Nadfas Review Summer 2016
Brook Street in London was gnome to two brilliant musicians, two centuries and one brick wall apart. A new museum recreates their homes at number 23 and 25. Simon Tait funds out more
Shaving one afternoon in his Mayfair bathroom Jim Hendrix was suddenly aware that he was not alone. Peering past his own reflection in the mirror, he was aware of a figure apparently standing behind him, a round face framed in a white wig. “The bathroom was upstairs and he came down and said ‘You’ll never guess who I just saw…’,” recalls his then girlfriend Kathy Etchingham. “Madeleine Bell (the singer) was here and we said, ‘What are you on?’ but he insisted it was true – he’d just seen Handel.”
It was the summer of 1968 and the couple had recently moved into the third floor Brook Street flat in London’s Mayfair, found through an advertisement in a London evening paper for a rent of £30 a week. “We had no idea who Handel was until music students started coming round wanting to see where he lived because of the blue plaque on the wall – and they’d no idea who Jimi was,” says Ms Etchingham.
In his private moments, as he worked on his own compositions, Hendrix would play classical music, often Handel, as well as blues and jazz. “We went to the HMV shop in Oxford Street and bought The Messiah and The Water Music and came to love Handel,” said Ms Etchingham. “Classical music was calming, Jimi liked the rhythms,” said his biographer, Harry Shapiro, “and though it probably didn’t influence what he wrote it certainly helped his mood”.
It is a trick of fate that two iconic musicians from such different parts of the spectrum came to live in side-by-side houses two centuries apart. Handel’s house, No 25, was acquired by the Handel’s House Trust and restored, opening as a museum in 2001, and now Hendrix’s tiny flat at the top of No 23 has been restored by the trust to the way he knew it at a cost of £2.4m, with help from the Heritage Lottery Fund, and opened in February. The domuses have now been combined as Handel and Hendrix in London, the museum’s new name.
Georg Friedrich Handel, born in Halle, Germany, in 1685 and coming to London to seek his fortune in 1712, was already a success when he moved into the newly built four-storey townhouse in Brook Street in 1723, at the age of 38. Although he had anglicised his name to George Frideric he was still an alien and as such not allowed to own property, and even though he became a British citizen in 1727 he continued to pay an annual rent for the home in which he lived for the last 34 years of his life, dying here in April 1759. It was even then a well-to-do part of London.
It was at 25 Brook Street that Handel composed most of his finest works, including The Messiah, Zadok the Priest and The Royal Fireworks Music. He made use of the whole house with his servants sleeping on the top floor (in space now used for the Jimi Hendrix display about the rock musician and his circle next to the corresponding rooms at No 23 where Hendrix and his partner were to make their home two centuries later). On the second floor was his bedroom and dressing room, and on the first he composed, rehearsed and held informal performances. From the ground floor (now a shop unconnected with the museum) he sold music and tickets to his concerts. Among the objects on display is a letter from Handel to his librettist, Charles Jennens, about The Messiah, and Mozart’s hand-written arrangement of a Handel fugue. There are also portraits and caricatures of the great man, including on his bedroom a magisterial bust by Roubilliac.
The music room was the centre of Handel’s life here. Invited to a rehearsal of Alcina, the opera Handel composed soon after his arrival in Brook Street, with his favourite soprano Anna Maria Strada, the society intellectual (and close Handel friend) Mary Pendarves declared: “Whilst Mr Handel was playing his part, I could not help thinking him a necromancer in the midst of his enchantments”.
The music room still hosts concerts – not cramming in the 40 or 50 Handel used to invite but 25 or so – and when NADFAS Review visited, the harpsichordist Laurence Cummings and flautist Rachel Brown were rehearsing (pictured). Laurence was playing a new acquisition for the museum, a double manual harpsichord made in 1754 by the London maker Jacob Kirkman whose instruments Handel is known to have played. It was a gift in 2015 in memory of Ellie Warburg of the banking family, who had died the previous year.
The idea of the museum started with the musicologist Stanley Sadie who, with his wife Julie, set up the Handel House Trust in the early 1990s to acquired the house and convert it. Its restoration to the way it would have looked in Georgian times was painstaking. Archive evidence was delved into and an inventory of the very sparse contents taken after his death, now in the British Library, with scrapings of the original paint taken so that the house could be returned to the way Handel would have known it. It was opened to the public in November 2001.
