Moscow of the 1990s – a personal account

By Geoff Winestock

A visit to Moscow, like many great cities, offers a chance to immerse yourself in its fascinating, tumultuous history.

Moscow is unusual however because you can get a feel not just for the distant past, the medieval world of Ivan the Terrible or Napoleon’s campaign of 1812, but also for the dramatic events that happened there in our lifetimes. The city was the setting for many of the crucial moments that ended the Cold War. I was lucky enough to witness some of them personally when I moved to the city in 1992 to work as a newspaper journalist.

October 1992, Geoff sitting in a Russian armoured personnel carrier in Vladikavkaz in south Russia reporting on unrest there

Almost every street corner has a reminder of how fast things changed over the course of the seven years that I lived and worked there. We used to say it was a place where you could go to sleep and wake up in a different country. I arrived in June 1992 about five months after the Soviet Union split into 16 countries and the Communist Party was banned. It was the period when the old structures collapsed and were replaced by Wild West capitalism and mafia rule both within and outside the government. The city was on its knees. The only reliable places to go out for lunch were a few western hotels and the newly opened McDonald’s.

McDonald’s in Pushkin Square, Moscow, opened almost 30 years ago on January 31, 1990

On the other hand, however strange this might sound, it was also at least briefly a time of unprecedented free speech, democracy and hope for many Russians. There are so many extraordinary memories. Today Moscow’s wide main street, called Tverskaya, is lined with luxury boutiques, but in that summer of 1992, it was the scene of what for many Muscovites was an embarrassing but exciting first step in capitalism. At that intermediate time, the Soviet planned economy had stopped working but ordinary people were still terrified they might be sent to a gulag if they started up a private business.

The month before I arrived, the mayor of Moscow had tried to break that impasse by signing an order allowing anyone to sell anything – without fear of being arrested.

And so I remember ordinary Muscovites tentatively taking up positions in lines kilometres-long on the pavements of Tverskaya, holding up a pair of boots or a saucepan or a plastic bottle of cooking oil. Muscovites, many of them affluent, stood in these endless lines holding their spare stuff in fear and hope.

Trading in the 90s on the streets of Moscow, as it were

The ruble fell in value by 3,000 percent that year. Some months it fell by half its value. People lost their savings in the bank, which was tragic. There was also a bizarre side to it – it became almost impossible to use the pay phones. It was supposed to cost 5 kopeks to make a call but the central bank stopped minting the 5-kopek piece because it was worth far less than the metal.

Politically Russia was torn between a pro-western pro-capitalist group led by the drunken president Boris Yeltsin and a group of Communists and ultra-nationalists, known commonly as the “red-browns” who were based in the Russian parliament then still known as the Supreme Soviet. After endless wrangling to pass even basic reforms, Yeltsin in 1993 issued a decree dissolving the parliament, however the red-browns ignored it. After a month of scuffles, the red-browns launched a coup.

I was on my way to the gym when I saw a convoy of trucks with men carrying guns and waving the hammer-and-sickle flag driving along Tver Street. I later realised they were on their way to attack the television centre. Many people including a western journalists died during that incident but luckily I was assigned to cover what was happening on Red Square near the Kremlin.

Today, the great square flanked by St Basil’s Church and Lenin’s Tomb is packed 24-hours a day with tourists and young people, but that night as my wife Louise and I walked toward the Kremlin it felt too empty. Suddenly we heard steps and saw a dark figure approaching. It was frightening, but then to our relief a male voice said “I work for the Dutch embassy. On a night like this it would be better if we worked together.” We patrolled the streets towards the Arbat and near the Tass news agency building where guns had been fired, wondering if the army would side with Yeltsin or the red-browns and if the red-browns won, would they let us stay in Moscow. We could wake up in another country.

Taken on October 5, 1993, by Geoff’s wife Louise on Tverskaya Street in Moscow. It shows the barricades constructed by the anti-communist forces

The next morning, at dawn tanks started firing into the parliament building and it was clear the army had backed Yeltsin. The fighting lasted for a few days. A curfew was imposed on a city of 12 million people. We went to sleep in our apartment to the sound of occasional gunfire. It was the start of the move towards authoritarianism that eventually led to the rise of Vladimir Putin.

Soldiers of 106th Guards Airborne Division in front of a burned Parliament building. Moscow, 1993

Despite this, the 90s was probably the coolest decade ever to live in Moscow. It was a time of liberation when people suddenly felt truly free. The newspapers were lively and cheeky. People who had been trapped behind the iron curtain all their lives were suddenly free to travel and eager to meet foreigners. They poked fun hilariously at the New Russian gangsters who were called “red jackets” because they wore garish expensive European blazers. Under the Soviets, rock and roll was seen as western decadence but suddenly Moscow’s people could enjoy the latest trends.

Early in my stay I went to one of Moscow’s first dance parties in the Planetarium next to the Moscow zoo, a hall dedicated to the Russian space program. It was called the Gagarin Party in mock honour of Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space who was a Soviet icon. The name Gagarin Party is a trans-language pun. Partiya only means “political party” in Russian but is used here with the English sense of “gathering for fun.” At the party, hundreds of Muscovites danced to house music, spilling outside onto the snow. My specially printed Gagarin Party T-shirt is still one of my favourite souvenirs of that time.

Front and back design of Geoff’s Gagarin Party t-shirt

When I walk around Moscow today, I am stunned by how calm and normal it has become. Sometimes I miss the craziness of those days, but there are other charms. At least now there is an overwhelming choice of places to go to lunch.

The Italian Villa: from ancient Rome to the modern era

Over the last ten years I’ve met more and more people making a ‘tree change’, swapping the stress of the concrete jungle for the tranquillity of the country. They plan a garden to please the eye and stock the table, and a comfortable house with space for pursuits they’ve neglected for years – sewing or painting, sculpture in wood and stone, deep reading – and of course entertaining areas to welcome family and friends.

This kind of a ‘tree change’ is such a common retirement goal that it’s not remarkable, and yet I’m always struck by how closely it conforms to a long-cherished Italian way of life. Millennia ago, ancient Romans acknowledged the importance of finding a balance between the necessary negotium of life – the business, transactions, negotiations that sustain us, economically – and the life of sweet ease, or otium, that feeds our mind, body and soul.

For wealthy Romans, the pleasant life of dolce far niente could be enshrined in architectural terms. The simple farm-building (villa rustica) outside the city walls, where slaves toiled to ensure the patrician family’s income, could be converted into a sprawling manor house or villa suburbana. The owner was still close enough to town to come and go if business demanded it, but thanks to open-air dining rooms, mythological wall paintings, cooling fountains and perfumed courtyard gardens, he and his circle could also make mental and physical space to contemplate life’s higher things. Pompeii’s celebrated Villa of the Mysteries is an excellent example of this kind of farmhouse-to-manor house conversion.

The Villa of the Mysteries on the outskirts of Pompeii, southern Italy, famous for the series of exquisite frescos

In time, villas began to be purpose built to foster this kind of enjoyment and philosophical contemplation. Thanks to the pax romana, danger no longer threatened those wishing to spend time in the countryside – and with wealth concentrated in the hands of the upper classes, these villas reached staggering proportions. Pliny the Younger owned numerous villas (more than one on Lake Como, for example) and spent extensive time moving among them when he wasn’t acting as lawyer or magistrate. He famously advised that the gravel paths of gardens be finely raked so that an owner could walk barefoot among the perfumed plants, his reverie undisturbed by sharp objects.

Thanks to modern archaeology we know a great deal about ancient Roman villa culture: Livia’s wonderful ‘garden room’ frescoes from the Prima Porta villa (one of the highlights of a visit to Rome’s Palazzo Massimo) even provide us with detailed information about the kinds of birds and plants we would have expected to find.

The Garden Room Fresco in the Villa of Livia at Prima Porta

But with the breakdown of the Roman Empire and successive waves of invasion, wealthy medieval Italians were less willing to risk spending time in the country. Bandits roamed and wild animals prowled, roads fell into disrepair and the safety of living within a town’s walls looked more and more inviting. Lorenzetti’s frescoes of Good and Bad Government (ca 1338), in Siena’s Palazzo Pubblico, clearly demonstrate the benefits and protection of urban life in the Middle Ages, as well as the risks of the countryside for anyone foolish enough to consider spending a holiday there!

The Allegory of Good and Bad Government by Ambrogio Lorenzetti, in Siena’s Palazzo Pubblico. Pictured is the effects of a city governed well
The other city facing it is ruled by a tyrant; soldiers wander the streets and the law of might seems to be in effect

But the dawn of the Renaissance in the early 15th century changed Italian villa history, as well as art, architecture and intellectual life. Merchants and bankers relied on good roads, so these were repaired. Great dynasties began to expand their sphere of influence beyond cities and into their subject territory (contado), making the countryside safe and attractive again. And a humanistic education encouraged a closer examination of texts describing the ethos, aesthetic and even architecture of ancient Roman villa life. Wealthy humanists who desired to live like the ancients now had all the necessary tools to recreate that lifestyle – and they did. Just think of the extraordinary statement of power, knowledge, wealth and even licentiousness embodied in a place like Mantua’s Palazzo Te, a surburban villa built on the edges of the city to allow a Gonzaga duke to entertain Holy Roman Emperors and his mistress alike.

Palazzo Te: Inside the Pleasure Palace of Mantua, in the Chamber of the Giants, the ceiling and walls of them room portray the Fall of the Giants from Ovid’s Metamorphoses

One of the most well-known Renaissance villa designers was Andrea Palladio. Born in humble circumstances in 1508, he trained as a stonemason but had the great fortune of finding an early sympathetic patron: Gian Giorgio Trissino, a humanist poet and scholar from Vicenza, identified the young Andrea’s potential and encouraged him to focus on design and the study of ancient architecture. (He also graced Andrea with his nickname, Palladio, a nod to Pallas Athene.) With Trissino and other noble patrons from Venice’s mainland territory, Palladio travelled extensively and examined great monuments, such as those in Rome. He was particularly inspired by the literary studies of Vitruvius, the Roman theorist whose ten books on architecture had come to light again thanks to Renaissance manuscript hunters. Thanks to his investigations, Palladio developed a sophisticated architectural theory that advocated for utilitas, firmitas and venustas: utility, strength and beauty. Thanks to numerous commissions for country villas in north-east Italy, Palladio found ingenious ways to ensure that his designs incorporated all three principles.

In the 15th century Venice had embarked on the aggressive acquisition of mainland territory (terraferma), to demonstrate its might over a stato di terra as well as the stato di mar that constituted the traditional powerbase of a maritime republic. Politicians also knew that Venice’s growing population needed bread, and land to grow grain was in short supply in the lagoon city. The terraferma offered the possibility of an agricultural base, and Venetian aristocrats were granted oversight of the production of crops and foodstuffs in the area we now call the Veneto.

Villas in the Veneto: at the top of a hill in northern Italy, stands one of the most recognizable buildings of the Renaissance designed by Palladio – the Villa Capra, commonly known as La Rotonda

Naturally these newly-minted Venetian agricultural officials needed patrician residences on the land they now owned, supervised and regularly visited. Like the ancient Romans in their manor houses, Palladio’s patrons only needed to visit their farms at certain times of the year: at harvest, for example. While the owner was in residence, he might wish to invite friends out from Venice for a party, and he would certainly want to enjoy the bucolic vista from his villa’s windows and long carriageways. But when the patron returned to his palace on the Grand Canal, the farm manager and labourers still demanded practical considerations from Palladio’s buildings and outhouses: storage for equipment and places for animals, for example.

The diverse nature of these architectural design briefs demanded all the ingenuity of Palladio’s three tenets – and as his patrons were frequently short on ready cash, costs had to be kept low. At Villa Barbaro in Maser, for example, Palladio’s design incorporates a central section based on a proud Roman temple, long side wings (barchesse) and two dovecotes at each end of the wings. The temple corresponds to the aristocratic quarters, the barchesse were traditional outbuildings for equipment or stables – and the dovecotes were actually used by the birds flying back and forth with messages for the family’s palace in Venice! From a distance the villa looks like it’s built from expensive stone, but its bricks covered with plaster cost much less. Inside, Veronese’s trompe l’oeil wall paintings create a charming domestic mood – and as the patron was unlikely to visit his farm in winter, frescoes were more cost-effective than expensive tapestries. Palladio’s utilitas, firmitas and venustas in action!

Villa Barbaro, also known as the Villa di Maser, is a large villa at Maser in the Veneto region of northern Italy

Palladio’s Villa Emo in Fanzolo employs these same architectural components – temple front, barchesse, dovecotes – and demonstrates how the modular element of Palladio’s plans allowed him to work quickly and prolifically. At Villa Emo, the visitor approaches the majestic temple front by way of a raised platform of steps, accentuating the grandness of the central section – but at certain times of the year, that same aristocratic staircase was used to thresh grain. Leonardo Emo, the villa’s patron, had special responsibility for guaranteeing the Venetian republic’s food supplies and he experimented on the farm with newly-introduced cereals: Palladio’s design allowed Emo to oversee work in his ‘temple’ while broadcasting his patrician status. When you enter the villa, you begin to understand something else Palladio was coveted for: the dimensions and volumes of each room remain comfortably human in scale and are underpinned by a modulating rhythm that one scholar likens to a classical fugue.

Villa Emo – the residential complex of the Emo family in Fanzolo

Palladio’s designs – for country villas, urban palaces, town halls, churches and even a theatre – have become an inescapable part of modern Western architecture, thanks to the Four Books on Architecture he published (with floorplans) in his own lifetime. In England they made an indelible impression on Inigo Jones, and in America on Thomas Jefferson at Monticello. But with the rising popularity of the ornate baroque style, Palladio’s graceful modular aesthetic required revisiting. Site, aspect and landscape – all of which had been important to Italian villas since ancient times – came increasingly into play, used by architects and designers to amplify the overall sense of drama and theatricality. An obvious example of this is the staggering villa-islands of Milan’s Borromeo family.

Monticello in Charlottesville USA, was the primary plantation of Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United States

Isola Bella rises out of the waters of Lake Maggiore like a cross between a tiered wedding cake and a triumphant war galley: behind the house, the garden is built up on a series of terraces.

Isola Bella is the most southerly of the Borromean Islands, the group of islands in Lake Maggiore near the town of Stresa

A large theatre, made out of precious rocaille – an ornate but fragile medium that mixes shells, sculpture and plaster and may have given us our word ‘rococo’ – is crowned with one of the family’s emblems, a giant unicorn, and white peacocks still strut and call on the manicured green lawns. There’s not much of Palladio’s utilitas here but that’s beside the point, as Isola Bella proclaims the family’s status and taste to anyone who so much as glances at it. You could think of it as the 17th century in a nutshell!

The “Theatre” constructed at the end of the superimposed terraces, dominated by a statue of a Unicorn and the heraldic emblem of the Borromeos

This potential to broadcast a personal message in one’s villa complex – loudly or subtly, depending on the patron – takes on interesting inflections over time. Near Isola Bella, another of the Borromean Islands, Isola Madre, was developed in the 19th century into a botanical garden in the English landscape style.

Isola Madre is the largest and most northern of the Borromean Islands in Lake Maggiore

In a taxonomic garden such as this, exotic plants – like nandina, common to so many Australian gardens – announce the intellect, refinement and innovation of the patron.

Isola Madre is home to an elegant villa surrounded by extensive botanic gardens

Villa Carlotta, on sublime Lake Como, allowed Georg of Saxe-Meiningen, husband of Princess Charlotte of Prussia, to indulge his own botanical green thumb: its extensive grounds are covered in a riot of azaleas, rhododendrons and camellias that thrive in the pre-alpine microclimate of the lake.

Villa Carlotta in Tremezzo on Lake Como

The original owner of Villa Carlotta, Gianbattista Sommariva, constructed this magnificent residence across the lake from the house of his great rival, Francesco Melzi d’Eril. Melzi rode the turbulent waves of Italian politics post-Napoleon and pre-Unification and, like Sommariva, was an admirer of Antonio Canova, whose neo-classical sculptures are featured in both these villas on Lake Como. Here the beauty of this extraordinary landscape sets off the neo-classical buildings and artworks, and it’s said that Liszt was inspired to write his Dante Symphony while spending time at Villa Melzi.

Villa Melzi fronts on Lake Como, situated in the town of Bellagio. It is famous for its surrounding gardens, including Japanese maples, American redwoods, rhododendrons and azaleas

Lake Como has long drawn adventurers like Melzi d’Eril. In the 20th century, for example, the 18th-century Villa Balbianello – one of the most beautifully situated of all Como’s villas – became the cherished residence of supermarket mogul and explorer Guido Monzino, the first Italian to lead an expedition up Everest.

The glorious position of Villa del Balbianello, situated on the tip of the small wooded peninsula of Dosso d’Avedo, on the western shore of the south-west branch of Lake Como

Perhaps the combination of soft lake views and the sublime mountains beyond simultaneously soothes and stirs charismatic people – like George Clooney, whose lakeside villa is always pointed out to visitors.

The view over Lake Como from Villa del Balbianello

Naturally our own ‘tree changes’ are unlikely to resemble those of George Clooney… or Caroline of Brunswick, estranged wife of George IV, at Lake Como’s Villa d’Este… or Queen Caterina Cornaro of Cyprus in her gilded Renaissance cage at Asolo. And yet the principle remains the same: we are embarking on the ancient Roman search for otium that embodies the Italian dream of villa life, still so resplendent in the beautiful villas and gardens of northern Italy.

Guardians of The Medieval Past: Nine Hill Towns of Central Italy

Perched precariously on rugged hilltops and cliff faces, Italy’s remote medieval towns often sit in splendid isolation, boasting extraordinary views of the pristine surrounding landscape. Generally built for defensive purposes, the stone and masonry walls, sturdy gates and watch towers which typify these towns have survived virtually unchanged since the Middle Ages. The narrow streetscapes mean car access is limited or forbidden, and many villages can still only be visited on foot. Atmospheric, soulful and beautifully preserved, these are historic moments captured in time. Dr Jeni Ryde, with over fifteen years’ experience leading tours to Italy, explores nine of Central Italy’s hill towns, including those off the usual tourist track.

1. Vigoleno: a tiny medieval fortress town

The fortified village of Vigoleno (pictured above and below) with its unusual elliptical layout is just one of many unique medieval borghi to be discovered in the region of Emilia Romagna. Built as a defensive outpost, its massive, undamaged walls are positioned on a strategic ridge with breathtaking views of the valley below. The tiny village within the walls hosts a beautiful 12th-century Romanesque church with outstanding frescoes of St George and the Dragon.

The fortified village of Vigoleno, one of the most important historical monuments near Piacenza in Emilia Romagna

2. Bagno Vignoni: a pedestrian-only medieval spa town

Towns like Bagno Vignoni, in southern Tuscany, are often forsaken by the average tourist, who prefers to tread the well beaten routes of the classic itineraries. Here, tour buses are rare. Under the radar, glossed over in travel guides (or not even mentioned) as well as being difficult to reach, the more curious and adventurous travellers will, most likely, have towns like Bagno Vignoni to themselves.

Here you’ll find, for example, the therapeutic hot springs used since Roman times to cure skin ailments – Lorenzo the Magnificent de’ Medici and St Catherine of Siena both enjoyed the waters here. You’re almost guaranteed to have the tiny village to yourself: one bar and one small hotel set around the hot pool, which here replaces the usual medieval piazza.

Bagno Vignoni, located in the heart of Tuscany, in the famous Val d’Orcia. At the centre of the village is the “Square of sources”.

3. Fontanellato and the hidden gems of Italian art

Not only scenically gorgeous and free of tourists, these towns also hold marvellous secrets, little gems that delight and surprise. Take for example the small town of Fontanellato. Bang in the centre of the town sits a petite fortress-palace. Its broad water-filled moat is still supplied by the fontana lata, the medieval water source that gives its name to the town.

Called the Rocca Sanvitale after the Sanvitale family who lived there, the palace gave birth to a town in the 15th century, right on the border with the Duchy of Parma. The jewel in the crown is an exceptional series of frescoes in the fortress-palace, the Diana and Actaeon cycle painted by Parmigianino – he of the elongated figures before El Greco – and one of the early masterpieces of the artist.

And there is more! A visit to the palace is not complete without seeking out another hidden gem, the quirky camera oscura (hidden room), which the Duke built so he could spy on the passing parade: an early voyeur!

The small town of Fontanellato is dominated by the extraordinary Rocca di Sanvitale, the looming – and moated! – castle of a provincial dynasty

4. Monteriggioni: a trip back in time

Designed with security in mind, many of Italy’s medieval hill towns have fortified walls, towers and cobbled streets, giving visitors a real sense of what life must have been like in the medieval world. Monteriggioni, a minute hillside town built in the 13th century and once strategically important in defending Siena, still has its entire circuit of medieval walls intact. Dante was so impressed by its crown of massive walls that he mentioned it in his Divine Comedy, using the towers to evoke the sight of the ring of giants encircling the infernal abyss.

