Sunday, 2 October 2016

A summer in Lausanne -- 1891

Lausanne, Switzerland
By the end of the nineteenth century, Switzerland was established as the world's leading country for finishing schools. These upmarket establishments were for young women: by spending a few months or a year at a finishing school after the end of their formal educuation, it was believed that young ladies could polish their manners and learn all the social graces they would need to enter society and, most importantly, find a suitable husband. Deportment and etiquette were taught and the pupils would be encouraged to speak French, to paint and draw their beautiful surroundings and to make friendships.
Before it was a hotel, this was the pensionnat Villa Orama
In the 1890s a pensionnat, or boarding school, was run by a Dr Rapin in the Villa Orama at 27 Avenue de la Gare, Lausanne as a finishing school for young ladies. The large house had been built in the second half of the eighteenth century and, as can be seen in the postcard above, by the turn of the century it would have become the Hotel Jura, but in 1891 it was still a school.
You can see where it was from this map, which dates from around 1911, after the original building had been knocked down and a new hotel, the Jura Simplon 'Modern', built. It was near the centre of Lausanne, close to the train station. That was presumably how most of the young ladies arrived, having travelled across Europe by train. In March 1891 they included Miss Jeannie Wylie, aged 18 (I believe).

One of the first things Jeannie did on arriving was to buy a rather smart leatherbound notebook from Papeterie Mack, in rue de Bourg, just to the north of the school, near the cathedral. This was to be her autograph book in which all her new friends would write poems and messages and paint little vignettes for her to remember them by.

Jeannie was Scottish, so quite a few of the entries in her book have a Scots flavour. I particularly like this specially composed verse, which ladles on the Burns idiom:

"I've read this book from end to end
and looked the pictures through
The French is far beyond my ken
In fac' it gars me grue

I like the guid auld Doric twang
Tae talk, or sing, or rhyme,
An' be it a sermon or a sang
Or e'en a Bairnies hymn

New fanglet ways I canna 'bide
So be it French of German
Awa' wae baith whate'er betide
In either sang or sermon

And as for names o' bonnie lassies
The Minnies, Idas, Ethels, a'
Parents were sure the biggest asses,
Sic' fancy names their bains tae ca'.

Nacht like a guid auld Scottish name
I don't even like 'my pretty Jane'
Come strike the lyre tae ma ane Queen
And sing tae Prestwick's bonnie Jean."

Another poem, which I won't burden you with, spells out 'Jeannie Wylie' with the initial letters of each line. That one's signed 'Ton amie de la chic table' ('Your friend from the smart table') and the date is given as 'Pitt's birthday' (May 28th -- Pitt the Younger!).

Some of the hand-drawn illustrations are lovely, like the one above. Others -- below -- not quite so accomplished.
Chateau de Chillon with the Dents du Midi in the background
This view of the Chateau de Chillon was extremely popular. Courbet had painted it in 1875:
Did our young artist draw the actual castle or did they nip out and buy a postcard to copy?:
After a couple of months in Lausanne, Jeannie -- probably along with the rest of her class -- decamped into the countryside to the north to what was perhaps a sister school, housed in the Chateau de Marnand.
I like this next old postcard of the school because of the message written on the front:
An ecole menagere is a very practical version of a finishing school, specialising in 'le menage', that's to say running a household, so it would include cooking, housekeeping, perhaps even how to take care of children. Tres pratique!

Overall, though, the book gives away what was perhaps the most engaging aspect of the girls' stay in Switzerland: the opportunities it afforded for flirtation. Although it's a little coded, there's a febrile interest in the opposite sex hidden on many pages. One of my favourite pages in the book is this strange amalgamation of memories and secrets, above. Here are some of the phrases:

"Mademoiselle, il faut mettre cela dans la bouche" ("Miss, you must put that in your mouth").
"Je t'aime".
"Leve-toi!" ("Get up!").
"Bonbons, pas pour toi!" ("No sweets for you!").
"Aimes-tu les oranges?" "Seulement la moitie" ("Do you like oranges?" "Just a half").
"Ne vous inquietez pas" ("Don't worry").
"Here alone I wait for thee".
"Oh golly!"
"Veux-tu quelque chose pour ton chapeau?" ("Would you like something for your hat?").
"Veux-tu te baigner?" ("Do you want to go swimming?") "Oh alors!" ("Oh, I say!")
"Je suis amoureuse" ("I'm in love").
As well as the very slightly daring poem above, there's a much longer poem that reveals more. It concerns a young Russian gentleman -- and in the picture with all the tiny vignettes, above, you can see a couple dancing 'a la Russe', so perhaps that's him. The poem goes:

"Honi soit qui mal y pense

I have a charming tale to relate
of things that have happened of quite recent date,
a fair-haired young Russe has come to Lausanne,
and to catch his attention we do all we can.

Diable! [Damn!]

The first time we saw him was at a soiree,
(Doctor Trolliet us had invited to tea)
And he had a flower in his coat, oh alors!
We saw it and gasped as we entered the door


But Madame had said, "Soyez comme il faut,
Je vous pris, cheres enfants, ne regardez pas les beaux" ["Behave correctly, please, dear children, do not look at gentlemen"],
So we sat down on chairs very straight
While the two madames had their tete-a-tete.


But when we began to play a ___ [can't read] game,
We very soon saw the dear Russe's aim.
For to two pretty girls he paid great attention
As if the others were not worth a mention.


Of course we were angry, that goes without saying,
He to two girls his attention was paying,
When of we others there was a great number
Who could do nothing but look and wonder


 But that's not all, there's more to relate,
That occurred at an even more recent date.
The next day he came to see us at school
And then his behaviour was even more cool.


Madame a very grand supper was giving
To all her friends in Lausanne who were living.
The Russian turned up in the evening to dance
And of course we all thought we would
then have a chance.


But no, no, no, 'twas always the same,
Evidently he wished not the pain
of inventing new phrases for new sets of girls
Who looked at him askance behind their false curls


At last we saw that it was no good,
Although we all had done all that we could,
So with many groans when we saw it no use,
We others gave up "that horrid young Russe".

Diable! Diable!! Diable!!!

Villa Orama, 22nd April 1891

(That was a little altered at the second soiree, tu sais!)
Souvenir de ton bonne amie, tu sais qui" ["Souvenir from your good friend, you know who" -- should be "ta bonne amie" but they were just learning French. I think the Docteur Trolliet mentioned must be the husband of the Madame Trolliet mentioned on the school postcard above...] 

I wouldn't normally find such poems that interesting, but I like this one as it records the actual experiences of Jeannie and her friends in what must have been a magical summer of freedom before they were expected to marry.

"Vite, a gauche, ne regarde pas, des garcons viennent!" [Quick, on the left, don't look, some boys are coming!"]
 To finish off, here are some of the names from the book, in case they're of interest to anyone:

Agnes L. Nicholson
S. A. Russell
M. L. Duplan
Ethel L. Morton
Mary H. McNeill 
L. A. B. Sechehaye [their teacher]
Aggie Warden
Jeanne Debonneville
Martha Volkmar
Florrie Isabel Fryer
Alice Kerr
May S. Wilkie
Lina Teucher
Natalie Hapke
Ethel M George (who said, "I think you will always remember the night of May 8th 1891")
Winnie Whale
Evelyn Fullerton
Carrie Faraker
Ina Leckie
Martha M Taylor 

Thursday, 29 September 2016

1866 -- One date, two worlds?

I just came across this book in among some things that once belonged to my mum. It's very small, about 8.5cm by 6cm, with a very pretty embossed cover. I didn't remember seeing it before and I was pleased to find it as my mum and I shared a love of miniature books. But I felt a strange sensation when I opened it.
It has a handwritten dedication, 'To my dear little Lily, with Auntie's love. Oct 16th 1866.' It was the date of 1866 that gave me a turn because, by coincidence, that's the year in which the principal event of my book, The Apprentice of Split Crow Lane, takes place.
My book is non-fiction, a forensic investigation of an awful child murder committed near Gateshead (in the North of England) in April 1866. In going into what happened in as much detail as possible, through newspaper and court reports, I discovered an aspect of Victorian society that felt very different from the version represented by this little children's book, which may seem to us like a more recognisable image of the nineteenth century.
Here's a charming and innocent set of illustrations about little girls and their dolls set in a vaguely rural idyll and accompanied by little rhymes. It's in sharp contrast with the rather graphic details of the murder that were reproduced in newspapers at the time and which surprised me with their frankness, although they are not unduly sensationalist.

