In Vino Veritas 18

Suitably attired, we wnt off to the restaurant. And what a restaurant! Loads of chandeliers, plenty of rich brocade… the whole was redolent of a glorious imperial past.

Episode 18

As part of the ‘post Matisse’ calming down, the prospect of a good dinner was a fine distraction. Esmeralda WAS sulking, she needed the help of some very willing and good natured Russians to give her a push start. We eventually got our petrol but the notion of sauntering down to Moscow the following day was cause for anxiety.

Anyway, suitably attired, (including my old friend, the linen suit) we went off to the restaurant. AND what a restaurant!

Here was our ageing dowager incarnate. Loads of chandeliers, plenty of rich brocade, furniture not quite right, but pretty ornate as were the table settings. The whole was redolent of a glorious imperial past. As we sat down, we would not be surprised if Prince Bolkonsky and Natasha Rostova stepped out of the pages of War and Peace and wondered if they could join us for a couple of aperitifs. Our company was more mundane but agreeable enough and slightly bemused by their antipodean table sharers. A combination of fractured words and descriptive gestures sort of communicated. Somewhere between the main course and the sturdy Russian pudding the world changed.

Sadly I don’t have my own photograph, but this shows the Palkin, one of the oldest restaurants in St Petersburg.

Some ten years earlier, at the dreaded secondary school, we were lucky enough to have dancing lessons. One would keep this fact Sub Rosa, in that, if you bumped into a bunch of your well built rustic contemporaries, you would not announce how well your Scottish Country Dancing was coming along. Added to that, for some reason, I was quite stoked on the big band American music of the twenties and thirties. That fascination is no longer with me but it did crop up with our dancing teacher.
One day she happened to be playing this stuff at full tilt and I said how much I loved it. ‘Why don’t we dance to this stuff?’ I asked. ‘People do,’ came the reply, ‘let me show you the Charleston.’  Five minutes later, I was hooked. Her comment was ‘whether you like it or not, you are a natural with this dance. Be a devil, you clearly love it’. I did and I was good. Amazing turn of events.

Back to our restaurant…

Out of nowhere, a splendid big band roared into life. They had it all, classy trumpet, tenor and alto sax and clarinet soloists, a rhythm section that drove things along at a pace which would have given any American band a run for their money.
I got on the dance floor and re- entered this magic world, oblivious of time or space.


This was my own Russian Sputnik, a self-contained satellite that had its bum on fire and put on such a show. Poor Ronda was a bit upstaged by all this, the dining audience couldn’t get enough of it. Eat your hearts out, Fred and Ginger. I was in the grip of something else, transposed and transported. Talk about dancing all night…but after the third set, the band took a breather, and so did I. Magic, will live forever. My linen suit creaked at the seams but held together.

Later, normal life abruptly returned with my new best Russian friends. This took the form of a little chat between a Ukrainian and Georgian, conducted along pugilistic lines. It seems one of our heavily henna’d darlings had been playing both ends against the middle and the boys would settle the matter as to who would prevail. The bouncers determined the resolution would be decided somewhere along the Nevsky Prospect.

Next day, the drain of ballroom euphoria was accelerated by Esmeralda and her mega-sulk. No amount of cajoling or push starting or even the threat of Siberian exile had the slightest effect. Suddenly Moscow seemed a hell of a long way away. There would be more chance in Leningrad of finding a capitalist advice centre than there would be of coming across a VW garage.
We needed the services of a highly skilled mechanic, or there was me.

Dropped in mid-story? Read the beginning of our road trip here, or start from the beginning of my memoirs, way back in Tasmania…

SOLD!

Stunning painting, inspired by Giverny, sold to collector.

This stunning artwork has at last found a loving home. A large scale abstract painting, inspired by beautiful Giverny, home of course to the father of impressionist painting, Claude Monet.

Bought by a long – time patron, and art collector, who has had his eye on this painting for some time. It sits perfectly in the space, and I hope will keep it’s new owners happy for many years to come.

It is wonderful to have returning patrons who truly appreciate and admire the painting as an object, as well as appreciating the investment. A piece of original art can make a room and last a lifetime.

Photographs courtesy of Roger Goddard-Coote.