The town’s position was not an accident, however. The fortress was built by Siena as a first line of defence in its continuous battles with its rival Florence, and later sheltered pilgrims making their way to Siena along the Via Francigena.

Monteriggioni, a walled town in Tuscany. The castle walls offer views of the surrounding Chianti region

5. Castell’Arquato and regional Italian gastronomy

Hill towns like Castell’Arquato are small, manageable, discrete communities. This means that town centres are compact and easy to visit in a short time, enabling a complete overview in one visit. It’s so easy to combine a visit to extraordinary churches with a wander along beautiful laneways lined with medieval buildings.

And don’t forget lunch in a typical trattoria to taste the local produce! I love to take groups to a simple country restaurant just below Castell’Arquato. It’s surrounded by vineyards and rich farmland, and specialises in making homemade pasta fresca, a specialty of the Emilia Romagna region. And the view of the rolling Colli Piacentini (hills of Piacenza) from the bathroom window needs to be seen to be believed!

Castell’Arquato is located on the foothills of Val D’Arda in the province of Piacenza

6. The charterhouse of Pavia

It’s easy to forget how much significant architecture can still be found in Italy’s regional towns: often when we think of Italy’s contribution to architectural history, we immediately think of Rome’s Colosseum, Florence cathedral or Venice’s Ducal Palace. Yet in regional towns the urban mosaic is often little changed over centuries, and early medieval Italy was a rich intermingling of different cultures and empires.

These included the Frankish Empire, the Byzantine Empire, the Holy Roman Empire and even Muslim conquerors, and traces of these cultural epochs can still be found in unexpected places. The charterhouse, or certosa, of Pavia, for example, was an elite monastic institution sponsored by the dukes of Milan as their final resting place. Inside, it boasts frescoes and tomb sculptures in a style to rival the work of the best-known artists of the Italian Renaissance, but the façade is unique. A rich work in multi-coloured marble and precious stones, it reveals a staggering range of artistic influences.

The Certosa di Pavia, a monastery and complex in Lombardy, northern Italy

7. Gothic Siena

Because modern development passed by many of Italy’s regional centres, it is also still possible to see the beauty of medieval town planning. Villages frequently grew up in a radial development around two main nuclei: the spiritual centre, and secular areas dedicated to government and trade. Close-knit communities flourished under the shadow of the church and the watchful eye of a feudal aristocracy.

Siena is the quintessential example of a perfectly structured medieval town. Its urban design, suite of outstanding medieval buildings, and ensemble of major artworks has earned it a place on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage sites. But while today Siena has a more relaxed feel than its larger neighbour (and rival) Florence, in the Middle Ages it exerted a truly international influence, inspiring artists as far afield as Avignon and handling the majority of the papal banking business in Rome.

This earlier history, which played a significant part in the development of the Italian Renaissance, is well-preserved in Siena precisely because it did not become a significant political or manufacturing centre in the modern era.

Piazza del Campo and the Torre del Mangia in the Old Town of Siena

8. The Castelli del Ducato

The so-called “Castelli del Ducato” were part of a defensive network built in the Middle Ages and Renaissance by the dukes and aristocrats of Parma and Piacenza. There are 22 just in the area around Parma, for example, and they were used as bulwarks of protection during conflicts between communities.

So if medieval castles are your thing, the number and variety of well-preserved, impressive medieval castles that can be visited in central Italy is astounding. And the stories that are told about them are sometimes the stuff of fairytale. Take Torrechiara, for example: it was built in the 15th century by a military captain in the service of the dukes of Parma. Pier Maria II de’ Rossi wanted a bolthole for his beloved mistress, Bianca Pellegrini. He had the rooms frescoed with great mythological love stories, and even the doors of the castle’s chapel are decorated with the lovers’ interlocking crests. Two hearts are inscribed Digne et in aeternum (worthily and forever) and Nunc et semper (now and forever).

Set on rolling hills adorned with vineyards, the Torrechiara castle is one of the best preserved in Emilia Romagna

9. San Gimignano

In medieval Europe, towns were often situated either directly on or close to the great superhighways: medieval pilgrim routes leading to religious shrines, such as Rome, that would subsequently become important trade routes. One example is the Via Francigena, documented by Sigerico, Archbishop of Canterbury, during 990 and 994 CE.

The importance of the road for spiritual tourism led to the construction of a wealth of early churches with outstanding paintings: a sensory overload of stark Romanesque beauties, known as pievi, such as those to be found in Lucca and San Gimignano, for example. Some towns, such as Siena, developed into important centres of banking.

Trade along these pilgrim routes and the prosperity that travellers brought meant that the towns became commercial hubs and, ultimately, cradles of the Italian Renaissance. Prized also for their defensive hilltop locations, towns like San Gimignano – known as the Manhattan of the Middle Ages for its many medieval towers – also attracted significant artists, commissioned to decorate the ever-increasing number of buildings in these expanding towns. San Gimignano alone boasts significant works by Simone Martini and Lippo Memmi, Benozzo Gozzoli and Domenico Ghirlandaio!

San Gimignano, known as the Town of Fine Towers, is a small walled medieval hill town in the province of Siena, Tuscany

Local pride in central Italy

Finally, a trademark of these medieval towns is how they have retained their charm and authenticity, each of them with distinctive personalities. Each town has its own legends, stories and related festivals, and these are a real source of pride to local communities. It’s easy to get a feel for the colour of life in these towns, as you learn about and experience centuries’ old traditions, savour local culinary specialities and taste the local wines.

This medieval feel is most pronounced during the distinctive festivals (or sagre) specific to each town. Pisa celebrates local saint Ranieri in June by placing 70,000 wax candles along the Arno river, for example, while Lucca celebrates its precious volto santo – a crucifix thought to show Christ’s true face – with a historical procession. Pienza boasts the Fiera del Cacio, a celebration of its prestigious pecorino that sees children rolling huge wheels of the cheese down the main street of town in a hilarious race … and Siena naturally has its Palio, the famous horse race run twice a year at breakneck speed around the historic Campo, still fiercely contested by neighbourhood districts. These communities are truly the guardians of the medieval heritage!

Horses turn into the Campo’s most dangerous corner during the Palio held in Siena, Italy. Credit: Mike Hewitt /Allsport

Exhibition Review – Monet: Impression Sunrise at NGA Canberra

The National Gallery of Australia’s new exhibition – Monet: Impression Sunrise at NGA Canberra – is now open to the public from June 7 to September 1, 2019.

Featuring Claude Monet’s pioneering painting Impression, Soleil levant (Impression, Sunrise) 1872, from which Impressionism takes its name, this exclusive exhibition brings together works from the impressionist master and other significant artists to examine the founding of an art movement.

Single tickets are at a cost of $22 adult, $20 concession and $17 NGA member. More details on the exhibition are available at

Dr Michael Adcock takes us through this exclusive exhibition and examines how other significant artists had an impact on the founding of an art movement and this impressionist master.

In 2014, Parisians were exhilarated to discover that the Musée Marmottan-Monet (Paris) was to offer a themed exhibition around Monet’s pioneering work, Impression Sun Rising. When the doors opened, crowds flocked to see the show, and were treated to the privilege of seeing this iconic work of the Impressionist movement situated in the context of other great landscapists, ranging from J.W.M. Turner to Monet’s first teacher, the much neglected painter, Eugène Boudin. (It was Boudin who first instructed the young Monet to stop wasting his talent doing cheap caricatural portraits of local people, and to paint the beaches and fields of Normandy). The resultant show was the dream of every art historian, because it achieved a contextualization of the famous painting – with actual paint on canvas – that could normally only be offered photographically on the pages of an art history book.

It is no less gratifying that the National Gallery of Australia should have conceived of a similar theme, and managed to assemble a superb collection of some sixty works from the Musée Marmottan-Monet and other international museums. As with other recent exhibitions, it is a matter of some pride to feel that Australian art galleries are punching well above their weight, and achieving rich, satisfying, thought-provoking exhibitions that easily rival those in the great institutions of Europe and America.


While Australian viewers will naturally be avid to view Monet’s masterpieces, they will also discover that this exhibition has several other strings to its bow. One of its greatest strengths is the attention given to the precursors of the Impressionist movement, who were legion. A substantial part of this exhibition aims not merely to provide us with visual delights, but to teach us about the long, slow process by which artists turned first to study landscape in its own right, and then to study landscape as seen in terms of atmosphere and light.

Monet did not come to paint on the coast of Normandy without prior influences. This exhibition is usefully didactic in that it reminds us that this form of maritime landscape had been developing for some time.

Joseph Wright of Derby

The exhibition opens with a wonderful touch: the curators have pushed their exploration of the origins of the study of light and atmosphere right back to the work of an intriguing painter, Joseph Wright of Derby. Known as the chronicler of the Industrial Revolution – and of Enlightenment thought – in England, he made dramatic use of cloud formations and of moonlight effects. One of his most important paintings is A View of Vesuvius from Posilippo, Naples (1788) – a rarely seen treasure from The Art Gallery of South Australia – in which he recorded the lurid red light of an eruption at Vesuvius set against the chill white light of a full moon.

Joseph Wright ‘A view of Vesuvius from Posillipo, Naples’ c. 1788-90

J.W.M. Turner

The great J.W.M. Turner, for example, is represented by a splendid Le Havre. Sunset in the port (1832, Tate Gallery, London), completed some four decades before Monet’s work. Turner’s later work, Inverary Pier. Loch Fyne: Morning (c.1845) provides an extreme example of the master’s late work, in which solid forms are subsumed in a lambent yellow and gold blaze of light.

J M W Turner ‘Inverary Pier, Loch Fyne: Morning’ c.1845

Richard Parkes Bonington and the Honfleur Group

Another important – but neglected – group is the gaggle of English watercolourists working on the Normandy coast, of whom Richard Parkes Bonington is one of the most skilled. Previously referred to – misleadingly – as ‘the Honfleur School’, they are now more accurately described as an informal artists’ group; they were no more a formal institution than the French Barbizon group was a ‘school’. Bonington’s work tends to feature less prominently on the walls of our museums, perhaps the victim of our great obsession with the mighty works of Turner and Constable. Bonington is represented in this exhibition by three watercolours, such as Harbour at Sunset, all of which demand close inspection and offer a refreshing and most delicate vision of the Normandy’s coastal landscapes.

Richard Parkes Bonington ‘Harbour at sunset’ n.d.

Eugène Delacroix, the Romantic turned landscapist

In the 1850s, the French Romantic painter, Eugène Delacroix, briefly turned his back on his staple subjects – topics from English Romantic literature, and orientalist scenes based on his travels in Morocco – because he was much struck by the cliff-top view of the sea from near Dieppe. The Louvre boasts a splendid watercolour, The Sea at Dieppe (1852-1854), which may be seen as an uncanny anticipation of Impressionism; the Marmottan has sent us its own precious equivalent, Cliffs near Dieppe (1852-1855, Marmottan Museum). One needs to lean in close to this little watercolour – which actually looks unremarkable from a distance – to immerse oneself in this wild and unbridled cliff-top view of a sunset.

Eugène Delacroix ‘Cliffs near Dieppe’ [Falaises près de Dieppe] 1852-55

Gustave Courbet and James McNeill Whistler

In the 1860s, a rather unexpected figure appeared on the beaches, that of the Realist painter Gustave Courbet. We are more accustomed to his gritty scenes of peasant life in his native Ornans in the Jura region, but in 1865 he came here and worked beside James McNeill Whistler, who turned him towards seascapes of great subtlety. The exhibition contains a splendid example of this work in Low Tide at the Beach of Trouville (1865, Kerry Stokes Collection, Perth). James McNeill Whistler himself is represented here by the National Gallery’s newly-acquired Harmony in Blue and Pearl: The Sands, Dieppe (c.1885), one of the greatest purchasing coups of recent times.

Gustave Courbet ‘Low tide, the beach at Trouville’ [La Plage de Trouville à marée basse] 1865
James McNeill Whistler ‘Harmony in blue and pearl: The Sands, Dieppe’ c. 1885

It is gratifying to see that two more important French precursors are also recognized here. Both are routinely mentioned in art histories in the context of the prehistory of the Impressionist movement, and yet they are oddly underestimated. In this exhibition, they are both represented in full and satisfying detail.

The mentor: Eugène Boudin

Eugène Boudin is sometimes derided for his scenes of fashionable Second Empire society gathering on the beaches in the area. These paintings were essentially ‘painted postcards’, to be sold to summer season tourists from Paris. Boudin himself referred to these group-figure paintings slightingly as ‘mes poupées’ (‘my dollies’), but careful examination will reveal that even they are actually painted with breathtaking brio and assurance. We can better examine and appreciate one of these, On the Beach (1884, Art Gallery of New South Wales) in the exhibition. But at the same time – indeed, in the same year – Boudin was devoting himself to wonderful studies of light and atmosphere, as we see in his powerful Le Havre. Sunset at Low Tide (1884, Museum of Fine Arts, Saint-Lo). Here, he turns his back on the fashionable beaches and their posturing socialites, and devotes an unusually large canvas to his true interest, a ragged stretch of beach, peopled only by fisherfolk, with a blazing sunset low to the horizon. The sun is an incandescent orb painted with a thick impasto of paint, and it is surrounded by a yellow-orange aureole. The colloquial figures of fisherfolk and their poles for drying nets are set in contre-jour to the dramatic, blazing sunset. This is, without a doubt, the finest Boudin I have seen in my travels to date.

Eugène Boudin ‘On the beach’ [Sur la plage] 1860
Eugène Boudin ‘Sunset at low tide’ [Coucher de soliel à marée basse] 1884

The master: Johan-Barthold Jongkind

The second precursor who is too-routinely mentioned, only by way of preface, but not properly appreciated for his skill, is Johan-Barthold Jongkind. It is here that the exhibition attains to great depth, assembling a truly compelling selection of his work. He was a Dutch artist who also produced seascapes and landscapes of the first order. Monet said of him, “From this moment on, he was my true master, and it is to him that I owe the final education of my eye.” Specifically, Monet observed Jongkind’s very fast, sketchy execution – consisting of an agitated telegraph of dabs and dashes – which allowed him to churn out some twenty watercolours per day. Do stop to immerse your eyes deeply in the wall of works around End of the Day in Holland (1872, Private Collection). It is still rare to see so many works by Jongkind in one place.

Johan Barthold Jongkind ‘End of the day in Holland’ [Fin de journée en Hollande] 1872

Monet before the ‘Impression’: On the beach

While Monet had been depicting beach scenes in and around Sainte-Adresse as early as 1868, it was not until the summer of 1870 that he followed the example of his mentor, Boudin, and introduced closer studies of fashionable vacationers on the same beaches. Monet may have been influenced also by changes in his personal life: he had married Camille Doncieux in Paris in June 1870 – possibly to avoid military service – and by late June they were on their way, with their son Jean, to a holiday in Trouville. Cultural historian Robert Herbert comments that it was rather more up-market than Sainte-Adresse, and that for Monet it had the added allure of having been the site where Courbet and Boudin had worked. Indeed, since Courbet had been involved at Monet’s marriage ceremony, he well might have waxed lyrical about his own previous painting excursions to Trouville in 1865-1866.

On the beach

Monet responded enthusiastically to this stylish holiday retreat. He painted three views of the elegant beachfront hotels and boardwalks, including L’Hotel des Roches noires (1870, Musée d’Orsay). He also executed four small canvases of his newly-wed wife Camille relaxing on the beach. The best-known example is On the Beach (1870, National Gallery, London).

The present work from the Marmottan, On the Beach at Trouville (1870) is one of the same group. Robert Herbert argues that these four sketches were probably pochades, little pocket-size sketches, in which Monet aspired to attain the painterly freedom and brio of Manet; he might have intended to paint larger, more finished versions upon his return to Paris.

In this version, Monet ensures that Camille dominates the composition, and is offset against a smaller, secondary female figure. Beyond them, we glimpse an expanse of beach where elegant vacationers stroll. Herbert correctly points out that Monet probably wanted to suggest that Camille too was a wealthy and leisured socialite, a fact quite out of kilter with this impecunious newly-married couple. They were – as Australian colloquialism would have it – “puttin’ on the dog”, or showing off.

Claude Monet ‘On the beach at Trouville’ [Sur la plage à Trouville] 1870

A gorgeous pochade

Possibly even more thrilling in this exhibition is a much smaller work, Camille on the Beach, a single study in small format of an elegantly dressed Camille standing on the beach. Its existence in the Marmottan collection is well known, but I have never seen it on the walls in Paris; it is a privilege, therefore, to see it for the first time here in Canberra. The work is startling because it is – even for a pochade – extremely free and simplified, and is so vigorous that we can actually track the artist’s every gesture in the swirling application of a thick, creamy pigment. We could only get closer to the painter’s action by standing and looking over his shoulder as he worked.

Claude Monet ‘Camille on the beach’ [Camille sur la plage] 1870

The genesis of the industrial port scene

While painters had long painted seascapes and beach scenes, the idea of painting an unattractive industrial port was quite a recent one. Monet may well have seen Manet’s astonishing Port of Boulogne by Moonlight (1868-1869, shown in Adelaide in 2018) and his murky Boats at Sunset (1868, Andre Malraux National Museum of Art, Le Havre). Monet essayed this novel genre almost straight away: when he went to London in September 1870, he took himself to the Pool of London, and painted The Basin of London (1871, National Museum of Wales, Cardiff). This has all the physical elements of an industrial port, but the atmospheric effect of haze is less pronounced, and hence the generalisation of forms less extreme.

Monet ‘The Basin of London’ 1871

He was back in France by 1872, and was much influenced by Boudin’s atmospheric scenes of the port of his native Le Havre. In 1872, he executed two scenes of the port at sunrise. One is not so well-known: this is a closer view of the port, Sun Rising (1872, Getty Museum, Los Angeles); the other is the world-famous Impression: Sun Rising (1872, Marmottan Museum). The use of the word ‘Impression’ seems to have been a spontaneous invention. In 1897, Monet recalled that they were setting up the Impressionist exhibition, and the organisers asked him for a title. He rejected the idea of calling it a ‘view’, because the physical locale of the port was not the first priority of this painting, but the atmospheric conditions. He recalled: “I had something I had painted from my window in Le Havre: the sun in the mists and in the foreground some masts sticking up. They wanted to know its title for the catalogue [because] it could not really pass for a view of Le Havre. I replied ‘Use Impression’.” He had not, however, coined the term: for some years, artists had been using this word to indicate that an informal study was not meant to be a formal ‘view’.

Claude Monet ‘Impression, sunrise’ [Impression, soleil levant] 1872

Reading the paint on canvas

Henceforth, Monet’s interest was in what he called the enveloppe, or the parcel of atmosphere through which we view objects. The ships and the port are of secondary interest to the atmospheric conditions in which we see them.  Of the four paintings and seven pastels submitted to what became known retrospectively as the First Impressionist Exhibition in Paris in 1874, this canvas was the most breathtakingly minimalistic. The paint surface has great freedom and energy, due to its broken brushstrokes and heightened colour. There is no doubt that Monet was throwing down the gauntlet with a view to inciting polemic: this was the furthest extreme to which an Impressionist had yet gone in challenging the established expectations of the visual arts.

Art historian Paul Hayes Tucker offers deeper insights into the meaning that Monet himself might have attached to this work.[1] He concedes that Monet was both celebrating contemporary modern life and studying an effect of light and atmosphere – the two staples of Impressionist painting – but he adds that the artist might well also have been celebrating the economic growth of his home town between 1850, when Le Havre was a quite insignificant port, and 1872, when it had developed into the second largest port in France. Hazy though the image might be, we can still identify the outer harbour, bustling as a large four-masted clipper ship enters. The smokestacks of other vessels alert us the impact of the Industrial Revolution on shipping.  The derricks and cranes meant much more to Monet than they do to us today: they were a part of an ambitious project of extension and modernisation begun before 1870, resumed after 1871 and well under way by the time of Monet’s visit in 1872. We can even glimpse, in the distance, the chimneys of the factories that line the inner harbour.

Insights into Monet in the 1880s

This exhibition will take us well beyond the emerging Monet of the 1870s, and offer us some fresh insights into his later work. During these decades of the 1880s and 1890s, he felt compelled to strike out in search of new and stimulating landscapes, which would in due course inspire the great ‘series’ paintings which endow his oeuvre with its almost symphonic grandeur.