Now it has been joined by memories of another musical icon. Unlike Handel’s house next door, the tiny flat is crammed with the personal tropes of its occupants mostly bought from junk shops and street stalls – Hendrix and Kathy Etchingham bought rugs, his particular enthusiasm. “With Kathy’s help we have had to acquire everything to recreate it,” said Sarah Bardwell, now a trustee of the museum and its former director, who began the project. “We used some of the sources, like Portobello Road, that Kathy and Jimi did, but we were also able to haunt the websites that they could not”.
Many items had to be remade to exact specifications, and even the brilliant white woodchip wallpaper has had to be recreated. The crimson bedspread on the divan, the carver chair, the curtains and the shawl that doubled as a bed canopy – even the unfolding firescape outside the window – have all been made. On the bed is Hendrix’s famous Epiphone FT79 acoustic guitar, bought for $25 in New York, which was his principal song-writing instrument on which he created his famous version of Bob Dylan’s All Along the Watchtower.
The flat had a bathroom and kitchen (yet to be restored) above the main room and a second room used to store clothes and guitars, now with a display of the covers of some of Hendrix’s vast record collection. And while other rock stars of the late Sixties lived in luxurious seclusion in St John’s Wood, Cheyne Walk and Weybridge, Hendrix was enjoying domestic bliss at the heart of the world’s trendiest city.
But Hendrix’s stay here was all too brief. He and Etchingham broke up in March of 1969 and they moved out the following month, Hendrix dying from a barbiturate overdose in September 1970, aged 27. But his blue plaque is at 23 Brook Street, which Hendrix called the first home of his own, next to George Friderik Handel’s at No 25.
Handel & Hendrix in London at 25 Brook Street, London W1K 4HB, is open 10am-6pm Tues, Wed, Fri and Sat; 10am-8pm Thurs; 12pm-6pm Sun; closed Monday.
Four and a half years ago, Sarah Berger formed the So and Sop Arts Club to help actors find work. Simon Tait finds out how it has expanded to help members collaborate, increase contacts and gain experience
The So and So Arts Club started by accident. The actor and director Sarah Berger was sharing a desk space in a delicatessen with a friend, working on an idea for giving fellow theatre folk a boost. The friend asked what the idea was. “I said I was fed up with doing so-so plays by so-and-so playwrights, and she said that’s what you should call it, the So and So Club” says Sarah Berger, and four years ago the club was founded.
The So and So is a professional actors’ self-help club that sources good new plays as material for rehearsed readings. Its ethos is of supporting artists across generations and it now has over 1,200 members in nine countries including Canada, the US and Australia, with patrons such as the critic Michael Billington, the director John Caird, the agent Ken McReddie and the actor Frances Barber. Its members are actors, writers and directors, among them Phyllis Logan, Terry Johnson, Bill Alexander and Joanna David.
“I’ve been an actor for 35 years and when you’re a pit pony hanging on to the rock face for a long time you get to a point when you’re tired of complaining about the lot – of actresses in particular,” Sarah said. “I thought I’d do something about it, but you can’t do much on your own so why not reach out? I’d say to other actors, I’ll open my contacts book, try to share opportunities and generate proactivity, will you do the same? Lots said OK.”
Using those contacts and Facebook she began doing readings in often unconventional places – one of the first was in a stained glass studio in West Drayton when a hat was spontaneously passed round the audience so that the readers actually got paid. They still do, getting £40 a reading, and the club which has generated work for more than 600 actors, writers, directors and designers.
For the last 18 months the So and So Arts Club has had its base in a four storey house at 6 Frederick Place off Old Jewry in the City, owned by the Mercers’ Company and let for a nominal rent. It is shared with James Roose-Evans’s Frontier Theatre Productions and its rooms of various sizes are used for rehearsals, readings, performances and offices, which Sarah can let as affordable space for other artists, “a holy grail in London”, to help fund the club. The So and So is now looking for longer term premises in which it can also establish a Fringe venue where young actors, too many of whom lack sufficient experience Sarah believes without the rep system, can learn their trade.
