Thursday, June 28, 2007

wild flowers

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It has been cold and there have been few bright blue skies this year, and we have wondered what a globally 'warmed' Provence will become. Because of the rain, however, it has been an extraordinary year for wildflowers. Every bank is busy with tiny splashes of colour from mallow to poppy and marguerites, and today we went over to Sault to immerse ourselves in lavender (to the sound of Steven Isserlis playing Bach's fourth suite, and then to the whisper of the shimmying fields of barley and a skylark above us - both equally sublime) but we also found ourselves, as the shadows started to lengthen, waist high in dreamy fields of wheat studded with bright blue cornflowers.

Of course, there was the obligatory visit to Boyer's macaroon shop in Sault where Julian was first aptly christened 'Julian-Nineteen-Macaroons-Merrow-Smith' as he scoffed a bag whilst driving home (he carries on the tradition to this day), and they have now opened an artisanal ice cream parlour which sells lavender ice cream. It is what, in French, they call 'limite' in that it is on the side of tasting soapy. It certainly tastes of the rolling purple landscape around whether or not one uses it for 'eau de linge'.

On our way home we saw a hare's bottom driving up one of the earth-rivers between the mounds of lavender into the sky. A deer peeked out at us between pine trunks as we descended the Mont Ventoux back into vine country, and two pine martens skipped across the road to welcome us home.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

The Green Door


On page 98 of our ‘Ocres et Peintures Décoratives de Provence’ there is picture of a grey-green door. I fell in love with it the instant I saw it and I vowed that, if the day ever came when I had a room of my own, this door would be its door. In fact, it was the first door that had excited me since my parents painted my bedroom door pink and green candy stripes for my fourteenth birthday.

Although it would be three years until I got to paint my door, I bought the pigments – terre verte and noir fumé, a grown up version of pink and green perhaps? – on the spot.

The day has now come, and we set about trying to assemble the ingredients for green-grey wax paint:

Fromage Blanc 0% Fat
Ammonium carbonate
Distilled water

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Trying to get hold of ammonium carbonate was hard. I finally ordered it from the village chemist who handed it to me double-wrapped and at arms length, her nose in an exaggerated snub, like a stink-bomb. Then I found that the bottle of alcohol I use to clean my fingerboard was empty (something to do with cleaning dried paint off the artist's palette perhaps?), and replacing that (to dissolve the ‘noir fumé’ which is not an earth pigment and is therefore not water-soluble) on a Sunday morning in Bedoin turned out, especially with a hangover, to be a thankless task. I ended up in ‘Petit Casino’ listening to the serveuse’ recipe for preserved cherries for ten minutes before emerging with one arm full of feminine hygene products whilst the other clutched a bottle of Smirnoff. It was not a moment in which I felt especially kind towards the environment and I could have done with some cover. Anyway, if the Vodka didn’t work, I thought, it was still good for removing red wine stains.

We started to follow the recipe.

‘Wax and fromage blanc make a very happy marriage, used traditionally to paint troikas’ the book said. It was, for the moment at least, all rather romantic.

wax and casein paint2.JPG

We added a teaspoon of ammonium to the fromage blanc to make casein and the romance was suddenly over. The pong seared through our airways and caused Manon and Oscar to evacuate the premises. Melting the beeswax with the water and inhaling the sweet amber syrup proved a much needed antidote to the ammonium but it was brief, and when we added the ammonium carbonate to the melted wax (this apparently creates a cream which enables the wax to be worked with when cold) we were engulfed in a cloud like a chemistry experiment gone wrong that jolted us out of our honeyed reverie.

"I'm not sure about how environmentally friendly this natural paint is" I said. "This surely cannot be good for our health. I'm going back to Dulux magnolia"

We read on. ‘Casein is a very nervous glue, softened by wax….’. By now the wax, which we had been whisking, was cool and looked like curdled custard.

wax ans casein paint5.JPG

I was starting to feel a little nervous myself and luckily it was time for the fun bit - to mix the pigment. Using Julian’s palette knife we creamed up the green and black in equal parts with a little water on a granite tile, ironing out the marbled streaks and arriving at a deep grey green. We added everything together, presuming the colour would lighten as we applied it to the white wood.

wax and casein paint4.JPG

Unfortunately, despite our dreams of a cloudy waxy surface, the door just turned out streaky black with grainy bits of wax sediment in it.