The journey by train from Paris to Normandy had been relatively inexpensive. As in Australia, the birth of the railways – as well as the invention of paint in tubes – had contributed enormously to the rise of the plein-air landscape movement, including the movement known as Impressionism. As the railways spread – from the 1840s onwards – regional France offered an enlarged array of landscape types and city views to artists.

Later, as Monet settled in to his water garden at Giverny and immersed himself in the reflected world of the water lily ponds, he by no means turned his back on the outside world. Curiously, it was Giverny that later allowed him to do so. He was investing massive sums buying the most rare flowers and trees, creating thereby one of the most exotic gardens in France. This investment paid off, because he began producing series of paintings which now sold well to Parisian art dealers. In addition, many tourists – wealthy Japanese and Americans – voyaged to Giverny to buy works directly from him. It was this income that later funded more ambitious trips to distant and wild or exotic places. In due course, these would facilitate commercial exhibitions around one landscape theme or ‘series’, which in turn generated further income. [2]

During the 1880s, Monet’s art reached its full maturity: he began to travel more widely, and to produce exceptional series of works that were strongly marked by the character of the regional landscapes he was studying. In 1882 he was painting seascapes from the cliffs of Normandy. In 1886, he was painting fields of tulips in Holland. In 1888, he was painting almost incandescent, sun-filled landscapes at Antibes on the Mediterranean coast of France.

Claude Monet ‘Meules, milieu du jour’ [Haystacks, midday] 1890
Claude Monet ‘Waterlilies’ [Nymphéas] 1903

The painting campaign in the Creuse Valley

The Canberra exhibition will provide us with the opportunity to enter into Monet’s quest for remote and wild places. Monet was introduced to the Creuse Valley by the art critic Gustave Geoffroy. The writer had met the painter when he was working on Belle-Île and, remembering Monet’s delight in the harsh landscape, thought to introduce him to a riverine landscape of comparable severity in France. The writer recalled:

“The day after our arrival, an excursion with Monet through the amazing and sombre beauty of the two Creuse Rivers. […} at the confluence of the rivers named Confolans which is one of the most strange and beautiful views one can see. Monet stopped for a long time to contemplate the low, foaming waters which flowed together over rocks, on a bed of pebbles […]”

Monet chose the most forbidding and bleak motif possible: the stark, rocky ravine of the Creuse River. In the current Canberra exhibition, the painting In the Valley of the Creuse. Evening Effect (1889, Musée Marmottan, Paris) stands out from the Creuse series by its unusually severe minimalism and power.

More than ever, the land is reduced to three interlocking forms, with the river a curving, metallic incision between them. Typically, Monet takes a plunging view down into the surface of the river, which guides our eye deep into the composition, only to arrest and baffle our gaze when it becomes enmeshed in powerful landforms. In all these paintings, the sides of the valley are typically painted in powerful strokes and quite dark colours – even when sunlight occasionally intrudes – but in the present work the gathering evening makes the landforms more than usually indistinct, an effect Monet translates with large, raw, gestural brushstrokes in cool, dark tones: dark blue, sombre green, overlaid with dark brown and scribbles of purple. It is the surface of the river that is most remarkable: apparently catching the last evening light, it is made up broad, raw, horizontal brushstrokes of similar colours, but heightened now with light blue and white. There is not even a hint here that the broken brushstrokes might mimic the broken surface of the water itself – as there is in other paintings – and the brushstrokes remain, aggressively, a strong gestural sequence of independent vigorous touches. The violent contrast between the darkening valley and the luminous water is further highlighted by the illumination of the distant hill, itself seen in contre-jour to a very luminous sky. On the hillside, arabesques of pink pigment are at play, representing fugitive effects of light.

Claude Monet ‘Creuse valley, evening effect’ [Vallée de la Creuse, effet du soir] 1889

The Impressionist Berthe Morisot

There are many other fine works in the exhibition. The Marmottan has been generous in sending some that are not linked to the landscape theme. I close by mentioning the breathtaking work by Berthe Morisot, At the Ball (1875, Marmottan Museum). As an Impressionist painter, Morisot is certainly a recognized part of the Impressionist group, and yet she may deserve greater acclaim. It is only in 2019 that a full retrospective exhibition will be held at the Orsay Museum, so she may take her proper place in the panolpy of the movement. When you view this profound study of an elegant young woman at the ball, you may have no choice but to agree.

Berthe Morisot ‘At the ball’ [Au Bal] 1875

Mapping the Monet pathway

For those who love the work of Monet, there are three great sites to visit. The first, pre-eminently, is his garden out at Giverny, which is easily visitable from Paris. The second is the Marmottan-Monet Museum, in the Paris suburb of La Muette, which contains a massive collection of hundreds of his works, as left by Claude to his son Michel and then, after his death in a bicycle accident, to the French Institute. The third is the Orangerie Museum, located in central Paris, over the river from the Orsay Museum, containing two stunning rooms with Monet’s two great cycles of waterlily paintings, presented to the French nation in 1924. In the meantime, if Paris is not accessible, just make your way to Canberra, where Paris has come to you …


Bibliography – Exhibition catalogues

Exhibition catalogue: Monet’s Impression, Sun Rising (Canberra: National Gallery of Australia, 2019)

Exhibition catalogue: Towards Impressionism. Landscape Painting from Corot to Monet (Reims: Museum of Fine Arts, 2018)

Exhibition catalogue: Monet. Impression, Sun Rising (Paris: Musée Marmottan, 2014)

Exhibition catalogue: Spate, Virginia (et. al.). Monet and Japan (Canberra: National Gallery of Australia, 2001).


Bibliography – Monographs

Forge, Andrew and Gordon, Robert. Monet. (New York: Abrams, 1993).

Heilbrun, Françoise. Les Paysages des Impressionistes. (Paris: Union of National Museums, 1986).

Herbert, Robert. Impressionism. Art, Leisure and Parisian Society. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988).

Hoog, Michael. Les Nymphéas de Claude Monet au Musée de l’Orangerie (Paris: Editions of the Union of National Museums, 1984).

King, Ross. Claude Monet and the painting of the Water Lilies (London: Bloomsbury Circus, 2016).

Moffett, Charles, (, Monet’s Years at Giverny. Beyond Impressionism (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1978).

Tucker, Paul Hayes. Monet at Argenteuil (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982).

Tucker, Paul Hayes. Claude Monet, Life and Art (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995).

Tucker, Paul Hayes. Monet in the ’90s. The Series Paintings. (Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, 1990).

[1] Paul Hayes Tucker, Claude Monet. Life and Art, pp. 72-74

[2] Tucker, Paul Hayes. Monet in the ’90s. The Series Paintings. (Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, 1990).

Gardens – A Personal Passion

By Michael Turner – garden and art historian, formerly the Senior Curator of the Nicholson Museum at the University of Sydney.

I grew up in England surrounded by beautiful gardens and landscapes. Memories of the smell of honeysuckle on a warm summer’s morning wafting in through the kitchen window of my grand-parents 16th century farmhouse in the Lake District still moves me viscerally, as does the smell of mown hay in the Top Field, the views across to the high fells from the top of a newly made hay-stack, the feel of early morning dew on the grass between my toes, the heady smell of roses, stocks and wall flowers, and the fascinating round, paper-like seed heads of honesty. My father wrote on garden design for Country Life and my mother created a classic Arts & Crafts ‘roomed’ garden full of roses and herbaceous plants at our family home in Cheshire. And all the time, as if by osmosis, I was soaking it up. In my 20s, I created my own first garden, experimenting wildly with height, scent, colour and weird plantings; the Japanese Nettle Garden in a shaded corner is still spoken of in the family with bemused shakes of the head!

For many years, as a historian, classicist and archaeologist, I was the senior curator of a museum of antiquities, the Nicholson Museum at the University of Sydney, home to the largest collection of Greek, Egyptian and Roman remains in the Southern hemisphere. I was especially interested in sculpture and architecture, which in turn led me to a fascination with the works of Vitruvius and Pliny and the latter’s description of his gardens in the hills of Tuscany. And so, following an inspirational visit to the 18th century Arcadian landscape at Stourhead in the late 90s, my passion for garden history was born. At first this passion was for the great 18th century gardens of England: Blenheim, Stourhead, Rousham, Castle Howard, Stowe and Chatsworth for example, where Classicism, sculpture, art and architecture walked hand in hand with planting and design, and then slowly it encompassed the whole range of modern garden history from its beginnings in the Italian Renaissance through to the present day.

The Formal Gardens of Blenheim Palace; and the grounds of Rousham
Stourhead in Wiltshire features one of the world’s finest landscape gardens
Stowe, a Capability Brown designed landscape garden in Buckingham; and Castle Howard, near York, one of Britain’s finest stately homes
The 105-acre Chatsworth Garden

On retirement from the Nicholson in 2016 we moved back to England, and now at the foot of the glorious Sussex Downs, I once again have a new garden. I also live in an area where there are more great gardens to visit than anywhere else in England; within an hour I can be at Great Dixter, Sissinghurst, Hever Castle, Nymans, Gravetye Manor, Standen, Charleston Farmhouse or Glyndebourne.

Great Dixter was the family home of gardener and gardening writer Christopher Lloyd; and the romantic double-moated 13th century Hever Castle
Nymans, an intimate garden set around a romantic house and ruins near Haywards Heath in West Sussex

Wakehurst Place, the arboretum and seedbank for Kew Gardens is in my village. I now lecture on garden history in London, am writing a book, Greek in the Garden, and both create and lead tours for Academy Travel in England, Scotland and Italy.

Wakehurst Place, a house and botanic gardens in West Sussex

Gardens are extraordinary. Not least because they’re such a passionately subjective experience, both in their design and in their enjoyment, engaging all the senses. There is no right or wrong way to either create them or to enjoy them. They exist as palimpsests, garden on garden; by their very nature, this year’s garden will be different to next year’s. Trees mature and cast shade altering the dynamic of a garden. An 18th century Capability Brown landscape has grown and died and grown again, its plantings dispersed or changed. Generational change and fashion have had their say. New plants are being discovered and hybridised all the time; my heart fills with joy when I walk through Wakehurst Place and see the stands of Monkey Puzzle trees (araucaria araucana) planted together with their closest relative, now maturing Wollemi Pines (wollemia nobilis).

Many older gardens now exist as ‘museums’, where the purpose is to stay true to the design and purpose of their creator: Vita Sackville-West at Sissinghurst, Christopher Lloyd at Dixter, Henry ‘The Magnificent’ Hoare at Stourhead for example, or my personal favourite, William Robinson at Gravetye Manor.* Others, especially the horticultural ones such as the Royal Horticultural Society’s garden at Rosemoor, are continuously experimental in their use of plants and design, while new gardens are a reflection of the personalities of their creators; the marvellously eccentric Sir Roy Strong at The Laskett or the fiercely determined Duchess of Northumberland at Alnwick and Keith Wiley at Wildside.

The Laskett, the largest private formal garden laid out in England since 1945
The Queen Mother’s Rose Garden in Summer at RHS Garden Rosemoor

Nature, as Goethe wrote, is a cruel mistress catching you up in her arms and whirling you round in her seasonal dance – the Dance to the Music of Time, the great cycle of death and rebirth. As I write this the music of her spring dance, the pipes and drums, is getting louder by the day as Adonis and Persephone return from the Underworld with their gift of new life. The countryside is a sea of white and lime green from the blackthorn blossom and the new leaves of the first native tree, the hawthorn; the hedgerows are tinged with the pink of the first wildflower, the cuckoo flower; while in gardens it’s almost tulip time. It’s a heady palette, with the promise of so much more to come.

The quintessential English country house – Gravetye Manor

* Gravetye Manor in Sussex is now a very exclusive hotel and Michelin starred restaurant. Should you be wanting to spoil yourself for a few days either before or after a tour, I can think of no finer place to do it

Yarra Valley to Bendigo – in photos

Do you remember that ad that Victorian Tourism used to run before every film at independent cinemas?

“You’ll love every piece of Victoria” was a marketing campaign that spoke to something observable about Victoria. It is a relatively small state, with diverse landscapes packed in between relatively short driving distances, with excellent museums and galleries in regional cities and towns, and with distinctive regional histories. It is a state of interlocking pieces, and the differences between them are as interesting as their connections.

In this photoblog, Nick Gordon and Damien Flint share some of their experiences and observations from last year’s Academy Travel Yarra Valley to Bendigo: Victoria’s Regional Galleries tour, in the lead up to our ADFAS tour this October.


Rather than doubling up on the same strengths, Victoria’s regional galleries have their own histories and unique collections. Some, such as Ballarat and Bendigo, owe their beginnings to the Goldrush boom, and a sense among the population that their cities were going to be the next Melbourne so needed art collections and theatres to match their ambitions. Other collections, such as TarraWarra and Heide, capture the personal visions of their creators and their willingness to invest in the arts. Such investment in the arts is less contentious in Victoria than in other states – Shepparton (population 65,000) is about to start work on a new art gallery designed by Denton Corker Marshall, which has a price tag of over $20 million.

But they also have developed different sorts of special exhibitions, from the blockbusters of Bendigo, to the National Indigenous Ceramic Prize at Shepparton Art Museum, contemporary Australian exhibitions at Ballarat and TarraWarra, and the fine sculpture parks at McClelland and Heide. These galleries have a well-earned reputation for excellent temporary exhibitions, and they put together interesting programs year after year. (The tour this coming May, for example, includes Sidney Nolan’s Ned Kelly series at Geelong and the Royal Portrait exhibition at Bendigo.)

Heide Museum of Modern Art

TarraWarra Museum of Art

McClelland Sculpture Park and Gallery

Regional Galleries – Geelong, Shepparton, Ballarat, Bendigo


We all know that Australia is a country of varied landscapes and very different climatic zones. The distances between these landscapes in Victoria, however, are quite small, so that each day’s drive took us to somewhere new, from the verdant vine covered hills of the Yarra Valley to the red-earthed scrub of the Goldfields, and from the temperate climes of the Mornington and Bellarine Peninsulas to the dry expanses of sheep country to the west and north of Melbourne. Some of these landscapes are iconic, each has its own charms, and thinking of the different ways people have used these landscapes over the millennia is both fascinating and revealing.

The towns too are lovely and they share an obvious civic pride – streets are clean and well-kept, historic buildings are preserved, and rose gardens both public and private benefit from care and the right climate. (Older varieties with abundant fist-sized flowers are favoured – they’re not just pretty, but intoxicating.)


Despite their differences, each of the regions we travelled to were linked by their histories. When admiring the view across Melbourne to the Yarra Valley from Mt Dandenong, the history of colonial Victoria begins to make sense – the population boom in Melbourne that resulted from the Goldrush in Bendigo and Ballarat created a clear and present need for food, and selectors took their chances clearing land as close as possible to the burgeoning city and established farms, orchards and vineyards up the Yarra Valley.

The labour of these selectors was immortalised by the Heidelberg School, especially by McCubbin, who articulated the idea of Australia as a country built on the hard labour of ordinary individuals rather than by the vision of great men. But here too there is an observable difference between regions – Melbourne was founded by men seeking good pasture to make a mint selling wool to the mother country.

These men – the future squattocracy – took vast swathes of land to the north and west, and there is no better proof of their establishment than Barwon Park. It’s a 42-room bluestone manor, in which the style of Queen Victoria could be emulated, surrounded by fields of wheat and sheep. Much of the labour that brought about this wealth was, however, undertaken, by ordinary men and women, and it is perhaps no surprise that Australian unionism began in a shearing shed, much like the one depicted by Tom Roberts in Shearing the Rams pictured below.

China: New and Old

Truly, you have to see modern China to believe it. The scale of the change across this large nation literally takes your breath away. A few years ago I caught the high speed train from Shanghai to Beijing. As I sat there in whisper quiet comfort, I mused on the never-ending debate on high speed rail in Australia and all the arguments about the economies of scale. As I thought, we passed the maintenance area for the high speed trains outside Shanghai. Now, you can expect a place to have one or two trains, or even a handful to handle the needs of timetabling, but in this yard there must have been fifty sleek, high-speed trains with all their carriages waiting for their orders. This wonderment at the scale of China is the same everywhere: everything you’ve ever imagined, but more. While still thinking about trains, you can catch a high speed train from Beijing to Urumqi in western Xinjiang province. It covers a distance of some 3,000 km and takes around 30 hours (you can book a ‘standing’ ticket should you wish!). This is impressive enough, but for most of this route the train is on an elevated viaduct supported by massive concrete pillars. It is awe-inspiring to see this structure snake its way across the lower Gobi Desert with modernity elevated above the denizens of the desert scratching out a living below. Whether it is wind farms that stretch for so long that you get bored looking at the turbines as you whizz past in a bus at 100 km/hr, or freeways that plunge into great tunnels in mountainsides, or bright, shiny new cities where before there was nothing; the immensity of China is staggering; particularly for we low-density Australians.

While such sights are worth the trip in themselves, when you layer what you are seeing across the rich and varied history of China that the modern growth spurt can be seen in its true light. Importantly, as they say that to know someone is to understand someone, then witnessing China today helps us make sense of where this mighty country is heading with implications for us all.

As an archaeologist and a historian, I’ve often daydreamed of being somewhere at that pivotal moment in their history that will be remembered forever. Think of being in the Athenian Pynx listening to Pericles in the fifth century BCE, being in the Roman forum seeing Augustus walk past, visiting Baghdad in the ninth century, Venice in the thirteenth century or New York in the early twentieth. These are all moments when history was being made and will be remembered as long as there are people to remember it. Right now, you could say the same of China. So staggering has been its transformation that this period will be long-remembered, for good or ill, but remembered. Keep this in mind as you walk the Chinese streets; in hundreds of years’ time, students will be watching whatever device they will be glued to in those days while trying to imagine what it would be like to be in China in the early twenty-first century. You are part of history: something you cannot necessarily say about being in Australia and many other places at this point of time.

Dig a little deeper (a favourite archaeological pun) and more secrets and ponderances are divulged. The history of China, for example, is as rich as any. While the coming and going of dynasties may appear bewildering over such time periods, there is a certain rhythm that can be detected. Although some may disagree, I feel that there are three great periods of Chinese history before the modern period when the country was unified and largely covered the area we know China as today: the Han Period (206 BCE–220 CE), the Tang Period (618–907 CE), and the Ming Period (1368–1644 CE). However, before each of these dynasties came a brief interlocutory dynasty that had the will and ruthlessness to unite China, but who quickly succumbed to the pressure of ruling their newly-conquered territories. Before the Han, China was united by the Qin (221–206 BCE); now famous as the instigators of the Terracotta Army one sees outside Xi’an and for the first extensive construction of the Great Wall. Before the Tang, the unification was wrought by the Sui Dynasty (581-618 CE) who bequeathed the Grand Canal linking northern China with the south. In turn, before the Ming Dynasty was the Mongol Yuan Dynasty (1279 to 1368 CE), who, under Genghis Khan and Kublai Khan, brought all of China under single rule. At all other times, apart from these three shorter and three longer dynasties, China was divided into two, three or dozens of competing states. A pattern is established; a strong leader manages to unite the country but, due to the hostilities this brings about, soon falls to rebellion. From the rebellion a new ruler emerges. The new leader is bequeathed a united nation allowing them to go on to establish a dynasty that becomes one of China’s apogees.

The Xian Terracotta Warriors

One now looks again at modern China and the role of the current government in unifying the country. Yet, every day we hear of the problems this unleashes, from restive provinces to people chaffing under the yoke of centralised control. Now it is the likes of Facebook that is banned, but 2,000 years ago, the Qin Dynasty was burning books and throwing scholars to their deaths in pits. The need to wipe out the old and establish the new can be potent but is far from painless. So are we now witnessing one of these interlocutory regimes? The Qin ruled 15 years, the Sui, 37 years, and the Yuan, 89 years. The People’s Republic of China is now 70 years old; more Yuan than Qin, but will it too soon go and allow a new regime to usher in the fourth great period of China’s history? Or, will the modern world break this paradigm and allow the current regime to establish a rule that will last centuries? We don’t have the foresight to see how the history of China will unfold, but it helps us understand the present by looking back to the past. As the Greek historian Thucydides said, “It will be enough for me, however, if these words of mine are judged useful by those who want to understand clearly the events which happened in the past and which (human nature being what it is) will, at some time or other and in much the same ways, be repeated in the future.

In recent months there has been much in the papers about China’s rather stern rule in its western province of Xinjiang, officially the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. We hear of Uyghur homes being bulldozed in Kashgar to make way for shiny modern Han Chinese buildings, of intrusive surveillance and, worse, of people disappearing from the streets and large-scale ‘re-education’ camps. The typical western response is that China has no right to be in Xinjiang; a province that is ethically and religiously distinct to the eastern Han Chinese motherland. Yet occupation of Xinjiang is no new adventure for the Chinese and they’ve been here before. The method of this occupation may vary, but the aim is the same; to maintain a link from the eastern seaboard across China to its ‘natural’ western border of the Pamir Mountains on the edge of Central Asia.

