hunt about the famous PRB coffee-pot being thrown out with rubbish, add sparkle to this latest version of the ever-popular legend.

Thursday, 13 December 2012

Finding the Garden 10

From In A Tuscan Garden, published anonymously 1902
The bedrock of the Tuscan character is suspicion; and, while the doors stood open, a piece of old torn wire-netting was placed across the opening, for fear we should presume to enter  and pick their lemons.  Nor was this all; they had always kept their own stock of wine in the cellars beneath the stanzone, and they, their wives, and their children, had  the right to come and pester us at all hours, under pretext of getting out a flask of wine, but in reality to pry about and see what we outside barbarians were up to!  Partly on this account, and also because the avenue gates stood open, there being at that time no porter’s lodge, I put up a wooden gate inside the stone arch.  It was brought home and placed there late one evening, and next morning when the head-gardener presented himself, a barrel of wine on his back, and found this out-work, he dropped the barrel on the ground and – used language.
Later in the day I had a polite note from the secretary, begging me to give this man a key of the gate!  I had foreseen the probability of this request, and had had the gate made keyless, opening by a spring from the inside, so I could truthfully reply that we had not ourselves a key, but if the gardeners would ring the bell, they would at all times be admitted.  This of course they never did, but made tracks through the shrubbery and gave us as much annoyance as possible.
Quite apart from their visitations, the gate was, at that time, an absolute necessity, for we lived mostly with the hall-door standing wide open, and beggars used to walk up the avenue and would not have scrupled to walk into our rooms.
I had several pieces of old English silver standing on shelves in the dining-room, and when we met any friends, it became a regular joke to enquire if the silver had yet been stolen.  In later years a porter’s lodge was built, and the gates kept closed, an immense improvement.  And when out first term of two years had expired, I made it a sine qua non that I should have possession of the stanzone.
A day or two before it was due to pass into our hands I found the two gardeners carefully laying in a supply of wine, and pointed out to them what a foolish proceeding this was, as the wine would spoil by removal; sure enough, when the day came that delivered us from their rule, they represented that this would be the case, and implored me to allow it to remain.  I stood firm, and pointed out that as I was then paying for the use of the stanzone, it was not likely that I should keep it for their use and advantage.
From that time we had peace, to a certain extent, but they have never forgiven us, and they were both men of the worst Italian type, absolutely false, sly and dishonest, and sticking at nothing to serve their own purposes.

There was yet another very unfortunate discovery to be made, and a much more serious one, because practically irremediable: the water supply was very deficient.  I can blame no one, not even myself, for not having seen better after this all-important matter, because when you are shown a large house cistern  and two garden cisterns, it is difficult to realize, if you have never been dependent on rain water only, how extremely uncertain a thing it is in a climate like that of Tuscany.  There was no well or spring on the whole property; the former English owners had made what were practically inexhaustible cisterns at the big villa.  These Italian cisterns are underground brick chambers, and are most costly things to make.  No doubt an Italian family living in our house would have found the water supply sufficient, but for English people requiring daily baths, and with friends frequently visiting them, it was another matter.  With regard to the garden, of course, it was my own affair if I planted it so extensively as to require a larger supply than existed.
Our contract gave us the right of fetching water for the use of the house at all times from the big villa, but not for garden purposes, and we have frequently been obliged to have it brought in barrels from a considerable distance.
It is only experience that  can teach one such things as these. If I were again taking a place in Tuscany, I should now be able to judge if the square m├ętrage of cisterns would suffice for our consumption.
But I think these were the only two blunders we made as regards our contract, and in the work done indoors everything was satisfactory, with the exception that in two of the rooms the stove-pipes were somewhat smaller than was desirable.
There is certainly a Providence watching over stray and forlorn people!

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Finding the Garden 9

 From In A Tuscan Garden, published anonymously 1902
I employed a very good decorator, and the house was stencilled throughout in artistic designs, copied from old Italian brocades.  Although I had a fair knowledge of Italian, my vocabulary naturally did not include such technical terms as the work-people often had occasion to use, and how the whole thing was accomplished remains a surprise to me to this day.  The next step was to have a good stipettajo (a superior carpenter) to repair and put in order all the old furniture left in the house.  This work occupied about six weeks; the Junior Partner joined me in December, and about Christmas such furniture as I had stored in London arrived.  It was only the surplus which our little London house could not accommodate, after our old home was broken up, and many of our possessions were ludicrously out of keeping with their new abode.
There was one beautiful old marquetry bureau we called our letter of credit, as it made such an impression on every foreigner who had occasion to call, and quite established our character for respectability.
In all the subsequent winters we have spent here, I have never seen so beautiful a spell of weather as there was that year. In November the rains came down in quite tropical fashion, but after that we had from eight to ten weeks of clear, brilliant sunshine, from ten a.m to four p.m.  When the sun went down the cold was intense, and of course we had not then reached the stage of peace and comfort that came in after years, and which only long occupation of a house can give.  Our one family male adviser had carefully impressed upon us, in his letters, the advisability of having a formal contract of our tenancy drawn up by an Italian lawyer.  There was a good deal of wrangling over conditions, but I believed everything to be straight and in order, so it was a terrible shock when we discovered that, because no mention had been made in this document of the stanzone, it was not included in the let, but was to remain, as it had always been, in the hands of the villa gardeners.
These worthies were our sworn foes; they had always had possession of the sunny court-yard, with its convenient stone benches for forcing their early bulbs, and were deeply aggrieved at the new order of things. The annoyance that we suffered at their hands in the next two years, is not to be described.  In winter they came about ten a.m. to open the doors of the stanzone, and again in the afternoon at four to close them.

