‘A love affair with Italy’ is perhaps one of the most platitudinous phrases in the English language. Yet, anyone who hasn’t a love affair with Italy (or, even better, in Italy) must be either lacking the body’s most vital organ or else suffering from some stark psychic disturbance.
My father, a tank driver in the Eighth Army in WWII, had a love affair both with Italy and in Italy. After the arid tortures of El Alamein, only relieved by some good times in Cairo with its opera house and alluring fleshpots, Harvey crossed the southern Med to continue his part in the campaign by participating in the slow red-hot rake’s progress up the Italian peninsula. He managed to collect postcards and, as a four-year old, I remember being transfixed by his explanations of that city of the mirage, Venice. I remember too his pen-drawing of a Tyrolean terrace overlooking those glorious Dolomites and telling me how they changed their colour constantly throughout the day’s sunshine…
That drawing, alas vanished into the ether, like his war diaries and photographs of Egyptian fellahin, retains a special significance for it was there that he met a Red-cross nurse and was immediately smitten by her Veronica-Lake style features and her determined character against anyone trying to steal those precious medical supplies. For her there was no distinction between friend or enemy – only between the healthy and the wounded.
(Some of the very few drawings from my father I have left – I believe that he also painted some beautiful scenes of Lake Garda and Austria but these, again have vanished into the ether)
In a sense, everyone was wounded, traumatised by yet another unnecessary and unwanted war – a war that in Italy had degenerated into the most violent civil conflict Europe has ever witnessed. How could this heavenly country have been so lacerated by the monster of warfare?
My father invited the red-cross nurse (who’d originally trained to become a concert pianist at the Milan Conservatoire with such contemporaries as Benedetti Michelangeli – she, incidentally, found his student playing ‘cold’) to come to Britain to get away from the destruction, both physical and psychological, wrought upon the Italian nation and spend time in the UK learning English. (Her friends ironically remarked that she would atone in Britain for Italy’s defeat. In fact, she became a doctor and was a distinguished figure in the now sadly closed Italian Hospital in London’s Queen’s square, gaining the Italian equivalent of the CBE for her services).
(The Italian Hospital Queen Square, London now part of the Great Ormond Street Hospital)
Vera (that was the red-cross nurse’s name) was free to go wherever she wanted; to visit the sights of London, walk in the parks of such stately homes as Knole Park and visit those beacons of learning, Oxford and Cambridge. She too had her love affair with Britain and in Britain. Here was a country that didn’t even have a sufficiently strong black market and enough corrupt traders to supply those little luxuries which sweeten life. Indeed, her parents from the defeated nation supplied things in short supply in the UK like chocolate, coffee and clothes to Harvey and his family.
(Outside Knole House, Kent, around 1950)
Britain constantly puzzled Vera with its mixture of democratic tolerance and fusty puritanism, its generosity and its closeted society, its broad-mindedness and its parochialism. But, as a foreigner, she was able to overcome prejudice and racism realising that these were merely the manifestations of a few people with limited education. The old aristocracy and those persons brought up in the great tradition of classical learning had preserved a feeling of veneration for everything that Italy had disseminated to civilization in terms of artistic beauty, literature, architecture, philosophy and scientific curiosity.
In addition to different countries, languages and cultures there was also the class difference between Harvey and Vera. His father had been coachman for a lord in Bayswater. Hers was as a member of impoverished landowners who’d fled to the city and found work in the emerging industries of Northern Italy. He had left school by the time he was sixteen. She’d attended l’università Della Sapienza di Roma before war had called her to more pressing duties.
Yet between them there existed a mutuality of similar interests: in music, in reading, in visiting beautiful places and in trying to reconstruct lives almost shattered by six years conflicts, and building a more promising future.
I became part of that future because, due to an un-programmed pregnancy (as so many are), Harvey and Vera were rapidly married (in Italy, thanks to her uncle priest who arranged things masterfully in an age and country still plagued by the ‘shamefulness’ of illegitimacy and pre-marital sex).
The rest is history, for the love affair continued with me. First with Italy and then with an Italian – a girl of inestimable beauty with whom I have now spent close to forty years of closely guarded bliss. True, like all great Italian paintings there’s a fair share of chiaroscuro but who could countenance something as boring as a perfect marriage?
(Alexandra at my rooms at King’s Cambridge in 1971)
An Italian love affair is the prevailing sentiment that permeates the retrospective exhibition of Raymond Arthur Mee’s paintings which opened at the Circolo dei Forestieri Bagni di Lucca and which continues until 25th June (opening times 10-1, 4-8). I was privileged to visit, albeit hastily, the exhibition yesterday and found so much in common with sentiments expressed by my father about Italy. Though not a professionally trained artist like Mee, Harvey would surely have delighted in the exquisitely kaleidoscopic graduation of soft and harsher colours in Raymond’s paintings, especially when his palette opened out into ever more ecstatic pastures after the artist’s discovery of Italy and, in particular, of our area of the Lucchesia.
Harvey would have, especially, delighted in the pen drawing (for which he was an undoubted craftsman) which Raymond Victor Mee made of the houses, the corners, and landscapes of our area. If the secret of a great composer is to enable us to hear the chord of C major as a completely new sound so the secret of a great artist is to enable us to revisit places, sights and colours as seen for the first time and in a completely new light. Take these pen drawing of places familiar to anyone who knows our area.
I was particularly taken by the influence John Ruskin had on Mee. I have already mentioned the great love Ruskin had for Lucca’s architecture, which he drew with equal mastery, in my post at https://longoio.wordpress.com/2014/02/10/a-secret-marriage-in-lucca/
I will not add any more illustrations for so many of them are beautifully presented in the work of love that is the book written by Raymond’s wife Deidre and his daughter Julia (who has provided a superb Italian translation) and which is in on sale at the exhibition. Furthermore, the presence of Raymond’s son Karl is present in the ambient music that enhances the exhibition at the Sala Rosa of the Circolo.
PS In case you hadn’t read my post advertising Raymond Arthur Mee’s exhibition here is part of it describing something of Raymond’s artistic background:
Raymond Victor Mee was painter, print-maker and ceramist. Born in Leek (Staffordshire, UK) he had a distinguished career as an artist, particularly after his first trip to Italy in 1989 where he established a studio at nearby Benabbio.
(The artist drawn by his daughter Julia Alexandra Mee)
The exhibition commemorates the tenth anniversary of the artist’s death and celebrates his work which was greatly influenced by Italian architecture and the Italian landscape which he loved so much.
Regrettably, I never met Raymond although I did attend an exhibition of his work at Benabbio shortly after his decease.
As an artist Raymond Victor Mee stands very high in an area which is noted for its capacity to attract the best creative talent and I’ll certainly look forwards with great pleasure to the exhibition. There is a great structural strength in Mee’s compositions, something which only a study of his finest artistic predecessors (especially Cezanne) could have instilled.
Fortunately, Raymond’s natural artistry has been transmitted in his family. Indeed, the tradition of landscape and trompe-d’oeil decoration continues in Italy (and elsewhere, I hope). In a fine former orphanage at Benabbio there are good examples painted by Julia Alexandra Mee, daughter of the late painter. Julia continued her training at the Accademia delle Belle Arti, Florence, where she learnt traditional painting techniques such as fresco. (If you are a ‘Grapevine’ reader you’ll have read her fascinating articles on that subject).
The exhibition has been organised by the family with the help of Roberto Lucchesi (alias ‘Coco’) a fine entertainer and friend of Raymond. It is being presented in conjunction with an Exhibition at the Nicholson Museum and Art Gallery at Leek Staffordshire (Mee’s native land) which will open from 3rd September to the 1st October.