22 November 2014

Daphne du Maurier's Cornwall

I have cited Daphne du Maurier (1907–1989) twice in recent blog posts. Firstly du Maurier was the cousin of the Llewelyn Davies boys, who served as JM Barrie's inspiration for the characters in the play Peter Pan. Secondly Justine Picardie is the author of four books, including the book on the Ritz Hotel that I reviewed; her most recent novel was about Daphne du Maurier.

Now I want to concentrate on Daphne du Maurier in her own landscape. She was born in London to an artistic, theatrical and literary family. I have no doubt that her close family members helped her in estab­lish­ing her literary career, but if she had stayed in London for the rest of her life, her novels and plays would have looked very different.

Of her c25 novels, short story collections and plays written between 1930 and 1980, I have only read a handful Jamaica Inn (1936), Rebecca (1938) and My Cousin Rachel (1951) so I will be particularly influenced by Jessica Tooze’s analysis of the books I have NOT read .

Ferryside, Fowey
bought by the du Maurier family in 1926

It is said about many authors that their ability to recreate a sense of place is an important part of their writing. Nowhere is that more meaningful than in Du Maurier’s writing where places were as important as people; her places could be considered characters in their own right.

Du Maurier was a young woman of 19 when she visited Cornwall for the first time and fell in love with the sea, boats, cliffs, harbours, inns and cottages. She learned to sail and fish with the best of them! And except for a few invol­un­t­ary moves (eg during war time), she never wanted to live anywhere else. She died in 1989, in Cornwall.

Set in an area of natural maritime beauty, Du Maurier settled in the town of Fowey (called Foy) which lies along the estuary fac­ing a deep water harbour. The old town has old Geor­gian and Victorian buildings, but it was a cliff side cottage that captured her attention. Promptly named Ferryside in 1926, the cottage was her centre of peace and magic as she wandered around the Cornish countryside.

I have seen Menabilly i.e Manderley from Daphne du Maurier’s novel Rebecca. The grey stone Georgian mansion hidden behind trees was memorable, but it was the long track down to the sea through “tumbled woods, trailing ivy and tangled undergrowth” that captured her imag­ination! The track was indeed dark, but hardly menacing.

Boats on the River Fowey

Perhaps the menacing aspect came from Du Maurier’s knowledge about ship­wrecks along the coast. Or from her knowledge of smuggling. One day she was riding on Bodmin Moor near Fowey and lost in a thick fog, she came across the Jamaica Inn Temperance Hotel. This hotel had been a stop for stage and mail coaches en route to London. Her novel Jamaica Inn (1936) captured the forbidding bleakness of the moor, allegedly one of the most haunted places for smugglers and travellers in the entire country.

Du Maurier's novels were never really Romances since there were few happy endings. And critics have suggested that even her own brand of Romanticism sat incongruously with her books’ moodiness and sinister overtones.

In her short stor­ies, she wrote even less romantically! In fact she used horror as the main theme eg The Birds, Don't Look Now, The Apple Tree and The Blue Lenses.

Sometimes the stories were set in the same geographic area, but in different centuries. The King's General (1946), for example, was set in the two English Civil Wars. The novel Mary Anne (1954) was the story of her great-great-grandmother Mary Anne Clarke; from 1803-1808, Mary Anne had been the mistress of Frederick Aug­us­tus Duke of York, a son of King George III. The Glass-Blowers (1963) traced the du Maurier family’s very real French ancestry. The book gave a colourful description of the French Revolution, before the family moved from France to England.

My Cousin Rachel is full of recognisable Cornwall. Today visitors are invited to go on a My Cousin Rachel Walk that tours the Barton land near Fowey and explores the region, just as the characters in the book did. The long walk affords amazing coastal views, the farmyards, Tregaminion Chapel, Menabilly, Polridmouth and St Catherine's Castle.

the old coaching house, Jamaica Inn

Needless to say, Fowey has thanked its most famous resident at the town’s Literary Centre. Visitors can examine the small exhibition and the film about Daphne du Maurier’s life, and come to their own conclusions about how her novels were shaped by this part of Cornwall.

18 November 2014

Remembering Ruhleben prisoner of war camp, Berlin 1914-8

Of course prisoners of war and interned civilians are going to try to keep themselves busy and productive, throughout the years of their captivity. Otherwise they would go insane from mind­-numbing boredom, even before they had the chance to die from starvation or disease.

In 1940 the British government rounded up 75,000 German, Aust­rian and Italian aliens across the UK. Within 6 months, war time tribunals across the country had individually summoned and examined 64,000 aliens, including c1,000 teenage lads. Some of these men were in the armed forces and arrested while on parade. They were taken first to police cells, and then to prison, usually on the Isle of Man.

