The good and simple life

A FEW DAYS AGO, we visited the Penlee House Gallery in the Cornish town of Penzance. After admiring its fine collection of art by painters who worked mainly in Cornwall during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, especially by members of the Newlyn School, I noticed a moss-covered stone in the gallery’s attractive gardens. It mentioned two twinned towns: Penzance and Concarneau.

St Ives Arts Club

Concarneau is a French fishing port in Brittany. Although I was probably less than ten years old at the time, I have some recollections of the family holiday we spent there along with our general medical practitioner, Dr C, and his family. Two memories of that holiday linger in my brain. One is of the excessively lengthy luncheons we had in our hotel’s dining room. Being a poor eater in my childhood, these meals with many courses did not appeal to me. I remember whiling away the time playing with discarded crab and lobster parts from which the adults had extracted the edible flesh. The other memory is of an unfortunate accident that occurred on the beach. Dr C was showing my young sister a sea urchin. Accidentally, it slipped out of his hand and fell onto my sibling’s bare foot. For many years, she remembered this painful experience.

Concarneau is remembered on the stone at the Penlee House Gallery because some of the artists, who spent much time painting in Newlyn, a fishing port next to Penzance, also painted in Concarneau. The French port, like Newlyn, also attracted French artists. Both places were home to ‘artists colonies’ at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries (for some details, see: http://www.stivesart.info/brittany-links/). St Ives, which is near Newlyn and Penzance, was also home to a thriving artists colony in that period. Today, one of the attractions of St Ives is the fact that serious artistic activity continues there. Stanhope Alexander Forbes (1857-1947), a highly accomplished artist based for much of his life in Newlyn, wrote that this close neighbour, almost continuation of, Penzance was his:

“…sort of English Concarneau.” (www.sothebys.com/en/auctions/ecatalogue/2003/important-british-pictures-l03123/lot.31.html)

The artists colonies that existed all over Europe and also in North America at the same time as those in Newlyn and St Ives became the subject of research for my friend, the art historian and travel writer, the late Michael Jacobs (1952-2014). For some unknown reason, Michael never learned how to drive. As a result, he depended on public transport and his friends to get him around the many places that he visited. In about 1984, two years after I had gained my driving licence, I agreed to drive him to Cornwall where he was researching its two artists colonies. We stayed both in Newlyn and St Ives in bed and breakfast accommodation. I enjoyed accompanying my friend whilst he made his enquiries.

An organisation in Newlyn let Michael the notebooks (or diaries) of Stanhope Alexander Forbes, who lived from 1884 onwards in Newlyn and died there. Trustingly, the keeper of these original handwritten notebooks gave them to Michael to peruse overnight. He hardly slept that night because he spent most of it feverishly trying to read as much as possible of this source of information about life in Newlyn’s former artists colony.

Michael was a sensitive fellow, who never wanted to upset anyone. This admirable characteristic of my friend backfired the following day. Our landlady provided us with a lavish full English breakfast. The table was covered with an ocean of food, piles of bacon, sausages, eggs, baked beans, fried bread, toast, black pudding, fried tomatoes, and much more. After we had both eaten, there was still a vast amount of food on the table. Michael said to me that we should not leave it uneaten as that would upset our kindly hostess. I said that I could not manage any more. So, Michael, not wishing to risk offending our landlady, managed to consume the huge amount of food remaining. Thoughtful as this was, it was not without consequences. For much of the rest of the day, poor Michael kept clutching his stomach that was not grateful for the load of food with which it had to deal.

We stayed in St Ives. The bed and breakfast place that we had booked was on a steeply sloping narrow street in the old part of the lovely town. Driving my car through streets like these, barely wider than my vehicle and often dangerously steep, was no joke. After that, my first trip to St Ives, I promised myself never to attempt driving in the old part of the town. I have stuck to that promise.

