THE BLOG

Manorbier Castle Chronicles

20/09/2013 12:09 BST | Updated 18/11/2013 10:12 GMT

I spent much of the holidays in thevillage reading room at Manorbier, painting, which was designed by Benson, an arts and crafts architect and protégée of William Morris. It is a hall complete with a stage and faux mangy Morris curtains, the windows are practically at ceiling level, so as to deter distraction. Needless to say in our increasingly visual culture, reading is not really a pastime any longer and while the village hall was temporally out of action, I set up my easel. I pulled out all my old sketch books from extensive travels in Yemen, (north and south), India, Mali, Libya, Syria and Turkey, reflecting that many of these countries are now out of bounds. As I stared at 8 blank canvases I envisaged vistas and capriccios of antiquities and medieval Islamic architecture in those countries, (the dead cities of Palmyra and Leptis Magna, the towering stone hamlets clinging to mountainsides of the High Yemen, like eagle's nests, the deserted castles of Krak and Saladin, and the Christian Basilicas outside Aleppo,) I decided to paint paeans to those countries riven by civil war and revolutions. Despite the Arab Spring it has come back to square one and a long winter of discontent, destruction and despair.

I set to work preparing my canvases with a Venetian red impasto and sketched in the compositions in blissful solitude with only the swallows flying around the roof to distract me, the hall was empty save for hideous stacks of velveteen chairs that the Women's Institute left behind together with a regulation muddy green post war tea set.

But not for long, the Dame's boyfriend,a jazz musician and drummer Jo installed a tower of drum kits and an electric piano and drumming lessons began in earnest when Emily's niece came to stay in the castle.

On seeing lots of canvases and the smell of Venetian and Florentine turpentine, linseed oils and damar resin, Emily's nose twitched and it was decided that she would gild and gesso the frames for the paintings.

Gilding is a skilled and delicate craft that has barely changed for a 1000 years. Out came boxes of gilding equipment, stacks of brushes, sacks of rabbits skin glue, cases of moulds of swans, putti and roses, many beautiful Rococo gilt frames that Emily has made over the years and several convex looking glasses, in their wake, a large tapestry appeared, bolts of Chinoserie and a baldachino, which were arranged artfully over the utilitarian W.I tea tables, from studio to salon, the hall looked soignée, but not for long. A large 20 foot rubber dinghy boat appeared and was blown up to its full length and during the course of 6 weeks never became sea born.

Emily needed a bigger office and the stage became the new office space, two large desks arrived from Ikea, filing cabinets, ziggurats of books and magazines and corkboards were imported.

Then a new secretary appeared and on some occasions her children appeared too, soon to be joined by my younger son Julian, now a crèche too.

Once the office was up and running, albeit with shaky internet connections and computers that refused to have excel spread sheets, the lower floor was cleared out to make room for the gilding workshop. Out came booklets of gold leaf light and delicate as spider's webs and brushes made out of badger's fur, while rabbits skin glue bubbled away on the gas ring. The dame was happy as a sandman returning to her craft after a long hiatus, rather than wrestling with websites and weddings at the castle.

Just as I was varnishing the completed oil paintings, two gigantic fairground billboards appeared with a hole for the faces to poke through. Emily waved her hand as if it was a wand and asked me, airily to paint a king and Queen. This was quite an undertaking, but good to switch from small detailed oils to set painting. I got up on a stepladder and a week later the King and Queen with Manorbier castle in the background were ready to take up residence there.

Meanwhile Emily gessoed the frames, sanded them down and applied gesso made, of rabbits ski glue, which smelt vile, in between trips to Ventimiglia to look at buying a gin palace, across the Irish sea, and filling in at the castle café as the staff had gone on holiday, while making forays into facebook and wailing "why was it charging her £50 a day to have a business page?" Then her younger son posted on facebook that he was going to Tibet to join a monastery, more wails until it emerged it was a daft hoax. Recent reports have suggested that Facebook make one depressed, I am convinced it does with all its inane messages that people post and facebookies pretending that it is a great substitute for friendship, you know when you actually meet up face to face.