Studio Shows

Episode 1

I first started my studio shows about 1980. Why? Dealers and I have never had a meaningful relationship, indeed, apart for a couple of minor skirmishes, one could say no relationship whatsoever, a state of affairs not likely to change. This isn’t a personality based phenomenon as far as I can tell.

So, why?

For many years I worked as a jobbing illustrator. At times this could be stressful, to say the least. A phone call on Sunday evening. Who could that be I wonder? The caller, an agent, comes straight to the point.

‘Right, David, we need an A3 4 colour spread of….(take your pic)… a snow scene / children playing / an exotic forest / Greeks / Romans / Victorian slums / a moody sea scene / dogs / ducks or general livestock / portraits of war poets / airships and balloons / a Romanesque basilica / a street scene / a gooey sunset….etc. etc.’
We need it NOW, please, and… if you could courier it over by lunchtime tomorrow that would be terrific. The client will be lobbing in about 2pm. No time for visuals or scamps. Bye’.

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Socialising grinds to a halt, back to the studio. Job is done to the accompaniment of an out of tune tawny owl. My motorcycle mate arrives at 10 a.m. to collect. (Wi- Fi has changed all that.) I have breakfast and get on with a bloody great ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ pic which was way overdue. What was good about all this? It paid well. The downside? One develops a pathological dread of forever doing this kind of stuff. If I see a load of this , or similar ilk, at any dealers, (quite right and proper from their point of view). I thank God, with all my heart, that I will never have to knock out these sort of pictures again. EVER .
Besides, there are loads of highly trained seals who are also really good at this, and they enjoy it! Good for them.

Amongst all of this, illustrating children’s books, a totally different discipline and for a much tougher audience, proceeded rather well to say the least, and still does. More of this anon. Finally, the discipline of painting was also prosecuted to a greater or lesser degree. I still want the painter to create a new magical world of their own, not merely illustrate, more or less, the one we just happen to inhabit. Pictures in other words. That’s easy.

Anyway back to the studio shows. These are, and still are my shop front, so to speak. These were/are a happy melange of painting, children’s illustrations, life drawings and cartoons. A lot of fun can be had juxtaposing a 5 metre abstract painting with some little A4/fragments and a load of children’s illustrations.

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Audience reaction or lack of it is wonderful. I have invented a ‘shortest viewing time competition’. The current record is 2.4 seconds (viewed from the doorstep) but that will be bettered. The other great obstacle is the husband/wife dynamic. An example:

They appear. Wife sees a 1.5 metre -ish painting to die for. Hubby a slab of indifference. A tape measure was produced, the problem of furniture moving discussed at some length, generating conviction and increasing volume. Then, the matter was decided. The price agreed, a mere snip at 8 grand, a cheque written. Delivery sorted… I immediately thumbed through the en primeur wine lists and told the bailiffs to call off their dogs.

Next morning the cheque was cancelled. Never mind. I have been there, on a lesser scale, many times, and doubtless will do so again.

In Vino Veritas 17

Episode 17

So, onwards to the town of Vyborg. After our adventures it was quite late before we fetched up at our ‘restaurant’. With a bit of transliteration it comes out in Russian as PECTOPAH, pretty easy to recognise. Good old St. Cyril, his alphabet (particularly when almost hand written on road signs) is pretty tricky, it became even trickier in the dead of night.

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The menu, at first glance, seemed impressive. In our subsequent meetings with stray westerners, (mostly stringers for western media), they pointed out that the menu was the same whether one was eating in Vyborg or Vladivostok, or any point in between.
The correlation of what was writ and what was in fact available, was very slight, if it existed at all.
In the event, food was provided and then we set off for Leningrad, as it then was. The journey was only 140 kilometres, a mere crossing the road by Russian standards, but the driving conditions were treacherous…AND….was Esmeralda sulking the teensiest bit?

In 1949, ‘The Third Man’ movie was produced. It was set in post war Vienna, an exhausted, cynical and wholly joyless city. This was compounded by the stunning cinematography and the musical score. Anton Karas’s ‘Harry Lime’ theme was a perfect fit. It all came flooding back. Did it ever.

I could hear the zither playing as we descended the hill into Leningrad. Darkened streets, everything either black or in shadow, or somewhere on the grey scale. Lifeless, eerie and almost menacing. We were the only thing that moved. Freezing. Dead.

