Pablo Picasso was born on October 25th 1881 at house No 15 in Plaza de la Merced, Malaga. The family lived in a third floor apartment with a grandmother and maternal aunts; with two sisters and a brother to come, there can have been little room to spare. The building is still there but nothing remains of the original interior; instead, the curators offer displays of artefacts and some furnishings that suggest or are similar to what is known of his home.
Why visit a birthplace? What can it tell us that isn’t available in a biography? The most obvious answer is the physical and visual impact of the building and the surrounding area. Plaza de la Merced is in a central area of Malaga. The houses are tall, generously proportioned and well mannered with shutters and balconies. This would have been a pleasant environment with a sense of status but also with close neighbours and a community. And what could be more nurturing and secure than the sunny climate …that brightness of the blue sky and the reliable heat. There is no dourness here.
Picasso’s father, Don Jose Ruiz, was a technically competent but uninspired painter of still lifes who taught at the School of Fine Arts and was a curator of the municipal collection. I cannot remember ever having seen an example of his work before. But here in the house many of his canvasses have been gathered together with some of Picasso’s earliest works. They bring home the fact that Picasso was born into a world saturated with art and painting. And some of his subjects – doves in particular – are there in his childhood.
Of the various artefacts – the christening gown, the documentation, photographs – little comes to life. Young Pablo lived here for only his first 10 years before the family moved to La Corunna and then to Barcelona. Still those first ten years are very important. Picasso’s first school was just round the corner and close to his father’s place of work. He did not like school and often played truant. He was both too clever and already too interested in art. But that close proximity and the maze of narrow streets that make up the old centre of Malaga, and the ships and coast near by – all help to give one a feeling of Picasso’s beginnings – what he saw at an early age – and what contributed to his felt experience.
Birthplaces are one thing and endings are another. There may be a trajectory but we do not have to be defined by our beginnings and Picasso certainly was not. However modest our talents by comparison, still, like him we can choose to be defined by our potential.
To the Freud Museum – 20 Maresfield Gardens – my first visit. I was surprised to find it was just a few houses away from where I once went to school. Freud died in 1939, a decade before I was born, but his daughter Anna would still have been living and analysing there when I was skipping down the road.
Sigmund’s study is on the ground floor. This is the big attraction – to see where the great man worked – the desk, the couch and the antiquities. The desk has a special chair designed by the architect Felix Angenfield to help Sigmund maintain his habitual posture for reading. Because of its shape with a high protruding back to support the Freudian head, it looks rather like a person in its own right: an abstracted mannequin to represent the doctor at work.
When he looked up from his reading or writing he would have seen on the opposite wall a lithograph of Andre Brouillet’s painting of Dr. Jean-Martin Charcot presenting an hysterical female patient to his class of students. The patient is arching back in a posture that was apparently common to her condition. Her position as the only woman in the room and the disarray of her bodice attests to the woman hysteric’s situation in 19th century society – defined by male doctors and subjected, at least in this representation, to the male gaze. The painter has left open the degree of prurience with which she is viewed to individual experience. This is a very active museum and on the day I was there a member of the staff was giving very a scholarly commentary on the history of hysteria.
The word ‘iconic’ is flung around rather freely these days. But the couch covered with its richly red oriental carpet cover is definitely iconic – no mistake. On this couch, exactly here on this piece of furniture, was where the great new exploration of the unconscious through the ‘talking cure’ began. As has been noted before, this was a magic carpet into an internal world.
The many hundreds of mostly small antiquities, of which Freud was a fervent collector, are distributed around the room on shelves, tables and within vitrines. Their origins are Greek, Roman, Egyptian and Far Eastern – some copies some originals, some bought, some given, some found – all of interest to the archaeological preoccupations of Dr Freud. So this is a museum twice over.
But this is not the room that all these artefacts originally occupied. They were all delivered out of Vienna in 1938 from Bergasse 19, the apartment where the family lived and Freud worked. This room in Maresfield Gardens is a recreation, a staging, of an important moment in European cultural history. There are a number of writer’s studies that have been preserved after their death (Thomas Hardy, for example) but here Freud not only had the intention of preserving it just so, but also transported it across Europe, his personal stage set. Freud and his family have curated his history. But as the Guide Book says: ‘Freud cannot be reduced to a private individual’ and then adds a quote from W.H. Auden: ‘he has become a climate of opinion.’
Earlier in the day I had visited Lord Leighton’s house in Kensington. He had no immediate family, and after his death all his possessions were sold. So much of what there is on view has had to be recreated including parts of the famous Arabian décor. Many of the rooms are used for an exhibition of paintings by Lawrence Alma Tadema, and including some by his wife Laura. The Alma Tademas are far more present than Frederic Leighton. Alma Tadema’s huge extravagant canvases of classical scenes have been a tremendous source of dramatic reference for filmmakers and, so, are once more in vogue. Who would have thought, fifty or sixty years ago, that Alma Tadema, a once distained Victorian painter, would create such interest? Public taste is an odd thing.
