Last week’s post about finding a display of Barbie dolls in an historic Spanish garden was a good indication of how varied garden history can be, and today’s is another. In fact today’s is hardly about gardens at all in the conventional sense, but don’t let that put you off.
The Garden Trust has as its tagline or motto “Research Campaign Conserve”. To highlight the research aspect of our work we offer two real opportunities to showcase new findings. One is a new research symposium and the other an essay prize. Over the years they’ve covered places and people in Britain but have increasingly been international in outlook.
[Entries welcome for this year – for details follow the links above. Closing date May 5th]
As I arrived at the posh hotel I was staying in [bargain winter break prices I hasten to add] I was reminded of new work from each of those forums. At our 2015 conference we heard a paper about villa gardens on the Ligurian coast of Italy, and recently there was an essay prize entry on the exotic gardens created for new grand hotels along the French Riviera in the late 19th. As it happens I wasn’t in either France or Italy although there is a strong French influence, as you will have realised if you’ve worked out who did the painting and inspired the pattern that was on part of my bedroom wall and ceiling.
So…. today’s starter for 10 is, apart from guessing the artist, is to guess where I wrote the draft of this post
If you identified the artist as Henri Matisse then give yourself a pat on the back. And if you identified the location from the painting then several more bonus points too.
Matisse had spent some time painting in southern Spain and in January 1912 he decided to return south again, although this time going a little further. Arriving with his wife Amelie from Marseilles after 3 days on the ferry he must have been hoping for brilliant light and sunshine but instead it was pouring with rain, as it had been for the previous fortnight. This turned into an almost interminable downpour and he wrote to his friend the writer Gertrude Stein: “Shall we ever see the sun in Morocco?”
European, particularly French, painters had been fascinated by the exotic world on the southern shores of the Med since Napoleon invaded Egypt. Delacroix was the first major artist to visit and romanticise the Arab world from as early as the 1830s. He was the first of a long line so perhaps it’s not surprising that Matisse came to see the reality for himself.
He chose Tangier, which sits on the North African coast at the junction of the Mediterranean and the Atlantic and has a long and chequered history – being held by the Portuguese, the Spanish and even the British for a few years [it was part of the dowry of Charles II’s wife Catherine of Braganza] before being surrendered to the ruler of Morocco in 1684 after we decided it wasnt worth the effort of defending. It remained Moroccan until the early 20thc when the “Great Powers” were carving up Africa. The French outmaneuvered their rivals, sent an expeditionary force to intervene in an internal civil war and Morocco became a French protectorate. It was during the worst of the unrest all this caused that the Matisses arrived.
They booked into the Grand Hotel Villa de France, supposedly the best in town. Originally constructed as a residence for a French diplomat, it had been turned into a hotel and was where Delacroix had stayed. It stood on a rise outside the town overlooking the open market, walled medina and the English church. It was the classy place to stay and was home to a wide mix of Europeans – especially those escaping the rigid morality of their home countries. Unfortunately its reputation was overblown and rather than luxury the Matisses found it rather cramped, dirty and expensive. However their room, number 35, had extensive views over the old medina, the English church and the Bay of Tangier and had there been a clear day he would have been able to see the Spanish coast.
The pair of them were confined to the hotel because of the weather for most of the next 6 weeks:“Tempest, equatorial rains. I can’t think what it means nor can the people of Tangier, they’ve never seen anything like it. My god what are we to do… I wish I had the courage to get the hell out of here”
It meant that in Room 35 the light was “bright as in a cellar” but it was not enough to distract Matisse from painting. One of his very few luxuries when travelling was always to have fresh flowers in his room and so he sketched and painted a vase of iris.
He also painted this basket of oranges, with its table-cloth covered with bunches of peonies – which was later bought by Picasso. Matisse told him that the painting “was born of misery” and the phrase Room Number 35 became the Matisse family shorthand for desperation.
In the brief interludes between the rain he painted the view from the window that is at the top of the post. There are also a series of sketches of various details of this view, notably the church and the nearby line of cypress trees, as well as the gateway and the domes of the Casbah overrun by foliage.
There were several other artists in Tangier at the time including Sir John Lavery, the Australian, Hilda Rix Nicholas and a Canadian, James Wilson Morris who painted a similar view to Matisse in more realistic subdued tones. Matisse mixed with them all.
Nowadays the gardens of both the hotel and the church are thickly planted, wonderfully shady and lush, and I assumed that they had been planted at roughly the same time and in the same spirit as their counterparts on the Riviera.
But I found a photograph from around 1900 which showed both as almost barren spaces and virtually devoid of vegetation. Perhaps this shows more than anything that Tangier was, at the time, not a fashionable resort like its Riviera cousins, and might explain why Matisse did not paint the hotel gardens, but as we will see, had to find somewhere else.
Once the rain finally stopped Matisse began exploring. They discovered Tangier was NOT the fashionable Orient as depicted by the Parisian Universal exhibition of 1900, and had little to show the visitor. Its mosques were closed to non-muslims, there were no palaces, museums or galleries, just a grubby bazaar. Even the European quarter on the hill, said Matisse, looked like seedy suburban Paris.