“Performers in particular feel so disempowered, it doesn’t really matter what you’ve done, what you’ve achieved,” Sarah said. “You look at TV in this country and you’d think only five people live here, it’s the same faces all the time, and that has crept into the theatre. It’s a very very closed shop, despite not having a functioning union anymore. The club helps people collaborate and meet each other, make it more of a level playing field.”
Sarah built a website to keep communications live, and it has been a one-woman operation. Membership costs are minimal and the turnover is tiny.
So far there have been 39 rehearsed readings and 68 performances including several productions at Fringe venues such as the Tristan Bates Theatre, the Drayton Arms, The Mill at Sonning (where she presented the British premiere of a Norah Ephron play) and at Jermyn Street. All that is earned goes back into the So and So; Sarah takes no payment.
She began a series of festivals in 2014 with the Hopefull season at the The Hope pub in Islington, four quite different plays for older actors for which she got her first and last arts council grant, and did it again last year, despite being turned down by ACE this time, at Fred’s Place, as she calls it, this time with a musical added -– “stories of people over 40 because I’m getting tired of having fallen off the face of the earth since I got past that age” – for which everyone was paid the Equity Fringe minimum.
There have been more festivals, such as A Kick up the Arts which showcased 15 plays with interactive masterclasses and workshops, and Women in the Arts with a similar format co-produced with the Actors Centre.
The biggest So and So venture so far begins on July 4, a month long season at Fred’s Place called Women at War: 16 plays, four films, two exhibitions and special events. A taster on June 27 was Seven, a one-off play by seven playwrights about seven heroic female activists from around the world featuring Miriam Margolyes, Rula Lenska and Josie Lawrence.
Sarah herself is directing Cleo Sylvestre in a play about Mary Seacole, the black Crimean War nurse whose statue was unveiled at St Thomas’s Hospital on June 30 (she will take the play to the Edinburgh Fringe). Her festival co-producer, the American Broadway director Rachel Neuberger, has written her own searing play, Nepenthe, about the notorious Block 24 brothel at Auschwitz. There’s an exhibition of portraits by the war artist Arabella Dorman. “This is a bold, important idea,” said So and So supporter Imogen Stubbs. “Now, more than ever, we need to raise our voices as artists to make sure that women across the world feel both heard and supported.”
The club is being set on a more formal footing, under the chairmanship of a City financial consultant, James Winterbotham. In June he set it up as a Community Interest Company (CIC), a corporate body that has a community purpose rather than a commercial one; it can make a profit and raise capital but also gets more sympathy from local authorities and the likes of the arts council. “However,” he said, “they do need to demonstrate good governance, hence Sarah’s desire to have us on the board”.
He met Sarah though his actor/director wife Emmeline Winterbotham (who also happens to be the Master of a City livery company), and was impressed by the So and So business model. “Speaking to Sarah was refreshing since she passionately believes that, first, the theatre profession should be paid, and secondly productions should be properly marketed. This requires applying business principles to the arts”, Winterbotham said. “Our intention is that the business is put on a sounder financial footing that enables Sarah to pursue her artistic aims using professional performers, to create stability for future planning and will enable her to be paid a proper salary. A key element of this is to have a space for performance, rehearsal and office use”.
First will be the creation of a business plan, and then finding a permanent low-cost base in the City – the lease on Fred’s Place could be ended at any moment. “I see this coming together of arts, business and an otherwise unused asset from a benign landlord as a perfect model”, Winterbotham says.
But, as So and So supporter John Caird, the director, says it has to be about theatre. He has known Sarah Berger since she was a very young Olivia in his 1983 RSC production of Twelfth Night opposite Zoe Wanamaker’s Viola.
“Theatre is a social art,” Caird said, “ and you can only make judgements about how good you are by being in the company of people you are working with, sharing ideas. Being a young artist is a very lonely business, especially for an actor, and you get on by making partnerships, forming alliances, doing things together. That’s why So and So is so important and why it works.”
The So and So Arts Club
Founded June, 2014
Headquarters 6 Frederick Place, London EC2R 8AB
Status Community Interest Company
Aims To create work for actors, directors, writers and designers
Chief executive Sarah Berger (unpaid)
Chairman James Winterbotham
Turnover £15,000 pa
Funding Membership (£30 pa) and box office
Philanthropist and heir to the Littlewoods fortune who created Comp[ton Verney art gallery
Peter Moores, who has died following a stroke aged 83, was a multi-millionaire philanthropist who made funding the arts a life-time occupation, giving away most of his fortune.
