Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Italian Gardens Old and Modern 4

Those who go from the mountain districts down to the Maremma, to work during the summer months, probably keep well while they are there; but as soon as they return to the keen, dry air of the mountains, the effect of it is to develop the malarial fever that has been dormant in their system.  In cases of consumption it is the same thing. Where it is latent in the system, there is no more sure way to develop it than to bring the patient to this keen, piercing Tuscan air.  I have known this frequently happen in the case of English people, who might have been considered delicate but in regard to whom there had been no suspicion of consumption. The climate of Tuscany is one that stimulates without bracing, and requires long and frequent absences from it, if one wishes to preserve the constitution unimpaired. It is a most uncertain climate, with variations quite as great as those of England, only, as Italians say, always in esaggerazione.  It is always an extreme, be it of heat, cold, drought, or rain, as is expressed by the Italian proverb, “Ni in freddo, ni in caldo, siamo in cielo”.  And the people have the same characteristic, - unbalanced in the highest degree, and it is extremely difficult for a foreigner to deal with them until, after some years of experience, he begins to understand the different types, and to discriminate between them.  There is no training of children in any rank of life, and it is really not until a young fellow goes to his military service that he gets some idea of discipline.  There is no better servant than a youth just returned from his military service; it is the one education of the country.  When I look back and think of the way the garden and I struggled on, always making a little headway, it does seem to me extraordinary that it should ever have developed at all.
In the late eighties, family matters recalled us to England, and we were absent for a year and a half, and again in 1891, for fully six months.  When we returned on this last occasion, the place was in such a  state that I was thoroughly disheartened, and seriously thought of giving it over into the hands of someone who could supply us with flowers, and make what he could out of it.  But by this time I had gone to very considerable expense with regard to it. We had had a number of frames made, which I was allowed to stand on the sunny side of the big park, and after the stanzone came into my hands, finding it was a kind of cemetery for plants in the winter, I entirely remodelled it, putting in a glazed window to the west, taking down the tiles from the roof in two places, and glazing the vacant spaces, doing away with the lumbering old doors that suggested a convict prison as they swung to and fro, and making two neat, small beds at each side of the new doors, which were on a wooden frame inside and slid backwards and forwards into place, and were fastened at night by a padlock.  These beds had nice stone edgings, and we planted creepers in them to cover the stanzone roof.  After all this trouble and outlay, the Junior Partner protested loudly against any scuttling policy. So I decided to engage a permanent gardener, but before doing so, again had everything put to rights as far as it could be done, knowing well how fatal it would be to any future prospect of law and order if things were not in a good state when handed over.

The man I engaged was a powerful young fellow, and he, too, came of a good gardening family.  His brother had charge of the rose-grafting department in one of the leading Florentine nurseries.  His home was only about a mile distant from us, and I found him very honest and industrious, and with a fair amount of knowledge.  He was with me for two years, during which time I had raised his wages, and he was just about to be married when, to my great regret, I found I should have to make another change, in consequence of his conduct during a short absence I made in the autumn of his second year, when he conceived the happy idea of adding to his income – in view of his approaching marriage – by taking on other gardens and totally neglecting mine.
That is the bedrock on which one so often lands in this country – the absolute untrustworthiness of the people with whom you have to deal!  The Tuscan saying is that “you must begin with suspicion, and go on with suspicion.”  The beginning is legitimate enough, it is the “going on” that is so very painful and that brings so many forestieri to the frame of mind when one shrugs one’s shoulders and says, “Che vuole? – what else would you expect?”

And sympathy here is always – Irish-like – with the criminal, and never with you, the aggrieved and injured employer.  I was thought a monster of cruelty on this occasion for turning the man away, though he had left standing out in torrents of rain all our seed pans and boxes, containing all our autumn sown seeds, rather than trouble himself to put them into the frames, securely under glass.  I returned home two days  after the storm that had literally washed the earth and seeds out of their seed pans, to find the garden that I had left six weeks before in perfect order, a wilderness.
I felt especially aggrieved on this occasion, having lent my house to some Italians, to whom I knew it would be a great boon during the hot months, and had hoped that their presence would be a certain check on any irregular proceedings, and that they would let me know by letter if anything was amiss.  I should know  better by now than to expect anything of the kind