The Norfolk Contemporary Arts Society organised a visit to Charleston during the first days of June. Apart from glimpses in television programmes it was my first exposure to the hand-painted farmhouse and the overpoweringly beautiful garden on a perfect summer’s day. One would be either cold or churlish not to succumb – for it is undoubtedly a seduction.
As I have mentioned in a previous blog post, it seems that there is no stone unturned when it come to writing about the Bloomsberries. I noticed while browsing the gift shop that even their cook has a dedicated volume of biography.
The Victorian roots of the artistic and intellectual phenomenon that was Bloomsbury are interesting. I was struck by the confluence of the families – the Stracheys, the Grants, and the Stephens – they were all deeply involved in colonial administration and the Grants and the Stracheys had spent many years in India. Can one, I wonder, trace cultural influences of that exotic sub-continent in their work? Has anyone done this already?
Next stop Ipswich for filming the Haunted Hotel – watch out for a spooky July Blog.
June 2017 - EDP Norfolk
'50 Years on From the Summer of Love'
The Hippie Counter Culture in East Anglia
I really enjoyed researching this article and meeting up with people who were young and hip in Norwich in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
More on the Haunted Hotel project coming up soon. Filming goes ahead on the little ghost story ' Room 27b' early in July.
Meanwhile, I'm preparing a paper for the SISJAC Conference on The Western Merchants in East Asia in the nineteenth century to be held at the Sainsbury Institute, Norwich on June 22-23. I'm really looking forward to meeting historians who specialise in this area.
Sunday April 2, Matthew McGuchan for Film Suffolk welcomed writers, directors and crew of 8 ghost stories to the Old White Horse Hotel in Ipswich where the segments will be filmed in May/June this year.
It was great to meet everyone and get an idea of the character of the dilapidated former coaching inn and which rooms and areas can be used.
My story invokes the WW2 bombing raids on Ipswich and post-war social changes.
The picture is a view from top floor window – like a proscenium arch on the dramas to come.
See the Haunted Hotel Film Project Facebook page here. To find out more about the project and make a donation click here.
Thank you to the Norwich Society Local History Bookclub for inviting me to talk about Countrywoman. So much knowledge and enthusiasm.
The Bloomsbury Group of modernist artists and writers has long attracted the highest literary and critical attention. But Bloomsbury has also become a literary industry fed by a seemingly endless stream biographies, memoirs, recreations, discourses, semi-fiction, and television and film dramas. And there seems to be no end to the descendants and friends of the members of the group who are ready to join the production line.
But here is an alternative for you: the Meynells, their family and circle - The Bayswater Group! At the heart of the group are the writers Alice Meynell née Thompson (1847-1922) and her publisher husband Wilfrid Meynell. Alice’s sister Elizabeth (Mimi) Butler (1846-1933) was a leading battle painter of the mid Victorian period. Alice and Mimi were daughters of the concert pianist Christiana Weller and Thomas Thompson, a gentleman of the West Indies. They were raised in the wild landscape and barely accessible villages of the Ligurian littoral and ‘finished’ in the artistic salons of Kensington. Thompson’s fortune came from sugar and slavery and he himself was illegitimately descended from a Creole woman. This was quite a different colonialism from the Jackson’s (Virginia’s mother) and Strachey’s India.
Both Alice and Mimi adored the landscape and culture of their Mediterranean upbringing and both converted to Catholicism. Not for them a ‘room of one’s own’. Both shared their space with large, loving families. Alice’s poetry and essays made her internationally famous and she toured and lectured extensively. She also raised eight children. Alice and Wilfrid’s home at 47 Palace Court W2 became a nexus for the London literati a generation before Bloomsbury but overlapping with it. The Meynell’s rescued the destitute poet Francis Thompson and supported the novelist George Meredith. Alice was a political radical and supporter of the Women’s Suffrage Movement. Is it possible that Catholicism, with its acknowledgment of the spiritual feminine in the person of the Virgin Mary, contributed more possibility of cultural development for a woman than Protestantism or atheism?
Now here’s the challenge to Bloomsbury. In the midst of a patriarchal culture, inspired by and in dialogue with Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Alice found a purely female literary voice. The critic Tala Schaffer suggests that Virginia Woolf deliberately suppressed Meynell’s influence on her – instead promoting herself as the founder of the female literary tradition. Schaffer accuses Woolf of subverting and appropriating the past in an act of ‘modernist self-fashioning’.