Julian assures me that, by adding ‘blanc de titane’, more green and reducing the black, with several applications, by polishing and sanding and with a lot more patience, I will get my perfect door.

‘It’s just like making frames.’ He said. You have to keep experimenting to find the right recipe; you have to apply several coats; you have to keep rubbing it down and polishing it up……’

(Is that why all our pictures remain unframed, I wondered)

Looking at my morbid door at the end of the day I did not feel like a teenager in her new den, nor did I feel like a Virginia Woolf heroine, but rather some sort of middle aged Goth.

Friday, June 22, 2007



The season of calm is setting in. Julian has finally chilled having moved home - meaning his website home which he assures me is as all consuming as moving actual home - and we are finally free to consider the first lavender over in the Luberon (the sea of same plus smellies in its name at Sault on the other side of the Ventoux coming soon), the ultimate granite work surface, the perfect tap, the possibility of a stone sink (rejected), lunch on herby leaves and artisanal berry sorbet in bonnieux, and an aperitif in the vines with a chopped tomato slathered on garlic-infused toast. Thismorning we walked for an hour and a half in amongst vines and wild flower meadows, over-run, because of the recent rain, for the first time by the mallow flower after which our hamlet is named.

Meanwhile, while I should have been mixing fromage blanc, ammonium, smoke black 'n green pigments and wax to paint the doors, I was having a clean girlie lunch with the lovely
Kate thinly disguised as discussing further chamber music and wine projects...

We are interested in bringing together the listening and the tasting experiences - giving people permission to hear or see or taste or feel or remember whatever it is that they do without feeling they don't 'know enough'; to have their own experience and know that it is valid. We are also interested in building a local audience rather than a touristy one. So here's the question:

The idea has come up of doing a concert in which we play a piece, discuss how we feel about it, answer questions and then play it again. Goodness knows how many times I have listened to my favourite music (Andras Schiff playing the Bach partitas possibly three thousand times, Haendel's Theodora close to two, and Steven Isserlis' Bach suites which have just come out already in the thirties and looking forward to the rest of my lifetime digesting them) but we all know music gets better each time we hear it. I am not Andras Schiff, nor am I Steven Isserlis, but still, why not one piece twice in a concert?

I would love some feedback.


Sunday, June 17, 2007

repetitive tasks

terre cuite.JPG

Is it a personality type thing, I wonder to myself as I jab at the plaster and sand on the back of the three hundred and first tile of eight hundred which I must clean in order to relay my floor: Set me up with a repetitive task and I will make it a meditative one, finding within it a thousand variations and nuances, just like when I am playing the tonic and dominant in a bass line. I will go back to it diligently every day until it is finished but, like a child, I seem to need someone to hold my hand (explain the process, write down the recipe, highlight the map, do the first tile or brush-stroke) in the beginning.

The tile in my hand is one of the newer monochrome ones and, though I feel uninspired, I concentrate on the blackbird and the crickets, the church bell and the rustle of the wheat that I have chosen to have accompany me in my work instead of my ipod. However, the next tile I pull out of the bucket is older, its rainbow of fired earth spreading out from its core towards fragile edges, and its history of young Provencal lovers' tiptoed steps upon its surface. I am overwhelmed with affection for this thing that I have wrenched up from its comfortable plaster bed in order to lay a hemp floor and under-floor heating, and I want to return it to its home where it will listen to the sound of my cello.

The walls are almost finished. Again, once the paint recipe is found, (2 percent casein to the lime paste and two parts water) I am off. The casein has transformed overnight into a foamy gunk in the juice jug that smells of the milk bottle sweets I snuck out to buy with money stolen, since I wasn't allowed sweets at school, from my mother's tweed coat pocket. The lime is a delicious cream like the filling of a favourite chocolate. The mixture is both clingy and fluid on the brush. It is the colour of rain soaked barley when first applied, glows white- heat at midday and shines pink in the morning light.