Inquisitive villagers and visitors drifted in to view my paintings and were fascinated by Emily's gilding and before long she was giving impromptu demos of the process, while Jo kindly knocked up some more frames as I painted in earnest.

In effect the Village reading room became a studio, music room, boathouse, gilding workshop, office, crèche and viewing room. The Hall was packed to the gunnels.

So yes it was a working holiday with as many days off, when ever the sun was out and hot enough, it was down to the beach to be tossed around in the waves and then back to the beach to catch a sea bass, gather some wild spinach, pick watercress from the stream and gather a wood for a barbeque and have supper just as the glimmers of sunset appear.

There were active days walking the cliff paths paved with campion and harebell heather, bordered with yellow bushes of broom smelling curiously cocconuty, like sun tan oil watching guillemots floating on the glassy calm sea. And there were lazy days in the garden reading Greek plays and eating foraged blackberries and double cream. On holiday per se, there is a danger of veering between being completely relaxed, to feeling utterly insane. Dolce far niente is not always that easy and there is an art to being idle as the great Idler Tom Hodgkinson always maintains.

The castle is becoming a wonderful venue for music; Emily presented 'Voices by the sea', far from 'Einstein on the beach' rather more Classic FM, musical favourites and well aired arias , 'la donna e mobile', Carmen and a chunk of the Phantom of the Opera, sung by a soprano and baritone , the orchestra came via a large amplifier by the smugglers well.

The castle was flood lit, while Tarquin my elder son risked life and limp scaling the parapets, placing lanterns and candles in niches and arrow slits, he and Julian helped the audience with their picnic baskets and lit candles on the tables and generally made themselves uncharacteristically helpful with suspiciously beatific expressions.

Just as nessun dorma came to its crescendo the generator went off and the castle was plunged in darkness until eyes adjusted to candlelight all around the castle, making it all the more dramatic and mysterious, and the audience began to sing along once the divas had been persuaded to sing without mics and test the power of their voices, which had more resonance sung without the musical back up. Meanwhile Jo fixed the generator and on it came and the magical atmosphere dissolved, until the opening bars of Barcelona were belted out, a song I loathe, and the generator mercifully switched off again, not a power failure but the work of two young saboteurs and no marks for guessing who they were.

Now that September is upon us it is full throttle and there are flurries of emails from my dealer in Beijing with lots of questions about my forthcoming show there. I am to have Chinese calling cards with a name that sounds like my name in English but has a Mandarin meaning; will it be azure cloud, whispering grass, running river or what?

Last time I was in Beijing it was with Gilbert and George, the great art duo with a legion of their acolytes and collectors , it was the first time foreign artists were shown in an official capacity for many decades. There was a furor over G and G's scatological, homoerotic and phallocentric content in their vast photomontages and the show was closed down, only to be re opened the next day. The city was in the grips of a building boom; we banqueted from one end of Beijing to the other in gleaming new marble hotels and shopped in vast art deco emporiums that made Harrods look like a corner shop. While Beijing made Tokyo seem like a picnic, the sky was yellow and is now so polluted, that one has to buy canned Tibetan air.

Meanwhile in London has everyone taken leave of their senses? I went into Lillywhites to buy a warm nightie to wear in a cold cottage beneath the Great Wall and the shop assistant said 'try the mens department', in the London Library a lady asked if they had the works of Shakespeare; 'hundreds of editions madam', including the dreary Victorian Bowdler edition that left out all the juicy bits. Then later that evening I met friend who is exploring the possibilities of reality engineering, apparently you can preserve yourself as a clone and just when you are losing all your faculties you can transfer your psyche to the new young cloned you, sounds wildly improbable and to challenge immortality in this way, well it will annoy the gods or god surely.