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Leningrad USSR 1979 Photo Credit: Masha Ivashintsova / Masha Galleries

 

Things brightened up at the hotel. A good welcome and a good room. The whole building was a relic of an imperial and extravagant past. Like the city itself it exuded a faded grandeur, rather like an ageing dowager who had seen much better days.
As we checked in, our receptionist turned away from us and opened two huge cupboard doors in order to find something. Over his shoulder one could see an enormous stack of banded US dollars, these were juxtaposed with cases of top class Bordeaux reds and more bottles of single malt than you could shake a stick at.
Finally, the piles of western cigarettes would not disgrace a large tobacconists.
Somebody was doing alright.
The history of the city, from its decimated construction peasant workforce in 1703 to the unimaginable siege from 1941 to 1944 ( both involving the death of at least a million people ) is awesome. Not forgetting 1917 of course.

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RIA Novosti archive, image #324 / Boris Kudoyarov / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Architecturally, a baroque Italianate style abounds, the river Neva winding its way through this faded grandeur. For my part Leningrad meant, most of all, the Hermitage museum and its art collection. At college I came across an article about the Russian collector Schukin, whose collection ranged from Monet to Picasso. How was his judgement? Not bad it would seem. I wondered.

What happened next could have happened yesterday, the memory burns so bright.

The jewels in Schukin’s crown were as magnificent as they were unexpected. Two huge galleries of the great painter and colourist Henri Matisse reduced me to a quivering mass as I contemplated the scale of his achievement. God help us. These were all great works, no bad days, glory upon glory. Deepest joy.

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Images from the Hermitage Museum

But Leningrad had two more tricks up her sleeve, one even more unexpected than the last…

Music Box – Des Baches Wiegenlied

 

Die Schöne Müllerin is a song cycle of 20 songs composed by Franz Schubert. They move from heady optimism to tragedy. A young miller wanders happily through the countryside, soon following a brook which leads to the mill AND the beautiful miller’s daughter. Her response to his approaches is luke- warm and worse, is rapidly supplanted by a green clad hunter. The miller becomes obsessed with the colour green.

In the final song cycle, Des Baches Wiegenlied, our lovelorn suicidal hero gives himself up to the tender clutches of the brook as it meanders through the bleak countryside. The moonlight is reflected back from the flowing water.

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Des Baches Wiegenlied, Dye and acrylic on canvas, David Armitage.

It is the brook who sings the lullaby as it embraces the heartbroken miller.

 

Good night, good night
until everything wakes
sleep away your joy, sleep away your pain
the full moon rises,
the mist departs,
and the sky above, how vast it is.

 

Provided to YouTube by Sony Music Entertainment Die schöne Müllerin, D. 795: XX. Des Baches Wiegenlied · Christian Gerhaher · Franz Schubert · Gerold Huber Schubert: Die schöne Müllerin ℗ 2003 Bayerischer Rundfunk Producer: Wilhelm Meister Lyricist: Wilhelm Müller

 

David Armitage has also produced an illustrated book of ‘Winterreise’, Schubert’s other great song cycle. Follow the blog to see more posts on Winterreise, Music Box, paintings, memoirs and more!

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Illustration from Winterreise, David Armitage.

In Vino Veritas 16

 

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At primary school I used to gaze at the big world map in the classroom. For some reason, perhaps sheer scale, the image of Russia never failed to impress. Later this was reinforced by reading the great Russian writers, researching the history and climate, and, of course, the rich musical tradition.
As there was some speculation in the air about when we might return to the antipodes to meet respective families, it seemed like a good idea to pop over to Russia, then have a jolly little scenic journey down to Athens in order to get a ride home on a Boeing 707.
No problem. I had a little chat to our newly acquired Esmeralda of the advertisement about all this and I found her re-assurances comforting. BUT… Her clutch WAS fading.

Bookings were made with the Russian ‘Intourist’, and other more rudimentary preparations put in hand.
At this stage Brezhnev was in charge of that vast country and the Cold War was colder than ever. Speaking of which, the start of our journey was January/February, coinciding neatly with the Russian winter. I know why the French and the Germans failed.