The German-speakers of Onchan camp (Isle of Man)  were a scholarly lot. There were 121 artists & writers, 113 scientists & teach­ers, 68 lawyers, 67 engineers, 38 physicians, 22 post-grad­uate scientists, 19 clerics & 12 dentists. Theor­etical physicist Walter Kohn, who later won the Nobel Prize in Chem­istry, and expressionist artist Kurt Schwitters, were interned guests of His Maj­es­ty’s govern­ment. As were Sir Nikolaus Pevsner, Lord Weidenfeld, Sir Ch­arles Forte, Prof Geoffrey Elton and RW Tiny Rowland. At the other end of the social scale, but just as important to the British economy, were 103 agricultural work­ers. This was not your usual police round up of uneducated, unemployed louts.

Detainees were subject to dehumanising treatment from officials, but discussions between the prisoners was tolerated and the opportunity for education and entertain­ment emerged. Each Isle of Man camp had its own youth group, organising its own debating society and music sessions. A camp university was led by refug­ee academics who arr­anged lectures and English classes. Every evening hundreds of internees, each carrying his chair to one of the lectures, pursued knowledge and kept depression at bay. Eventually the internees could take part in local farm work, run their own camp newspapers, and set up internal businesses and run an inter-camp football league. Life in the Isle of Man camps took on a productive and quite scholarly air.

But I had not heard of a similar story in WW1!! .In Nov 1914, an order was issued for all British civilian men in Germany to be arrested and taken to an old racetrack in Berlin. 5,000 men, tourists and workers from Britain and the Empire, ended up in what became known as the Ruhleben  internment camp.

In Ruhleben prison camp near Berlin, internees built a Little Britain
photo credit: BBC News Magazine

The internees slept in the old racing stables, often on straw, with no blankets and barbaric latrines. The first winter was miserable, and internees did die of disease or starvation. But since there were 26,000 German nationals interned in Britain in WW1, the Germans HAD to improve conditions for their British prisoners who were civilians, not prisoners of war. There were still 200 German guards but they stayed on the perimeter, allowing the prisoners a measure of home rule. New barracks were built and rations increased. And a proper community had to develop.

Each barracks established a committee because, to stave off boredom, the interned men needed to be useful. Chess clubs and debating societies were formed, then an orchestra and a theatre. Plays by Ibsen, Shakespeare, Shaw, Sheridan and Wilde were performed and Gilbert and Sullivan operettas were enjoyed. There were also workshops that taught bookbinding, watch-­making and engraving, a lending library established. There were organised sports, including boxing, cricket and league football teams.

A gift of seeds from the Crown Prince of Sweden in mid 1915 seems to have suggested the idea of gardening. Then in late 1916, a letter was posted to the Royal Horticultural Soc­iety’s offices in London. It announced the creation of the “Ruhleben Horticultural Society”, and asked for bulbs and seeds to be sent to Berlin.

But it was not until 1917 that the British internees asked to expand the central part of the racecourse as a large vegetable garden. That year, with help from London's Royal Horticultural Soc­iety, there was also a series of hortic­ultural lectures and exhibitions, with “prizes” awarded for vegetab­les and gardens. Pests were a big problem at first, manure was not available and the soil was quickly transformed into mud. But the men built frames and greenhouse. Eventually the camp was almost self-sufficient in fruit and vegetables. By 1918, there was almost no food left in Germany so the quality of diet inside the prison fence was probably higher than outside.

organised sport at Ruhleben prison camp 
photo credit: Harvard Law Library

If you can believe it, the British class system reasserted itself inside Ruhleben. Public schoolboys quickly set up exclusive clubs, and even paid other internees to act as formally dressed drink waiters. Hanging around with merchant seamen for four years meant that the habit of swearing spread to the middle-class internees, so they needed a period of “quarantine” before returning home post-war.

During and after WW1, the Ruhleben camp was famous in both Britain and Germany. After the Armistice a number of books were published about the internees’ experience at Ruhleben. But as the full horror of the trenches became clearer, the camp was quickly forgotten. Ruhleben might have been beset by bestial conditions, but it was an idyll compared to what was happening at Ypres or the Somme.

Running until Jan 2015, The Gardens and War exhibition is presenting the Ruhleben story in London. The goal of the show is to display the British at their most resourceful, despite horrible war time conditions. This was story of British ingenuity and practical­ity, via pumpkins and onions. 

The story is also told in A History of Ruhleben, written by Joseph Powell and Francis Henry Gribble (published by Nabu Press, 2010). And in “The Other RHS” by Mark Griffiths, published in Country Life 6th August 2014.

15 November 2014

Chagall Vs Malevich in Russia: Vitebsk

Directed by Alexander Mitta, a film dramatisation of Marc Chagall’s life is being shown at the Australian Centre for Moving Images in Melbourne. The film Chagall-Malevich is based on the era of Chagall's short-lived role as commissar of arts in Vitebsk in 1917-18. During this time he founded the Academy of Modern Art and heard about his contemporary and stylistic oppos­ite, Kazimir Malevich. So it is approp­riate that many art works by Chagall and Malevich were used in creating the film.

But what was the real connection between the two geniuses who both found themselves in Vitebsk after the Revolution?

