Friday, 19 October 2018

Love Venice, Hate Being A Tourist..

I hesitate to attempt writing about Venice, and as a photographer, it’s a challenge to produce images that are vaguely original. So many people have done it, and probably in a more competent and informative way than I can muster.  Looking around for meaningful quotes led me to several which express a similar sentiment. American writer Henry James, writing in 1882, probably sums this up best ;  "....I am not sure there is not a certain impudence in pretending to add anything....There is notoriously nothing more to be said on the subject. Every one has been there, and every one has brought back a collection of photographs."

So, that's that then.

Well, no. I may not be overly good with words, and I sometimes struggle to create the images I want to, but I feel the need to express....something.... I suppose that's one of the things Venice does to you.

Photographically, I knew I’d be faced with endless opportunities. I tried to avoid the usual and the clichéd, but it turns out to be almost impossible. There's something striking, but slightly familiar around every corner – The sun reaching down through the high, narrow spaces at various angles, lighting up the cracked and crumbling buildings on it’s way to illuminating the greeny-blue water below, which ripples and sparkles as the bow of a Gondola, almost silently, cuts through the waterway. See what I mean – cliché!  Don’t get me wrong, I love it. It’s all gorgeous and textured, captivating and evocative, and a lot of the time I found myself just standing, staring with a daft smile on my face. However, as much as I find the sunlit city a feast for the senses, for me, there is just as much magic in the hours of darkness.

Around Campo San Rocco

" In the glare of the day there is little poetry about Venice, but under the charitable moon her stained palaces are white again…” Mark Twain.

Wandering the alleyways and bridges in the dead of night is an absolute pleasure. It becomes a different place entirely. The crowds disperse. You still see people, mostly with map in hand, looking for street names, but it's so relaxed, so quiet. There is no constant drone of distant traffic because, of course, there are no cars. Occasionally the silence is broken by a lone late water taxi, or even some local lads cruising with bass booming sound systems. But the sound is soon dulled by walls and water as the boat disappears off into the labyrinth, leaving just the liquid lapping noises along the edge of the canal. Even the crazy crowd hotspots of Rialto and San Marco can be almost deserted, allowing a leisurely look at some of the architectural wonders without having to dodge the backpacks and selfie-sticks.

The belltower of San Giacomo Dell'Orio
looming over the building where we stayed.
Yes, it was a little noisy at times!

You can even find space enough for a dance in San Marco around Midnight!

Light spilling out of doorways and windows creates soft,
coloured mozaics in the dark waters with their reflections. 

I love photographing people. Like most cities, Venice provides plenty of opportunity to capture some of the local faces, especially around Rialto Market. After around 9 a.m. the place begins to heave with shoppers and sightseers alike. I saw guided tours coming through there, groups of up to 20 or 30, possibly from one of the giant cruise ships docked out near Tronchetto at the western end of the city. They're all baseball caps and Nikon DSLRs, which are as ubiquitous now as the old Box Brownie was in Edwardian times. 

Most locals get their shopping done early, in an attempt to avoid the mass of onlookers parading along the market stalls.

work, venice, market, street

The loading and unloading of fruit, vegetables, mushrooms, and fish goes on most of the morning.

It seems that at markets all over the world, there is always at least one old chap who comes to watch. This man stood for almost an hour in the same spot, every now and then he would survey the stalls of fish with owl-like movements of his head. Eventually he moved in to buy a handful of shrimp from one of the fishmongers. He then stood back in the same spot and devoured them there and then.

At one point a group of guided tourists flowed past him as though he were a permanent fixture of some sort, like one of the pillars of the building itself. They seemed oblivious to his presence, and he to theirs. It was almost as if they passed straight through him, like a ghost.

" Though there are some disagreeable things in Venice there is nothing so disagreeable as the visitors.” Henry James,1882

Venice gets in the region of 20 million visitors a year. This is a city of just 55,000 residents. The authorities are trying to minimise the impact with their "Respect Venice" campaign with, it seems to me, limited success. I still saw plenty of people doing exactly what the posters ask them not to. If the number of residents continues to drop, there is a danger that the city, as a living, breathing, working city will just die long before  it's in danger of sinking far below the waves.

Don't block jetty's or steps where access is needed...

                                              Don't feed the birds... 

"No Big Ships"

Of course, the numbers have been swelled in recent years with the arrival of more and more huge cruise ships. In the high season the city can registers upwards of 20,000 passengers coming ashore per day!  There have been some changes in the routes taken and in the maximum size of ships allowed, but the debates over environmental and economic issues still rumble on.