First off to the Hook of Holland, then north to Hamburg, thence to Copenhagen, a ferry to Gothenburg in Sweden. Then a goodly drive through a rather bleak countryside to Stockholm. ‘Headlights’ was a misnomer for Esmeralda’s night driving kit, a warm glow would have covered it. Some of the villages seemed terribly isolated, and being shrouded in freezing fog didn’t help. A winter spent here would not appear in one of those ‘Best winter breaks’ that regularly appear in the Sunday comics.
From Stockholm we got the ice- breaker ferry (hmm …a warning) to Helsinki.
Finland’s relationship with its huge neighbour has always been uneasy, war between them breaking out in the 1940’s. By the time we got there Finland was independent but had to cede territory to the Russians in the process. A warm welcome was not part of the Helsinki Hotel package. It sort of had a police state feel to it, the booking procedure seemed almost clandestine, as though big brother was not far away. Bloody cold all round.
But not for the first, or the last time, a clue for the metaphorical chill could have been to do with the car. She had German transit number plates, this was not good.

Off to Russia! A quick spin along the Gulf of Finland coast road, (Sibelian memory music playing in my head) and, at last, the Russian border blocked our path.
We stopped abruptly. We had to. In a trice, the car was surrounded. We were ordered out.
With a flurry of strobe-like activity, door panels were removed, the petrol tank plumbed, under car mirrors produced, and ‘open the boot and the bonnet!’
The latter occasioned some mirth…’where was the bloody engine?’ (my translation).
The guards were obviously not familiar with Beetle engineering.
We were bundled into the reception area… a sort of college educated cow shed.
Documents were produced and given a thorough going over by the minions. Their grasp of English was slender, Ronda had thoughtfully brought a stack of her mothers letters, which were being read upside down. I kept my humour well concealed.
THEN! BINGO! Rather in the manner of the massive peroration that closes Sibelius 2, our rummage squad hit the jackpot. A COPY OF DR. ZHIVAGO! no less. OH JOY.
The commandant was summoned. After an eternity, a sworn document was produced that would make sure we would take the book home with us. Off we we went to Vyborg.

By now the encircling gloom had given way to a freezing fog which obscured the craters lurking in the Russian road. It was as though the Luftwaffe had just left.

Pitch black. We drove into a claustrophobic menacing forest. Then…

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The distress flare blaze of an intense light screamed into the car. We stopped. More lights appeared, bobbing about, rather like torches. A crash of gears. An army truck pulled in front of us. WHAT WAS THIS?
A load of squaddies spilled out of the truck and opened the car doors. Were they clutching fully loaded AK47’s? NO? They had handfuls of crisp rouble notes and they wanted to do a bit of late night shopping. Would one believe it?
The list was the usual….pens, chewing gum, cigarettes, booze, chocolates. American dollars. Even my jeans! We traded as best we could. It was all good natured and they left.

They could have just as easily dumped the car in a ravine in the forest, throttled the life out of the occupants and taken anything they wanted. Who would know?

A salutary thought.

Music Box – Azrael / Queen of the Night

This is either ‘Azrael’ or ‘Queen of the night’, depending on which music I am listening to at the time. My work relies on ambiguity, I find either title suits this very powerful figure. They are not un-alike.
After all, this is a painting, not a picture.

‘The magic flute’ is rather like a fairy tale. A noble prince is commanded by the Queen to rescue her daughter, who has been kidnapped. Things get off to a great start with the appearance of a huge serpent which threatens our prince, but lo! 3 women (employed by the Queen) turn up and rescue him. He is then given a magic flute and sets off to rescue the daughter who is in the clutches of the High Priest of Isis and Osiris. The plot thickens, other characters appear, as does splendid music.

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Azrael, Dye and acrylic on canvas, 123 x 178 cm

Moving quickly on, eventually the Prince and daughter get married in the temple after a series of very testing adventures. Furious at this turn of events, the Queen plots to destroy the occupants of the temple but the High Priest calls the shots and the Queen is vanquished.

Although she is hardly on the stage at all, this powerful and pivotal coloratura soprano is up to no good and has a huge influence on proceedings. An equivocal figure, of uneven temperament, she scales vocal heights which would terrify the faint- hearted.

Spectacular unforgettable stuff.

 

 

Video clip from Royal Opera House official youtube channel.