I work it out at three hours a coat. About four Bach cantatas. One coat still to go, maybe this time with a little pigment. The tiles will take longer – twenty one buckets and at a bucket a day…...

After my daily bucket, I walk in from the red sand on which the house is built onto the new terra cotta floor, and my toes squeal with delight as they sense no difference between the inside and the outside.

I will, of course, need help finding my pigment but I am thinking a traditional Provençal grey stripe along the base of the wall. However, I am nervous of all the fiddly little try outs I will have to do to find how many parts blue/black/white, and then having to wait for each one to dry before I adjust the recipe, before I can be let loose on another repetitive task.

terrre cuite.JPG

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

plein air

julian merrow-smith.JPG

‘Would you like to go for a walk?’ My breakfast refrain was running thin but I still tried.

“OK”. The reply surprised me, being different from the usual “No, I’ve really got to get on darling. I’ve got loads of paintings to pack and prints to get off and the server is down again and the prints are all coming out funny colours and besides I don’t know what I am going to paint today.”

Having crept out the side door to avoid our cats following us, we made it as far as the end of the road before Julian said: “ Shall we go down to the sea today?”

This time it was my turn to say OK.

“I’ll tell you what. You go for your run and I’ll have a third coffee and get everything together by the time you get back.”

Thirty minutes later I zipped uphill past the whispering wheat-field faster than I have ever done and in through the front door. I almost tripped over a plastic box containing an easel, paints, a cap, brushes…..All I had to do was shower, get my bathing suit and sun-cream (5 for me and total block for him) and we were off. We would be at the Côte d’Azur in time for lunch. Mmmm, I thought, fresh fish in a little port…...

We stopped en route at the art shop in Avignon to see if we could find an umbrella to provide shade when there was not a convenient tree (most of the time) but it seemed such a thing as an artist's umbrella does not exist. Is anyone painting plein air these days, we wondered, and would Cezanne have done with photoshop available to him and a nice high res mac screen? Julian came out with a fold-up stool instead.

Meanwhile, because it was getting late, I scoured the neighbouring health food store in the hope of finding the perfect picnic, but couldn’t imagine eating quinoa biscuits and molasses on the beach.

Half way down the A7 towards Marseille Julian realised that despite his careful packing he had forgotten the board on which to clip the gessoed board, the clips with which to clip it, and the glasses with which to see all three, so we found ourselves in the midday heat in the N'importe-ousville mall. It was already one-thirty so while Julian went in search of his tools I browsed the shelves of Carrefour for enticing lunch but found nothing. I was still clinging on to the idea of my fresh fish but by now the restaurants would be shut and we still didn’t know where we were going.

Clouds were puffing up over the Mont Saint Victoire. Would it end in disaster, we wondered: No light, nowhere to sit, no painting, too many miles, no lunch and in no mood for supper. It had happened before.

"You'll have to excuse me" Julian said. "There's a certain amount of tension before I paint. I'm nervous, but also excited. My fingers are twitching to get out there and get to work."

Of course I understood. I lived with this tension every day while he did what artists have to do - wandering around the house, doing email, working on the website, cooking, whatever it took to stoke the build up of creative energy. Sometimes it was unbearable and I had to go out. However, today I was on the way to the sea and I was happy.

We took a turn off into Cassis, remembering the ‘Route des Cretes’ the curves of which I had cruised on tour in an open top car and always wanted to show Julian. Now, here we were in our own cabriolet.

There was still the question of lunch and at three o'clock on no breakfast it was starting to be an important one. Julian deposited me very kindly on the beach to swim my first plein air sea strokes of the year and went in search of sustenance. He returned with, apart from his (beef and mustard) and hers (grilled veg) sandwiches, two delectable oil drenched artichoke hearts and a box of tabouleh.

“I said to the guy” he said, proud that he was out and had actually spoken to another human being “‘Ma femme essaie de ne pas manger trop de pain’”.

“Thank you” I said “for thinking of my diet.”

