I recently found a whole folder full of old work. It was quite a shock to discover my ‘A’level exam work amongst the pieces, and to experience the memories associated with that time. Usually ‘A’ level exam work is destroyed by the Examining Board, but because my sixth form art department was burned down, destroying all my work produced to that stage, the Board made an exception and found my exam pieces and returned them, thus allowing me to have at least something for a portfolio. This was in 1982 – 28 years ago!
The theme for the “composition” paper is the one that particularly touches on deep memories; rather tragic ones in fact. The painting is of a derelict cottage in the woods. It’s real place with which I have a particular association, and it’s a great story. One day I intend to use it all in a book.
The cottage is in fact a “tea house” in a large rambling Romantic garden in Norfolk. Originally a Roman dock on the edge of the Broads, this unusually vertiginous piece of land (unusual for Norfolk) is called Brundall Gardens. In their heyday, as a public garden, the vast acres must have rivalled any of the great parks and were popular enough to warrant their own bespoke station on the Lowestoft to Norwich line.
In time the gardens became privately owned, which is where my association begins, as they were owned by my very own Great Aunt Rita, who “married well” (as people would say) to a millionaire called Max Stringer, and moved to the huge and beautiful estate and it’s house “Redclyffe”. In the mid 1960s I would be taken to these grand, elaborate gardens and lose myself amongst the camellias and rhododendrons, the tumbling “Cinderella”steps and tiers of shrubs that possibly rivalled Babylon.
Leading down to a vast expansive lake, were three stepped ponds. The lowest contained a large and legendary pike that could never be caught. And in the tea house there were real Delft tiles of sailing boats around the fireplace.
Nearby, my favourite thing of all: The “stone hart”. I can just remember sitting on this with my sister and imagining galloping away on adventures. I found some old photographs of me with my sister and father, and they are posted here.
But then my Uncle Max died unexpectedly. My widowed Great Aunt found herself with an unmanageable estate (she had no children), and decided to sell. She kept a plot for her and her sister, another for her brother and his wife (my grandparents). The rest was sold off to a builder.
Theories abounded about what happened next, but I remember watching the television news in 1969, and seeing my Great Aunt’s house in flames. Redclyffe was razed to the ground. Soon after vandals destroyed the tea house, smashed the stone hart, and the garden fell into neglect.
Time passed; a new estate of houses appeared at the top of the escarpment. But below, the gardens remained. The ponds, the lake, the legendary pike. They all got forgotten and things grew over them. The stone steps were covered in ivy, the rambling roses covered everything, like Sleeping Beauty’s castle.
Meanwhile my assorted relatives had houses built on their bits of land and so, many years later, I returned. The gardens were really out of bounds. But no-one stopped me. And I had these wild, overgrown acres, this wilderness entirely to myself, summer after summer. The tea house was my hermitage, and the rambling romantic gardens with their memories and neglect so beautifully entwined was my grand kingdom.
Happy days! Following the birdsong, chasing kingfishers, swimming (in spite of the pike!) and above all – sketching. Here I developed my skills in this faded, forgotten paradise.
Today parts of the garden have been restored, but the estate is divided between various houses in Brundall. Occasionally sections are opened to the public and tours are offered.
A couple of years ago I visited Brundall Primary School. Instinctively I had parked outside where my aunts and grandparents “new” houses still stand (although they died long ago and I hadn’t been to Brundall since I was 18 and produced this ‘A’ level work). And by pure chance, one part of the garden, with the three descending lakes, was having an open day for charity.
And so, stepping back in time, I briefly revisited the re-imagined gardens. I was overwhelmed with memories; it was hard to make it seem real. Last of all I found the place where the stone hart once stood. It was probably the last time I will ever see anything of Brundall Garden. At least until I close my eyes and dream. Then I can run around, as a child, those stately trees and play in the tea house again, and sit once more on the back of the stone hart.
Saturday, 10 July 2010
There are certain things I have always wanted to see: an erupting volcano; the northern lights; the great blue whale… But now I can tick one off my lengthy list: Angela Gheorghiu’s Traviata. Two operatic treats in as many weeks (see posting below about Manon)!
Ever since she made her debut in the role, 16 years ago (which was televised) I have wanted to see and hear Angela Gheorghiu in La traviata. Alas, every time I’ve tried I have been thwarted by underground strikes, derailed trains or illness. But last Thursday everything finally fell into place. It nearly didn’t though... I was recovering from Tonsillitis; My train WAS delayed (but did finally arrive… just in time). It was a tense day until curtain up... when Angela Gheorghiu also showed up, returning to “her” traviata, the production that brought her fame. I took along three people who had never been to an opera before: Tim Rose, who used to be my designer at Orchard books, and is now a freelance designer and good friend; Clara Vulliamy, the writer and illustrator (and another good friend), with whom I shall soon be collaborating; and her enchanting daughter Martha, who wore a divine 1920’s style dress and hat. We had Box 100 all to ourselves and despite a restricted view thoroughly enjoyed the vertiginous proximity to the stage.
Before the performance I showed them around the beautiful theatre. Seeing the Royal Opera House for the first time is a real thrill – I remember that feeling vividly myself: My first visit was, funnily enough, also a performance of La traviata, with Gheorghiu’s predecessor and compatriot, Ileana Cotrubas (it’s fascinating how many Romanian singers suit the role. Nelly Miricioiu is another who made Violetta her own for many years). Cotrubas sang in an extraordinary production with black-and-white Art Nouveau sets and costumes.
In the foyer these costumes and others are now exhibited as museum pieces which made me feel rather nostalgic. You will see here some photos of other old Traviata costumes, including those worn by Elisabeth Scwarzkopf, Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland.
The performance itself was revelatory for Gheorghiu’s voice isn’t easily captured on disc. It is a voice of liquid gold. In the theatre it has a rounded, soft warm sound, and a fluttering, dark vulnerability, perfectly suited to the role of Violetta Valery, the operatic Lady of the Camellias. Her fragile frame and haunting beauty add to the credibility of her casting. She is undoubtedly the greatest Violetta of her generation. Her coloratura runs in "Sempre Libera" (taken very swiftly by the conductor Abel) were like strings of pearls, and her feverish performance as she flung herself around the stage had a wraith-like desperation.
James Valenti – all 6ft 5 of him, was a dashing Alfredo, although his voice is a little bit light for Verdi; Mozart is probably more appropriate at this stage of his career; yet he was sincere and tender in the intimate scenes. The powerful Germont Pere who destroys Violetta's chance of happiness was formidably sung by Veljko Lucic.
The sets and costumes were lavish, with beautiful colouring: gold in act one; red and black in act two…
Some reviews have been mixed. Is it that same old malaise that those we build up we must knock down? The same happened to Maria Callas, of course. How churlish of them! Gheorghiu will not be singing forever. I felt so lucky to have been there. My party of guests (doesn’t that sound grand) loved the whole experience - the spectacular sets, the singing, the music, the audience in their sequins and jewellery. They are now hooked and longing to see another opera. The cast were genuinely moved by the volcanic applause at the end; from our box we could see between the curtains, sideways. Off stage Gheorghiu literally leaped into the air, arms raised, in absolute joy at her achievement and the audience's reaction.
Perhaps the happiest moments were watching the rapt face of the young Martha. For her, Traviata will always be her "first opera", Gheorghiu her "first great singer" and it is a memory she will always carry with her. And so the torch is passed on.
For me, I feel as though I spent the evening inside a diamond.
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