Thursday, 20 June 2013

Youth & Age by Frank Holl

Emerging from the Shadows is a good title for an exhibition devoted to the work of long-forgotten Frank Holl, currently at the Watts Gallery in Surrey and later at the Mercer Art Gallery in Harrogate.  If known at all, Holl is remembered as a social-realist painter of sombre scenes of poverty and bereavement, but here the standout works are portraits, beginning with a youthful self-portrait of 1863 that Carol Blackett-Ord describes as a  marvellous, almost unknown gem of Victorian portrait painting, and a remarkably mature exercise in  self-scrutiny.  

The majority of Holl's portraits  however are of old, sometimes very old, men, including Capt. Alexander Sim, who began his career as a cabin boy in Nelson's fleet, and later spent 35 years as director of the Commercial Dock Co., in the days before compulsory retirement.   Discussing these portrayals, Peter Funnell cites the observation by Pat Thane in Old Age in English History (OUP, 2000) regarding their strong emphasis on defying age, as images whereby sitters 'could be recognized as old yet still command, and know themselves to command, authority in private and public life.'  Sim was 94 when painted, and died six months later.

Another more famous sitter was Prime Minister Gladstone, who did  distinctly defy ageing, by standing for his portrait in sessions lasting 2-3 hours.  Holl noted that he still retained 'all the ambitions of youth, even, I should think, more than youthful restlessness, as it is the restlessness of wanting still more ... and his age - now I think about seventy-six - not giving him the natural chances of many years either to obtain or hold it.'

Sadly, Holl himself  died shortly after his portrait of Gladstone was completed, aged only 43.

Sunday, 16 June 2013

Italian Gardens Old and Modern 3

There is no more industrious, hard-working, or better class of men to be found anywhere than among the nurserymen of Florence.  They get very little local encouragement, and the greater part of their trade is done for exportations; for Tuscany is considered the great market-garden of Italy.  But there is very little knowledge and less science. If I grumble to my gardener when I find a plant dead, he is quite surprised at the unreasonableness of my complaint.
“I planted it Signora,” he will reply. “Is it my fault if the plant died? Am I the good God to make it live?  Have we not all got to die?”  If I represent to him that his raison d’etre is to keep the plants alive, and that I pay him for that purpose, he goes away deeply aggrieved, and no doubt thinks these forestieri, and this Signora in particular, most unreasonable.

I have always found the gardener’s place the most difficult of all to fill, in the domestic economy.  Perhaps, out of all the candidates, the only man that seems to you at all suitable, is one whose home is miles away, and that at once constitutes an insuperable difficulty.  In this country storms get up so suddenly, that it is essential that the gardener be within call, or at least, at no great distance.  Then it is customary for him to do a good many little things about the house, of a morning; and a man may be fit for garden work, but not suited for this kind of service.  And to get honesty in domestic service, is, as Italians themselves tell you, so difficult, that if you get that, you must be prepared to sacrifice other desiderata.  After our first gardener departed, I decided that, having now got all the preliminary hard work done, I would only have a man three days a week.  The first one I had in this way came out of a good farming family, and was capable enough, but an utter scamp.  I gave him some packets of seeds one morning, just before his dinner hour, and when I went into the garden after lunch, he came to me with about half of them in his hand, and said that when he returned from his dinner these were all he could find.  I pointed out that we had counted over these packets together, and that he was responsible for them, whereupon he said that the whole place was so open, any one could come in and take things away.  I rejoined that it was curious that the person who had abstracted the missing packets, should have known exactly which were the best and most expensive sorts, and that if they were not forthcoming I should be under the painful necessity of deducting the amount they had cost from his wages, which I did. The lesson was not forgotten.