Born in the well-to-do Liverpool suburb of Formby into a business empire created by his father and uncle in the 1920s, and was able to use his inherited fortune to pursue a serious love of opera and fine art. His most public benefaction was his conversion into an art gallery of a derelict 18th century Adam mansion at Compton Verney, Warwickshire, but much of his giving was confidential. “Most people aren’t as nutty as I am,” he once said. “Most people just want to give you the money and go away. I’m not like that”.
The family firm was Littlewoods, the football pools business created by John and Horace Moores in 1924 which expanded into mail order in 1932 and later into the high street in 1938. His father, Sir John Moores, who had himself had an elementary education but was to create the Sir John Moores University out of the old Liverpool Polytechnic just before his own death in 1993, was determined his offspring should reflect the social elevation of the family and sent his only son to Eton.
Peter had fallen in love with opera at an early age. “I don’t think it was the spectacle that drew me to opera, productions then weren’t particularly sophisticated” he said, “but it was the idea of ‘performance’, the singers creating characters and bringing the work to life that really attracted me.
“I grew up with my dad’s cupboard full of operas on 78 rpm recordings, and I had no idea what they were all about. I just started at one end of the cupboard and worked my way to the other; there was Caruso and there was Mary Garden, and there was Faust in Italian… I was fascinated by it, and I got used to opera that way.”
He went to Christ Church, Oxford, to read the operatic languages of Italian and German but left before completing his degree, exasperated with what he considered inadequate teaching (Oxford later awarded him an honorary MA). The impatience in his nature only partly mellowed with age.
Moores didn’t immediately go back to Littlewoods as his father wished but instead got in touch with an Old Etonian friend, George Christie, whose own father happened to own an opera house, Glyndebourne. He went to work there as a lowly transport manager but, observing how tough it was for performers and shyly approaching putative stars such as Joan Sutherland, Colin Davies and Geraint Evans, offered financial help in their struggling years. They remained life-long friends.
His admiration for the Christies and their achievement was great, but when he was approached with the suggestion that he help create an opera house himself at Compton Verney. He saw the proposition there as impracticable, requiring a complete new build with no obvious audience at hand. But he had had a dream of making an art gallery for Middle England, and began converting the old Palladian mansion there, in the Capability Brown modelled countryside.
From Glyndebourne Moores went on to the Vienna Academy of Music, first to make the tea and bring out the singers’ costumes but later becoming an assistant producer with the Staatsoper for three years where he produced the Austrian premiere of Benjamin Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia. He then worked at the San Carlo Opera House, Naples, the Geneva Festival and the Rome Opera before, aged 25, he received the summons from his father to return to Liverpool and the family business. “The Opera in English series (produced by Chandos records from 1995 in association with Moores) is driven, I think, by Peter’s ferocious anti-snobbery on the subject, which many of my generation proudly share,” said the late opera critic at The Times Rodney Milnes. “Yet there’s the carriage trade as well – whoops, I nearly said elitist – 30-plus Opera Rara recordings, some featuring composers half of us have never heard of. Without Peter, there would be no Almeida Opera Festival, we wouldn’t have heard Rossini’s Otello at Covent Garden or Ermione at Glyndebourne”.
Moores became a director of Littlewoods in 1965, vice-chairman in 1976, and took over from his 81-year-old father as chairman of Britain’s largest private company the following year, in the shadow of a global recession. It was not a success, with profits dipping dramatically, and Sir John had to return to the helm. The complex family squabbles over the running of the firm escalated after Sir John’s death with Peter proposing himself for chairman but being blocked by his relatives. He resigned from the board, but a Stock Market flotation at the same time released a new wealth to Moores family members.
When he was 25, shortly after returning to work at Littlewoods, he bought a run-down nine-bedroom Queen Anne house near Wigan, Parbold Hall – “It was quite a mess but a solid, strong mess,” he said, “But I thought I could deal with it”. He did deal with it, restoring it in two years, and lived there for almost 60 years. He brought his Italian bride, Luciana Pinto, whom he had met during his opera-driven travels in Italy (they were later divorced and she died in the early 1990s) , to Parbold and it was where his children were brought up. Parbold was, recalls his friend Helen Anderson, a deep but private love of his. “He was there that he felt himself, restoring not just the house but the countryside around it”. He organised an annual fete for local charities in the gardens he created and extended the estate from 200 acres to 800. Where he would organise shoots that could yield 200 pheasants a day. He was appointed Deputy Lieutenant of Lancashire in 1992
He sold Parbold as he approached his 80th birthday saying it was too large for a single man of his years, and in 2012 moved to a relatively small house in Oxford where he died.