Our visit to St Ives was made special because Michael had to interview various artists in their studios and members of the St Ives Arts Club. The latter, which is housed in an old warehouse, was founded in 1890. Its early members included the artists Sir John Arnesby Brown, Sir Leslie Stephen, Adrian Strokes and W Titcomb. The Club’s informative website notes:

“All but one of the original Committee hung at the Royal Academy.” (www.stivesartsclub.org/copy-of-history).

I do not recall whom we met there, but we were permitted to enter parts of the Club not normally accessible to non-members.

While we were in St Ives, we did not visit the Barbara Hepworth Museum (first opened in 1976) and the Tate St Ives was not yet in existence; it opened in 1993.

By the time that Michael and I visited the two towns in western Cornwall, my friend had already done a great deal of research about artists colonies abroad. What struck him at the time was that in each of the former artists colonies that he visited in a number of different countries including France, Russia, USA, and Germany, he met experts who could tell him much about the colony in which they specialised but few of them were aware, as Michael had become, of how much the artists moved between the different colonies.

Michael’s research culminated in the writing of his book “The Good and Simple Life: Artist Colonies in Europe and America” that was published by Phaidon in 1985. Sadly, I have mislaid, I hope temporarily, my copy of this book, in which I am sure that he wrote a personal inscription. When we visited the Penlee House Gallery in September 2020, I looked at their bookstore to see if they stocked Michael’s book. It was not there and also the otherwise informative gallery staff had never heard of it, which is a great pity because it shows how the Newlyn and St Ives colonies were part of an international artistic network or community.

It was the visit to the Penlee that brought us to Penzance, a place that we had not considered visiting before. I am pleased that we went to the town because it offers many delights that exceeded our prior expectations.

Michael passed away six years ago. Although in the last few years of his life we saw him less often than previously because he was often away travelling or spending time in his home in Spain, a country which he loved, we think of him often with great affection.

Make a bigger splash

UNLIKE MANY PLACES IN ENGLAND, Penzance in Cornwall did not get a mention in the Domesday Book published in 1086 although there is archaeological evidence of a bronze age settlement in the area. The first written mention of the town is in a document dated 1284, when it was listed as ‘Pensans’. The etymology of the town’s name derives from the Cornish words ‘penn sans’ meaning ‘holy headland’.

We discovered recently, on our first visit to the town, that Penzance in the far south-west of the British Isles is very pleasant and full of interesting buildings and other attractions. One of these is the long seafront promenade from which the visitor can see nearby Newlyn in one direction and St Michael’s Mount, Britain’s answer to France’s Mont St Michel, in another. Incidentally, Penzance is further west than anywhere in mainland France.

A row of poles carrying large flags, on which pictures of a diving ladies, dressed in old-fashioned blue striped bathing dresses, were printed, attracted our attention. The flags were fluttering vigorously in the strong breeze. They were placed next to the wall surrounding a large triangular open-air swimming pool two of whose walls project out into the sea. The pool was divided into two sections, one with a greater area than the other. Plenty of people were swimming in both parts. The design of the pool immediately made us think that it had elements suggestive of the art deco style that was popular in between the two World Wars.

The pool is known as the Jubilee Pool. A plaque at its main entrance informs that the pool was opened on the 31st of May 1935 (during the year of the Silver Jubilee of the reign of King George V), confirming our suspicion that it was built in the era of art deco. A website (https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1221190) contains the information that the pool was built to the designs of the Borough Engineer Captain F Latham, and it adds that the pool:

“… is now the finest surviving example of its type with the exception of the Saltdean Lido in Brighton (listed grade II). In Europe, lidos such as the Piscine Molitor in Paris of 1929 were the first to adopt the modernist style in order to embody the worship of sunlight and physical fitness. The seaside lido manifested the transformation of sea bathing in the 1920s from a predominantly health activity into a leisure activity, and because it was freed from the constraints in planning of more conventional pools it presented local authorities with the opportunity to emulate Continental fashions.”