Up on the Route des Cretes, the views from the highest sea cliffs in Europe were spectacular: Red lacy cliffs diving down into tiny spume pools at their distant base, and islands like cardboard cut-outs against the azure sky, all framed by yellow curry flowers. However, the view that had the light in the right place had no tree to stand under and vice versa, and the good cliff had no path and the perfect boulder no sea, and the horizon was too high to the perfect crag…and our petrol tank was on the red. It was already six o'clock.


Finally, we found a spot but it was not the idyllic one I had hoped for. "It never is" said Julian, setting up on the slope alongside the well frequented road amidst prickly rosemary bushes.

julian merrow-smith painting.JPG

“I’ve known more comfortable toboggans” he added as he perched on his new stool to sketch the coastline. Meanwhile, I lay myself out to dry on a smooth rock overlooking Cassis and her 'calenques' silhouetted against the fading sun, breathing in salt air and seagull screeches and watching my husband dip his brushes in colour and begin to paint.

No sooner had Julian started, however, than a large white touring bus drew up in the middle of his view. He swatted a fly and asked the seagulls to shut up. “No wonder I sometimes work from photographs”.

An hour later he called me over to see. “I’m doing a little Euan Uglow sky”. To me the painting was flat and unconvincing. “You don’t like it do you?”

Shit, I thought. I did like it, but I didn’t love it, and there are so many paintings about which I rave immediately and spontaneously, that a mere ‘it’s nice’ never quite convinces him. “What I see is that the tree is amazing because it is sort of lacy.” I said. “The land is solid but you can see the sea through the tree. That’s where the magic is for me but that’s just me….” Was I just another punter demanding life-like paintings with clichéd perspective and reflective dabs when Julian wanted to dare to paint flat, to paint less, to stop at blocks of colour? I felt like I was letting him down.

julian merrow-smith painting.JPG

Two hours later the flat paint covered board had transformed into The cliff path above cassis. "It was so much easier standing up. I think I will leave this here for people wanting to admire the view" Julian said, pointing to the stool and getting out his tripod to photograph the little painting in the last of the days' rays....

postcard from provence.JPG

....And then, it being already eight thirty, we made our way down to the little port for fresh fish which we found in the fisherman's restaurant by the bright matt painted boats (all tarted up on government money, we reckoned)and their gently rocking reflections, and which we accompanied with a very nice bottle of rosé.

Monday, June 11, 2007

winging its way...


I ran past the orchard and slowed down just enough pluck a couple of cherries off the branch. Their skins split, releasing the tart flesh in my mouth. The air was impregnated with broome and pine and the skies a-twitter with happy new arrivals from Africa.

Returning to the house, I saw a white haired man and a taut muscled mason push away the table and chairs we keep in their vines.

“You are the proprietor?” I asked.
“Yes, Madame, I am. We have come to mend the cabanon.”

The last time we had spoken I had proposed to Monsieur Vendran that we could either rent or buy a parcel of land on the other side of the small road.

“I can’t talk now” he had said. “Je suis dans les cerises”. I had pictured him with a mobile in the cherry orchard but, realising I had called a landline, had abandoned my fantasy. Later, when he had emerged (with his mobile phone?) from ‘les cerises’, he had given us a flat no.

“Would you consider renting or selling us some of this land to make a little ‘potager’?” I said as Oscar our cat leaped in through the window of his Renault van.

“You know, if you make a garden we will come and spray it with chemicals when we spray our vines, and that will annoy you and besides I am not selling it at the agricultural price of 5€ a square metre. Where are you from?”

This was further than I had got before, so I continued: “ We are English…well perhaps we could discuss a price?” The cream mini cooper next to his white agricultural van on the verge of his vineyard smacked of money.

“You know, I always like discussing with the English” he said.


“You are so ‘sympathique' ” I suspected he was lying. “Anyway, I will think about your proposal."

I wondered about the 'potager' and whether it might instead just be a space for a paddling pool.

Later in the day, I took our great friend and Cotswold potter David Garland to see Louis Brueder in his chic boho stony cave of a studio and gallery. David begged a lump of clay. “I have been here a week, and my hands just have to touch clay……”. They understood. I thought about a gut string under my finger and felt the same charge that was going through David’s hand as he accepted their gift.