Thursday, 6 December 2012

George Eliot's negligent hair

The long-serving first librarian at the London Library in St James’s Square kept a commonplace book of ‘anecdotes and personal experiences’ from which the Library is posting excerpts on its blogsite.  
Robert Harrison’s anecdotes from 1859 include this pretty accurate pen-portrait of George Eliot: 
Miss Evans, the author of Adam Bede, etc., etc., translator of Strauss’s Life of Jesus, possesses, says Dr. Chapman (of West[minster] Review), one of the most massive intellects of our time. Combe, the physiologist and phrenologist told him (Chapman) that he had never seen a woman’s head indicative of so much power, and very few men’s heads.       She is an agreeable conversationalist, full of knowledge - but her external graces are small and few, coiffure and toilette generally being of the negligent sort.  She was bred a Wesleyan and “turned out of her father’s house on account of her religious opinions or negations, which being of the most advanced school of freethinking make one wonder at the sketch of 'Dinah'.”

Then in 1873 there’s an account of Tennyson going to a magic show:
Dec 4/73 One day last week Tennyson, the laureate went with W. Allingham [the poet],  to see Dr Lynn the conjurer at the Egyptian Hall, Piccadilly. They are both very self-conscious men but dred to show it, thro’ imagining the world’s eye to be always on them.  The Laureate especially is morbidly sensitive about strangers noticing him in any way or drawing attention to him.   Conjurers however know no distinctions, and Lynn, who probably did not know his visitor by sight, walked up to him and asking what he had in his beard, seemed to pull out an egg therefrom, then another from his ear - the poet’s ear! – and to the amazed attention of the whole audience and the author of the “Idylls”.  Fancy his horror and disgust! 

Saturday, 1 December 2012

Maud Sulter & Hector Watson

SEDUCED BY ART, the new show at the National Gallery
has a daft title, given that its thesis is the ways in which
photography in the 19th century and currently has responded to 'fine art'  of the old master variety - just as artists in all media respond and reflect previous work.  The exhibition has not been very well recieved critically, but there are some things in its favour: 
firstly, the juxtaposition of media forces attention on the contrivances involved in both photography and painting - reminding us again for example of the artifice involved in creating/staging/composing  figurative and 'real life' images.  It's more obvious in photography, where the viewer knows that models, sitters, locations, accessories etc must be manoeuvred into place, lighting adjusted, exposures calculated and so on, so seeing paintings alongside makes for heightened awareness of just what, say, Gainsborough was doing when making Mr & Mrs Andrews look as though they are sitting outdoors, on a garden seat, at the edge of a cornfield, when they weren't.

secondly, its  a welcome chance to see the late lamented Maud Sulter's great self-portrait as Calliope, muse of epic poetry and/or eloquence.  In fact, here Sulter was referencing the famous shot of young Sarah Bernhardt by Nadar, not any old master oil, although the profile pose, bare shoulders and rich drapery do roughly invoke many neo-classical depictions of the Muses.

There is another interesting portrait in the exhibition, , the  large-format three-quarter-length image of Hector Stanley Watson, taken in 1994 by Dave Lewis  for a series 'West Indian Ex-Servicemen's and Women's Association.'   It is hung in relation to Goya's half-length oil of the Duke of Wellington, making a rather grand  'old soldier' allusion, but it's a great picture. 

So thanks to National Gallery.

UPDATE JULY 2015    Belatedly,  I've only just learnt of the recent retrospective show of Maud Sulter's work, entitled Passion, held at  Maud Sulter's photographs are concerned with identity and connection.
Street Level Photoworks in Glasgow.
This  is the outcome of a curatorial research project by Deborah Cherry, Professor of Art History at the University of the Arts London, and Deputy Director of TrAIN (Transnational Art and Nation), and artist and curator Ajamu, and the exhibition is a partnership between Street Level Photoworks and Autograph ABP.

Here's a brief excerpt from a review by Leyla Bumbra of the show, which 'focuses on the artist’s identity, her Scottish and Ghanaian heritage and creates analogies between herself and famous women.
'The exhibition humanises those she photographed, and indeed herself, through her self-portraiture. Significantly the women that are represented are the few that made it into the history books, the ones who associated with men as wives and mistresses.  The exhibition successfully initiates a shift towards a reclamation of Sulter’s artistic importance.'

There is a catalogue (crowd-funded) which I'll post details of when I get them.