Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Wine Speak

It's no secret that Ronald loved wine! In the Channel 4 news footage of him around his 90th birthday he delighted in admitting 'bubbles give me ideas" and I can attest from lunching with him that copious glasses, bottles even, were consumed.  A different bottle accompanied each course- a light rosé, champagne, a chilled red- it was a pleasure to see a connoisseur indulging his guests and a task to keep up!
On my last visit chez Searle I was amused to see his shopping list consisted of only one item. . .

Here's an interview from 2007 where Ronald indulges in some winespeak.  It's a revealing read; we see even in his eighties Ronald's joie de vivre was matched only by his prodigious work ethic and his distaste for wine snobbery and the Riviera set is hinted at too.

One of the world’s most brilliant cartoonists is also an impassioned wine lover. Jeff Cox meets a man who loves wine and hates pretensions.

'You may not recognise his name, but you’ll instantly recognise Ronald Searle’s wickedly energetic style. Scratch this cartoonist and you’ll also reveal one of the world’s most impassioned wine lovers.

Searle minces neither words nor images, but his barbs are so witty they cause as much delight to his audience as discomfort to his subjects. In the prologue to his 1983 book, The Illustrated Winespeak, he calls the majority of wine writers ‘that grotesque international band of snobbish inarticulate sponges, incapable of thinking beyond their incestuous little circles, [and who] do as much harm to the world of wine as they do to the language’. This fills me with confidence for our encounter.

If Searle comes equipped with sharp words and pens that bite hard, he’s earned the right to use them. He was born into a working class family in Cambridge in 1920, was drawing fairly well at five, and earning his living with his drawings at 15. Income from his drawings put him through art school. World War II intervened, and in October 1941, he shipped out for Singapore. One month later, Singapore fell to the Japanese and for almost the next four years, he managed to stay alive in a Japanese prison camp despite unimaginable horrors, beatings, malaria, beri beri, and a guard’s pickaxe in the back. (His memoir of the time, To the Kwai and Back, has just been reissued by Souvenir Press.) During those horrible years, he never stopped drawing.

‘When I returned to England in 1945, my first ambition was to indulge,’ he says. ‘Since then, I think I’ve eaten in virtually every restaurant of interest, standing, quality and value in London, Paris, Berlin and New York. After scanning some 60 years of wine lists at a certain level, it’s inevitable that some understanding of perfection in wine would brush off. I’ve drunk my way through some remarkable bottles and am still standing.’

Like all great artists, his work (pictured right) embodies the seemingly disparate qualities of careful control coupled with total freedom, never more evident than in his books on wine, Winespeak and Something in the Cellar... His quivering tipplers, buxom ladies and caricatures of wine drinkers are immersed not only in wine, but in explosions of mayhem, joy, and desperation. He pokes fun at everyone in the world of wine – straight to the nose of the pretentious. He achieves this with only one eye – his left. ‘And I am notoriously left-handed,’ he says. ‘With that hand I manipulate my steel-nibbed pens, my brushes and my sculpting tools.’

After many years living on the Left Bank in Paris, he and his wife Monica ‘settled in Provence some 30 or more years ago in a tiny village 2,000 feet up in the mountains – as far away as possible from the Cote d’Azur and its repellant so-called people.
‘Our village is almost entirely medieval, and our house has a vaulted cellar from the 11th or 12th century where the temperature remains constant throughout the year. The 400–500 bottles ranged in it contain little exotica. Deliberately. We can no longer face entertaining at home and stick to local restaurants. So the wines we have are for daily drinking. Of course there are a few great-year Yquems, some Krug, and Roederer Cristal. But most are for short-term enjoyment.

‘Here in the south we tend to drink cool. We have a lovely Rhône rosé that goes with anything: Domaine Remejeanne from Cadignac/Sabran.’ Other favourites he cites are Henri Bourgeois’ Sancerre rouge and blanc , plus his ‘remarkable’ Pouilly-Fumé.’