“You know, in our small village, there are lots of adoptive families" Louis said. "You just have to stand in front of the school gates and watch the kids come out to know that whatever race you adopt they will be at home here. My sister has two children from Vietnam, my neighbour from Brazil – though that is hard as he was in his father’s arms when he died and he’s not doing so well – you will be fine. Twenty years ago, perhaps a small village in the South would be a difficult place to bring up a child of colour, but not now.”

I have heard that if we can prove our infertility (I knew there must have been a reason that horrid Docteur Galand tied my tubes without consent while I was under anaesthetic) we might – at our ripe old age - be able to adopt a baby from Mali. Having grown up surrounded by Dogon art, having studied African drumming and also having been told, at the Youssou'n Dour concert that I dance like an African woman, the journey I have always wanted to do in my life has been to Mali and Senegal. I have been swayed by friends and partners and have been everywhere but. Perhaps I will get there one day, and perhaps on some unconscious level I have been saving this journey. Perhaps in a couple of years, along with the swifts, there will be another kind of new arrival from Africa....?

That said, there are two of us. Julian has his own lifetime journeys and cultural fascinations, and the soul that is winging it’s way into our life also has its own journey of a lifetime. We’ll see what happens.


Friday, June 08, 2007

T'is laid


The floor is laid! Weetabix and custard artex look turned overnight into farrow and ball hay....

Thursday, June 07, 2007

smile please


Do we have to dress up? Julian asked in anticipation of our first home visit from the social worker.

At two forty I collapsed after what seemed like 48 hours of solid cleaning. A month of lime dust, hemp fragments and spring spider weavings that had accumulated during my stay in Paris had to be wiped or dismantled. Splats of organic ‘enduit’ had to be shaved off the glass door and two hard workers’ body-grime scrubbed from the shower tray. It is not easy to clean a house that is in a state of constant renovation and often it does not seem worth it but we had to show that our home was at least sanitary.

'Don't worry about the work you're doing on the house' The social worker had said on the phone. 'It's the 'esprit' we are interested in.'

Well, I thought, spirit is not what's lacking.

‘I have to admit I did clean the house’ said a friend who adopted from Nepal. ‘But of course you don’t want the smell of bleach to be lingering.’

I had bought a new product to clean floors that had a pretty picture of lavender on the front. Lavatory more like, I thought as I inhaled it’s ‘aroma’. I threw the African cover over the bed, bashed the dust out of the Nepalese blanket that covers the sofa, and the Moroccan cushion covers, shook and smoothed the Double Ikat cloth from Bali and dusted the Dogon horse and rider sculpture from Mali, proud that I had brought almost all these things back in backpacks. On the window-sill there happened to be a book on walking in Scotland, one on tadelakt, a dvd of ‘Fauteuils d’Orchestre’, several issues of ‘Côté Sud’ and a cd of the Bach partitas. That would do, I thought, to show that we were the perfect candidates for an International adoption.

I looked up at the walls, now covered in hemp and ready to be finished in sand and lime. They looked like weetabix and custard. A sheath of grey concrete with wormy traces of under-floor heating awaited the rosy terra cotta tiles that would be laid the next day. The cats, having been picturesquely snuggled all morning on the bed, ran towards the cat flap . I tried to persuade them to stay, and failed.

‘Do you think we will pass?’ Julian said, appearing in his traditional dress of paint-splattered T-shirt and 501’s, armed with a portrait of me and a still life to put back on the nude walls. We made tea in our favourite potter’s cups, and in the absence of flowers, placed a delicate white bowl of peaches with peaked caps and leafy apricots on the table.

The social worker, it turned out, was lovely. She used to play the violin, and since her involvement in adoption in Africa, regularly had musicians from Burkina Faso staying in her house giving concerts. She spoke of an accordianist at the bottom of Rue Mouffetard in Paris who gave out song sheets and got the whole community singing. She clearly loved music and, of course, children. I liked her tremendously, but I guess that isn’t the point.

When she left I developed a temperature and went to bed.

‘Do you think she liked us?’ Julian asked, as he decantered a bottle of 94 Cuvée Flornce.