For several years I was, practically, my own gardener, with a man or a boy to assist.  An English friend with a property in our neighbourhood had a good head-gardener, who generally had two or three apprentices, and often had one to recommend.  Of course, the drawback was, that as the youth “got on”, he wanted a settled place.  I remember arranging, with the father of one of these, terms and conditions of service. The son, a  great strapping fellow, stood by, and raised no objections whatever.  When I went out into the garden he came to me and informed me that, if I did not at once agree to pay him so much more than the sum agreed upon, he was capable to taking up every pot in the place and throwing it out in the road.  This was agreeable for a beginning.  I thought it prudent to temporize, and said, if he would finish the job on which he was then engaged, I would consider the matter.  I returned in about an hour and asked why he had not objected to the terms offered when he heard me arranging them with his father.  He replied that respect for his progenitor had kept him silent. “Well”, I said, “please come this way”, and I adroitly got him down the courtyard, and out at the gate, which I immediately closed behind him, and recommended him to return home, adding that he need not again present himself on my premises.

Another of these youths came one morning to say that henceforth he meant only to serve the queen of England, and must depart at once.  It was the first spring that Her Majesty was staying in the neighbourhood of Florence, and some extra hands were required temporarily at the Villa Palmiere.
Another, an excellent young gardener, who was with me for some time, heard of a good permanent place in the south of Italy, and, to secure it, had to go in the very middle of some work we were doing.  Later on he returned to Tuscany, and I would gladly have taken him back, but by that time I had a permanent gardener of my own.  It is very strange that these young Tuscans never seem to thrive out of their own province.  I have seen so many go away, and return in a few years with their health greatly impaired. 

Thursday, 13 June 2013

Museum and Man of the Year

the William Morris Gallery is Museum of the Year   -   some beautiful and useful (£100,000) icing on the triumph of the successful re-opening.    More here, including link to article by Sarah Crompton on the reasons, and some pertinent comments:


This is what Tristram Hunt had to say about the WMG renewal:
‘The result is a triumph. The Gallery does so much: it positions Morris within the topography of north-east London as it edges into Epping Forest and Essex; it explains the roots of his gothicism and relationship with Ruskinian design; it describes the birth of his commercial practice and commodification of style; it deftly charts the nature of his socialism and how his art interacted with his politics; and it explores his remarkable cultural legacy. The Gallery does all this with scholarship and insight in an open and accessible style. There is no dumbing down here, but a great programme of outreach. No compromise on aesthetic and curatorial excellence, but an equal commitment to ensuring that as many people as possible come to understand the importance and wonder of William Morris. As a result, one of the poorest boroughs in the country now has one of the greatest museums in the country. From the dead-end thinking of 2007 with its terrible assumptions that socio-economically challenged communities and multicultural neighbourhoods cannot appreciate fine art, we now have museum of the year.’ *

and the success has been almost too good -  before the award the Gallery had some 100 000 visitors in the eight months since re-opening.  Since then, more and more have come, until I fear real stress on the fabric and the displays.  Yet this is cause for fantastic celebration too.
It's a good moment for Morris all round, with his dramatic image as a sea-striding colossus upending the kind of 'yacht' that the stinking rich use to mock the rest of us by e.g. dwarfing the stones of Venice, making headlines in Jeremy Deller's installation at the Biennale.  

Curious, too, that for their political critique artists like Deller and David Mabb turn to Morris,  who died over a century ago and whose socialism is now generally held to be wholly outmoded and contemptible.  Not to Karl Marx, nor any of the more fashionable Marxist theorists of the twentieth century, nor any Green or alternative analyst but - of course - a pioneer who combined a career in the arts of design and literature with pioneering socialist  campaigning.   in fact, in the full flight of his socialist years, Morris poured scorn on all art produced under plutocratic capitalism. Agitprop art had not then been invented and Morris may be credited with inspiring later generations with vigorous visual polemic.
* slightly barbed final comment: many of us in 2007 and earlier had wholly contrary assumptions

Monday, 10 June 2013


Six months past I wrote about Sarah Losh, creator of a singular church in Cumbria to her own design and decoration.   It turns out to be larger or rather taller than one would expect from photos, and the interior scheme less coherent  than I supposed, insofar as the fittings and decoration are assembled in a rather piecemeal fashion, although the architecture is orderly.  
The picture of the nave shows one of two oversized carved pinecones that flank the aisle, and two carved angels simply stuck on the chancel arch.  But the total effect is intriguing, and the atmosphere very welcoming.  The church is well cared-for by the people of Wreay, with affectionate recognition of its oddity - a rich and ultimately baffling mix of traditional and idiosyncratic symbolism.