I so wanted to see this place. It's one of those places on the 'must see' list, and I absolutely love it - the architecture and the art, it's people and it's history,....But I kind of hate being a tourist! I am well aware of the strain the city is under, the sheer numbers of people and the effect that has on the residents and the functioning of the city, so I feel slightly schizoid about this. On one hand I don't see why I shouldn't experience the place, but on the other there's the slight creeping guilt at being a part of the problem.  In the end I think you just have to go, treat the place and its people with respect, be humbled by it all and soak up as much as you can of it's utterly unique atmosphere. 

More photo's in this ALBUM on Flickr, which at the time of writing is still growing!

Thursday, 27 September 2018

MM & MF Go Camping

The 14th Century Church Of The Holy Cross (Eglwys Y Grog) Mwnt (MFV Lobb Collection. NLW)

It's been a while since I got around to writing on the subject of the Mary Lobb Collection discovered at The National Library of Wales some five years ago now. For those that are new to this story you can catch up by reading my article in the Library Journal HERE, and maybe some of my earlier blogs on the subject. 

Last year, 2017, I helped curate an exhibition at Kelmscott Manor. While this was running I was invited to a meeting called by researcher and author Jan Marsh who had recently been in receipt of an interesting little collection.The purpose of the meeting being to look over the materials and discuss where the archive should end up being housed.  I'm never that keen on the train journey from Aberystwyth to London, but obviously I accepted the invitation!

Around the table in a small meeting room at The National Portrait Gallery, there were, aside from myself, several interested parties from other museums, archives and galleries. With all introductions made, we all delved in to the little box of treasures. Out came bundles of letters, some from May to her mother and sister dated 1913, photographs and postcards from various places including many from Iceland, and 14 hardback sketchbooks in which May had written accounts of the travels she and Mary Lobb had undertaken.

A first look at the new discoveries.

The texts are written in diary form, an entry for every day, illustrated, here and there, with little sketches and watercolours. May's descriptions are detailed and full of atmosphere and humour. In places she has written out conversations between her and Mary in script form using MM to denote herself and MF (for Mary Frances) for her companion, and some of these make very amusing reading. 

I was drawn to the journals relating to the trips to Wales, one of my aims being to see if we could connect any of the material in MF's collection at NLW with the narratives, but it was to be some time before I could read any of them in their entirety. The final decision was that the journals, photographs and postcard would be housed with The Society of Antiquaries of London who own Kelmscott Manor, and for now they are held at the society's offices at Burlington House in London. At present they are being worked on by Dr. Kathy Haslam who, with the kind permission of S.A.L., allowed me to have a read of the first of the journals to be transcribed.

As it happens, the earliest journal relates the ladies' very first camping expedition, which was to a little cove on the west Wales coast near Cardigan, in the summer of 1919. The two arrived at Cardigan, by train on July 29th. After spending one night in the town of Cardigan the ladies were taken, by horse and cart, along the coast to Mwnt. Much of their gear had been sent in advance, though the main tent pole had somehow never made it! A replacement was soon acquired and then, “ Up to the farm-road, then down to the cliff, and there we are, at liberty to pitch our tent where we please…” 

They had come well equipped. Two stoves, one, which had been given to them by MF’s mother was a roaring Primus which, to May was, “An unholy terror.” She was much happier with her own little oil stove named Beatrice. Several of the implements have friendly names, including “Brownie”, an enamelled saucepan, and “Kruger” a useful lidded jug. They dined well on local produce -  fish, lobster, rabbit, and vegetables from local farms, mushrooms picked from the fields around them and salted bacon which they had brought with them. MF was responsible for most of the cooking using “Primus The Terrible”, but May was fond of sitting and making girdle cakes around her smoky driftwood fire.  

Their bedding consisted mainly of sacks filled with straw and led to the first night being, “a night of agony” until they had been re-organised. The second night wasn’t much better with the tent leaking in some squally Welsh weather. The wind battered the tent on a number of occasions  and, “The thing flapped and thundered, our oilskins, hung on shoulder hangers attached to the pole bobbed and swing like ghostly mad things…” Though the weather was kinder some of the time, often allowing them to take their morning bathe, “..Undisturbed, lying on the fine sand and letting the waves ripple over us.”

They weren't as secluded as they had hoped, with locals and holiday makers alike, flocking to enjoy the last of the summer weather at the beach. At one point MF considers making a few pence by boiling kettles on Primus for picnickers at 2d a go! At the end of one day May says, "I'll have to take a stick and collect all the paper 'the people' have left and burn it. The place looks squalid with their remains." How she would have hated the amount of plastic found on so many beaches these days.

