John Lavery’s Morocco

Grove Koger

March 20 is the birthday of Irish painter John Lavery, who was born in Belfast on this day in 1856. Although highly regarded in his day, he seems to have been forgotten in ours, which is a shame.

A society painter whose portraits rivaled those of John Singer Sargent and a friend of James McNeill Whistler, Lavery also served as a war artist during World War I, despite bouts of ill health and the injuries he suffered in an automobile accident during the course a Zeppelin raid. And he excelled as an interpreter of Morocco, which he visited for the first time in 1891.

Lavery was taken with the region’s broad vistas and the quality of its light, and a number of works he painted on that first visit were exhibited later in the year at Goupil Gallery in London, along with examples on more familiar themes.

The artist was to return to Morocco every winter over the following years, with a break during World War I, and in time he even bought a residence with a hillside garden—Dar el Midfah—west of the Kasbah in Tangier, the famous “white city” perched at the western entrance to the Strait of Gibraltar. Lavery also set up a hilltop studio (whose entryway you see above) that provided him with an unparalleled view of the coast of southern Spain.

Lavery’s 1904 and 1908 exhibitions, the former at London’s Leicester Galleries and the latter at Goupil, emphasized Morocco even more, and included several views (an example of which you see above) over Tangier painted from the roof of the city’s Hotel Continental. Lavery is typically grouped with other European artists who produced paintings of North Africa and the Near East, but his quick, open brushwork sets him apart, and suggests that he was painting en plein air—outdoors—rather than working in his studio.

An interesting footnote to Lavery’s career involves his friendship with Scottish writer Robert Cunninghame Graham, who wrote an introduction to a catalogue issued in connection with Lavery’s Leicester Galleries exhibition. Cunninghame Graham is remembered in his own right as the author of a classic 1898 Moroccan travel account, Mogreb-El-Acksa.

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Rebecca West’s Yugoslavian Portmanteau

As I expand and update When the Going Was Good, I’m posting revised entries from the first edition. Today’s deals with a tribute to a beautiful but troubled land by Dame Rebecca West, who died on March 15, 1983. That land has since ceased to exist, but West’s monumental work lives on.

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Rebecca West: Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Journey through Yugoslavia (London: Macmillan, 1941)

It was in 1936 that English novelist and journalist Rebecca West first visited Yugoslavia, the Balkan kingdom that had been cobbled together after the First World War. She found the country so fascinating that she returned with her husband the following spring for a journey of six weeks, and again by herself the year after that.

West eventually visited most of the country’s constituent “republics,” exulting in a country not yet seduced by capitalism and industrialization. Macedonia (“the country I have always seen between sleeping and waking”) struck her as the most beautiful, but it was in Serbia that she found the images that gave the book its title, grim yet potent symbols of renewal through sacrifice and martyrdom.     

West hoped that in writing about Yugoslavia she would understand the larger world crisis, as she anticipated that the country would soon be overrun by either fascism or communism. (In fact, a German invasion had taken place by the time the book appeared, and a communist regime would be installed at war’s end.) The work is structured as an account of a single visit, enlivened with many, many pages of history, philosophical speculation, anthropological observation, autobiography, and so on. West’s anticommunist, pro-Serb attitudes have at various times proven politically unpopular—she clashed with Edith Durham over the question of Albania, for instance—but Black Lamb and Grey Falcon stands as one of the great idiosyncratic works of travel literature, a vast portmanteau of a book greater than the sum of its many parts.

To learn more about West, see John B. Allcock and Antonia Young, eds., Black Lambs and Grey Falcons: Women Travellers in the Balkans (Berghahn, 2000); Motley F. Deakin, Rebecca West (Twayne, 1980); Victoria Glendinning, Rebecca West: A Life (Knopf, 1987); Harold Orel, The Literary Achievement of Rebecca West (St. Martin’s, 1986); Carl Rollyson, Rebecca West: A Life (Scribner, 1996); and Peter Wolfe, Rebecca West, Artist and Thinker (Southern Illinois University Press, 1971).

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William Walton, Susana Walton & Italy

Grove Koger

English composer William Walton was lucky enough to be taken up as a young man by the cosmopolitan Sitwell brothers, Osbert and Sacheverell, and in 1920 the three of them traveled to Italy by train. It was Walton’s first visit to the country, and in fact his first visit abroad. As he would later recall, “There was suddenly a blinding flash and one was in Italy and there was sun everywhere. It has remained with me always, that first sight of Italy.”