During the Han Dynasty, it was the Chinese desire for ‘heavenly horses’ for their cavalry, and to contain the Xiongnu, a collection of nomadic pre-Mongol tribes to their north, that prompted them to venture west from the Hexi Corridor and establish a presence in Xinjiang. This movement is best epitomised by the story of the traveller Zhang Qian who from 139–119 BCE opened up this ancient trade road during the reign of the Han Emperor Wudi. In two journeys, each lasting several years, Zhang Qian crossed the Pamir Mountains, and for the first time, brought back news to the central court of what lay beyond. This prompted the Han Dynasty to establish a loose control over Xinjiang, establishing from 120 BCE military colonies (tuntian) and commanderies (duhufu) to control Xinjiang and garrisoning towns such as Kashgar. Today you can visit the Yumenguan Pass (Jade Gate Pass) near Dunhuang which was the Han period border post. Here a portion of the Great Wall exists constructed from adobe, or rammed earth. This wall makes the ‘pass’ in an otherwise flat and featureless desert, and acted to channel merchants travelling the Silk Road, some of whom would have been carrying jade, towards a border fort that controlled entry into China from the west.

In 1877 the term “Seidenstraße” (Die Seidenstrassen, literally “Silk Road”) was coined by the German geographer, cartographer and explorer Ferdinand von Richthofen

In the Tang Dynasty, China experienced a free-flow of people and ideas; one of which was Buddhism that entered China from India via the southern branch of Silk Road. Buddhist monks, such as Xuanzang, made the journey from China to India and brought back priceless manuscripts that were eventually housed in the still-standing Wild Goose Pagoda in Chang’an (the present Xi’an), the Tang Period capital. In the ninth century, the ancient Silk Road was at its height and the Tang Empire, like the Han Dynasty before it, sought to control Xinjiang so as to control the trade that poured in from the west.

Wild Goose Pagoda, Chang’an

During the Yuan Dynasty, originating as it did from Mongolia, Xinjiang was more ‘homeland’ and the eastern seaboard of China was the far flung province. Genghis Khan early on defeated the Qara Khitai: a sinicized empire spanning Central Asia and brought the subjects of this empire into his fold. One such people were the Uyghurs based in present-day Xinjiang. As the Mongols lacked the urban accoutrements, particularly a written script, Genghis utilised the Uyghurs in his administration and modified the Uyghur script to express the Mongolian language. Later, under Kublai Khan, Buddhist Uyghurs, were resident commissioners running Chinese districts. So while technically Xinjiang was part of the ‘Chinese’ Yuan Empire, in reality, the tail was wagging the dog and the people of Xinjiang were in charge of the Han Chinese.

The desire of the eastern Chinese to control Xinjiang at various times of their history was mostly due to one thing: trade. And when one speaks of trade in these parts, we talk of trade along the Silk Road. The Silk Road was sometimes a single road, but in most parts it is merely a euphemism for the east–west trade that linked China with India and the Mediterranean. Silk was certainly a trade good, but so too was jade, tea, salt, sugar, porcelain, spices, cotton, ivory, wool, gold, and silver. Whether coming from India, or from Central Asia, merchants would first congregate at the city of Kashgar in western China. From Kashgar, the path split into a northern road and a southern road around the Taklimakan Desert before joining again as the road passed through the Hexi Corridor giving entry into the heartland of China and the main terminus of the Silk Road at the city of Xi’an.

This trade has underpinned many of the great periods of Chinese history, and as we look at modern China, we also see a revival of this ancient trade network in the Belt and Road Initiative enthusiastically embraced by the Chinese President, Xi Jinping. This development strategy involves infrastructure development and investments in countries in Europe, Asia and Africa. The ‘belt’ refers to the overland routes for road and rail transportation, called ‘the Silk Road Economic Belt’; whereas ‘road’ refers to the sea routes, or the ‘21st Century Maritime Silk Road’. Already this institutive is viewed with suspicion by the west who sometimes see it as a push for Chinese dominance in global affairs with a China-centered trading network. While the merits of the initiative can be debated elsewhere, the point here is the convergence of the old and the new: in this case with the revival of the ancient silk road.

Trade is fundamental to human civilization, and when conducted freely and openly, trade can bring huge benefits. The Tang Dynasty flourished in an atmosphere of openness to foreigners and their ideas, while the Ming Dynasty ossified when the initial expansion under the great admiral Zheng He was curtailed and China began to raise the barriers of isolationism. China has always been a trader rather than an invader. In its long history China has never produced an Alexander or a Genghis or a Napoleon who wished to conquer for glory’s sake. Nor have they ever planted colonies away from their motherland as have the ancient Greeks and Phoenicians, or modern Western Europeans. Interaction for China beyond its borders has always been by trade and the Belt and Road Initiative is a modern rethinking of this concept.

While the future is unknown, history can show us a few things to help us understand modern China. Firstly, the Chinese are a proud people: proud of their history and especially proud of what they have achieved in the past 70 years. And being proud they want respect and a seat at the global table. While we’ve seen that Chinese control of regions like Xinjiang has waxed and waned over the years, there is nothing new in China reasserting its control of this area and for re-initiating the ancient Silk Road that relies on Chinese control of this region.

Any transition is difficult but one is occurring now. The west has had everything go our way for the past couple of hundred years but now we have to share our toys. While in no way needing to accept everything that China does, we also need to understand that their time has come and that we need to work with them rather than imagining them soley as rural workers. Gain some solace from the fact that China has rarely relied on expansionist military stratagems to achieve her ends and see in her long history a nation that is inventive and poetic rather than brutal and aggressive. History does tend to repeat and to know China is to understand China. And to know China, you have to go there and see this emerging giant for yourself at this pivotal point in its history.

The Isles of Scilly: of helicopters, gardens and shipwrecks

Michael Turner – garden historian & ADFAS Travel tour leader

I’ll never forget the first time I saw the Isles of Scilly, early one misty, summer’s morning more years ago than I care to remember – from a helicopter. On what promised to be a glorious day we took off from Penzance for the 15-minute flight. As we rose into the air, the castle on the summit of St Michael’s Mount appeared as if floating in the mist, and then, in a matter of moments, the shadowy but distinctive shape of Land’s End was slipping by as we headed out into the vast emptiness of the Atlantic Ocean. All too soon, specks of green land edged by empty beaches appeared on the horizon out of the mist. We could have been flying into the Caribbean. Within minutes we were over St Mary’s – high enough to be above the birds but low enough to see calves ambling around with their mothers in the fields below.

The rugged coastline of Land’s End in Cornwall, the most westerly point of England on the Penwith peninsula

Out to sea, 45 kilometres off the rugged coast of Land’s End lies a group of some 150 low-lying, mysteriously beautiful islands and outcrops of rock. According to legend, the islands became separated from the Cornish mainland in the days of King Arthur, some 1,500 years ago, when the lost kingdom of Lyonesse, home to the hero Tristan, of Tristan and Isolde fame, sank beneath the sea. Truth to tell, we must go back 10,000 years to the end of the last Ice Age when the islands were part of the Cornish mainland. As the ice caps melted and sea levels rose, one large island was formed. In the Bronze Age, some 3,000 years ago, this island became heavily settled, so much so that today there are more archaeological remains per square kilometre than anywhere else in the British Isles. It is most likely that the Cassiterides, or Tin Isands, mentioned by the 1st century AD Greek geographer Strabo, refer to this one island. It was the last land-fall before Greek and Phoenician traders reached the tin-rich lands of Cornwall (tin was a vital ingredient in the manufacture of bronze). As recently as 450-500 AD, as the sea levels continued to rise, this one large island became many small ones, the largest of which, St Mary’s is just 6.5 square kilometres.

St Mary’s Harbour at dawn, Isles of Scilly

Today, only five of the islands are inhabited; St Mary’s, Tresco, St Martin’s, St Agnes and Bryher, with a total population of just over 2,000. Above all else, the islanders, or Scillonians, pride themselves on their quality of life: simpler, kinder and more peaceful. In 1975, the islands were designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, which has led to an unprecedented level of conservation and lack of development.

The five inhabited islands of Scilly

Due to the prevailing Gulf Stream of the Atlantic Ocean, the climate of the islands is mild compared to mainland England. Indeed, although lying on the same latitude as Winnipeg in Canada, snow or frosts are very rare. This climate means that the main agricultural produce is cut-flowers, especially daffodils, which it can get to the markets earlier than suppliers on the mainland. Although mild, the weather can be tempestuous with the ever-present threat of wild Atlantic gales. This is reflected in the landscape. At the sheltered southern end of Tresco, for example, lie the extraordinary and lush Abbey Gardens while the exposed north end is a moonscape of blasted rock and heather.

A field of yellow flowers on the Scilly Isles

More than 85% of the islands’ income is generated from tourism. Sea and air connections are therefore vital. Ferries, however, stop running over the winter months, between November and March, and the small planes that land at the tiny airfield on St Mary’s are prey to the weather. Six years ago, after nearly 50 years of continuous flights, the more robust, but sadly out-dated helicopter service stopped. With great relief all round, a more reliable service will be restored in 2019 and once again all year-round access to the Isles will be all but guaranteed.

The approximately 100,000 a year visitors to the island come for its simple pleasures: the scenery and unspoilt beauty, the beaches, the peace and tranquillity, nature and the wildlife. The most popular activity is simply walking. Each year, October sees an influx of twitchers. Twitchers? Birdwatchers or birders. The islands are one of the most important stopping off points in Europe for migratory birds. With its shallow waters, golden sands and climate more akin to the Mediterranean, it’s an extraordinary place to be when birds are on the move. In 2017, over 100 different species were identified including such fabled and colourful avians as the Dusky Thrush, Pallid Swift, Red-flanked Bluetail, Red-eyed Vireo, Eastern Yellow Wagtail, and Britain’s second only sighting of a Pale-legged Sakhalin Leaf Warbler.

Cromwell Castle Tresco and Bryher, Isles of Scilly

Tresco Abbey Gardens

The islands are also home to the world famous Tresco Abbey Gardens, a highlight of my upcoming Gardens of Cornwall and Devon tour next June (click here for more details). In 1838, the 30 year old social reformer and philanthropist Augustus Smith acquired the leasehold of the Isles of Scilly from the Duchy of Cornwall, styling himself Lord Proprietor of Scilly. His descendants hold the leasehold and title to the present day. Moving to the Isles, Smith built himself a house on Tresco in the grounds of a ruined Benedictine Abbey. The Abbey was founded in 1114 on the site of an earlier monastic settlement founded in 946 AD. Following the Dissolution of the Monasteries under Henry VIII, the abbey fell into ruin. It was these ruins that appealed to Smith as the site for his new house as he looked to incorporate them into his intended gardens. This was very much in the fashion of the time, Romantic and Picturesque. First, though, he had to build walls and plant windbreaks against the Atlantic gales that swept the islands.

The exuberant Tresco Abbey Gardens

Today its 17 acres are listed Grade I in the Register of Historic Parks and Gardens. The garden incorporates Smith’s original walled enclosure, terraces and two great cross-walks with dramatic views. Many of the plants are large and exuberant. The statuesque and graceful echium pininana are described by one visitor as ‘growing like weeds’. Another describes it all as: ‘Kew with the roof off’. It is often said of the islands that ‘spring comes early, autumn stays late, and winter hardly exists’. Certainly, at the time of the winter solstice, in late December, over 300 plants are still in flower.

A map of the Abbey Garden

This mild maritime climate and the prevalent free-draining granitic soil ensure that the mixture of plants and trees that flourishes here is like no other, with tender plants from countries such as Australia, South Africa, New Zealand and Mexico. The result is a unique collection of plants in an idyllic setting which includes modern sculpture, classical features and a beautiful ruined archway from the original monastery, as if straight out of the work-book of those contemporary geniuses of Classical garden ‘ruins’, Julian and Isabel Bannerman (whose house, Trematon Castle near Plymouth, we’ll also be visiting on the tour). Indeed, the title of their new book could well describe Tresco Abbey Gardens – ‘A Landscape of Dreams’.

Tresco Abbey Garden Archway


Situated in the approaches to the English Channel, at the crossroads of sea-routes linking Scotland, Ireland, England, France and Spain, the islands have been a source of many shipwrecks; one of which has fascinated me personally for years. It involves one of the great romantic, tragic figures of the late 18th century, Sir William Hamilton. Best known as ‘The Volcano Lover’ of Susan Sontag’s eponymous 1992 book, Hamilton was the British ambassador in Naples from 1764 to 1798, where he was ideally placed, both as a social magnet for the Grand Tourists of the day, and to indulge his three great passions: volcanoes – Vesuvius was very active; Classical antiquities – Pompeii was ‘rediscovered’ the year he arrived; and his very much younger second wife, the magnificent Emma. In 1798, Hamilton and Emma fled Naples in the face of Napoleon’s advancing army – together with Emma’s lover, the naval hero Horatio Nelson. As this scandalous ménage à trois left to return overland to England, Hamilton packed up his collection of precious antiquities, his pension fund, and put them on two ships bound for England, HMS Colossus and HMS Serapis. On the night of 10th December 1798, the Colossus, while sheltering off St Mary’s, sank in a great storm that hit the Scilly Isles. Hamilton was devastated. Several months later, now back in London, Hamilton despondently opened the 16 remaining cases that had arrived safely on the Serapis. On the 12th March he wrote to Nelson: ‘It is quite beyond all expectations! Fortunately, the worst cases were taken on board the Colossus by mistake, when I thought the eight best cases were gone!’. In 1974, the wreck was rediscovered, as were Hamilton’s now very damaged antiquities. Over the next 25 years these were all meticulously restored by colleagues at the British Museum, and so proved a valuable source for my own research as a Classical archaeologist.

Exhibition review: Masters of modern art from the Hermitage AGNSW

With the Art Gallery of New South Wales’ new exhibition Masters of modern art from the Hermitage now open to the public, Dr Michael Adcock takes us through the magnificent selection of works that has been drawn from the unparalleled collections of the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg…


The present exhibition of sixty-five masterpieces of modern art from the Hermitage offers a fresh and visually exhilarating perspective into the development of modernism in Europe. This is due to the fact that the original Russian collectors, such as Sergei Schchukin and Ivan Morozov, not only bought works of the first water, but did so with an insight and daring that exceeded those of even the most sophisticated collectors in France. They bought for themselves – and ultimately for Russia – the crème de la crème of European modernism, which we can now enjoy in the welcoming surrounds of the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

The first room opens with a glorious blaze of Impressionist works. Claude Monet’s The Poppy Field (1890-1891) provides an opportunity to view one of an interesting group of vistas of oat fields and poppy fields around Giverny. Typically, Monet sought out motifs to which he could get access quickly and easily: the fields shown here were in the valley near the town of Les Essarts, close to his house at Giverny. Historian Paul Hayes Tucker points out that Monet’s timetable would have been, realistically, dictated by the rhythms of the natural world and the cycles of agricultural production: the beautiful fields of hay, oats and poppies around Giverny would have been in their paintable prime from July onwards, but he would have had to wait until late August or early September of 1890 to paint grainstacks, because this was the time recommended by agricultural manuals to harvest the crop and to build stacks.[1]

Monet’s The Poppy Field (1890-1891)

Claude Monet in foggy, hivernal London

The second Monet canvas, Waterloo Bridge, Effect of Fog (1903) is later in date, and belongs to a truly massive campaign of painting carried out in London at the turn of the 20th century. Art historian Grace Seiberling reminds us that Monet’s solid financial position was instrumental in making this vast series possible. By now, late in his life, he had the means to work on a large series of paintings over a number of years, without feeling any pressure to immediately recoup his expenditure by selling them. By the 1890s, he was an established artist, his paintings were selling for good prices, and he could be assured that, even if he produced numerous works, they would sell when exhibited commercially. Apart from the massive investment in paint and canvas, and the repeated trips between Paris and London, he could afford prolonged stays at the stylish new Savoy Hotel, recently opened in 1889.[2] Apart from its opulence, the hotel’s publicity brochures touted its sweeping views of the foggy Thames, and it is quite possible that it was this that first attracted Monet’s attention. He soon discovered that the open balconies on the façade of the hotel offered excellent vantage points from which to paint.

Monet’s Waterloo Bridge, Effect of Fog (1903)

Seen in photographic art book reproduction, this painting might give the impression of a gloomy, foggy scene; seen in the flesh, however, the painting is actually quite luminous, with a break in the fog in the upper left allowing a glimpse of sunlight. The palette has a delicate nacreous quality: like a mother-of-pearl shell, it has soft and quite lyrical tones of light pink, light mauve and light blues, unobtrusively warmed by warmer touches of brown. Monet’s notation of light is so nuanced that the light reflected on the surface of the river – and seen through each of the four arches – diminishes progressively in intensity from left to right, congruous with illumination from the upper left.

Camille Pissarro and the flickering life of the boulevard

During the early months of 1897, Camille Pissarro suffered a visual affliction that would, paradoxically, fundamentally change the course of his artistic development. He suffered a continuing eye infection, which forced him to abandon his beloved rural scenes for urban ones, and to work indoors more. Undeterred, he took an upstairs room at the Grand Hotel of Russia in Paris, at the corner of the Avenue de l’Opéra and the Place du Palais Royal, which provided a breathtaking view down onto the Boulevard Montmartre. Unexpectedly, Pissarro – the lover of quiet villages and hamlets – rather warmed to these new streets, sensing their modernity, their bustle and movement, and the special light in these new urban spaces. He wrote to his artist son Lucien that he found great beauty in the Boulevards: “It is very beautiful to paint! It is not very aesthetic, but I am delighted to be able to paint these Parisian streets that people have come to call ugly, but which are so silvery, so luminous and so vital. This is completely modern!”[3] Of the thirteen views of the boulevard he executed over eight weeks, two in a pair seem to have been of particular finish and importance. One of them may be well known to us: this is the Boulevard Montmartre, morning, cloudy weather in the National Gallery of Victoria. But its pendant, the Hermitage’s Boulevard Montmartre, Afternoon Sun has not to my knowledge been shown in Australia before, and so this is an incomparable opportunity to view the ‘lost cousin’. As in all these boulevard scenes, Pissarro’s notation of human figures is astoundingly deft. We must bear in mind that Pissarro had become used to representing human figures on a modest scale in the middle distance, such as a village path or field, and on a large scale, as monumental studies of single figures, but he has now learned how to reduce representation of them to telegrammatic dabs of paint, which nonetheless evoke hints of movement, posture and even costume.

Pissarro’s Boulevard Montmartre, Afternoon Sun (1897)

The ‘Post-Impressionists’

The term ‘post-impressionist’ has, lamentably, become an art history book commonplace, but some of our most eminent scholars – such as Dr. Gerard Vaughan – have questioned its adequacy. While all art terms are problematic, this one is particularly flabby, since it only designates a group of artists who allegedly came ‘after’ the Impressionists. Even this pseudo-chronology is not quite correct anyway. The term also flounders adequately to encapsulate the towering genius and sheer technical skill of the likes of Gauguin, Cézanne and the incomparable van Gogh. Perhaps this art historical term is well overdue for retirement. We need our art historians to frame a more useful designation for these artists, one that would recognize one important aspect of their work; needless to say, a term like ‘pre-modernists’ simply would not come anywhere near an accurate nomenclature. But each of these artists was given a retrospective exhibition – Cézanne in 1907, van Gogh several times, including 1905 – and some, like Gauguin, sold paintings to younger colleagues such as Matisse, and all had a profound impact on the emerging new generation of young modernists. Both Gauguin and van Gogh, for example, were a direct and powerful influence upon the development of the strong colours of the Fauve painters around André Dérain. This is clearly shown in this exhibition in Henri Matisse’s The Luxembourg Gardens (c. 1901), where the young Matisse has tried his hand at deploying Gauguin’s lyrical colours to transform the tame public gardens in Paris into a lush, Tahiti-like paradise. So much has been written – appropriately – about the impact of the discovery of ‘primitive’ (tribal) art upon the early modernists that it is easy to forget that another galvanizing discovery occurred in these seminal retrospective exhibitions.

Matisse’s The Luxembourg Gardens (c. 1901)

Paul Cézanne, the master of Aix

Cézanne is represented by an assured still life, Fruit, which belongs to a coherent cluster of some sixteen still life paintings done by Cézanne in the years 1879-1880. These represent a quite new stage in his development in this genre. A previous set of still-life paintings, done around 1877, had been rather more literal, in so far as they set the component objects in the context of more visible pieces of furniture, such as kitchen dressers and tables; at this early stage, they still looked like items in an actual room.  In the present, slightly later set, by contrast, Cézanne has reduced the contextual setting, and created a simple horizontal plane – admittedly still identifiable as a wooden plane, probably a chest – against a vertical background plane, which in most cases appears to be a wall with floral wallpaper. This constitutes a definitive step in the progression beyond a naturalistic still life, such as the Dutch masters might have painted, to the Cézannian still life, which is a geometric construct of forms, with a hidden logic comparable to that of pieces on a chessboard.