The water in the two sections of the pool differs in temperature. In the lager part of the bath, it is unheated but in the smaller part, it is heated. Currently, a bather pays up to £4.25 to swim in the unheated section, and up to £11.75 to swim in the ‘Geothermal Pool’, whose water is between 30 and 35 degrees Celsius (https://jubileepool.co.uk/tickets/). Despite locals receiving a discount on ticket prices, many choose to swim in the sea amongst the Battery Rocks that surround the pool and the extension of the promenade that runs along the eastern edge of the bath. One local, who was dressed in a wet suit and had just been in the sea thought the ticket prices were a bit steep and told us that during September, the end of summer, the sea is actually quite warm.

The Geothermal Pool is filled with salt water heated by geothermal energy. The idea of installing this feature derives from Charlie Dixon, who in 2010:

“…had just returned from a trip to New Zealand where he had bathed in geothermal pools … Ten years and a £1.8m funding package later (not to mention an incredible amount of work by the Jubilee Pool Directors and staff) the first geothermally heated pool of its kind in the UK opens to the public on 1st September 2020 …

… The system operates by extracting warm water from one geothermal well (410m deep – the height of one and a half Eiffel Towers!!), taking heat out of that water using heat pumps and distributing it to the pool via a heat exchanger, before re-injecting the cooler water back into the ground.  This combined system means that the temperature of the pool can be sustained with a very low carbon footprint. The initial pool heating results suggest that it’s about 80% geothermal but ultimately all the energy is coming from our geothermal well. We are using the heat pumps to concentrate that energy to the exact temperature required for the pool.” (https://jubileepool.co.uk/pool-info/geothermal/).

Although the Jubilee Pool geothermal system is the first of its kind in the UK, it was not the first pool or lido to use naturally heated water. The Romans heated the water at Bath with naturally warm spring water.

We wandered along the eastern side of the pool towards a carved stone obelisk that overlooks the triangular pool and the expanse of Battery Rocks. It stands on the site of a gun battery that was built in 1740 when Britain’s relations with Spain deteriorated. The obelisk, a war memorial, was designed by Sir Edward Warren and erected in 1922. It was unveiled by Mrs Bolitho on the 14th of May 1922. She was the wife of Thomas Bedford Bolitho (1835-1915), a Cornish politician (Liberal Unionist MP), banker, and industrialist, of Trewidden (Cornwall). Bolitho is a western Cornish surname and that of a prolific writer and biographer, Hector Bolitho (1897-1974), whose biography of Jinnah, the creator of Pakistan, was published in 1954. Hector was born in New Zealand and migrated to the UK in about 1924. Hector’s grandfather emigrated from Cornwall to New Zealand. It would be interesting to know whether Hector and Thomas were related, even remotely.

We saw plenty of folk bathing in the sea near the pool. They sheltered behind towels that flapped about in the breeze whilst they slipped in and out of their bathing suits. None of them, with whom we spoke, complained about the water’s temperature. In addition to humans enjoying the environment I spotted several cormorants contemplating the sea from their perches on the rocks. The Jubilee Pool and the rocks near it are some of the lovely features that make a visit to Penzance delightful.

Atlantic crossing

I CAN ONLY FIND ONE photograph taken on board the SS France when we sailed from Southampton to New York City in September 1963. I do not know who took the picture and why I seem to have no photographs taken during the four months we spent in the USA that year. However, I do recall aspects of that voyage across the Atlantic, and I will share these with you.

FRANCE BLOG

My dear Uncle Felix gave me a present before we left London. It was a pocket-size set of tools (screwdrivers, a miniature saw, etc.) held together on a hinge. I thought that it might prove to be very useful if I became trapped in a cabin while the ship was sinking. Years before, my friend Charles S had recommended that I kept a small notebook and pencil in my pyjama pocket, just in case I was kidnapped – a prospect that used to fill me with fear. Charles’ idea was that, equipped with the writing material, one could send notes to rescuers in the (unlikely in my case) event of being kidnapped. I was, as you might be beginning to realise, a cautious little boy.