There’s a tendency (which I readily admit to sharing) to read or hear or see in a work of art at least some the circumstances under which it was created. In the case of Walton, I hear a kind of Mediterranean luxuriance in his Violin Concerto (1939), which he wrote in the company of his companion, Alice Wimborne, in Ravello, an Italian resort perched nearly 1200 feet above the sea southeast of Naples. He himself admitted that the concerto reflected the love he felt for Wimborne, and he even incorporated a tarantella into the piece after being bitten by a tarantula—a reference to the belief that performing the wild dance would alleviate the effects of the bite. The composer referred to the passage as “quite gaga.” (If you’re unfamiliar with the concerto, watch this fine performance with Kyung Wha Chung on the violin and André Previn conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra. The occasion was Walton’s 80th birthday gala at Royal Festival Hall in London, and at the end you can catch a glimpse of him sitting in the Royal box.)

Walton was devastated when Wimborne died in 1948, but on a visit to Buenos Aires, Argentina, shortly afterward, he met 22-year-old Susana Gil Passo, who subsequently became his wife. After their marriage, the two (seen above in a photograph from Associated Newspapers) began spending half the year on the Italian island of Ischia southwest of Naples, and took up permanent residence there in 1956. The couple went on to build a house on the promontory of Zaro overlooking the town of Forio, naming it La Mortella (“Place of Myrtles”) for the myrtle bushes they found growing there, and Susana began planting the extensive grounds with a variety of other Mediterranean and tropical plants.  The photograph at the top of today’s post, taken by Roberto De Martino and reproduced courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, shows a view of the town from the property.

After her husband’s death on March 8, 1983, Susana maintained and expanded the garden, opening it to the public in 1991. Now owned and managed by the Fondazione William Walton La Mortella, the garden is regarded as one of the most beautiful in Europe, and is home to a Greek Theatre and the William Walton Museum and Archives.

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A Good Excuse to Fly a Kite

Grove Koger

This year, February 27 is Clean Monday (Kathará Deftéra)—the end of Carnival celebrations and the first day of Great Lent in many of the sects of Eastern Christianity, including the Oriental Orthodox and Eastern Orthodox churches. It’s a day in which people may cleanse themselves of sin and leave behind non-fasting foods, and it’s regarded as the first day of the spring season as well. In Greece and Cyprus, it’s also a day for outings and kite flying. Athenian families, for instance, gather on Filopapou Hill southwest of the Acropolis to fly their kites, a joyous practice you can watch in this YouTube video from Earth Sound Walks.

There are various explanations for the significance of the kites. The higher they fly, according to one explanation, the more likely are the wishes they symbolize to be granted by God. Or flying and then releasing the kite symbolizes freeing the body from sin. Or it symbolizes the passing of the soul into heaven. Whatever else, I suspect, it’s a means of lifting the spirits in the absence of the roast pork that you might otherwise be looking forward to.

Clean Monday in Athens features in at least one work by Edward Bawden (1903-1989), who visited Greece in March 1944 as a war artist, and it’s this image (above) that I ran across years ago without understanding its significance. The great Greek artist Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghikas (1906-1994), better known simply as Ghika, also depicted the day in several of his paintings. The one at the top of today’s post recreates the celebration on the island of Hydra, as does (I think) the black-and-white print below. Although born in Athens, Ghika spent much of his life on Hydra.

I had assumed that the dating of the seasons is a settled affair, but it’s more complicated than that. According to my calendar, spring officially begins on March 20 in the United States, which puts it in accord with the vernal equinox, but I notice that what’s known as the meteorological season of spring begins on March 1. What’s more, the date can vary, even in the Northern Hemisphere, depending on the country you happen to live in, and of course everything is reversed in the Southern Hemisphere.   

In any case, whenever you think springs begins, it’s a good excuse to fly a kite.

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On the Brink—and Afterward

Grove Koger

Deborah Cohen, Last Call at the Hotel Imperial: The Reporters Who Took on a World at War. Random House, 2022

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Three-quarters of a century after its conclusion, World War II continues to fascinate us. Histories of its frightening run-up, ruinous course, and numbing aftermath are legion, and their number continues to grow. Like World War I, which after all laid the groundwork for it, World War II was a world-encompassing earthquake whose aftershocks look as if they might continue forever.

