Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Around The Hague, 2006, Part 3

Delft is only a number 1 tram ride away from The Hague.

I get out at the second stop beyond the windmill to have breakfast of coffee and 'appelgebak' (a tart of pastry filled with apple chunks and sultanas) at an ancient (17th Century) merchants' hall where a huge balance decided such as the number of sheep skins to be swapped for wheels of cheese.

After breakfast I head out of the main market square with its tall church of multi-chiming bells to a shopping street where there is a wonderful hardware shop. It is small, but crammed with goodies, many of which I would like to have.

Delft, being one of the favourite haunts of Duch painters through their civilised ages, seems to present a charming vista at every turn. Many an ally way, if peopled by maidens in 17th century costume, could be a familiar Vermeer scene.

Dominating, and forbodingly, is a church, with an enormous clock-decorated belltower that leans over a canal as if to fall. It contains a great bell that is struck at the death of a royal personage. When their last prince died, it was feared that a toll of the bell would be the death of the tower, but is was rung, and the tower remains standing. But, for myself, I do not choose to stand beneath it.

So I filled some of my plain postcards with drawings of buildings (both vertical and leaning), bridges, and canals leading to dark watery tunnels.

Market days, either taking place in the main square or on either side of a canal are a delight. People from Delft and the surrounding countryside crowd the ally ways between stalls to bargain, buy or eat.

The tram route to and from Delft passes by T-shaped streets that constitute the red light district.

I thought that these would be an interesting subject for my pen and postcards.

Why I am reminded of butchers' shops when passing the 100 or so windows of scantily-clad girls, I do not know. Perhaps the display in the windows of butchers' shops are only of interest if you are there to buy meat.

Expecting a hostile reception should I draw openly and brazingly, I stood well away to record men ogling, contemplating, bargaining, or just standing around on guard.

With Delft on the inland side of The Hague, Scheveningen is on the other side - the seaside.

I had never entered to walk out to sea on its elaborate pier, that somehow resembles a gheko's leg and feet. On one of its several 'toes', a tall tower and crane provide the means for bungee-jumping.

But the interior of the covered, and lower floor of the pier, is dull, with a few souvenir shops doing (in winter) next to no business.

But below the pier, on the extensive swath of sands, a golf course had been set up, with greens of matting laid down. So, except for the initial drive from each tee, every shot toward the green became a bunker shot (what lovely practice).

I thought that I had come to the end of my pack of now drawn-on postcards. But there was one left to record a foursome trying to shield themselves from the wind and rain with a large black umbrella while waiting their turn to tee off.

Margreet's conference over, it was time to drive home, this time breaking our journey back to England at Oostende.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Around The Hague, 2006. Part 2

When in The Hague I buy an English newspaper. I don't know quite why, when it is printed on the mainland, has less in it, and costs almost four times as much as it does in England.

I buy it at the station. Outside the station stand a thousand or more bicycles. They make a fine sight, and a subject for my eye, pencil and paper.

One wonders how people can locate their bikes. Well, on close inspection, most, although superficially looking alike, are different. The saddles vary, as do the heights of them, as do handlebars, bells, mudguards and chain guards. And their locking-up devices vairy. One person painted his bell pink. It stood out. And then people do remember roughly where their bikes have been parked.

One matter bothered me. Why did there seem to be so many bikes parked at night when the cyclists should have ridden them home after work? I can only conclude that, being commuter bikes, they are ridden in pairs - one to reach the suburban station where they are parked, and one at the destination station on which to ride to work.

Holland (or I should say The Netherlands, as Holland is only part of that country) is a neat and tidy place - well ordered and well disciplined. And in a country that seems to have no tramps or sordid life (like New Zealand when I was once there) needs a visible balance of good and bad to reflect real life.

So whenever I visit the neat and tidy Hague, I visit a sex shop - and this one really balances the clean and tidy with the thoroughly sordid.

Inside the shop door is the usual mix of items for sale, like dildos of every shape and colour, and DVDs of most sexual acts.