Detail of Cézanne’s Fruit (1879-80)

This version is unusual and striking primarily because of the relative darkness of the background, and its contrast with the well-illuminated napkin, bowl, fruit and bread roll. These objects seem to glow against the brown of the wood, which is a dark tone, and the blue-grey of the wallpaper, which is now much deeper than in other works. On the left, two further items – a glass carafe and a metal pitcher – are very dark, and sink into the sombre surroundings. In this arrangement, the napkin has been carefully crumpled and bunched to provide the powerful three-dimensional form similar to that of a mountain range in a landscape painting, with emphatic folds giving contrasting areas of fabric in light and fabric in shadow. Both the napkin and the bowl beside it are in cool tones of light blue and these, like the dark glass of the carafe, powerfully accentuate the warm, resonant colour – oranges, yellows, reds – of the six fruits and the bread roll. Here, the paint is thick and luscious, and the tones warm and glowing. What we cannot see is the small coins that Cézanne would have used to tilt each fruit into exactly the position he required. They are not arranged in any obvious or contrived traditional manner, such as a pyramid, and yet they are disposed across the canvas with great deliberation and with an harmonious sequencing of their own. Only one of these forms rises above the ‘horizon’ of this tabletop landscape provided by the back edge of the chest. The ceramic bowl at the far right is not truncated by the frame – as Cézanne so often did in other works – but it is arbitrarily placed impossibly far back: its base seems to be resting on the very edge of the chest, which is impossible because of its proximity to the wall.

Cézanne’s cool landscapes on the Marne River

This exhibition holds another visual delight for us. Cézanne’s group of Marne paintings of c.1888-1890 is perhaps less well known to visitors than the monumental Mont Sainte-Victoire set, but they are breathtakingly assured in their execution and most beautiful in their aspect when viewed. Gallery goers in Australia were delighted – and incredulous – when the Art Gallery of New South Wales itself purchased one of the acknowledged masterpieces of this series, Banks of the Marne (1888) at a cost of $16.2 million. Now, for the first time, Sydney’s stunning masterpiece can be viewed on a wall beside the Hermitage’s masterpiece, The Banks of the River Marne (1888).

The Art Gallery of New South Wales’ Banks of the Marne (1888) by Cézanne
The Hermitage’s The Banks of the River Marne (1888) by Cézanne

To situate this group in the development of the artist’s career, Cézanne had ‘disappeared’ from Paris and spent an extended period isolated in Provence from 1882 to 1888. From 1888 onwards, however, he began to explore the possibilities of the Paris region, all the while assiduously avoiding the Paris art world itself. He particularly favoured the valley of the River Marne near the Maisons-Alfort and Créteil, as well as Marlotte and Fontainebleau. Gilles Chazal, the curator of the 2011-2012 exhibition Cézanne et Paris (2011, Musée du Luxembourg) proposed that there was a very good reason for his preference: the gentle landscapes of the Ile-de-France, close to Paris, provided Cézanne with quieter, more intimate terrain, a gentler light, more secluded riverbanks and more restrained colours than he could find in the lambent landscapes of Provence: “In Paris, his palette settled into calm blues and greens while in Provence he worked on a symphony of golden colours around Mont Sainte-Victoire.”[4]

Henri Matisse and the landscape of contentment

We might best approach two remarkable early works by Matisse by situating them within the rapid development of his art that led up to their creation. Between 1908 and 1910, Matisse had been experimenting energetically in the genres of the portrait, the still life and the domestic interior, but his most dramatic advances were to be made in the subject of figures in a landscape; in this latter field, his progress was much facilitated by most lucrative commissions from the eminent Russian collector, Sergei Shchukin, a wealthy merchant in the cloth trade.

We can thus better understand the works before us by placing them in the context of a dramatic process of simplifying both figures and landscape, ultimately leading to the primal painting achieved by 1908. We may also usefully calibrate our visual impressions against Matisse’s own textual explanation of what he was trying to achieve here. It was at this very moment, when his experimental preoccupation with figures in a landscape was at its height, that he wrote his first and most important theoretical statement about his art, his Notes of a Painter (1908). In this work, he makes it clear that his depiction of figures in a landscape was not done to compose a ‘scene’, so much as to convey an overall emotion. He wrote:

“What I pursue above all is expression […] I do not think that it can be conveyed by passions fleeting across a face, or even by violent movements. It is to be found in my entire painting: the area occupied by figures, the empty spaces around them, the proportions, all these play their part. The art of composition consists in being able to arrange the different elements that the painter has at his disposal to express feelings in a decorative manner. In a picture, every section must be visible and play its own role, whether this is a principal or a secondary one. Everything that has no function in a painting is therefore detrimental to it. A work of art entails a harmony of the whole; any superfluous detail would thus take the place of an essential detail in the mind of the spectator.”[5]

This very much confirms the analysis of the eminent art historian Alfred Barr, who argues that Matisse’s compositions at this stage are not simply landscapes in a traditional sense, nor are they figural studies properly speaking – the minimalism is just too extreme for them to be either – but an essay in a more primal form of painting, in which lines, rhythms and compositions convey an essential feeling at a subliminal level.

Matisse is represented in the present exhibition by three major paintings from this period, Woman on a Terrace (1906), The Game of Bowls (Paris, autumn-winter 1908) and Nymph and Satyr.

Matisse’s The Game of Bowls (1908)

In The Game of Bowls three figures are so posed as to create a graceful arc suggestive of harmony and contentment. The figures are posed against three very flat strips of undifferentiated colour: a large band of light green suggestive of grass, a thin band of light blue suggestive perhaps of the sea, and a third narrow band of a darker blue, possibly intended to represent the sky. The figures are outlined in a thick line of a reddish tone, which resonates by complementary contrast against the dominant tone of green. The same powerful tonal contrast is, of course, achieved by the quite substantial area of red on the garment of the figure at left, one of the only figures in this sequence of painting to be clothed. Once again, Matisse likes to provide a point of concentration to the dominant colour of light green by the use of touches of a more intense emerald green, in this case associated with three bowling balls.

Matisse’s Nymph and Satyr (1908)

The mood is less arcadian in Nymph and Satyr. Matisse’s choice of subject is every bit as provocative as that of Manet at the time of Luncheon on the Grass, for he too has chosen a motif which had for centuries been solidly fixed in the language of western European iconography, and he has boldly divested it of its complex traditional literary and pictorial associations. Arcadia has disappeared, mythology no longer casts a discreet cocoon around the satyr and the faun, reverie and sentiment and nostalgia are all banished. Indeed, nothing but the title remains to tell us that this actually is a satyr and a faun. A potentially comfortable mythological scene, with its discreet sensuality and oblique sexuality, has been transformed into an erotic, slightly menacing, and even predatory scene. It is significant that this work’s first title was Satyr in Pursuit of a Bacchante, a description probably dropped because it does not accord with the fact that the female figure appears to be asleep and is not moving. The number of figures has been reduced to two, and Matisse again uses the harmony created by the inter-relationship of two arched figures, but now made more threatening by the approach of the intent male figure with large grasping hands outstretched, in contrast to the more gracile and passive body of the female figure. The paw-like hands of the male were in fact re-worked to make them the compositional centre of the painting.

A personal favourite: Sonia Delaunay-Terk and Orphism

One of the most exciting – even exhilarating – pieces of modern art in the exhibition is Sonia Delaunay-Terk’s and Blaise Cendrars’ La Prose du Trans-sibérien et de la petite Jehanne de France (Prose of the Trans-Siberian Railway and of little Jehanne of France) of 1913.[6] More than any other work, this piece illustrates a crucial aspect of modernism, namely, that modernist literature and modernist art not only grew in parallel, but were in fact symbiotic, each enriching the other. It is no accident, for example, that the poet Guillaume Apollinaire was an influential art critic, and the theorist and advocate of Cubism. If you read one of his poems, such as his wonderful Zone (available in English), you will quickly perceive that his vision of a suburban street is as fragmented and as multi-facetted as any Cubist painting.

Dr Michael Adcock next to the collaborative work La prose du Transsiberien et de la Petite Jehanne de France (1913). The detail of the last section features the Eiffel Tower

The artist Sonia Delaunay-Terk was at this time associated with these contemporary avant-garde poets: Guillaume Apollinaire himself had lived with Sonia and her husband Robert for some time in 1912, in hiding because he had been accused of being involved in the theft of the Mona Lisa. Even more important was her meeting with Blaise Cendrars, which resulted in one of the most revolutionary examples of an artist-illustrated book.[7] One copy of this work is cyclically on display at the National Gallery of Canberra, and another was on display in Sonia Delaunay (Paris, 2015); this is, however, the first time the Hermitage’s version has been seen here.

By its very date, this work was a prompt and immediate response to Cendrars’ poem, which was published in 1912, and treated by Delaunay within the year. While Delaunay had already defined her theory of ‘simultaneity’, the very idea of a two-metre long fold-out poem would have appealed to her as an alternative to the more finite medium of the canvas, and might also have appealed to her command of decorative patterns over linear lengths of fabric. (As Sonia and Robert both developed the movement that would become known as Orphism, they were so poor that they sometimes had to use tablecloths and bed sheets instead of expensive canvas, to the considerable depletion of the household economy…). We may also speculate that, for the artist, the linearity was enhanced by speed and fragmentation: the poem is like a series of momentary glimpses of fragments of reality through the window of a speeding train. This said, it did not inspire her to merely explode forms into fragments, as the Cubists might, but to go further and to merely allude to them by fluid, curving sweeps of colour. The line of this (probably) fictive train journey is notionally from Moscow to Paris, passing through a Russia convulsed with the crisis of the Revolution of 1905, which is why the only two figurative elements – the Eiffel Tower and the Paris Ferris Wheel – are located at the bottom of the script. As with Apollinaire, Cendars’ poetry is a delight to read, a riotous headlong avalanche of shards and fragments of images in words:

“And yet, and yet,
I was as sad as a child
The rhythms of the train
The “railway marrow” of American psychiatrists
The noise of the doors the voices the axles screeching on the frozen rails
The golden railing of my future
My browning the piano and the cursing of the card players in the next-door compartment
The splendid presence of Jeanne
The man in the blue glasses who nervously paced the hallway and who would look at me as he passed by
Rustling of women
And whistling of steam
And the eternal sound of wheels whirling in madness in the furrows of the sky
The windows frosted over
No nature!
And behind, the Siberian plains the low sky and the great shadows of the Taciturn Ones rising and falling.”[8]

It is to be noted that Delaunay’s ‘parallel’ text is not in fact strictly parallel, but actually exceeds its allocated space and spills over to lyrically fill spaces between Cendrars’ stanzas. She has chosen to use both watercolour and gouache to achieve subtle variations on texture, enhanced by a lyrical, high-keyed palette including light blues, greens, vermillion, yellow and purple. She does not rely on her more typical optical disks so much as upon curved semi-circular forms, with a few triangular forms added.


The exhibition contains many more masterpieces, but I would like to leave our readers some joyful discoveries and encounters to make for themselves. Some might well relish the opportunity to see a superb clutch of works by Wassily Kandinsky, and to trace his progression from figurative art to the lyrical abstraction for which he is famous. We might recall that he was converted by the strangest accident in art history: upon leaving a room, he glanced back and saw a figurative painting propped up, upside down, on a chair. Because the subject made no sense, the arrangement of shapes and colours suddenly struck him as having a logic in itself, independent of what the painting notionally represented. In a flash, he perceived his theory of abstraction. Then there is the even greater enigma of the Kasimir Malevich and his black painting to ponder …



The Masters of modern art from the Hermitage exhibition is open from October 13, 2018, to March 3, 2019, at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Single tickets are at a cost of $28 adult, $24 concession and $20 member. More details on the exhibition are available at

I spent two days in the exhibition from opening time to close of day, and noted that at all times the exhibition space coped well with the volume of people who attended. At no time, on these occasions, did I feel jostled, nor did I struggle to see the works. (One might reasonably expect, however, to see larger crowds during holidays and also during the closing weeks of the exhibition). There are comfortable seats in some rooms, providing respite and rest, as well as contemplation. It is also worth noting that the Art Gallery of New South Wales possesses excellent light-weight folding stools, which it will willingly lend upon request. For those who find long visits challenging, or even who just want to sit and ponder, these are a godsend. I noticed that many people appeared to be unaware that these seats were available, since they stopped to ask me how and where I obtained it. A simple request to the attendants at the entry to the exhibition will suffice.


  • SEBASTIAN SMEE, The Art of Rivalry: Matisse/Picasso, Manet/Degas, Bacon/Freud, De Kooning/Pollock. (Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2016).
    Smee’s study is not a survey of modern art, but an examination of how some modern artists become locked into a dual dynamic of rivalry and emulation, which actually drives and informs their artistic development. To see an example of this, just have a look at the Picasso’s Nude in a Rocking chair, in the Art Gallery of New South Wales, where Picasso tries to out-Matisse Matisse!


  • Documentary: Paris: The Luminous Years, Madman films, Special Broadcasting Corporation 2011, two episodes, 106 minutes total.
  • Director Pery Miller Adato has done a superb job in evoking “the storm of modernism which swept through Paris between 1905 and 1930”. This is an intelligent and engaging overview of the early modernist movement.
  • Documentary: The Impressionists, ABC DVD Entertain Me 2014, two episodes, 106 minutes total.


[1] Paul Hayes Tucker, Monet in the 1890s. The Series Paintings (New Haven and London, in association with the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston: Yale University Press, 1999), p. 75.

[2] Exhibition catalogue, Monet in London (Atlanta, USA: High Museum of Art, 1988), p. 19.

[3] Christoph Becker, Camille Pissarro, (n.p.. Hatje Cantz, n.d.), p. 127.

[4] Reference:

[5] Cited in: Jean Guichard-Meili, Matisse, pp. 60-61. For the whole text of this crucial document, see Jack D. Flam, Matisse on Art, pp. 32-40.

[6] Exhibition catalogue: A Century of Artist’s Books (New York: Museum of Modern Art, October 23, 1994–January 24, 1995).

[7] Exhibition catalogue: Sonia Delaunay. Les couleurs de l’abstraction. (Paris: Museum of Modern Art of the City of Paris, 17 October 2014 to 22 February 2015). Exhibition catalogue: Anne Montfort and Cécile Godefroy (eds.), Sonia Delaunay, (London: Tate Modern, 2015).


From Russia with love – Masters of modern art from the Hermitage, AGNSW

This October sees the Art Gallery of New South Wales open their new exhibition to the public, Masters of modern art from the Hermitage. With some 65 major works arriving on our shores from the unparalleled collections of the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, this is an extraordinary opportunity to see rare works from the modern masters including Monet, Cézanne, Matisse, Picasso and Kandinsky. But before the exhibition opens on October 13, tour leader and historian Dr Michael Adcock steps back in time to reveal how the State Hermitage Museum came to accumulate this astonishing collection of modern art…

We are very familiar with one narrative of modern art, namely, the enthusiastic purchasing of art by American millionaires, the resultant exodus of so many major works of modern art from Europe, and the creation of stupendous art galleries such as the Barnes Collection in Philadelphia and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, to name just two.

The role of Russian art collectors in late imperial Russia is perhaps less well known, and this exhibition from the Hermitage invites us to come to terms with their enormous significance in the development of modern art. Rich industrialists such as Sergei Shchukin and Ivan Morozov not only followed the successive developments of modern art in Paris and elsewhere, they were on the cutting edge, boldly buying paintings in the new styles well before others could even view or understand them. Moreover, they did not simply hoard their treasures in gated mansions, but turned their homes into centres of discussion for the Russian intelligentsia and the related artistic community. This in turn fostered an extraordinary flourishing of modern art in Russia, which deserves mention in its own right.

The cloth merchant Sergei Shchukin (1854–1936)

Sergei Shchukin (1854–1936) was the son of Ivan, who was an industrialist who owned the textile business I. V. Shchukin and Sons, one of the largest textile manufacturers in Russia. With a fortune of some four million gold roubles, the family avidly collected art.

This exhibition offers us the chance to contemplate, and pay tribute to, a remarkable man whose actions – like those of Paul Durand-Ruel in France, or the Guggenheims in New York – were of seminal importance to the development of modern art.[1] This is all the more impressive because, despite his wealth, he is often judged to be the most unlikely man to take on this bold role of a pioneer of modern art. Art historian Dr Rosamund Bartlett writes:

“Shchukin’s small stature, unprepossessing physical appearance, and pronounced stammer initially attracted unkind remarks from the Parisian art world, but his unerring critical acumen, coupled with his prodigious buying power, soon brought him the respect of the artists he patronised and their dealers. It was an unlikely outcome for the sickly third son of one of Moscow’s patriarchal merchant dynasties of whom little had been expected. Shchukin’s journey into the heart of the French avant-garde is also testament to the astonishing transformation of Russia’s previously conservative, pious, poorly educated and inward-looking merchant class. It was typical that his father Ivan, who made a fortune in textile manufacturing, came from an Old Believer background, had 10 children, and bought neither books nor paintings; but he loved Italian opera and sent his eldest sons to study business abroad. It was similarly typical that his mother Ekaterina Botkina also came from a tea-trading merchant family, but she and her nine brothers grew up fully integrated into Moscow’s aristocratic and artistic intelligentsia – she taught her children French.”[2]

First, his collection was probably one of the largest private collections in the world. Bartlett estimates:

“Shchukin eventually owned 38 works by Matisse, including ‘Les Poissons rouges’ (1912), and his patronage would have continued had the First World War not intervened. The 225 items listed in the catalogue compiled in 1913 also included 50 paintings by Picasso (Shchukin owned the largest collection of his work anywhere in the world at that time), and several by André Derain, who became his final enthusiasm.”[3]

Interior of Sergei Shchukin’s house, showing Henri Matisse’s La Danse (1910)

Second, Shchukin’s vision was absolutely remarkable given that even the French state still regarded the Impressionists as seditious art – the government was at this time busy trying to reject Gustave Caillebotte’s gift of his stupendous collection of French art, relinquishing masterpieces that today would be worth untold millions of dollars – while public opinion in Russia was even more conservative, and regarded the works of modern French art as pictorial lunacy. Bartlett explains:

“[The] Petersburg and Moscow public was shocked by the handful of their canvases included in an 1896 exhibition of French art held to celebrate the Franco-Russian Alliance. Shchukin, a man of great sangfroid, quickly developed a reputation in Moscow for his audacious collecting, which often demanded considerable personal courage on his part. In 1903, he graduated from Monet and Degas to the post-Impressionists, and started buying Cézanne, Van Gogh, and Gauguin. Not content with hanging such scandalous paintings in his home, he was keen to show them off to visitors, supremely confident of their artistic worth; he relished the furious indignation and ridicule they provoked from his more conservative dinner guests. An unquenchable thirst for the new was something he shared with his younger contemporary, the sophisticated aesthete Sergei Diaghilev, who was based in the more cosmopolitan world of St Petersburg. Between 1898 and 1904 Diaghilev published The World of Art, the first international modernist journal in Russia, and then started working in the opposite direction to Shchukin by exporting avant-garde Russian culture to Paris through the reinvention of ballet.” [4]

Pink Drawing Room (known as the Matisse Room), in Sergei Shchukin’s house, the Trubetskoy Palace, Moscow

Thus the interaction of Russian art with European progressive art was two-way. We are perhaps more familiar with Diaghilev (whose Ballets Russes never actually performed in Russia) through a strong Australian connection: by a stroke of sheer luck in purchasing, the National Gallery of Australia has acquired a superb set of Ballets Russes costumes, which have been regularly exhibited in Canberra, providing another compelling view of the creativity and innovation unleashed by this lambent interaction of Russian and French talents.[5]

While the details of Shchukin’s wealth and influence in tsarist Russia are well known, there is still some mystery about his experiences after the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917.

It is not that all Russian industrialists were, in the opening decade of the 20th century, at all trenchantly opposed to the idea of political reform, such as that of keeping the tsar but establishing a constitutional monarchy with a parliament, like that of England. The new breed of industrialists who had emerged during Minister Witte’s program of government-sponsored industrialization late in the century were progressive thinkers who, like so many other educated Russians, despaired at the primitive state of Russia – village life was the same as it had been in the 15th century – and who urged both westernization and modernization. Indeed, foremost amongst these were the sub-group of Jewish industrialists, such as Morosov, who had pan-European connections and hence wider perspectives, and who were particularly vocal in urging modernization.