For someone aged 86, Searle’s workdays are long, a testimony to his love of drawing – or perhaps his inability not to draw. ‘I drink quite a lot of Champagne. My daily dose is an extremely delicate, delicious, quite cold Billecart-Salmon brut rosé around noon. Otherwise – as I am working more or less from 9am to 6.30pm – I don’t drink until dinner.’

His irreverent attitude towards wine and the people who love it is so refreshing that his friend of 20 years, John Goelet of Clos Du Val in the Napa Valley and Taltarni in Australia, uses Searle’s drawings in winery promotions and even on labels of special bottlings. ‘Sure,’ Searle says, ‘there are those who think wine is God-like and shouldn’t be sent up. But wine is all things to all men, and the basis is that of love of the grape.’

Asked to elaborate, he continues, ‘Every wine drinker has his own exclusive – and to him or her unique – insight into perfection in the bottle. It’s all very egotistic in that wine drinkers/snobs/connoisseurs are totally convinced that their special bottle is the One and Only, into which they have the insight.’

As a child in a modest family in East Anglia, wine was not in Searle’s world. But long ensconced in Provence, it is part of the rhythm of life. ‘In our small village, wine is drunk as an essential part of the meal, without pretension. At noon the village is silent. Everyone is at table: the masons, the gardeners, the workers in the fields, the labourers, the children, the postman, the drain cleaner. The chat, if any, is about food or crooked politicians. A table wine from the local minuscule ‘Superette’, a wild boar stew, bread, cheese – that’s it. Wine here – and probably all over the French countryside – is a part of life. And after all, isn’t that the root and the basics of the grape and the natural enjoyment of it?’

Tasting Notes

What did you drink last night? 
With the remains of a cold chicken and a tomato salad, half a bottle of Beaujolais (Juliénas 2002 from Domaine Gérard et Nathalie Margerand), sent by a friend.

What’s the most you’ve ever spent on a bottle? 
This family does not go in for exotica. The most it has ever spent was on two bottles of Yquem 1967 which, I am often told, was a year of years. It was also the year we were married. I can’t tell you how much was paid because it was a present from Monica.

What’s your Desert Island wine?
The above, naturally'
From Decanter

Cru Café Capetown, South Africa has a Searle 'WineSpeak' mural.  According to Grape 'the Castelein brothers went so far as to fly to France and pay handsomely to obtain the rights to display Ronald Searle's wonderfully abandoned and imbibing characters in their new Cru Café wine bar and restaurant.'
WOSA elaborates on the story: 'the artist is notoriously reclusive - and "dangerous with his pen" according to fellow artists and corporations foolish enough to commission work. He's fiercely private, "his bite and bark are equally ferocious", he doesn't use email or a cell but does have a post box in London - which is how the owners of Cru Café tracked him down to a village in Haute Provence.

Two South African restaurateurs, brothers Jacques and Tom Castelein (former owners of Tasca de Belem at the V&A Waterfront), were determined to exhibit Searle's caricatures - so Tom flew over to France to talk to him. Living up to his quirky reputation, Searle idiosyncratically granted reproduction rights in exchange for a rare vintage of Chateau Mouton Rothschild 1961 (with artwork by Georges Mathieu) - an appropriate deal for Cru Café, a wine bar named after a vineyard of superior quality. Tom flew back to London, sourced the wine, then, several thousand pounds the poorer, returned to France to present the highly-prized bottle to Searle. '

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Alexander Technique

Frederick Matthias Alexander (20 January 1869 – 10 October 1955) was an Australian actor who developed the educational process that is today called the Alexander Technique – a form of education that is applied to recognize and overcome reactive, habitual limitations in movement and thinking.

Searle inscribed his portrait of Alexander "from the reconstituted artist, with thanks"-presumably alluding to the health problems incurred as a prisoner of the Japanese during WWII.  Ronald was asthmatic, smoked for years and had throat surgery late in life so perhaps Alexander's theories on respiration helped him?

