Friday, May 25, 2007

A new Matthew Smith

It has always been my opinion that the artist Matthew Smith was our greatest 20th century colourist. He was also well known as a painter and enjoyer of luscious nude ladies.
Not long after the war I bought a delightful little painting of his from Freddy Mayor, of the Mayor Gallery. It cost me just over £100 – a large sum in those days. I treasured it.
At a dinner party, given by Anna de Goguel, I found myself to be a fellow guest with the great artist – surprisingly for his female subjects and virile reputation, a frail, bony, pale man. I told him about my painting. He wanted to see it.
So I made my excuses to my hostess and rushed back to my two small council rooms to unhook my treasure from the wall and carry it back to the party.
Matthew Smith was delighted to see it again. He told me that in the 1930s he had painted it in the South of France as a study for a much larger painting. This he did, but no longer knew where it was, or even if it existed.
He told me that he got into some kind of bother (I later heard that it was to do with the Customs) and that the Consul in Nice, one William Ashcroft (the brother of Peggy Ashcroft, the actress), had helped him resolve the matter. In gratitude he had given Ashcroft my painting as a token of thanks.
The painting always had pride of place in my houses, and hung sometimes in the lavatory.
When living in Tangley in the 1980s I very foolishly had the painting valued. And its value was so high that I enquired of my insurers if I might insure it. The answer was that of course they would cover it – for a price and the understanding that I would have to add a burglar alarm to my house, with all the extra precautions of locks everywhere.
It was my habit to keep an open house, with it unlocked and open to friends at all times, except at night time. So I decided not to insure it.
Now, when I was working or relaxing in the garden well away from the house, I started to feel uneasy about the safety of my little painting. So I took it back to the Mayor Gallery for safekeeping.
About that time my marriage came to an end and I parted with the painting as part of the division of jointly held artefacts. I believe it was sold right away, and for a considerable sum.
I have somehow missed that painting more than any other with which I have had to part, and that includes a Rodin, several Burras, a large Paul Nash, a Wadsworth and many others – all going in my bachelor years when the bank manager demanded it.
So when a little Matthew Smith pastel came up for sale at Christie’s, with a reserve at under a thousand pounds, Margreet and I put in a bid for it. The small work on torn paper went for four thousand.
I was rather upset by this, as we had rather set our hearts on getting it. So, to assuage my longing, I bought some pastels (for the first time in my life) and did four little pieces as homage to the great artist. Although I did them in my own way, I used the still life ingredients used by Matthew Smith. To be sure that there would never be confusion, I wrote on them boldly: “Homage to Matthew Smith” and stamped them with my studio stamp. One of them I hung on the wall. I had my pastiche. I was happy.
In a Christie’s catalogue of a sale, when one of my own paintings was on offer, there was a very interesting illustration of a Matthew Smith for sale. We went to see it and were both very impressed. Margreet wanted to buy it so that we could both enjoy its surprisingly light colouring and very Matthew Smith lines. Its title was “Flowers in a Vase”. She took advice from James Gould, the expert there on British 20th century art, and placed a bid.
We went to the auction, knowing how high was her offer, and it was knocked down to her at a much lower price than she had expected. She paid, it was wrapped, and hanging on our wall no more than an hour after the auction.
The artist left the bulk of his unsold work to Mary Keane, who donated the collection to the City of London, with a permanent exhibition at the Barbican Centre. We met her daughter, Alice Keane, at the gallery where Matthew Smith exhibited, then called Rowland, Browse and Delbanco. We already had the Alice Keane excellent biography of the artist. I asked if she would like to see the three drawings in my possession, which she would, but never came.
It occurred to me that in looking at the three books I had on the artist’s life and work, that there might be a clue as to when our pastel was done and where. And there, in Alice’s biography, were three illustrations that absolutely matched our pastel. So not only did we now have the new acquisition, but we also knew that John Russell (the great art critic of the day) and Vera Barry (who he later married) had taken Matthew Smith with them to a house that, in 1956, they had rented in Villeneuve les Avignons, in the South of France. Matthew Smith was nearing the end of his life and not well, so was disinclined to create as much as his host and hostess had wished. But he did produce some work from a room with a balcony overlooking a landscape with water. We had acquired one of those pastels.
When I told the Christie’s man what I had discovered, he told me that had this information been known before the sale, the work would have sold for another two thousand pounds.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Paris May 2007