Not surprisingly, the official history of the Russian Revolution, The History of the Communist Party (Short Course), with its ideological emphasis on Lenin, the Bolsheviks and the fictive mass of proletarians who supported them, is not going to be interested in the fact that middle-class people, including the hated capitalists, might actually have contributed to reformist thought in Russia. (The true mass party was of course, the Socialist Revolutionaries, who had won the support of many of Russia’s 90 million peasants. When this uncomfortable fact was pointed out to Lenin, he spat out that ‘no revolution ever waits for formal majorities.’)

Many of these industrialists would, therefore, have welcomed the first step to reform in October 1905, when Nicholas II grudgingly granted a Duma (parliament), albeit one so heavily stacked and nobbled that it was almost a puppet-show of democracy. Nonetheless, in this setting, a group of middle-class politicians did form the nucleus of the Progressive Bloc, and it was actually they who engineered the abdication of the Tsar late in February 1917. The same group also offered Nicholas a deal that could have saved his regime and his own life: seeing that the disasters of World War I were fomenting revolution at home, they offered to form a mighty consortium of every professional organization and factory in Russia to make a supreme effort to win the war, on the condition that Nicholas grant a genuine parliamentary system. Nicholas refused, and his story would later end in a murderous hail of bullets at Ekaterinaburg in 1918. (Most tragically, his innocent daughters of the doomed family were the last to die: the tsarina had stitched the family jewels into their bodices for safe-keeping; when the Bolshevik guards opened fire, they were puzzled to see their bullets bouncing off the clothing of the girls, deflected by the jewels hidden within.)

While official Soviet history would again emphasise the crowds of heroic proletarians active in February 1917, it is absolutely contradicted by contemporary accounts and photographs, which clearly show that February was a revolution of all classes, and that well-dressed middle-class ladies and students from Russia’s new universities jostled with the workers, such as working women from the textile factories in the radical Vyborg District. But the story of any aristocratic or middle-class Russian from 1917 onwards is always under a chill shadow, because the Communist government established by Lenin first nationalized the property of the wealthy, and later proceeded to prejudicial treatment of allegedly useless parasites, such as industrialists, doctors and lawyers, as depicted in Leonard Pasternak’s fictional depiction of this period, Doctor Zhivago. During the subsequent rationing of War Communism (1918-1920), the former propertied classes (often referred to, in fact, as ‘former people’) virtually starved to death, or had to become ‘proletarianised’. Only the lucky ones escaped Russia in time.

In the case of individuals like Shchukin, one holds one’s breath to see his date of death: any date between 1918 and 1921 might suggest that a person had not been able to escape Russia in time, and might have suffered terribly as a result. Mercifully, Shchukin’s dates indicate that he did survive; he died in 1936. His collection, however, did not remain in his possession, but did survive to become a collection for ordinary people to see.

How and when did Shchukin engineer his escape? It appears that the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917 did not immediately alarm him, because he did not quit Russia at this point, possibly because he was reassured by the raft of genuinely liberal legislation passed by the Bolsheviks in October-December 1917, before the astringencies of civil war and foreign encirclement forced them to adopt a harsher stance. For example, the Bolsheviks decreed equal rights for all nationalities and religions in their empire. It is fascinating that Shchukin’s decision to flee dates to August 1918, a point at which the Civil War was well under way and when the regime was adopting more forceful measures. Since the Bolsheviks had sealed the borders, Shchukin must surely have used his wealth, his influence and his ingenuity to escape the country.

Historian Rosamund Bartlett takes up the story at this point:

“Just before the outbreak of war, Shchukin had married for the second time, and in August 1918 he left Bolshevik Russia in secret, eventually settling with his wife and their young daughter in Paris, having bid farewell to both his business and his paintings. A few months later his collection was nationalised, and it opened to the public as the State Museum for New Western Painting No. 1 in May 1920. Two years later it was merged with the State Museum for New Western Painting No. 2, becoming known as the State Museum of New Western Art, which comprised the much larger collection put together between 1903 and 1914 by Shchukin’s fellow merchant patron Ivan Morozov, and that of Morozov’s deceased elder brother Mikhail. In 1928, Shchukin’s paintings were physically moved out of the old Trubetskoy Palace, with some even being transferred to the Hermitage in Leningrad in the early 1930s. By the time Shchukin died in 1936, as an emigré in straitened circumstances, unable and unwilling to continue his vocation as a major collector of new art, his name had virtually disappeared in Russia. In the harsh anti-cosmopolitan climate inaugurated by Stalin at the conclusion of the Second World War, it became dangerous even to mention Shchukin’s name. The State Museum of New Western Art never reopened, and the Shchukin and Morozov collections were divided by curators anxious to prevent their destruction, with the more avant-garde works going to the Hermitage and the rest allocated to the Pushkin Museum in Moscow. It was only after Stalin’s death that some of the paintings began to be displayed again, but their provenance remained a tightly-kept secret until the era of perestroika and glasnost.”[6]

Study (known as the Picasso Room) in Shchukin’s house, 1913

Look out for Michael’s in-depth review of the exhibition to be published in the coming weeks. He is particularly excited to see Paul Gauguin’s The Month of Mary, 1899, (pictured, top) which is the only Gauguin in the exhibition primarily due to the fact that most of his works were painted on very cheap, coarse fabrics, and are so fragile that they can no longer travel. In a delightful irony, Gauguin himself did have a brief but direct connection with Sydney. He stopped over here in both 1891 and 1895 on his way to Tahiti, and would at least have seen Circular Quay, if not more of the city and possibly the Art Gallery of NSW.

The Masters of modern art from the Hermitage exhibition is open from October 13, 2018, to March 3, 2019, at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Single tickets are at a cost of $28 adult, $24 concession and $20 member. More details on the exhibition are available at


References used in this article:

[1] For further information regarding Durand-Ruel as ‘the father of Impressionism’, see the recent catalogue, Paul Durand-Ruel. The Gamble of Impressionism (Paris: Luxembourg Museum, 2015).

[2] See: Rosamund Bartlett, ‘The revolutionary collector who changed the course of Russian art’, in: Apollo Magazine, 17 October 2016. View at:

[3] Rosamund Bartlett, ‘The revolutionary collector who changed the course of Russian art’, in: Apollo Magazine, 17 October 2016.

[4] Ibid.

[5] See, for example, Robert Bell, Ballets Russes. The Art of Costume (Canberra: National Gallery of Australia, 2010).

[6] See:

Takht-i Suleiman: a mysterious Fire-Temple high in the Zagros Mountains of Iran

High in the Zagros mountains, that vast limestone range running some 1600 km from north-west to south-east, essentially separating Iran from Iraq, lies one of the most remarkable (and little known) sites of ancient Persia. Concealed by some of the highest mountains in the Zagros Range and thus hidden from the European world for some 1000 years or more, Takht-i Suleiman was only “rediscovered” in 1819 by the inveterate Scottish traveller (as well as author, artist and diplomat) Sir Robert Ker Porter.

The Zagros Mountains

With its plentiful and permanent supply of water, fertile valleys, oak and pistachio forests (which to the south are still extensive despite the deforestation), wild wheat and barley, and once-abundant game it is not surprising that the Zagros range was home both to Early Man (Neanderthals) and some of the first villages of the Neolithic Period (c. 8000–4000 BCE)—the era when permanent settlements first evolved as a result of the beginnings of domestication of plants and animals. As we travel through the Zagros today (especially picturesque in early spring with its serrated mountain peaks still covered with snow and its valleys full of new green shoots and thick stands of red anemones, or in autumn when green foliage gives way to a wonderful variety of yellow, browns, and mauves) we pass through numerous villages that have changed little through the millennia. On the roofs of their mud-brick houses, we see large mounds of chaff drying out for the winter months when they will be used to feed the snow-bound herds of sheep and goats. During these cold, bleak months many of the houses still rely on heat from burning the cakes of animal dung that lie in orderly piles within the courtyards. Each village usually has a rudimentary mosque, often situated next to a small cemetery whose simple earth mounds cover the remains of generations of villagers who have rarely travelled far from the place of their birth.

A Zagros village

Originally known as Ganzak (Middle Persian) or Shiz (Arabic), Takht-i Suleiman (“throne of Solomon”) was given its current (Biblical/Quranic) name after the Arab conquest—probably in Safavid times— as happened to many pre-Islamic sites.

Although probably an important religious centre in earlier times, for traces of Achaemenid (pottery, arrowheads, beads) and Parthian (fortification remains) occupation are present, Takht-i Suleiman reached its apogee during the Sasanian period (c. 224–650 CE) when Zorastrianism had become the state religion. By late Sasanian times it was home to the important Fire Temple of the King and Warriors as is demonstrated by the recovery during archaeological excavations of clay bullae or seals bearing this title (Atur Gushnasp). The temple with its now collapsed dome supported by four arches (chahar taq), low altar, and side chamber where the eternal fire that was such an important feature of Zoroastrian ritual may have been tended, forms the central core of the religious structures in the northern part of the complex.

Takht-i Suleiman village in foreground; the site in background
Takht-i Suleiman: Fire Temple of the King and Warriors

Today Takht-i Suleiman is still defended on its flat-topped hill by an impressive buttressed wall with its well-cut stone masonry in header-and-stretcher technique preserved to a height of over five metres. The wall encircles not only the Sasanian religious complex but also, in the southern sector, the Ilkhanid (descendants of the Mongols) hunting lodge that succeeded it in the 13th century (see below).

Takht-i Suleiman: Sasanian south gate
Takht-i Suleiman: columnar hall of Sasanian palace

As well as the Atur Gushnasp, within the Sasanian religious complex that is enclosed on three sides by a rectangular casemate (hollow on the interior) wall are numerous rubble-and-mortar structures (many of obscure function) including a large columnar hall—probably part of the palace of the Sasanian king—entering into a small fire temple (possibly a private place of worship for the royal family), as well as a large shrine of well-cut ashlar masonry supporting eight brick arches (hasht taq) commonly attributed to the Zoroastrian deity Anahita, goddess of water. That Anahita should have a temple here in the middle of the Zagros Range may seem unusual but not when we note the “bottomless” lake (now shown to be at least 120 metres deep) that, framed by four iwans, forms the centre of this remarkable complex. This astonishing natural feature, which no doubt is what attracted the first visitors to the site, has a continuous flow of warm water that empties via stone channels down the hillsides into the fields below. The water itself is highly mineralised, accounting for the build-up of deposits on the lake’s edge thus forming a natural basin.

Takht-i Suleiman: the “bottomless” lake

During Sasanian times Takht-i Sukeiman was always an important place of Zoroastrian pilgrimage; in fact it is said that after the coronation of a new Sasanian ruler at Ctesiphon (the Sasanian capital now in modern-day Iraq), the newly crowned king was required to perform a pilgrimage (on foot!) into the Zagros to worship there.

As a result of the fierce and debilitating wars between Sasanians and Byzantines during the earlier 7th century (being one of the main factors that led to the Arab conquest), much of Takht-i Suleiman was looted and destroyed by the Byzantine emperor Heraclius. Although following its sack, the site now only occupied by squatters, seems to have continued to attract sporadic pilgrims, its great days as a religious centre were over.

Astonishingly however, it was resurrected during the 13th century as an Ilkhanid minor palace. Known then as Sugurluk  (“place abounding in marmots”) it also served as a hunting lodge for these animals (highly prized for their fur) for the Ilkhanid aristocracy. Fortunately for lovers of Antiquity, most of the Ilkhanid remains, including an audience hall (now the site museum) and impressive eight-and twelve-sided rooms (imitating Mongol tents or gers?) were constructed to the south of the complex, thus sparing the Sasanian remains.

Takht-i Suleiman: Ilkhanid eight-sided stone “tent”

However, to the north, within the Sasanian structures, we see the remains of a pottery workshop and kilns (although some scholars would interpret them as the surviving parts of a hammam) reminding us that at least some of the lavish tile decoration that, along with richly painted plaster, covered the Ilkhanid walls were manufactured at Takht-i Suleiman itself.  Many of these tiles are in a lustre-ware technique of the highest quality with often a combination of Mongol (dragons, phoenixes) and Persian (hunting scenes and quotations from the Shahnameh, Persia’s national epic) motifs.  Sadly, most of the tiles from Takht-i Suleiman have long since been removed, finding their way into private and museum collections.  A small selection, however, can be seen in the former Ilkhanid audience hall, now converted to an on-site museum.

For the Ilkhanid elite, Sugurluk /Takht-i Suleiman with its breathtaking mountain amphitheatre, lush pastures and temperate summer climate must have formed a splendid backdrop to days of hunting and nights of song and feasting. These halcyon days, however, were ephemeral for by the end of the fourteenth century when the Ilkhanids had been replaced by Timurid rule, the site once again lay abandoned and largely forgotten.

Sugurluk/Takht-i Suleiman: gilded Ilkhanid tile

Today, the flame that once burned at Takht-i Suleiman has been dimmed for eternity. Its ruins stand as a beacon in the landscape of the Zagros Mountains, discovered by only the most intrepid travellers.

John Russell, Australia’s French Impressionist

Dr. Michael Adcock
Paris Tour Leader
Head of History, Melbourne Grammar School

The Art Gallery of New South Wales has just launched another stellar exhibition, offering a survey of the career and work of one Australian artist in all its freshness and richness. It is complemented by works by other artists that illuminate his links with the development of modern art in France.

Introducing John Peter Russell

For many visitors this exhibition will prove to be a revelation. Some people have commented that they had not been aware of John Peter Russell’s work, and were even more surprised to learn of the important interactions that he had had with no lesser masters of French art than Claude Monet (to whom he played host), Vincent van Gogh (with whom he shared painting rambles in the outskirts of Paris), Auguste Rodin (who became his lifelong epistolary friend and confidante) and Henri Matisse (whom he encouraged to take the revolutionary step of lightening his palette).

Detail of Self-portrait (1886–87), by John Russell

In addition, Russell conveyed important news about artistic developments in Europe to the likes of Tom Roberts and his peers in Australia.

Clearly, there is quite a story here, and it is particularly poignant because the young man who left Australia for London then Paris in 1883 lacked confidence in his skills and underestimated his own abilities.

Yet this is the same young man who settled on the rocky island of Belle-Île, off the coast of Brittany, built a house on the cliff-tops, and devoted his life to capturing the rugged coastline and the savage Atlantic swells that smashed in great storms against the cliffs. Claude Monet has been quoted as stating that Russell’s Belle-Île paintings were better than his own – a compliment not to be taken lightly.

Morning, Cruach en Mahr, Belle-Île-en-Mer (c.1905), by John Russell

Russell went at his profession with a rare dedication. We know that the Impressionists were willing to depict stormy weather: Claude Monet insisted on painting on beaches dangerously close to the surf, and both Monet and van Gogh had a go at painting the rain, a most difficult, fleeting subject. Russell gazumped them all, setting himself the task of painting hail while actually in a hailstorm.

We can imagine him, eagerly observing leaden storm clouds, rushing to an exposed cliff-top when everybody else was rushing for shelter, setting up his easel, readying his brush … until a most violent hail storm engulfed him. The large hail stones came close to shredding his canvas and badly bruised his arms and hands, but he held his ground, persevered and achieved his goal.

Hail storm at Belle-Île (1906) – in the room devoted to his watercolours – depicts large white hailstones and traces their trajectories, making the landscape look more like a battle scene with cannon balls whizzing across the sky. One wonders whether this may be the first, perhaps the only, painting succeeding in depicting a hail storm. (Turner boasted that he had lashed himself to the mast of a sailing ship to witness a violent storm at sea, but that is just plain showing off … For my money, Russell’s the man).

Discovering our ‘expatriate’ painters

Why, then, might John Russell be less familiar to some viewers even today? After all, Elizabeth Salter published her foundation biography The Lost Impressionist as early as 1976, followed by the pioneering exhibition organized in Melbourne in 1977 by Professor Ann Galbally; her catalogue, The Art of John Peter Russell, remains a highly scholarly introduction to the artist’s oeuvre.

The answer might be that our nascent interest in Australian art, especially during the 1970s, tended to be focused on a patriotic love of painters who had captured the essential features of our land, and who had provided a very Australian record of the Australian experience. During that decade, we embraced the works of McCubbin, Roberts, Streeton and Conder with renewed passion; art exhibitions, art publications and popular reproductions made their works more familiar and much loved to the general public.

In this context, it would take us a little longer to discover the ‘other’ artists, those expatriates who went to Europe and stayed for some time. We are now rather more aware of the careers of artists such as Ethel Carrick-Fox and Emmanuel Phillips Fox, who illustrate that other side of Australian art, which was engagement with modernist movements abroad.

Regatta, Rose Bay (1922), by John Russell

The Art Gallery of New South Wales has been proactive in this broadening of our perspective, and first offered an important exhibition curated by Ann Galbally, Belle Île. Monet, Russell and Matisse in Brittany in 2001. This was no mere solo retrospective of Russell’s work: it boldly placed his art in the context of Matisse and Monet, whose works were also shown in that exhibition. This theme was taken up, more broadly, by Elena Taylor, in her exhibition Australian Impressionists in France (National Gallery of Victoria, 2013), which offered a comprehensive survey of our expatriate artists. This current exhibition in 2018 puts the Art Gallery of New South Wales fairly and squarely at the cutting edge of understanding Australian art in an international context.

Rambles with Tom Roberts in Spain

Russell left Sydney and arrived in London in May 1883. Although his destination was Paris, he first allowed himself to join Tom Roberts, William Moloney and his own brother Percy Russell on a sketching tour of Spain. Moloney confirmed that Russell quickly emerged as the natural leader of the group, exercising a genial authority and guidance.

Russell would have been present for the visit to the Alhambra in Spain, when Roberts executed the plein-air paintings (included in the exhibition), one of which Russell bought from his new friend.

The friendships proved durable, and Russell entered into an enduring epistolary relationship with Roberts, sending him numerous letters about the development of his aesthetics and practice. In this respect, he continued to be an important conduit of information about developments in Europe to his colleague in Australia.

The revelation of Impressionism

Russell arrived in Paris when the great Impressionist exhibitions were drawing to a close, and when the Neo-Impressionism (or Pointillism) of Seurat and Signac was gaining ground.

The exhibition includes a number of Impressionist works, including a selection of Russell’s masterly portraits. We may take these painter-portraits for granted, but in the 1870s and 1880s the friendly, informal, collegial portrait was a relatively new genre practiced by the Impressionists as an expression of both bonhomie and solidarity. Russell picked up and perfected this practice.

His Portrait of Dr. Will Maloney (1887, National Gallery of Victoria) is well-known, but looking more closely at Russell’s treatment of the sitter’s pink shirt reveals how radical it was. It is so vigorously brushed that the pigment takes on a life of its own, independent of its descriptive function. His Portrait of Dodge MacKnight (1887-1888, Private Collection), rarely seen before, is even more breathtakingly assured in its execution.

Portrait of Dr. Will Maloney (1887), by John Russell

The most novel, innovative and remarkable portrait in the exhibition, however, is Madame Sisley on the Banks of the Loing at Moret, (1887), a real treasure belonging to the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Russell visited the Sisleys at their home in Moret, and devised a most unusual composition depicting Sisley’s wife seen from behind, and against a riverine landscape that has been cunningly disarticulated, with a magnificent study of chalky cliff in the background.

The composition is willfully disconcerting, and we now know why: Russell would have been shown his colleagues’ collections of Japanese woodblock prints, and encouraged to buy his own, and now he is here experimenting with a deliberately off-centre composition.

Russell and japonisme

The story of japonisme is well-known in the history of Impressionism. It began with a fad: wealthy ladies in Paris became enamoured of ‘exotic’ styles – Chinese, Japanese, Turkish – and soon found themselves designing whole rooms in the Japanese style, even dressing themselves up in the Japanese costume (see Monet’s gorgeous Portrait of Camille, not in the exhibition).

All this might have remained merely a fad, had it not been for chance. French importers of Japanese ceramics placed orders, and the Japanese factories wrapped their ceramics – in the days before bubble wrap – in scrunched copies of Japanese woodblock prints. Parisian artists could not afford the ceramics, but they were fascinated by the woodblock prints, which they flattened out and studied with amazement. The art dealers were disappointed when the painters left the ceramic vases and took the wrapping paper…

The radical compositional devices of Japanese art inspired painters as diverse as Manet, Degas and Monet, who emulated their unusual points of view and the radical cropping of objects. Freshly arrived in Paris, Russell could not have failed to notice the vogue, and during 1886-1887 tried his hand at a number of studies of blossom trees, such as Almond Trees in Bloom (c. 1887, Private Collection.)