Soon after boarding the liner, which had been selected amongst others because my mother had learnt that the vessel had been fitted with the most advanced stabilisers, we looked around. When we reached the ship’s cinema, we poked our heads in and saw (on the screen) a parade of scantily dressed women parading round a pool. My mother pulled my sister and me out of the auditorium to protect us from seeing something she thought inappropriate for our tender young eyes (I was only eleven and my sister younger). The film being shown was “Scheherazade”. 

We set sail in the evening. Our first night was horrendous. As we crossed the Irish Sea and entered the Atlantic, the sea was exceedingly rough. My mother, my sister, and I became terribly sea-sick, despite the state-of-the-art stabilisers. None of my mother’s strong sea-sickness tablets had any effect on her. She insisted on summoning the ship’s doctor, a French man. She told him that she had read that there was an injection for countering seasickness, which had been recently developed, and she wanted that immediately. The doctor had not heard of this wonder cure. However, my mother, a forceful personality at the best of times, insisted on having it. She was not taking ‘no’ or even ‘non’ as an answer. I am sure that the doctor was beginning to regret having come to her aid. In the end, he gave in, and gave her an injection. It may have only been saline, but my mother was happier although no less seasick.

My father was the only member of our family who felt well enough to face lunch in the ship’s dining room. When he arrived there, he was one of a small handful of passengers who felt well enough to have an appetite. After that first night, we sailed through calm waters for four gloriously sunlit days.

During the day, my parents lazed on sun-loungers on a deck. My father is a keen amateur art historian. In his spare time, he read the academic journals, like the Burlington Magazine and the Art Bulletin, which professional art historians read and in which they published learned articles. He might well have been reading one of these, when he turned his head and noticed that a man on the lounger next to his was reading an art historical monograph, which he had read recently. He began speaking to his neighbour. Dad was very excited to discover that he was lounging next to the art historian Leopold Ettlinger (1913-1989), a specialist in the art of the Italian renaissance, the period which fascinated my father most. Leopold and his then wife, Helen, were on their way to the USA to take up a temporary position in an American university, as was my father. My parents struck up a friendship with the Ettlingers, who came to stay with us in Chicago on the weekend immediately following the assassination of President JF Kennedy.

I cannot remember what my sister did during the days we spent on board, but I recall what I did. Far from soaking up the sun, I spent most of the daylight hours in darkness, in the ship’s comfortable cinema. Every day, a different film was screened, several times each day. Except at mealtimes, I watched the same film again and again each day. Two of these films, both filmed in black and white, stick in my mind although I have long forgotten their titles.

One of them, which might have had a title like “The Siege of Altona” concerned a German (maybe a Nazi), who had locked himself inside a flat in the Hamburg suburb of Altona. It was a very moving psychological drama, something that my mother might not have thought suitable for her eleven-year-old son.

The other film was a French comedy. I have not the slightest memory of its title. It concerned two thieves, who robbed locked collection boxes in churches.  Their method was ingenious even if not particularly efficient. The thieves first sucked thin circular toffees attached to long threads. After sucking one, ta toffee was lowered through the coin slot until it touched the coins. When the sweet touched a coin, the latter would stick to the toffee. Then using the thread, the coin and toffee where carefully removed from the collection box. The film worked towards it climax when the thieves conceived an improved method. They arrived in a church with a vacuum cleaner. Attached to its hose was a long thin plastic piece that fitted into the slots on the collection boxes. The thieves inserted this nozzle, turned on the machine, and were able to suck all the coins from a box. However, this discovery coincided with greater police in the activities of this duo. I cannot remember how the film finished, but the two crooks did not come out well in the end. I would love to see this film again. So, if any of you, dear readers, have any idea of its title, please do let me know.

We docked at a quay on the west side of Mahattan. Soon after that, we visited our old friends, the late Cyril and Elaine Sofer, in their holiday home on the island of Martha’s Vineyard. Cyril had been a friend of my father’s since they were both young in Cape Town. Elaine outlived him. She was, incidentally, the first person to make a Bloody Mary for me (not in 1963, but much later, I hasten to add). Leopold Ettlinger, Cyril and Elaine Sofer, and my mother are no more, nor is the SS France. It made its last voyage in 2008, when it docked at the breakers’ yards in Alang (Gujarat, India), where it was broken up for scrap.  