He was a trustee of the Tate Gallery form 1978 to 1985, a governor of the BBC from 1981 to 1983 and a director of Scottish Opera form 1988 to 1993.
By the time he had joined the Littlwoods board he had already created the Peter Moores Foundation “to get things done and open doors for people”, especially in the fields of opera and the visual arts. Although the foundation gave away £231 million in its 50 years, those looking hopefully for grants were firmly informed in writing: “General applications for grants are not encouraged and are unlikely to succeed”. The foundation was not only concerned with art and music but gave grants, in particular, to young people involved in education, health, social and environmental projects.
Moores also devoted much time and money in Barbados, where he had a home, with a scheme to encourage more efficient agriculture in the West Indies and another to encourage young Afro-Caribbeans to stay in education longer.
He effectively started business studies at his old university by endowing a faculty directorship and chair in management studies, which later became the Saïd Business School and which in 2004 launched a Peter Moores Lectureship in Chinese Business Studies, another of his interests. Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum until last December, said: “Everybody knows the operatic Peter Moores but at the British Museum we know the Asian Peter Moores. He has of course developed the spectacular collection of Chinese bronzes at Compton Verney, but he’s also helped the British Museum to add some great Chinese bronzes to its own collection”.
The Peter Moores Foundation continued to widen its interests, funding on one hand a bursary in fine art at the University of Ulster in Belfast and on the other supporting the scheme to build teams of young windsurfers. It helped ChildLine in its campaign to prevent of child abuse, and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Development Trust. Meanwhile, more than 200 singers were helped by the foundation’s scholarships set up in 1971.
He wound the foundation up in 2015 with a Swansong Project to provide funding to the eight UK opera companies the foundation had been associated with over its half century, to allow them to stage work they would otherwise be unable to present. “The foundation has always been a ‘hands on’ charity”, he said in 2013, “initiating ideas, identifying where help could be given and projects advanced, rather than one that waits to ‘rubber-stamp’ (or not) requests for help. I wanted a broad scope for the foundation, to support and initiate projects in education, health, community work and the visual arts as well as in opera”. The late Sir Charles Mackerras, the conductor, was a close friend. “Peter knows about music,” he said. “He can talk as an equal to all these singers and musicians. We feel we’re talking to a colleague”.
With his West Indies connections Moores was also conscious of the role Liverpool had in the slave trade and in its consequences in the Caribbean, so that in 1994 he initiated the permanent Transatlantic Slave Trade Gallery at the Merseyside Maritime Museum. “A lot of people saw it as a hot potato, which of course it is” he said. “I’m not terribly interested in the sociological effects in Britain. I simply wanted to open a book that had been resolutely closed”. It was so successful that it was expanded into the International Slavery Museum, opening in 2007 as part of National Museums Merseyside.
In 1993 the foundation acquired Compton Verney but it took another 11 years to renovate the derelict old house and add a purpose-built art gallery ready for opening by the Prince of Wales. It got an RIBA award. Through the foundation he had been collecting art for years and furnished Compton Verney with Neapolitan art, 1600-1800, late medieval German paintings and sculpture, archaic bronzes and pottery from China, British portraits and furniture from the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, and British Folk Art, mostly centred on the Andras Kalman Collection which the foundation bought to prevent it being split up and sold abroad. In all he poured more than £60 million into the project.
He continued to collect for the gallery, each new piece spending a month with him “so I can get to know it” and then being forwarded to Compton Verney. He was often there himself, quizzing visitors on why they had come, what they had enjoyed, and whether they would come again. “That’s my public” he said. “People who feel they don’t know enough to go to conventional museums; people without prior knowledge.”
Awarded a CBE in 1991, he was knighted in 2003. He married Luciana Pinto in 1960 but the marriage was dissolved in 1984. He leaves a son Alexis, a farmer, and a daughter Donatella who works in the charity sector.