'He teaches the way back to Health'

Half a century ago a hansom cab arrived in great haste at a house in Ashley Place, Victoria.  The driver had instructions from Sir Henry Irving to "fetch Mr. Alexander to the theatre immediately" as he was in need of help.
More than 25 years later George Bernard Shaw crept up the same steps suffering from angina.  (After three weeks he was again taking his jaunty way to the club for his morning swim!)
Some years before the war a newspaper report of an all-night sitting in the House of Lords ended by stating that at "4am the only person sitting up straight was the Earl of Lytton."  The next morning Lord Lytton sent the cutting to "F.M. with thanks."
There are enough of these stories, studded with illustrious names, to fill a book, but it wouldn't give frederick Matthias Alexander very much pleasure.
For he dislikes any suggestions that he is a healer, or a miracle man.  The statement that he 'cures' makes him angry and he accepts no patients, only 'pupils'.  He is, he says, an educator.
For sixty years he has been trying to pass on to mankind the lessons he has learnt on hos own body-discoveries which caused the American philosopher Professor JohnDewey to write, "It is a revolution in thought and action".

Ronald Searle & Kaye Webb quoted in The Alexander Technique As I See It By Patrick MacDonald-probably originally part of their 'People Worth Meeting' column for the Saturday News Chronicle (but not included in Looking At London)

Francesca Greenoak wrote this profile of Searle for the Alexander Journal in 2010.

This article was first published in the Alexander Journal 23, republished here with the kind permission of the Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique (STAT).

Monday, July 09, 2012

At home with the Searles

Royal Institute of British Architects

During the early 50s Searle and his first wife Kaye Webb moved into a modernist home designed by architect Denys Lasdun.  In a style influenced by the early 'domino principle' villas of Le Corbusier, Lasdun built the house on his own in his mid twenties.
Jamie Barras' Flickr gallery


It was an ostentatious home befitting the profile of a young, successful and increasingly well known couple.  Searle's top floor studio had plenty of light and Kaye frequently threw parties for London's cultural community.  For example, as in the last post, this would've been where S.J. Perelman first met Ronald.
At their previous address on Moscow Road Searle had been walking every day to his studio space at 77 Bedford Gardens but here the family could all be under one roof.

Completed in 1938 the house at 32 Newton Road, just off Westbourne Grove was 'one of the first houses carried out in an absolutely uncompromising contemporary manner'.

'Built for a pair of bachelor artists, it was topped by a splendid studio favoured by north light, as the estate agents say, and a fine terrace overlooking half of Paddington.  As Searle remarked to his friend David Arkell, 'If one had to overlook half of Paddington, this was the way to do it.'
(Russell Davies)

Searle portrayed Lasdun for his 1953 book  'Looking At London'
The book also features a view from the back terrace of 32 Newton Rd with the hands of the Searles visible in the foreground; author and artist of the publication.

'Newton Road was not turning out to be a complete success.  Filled with gorgeously multifarious objets and the light admitted by vast horizontal windows, and even a wall of glass bricks in the hall, the house was ideal as a photographic backdrop for visiting cameramen.  