A SALTY DESERT

THE WHITE RANN (desert) is so named because of the layer of white salt crystals that forms on its surface in dry weather. The salt forms when salty water covering the salt flats in Kutch evaporates. We arrived in the area of the White Rann a few days after a downfall of rain. Rain dissolves the salt and the whiteness of the Rann disappears.

One afternoon, I walked across the salt flats behind our hotel. The water on the distant lake shimmered in the bright sunshine. The flat Rann across which I was strolling was greyish yellow with occasional patches of white. The surface of the drying salt was crunchy underfoot and sparkled as the crystals reflected the sun light.

There was no one in sight, no birds or other creatures. There was no sound apart from a gentle warm breeze that was drying the salt covered surface of the completely flat Rann.

By now you might be wondering where all of this salt comes from. A long, long time ago, an inlet of the Arabian Sea separated what is now Kutch from what is now Sindh (in Pakistan). After some seismic activity, the sea bed of the inlet was transformed into a barren desert, the Rann of Kutch. During rainy season, water collects in lakes in the Rann. Salt from the former sea bed dissolves in the water. When this water evaporates in the dry seasons, the salt is precipitated on the shore when the waters recede.

In a couple of days time, the Rann will be snow white again providing there is no more rain.

Pink flamingos

WHEN I WAS A SMALL CHILD, I used to be taken to see the small menagerie at Golders Hill Park in Northwest London. In addition to wallabies and deer, there used to be, and it is probably still in existence, an enclosure containing a few flamingos. Until a recent visit to Mandvi in Kutch (Gujarat, India), these were the only flamingos I can recall seeing.

Every year, flamingos migrate to Kutch during the winter months to escape from the cold that affects their summer habitats during winter. They might fly in from central Asia, or from parts of India that get particularly cold in winter.

We were keen to see these flamingos in Kutch. A keen bird watcher, who lives in Baroda, told us that flamingos had been sighted at Modhva beach, a few miles east of Kutch Mandvi.

We drove to Modhva beach, arriving there about twenty minutes before sunset. At first, the only birds we could see were seagulls. There were no flamingos to be seen. We asked some local fishermen about them. They pointed at the sea.

Our driver, who must have keen eyesight, pointed at some specks on the surface of sea, maybe more than one hundred yards from the water’s edge. Using the twenty times optical zoom on my digital camera, I could see quite clearly that the specks were flamingos with pink and white plumage.

I managed to take a few photographs before the sun sunk rapidly below the horizon. I had seen flamingos in the wild for the first time in my life. It was an exciting experience.

Man in the waves

GORM

 

At first sight, I thought I saw a man standing alone and naked out in the waves at Margate on a sunny but very windy afternoon. Crazy, I thought to brave those rollers on suchb a cold day and without a wet suit. Then, I noticed that he was coloureed green and motionless despite the battering he was getting from the sea. He was not a man, but a sculpture.

This sculpture braving the sea is Another Time  created in 2013 by the British sculptor Antony Gormley (born 1950).

The clever thing about this sculpture is placing it in the water. Though static, the waves dashing against it can create the illusion that the sculpted man is moving. Also, by putting it in the sea, the whole sea becomes an important part of the artwork.

Although I am not too keen on Gormley’s art works, this piece at Margate, just outside the Turner Contemporary art gallery satisfies me greatly. 

You can now see the sculpture and the waves in this short video:  http://www.ipernity.com/doc/adam/48815810

Island of history

The timeless Mediterranean washes the shores of an ancient land, Sicily.

Here in Cefalu, the Normans built a magnificent cathedral after taking over the island from its Arab rulers.

Sicily has been invaded many times, each invasion adding to the variety of culture and traditions on this piece of land that separates the western part of the Mediterranean from the eastern part.