Thanks to all those books, we in the twenty-first century may feel sometimes that we know too much about the conflict, but the ordinary British and American citizens who lived through the events relied almost totally on what they read in the newspapers and what they heard on their radios. And it was thanks to a band of foreign correspondents working on the ground in Europe and, to a lesser extent, Asia—chief among them John Gunther, his wife Frances Gunther, H.R. Knickerbocker, Vincent Sheean, and Dorothy Thompson—that they could do so.

The correspondents were young and pretty green. Most seem to have been neurotic and many were alcoholic, or were well on their way. They were often right about what they saw, sometimes wrong, frequently brilliant. They were also promiscuous and astonishingly brave. For them, the conflict was personal, and they managed to make history while reporting it. As Cohen observes, “The fault lines that ran through a crumbling Europe … ran through their own lives as well.” 

Of the individuals I’ve mentioned, I was familiar with only John Gunther. He was once famous for Inside Europe, the first edition of which appeared in 1936, and although I haven’t read it, I intend to remedy the situation soon. I knew the names Sheean and Thompson, but I couldn’t have told you anything about them. If you’re in the same boat, then you’ll find Last Call as fascinating as I have. I’ve never encountered another work that mixes personal and world history so effectively and so well.

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The Kingdom of Redonda and a Pinch of Shiel

Grove Koger

M. P. Shiel was born on the West Indian island of Montserrat in 1865. He would later claim that, on his fifteenth birthday, he was taken by his father to visit the nearby (and unclaimed) islet of Redonda and there anointed King Felipe. We have only Shiel’s account of the incident, but, over time, the story took on a life of its own, eventually involving a disparate cast of characters, including such literary figures as poet John Gawsworth and novelists Lawrence Durrell and Javier Marías.

Shiel (whose portrait you see above) emigrated to England in 1885, after being admonished by his father, “Try not to be strange.” For better or worse, the young man ignored the admonition. He went on to lead a peripatetic and largely unedifying life, producing some of the most bizarre stories and novels in the English language before descending into hackdom. But along the way, Shiel met Gawsworth and subsequently named him the kingdom’s Poet Laureate and his own heir apparent.

Gawsworth himself led an irregular life and cultivated a host of lost causes, including that of Charles I of England, who had been executed for high treason … in 1649. He wrote poetry that fluctuated erratically between pretty good and pretty bad; assembled anthologies of avowedly old-fashioned Georgian verse; bought rare books cheaply and sold them dearly; selflessly championed other writers such as Shiel and Arthur Machen who were down on their luck; and, with ever-increasing frequency and enthusiasm, drank.

In other words, the Kingdom of Redonda was a realm that might well have been created with Gawsworth in mind, and when Shiel died in 1947, Gawsworth became King Juan 1. He never bothered, much less had the wherewithal, to visit his tiny New World kingdom (seen in a photograph by Invertzoo at the top of today’s post ), instead holding court in whatever London pub he happened to be patronizing at the moment. 

I’d like to be able to write at this point that Lawrence Durrell (above) met Gawsworth in just such an establishment, but in fact the meeting took place in one of the city’s cafés, the Windmill, at about 3:00 o’clock one morning in 1932. As the future author of The Alexandria Quartet would remember, “I was a complete literary novice and a provincial and the meeting was an important one for me, for in John I found someone who burned with a hard gem-like flame—the very thing I wished to do myself.” Sometime later, Gawsworth obligingly named Durrell Duke of Cervantes Pequeña.

During his lifetime, in fact, King Juan I ennobled a host of peers, the only trouble being that he named several of these undoubtedly deserving individuals his heir apparent. To make a very long and vexingly involved story short, Spanish novelist Javier Marías eventually became King Xavier in 1997, and reigned until his death last year. Who may now have ascended to the throne isn’t clear.

If you’d like to know more (make that a lot more) about Redonda, Canadian writer Michael Hingston has recently and obligingly published Try Not to Be Strange; The Curious History of the Kingdom of Redonda (Biblioasis). Among many other pieces of that curious history, Hingston writes that after Shiel’s death and cremation in 1947, Gawsworth kept the late king’s ashes in a tin on his mantelpiece. “For years afterwards,” it seems, “whenever a noteworthy guest would drop by his home for dinner,” Gawsworth would carry the tin to the table and season their food “with a pinch of Shiel.”

Sic transit gloria.