A small fee is paid to a rather sinister-looking gentleman at a desk, and you enter a dark passage via a doorway draped with heavy black material.

On the left side of this dark passageway are rooms where it is possible to watch your chosen video in private or, if so inclined, to leave the door open in the hope that a partner might enter to share whatever. At the end on the left is a small room showing sado-masochistic films.

On the right hand side are two equally dark rooms with slightly raised and partly enclosed balconies at the rear that have a medieval-theatrical look about them. They are for semi-privacy.

Both rooms are furnished with side benches, hard chairs, rickety-plastic armchairs and a few tables - for cigarette ashtrays - many of the clients being smokers.

Through a black curtain and in the first room is a fairly small television screen showing continuous films of heterosexual acts with the participants of various colours doing much the same as heterosexuals do at home, but showing absolutely no imagination. This room is barely populated, with customers entering through the curtained doorway and leaving quite quickly.

In the other room, and again through a heavy black curtain, are continuous homosexual films, mainly of three men at a time pleasuring each other.

This is a crowded room with spectators sizeing each other up, or openly pleasing themselves.

And that's it - low, sordid life in the dark. It is too dark for drawing there, and to do so might put me in some danger.

I am fascinated to see that this life should exist, do not spend much time there, retreat to order a Leffe beer in a café, and wash my hands thoroughly before I quenche my thirst.

In Part 3, I go to Delft and Scheveningen.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Around The Hague, 2006. Part 1

Margreet, being summoned to a conference in The Hague gave me a chance to tag along and to amuse myself while she listened to power point presentations.

So, with our car, we slid through the Channel Tunnel and drove over the flat and barely-interesting countryside of France, to bear left after Belgium to reach The Hague, in Holland.

It was arranged through her work that we would stay in a five star hotel. I expected a lot - probably never having slept in such a grand establishment before. But the furnishings of our room were dun-coloured, there was no chair and mirror for ladies to do their make-up, it was impossible to spit into the basin when cleaning our teeth because a shelf intervened, and the brown-tinted window glass allowed only brown-tinted light to reach the room. It was not a particularly pleasant place.

Before leaving London I packed my usual writing notebooks and, this time, a packet of plain postcards and a handful of crayons. Now, with Margreet at work, I was free to roam.

The Hague is a duller place by far than Amsterdam. But it does have the huge advantage of being near to Scheveningen by the seaside, and Delft inland. Both are easily accessible by the number 1 tram, and paid for by folding and inserting into the tram's red box one ticket from a 'strippenkaart' per zone. The red box stamps the date and time, allowing the passenger to travel through the chosen zone(s) for the following hour.

But, first of all, when in The Hague, I walk through the smart shopping streets to find my favourite venue - the Panorama Mesdag.

In 1881 Hendrik Willem Mesdag, with his wife and helpers, was commissioned to paint a 360 degree panorama from a sanddune by the sea in Scheveningen.

Although the panorama was painted where it now stands in The Hague, Mesdag stood beneath a sort of bandstand on his sanddune, poked his head into a cylinder of, I suppose mica, and on the inside traced the landscape that he saw all around. This gave him the correct dimensions.

It was a major undertaking, the panorama canvas being 14 meters high and a 120 meters around.

To view it, you enter through a rather dreary and ordinary museum building, pass through grey galleries, enter a dark passage, and climb some wooden steps into the middle of a bandstand perched on a fake "dune" of real sand.

And there, all around you, with the "dune" marrying imperceptively with the painted scene, is exactly what you would have seen there in 1881. You are there, really there.

Outside light reaches the scene through unseen glass above the bandstand. So, as scudding clouds pass overhead, the changing light from the sky passes over the painted scene.

Below are fishing smacks lying on the sand, floating in the foreshore water, or out at sea. Along the coast on sanddunes to the south is a church, lighthouse and domed building. Inland, beyond more sand, is The Hague in the distance. A canal abruptly ends beneath the dunes. The small town, with a pavilion of delight belonging to a Prince of Orange, leads the eye back to the shore again, where ladies dip their toes into the water from bathing machines, and a troop of cavalry, with gun carriages, ride over the sands for exercise.