Yet even in the little picture book, I began to see hints of the darker world which the victim of 'my' murder had inhabited. She was called Sarah Melvin and was aged 5. It was when she was out walking across Carr's Hill on her own (which was nothing unusual) that she was taken. And isn't that an angel in the previous picture -- so is that little girl in a pink dress asleep among the roses or...?
The two little girls who inhabit the book have a brother, Frederick, who taunts and teases them and generally makes their life a misery. Without wanting to give too much away, this also resonates with my book, which looks in part at how difficult life could be during this period for young people, especially those who found it hard to fit in. So what seemed initially to be a rather shocking contrast between light and dark aspects of mid-Victorian society ended up being much more closely related.

The Apprentice of Split Crow Lane is published in hardback on 3 November 2016 (£20), for Kindle on the same date (£13.99) and in paperback on 27 August 2017 (£8.99) by riverrun, an imprint of Quercus Books.

Friday, 10 June 2016

In conversation with David Gledhill

David Gledhill, 'Das Gluckliche Paar auf Fahrt'. Oil on canvas, 92 x 127cm, 2008-2010
A few years ago, artist David Gledhill was given an album of photographs that had been found in a fleamarket in Frankfurt. The album dated from the 1950s and had been put together in East Germany by a GP, Dr Wilhelm Munscheid, as a fifth-wedding-anniversary present for his daughter Renate. Renate had married a West German, becoming Frau Manjock, and as a result lived in the West, though she was able to visit her parents quite often. But for some reason she did not receive the album intended for her.

An important aspect of David Gledhill's practice is painting from photographs, particularly found images. He has produced a series of 30 paintings based on photos in the album. Later, he discovered that Frau Manjock was living near Frankfurt and he went to meet her and to give her the album that was intended for her. He has made an interesting film (available to view on YouTube) about this experience.

Now the novelist Nicholas Royle has collaborated with David to write a novella, In Camera, sparked by David's paintings (and illustrated by them). This adds a further intriguing layer of fiction which conjures a new world out of the album. The interplay between this imagined context and the historical context is very rich.

As I'm so interested in painting that takes photographs as its subject, I've been really enjoying an email conversation I've been having with David Gledhill about the project.
David Gledhill, ‘Wohnzimmer mit Blick aufs Esszimmer’. Oil on canvas, 92 x 142cm, 2008 - 2010
Jane Housham (JH): When your subject is 'in' a photo, how important is it to you to reproduce the same qualities of dark and light as the original photo? When you paint a picture derived from a black-and-white or sepia photograph, do you use a single colour and let the white come from the background or do you use one colour plus white or even several different colours?

David Gledhill (DG): With the work based on black and white photographs, I just use black oil paint and remove the paint with rags and cotton buds to allow the primed surface of the canvas to show through. I go on applying further washes of black paint and then removing it again until the image is complete. Towards the end of the process I tend to scumble dry paint broadly across the forms to deepen the tonal contrast. After a few weeks I then apply a glaze layer with a tiny amount of raw umber paint in it. This acts to warm up the image and to pull it together and set it back behind a slight sheen on the surface of the canvas. Raw umber can approximate to the sepia hue of some old photographs so it has to be managed carefully so as to avoid too overt a sense of nostalgia, which isn’t really the point of the work.

JH: That's very interesting. Does the desire to 'seal' the painting behind that sheen bear any relation to wanting to reproduce the sheen of a photo?