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Picturing Mahón

Grove Koger

Over the last century or two, there have been a handful of locales that have attracted numerous talented artists. Think of the French Riviera, for instance, or Venice, or the banks of the Hudson River, or Laguna Beach. Others have attracted few artists or none at all. There seem to be a number of factors that come into play—climate, history, proximity to relatively large population centers, affordability, the presence of other artists, or, of course, luck. But whatever factors have been involved, the Spanish island of Menorca seems to have attracted the attention of very few artists, despite the picturesqueness of its easternmost port, Mahón (or, to give it its official name, Maó).

The painting you see at the top is by Catalan artist Josep Moscardó and is reproduced from a poster that we bought from Galeria Artaro in Mahón in 1998. The painting offers a panoramic view of the port’s 3-mile-long harbor from the clifftop vantage point of Mahón’s old town. It’s hard to be sure, but I think that one of the red-roofed buildings lying alongside the water near the center of the painting is the Xoriguer distillery, producer of famed Xoriguer gin.

Born in 1953, Moscardó worked with the Palmera Taller d’Art silk-screening workshop in Barcelona from 1998 to 2016, and he exhibits regularly in Barcelona and the Barcelonan suburb of Sant Cugat del Vallès.

The second image, a painting by Scottish artist A(lexander) S(tuart) Boyd (1854-1930), takes us back more than a century, and offers a view of the cliff on which the old town perches. It’s reproduced from The Fortunate Isles (Methuen, 1911) by the artist’s wife, Mary Stuart Boyd (1860-1937), who was also Scottish. “Our first impression of Mahón,” she wrote, “was one of unexpected brilliance. Until we were well up the harbour the town was invisible. Then, as it came in sight …, the unexpected picturesque beauty of the scene filled us with surprise and delight.”  

Our third image, above, is Boyd’s sketch of Calle San Roque in Mahón, while below is a lithograph, Vista de Una Parte del Puerto y Ciudad de Mahon, that takes us back to the mid-nineteenth century. Prepared by Juan Font y Vidal (fl. 1859-1864) from a drawing by José Vallejo y Galeazo (1821-1882), it isn’t a striking work of art, but it captures the expansiveness of the harbor (one of the longest in the world) and suggests how important a role it’s played in the history of the western Mediterranean.

One other factor that might attract artists to a particular place is the presence of galleries, and on that score, Mahón entered a new era in 2021 with the establishment of Hauser & Wirth Menorca. As I mentioned in my post for May 23, 2022, the gallery lies on little King’s Island (Illa del Rei) in the port’s harbor. The emphasis at Hauser & Wirth is on contemporary, largely nonrepresentational art, so it’ll be interesting to follow the gallery’s impact on the port and what’s sure to be a growing artistic community.  

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John O’Hara Visits New York

Grove Koger

January 31 is the birthday of one of my favorite writers, John O’Hara, who was born on this day in Pottsville, Pennsylvania, in 1905. To mark the occasion, I’m reprinting a section from a long review I wrote for the September 9, 2014, issue of the late lamented Philadelphia Review of Books, “The Way We Were: On Penguin’s John O’Hara Reissues.”

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John O’Hara’s second novel, BUtterfield 8 (1935), intercuts episodes from the lives of half a dozen characters living in one of New York City’s Upper East Side neighborhoods. (The seemingly cryptic title refers to a new telephone exchange in the area.) It’s near the beginning of what we now call the Great Depression, and Prohibition is still in force. Several sections of telegraphed reportage strengthen our sense that events are random and chaotic, perhaps out of control: “On Monday afternoon an unidentified man jumped in front of the New Lots express in the Fourteenth Street subway station,” and “Mr. Hoover was on time for the usual meeting of his Cabinet,” and “Jerry, a drunk, did not wake up once during the entire afternoon, which he spent in a chair at a West 49th Street speakeasy,” and so on. Things are going to happen, we feel, and many of them are not going to be nice.

The speakeasy where Jerry fell asleep was only one of what may have been an astonishing one hundred thousand to be found in New York City at the beginning of the 1930s, and a myriad of them show up in BUtterfield 8. In his introduction to the 2013 Penguin reprint of the novel, Lorin Stein refers to O’Hara’s belief that Prohibition helped turn his generation—“the losing, not the lost, generation,” in O’Hara’s formulation—into alcoholics. It also turned them into lawbreakers, and a mood of commonplace, everyday criminality seems to have infected everyone in the book.