Having been extraordinarily famous for her battle paintings (The Roll Call, Scotland Forever, The Remnants of an Army), Mimi gave up her public work when she married the maverick army officer William Butler although sketchbooks from later years survive.. Two of Alice and Wilfrid’s children, Francis (1891-1975) and Viola (1885-1956), carried on the literary work. Francis worked as a poet and printer, Viola as a novelist and poet. It was Viola who gave refuge to and helped DH Lawrence in his early difficult times.
Alice Meynell, like Virginia Woolf, suffered from depression.
 Writing a Public Self: Alice Meynell’s ‘Unstable Equilibrium’ in Women’s Experience of Modernity. Ann Ardis and Leslie Lewis (eds) (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press. 2003) pp18, 2. Quoted by Ann Ardis in Modernism and Cultural Conflict 125.
Earlier this week members of the East Anglian Writers Steering Committee enjoyed watching A Pleasant Terror : The Life and Ghosts of M.R. James. The 20-year old biopic produced by Seventh House Films was directed by Clive Dunn and unravelled the many aspects of MR James life as an antiquarian, educator and writer of ghost stories. There were sequences of dramatization with Michael Elwyn playing MR James, the one time Provost of King College Cambridge and Eton College, and commentaries that included his biographer, Michael Cox, Jonathan Miller, D.J. Taylor, Julia Briggs, Ruth Rendell and Ronald Blythe - all looking considerably younger.
The committee was particularly impressed by the amount of information packed into the I-hour TV film and by the lack of repetition which is so often a feature of modern documentaries. MR James continues to be a popular author and recognised as a master of the genre.
The committee is planning to offer a wider showing to members of East Anglian Writers. Details to come via EAW website.
Camille Corot 1796 - 1875
On a recent trip to France I had the pleasure of walking through a ravine called the Corot trail where followers of the artist identified landscape that was inspirational to him.
Corot, influenced by Poussin, painted supremely classical landscapes with mythological figures – cool, detached, lofty; but later he moved into a freer, sensual and poetic style. He was the later Nineteenth Century’s painters’ painter, revered by the Impressionists and known as’ Papa Corot’.
He came from a comfortably-off bourgeois background - his father a Parisian wig-make (later a cloth merchant) his mother a fashionable milliner in Paris; Camille never lost his respect for their exacting manners or his pleasure in their company. They could afford a good education for him albeit at boarding schools from a very early age so that he seems to have suffered some emotional underdevelopment. He tried to please them by becoming a draper but, by his teens, his heart was already in painting. He longed to break free.
Unlike so many of his artist friends (he was popular with his contemporaries) he never had to scramble for a living. In his mid- twenties, after the sudden illness and death of his only sister, his parents blessed his ambitions and gave him the income from her dowry as an allowance. So, although his fame and his own material wealth only came late in his career, he was always just comfortable enough.
He never married but was not, as Ian Nightingale puts it in his book Corot, ‘impervious to feminine charms’ and did fall in love with one of his mother’s seamstresses. Marriage would have been too much of a distraction and Corot was entirely dedicated to his art - always working long hours en plein air whenever possible. In his youth he was familiar with red light districts both in France and Italy – and although appreciative of sensual pleasure was mindful of the costs. He was a kind and considerate man - deeply religious: everyday he would read Thomas a Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ and throughout his life carried out many acts of charity to his fellow artists.
While browsing biographies and picture books I found a gem – an old biography from 1908. Old biographies are so interesting in style and approach. While the authors may be outdated and unreliable, they were often living much closer to the time of their subject and interesting material is to be gleaned from their work. If you saw the recent Television programme on Van Gogh’s Ear you may recall the art historian, Bernadette Murphy, finding crucial clues in old biographies.
Everard Meynell’s Corot and His Friends presents a Corot who is too pure by half – no mention of the brothels here. On the other hand Meynell brings some Edwardian colour to the description of Corot’s time in Rome where he and his friends (mostly younger artists) would gather in the evening after a long day’s painting to enjoy company and food at a café called Il Lepre – The Hare – which was popular for its low prices and inventive chef. Corot was known for his singing – he sang at the easel, he sang at home (often to the discomfort of his neighbours) and no doubt he sang at these evening meetings that were so important to the development of the artists' ideas about their work.