The riots outside our hotel at the Gare du Nord had just been quelled by a ferocious police force. So all was quiet when we arrived for a short stay in Paris with nothing in mind to do except try two restaurants that I had not visited for some 30 years or more.
Even had there been a riot it would have been far below us as we looked from our hotel room across to the splendid Victorian/classical façade of the station, down to newly-formed springtime leaves on plane trees and, not too far away in the distance, the monstrous and unmissable structure of Sacré Coeur atop its hill.
We ate well at the 1925 below and, after a rest, surveyed Paris as it should be – a spectacular view, warm spring sunshine flowing into our room, and with a bellyful of good food and wine.
The district that we were in could hardly be called salubrious. Cosmopolitan would be nearer the mark. So we sat at a local bar for our evening aperitif – watching the passing scene. In a count of about 100 people to pass by, about two thirds were white, one visibly Muslim woman (the men around us were drinking only coffee), one dog and, surprisingly, one cat (on its master’s shoulder and taken for a walk).
Café-sitting in France is an absolute delight – to those of us who like to look at people, their characters, shapes, clothes and manner.
Our café had a palm tree in a pot between its customers and the passers-by. Its fronds encroached on the pavement space. So people either had to duck down as they walked by, or were brushed in the face as they went. A blind man, who walked with a long white stick, and at considerable speed, crashed into a hoarding on the pavement. He made no fuss of it whatsoever and continued as if nothing untoward had occurred.
After our count of people, the dog and one cat, a gang of scruffs passed by, each with a strong dog on a lead. Begging brought them nothing, as people, presumably, thought that if they were able to keep dogs in good condition they must be quite capable of looking after themselves.
Our new addition of the Michelin Red Guide told of two good places to eat quite nearby. So we aimed for one of them – Chez Casimir (the other, Chez Michel, was almost next door). We ate well there, with me choosing the kind of peasant food that we can only cook at home, and usually needing half a pig’s head to do so. An interesting cookery idea for me was that my pig’s cheek came to the table with pearl barley in a sauce as the surrounding vegetable. It made a very nice change from the usual Puy lentils.
We concluded that the food was of a higher standard than our favourite 1925 beneath the hotel – close by, and cheaper.
We expect nocturnal noise where we stay, but our first night was more disturbed than usual. A man, in a most resonant part of the Gare’s concourse beneath us, shouted at the top of his considerable voice non-stop from around midnight until 2 in the morning, when, presumably he either went to sleep or was bonked on the head. One would think it impossible to shout without using a semblance of words. But he did.
Then poor Margreet had to put up with me rising every half an hour of the night to visit the lavatory. As the bathroom door was a squeaky one, I was able to oil the hinges from a small oilcan that I carry to France for just that purpose.
After recovery and coffee the next morning, we set out for the Flea Market at Porte Clignancourt. But despite arriving at 10.30, there were few stalls open for business. So we headed for the Grands Boulevards Metro Station to wander around the adjoining quartier of small eating places, hotels and the Follies Bergères.
The real reason for aiming at this particular district was that in it is my personal favourite restaurant in Paris – Chartier. Its enormous eating hall, left over from La Belle Epoque, its character waiters, its unchanged menu, the proximity of diners (usually sharing a table), and the whole system of delivering the food from kitchen to customer via a concierge who records every item, is, to me just magic. And it is also one of the cheapest places in which we eat.
Then, exhausted after our disturbed night, it was back to our hotel for Margreet to read her holiday collection of women’s magazines, that focus on celebrities, sex lives, fashion, make-up, and how to deal with men. Did you know that to flush the lavatory without the lid down may spread germs?
With our bodies now quite unable to consume more food, we were sitting outside a café for an aperitif (with no meal in mind) when a large spot of rain fell on to the pavement. We had only just reached our hotel entrance when the heavens opened. Which all made for a splendid spectacle from the dry part of our room’s balcony. I had hoped to see lightning strike Sacré Coeur, but the storm was made up of more noise than flash.
A picnic of bread and fresh goat cheese in our room was as much food as we could manage. Unless one’s stomach is in practise to cope with a lot of food, it can not cope (in our case) with two good meals a day. So we find that a hearty French lunch is about as much as we can manage.
Many years ago I ate at Allard with a rather sophisticated girl friend. The wine we ordered was slightly piqué. She sent it back, which rather upset the staff, who said that if we didn’t like it they would drink the wine themselves. I never returned to eat there. Well, this time we went back. And I was sure that after some 30 years they would not recognise me. The house Burgundy was excellent, the food delicious, and the waiting most professional in that old-fashioned way at which the French excel. Naturally, I was not recognised.
It was an afternoon for seeing parts of Paris new to us. We took the No. 2 Metro line from end to end, stopping off at the Parc Monceau, where, on the 5th of May, the foxgloves were in full and glorious bloom.
Around the park stand some of the most select houses and apartments in Paris. So when we went to a café for liquid sustenance, the decoration, staff and clientele were exactly right for the quartier – smart and expensive. We had noticed already that people waiting at Metro stations were surprisingly representative of their area.
The termini of the line were both rather too dull in which to spend time. But we had passed the Saint Martin Canal, so that is where we alighted on our return to its nearest Metro stop. I had heard that the shops, restaurants and accommodation beside the canal were becoming fashionable. But at Jaurès this was not so, it being rather dull thereabouts. But as we walked around investigating, we passed a crowd of clochards sheltering from the elements beneath a secluded colonnade, where a white woman was in bed with a black man and with their companions around them happily imbibing or smoking whatever was available. We had already been surprised (as one probably always is) by the number of vagrants sleeping rough in the streets of Paris. Beneath the colonnade it was touts comforts.
After a light dinner of an omelette we retired to our own bed, having eaten or drunk in seven different venues during the day.
Our tastes in Paris are diverse and flexible, as is illustrated by our final day’s activities. We ate Sunday lunch
at the Brasserie Lipp (the other place where I had not eaten for years). This was eating at the top of the scale, illustrated by our four neighbours, who were discussing the world’s music industry, and how they might change it to make a profit. Then, as we waited for the time of our departure by Eurostar from the Gare du Nord, we drank rather tasteless Turkish beer on the pavement seats of a kebab shop. Here, a man, eating alone and next to us, was asked for a cigarette by a passer-by. The scrounger was offered a bag, from which he took tobacco and a cigarette paper and rolled his own on the spot. It was as if both taker and giver expected it. And having rolled the cigarette, of course he needed a light.
On our return to Waterloo Station we took a taxi home. The cab of this vehicle was even more untidy than the colonnaded quarters we had seen in Paris (no room for a bed). And the driver was as scruffy as any clochard – and probably less civil.