Jim Malloy, who was O’Hara’s alter ego and who had a bit part in the author’s first novel, Appointment in Samarra, shows up again here, but the novel’s central character is Gloria Wandrous, an attractive and sexually adventurous young woman involved (intimately and otherwise) with several of the men in the book. Wandrous is both a victim and a victimizer, and is loosely based on Starr Faithfull, whom O’Hara had known slightly and who became a tabloid sensation after her body washed up on the shore of Long Island one day in 1931.

Malloy, not so coincidentally, has just published his first piece in The New Yorker and is working on a novel. Here he’s described as looking as if “he were permanently drunk” and insists that although he’s “often taken for a Yale man,” he’ll always be an Irishman, a “Mick.” However, he has no real connection with Gloria, and his presence seems slightly gratuitous, even if his experiences mirror O’Hara’s own. Another character, Eddie Brunner, is genuinely in love with Gloria (who reciprocates his feelings), although O’Hara has a hard time breathing life into him. But Wandrous herself is a full-blooded creation, as vital as any character O’Hara ever created. The passages describing her abuse and her descent into promiscuity and alcoholism are among his very best, although they make for uncomfortable reading.

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Urquhart Castle’s Trebuchet

Grove Koger

If you visit Loch Ness, as Maggie and I did in 2006, you may stay for several days in the attractive little village of Drumnadrochit. The village is convenient for one of those obligatory boat rides on the famous loch, a tour of the Loch Ness Centre & Exhibition, a visit to the dramatic ruins of Urquhart Castle, and—if you’re interested in the mechanics of medieval warfare—a close inspection of the castle’s trebuchet.

As you may know, a trebuchet is a kind of large catapult capable of throwing large stones. Employed carefully and accurately, it was capable of destroying wood or even stone walls or other structures with enormous force from a considerable distance.

While trebuchets are indeed medieval weapons, Urquhart Castle’s example was built by several dozen members of the Timber Framers Guild—a group “dedicated to promoting, supporting, honoring, and advancing the craft of timber framing”—in 1998. Utilizing what was apparently a design from a thirteenth-century manuscript, the group fashioned a Douglas fir log into the weapon’s 26-foot arm and used oak for the rest of the structure. The 8-ton counterweight (which you can see clearly at the bottom of the arm in our second photograph) was made of lead, while the stones the trebuchet was designed to throw weigh 250 pounds apiece. I understand that if actually utilized, the weapon could hurl stones some 200 yards at a speed of 127 miles per hour. Rolling wheels (in this case inscribed with Celtic patterns) would prevent the structure from lurching violently when in use.

The name Drumnadrochit, by the way, is something of a mouthful for non-Scots. The village grew up adjacent to a bridge over the River Enrich, and its name is derived from the Scottish Gaelic phrase Druim na Drochaid, or the “Ridge of the Bridge.”

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Quenching Versailles’s Thirst

Grove Koger

Some time back I happened across a painting by one Pierre-Denis Martin titled Vue de la Machine de Marly. I had never heard of Monsieur Martin, or Marly, or the Machine de Marly, but I was intrigued, so I made a note of the painting and did some research.

Pierre-Denis Martin, it turns out, was a French painter of historical subjects and the like who lived from 1663 to 1742. The Machine de Marly, or Marly Machine, that he painted in 1723 (and that you see at the top of today’s post) was a massive water-lifting and pumping station built on the banks of the Seine some 7.5 miles from Paris. And Marly itself, or more precisely Marly-le-Roi, was the site of a reservoir that was part of this complicated water-supply complex.

The machine featured 14 waterwheels, each of them more than 39 feet in diameter, designed to draw water up in buckets from the river. In turn, several series of suction and treading pumps forced the water farther up the bank to several series of catch basins, eventually depositing it in the Aqueduct of Louveciennes (seen above in a vintage postcard), for a total vertical rise of some 500 feet. The aqueduct then carried the water to the vast Palace of Versailles and the nearby Château of Marly. Oddly enough, there’s precious little groundwater beneath Versailles, hence the need to transport such an enormous amount to feed the palace’s many, many fountains and jeux d’eau, or water features.

The devilishly intricate Marly Machine was the work of hydraulics engineer Arnold de Ville, whose employees took seven years to complete the project. King Louis XIV was present at the machine’s inauguration in 1684. Although I mention above that the complex fed the fountains at Versailles, I don’t mean that it fed them adequately, for, as impressive as it was, the Machine de Marly simply couldn’t supply enough water. As if to make up for that inadequacy, it was extraordinarily noisy, as everyone living near it could attest.

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