Sir Peter Moores, philanthropist, was born April 9, 1932. He died on March 23, 2016, aged 83. §
The Times, 4 March 2016
Marketing director who pioneered ‘blockbuster exhibitions’ with the 1972 Tutankhamun show in London
Philip Taverner, who has died from cancer aged 86, was the young marketing director at Times Newspapers in 1970 when he was summoned to the office of the company’s chairman, Denis Hamilton, to meet the Egyptian ambassador. He was told that The Times and Sunday Times were to sponsor a large exhibition at the British Museum based on the contents of the tomb of the boy pharaoh Tutankhamun marking the 50th anniversary of its discovery, and he was to organise it.
A public relations specialist had never been concerned with either history or exhibitions before, and was pitched into the task which was to preoccupy him for the next two years completely unprepared. It changed his life.
Treasures of Tutankhamun, a reconstruction of the tomb with all its funerary details as discovered by Howard Carter in 1922 which had been brought from Cairo in top security by the RAF, was scheduled to run from March to September 1972 but was so popular it had to be extended by three months, opening between 10am and 9pm on six days a week, and half a day on the seventh. It attracted almost 1,700,000 visitors, 7,000 a day and was the first of the blockbuster exhibitions. After London it went on a world tour until 1981.
Still working for The Times, Taverner went on to organise The Genius of China at the Royal Academy in 1973, and then, with a colleague, Peter Saabor, left to set up Carlton Cleeve in a small office near Marble Arch Tube station to organise more blockbusters, including Pompeii AD 79 (RTA, 1976-77), 1776 (National Maritime Museum, 1976), British Genius (Battersea Park, 1977), The Gold of Eldorado (Royal Academy, 1978-9) and The Horses of San Marco (Royal Academy, 1979).
Philip Taverner was born in Chelmsford the son of Wilfred Taverner, a Bank of England executive, and Leila Taverner. His life-long passion was gardening, a seed sown when at the age of seven he took command of his father’s garden. But he also suffered with rheumatic fever as a child, and long lonely hours were relieved by the company of encyclopaedias which prepared him for schooldays at Bryanston. He spent school holidays working as a farm labourer, and for a while his ambition was to be a farmer.
National Service intervened in 1947, after which he studied politics, philosophy and economics at Oxford where he joined the dramatic society. He even toured with Maggie Smith in an Oxford Playhouse production of Twelfth Night, but on graduating he went into industry, pursuing his interest in horticulture by working for Fisons at Felixstowe. He then joined the tyre company Pirelli in London and opened a public relations company for them, distributing the famous Pirelli Calendar, and after a brief period with the Thomson Organisation he moved across Lord Thomson of Fleet’s burgeoning commercial interests to become marketing director at Times Newspapers.
The success of its exhibition business for Carlton Cleeve – the last part of the name was taken from the Somerset village where he then lived –
was also its nemesis because institutions such as the Riyal Academy saw the commercial potential Carlton Cleeve had exploited and the organisation of major shows began to be taken in-house. He closed the company and took the opportunity to, literally, return to his roots by opening a garden centre in an ancient walled garden at Herriard Park in Hampshire.
But his museums reputation followed him and he became a judge for the annual Museum of the Year Award – now the Art Fund Museum of the Year – organised by the charity National Heritage and founded by John Letts, who became a close friend. Letts founded a new museum in Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s Temple Meads Station, the Empire and Commonwealth Museum, and he asked Taverner to become its first director. It opened in 2002, but Taverner stood down soon after to become a trustee and, after first being diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2006, severed connections.
He continued as a member for National Heritage’s committee, urging it to continue as a champion for museum goers after relinquishing the Museum of the Year Award in 2003 and then an adviser to the charity’s trustees. The family home for the last 20 years of his life was in Devizes, where he served on the Devizes Museum’s marketing and fundraising committee to the end of his life.
He leaves his wife of more then 50 years, Susannah, known as Zan, and their three sons Rupert, Jonathan and Crispin.
Philip Anthony Taverner, exhibition organiser, was born July 2, 1929, and died on February 6, 20186, aged 86.
The Independent, 19-5-2015
Syrian artist Sara Shamma tells Simon Tait about the fear and fury that shaped her disturbing new work
Hanging in the private office in Damascus of Asma al-Assad, the wife of the president of Syria, is a portrait of her commissioned in 2011 from one of her country’s leading young painters. “I will never paint a picture like that again,” says the artist, Sara Shamma. “That Syria will never exist again, and I am a different painter now”.