The month was spent exploring the area, cycling or walking miles up and down the coast to Aberporth, Tresaith, St Dogmaels and Gwbert. There was a day trip, by car, up to Aberystwyth, stopping along the way in Aberaeron and making a detour to Devil’s Bridge. May describes Aberaeron quite favourably, not so with Aberystwyth, which she describes as  “…Unspeakable - crowds of aimless holiday-folk, each one looking more bored than the last.” 

Looking across Poppit Sands from Gwbert (MFV Lobb Collection. NLW)

They spent time with the families in the nearby farms, Fynnongrog, Clôs y Graig and Crûg and had many visitors to the camp, curious no doubt about the strange English ladies. Youngsters from the farms, would sometimes bring gifts of mushrooms, milk, honey and other produce with them and then stay to talk over girdle cakes, sweets, cigarettes and Turkish coffee - May had brought along her coffee making kit!  Some of those youngsters would have gone away buzzing!!

Clôs y Graig from Foel y Mwnt (MFV Lobb Collection. NLW)
One day, Joshua Evans from Clôs Y Graig,  having heard that the ladies "knew about machinery", turned up at the camp asking for help with his Fordson tractor, which was pretty hi-tech for the time. May explained that she really couldn’t tell one end of a tractor from the other and it would be “the other lady” he’d be wanting!  Up to the farm they went and MF worked her mechanical magic. Before long Mr Evans, who had lost an arm in an accident when he was younger, “…Was careering on the Fordson down the slope at a pace that made me gasp, as it looked as tho’ he were making straight for the deep.”

Of course, camping always has its stressful moments and there were a few tiffs between the two. May recounts one example of her "Peppery Welsh temperament" being aroused after MF, in a grumpy mood, makes disparaging comments about her driftwood fire, ending in May angrily throwing a saucepan full of vegetables into the bush, as MF stomps off in silence. Another example is presented in script form and concerns MF's use of various crockery to keep her precious sea shells:

Scene: Outside the tent. MM touching up a sketch, MF seated in a camp chair with her back to MM.

MM  What are you doing M?

MF    Oh Nothing

MM cranes her neck and looks. (disgusted) Oh those smelly old shells! Why must you spend so much time over them?

MF growls You go and make your smokey fire and leave me alone, can't you? My shells don't harm anyone.

MM I looked for that bowl everywhere last night! Besides, they smell.

MF  Well you're not leeward of me now anyway...

Then to May's continued annoyance, MF proceeds to fill another large bowl with hot water and more shells!

Mwnt has always been a popular spot. The little 14th century church has been a favourite subject for many an artist over the years. It was May’s painting which first alerted me to the fact that she had spent time there. I’d suspected that other paintings in the collection were also painted around the same stretch of coast, so a trip to Mwnt was in order.

One thing I wanted to do was to see if we could find the actual location of the campsite. Unlike a lot of their later expeditions, they don't seem to have brought a camera with them so there is no photo of the tent. We have May's descriptions - "...up a pleasant valley, decked with a musical stream.."  She often mentions how the tent is on a slight slope, and there are various other references which led me to suspect a certain area. Also, although we have no photos, there is, on the reverse of a small watercolour of the church, a very rough sketch of the tent in its surroundings. Along with May's descriptions, this made it possible to pinpoint the very spot.

The place is very much overgrown, making it somewhat difficult to fight through the wet bracken and brambles, but overall very little has changed. We're fairly certain that just to the left of where Kathleen is standing was where the tent was. The little stream is hidden by the undergrowth but still babbles its way down to the beach. The buildings in the photo are modern, built by The National Trust.

Cliffs just around the corner from the campsite at Mwnt.
(MFV Lobb Collection. NLW)
I can't be 100% sure about this one last picture but I am fairly convinced (say 98%!) that this is Crûg farm.  "The old house stands enclosed L shaped, making a pleasant square inside the stock-yard - old gray slates and the nice dormer windows..." May mentions sketching it and returning later to paint it, while the children of the family there played with MF ".. as though she were a friendly Troll."

Believed to be Crûg farm (MFV Lobb Collection. NLW)

This was the first in many camping expeditions. We know May returned to the area again, though as yet, I have seen no evidence that they camped at Mwnt again. With all the sleepless nights due to vicious weather, fear of snakes, "...all the Daddy-long-legs and startly-boos and snails..." invading the tent, and other wildlife making off with their dinners, its a wonder they ventured out again, most other women of the time certainly wouldn't. But these two were no ordinary ladies.

Quotes from May Morris' journals by kind permission of The Society Of Antiquaries Of London.