Kazimir Malevich (1879–1935) grew up near the Russian city of Kiev, now in the Ukraine. He spent most of his Catholic childhood in agricultural settlements far from centres of culture. At school he knew nothing of professional art, although peasant art had surrounded him in all its genres. It was only by moving north that he, in his mid 20s, could study at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture from 1904-1910.

Malevich had never visited Europe at this stage of his life. In 1915, he founded Suprematism, a new form of Russian art. Suprem­at­ism was an abstract art that was based on “the supremacy of pure artistic feeling” rather than on visual depiction of objects. It privileged basic geometric forms and strong colours.

Marc Chagall (1887-1985) grew up near the Russian city of Vitebsk, now in Belarus. His Jewish parents ran small businesses and didn’t have any money, but he was surrounded by books, Chassidic practices and a passion for education. In 1906, he started art briefly at the Vitebsk studio of realist artist Yehuda Pen. There Chagall met other students who later became famous, El Lissitzky and Ossip Zadkine. Then he moved to St Petersburg, the country's centre of artistic life with its famous art schools; Chagall enrolled in one of them and studied there for two years.

Over the Town, 1918
45 x 56 cm
Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.

Chagall lived and worked in Paris from 1911-14. He was influenced by French art and was in close contact with the Paris-based Russian Jewish artists, including his old friends Ossip Zadkine and El Lissitzky, and new friends Chaim Soutine, Pinchus Kremegne and Michel Kikoine. They spoke Russian and Yiddish to each other, and learned French in Paris' coffee shops.

Chagall returned to Russia when WWI broke out, remaining there until 1922. During this period, his home city of Vitebsk directed his life and work. It was there in July 1915 that he married local woman Bella Rosenfeld and they went on to have a daughter. Vitebsk became a fav­our­ite subject for Chagall, as can be seen now in Mos­c­ow’s Pushkin Museum and in the National Russian Museum St Petersburg. He never let go of figurative art, but the elements of cubism were visible in his paintings.

Many Chagall paintings created in Vitebsk were exhibited in April 1916 at the Artistic Bureau in St Petersburg, followed by an exhib­ition in Moscow called Works from the Series Executed in Russia (Vitebsk 1914–1915). Malevich presented many works at the same exhib­ition, called Suprematism of Painting. Although they were close in age, language and career choice, Chagall and Malevich had probably never met before. If anyone was close to Malevich, it was actually El Lissitzky who viewed Malevich as his Suprematism mentor.

In 1918 Chagall was made the Commissar of Plastic Arts for Vitebsk, a position aimed at developing the city’s artistic life, especially urban design. His mandate was to organise art schools, museums, exhibitions and lectures on the visual arts in the entire Province. His first project was the Vitebsk People’s Art College, founded in late 1918. The next year was spent setting up community studios for the product­ion of paintings, sculptures, signs and posters.

The former Russian Empire had abruptly ended, as had its cultural organisations. So Chagall planned to follow the modern model of the Free Studios that had been recently created in St Petersburg and Moscow.

The Vitebsk People’s Art College had teachers from every art move­ment, from the realism of Yehuda Pen (who had trained Chagall and Lissitzky back in 1906), to the Suprematism of recently arrived Malevich. Chagall was organising teachers for applied arts, painting, art history, sculpture and graphic arts. The programme included theoretical study of contemporary art methods; design of applied arts: wallpaper, embroidery, bookbinding, wood painting; and practical courses.

Nearly 200 students enrolled at the People’s Art College and changed Vitebsk from a provincial backwater. Thanks to the October Revolut­ion, revolutionary art was doing very well. Chagall clearly thought of himself as a leftist artist of the avant-garde.

Suprematism, 1916-7

32 x 32 in
Krasnodar Museum of Art, on the Black Sea

The peaceful coexistence of the various art trends could be seen in the early photographs where all of the teachers stood side by side, as well as in the formal agreements signed by Chagall and Malevich. In April 1920, Chagall informed art critics that there were young people around Malevich and around himself. Both of them were mak­ing their way to the circle of leftist art, albeit in different ways.

Alas it didn't last. Several times an unhappy Chagall thought of leaving Vitebsk because of bureaucratic harassment and short­ages. But he was happy with the First National Exhib­ition of Paintings by Local and Moscow Artists. The 41 artists included leading avant-garde players: Chagall of course plus Kandinsky, Malevich and Rodchenko.

The young Vitebsk artists became attracted to Malevich’s total com­mitment and his seductive, prophetic speeches. These artists turned away from Chagall and towards the UNOVIS/Champions of New Art, created early in 1920. By May 1920, all of Chag­all’s students had moved to Malevich’s studio, the newly formed School of Contemporary Art.

Chagall officially resigned in June, and was soon in Moscow producing stage sets and costumes for Yiddish plays by Sholem Aleichem at the Jewish Chamber Theatre. For the rest of his long life, Chagall never returned to his beloved Vitebsk.