Nevertheless Tangier took a hold on him. “Once the rain stopped there sprang from the ground a marvel of flowering bulbs and greenery. All the hills around Tangier, which had been the colour of a lion’s skin were covered with an extraordinary green under turbulent skies as a Delacroix painting.”
They rode along the beach or through the fields surrounding the town, now verdant and colourful with iris and asphodel. Amelie missed her garden at Issy on the outskirts of Paris and wrote home to her daughter that she had seen wonderful groups of sky-blue morning glory, purple heliotrope and flame coloured nasturtium. These flowers all appear in later paintings.
But now the problem was the reverse. It was too sunny and Matisse needed shade to work outdoors. He had met Walter Harris, the Times correspondent covering the Morocco crisis. Harris in turn introduced him to Jack Brooks who lived in a large villa with extensive gardens, overlooking the bay to one side and the countryside on the other. “The vegetation has all the blazing brilliance of Normandy and such decorative force. How new everything seems, too, and how difficult to do with nothing but blue, red, yellow and green.”
Villa Brooks “was immense, with meadows stretching as far as the eye could see. I worked in a corner planted with very tall trees which spread their foliage high and wide.” There he painted three pictures.First was a rapidly painted piece called periwinkles , although there is only a tiny scattering of those flowers depicted, and the picture has the alternative title of The Moroccan Garden. Next came a study of a Palm leaf. But it was the third that took most of his time and attention. Under the trees was a thick carpet of acanthus and Matisse became fascinated by them. “I had never seen acanthus. I knew them only from the drawings of Corinthian capitals I made” as a student. He found bright glossy green leaves “magnificent much more interesting green than those at school.” He worked on the painting for 6 weeks.
In all three the plants almost become abstract – as one critic noted later “not things but the essence of things’.
Acanthus continued to interest Matisse and there are much later works which include them, sometimes almost unrecognisably.
There are no paintings of the Villa Brooks gardens as a whole. Instead the 3 plant portraits were planned as a triptych – a form that came from his admiration for the Russian icons which he had seen in Moscow, and the knowledge that rich Russian patrons could well be interested in the results. In fact this did mot happen and they were sold separately.
Matisse returned to Tangier the following winter, but the dangerous political situation prevented him from travelling far from the city. His biographer Hilary Spurling says that explains why once back in France in 1913 he did not make a third trip. Paul Bowles, the American writer who moved to Tangier permanently suggests another possibility. He divided travellers into two sorts: those who travel to confirm what they already know and those who travel to discover something else. He puts Matisse in that second group: prepared to accept that his own culture was not supreme and all-knowing. It meant Matisse not seeing everything through the preconceptions of western art, allowed his work to be reshaped and developed by his new environment , BUT, once that was done he had no need to repeat the experience in Morocco and instead needed to move on to pastures new.
I would be fibbing if I said that Matisse was obsessed by gardens, landscapes or even plants. They did not figure as the central subject of many canvasses, but they are never far away. Although he only created about 20 paintings and a few dozen sketches during these stays in Tangier [or perhaps that’s all that he allowed to survive] they are significant pieces because they mark a transition in his style.
Art critics/ historians argue they show the beginning of ”process of botanization” where “human forms and vegetal forms coalesced in the artist’s imagination”. By that they mean that in portraits for example he emphasised the colourful backgrounds and clothing of his subjects almost as if they were “fantastical flowers, not specific people .” He himself said ”Look at a tree…It is like a human being.” He used vibrant almost unrealistic colours, reduced complex forms to simple bold abstract forms, and turned 3D objects into 2D shapes, as in this portrait of Picasso’s partner, Francoise Gilot. Even in old age when he was losing his sight the brilliantly coloured cutouts , with “their brilliant floral concoctions” show that ” the spirit of Morocco still alive in the artist’s imagination” [quotes from New York Times 1990]
The Grand Hotel, like the town, fell on hard times between the two world wars which , by the mid 1950s was known as “a sunny place for shady people” or, worse still, as “Sodom-on-Sea!”
Royal Academician Tess Jaray went to stay in [I’d guess] in the early 1990s. She reports having to “to try five rooms before we found one whose door locked or light worked. To ask for running water seemed excessively demanding.” But she stayed because she wanted “the view from my window that Matisse had enjoyed.”
She saw “the same palm tree, grown much larger of course, and the same little English church… I was very happy. I didn’t mind that in this grandly named hotel, set among palm trees and bougainvillea, with exquisite though dilapidated tiled fountains still dripping a little water, and a swimming pool, overgrown with greenery, that had clearly not seen a swimmer since Matisse was there, absolutely nothing worked.” However she soon realised that wasn’t quite true as there were quite a lot of ‘girls’ who were working. The Grand Hotel Villa de France had become a brothel.
It closed in 1995 and soon began to crumble. It was probably heading for demolition and replacement by a faceless tourist dormitory when it was bought in 2012 by an upmarket hotel chain, who have restored and revitalized it.
The new owners are very proud of its association with Matisse so that now once again you can stay, as we did, and admire the view from Room 35 !