DG: Yes, it opens up a space behind the surface of the canvas which has a similar feel to the space of a photograph. Of course it’s hard to make the canvas completely ‘transparent’ as it were and I’m conscious of a century’s worth of art theory that has privileged the picture plane over the content of a painting.
     Having said that, there are all sorts of little imperfections in a painting that remind you of its materiality and this is another significant distinction between paintings and photographs. I don’t think most people would be preoccupied with reading photographs in terms of their materiality rather than what they’re of, other than being conscious of the means of viewing, such as a print, an album or a computer screen. But when you see a painting you’re highly conscious of this object in the room, that’s like a piece of furniture rather than simply an image.
     The work isn't photorealist in the traditional sense of the term as I'm not trying to reproduce the specific quality of reflected light as recorded by a camera lens. The tonal range of the original snap is the point of departure but the finished paintings have much stronger contrasts of light and dark. This is because I'm attempting to use techniques and conventions from the history of drawing and painting to translate a photographic image into a painterly equivalent that also suggests the tactile forms beneath the record of reflected light.

JH: Your mention of 'imperfections' in paintings has just made me think of some of Peter Doig's large-scale works from the Nineties, which are clearly derived from film stills or photos but in which he has absolutely spattered the surface of the canvas with drops and smears of paint so that there's an extreme pull between those two elements – the painting as mimesis and as surface decoration or mark-making. But that same tension is there in this series too, as you say.

DG: With this work, I wanted to move the balance between the painting as object and as image towards a position where it’s inviting to enter into the atmospherics of the painting, but also evident that it has some material similarities with photography. Wiping the paint back to allow the primed canvas to show through, produces a similar effect to the printing of black and white photographs in that the lighter areas of the composition come from the support. 
David Gledhill, 'Dielenaufgang'. Oil on canvas, 92 x 138cm, 2010
JH: How do you feel about the process of choosing images to paint when you have decided not to select a composition from the infinite possibilities of unmediated reality but, rather, to choose from views that have already been mediated by someone else?

DG: I worked directly from the motif for many years. When I was studying in the late 70’s, I reacted to the conceptualised tendencies in the art of the time and went back to C├ęzanne. I wanted to work my way through the various modernist approaches and started by drawing and painting in the landscape. Of course, I ended up resorting to methods and conventions that I had seen in the work of other artists. I tried very hard to make work in response to my own perception and situatedness in a particular place, but as time went on the constant interruptions or bad weather conditions discouraged me from painting outdoors, so I made working drawings on the spot and developed them in the studio.  These days I would take issue with the idea of the experience of nature as an 'unmediated' one. It seems to me that experience and sense perception are already mediated, not just in the strictly physiological sense but also in terms of how we create meaning from what we experience, which is a social and cultural process. I'm compelled by this process of making meaning, so the intention and the decision to take a photograph are what interests me, rather than questions of the objectivity or truth value of the photograph itself.

JH: So is the key element of the choice of a 'found' photo as your subject the composition within the frame of the photo?

DG: Yes, exactly. I look for a composition I can lift out of the photograph and render in painterly terms. If I see a painting by one of my favourite artists that I’ve never seen before, the unexpectedness of the composition has the shock value and disorientating effect of discovering a new species, or a new set of unforeseen possibilities. It’s something I’ve never been able to verbalise but occasionally I get the same feeling from a second-hand photograph in a box somewhere. It’s a completely new way of seeing the world and then the job is to work out whether the newness of the photograph will translate into painting. Working from entire albums is less to do with the quirkiness of the individual compositions and more to do with reaching beyond my preferences and challenging myself to invest in someone else’s habitual manner of framing their own experience. The reason why I stopped working from my own photographs was that I gradually stopped challenging myself to try new subjects in new ways and working with an album makes you do that.

JH: Is it more challenging when you don't just select images one by one but, as with the Dr Munscheid photos, accept a set of images as your subject?