The Searles had many friends in journalism and underwent the 'ideal couple' treatment more often than most.  Their New Year Party came to be quite a celebrated event in the social calendar of London's artists, writers and performers during the 50s.  There are those who, with hindsight, remember these gatherings as 'entirely Kaye's thing', with Ronald a rather withdrawn and even embarassed presence.  
Others recall him as a perfectly willing accomplice.   The truth is that he was probably just tired.  Invitations and decorations were all his responsibility, and he could not bear to fall short of personalizing all the items so that everyone had something to take away.
But it was in the normal working day that the inadequacies of the house really showed themselves.  Sound travelled unobstructed-a switch turned on in the cellar could be heard at the top of the house-and the twins' playroom was directly beneath Ronald's studio.  Ronald would be trying to work, it seemed to Paul Hogarth, 'while the twins were fighting with T-squares'.  
Ronald's own preference was for a radio turned on very low, and meticulous tidiness, an aim in which none of the rest of the household was able to match him.
The house itself was famous-architectural-school pilgrims came in busloads to see it- and so was Ronald; the visiting graphics world seemed to expect him him to act as its host.  Nobody, not even the artist friends to whom he mentioned the problem, realized how seriously he wished to insist on his privacy.'   (Russell Davies)
'Ronald's routine was to walk to his studio each morning, returning for an early supper at Burnham Court, before leaving to meet Punch's critic Eric Keown for their work at the theatre.  But the winter of 1951 had been 'harder and more miserable than any I have known,' Kaye told her father.  The time had come to consolidate family life and studio in one place, so a search began.
'We were on our knees with pounding around Paddington and Bayswater for weeks' Ronald recalled.  The trek brought to a unique house in Bayswater, 32 newton Road, built in an uncompromisingly contemporary steel-and-concrete style.  'As soon as we went through the front gate we fell in love with with the house- as odd as it seemed in a street of early Victorian villas,'  Ronald says.  It had been designed in 1938 for two bachelor artists, 'unknown artistically, but extremely wealthy' (the sculptor Robert Conway and his friend), by the young architect Denys Lasdun.  There was a vast studio on top, where Ronald could work, with a north light and fine terrace. 
The wall by the front door was of glass bricks; upstairs was a thirty-foot stretch of plate-glass window.  The cellar was full of stuff left by the previous owners (including several Lucian Freuds, which they returned).
'The only problem was we had no money,' Ronald recalled. 'Well, just about enough to put down the deposit.  The price was unbelievably expensive for a couple of freelancers at that time' (it was £7,000), 'and the banks felt that it was an unsaleable modern horror-pity that it had no Elizabethan timber on the façade, or something.'  Eventually they got a £5,000 mortgage from Lloyds Bank, Notting Hill Gate, at 4.5 percent. . . 'and we did manage to pay it off, by agreeing to perpetrate untold rubbish over the years,' Ronald told me. 'It turned out to be perfect for all our working space and living needs.'

'. . . Domestic life in the 1950s was simple.  Entertaining was rarely lavish, decor was unexciting.  So the Searles' distinctive home was much written about.  ('Their marriage is a model of domestic happiness enriched by professional collaboration,' wrote the Sunday Times's Atticus.)  Unusual objets trouvés were displayed everywhere - a Webb toy theatre, a model of an old steam engine, a rocking-horse, a row of marionettes, a ladder painted with stars and diamonds, an American wall clock  with an enormous winking eye painted by Ronald on its pendulum.  
The curved fireplace wall was hung with Japanese masks, costumed dolls, prints and drawings, and plastered with invitation cards.  There was imaginative use of colour, even on radiators.  Their bedroom was lime-green and maroon.  The back door was candy-striped in pale blue and white, with sunbursts of of yellow and black.  The bathroom had curtains of striped towelling. . . Ronald had even painted the light-switches: one was disguised as an eye with heavily fringed lashes and an arched eyebrow; another had a cow's head with switches in eye and nostril; another had a bird perched on it.  Any corner was embellished with a mural-a simpering mermaid brandishing a frying pan and a fork; a tricorn-hatted military figure with twirling moustache, on a bicycle.  
Photo by Madame Yevonde
Ronald's sprawling studio on the top floor had a sky-blue ceiling, its white walls covered in drawings and posters, shelves of art books, with concealed lighting, and a Berber rug on the parquet floor.  The crimson and white striped curtains were of deckchair canvas.  The playroom had one wall coated in blackboard paint, and a glass-topped table displayed the children's paintings.
(from 'So Much To Tell' Valerie Grove's biography of Kaye Webb published in 2010 by Viking)

If you look at the house on Google Street View you can observe just what a modern design it was for that street.

© Yevonde Portrait
Explore this building here