Almond tree in blossom (c.1887), by John Russell

The exhibition brings together a number of these paintings in one section, including some rarely-seen works from private collections. Visitors might never have seen, for example, the magisterial Mme. Russell with almond trees (c. 1887, Private Collection).

A trusted friend of Auguste Rodin

One very exciting part of the exhibition is a special platform devoted to a display of Rodin’s sculptures of Marianna, Russell’s beautiful Italian wife. Russell aspired to have a portrait of Marianna done by Rodin to commemorate their impending marriage, but heard, to his dismay, that the master was not doing any private commissions – no matter how lucrative – because he was working on his great official commissions, notably The Gates of Hell.

Undeterred, Russell asked a fellow artist for a letter of introduction, and a grudging Rodin agreed to see them. Quite unexpectedly, he agreed to do the portrait. This might have been because he had truly found in Russell a kindred spirit, but there may have been another reason: the cunning old fox took one look at Marianna, appreciated the classical beauty of her face, and realised that she would be an ideal (unpaid) model for any future sculpture with a classical theme.

This story has vital links with our own Australian collections: the Queensland Art Gallery, amazingly, possesses the original wax model by Rodin of Marianna’s head (not included in this exhibition), while the National Gallery of Victoria has his marble version of Minerva without helmet, a classical subject clearly modeled on Marianna (included in the exhibition). It is therefore most moving to see the actual portrait bust, cast in silver, that Russell finally commissioned and received.

The attraction of Belle-Île

To truly appreciate the work of both Monet and Russell, we need to understand that Belle-Île was quite the opposite of what its name suggests. It is not so much beautiful as wild; so bleak, elemental and wild in fact that Henri Matisse could not initially cope with it, nor could August Rodin, and they went back gratefully to the sheltered world of Paris.

Many painters had instead gone to mainland Normandy seeking tame beach scenes and charming ‘peasant’ or ‘fisherfolk’ scenes, while Gauguin had gone to Brittany seeking his dream of a ‘primitive’ lifestyle, before seeking more ‘primitive’ cultures in the corrupted environment of colonial Tahiti.

Belle-Île was a step too far, the elements just too elemental, the charming tourist scenes lacking. This was an uncompromisingly tough coastline, whipped and pulverized by Atlantic gales. It would take artists of unusual vision to revel in such bleakness.

Monet and Belle-Île

It may at first seem surprising that Monet should have elected to visit this island. On reflection, however, it is not so very astonishing. Monet loved his quiet scenes beside the water lily ponds at Giverny and the mist-laden mornings on the Seine, but there was part of him that compelled him towards the raw, the wild and the savage.

We are most familiar with his paintings of the sun-drenched fields around Giverny – how many postcards, calendars, even tea-towels! – but look up his less well-known series done in the Creuse Valley in France. Or the series he made in the depths of winter in Norway (not shown in this exhibition). There is to be seen here a more stern, stoic Monet, testing himself out against harsh and uncompromising landscapes.

In this context it is not surprising that Monet reveled in Belle-Île; it is a matter of great joy that the Art Gallery of New South Wales should possess a splendid painting of Port Goulphar, Belle-Île, which is arguably of more interest than any number of Giverny waterlily paintings, attractive those these may be. Our national collections do indeed harbor some unsung masterpieces.

Detail of Port-Goulphar, Belle-Île, (1887) by Claude Monet

In this section of the exhibition you’ll also find a compelling set of raw, powerful paintings of the great needles of rock visible off the coast of Belle-Île. Monet had taken one look at them and had started painting, inspired by Japanese woodblock prints of jagged rocks seen from above. Russell followed suit, inspired equally by the example of Monet and of the Japanese art. There is nothing pretty or picturesque here, merely a sense of monumental size and solidity of the rocks set against Atlantic tempests.

Antibes, 1890-1892

Russell also took his cue from Monet in following his example and seeking out a quite different maritime environment at Antibes in France. Monet and other Impressionists, such as Renoir, were enchanted by the coastline and by the brilliant Mediterranean light; Monet’s ‘series’ paintings done at Antibes are almost lambent in their hit luminosity.

By the time Russell made his way to Antibes, he was in full command of his powers. One section of the exhibition brings together a number of Russell’s Antibes paintings, and these works assume the same symphonic grandeur and painterly assurance as in Monet’s works.

In The Bay of Nice (1891, National Gallery of Australia), Russell uses a monumental canvas, and creates a ‘step’ into the scene of a foreground with three bushes in sunlight, their foliage rendered in explosive centrifugal brushstrokes. Here, he uses a high-keyed palette, with thick encrustations of pigment in yellow, orange, pink and touches of red. The sea is beautifully variegated: close to the shore, it is blue-green, with the dominant strokes of green moderated by superimpositions of blue; further out, the sea deepens to a pure blue. Above, the sky is a curious, almost acidic green tone. Typically, the further shore is rendered in mauve-to-purple shadows, backed by the crenellated ridges of the Maritime Alps, white with snow.

Landscape, Antibes, The Bay of Nice, (1891), by John Russell

Some of these works are from public collections, especially Canberra and Queensland, and are familiar, but seen en masse together, supplemented by completely fresh works out of private collections, they assume enormous cogency and beauty.

Another bonus from this exhibition is being able to view a number of works from French collections: the Orsay Museum, Paris, owns a major clutch of Russell’s works, and these are lent to the Museum of Morlaix as an artistic ‘deposit’. We have every reason to feel grateful that this ‘deposit’ has been sent on to us in Sydney, where we may more conveniently view them!

Wild seas, c. 1900

Later in his career, about 1900, Russell embarked upon an ambitious and remarkable series of paintings that were clearly intended to capture a true sense of the elemental force of the great waves that pounded the coast of the island. Six of these are brought together in Sydney, displayed upon a long curving wall, where their unison has a powerful effect, magnified by the fact that the Gallery has arranged for Debussy’s La Mer to be played over the speakers in this room.

Detail of Rough sea, Morestil, (c.1900), by John Russell

Once again, many of these wonderful works, such as Rough Sea, Morestil (c. 1900), have come out of private collections, and so they provide completely fresh insights into Russell’s campaign of work. In this painting, he now uses long, curving, heavily stylized lines of light blue and white paint, which mimic the vast swell and surge of a wave as it crashes onto the coast in a ruin of foam.

Coda: Later work, c. 1907

We might leave him and Marianna with the glorious image of Madame Russell among flowers in the Garden of Port Goulphar, Belle-Île (1907, Orsay Museum, Paris).

Mrs Russell among the flowers in the garden of Goulphar, Belle-Île (1907), by John Russell

This image of his beloved wife in the garden she created is a riot of colour: the figure is relegated to the back of the garden, allowing the mass of flowers to explode into an independent tapestry of paint made up of large splotches of pure colour. We know from daughter Jeanne’s memoirs that there were hollyhocks, carnations and Spanish Broom. Not a single plant is identifiable, yet the essence of the garden is captured.


For further information on the exhibtion

Dates: July 21 – November 11, 2018
Tickets: $20 adult. $18 concession. $16 member.
Location: Art Gallery Rd, Sydney NSW 2000


Further reading for your interest

Ann Galbally, Belle Île. Monet, Russell and Matisse in Brittany
(Sydney: Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2001).

Ann Galbally, The Art of John Peter Russell
(Melbourne: Sun Books, 1977).

Ann Galbally, A Remarkable Friendship: Vincent van Gogh and John Peter Russell
(Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 2008).

Elizabeth Salter, The Lost Impressionist
(Melbourne: Angus and Robertson, 1976).

Elena Taylor, Australian Impressionists in France
(Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria, 2013).

Wayne Tunnicliffe, John Russell. Australia’s French Impressionist
(Sydney: Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2018).

Mid-century modernism in the most unexpected place

Travellers on our tours to New York over the past 12 months have been enjoying the latest smash-hit Broadway musical, Come From Away, which tells the story of the role played by Gander, Newfoundland, and its international airport (IATA code: YQX), in the days following the 9/11 terrorist attacks of 2001. Apart from being a wonderful musical, it raises the obvious question: why Gander? Answering this question offers a fascinating insight into the development of air travel and − an added bonus − reveals a masterpiece of mid-century modernist architecture.

The evolution of air travel can be traced back to the early “daredevils”, and was rapidly developed due to the military needs imposed by World War II. The glamorous days of the 50’s and 60’s followed, ending with the “superliners” that we take for granted today. Just in the past 40 years we have gone from a 2 or 3-stop flight between Australia and the United Kingdom, with pull-down movie screens and smoking sections, to non-stop services with individual entertainment, flatbeds, pyjamas and in some cases even showers. The history of the Gander International Airport follows this same evolution and is a wonderful case study of the development of modern air travel.

The Canadian province of Newfoundland is the most easterly point of the North American continent with its own time zone, and thus the closest to Europe, so it made sense that the early pioneer aviators would take off or land there when planning to cross the Atlantic Ocean. John Alcock and Arthur Whitten Brown completed the first non-stop trans-Atlantic flight from Newfoundland to Ireland in June 1919 − in a modified Vickers Vimy bomber − and were presented with a prize by then Secretary of State for Air, Winston Churchill. For the next two decades nearly 100 successful trans-Atlantic flights took off or landed in Newfoundland. Amelia Earhart was the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic from Newfoundland to England in 1928.

Up to 50 further attempts have been estimated during this period, with 40 lives lost. The British Government − it wasn’t until 1931 that the Statute of Westminster removed British parliamentary power over Canada − noted the importance of these flights and commissioned an airfield in 1935. The first flight landed at the Newfoundland Airport, as it was then, in 1938. The town of Gander was nothing more than a group of service buildings between the runways.

The importance of the airfield came to the fore during World War II. When the Lend-Lease policy (or, more formally, An Act to Promote the Defense of the United States) was enacted by President Roosevelt in 1941, warplanes were among the major items needed by Britain. These were initially shipped across the Atlantic, as they were still unable to fly the distance required.

But the effectiveness of the Nazi U-Boat blockade saw more planes sinking than making it to Britain. Lord Beaverbrook, the UK Minister of Aircraft Production and himself a Canadian by origin, oversaw the modification of the aircraft with extra fuel tanks so they could be flown across the Atlantic. The Royal Air Force Ferry Command was formed in July 1941, and the Royal Canadian Air Force Station (RCAF) Gander became the jumping-off point: civilian pilots flew the aircraft to the UK, and then they were ferried home – hopefully avoiding the U-Boats! With US entry into the war in December 1941, the United States Army Air Force Transport Command began similar ferrying services from Gander.

Over the course of the war more than 9,000 aircraft flew out of Gander − Churchill has been reported as describing Newfoundland as the largest aircraft carrier in the Atlantic Ocean. More importantly, crossing the Atlantic had become a routine flight operation and led directly to the development of scheduled commercial air travel across the ocean. On 24 October 1945, the first scheduled commercial trans-Atlantic flight, an American Overseas Airlines DC-4, passed through Gander.

With the end of the war, the RCAF handed control of the airfield back to the provincial government and the “township” was moved further away from the airfields. The airport’s name was changed to Gander International Airport by the federal government, after Newfoundland joined Canada in 1949.

During the 1950’s and 60’s most people still travelled between America and Europe by ship, but for heads of state and those who could afford the cost, the glamour of air travel proved irresistible. Airlines such as Pan Am and TWA began to use the large former military airfields. During the 1950’s and the Cold War, Gander became an important stop for flights between Communist countries in Europe and Cuba: these flights were unable to use US airspace. Aeroflot, the Soviet carrier, had ground staff permanently based at Gander, as did other airlines such as Lufthansa, Air France and BOAC. At the time, Gander was the most cosmopolitan town in Canada – but it was still only a town centred around the airport.

One flight between Moscow and Havana, in December 1952, saw Fidel Castro stuck in transit for several hours. He asked some locals to take him on a tour of the town. Upon seeing some boys sledding in the snow, he asked to try it too, and a famous photo taken by one of the locals ended up appearing in Time magazine.

Because Gander was a stop in the West, during the Cold War a significant number of travellers from Warsaw Pact nations defected there. These included Soviet chess-player and pianist Igor Vasilyevich Ivanov in 1980, Cuban Olympic swimmer Rafael Polinario, and the Vietnamese woman famously photographed as a naked girl fleeing a napalmed village, Phan Thi Kim Phuc, in 1992. Phuc had been granted permission by the Vietnamese government to continue her medical studies in Cuba, where she met her fiancée. On the way to their honeymoon in Moscow, they left the plane while it was being refuelled at Gander and applied for political asylum. This was granted and Phuc now lives near Toronto.

To cater for the increase in passenger traffic, and to provide an introduction to Canada for air travellers to North America, the newly-formed Canadian Department of Transport commissioned new airport terminals at most major cities.

Gander was the first to undergo a facelift, thanks not only to its gateway status but also because it was a major source of income: all airlines and travellers paid arrival taxes. As this was still the period of glamourous air travel, the terminal was built to showcase a cutting-edge modernity. Features of modern architecture and design were incorporated, along with artworks and contemporary furniture. A significant requirement was that all items were to be primarily designed and manufactured in Canada.

The utilitarian exterior has none of the obvious hallmarks of an architectural wonder, however the terminal’s interior is a veritable time-capsule of late 1950’s style.

The two striking art features are Art Price’s Birds of Welcome sculpture and a 22-metre-long mural, Flights and its Allegories by Kenneth Lochhead. It was painted in situ in egg tempera and Lochhead is estimated to have used over 500 dozen eggs to paint the mural!


The terrazzo floor designed by Robin Bush is a homage to Mondrian – children are rumoured to have used it for hopscotch – and the mid-century furniture (mainly Canadian originals, as mandated) is impeccably arranged along its axes. Bush also designed the Prismasteel seating for Herman Miller: the original aluminium chairs by Ray and Charles Eames in the dining room are long gone, but the duo’s fibreglass chairs are still featured in the Ladies Powder Room. These seats have been graced by the bottoms of celebrities and royalty, from Marilyn Monroe to Queen Elizabeth!

Another modern touch is the first escalator installed in Canada, in the main departure lounge.

There is a good reason why this time-capsule has been preserved, and not renovated or replaced as in so many other airport terminals. Within only a couple of years of Gander’s opening, planes could fly directly between New York and Europe without needing to refuel. There was no need to land in Gander anymore, so apart from the Eastern Bloc flights, the airport was barely used during the 1970’s and 80’s.

The guest list of the V.I.P. room reads like a who’s who of 20th-century arts, ideas and politics. The Beatles first set foot on North American soil at Gander. Frank Sinatra tried to queue-jump at the bar and was asked to wait his turn. Jackie O, Churchill, Khrushchev, Marlene Dietrich, the King of Sweden, Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon, Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, Ingrid Bergman – there are encyclopedia-size registers with lists of famous signatures.

Gander is still in use today. It’s an emergency landing field for flights across the Atlantic, and this is why it was part of the post-9/11 response. When all American airspace was closed, all flights currently in the air had to be diverted. Gander played host to 38 airlines, with their 6,122 passengers and 473 crewmembers − not merely for several hours, but for several days! The story of how the townsfolk of Gander housed and fed so many people forms the basis of the musical, Come From Away. It’s easy to see why the heart-warming story particularly resonates in New York City.

In April 2014, the Gander International Airport Authority (GIAA) announced plans to replace its existing terminal with a smaller, more efficient building. The rationale was simple: a new terminal building could accommodate three times the current capacity in the critical areas of arrivals and departures. This would dramatically reduce operating costs.

This news set the heritage and design communities abuzz. Within days, freshly-minted Facebook sites implored the Canadian government and the GIAA to “save Gander’s International Terminal.” An online petition quickly garnered more than a thousand signatures, and by July, multiple nominations had earned the building a spot on Heritage Canada’s 2014 list of the nation’s top ten endangered places. The long-term mayor of Gander, Claude Elliott (also one of the main characters in the Broadway musical) has promised that the terminal will remain intact during his lifetime.

You’re very unlikely to visit Gander International Airport today. It’s only reached on scheduled services by twin prop aircraft from St Johns, and the gigantic runway predominantly handles cargo and military planes. It’s not unusual to see soldiers in fatigues, returning from Iraq or Afghanistan, reclining on the modular furniture. Private jets do stop regularly to refuel: John Travolta, Mariah Carey and Bill and Hillary Clinton are among recent visitors to the V.I.P. suite. And Gander is also an emergency drop-off point for air-rage passengers.

If you do manage to get to Gander, there’s now a glass corridor allowing visitors to view the international terminal. The next best thing is of course, if you’re in New York, to go and see Come from Away.

The Colours of Impressionism shine out in Adelaide

By Dr Michael Adcock
Tour Leader, Paris

The ‘Colours of Impressionism’ exhibition at the Art Gallery of South Australia offers a most novel and interesting insight into an art movement that is already well-known to many. Unlike the wonderful Orsay blockbuster exhibitions held previously in Melbourne and Canberra, this is a more manageable exhibition of just 65 highly significant works, and it is focused almost exclusively upon the development of Impressionism and Neo-Impressionism.

The Impressionist movement in France

Visitors will be well familiar with the subjects and styles of Impressionist paintings, if only because they are now so highly valued by museums and are also extensively reproduced commercially. These works are attractive because their subjects, drawn from everyday life, are generally pleasant and genial, and because their bright colours work wondrously to replicate the sense of open air and sunlight. Indeed, there is even a danger that some viewers might misjudge such paintings as merely ‘pretty’.

This, however, was not at all the purpose of the Impressionist movement, and it is worth pausing to remind ourselves what this generation of painters was really aiming to do. Like all names of art movements, the term ‘Impressionism’ is a broad generalisation that sits uncomfortably upon a very diverse group of painters, all of whom exhibited together on eight occasions between 1874 and 1886, and then went their own ways. Once we start to unpack an art-movement name, it tends to fall apart in our hands in a mass of contradictions. Our definition of Impressionism must perforce be – no pun intended – ‘broad brush’.

Themes: ‘The Heroism of Modern Life’

The Impressionists’ common goals were based first on the radicalisation of subject matter: instead of painting subjects drawn from classical history, Graeco-Roman mythology or religion – the ‘noble’ subjects that sold so well at the annual Paris Salon art exhibition – they depicted the modern world around them. In this, they were guided by the poet-critic Charles Baudelaire who, in a seminal essay, The Painter of Modern Life, had urged painters to record what he called ‘the heroism of modern life’; that is, to see everyday reality as being every bit as interesting as some confabulated scene from the classics.

Techniques: Painting in the open air

The Impressionists’ second goal was a technical one, namely, to capture both the modern city and the rural landscape, as well as effects of light and atmosphere, by direct observation. Two painters, in particular, were instrumental in introducing the young generation of painters to painting en plein air (in the open air): these were Johann-Barthold Jongkind and Eugène Boudin. In particular, it was Boudin who noticed a young artist wasting his talents doing caricatural drawings of local citizens, and tetchily urged him to pick up a paintbrush, go to the Normandy coast, and actually paint a real landscape. The young man who meekly obeyed this advice was named Claude Monet, and the rest is history… Jongkind and Boudin are routinely mentioned in art books as important precursors of Impressionism, but this is to forget that they continued painting as the Impressionist movement developed. Fortunately, there are works by both men in this exhibition, and they are of breathtaking quality. Just have a look at Boudin’s Etretat, The Amont Cliff, with its splendid study of bright sunlight illuminating the limestone face of the cliff.

Eugène Boudin’s Etretat, The Amont Cliff, 1896

Explaining Impressionism in terms of ‘colour themes’

The Adelaide exhibition is also new and stimulating because it does not use the traditional chronological approach to an art movement, but examines the movement in thematic terms of the use of colour. This is done in a most savant manner, and one senses some very deep curatorial minds at work behind the thoughtful sequencing of the works on the walls. This is one of the most innately intelligent – and thought-provoking – exhibition layouts one might have seen in many years.

Colour theme: Impressionist Black

The first section of the exhibition is devoted to an unusual tone for Impressionism: black. Have a look at Manet’s stunning The Port of Boulogne, a nocturne done from the balcony of his hotel room overlooking the harbour. Look closely and deeply at the paint surface, and see the wonderful, untidy, rag-like patches of pure black for shadow and of whitish-silver for moonlight.

Edouard Manet’s Moonlight Over The Port Of Boulogne, 1869

Colour theme: Impressionist ‘Bright’ Painting

The second section again acknowledges that the ‘bright’ painting of the Impressionists had precursors in earlier artists, notably the great landscapist Camille Corot, and humbler painters, such as the genial Stanislas Lépine, both of whom are represented by beautiful works in the exhibition. But the ‘bright’ painting triumphed in the 1870s, when Sisley, Pissarro and Monet attained a luminous mastery of atmosphere, as seen in Monet’s Argenteuil and Sisley’s masterly Boat During the Flood at Port-Marly.