DG: I've made paintings from individual second-hand photographs but when I was given the album, I thought it was important to attempt as many of the images as possible, and managed to produce 30 from a total of 57. I've been frustrated with what you could call the 'commodity status' of paintings for years. When I invite friends to exhibitions they say "but I can't afford your work". All I want is for people to see them and if they're interested, to think about them. I realised that working in series can divert attention from this idea of the saleability of paintings as individual artefacts. More importantly it also enables the construction of meaning from the interplay of the paintings amongst themselves and between the paintings and the source photographs in their album context. It's inevitably more challenging to work this way partly because each project takes several years to complete.
David Gledhill, 'Meine Jungmadchenklause'. Oil on canvas, 127 x 92cm, 2008-2010
 JH: Would you agree that it involves a certain degree of 'submission' to someone else's choice of moment, of frame? For me, if I'm looking for an image to paint, I will either search for a long time for an image I want to paint (for instance spending hours in second-hand shops going through boxes of old photos and only finding maybe one or two I like) or, alternatively, I'll see an image in a newspaper or somewhere and it'll speak to me -- I'll know instantly that I want to turn it into a painting, but that means it has some very special quality about it. So what it comes down to (for me) is that I don't want to paint just any old found image, and that's why I wondered whether it was more of a challenge to attempt to paint all the images in Dr Munscheid's album, since I thought there must inevitably have been some images that didn't speak to you as strongly. You ended up painting just over half, which is a great achievement, I think. Perhaps 'submitting to the album', as it were, served to intensify the sense of 'strangeness' one gets from painting a found image, which I think is caused by so many of the decisions one would have to make if painting a subject 'in the world' already having been made for one. 

DG: I know what you mean but I wouldn’t choose the word ‘submission’. I think I must have overdeveloped empathetic faculties, because I’m absolutely enchanted by the idea of entering into somebody else’s world. I’ve also been fascinated by the less appealing works of those artists I admire and this is across all media, including pop music, literature etc. There are the things you adore and can’t get enough of. You read them or listen to them over and over and then after years of pleasing yourself in this way you become curious about the less immediately appealing stuff. In order to maintain and expand the range of what you can do as an artist, I think you have to try harder with things you don’t like at first. Teaching art has encouraged me to go to exhibitions I wouldn’t normally bother with and I’ve learned far more than I could have by sticking to Rubens, Rembrandt and Titian, whom I’m in awe of. So it’s a case of being aware that I need to tackle compositions that are less ‘catchy’ in a way, and those often turn out to be the best ones. This is definitely something that working with old photographs can help with because whilst early photographs were often formulaic, since about the 1930’s people all over the world have been pointing cameras at all kinds of things in all kinds of ways.
     I knew why I took the shots I used as source material to make paintings when I started to work from my own photographs, but I was curious to explore other people's motivations. Of course this is only conjecture, but it seemed to me that the Doctor who recorded the family home as a memento for his daughter was trying to stop time and to preserve something that was slipping away. What made the album so powerful for me, was that with the passage to communist rule, the past must have seemed irretrievable in both a personal but also a larger social sense.
      One of the mistakes I made early in the project was to assume that the Doctor’s personal transition from Nazi to Communist East Germany somehow made him guilty. Renate showed me a framed photograph of her father in Sweden during the war, dressed in an officer’s uniform. Apparently, thousands of small town doctors fled to the West before 1961 and the closure of the borders, in search of the material basics of life; their own flat and car, television etc. It was clear from the album (and the paintings) that Doctor Munscheid had a big house, a maid and chauffeur, so he must have adapted pretty quickly to the new regime. That fascinates me and it’s there to be read from the photographs and hopefully the paintings. It’s this possibility that snapshots can contribute to the development of a new form of history painting that motivates me to keep searching for material to work with.
David Gledhill, 'Der Vater bei der Arbeit (mein Arbeitsplatzchen von 1945-1952). Oil on canvas, 92 x 153cm, 2008-2010  
 JH: Is it possible to see the Dr Munscheid paintings in the flesh anywhere?

DG: I had a few shows of the paintings when I finished the series back in 2013 but not since then. I'm hoping that if the book generates some interest, I'll be able to exhibit the paintings outside the North West. I would love to exhibit them as a series in the town they document.

JH: That would be excellent. Do you have any feelings about their needing to be kept together as the originals were?

DG: I've sold two or three of the paintings from exhibitions and, in those cases, I've painted replacements so that the series is kept intact.

JH: Do you think you'll carry on replacing bought paintings in that way? What will it mean when you no longer feel the need to fill gaps in the series?

DG: I’ve produced a number of other series since the Dr Munscheid paintings, so perhaps there’s a time limit on the will to maintain the integrity of a body of work. If I was in a position where there was interest in the work, I would rather offer it to a public collection for a drastically reduced price than see it sold off bit by bit.
JH: Are there any photos in the album that you didn't make paintings of? What were the reasons for leaving those out, if you did?