This panorama in The Hague gave its citizens a chance to be beside the seaside in days of poverty and poor transport.

It was one of some 300 panoramas around the world, most to be abandoned with the advent of photography. This one is not only one of the very few remaining (the others often having a religious or military scene), but remains in the very spot where it was painted.

To give you an example how "real" the scene is, I saw a viewer take out his binoculars to look at something in the distance, when "the distance" was only fourteen paces away from him on canvas.

Out came my packet of blank postcards so that I could record people as they stood to be taken in by this magical illusion.

In later blogs I'll tell you about Scheveningen (the real one this time), a sordid sexshop, Delft, a redlight district, and Dutch food.

Friday, October 20, 2006

potted history

Without prejudice

A blog, however useful a medium to replace letter-writing and as a vehicle for parting with ideas, has come at just the wrong time for me. Let me explain why through a potted history.

I suppose from schooldays and before I have been a painter.

From the wartime years of flying in the RAF (obtaining my wings at the very end of the war) to recuperating from TB, to medical student, art student, theatre design student, and then on to designing in the theatre (given up as I was not gay or had influence), I now, at last, became a full-time painter.

After one-man exhibitions in London's Cork Street, Bond Street, Japan and elsewhere, with pieces of sculpture creeping into my shows to make my point, I was becoming, and became, a full-time sculptor - working in wood, sometimes very large pieces of it.

Then I broke my wrist in a car accident, could no longer sculpt, and turned to writing.

This I did for some 27 years writing over 700 articles for newpapers and magazines, and 14 books - on subjects as diverse as gardening, vine-growing and vinification, travel, the London Docks, cooking and wine, etc. In my computer (really word processor) is an on-going 250.000 words autobiography and a third (130.000 words) cookery book.

Now it so happens that I admire the paintings of Matthew Smith. I had a lovely example that went with my ex-wife. So I wanted another (wife and painting). A pastel came up for sale at Christie's salerooms. My new and lovely wife and I decided to go halves and put in a bid for it. A buyer paid four times more than our offer.

I was so upset that I decided to use pastel colour to create four tributes to Matthew Smith, using my own modest skills and Matthew Smith's favourite still-life objects. And to make sure they would never be mistaken for the genuine article, boldly writing on them "Homage to Matthew Smith". Because of this I had suddenly become a painter once more (after the break of 27 years).

Whereas as a writer I would have welcomed the blog and had time for it, I now have the taste for painting. And, as a man, I am really only able to concentrate on one thing at a time.

Already, in 2006, I have "painted" in pastel, eight A1 startlingly colourful geometric views of my garden. But I will add to the blog when I feel like it. And the cycle has come around once more to confirm that I really am a painter, with a two foot by four foot painting that I did on the spot of Chelsea Football Ground in 1954, coming up for sale at Christie's salerooms, South Kensington, on 7th December 2006 at 10.30 am. It is described in their catalogue as:

The Shed, Chelsea Football Ground
signed with initials 'P.R.' (lower right), signed again and inscribed 'NEIGHBOURS ON SATURDAYS/JAMES PAGE-ROBERTS (on a label attached to the reverse) and with studio stamp (on the reverse) oil on canvas laid down on board 24 x 48 in. (60.9 x 121.9 cm).
Painted in 1954.
London, New Burlington Galleries, Daily Express Young Artists' Exhibition, April - May 1955, as 'Neighbours on Saturdays'.

The present work was painted in the season which led to Chelsea's first major trophy success - the league championship. The early 1930s saw the construction of the southern part of the ground with a roof that covered around a fifth of the stand. This was eventually to be known as the "Shed End" - the home of Chelsea's most loyal and vocal supporters.

Page-Roberts, an artist who, among others, frequently exhibited at The Redfern Gallery and Leicester Galleries in the 1950s painted this work on the terraces.

Anthony Eyton, R.A. comments, 'This work is an historic document and a brilliantly conceived picture. An essential piece of Chelsea Football Club History' (private correspondence, 14th October 2006).