Meynell writes, “It (Il Lepre) was the chief dining-place of the youth of the studios, and its proprietors were not without a sense of the spirit of their customers. If the young Romanticists came to their tables with the gleam of a crimson sash at the waist and swung athwart their chairs the swaggering folds of a Spanish cloak, they, the proprietors, on their part brought colour and a strain of rarity to the carta. The cuoco even experimented with roast parrot, and found pleasure and fame in the exotics of the saucepan.” (Page 42)
Meynell says that Il Lepre, on the Via Condotti near the Piazza di Spagna, was still in existence when he wrote in the early years of the twentieth century...and that Thackeray used it in one of his novels – which makes me think about the importance of cafés in the life of artists and writers. It takes a certain kind of patron to tolerate or enjoy these colourful and no doubt troublesome customers. (How many bars can you find which are named after or associated with Hemingway?)
But for the moment my interest is caught by the biographer Everard Meynell – one of the eight children of Alice and Wilfrid Meynell, who together formed a nexus of the Edwardian London literary world. I have long wanted to write about Alice and her sister, the military painter, Elizabeth Butler. A book on the Meynells for at least three generations is surely long overdue. They will be the subject of my next blog.
©Victoria Manthorpe 2016 Photographs courtesy Peter Jamieson
Thank you to biographer Evelyn Toynton[i] for responding to the previous blog about people associated with the rectory at Booton in Norfolk. Apparently, Jean Rhys stayed there for about six months during WWII, having been taken in by the kindly Reverend Willard Feast. According to Rhys’s biographer, Carole Angier, (Jean Rhys: Life and Work 1985) Rhys often made life hell for the Reverend and his family, even, on one occasion verbally attacking his 13-year-old daughter so that the poor girl was reduced to tears. The source of this story was a family friend of the Feasts, one Eric Griffiths. If anyone knows more about this or other tales of Booton do, please, email me.
This month I’ve been re-reading The Art of Literary Biography (1995) edited by John Batchelor. Two topics struck me particularly: Ann Thwaite’s chapter ‘Starting Again’ raised the problem of choosing a subject for a biography and Catherine Peters argued for the importance of ‘Secondary Lives’ as the context of biographical study.
Thwaite discusses the various reasons for an author’s choice of subject, including both conscious and unconscious attraction but concludes, with Hilary Spurling, that it is more often an arranged marriage than an affair of the heart. Colleagues, tutors, and publishers are often the prompt for a subject. The results are certainly not necessarily the worse for that. But as Ann points out if you are going to spend years of your mental life immersed in a person’s life and work you need to choose carefully.
Traditionally the subjects are people of singular achievement or prestige: the high-profile, individual. But latterly there are many examples of what Catherine Peters calls ‘Secondary Lives’. Examples are Claire Tomalin’s The Invisible Woman (1995) about Dickens’ mistress, Nelly Ternan, or Jo Manton’s Claire Claremont and the Shelleys (1992), and Thwaite’s The Poet’s Wife (1996) about Emily Tennyson. We are more and more inclined to see these people as far from ‘secondary’ and Peters certainly supports the trend believing that these other characters in the drama of a celebrity life can shift our perceptions both of the individual and of the times.
The satellites are not always women spinning around the planet of a man. Virginia Woolf broke new ground here as in so many things with her comic Flush: A Biography (1933) about Elizabeth Browning’s dog. More recently Michael O ‘Hagan produced the highly entertaining The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog (2010) – the views of Marilyn Monroe’s pet.
But I am more concerned with the family or group dynamic from which a biographical subject emerges. Tim Parks in his The Novel: A Survival Skill (2015) has drawn on systemic psychology – the study of family value structures – to analyse the fiction of Joyce, Lawrence, Hardy and Dickens. He proposes that their novels contain the biographies of their family patterns. He based his theory largely on Valeria Ugazio’s Semantic Polarities and Psychopathologies in the Family (2013). Ugazio cites four dominant semantics active in family life which lead to four pathologies: the semantics of power lead to anorexia and bulimia, the semantics of good and evil lead to obsessive compulsive disorders, the semantics of freedom lead to phobic disorders and the semantics of belonging lead to depression. It’s an excellent book – as is Tim Park’s - and I wonder about the possibility of using systemic psychology to study family biography.
Why are there often two or even three promising individuals in a family – the Durrells – Laurence and Gerald, the Flemings - Ian and Peter, the Spencers - Stanley and Gilbert - but one who pulls ahead to the finish line? And what of the families whose talents span the generations – the du Mauriers, the Freuds, the Thackerays - who wins, who loses in the emotional stakes of family life. Why are there tragic failures side-by-side with ‘successes – Branwell Bronte and his sisters, Edith Cavell’s brother Leonard crushed by the ethos that made her? The question of why none of Charles Dickens’ children stood a chance of finding their own success is examined in Tim Parks’ book. For me the compelling question is to what extent people make themselves and to what extent they are made by a group or a family dynamic.
[i] Evelyn Toynton is the biographer of Jackson Pollock (2012) and lives in Norfolk.
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