There were quite a few out of focus snaps of dachshunds playing in a garden, which may have taxed my commitment to the project, so I didn't bother with them. There are three paintings of dogs in the series however, so they are represented!
David Gledhill, 'Stuzzi'. Oil on canvas, 38 x 56cm, 2008-2010
JH: Is there a limit to how long you can concentrate on a single subject, even if it consists of multiple individual images?

I wanted to minimise my own intervention in the album's narrative by painting as many of the photographs as possible, but I think self-imposed strictures of this kind should occasionally be sidestepped to keep things fresh. I wasn't aware of any other artists who have used entire photograph albums in this way, so I was determined to do my best, but I think eventually you can run out of steam. 

JH: Do you like Richter's photo-derived paintings? I mean those of his paintings that are akin to your Dr Munscheid series, clearly based on photos. I love them.

DG: I think Richter’s Baader Meinhof series are easily the best paintings produced by anyone in the last 40 years and for lots of reasons other than the technical quality of the individual paintings. His use of the serial form is genuinely innovative and the engagement with historical events and particularly events of such traumatic impact was completely groundbreaking. I often wonder why he seems to have backed away from the possibilities opened up by these paintings. Of course he has had to endure the volcanic political life of Germany first hand, whilst my interest is from a safe distance as it were.

JH: Yes, I think those paintings are extraordinary too. When Tate Modern had their big Richter retrospective a couple of years ago, I spent ages just sitting in the relatively small room where that sequence was hung. The imaginative engagement with those dark events was incredible. I agree that he seems to have retreated to some extent now.

DG: Perhaps the abstracts sell better!

JH: Did you feel any pangs at parting with the album when you returned it?

DG: The experience of meeting Renate and reuniting her with the album was incredibly powerful. For the first time I felt that painting could be a significant social activity with some kind of direct connection to lived experience. I think previously I had bought into the idea of art as a process of self-realisation, but with this body of work I had attempted to understand someone else's circumstances.

JH: I imagine it must have felt very strange to have owned the album for quite some time, to have painted versions of the images in it, and then, later, to reconnect those images with the reality of Frau Manjock in her retirement home. For me, one particularly powerful moment of your film was early on [it's at 1 min 44 secs or so], when you're just about to meet her and the automatic glass door opens to admit you. For me, that's the invisible barrier between your painted/constructed version of Renate's world and her actual world – you cross over, and then the rest of the film is about real Renate.
David Gledhill, 'Gemutliche Stunden auf dem Balkon'. Oil on canvas, 124 x 92cm, 2010

DG: The visit was an almost hallucinatory experience for me because many of the pieces of furniture and even the light fixture that you see in the film, I had spent months meticulously painting from the interior shots of her father’s house. I felt as though I had grown up in that house myself and here I was in the flat confronted with objects I knew intimately.

JH: Oh yes, it must have been quite surreal! It makes me think of my obsession with 'visiting' places via Google Streetview. Sometimes I've explored them so thoroughly on my computer screen that when I actually go there in reality, there's very little sense of surprise. But the circumstances here must have been a hundred times more intense than that.
      When it came to collaborating with Nicholas (Royle), what were your feelings about the album and your paintings becoming the subject of someone else's creative process? Was there any sense of tension or reluctance?

DH: Absolutely no reluctance at all. I was delighted that Nick was interested enough to collaborate. There are key differences between Nick’s narrative and what I know about Renate’s childhood, such as the fact that she was an only child, whereas there’s a brother in the book. What really moves me about the story is the relationship between the Doctor and his daughter, which culminates in an incredibly tender and moving scene. I have a daughter myself so I suppose I’m susceptible to the subject, but it suggests that mixture of exasperation and love that parenthood brings, whilst also evoking the imaginative world of childhood during a time of comparative austerity when domestic objects had an immediacy and fascination. It also deals with the enduring mystery of photography as something that happens between people, something that I obviously enjoy thinking about!

JH: I think that would be the perfect note on which to draw this conversation to an end. It's been so interesting for me to discuss your wonderful paintings with you. Everything about the project interests me, and I do hope that very many people buy the book and experience the pleasure of experiencing all the layers it contains.

DG: Thanks very much, I’ve really enjoyed it!