Now, Shamma paints the visceral nightmare of the Middle East that she sees spreading across the world: men and women trapped in graves; faces distorted by laddered stockings as a garrotte hovers; a man suspended hand and foot by chains like the butchered bull behind; another trapped and taunted by the kidney that is the subject of an enormous illicit and murderous trade; another eating his own foot.
Her exhibition of 15 new paintings opening at Truman’s Brewery in London on May 11 is called World Civil War Portraits, more a collective portrait of a phenomenon that started for her as a local crisis and has grown to a global catastrophe and a fear that dominates her.
In November 2012 Shamma was in her comfortable suburban home in Damascus with her children, waiting for a car to take her to her studio – a ten minute walk normally but by then a complicated one-and-a-half hour drive. Just as she leaned forward to kiss her two year-old son, Amir, a car bomb exploded outside her door, leaving them unharmed but shattering glass and their Syrian lives for ever. As soon as roads were open, she fled with Amir and the baby Amal to Lebanon. She will never return, though her husband Mounzer Nassa continues to work in Syria organising UN food aid convoys.
“The human spirit has died in Syria, and it is dying elsewhere now,” she says, turning to the most recent shock of the Charlie Hebdo assassinations in January. “Those are French citizens doing this, not Arab insurgents,” she says in her uncertain English. “I feel the fear now wherever I go”.
She calls this art painting from her unconscious. They are not her dreams which are more surreal, she says, yet there is allegory in most of the images, with ghosts and shadows lurking and menacing. She doesn’t know what will happen when she starts to paint.
Shamma, now 40 and the daughter of a civil engineer and a child psychologist, went to art school in Damascus and was part of a nascent but flourishing movement through the 90s and early 2000s, and her reputation was becoming international. In 2004 she was fourth in the BP Portrait Award with a self-portrait made with barely perceptible brushstrokes, more than competent but unremarkable.
But most of the new paintings, all done in the last nine months, are furious, huge sweeping brush strokes carving out the shapes of her fury on large canvases. Eyes are mostly blue because they are more expressive of the fear and anger she feels. The face of the man whose features are smeared inside a tattered stocking, Incognito 1, was done entirely from her imagination as most of them are, and started as an exercise in figurative painting but became a garrotting: except that the hands holding the ligature are both right hands, one a fist gripping the rope, the other gently guiding it with fingertips.
“I like painting to give me very different facts, like the dream,” she says. “I want it to take me to another world, I don’t want the painting to describe something real. Sometimes it takes me to a horrible place, but I don’t feel that when I’m painting”.
She uses photographs and often takes her camera to a local butcher’s shop for images of carcases, skeletons and organs. The viscera symbolises the shameless inhumanity of the war and contrasts it with the normality humans strive to recapture. So in Butcher a huge cow’s liver is seen next to a tall figure, a benign-looking woman. She is actually the butcher (so sensitive to the task of killing the animals in the halal way, Shamma says, she feels physically sick at having to perform the act), but closer to, the flourishing brushstrokes that make her face show the panic, anger and hopelessness that haunts all these faces.
In her self-portrait she caresses a human skull, a grotesque affection for the lost past, but behind her is a set of bones set like a throne, the actual skeleton of a gorilla; intervening is her daughter’s semi-inflated pink balloon, a sharp intimation of life continuing.
Many in the Syrian art diaspora are finding it impossible to paint, unable to assimilate to life in Lebanon, Dubai or wherever they have escaped to. Shamma says they have to forget the old Syria and move on, as she has.
“The whole country now is destroyed, the people are destroyed as well, their mentality is destroyed, I think the culture is destroyed,” she says. But there is hope, even in her own children. A delightful actual portrait is of her son, Child’s drawing: on one half of the face she has got him to make his own drawing of what he was thinking as the portrait was being made, and could hardly be more affectionately intimate.
“Maybe it can be built again, I don’t know,” she says of the Syrian art scene, “but it will have to evolve in another way. The Syria we knew is gone”.
World Civil War Portraits is presented by StolenSpace at
Tie Old Truman Brewery, 91 Brick Lane, London E1 6QL, May 11-May 25