Alfred Sisley’s Boat During the Flood at Port-Marly, 1876

Colour theme: Impressionist White – The myriad colours of snow

The third section again avoids the cliché of Impressionist sunlight, and focuses instead on white. Needless to say, there is a rich array here of important works by the major artists: Monet, Renoir, Sisley and Pissarro. It is a delightful experience to sit on one of the circular couches in the rooms and simply immerse oneself, letting one’s eyes travel slowly over the breathtaking paint surface of Monet’s masterly early work The Magpie. As we gaze into three extraordinary landscapes by Sisley – including the lyrical Snow at Louveciennes – we realise that the key quality of snow is that it is not just white, but a rich tapestry of fleeting colours, with deep blue shadows in the depths of the snowfall.

Claude Monet’s The Magpie, 1868–1869

Colour theme: Of Greens and Blues

The fourth section of the exhibition is called ‘Greens and Blues’, which brings us to the Impressionist landscapes with which we are most familiar. All of these works are astonishing in their sheer proficiency, but two in particular stand out. Monet’s Corner of the Apartment is a compelling view of the interior of Monet’s second house at Argenteuil, with his young son, Jean, standing in a secluded space lit by the bluish light coming through a curtained window. The use of deep blue on the parquetry floor has a poignant lyricism and a tonal intensity that are exceptional in Monet’s work.

Claude Monet’s A Corner of the Apartment, 1875

Equally compelling is Auguste Renoir’s quite exceptional Field of Banana Trees. Renoir’s landscapes generally do have a pleasing, genial quality, but this canvas has a raw power, a primal celebration of foliage in itself, with no attempt to compose a pretty scene; it is, in fact, an untidy jumble of opulent foliage. What has happened to this painter of charming landscapes? The answer is that Renoir had just had an experience that the French would call ‘bouleversant’, or astonishing. He had recently finished the iconic The Luncheon of the Boating Party, which he sold to the eminent dealer and collector Paul Durand-Ruel for a very substantial sum. Exhausted, he used the ample funds to take himself to Algiers, where he experienced the revelation of the brilliant light of the Mediterranean. In this work, there is no concern at all for the picturesque or the exotic, just primal response of an artist to an overwhelming and intense visual impression, with a glimpse of the city of Algiers in the distance, dissolved in a white glare of intense sunlight.

Auguste Renoir’s Field of Banana Trees, 1881

From Eugène Delacroix to Neo-Impressionism

The fifth section of the exhibition introduces us to another quite magical aspect of Impressionism, a later offshoot known both as Neo-Impressionism or – sometimes – by one of its key techniques, divisionism. Painters such as Georges Seurat, Paul Signac and Charles Angrand adopted scientific theories regarding light and colour, and attempted to translate them into a more disciplined form of Impressionism, in which the large, gestural strokes of the Impressionists were replaced by very small dots of paint or, in some cases, small, luminous ‘tiles’ or ‘plaques’ of paint. Of these artists, Georges Seurat is perhaps the most famous, and we are privileged to have some of his wonderful small oil sketches here in Australia. Paul Signac’s large painting, The Palace of the Popes, is almost incandescent in tone. Possibly the most radical of all is a tiny painting by Charles Angrand, Haystacks in Normandy, in which the solid forms of grain stacks are subsumed in light, dematerialised to the point that they have no mass, no texture and virtually no outline, emerging as diaphanous, luminous ghosts from the white heat of the field.

Paul Signac’s The Papal Palace, Avignon, 1900

Pink and Purple: Is there such a thing as a ‘woman’ Impressionist?

This section of the exhibition is a broad church, seeking to acknowledge other aspects of Impressionism, such as the late work of Monet, and the stupendous works of Paul Cézanne. Both of these male painters are by now icons in the history of art, and require little introduction.

It is gratifying that this room also includes two works by Berthe Morisot, including The Hydrangea, thus acknowledging the place of women in the Impressionist movement. Morisot herself used paint with such freedom that it almost seems to fall of the canvas, and yet her painterly touch has a devastating assurance. This is a good acknowledgement of the role of women in the Impressionist movement, but it would have been even more satisfying to see other Impressionists, such as Mary Cassatt and Marie Bracquemond, acknowledged as well. In addition, it would be wonderful to see them listed in art books not as Women Impressionists, but simply as Impressionists pure and simple. Their sex is utterly irrelevant: they are simply brilliant painters. We never refer to their male counterparts as Male Impressionists, so why create a sub-category of ‘female’ Impressionists?

Berthe Morisot’s The Hydrangea, 1894

Paintings that puzzle and intrigue the viewer

Visitors might be intrigued to notice that there are also some paintings in this exhibition that are not, in traditional art history, considered strictly Impressionist. But this is exactly what the Orsay museum’s vision is all about: it aims to ‘show us the 19th century whole’, by putting the great masterpieces of today’s consciousness amongst works by artists once famous but now largely forgotten. It is arguable that we can only truly understand the boldness of the Impressionist style when we have looked carefully at the slick, almost photographic detail of formal Salon paintings in the ‘official’ academic style.

Signs of the times: The birth of the modern bathroom

For example, the name of the painter Alfred Stevens may be unfamiliar to some visitors, and his careful style of painting seems to belong to the more conservative tradition; no bright colours or splashy brushstrokes here! But he was in fact associated with a most interesting modernist group that preceded the Impressionist movement of the 1860s, and included Manet, Legros and Fantin-Latour. Stevens was a mate of Manet, and even tried his hand at some scenes of modern life.

The remarkable work in the exhibition, The Bath, for example, is deceptively familiar to the modern viewer, because we are now so accustomed to having formal bathrooms in our homes. But in 1867, when this canvas was painted, this sort of bathroom represented ‘the shock of the new’, and was an astonishing and novel development. Thanks to Baron Georges Haussmann’s massive program to modernise Paris – including its water supply – he managed to double the total length of city water mains and the city’s water capacity, and to increase the number of houses with piped water from 6,000 to 34,000. This utterly transformed the private lives of Parisians. Stevens depicts an elegant young Parisienne luxuriating in the so-called “new water”, which soon came to be termed “city water”. For the first time, bathing could become a regular rather than an occasional occurrence; think of all of Degas’ women, making ablutions in makeshift tubs on the floor.

Alfred Stevens’ The Bath, c.1867

Another recent development was the birth of the great modern department stores, which responded to the vogue of the bathroom by having special ‘departments’ selling items devoted to bathing. Soap became a luxurious item, and the first shampoos appeared on the market. Some companies began to advertise baths as luxurious pieces of furniture; this young lady in The Bath, for example, has bought an ornate duck-head tap and a ceramic soap holder.

The bathroom had now become a place to tarry and to relax, and had taken on some of the intimate and romantic connotations of the boudoir: this young woman has been reading a novel, and now dreamily thinks of the lover who has no doubt presented her with the flower we see. Indeed, Stevens’ painting has a note of subdued eroticism, and it may be that he has depicted another aspect of the new fashion, its association with sensuality and sexual enjoyment. It is possible that Stevens’ model is in fact a young courtesan, one of the stylish and wealthy professional prostitutes of the Second Empire. These women quickly perceived the attraction of receiving their customers amidst such lavish settings, but amongst the general population this sort of bathing did not become popular until later in the century.

Do peer into this work, and allow little details to intrigue you. Why is the tap still running with ‘new water’? Why is there a little clock in the soap holder? And why, pray tell, does Stevens lavish such beautiful and sensual paint on the flowers, the open novel and the white towel, and then present a quite cool, non-sensual image of the young lady?

There are many more delightful and unexpected visual encounters to be had at Adelaide, and the exhibition is to be warmly commended to all.


  • More information on the Colours of Impressionism: Masterpieces from the Musée d’Orsay exhibition is available on the Art Gallery of South Australia’s website:
  • The exhibition runs until July 29, 2018.
  • The Art Gallery of South Australia is located on North Terrace, Adelaide.
  • It is open seven days from 10.00 am to 5.00 pm.
  • Tickets to the exhibition cost $25 and allow you to pass in and pass out of the display if you wish to take a break or find refreshment.
  • People who hold memberships with other state art galleries, such as the NGV, the NGA or the AGNSW, may purchase tickets at the reduced rate of $20, even online.
  • Members of other state galleries are also welcome to use the AGSA Member’s Lounge by virtue of a reciprocal agreement; just ask at the information desk.
  • There is a small pop-up shop at the exit of the exhibition, selling catalogues and reproductions.
  • The gallery has an excellent café serving light refreshments and excellent lunches.

Havana’s factory of cool – The Cuban Art Factory

ADFAS Travel tour leader Stephen Wilkinson visits an art gallery with a difference…

The taxi trundles down a potholed street in a dimly lit industrial area of the Havana suburb of Vedado. In the distance, a factory chimney looms into view, illuminated by an electric blue search light. We can make out the letters F.A.C. painted vertically down its side. “That’s it,” I say excitedly, “That’s the Fabrica de Arte Cubano.” The Cuban Art Factory – Havana’s factory of cool.

It’s 8pm on a Saturday night and I join a queue of hundreds of smartly-dressed young Cubans, all eagerly awaiting entry into an old peanut factory that has become the most exciting nocturnal happening in Cuba’s vibrant capital. For this is no ordinary nightclub, nor is it merely an art gallery – it’s both and a great deal more.

The Fabrica de Arte Cubano is the kind of place that can only really happen in Cuba. Sure, there are other ‘repurposing’ projects elsewhere, and this ‘art factory’ is actually inspired by some of the loft and warehouse developments of New York’s SoHo district or the Docklands area of East London. But what makes this place different is its ambitious scope, accessible pricing, social purpose and community base.

It is a hybrid project that defies categorisation; part business, part community project, part art gallery, part nightclub, part theatre and part cinema. This project is the sum of all these parts and much else besides.

Unlike a normal art gallery, the CAF only opens to the public at night – from 8.30pm to 3.30am. It has two bars, serving Cuban cocktails, and a program of events that are there to surprise and delight as well as inform and educate.

For a door charge of US$2, the visitor gains entry to a labyrinth of artistic creation. You literally walk through a procession of rooms in which all the creative art forms are represented: fashion design, architecture, classical music, painting, sculpture, photography, dance, classical music and modern music, such as hip hop and garage house, are all available in this remodelled old factory.

The building is therefore a magical maze in which the visitor moves from one space to another in a surreal journey through Cuba’s vibrant contemporary creative scene. As one Trip Advisor reviewer put it: “This must be the hippest place I have ever been.”

The brainchild of Cuban hip hop star X Alfonso (pronounced EKIS Alfonso), the Cuban Art Factory has been going now for two years and has defied its critics by not only surviving but prospering, through its own keen marketing savvy and adherence to a number of basic principles that reflect Cuba’s unique approach to business.

After making a lot of money on the Hip Hop circuit, Alfonso wanted to put something back into his community and approached the Ministry of Culture with his idea of using an old factory, to create a new ‘industry’ that uses one of the things that Cuba produces best: human capital in the form of great artists. It is neither a private business nor a state-run facility but classified as a “community project,” allowing him and his group to occupy a government-owned property but operate it with a relatively broad degree of independence.

So the Cuban Art Factory was born. Using his own money and by pooling the resources of the artists that form the project board, the building has been gradually developed through the reinvestment of the profits into the renovation and adaptation of the space for bigger and more ambitious uses.

As the resident architect Ernesto Jimenéz told me, the idea is to make available the latest art to the widest community possible. Although the entry fee is expensive for the poorest Cubans, it is manageable for many and the Fabrica is overwhelmed with people wishing to enter when it opens its doors. “Our only problem is the fact that we can only have 600 people in here at a time for safety reasons,” he says.” There is always a queue of people still waiting to get in when the doors close at 3.30am!”

I am intrigued to know how the place operates. Is it a business or is it a community project? “It is both and neither at the same time,” says Ernesto. “It is a collective of artists and we meet on a democratic basis and make decisions together. We share in the profits and pay a contribution in commission if we sell a piece of art, for example. It works. So far we have not shared any profits because we have put everything back into renovating the building.”

There is a lot to do. I can see that the roof needs repair and there is still electricity cabling to tidy up. “It is a work in progress but look we have been so successful that we have already exceeded our capacity.” Ernesto points to a number of shipping containers stacked in the yard. “Look, we had to bring in these containers to provide offices since we have used the whole area of the factory as show spaces.”

And it is quite a show. The program changes every three months. After a three month ‘season’, the factory closes for a month while the exhibits are changed and a new series of events are arranged, and then it reopens for another three-months.

Part of its appeal is its iconoclasm. The freedom that the project has to display works of art or allow space for outspoken works of theatre that are, shall we say, transgressive of the island’s socialist othodoxy, has raised eyebrows among Cuba’s more conservative elite. But what is poison to some is meat for others, especially Havana’s aspiring new wealthy avante garde, who flock to the often bitingly satirical exhibitions.

It’s a fine balancing act and one that reflects a changing Cuba.

“We have been both criticised as appearing too much like a capitalistic enterprise and celebrated as an example of what is now possible in today’s Cuba, “ says Ernesto. “Some say Ekis is a government stooge and that we are providing some kind of glitzy showcase for the regime, while others see him as a dangerous element, who provides a space for subversion. The truth is that we are neither of those things!”

On my visit, I was struck by the contradiction. Both views are possible and that is because the place is impressive. The art is astonishing, the ambience electrifying and the experience most unusual.

Of course I was not the only foreigner soaking up the chic ambience. Inevitably, I met a number of Americans enjoying the relaxation of the travel restrictions ushered in by President Obama. I asked one of them what they thought. Stan, a New York lawyer was incredulous: “This place is sooooo cool! I mean where else can you get a contemporary art show, a ballet performance, a photo exhibition and a hip hop disco for two bucks? How do they do it?”

It’s the sort of question that is often heard in Cuba, about a lot of things. They do things differently here, that’s for sure. At CAF even the way you pay is different. Instead of buying drinks at the bar, everyone gets a card, which is stamped for each drink or snack purchased. When you leave you, hand your card over at the exit, your stamps are tallied up and you pay your tab at the door. However, if you lose your card, there’s a US$30 fine.

On a visit to Havana, it’s a must for any itinerary. They even have a state of the art website that you cannot miss –

Fabrica de Arte is located on the corner of 11th and 26th streets in Vedado, near the Puente de Hierro – Iron Bridge. Admission is US$2 night-club open from 8.30pm to 3.30am every night.

Dr Stephen Wilkinson is Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at the University of Buckingham. Stephen first visited Cuba in 1986 and has been travelling to and writing about the island ever since. Now the Chairman of the International Institute for the Study of Cuba, based in the UK, Stephen has a PhD on the subject of Cuban literature. He has written numerous articles on diverse questions such as the history of European and US – Cuba relations, Cuban attitudes and policy towards homosexuals, Cuban art and the nature of the Cuban state. Stephen’s book, ‘Detective Fiction in Cuban Society and Culture’, was published in 2006 by Peter Lang.

Find out more about Stephen’s upcoming Cuba: land & sea tour here.

The Queen Of Sheba – Myth or Reality?

Chris Bradley – author, lecturer and ADFAS Travel tour leader – searches for the mysterious Queen of Sheba in the highlands of Ethiopia.

The Queen of Sheba is a difficult woman to pin down. She possibly lived in Ethiopia or Yemen about 3,000 years ago, might have become wealthy on the trade of frankincense and myrrh to Ancient Egypt, and perhaps visited King Solomon in Jerusalem. The problem is, we have no evidence that she ever existed, just a few intriguing stories that spice up the Bible and Koran. She carries identical gifts and plays the same role representing the pagan world in the Old Testament, as do the Magi of the Nativity in the New Testament. Maybe she is just symbolic, but after 30 years of study, I’m convinced that she really did exist.

The pagan-worshipping kingdom of Sheba (Ancient Saba) certainly existed and it had a great number of queens throughout its two millennia controlling the incense trade around the Red Sea and Arabia. The frankincense burnt by the high priests as offerings to the Gods of Ancient Egypt in the temples along the River Nile had to be of the highest possible quality. So did the myrrh used in the complicated process of mummifying a Pharaoh’s body before burial inside the lavishly decorated tomb. The best quality of both of these tree resins (Boswellia Sacra and Commiphora Myrrha) grows in the region of Dhofar in southern Arabia. To what extent Sabaean territory stretched across the Red Sea from South Arabia into Africa is debatable, but the corridors of this incense trade pushed deep into the Ethiopian highlands, en-route to the great natural highway of North-East Africa – the River Nile, running northwards into Egypt.

The oldest stone building in Ethiopia (and indeed sub-Saharan Africa) is situated along such a trade route at Yeha. It was a pagan temple dedicated to the Moon God Ilmukah, part of an astral triad worshipped by the ancient Sabaeans. Even after 2,800 years the temple is in a remarkable state of preservation, mainly due to its conversion into an early church when Orthodox Christianity arrived in Ethiopia in the 4th century. A delightful frieze of small ibex heads carved onto one of the large stone blocks shows a link with South Arabia where the animals were revered for the way they survived in the harshest of desert climates – just as the overland traders had to endure as they struggled across the deserts and mountains bordering the Red Sea.

The Temple of the Moon in Yeha is the oldest standing structure in Ethiopia

The Queen of Sheba would have had several regional capitals to control her vast territory, including Axum in Ethiopia’s northern highlands. The main trade route ran from the Red Sea port of Adulis through Yeha to Axum, an important crossroads of relatively easy routes in an otherwise difficult mountainous terrain. Axum grew wealthy from the levied taxes on these valuable goods and still has some remarkable monuments to be seen today. The most striking are a series of erected carved stele which are essentially giant tombstones, the largest being 24 metres high, which you might have already seen – when it was placed just down the road from the Colosseum in Rome – after being looted by Mussolini’s army in 1937. It was returned to Ethiopia by the Italians in 2005.

King Ezana’s stele in Axum

Each stele stands upon a flat stone plinth above a burial chamber, some of which have been excavated to reveal a series of small rooms. The largest stele lies in pieces, felled by an earthquake – some legends say it was toppled by the later rebellious Queen Judith – but when erected at 33 metres, it was taller and heavier (over 500 tons) than any of the raised obelisks in Ancient Egypt. These giant works of art belong to the Axumite period – an ancient kingdom (trading with the Greeks, Romans, Egyptians and Persians) that replaced the Sabaeans and lasted for a thousand years from the 4th century BC – during which time they adopted Christianity and even mounted an attack on the holy city of Mecca around the same time as the birth of the prophet Mohammed. Even before Islam, Mecca was home to the ‘House of God’ (better known now as the kaaba), reputedly constructed by Abraham around 1,700BC, and a sacred place that the Queen would have known well.

The Axumite stele are not old enough to date from the time of the Queen of Sheba, and neither are two other major sites both attributed to her – the so-called Baths of the Queen of Sheba (a large water collection reservoir) and the extensive ruins of her Palace, set beside another field of smaller stele, but they are still a few hundred years short of her time. However, there is one relic that the Ethiopians claim to possess that would date from the Queen’s era. The only problem is that nobody is allowed to see it, apart from a single local guardian who lives in a small compound known as the Treasury of the Church of St Mary of Zion. Myths and legends on the whereabouts of the fabled Ark of the Covenant fill the pages of many sensational books, but the Ethiopians simply accept that it is in Axum, brought here from the Temple in Jerusalem by a group of Jewish tribal sons led by Emperor Menelik, the son of the Queen of Sheba, and her lover King Solomon.

The nine saints (not all in photo) of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, depicted in the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion

Even though the Jewish, Christian and Islamic texts all use the Queen’s visit to Solomon to represent an important pagan ruler receiving Solomon’s great wisdom and faith, it could well have been based upon a real historical meeting about trade. What would be more natural than the controller of the southern end of the incense trading route wanting to make representations and offer gifts to the controller of the northern end, which at that time would have been Solomon himself? Even though we know almost nothing about the Queen, we can date Solomon and that meeting, if it ever took place, was probably around 965BC. One of the reasons I think the Queen of Sheba was a real person is because those early religious scribes specified a woman. If they were simply inventing a distant wealthy fictitious ruler to represent the pagan world, then they would surely have chosen a mysterious wealthy king. The Queen of Sheba is the only female character who appears in all three holy books of the Abrahamic faiths – the Torah, the Koran and the Bible (Kings 1:10 and Chronicles 2:9).

Axum’s architectural legacy keeps reappearing throughout Ethiopia’s history, not least at the rock-cut churches of Lalibela, a 400 km flight south from Axum. The best way to understand this remarkable place is to accept that Lalibela is an attempt to recreate Jerusalem and the Holy Land on a mountainside in Ethiopia, almost a thousand years ago under the rule of King Lalibela. A small natural stream was deepened and widened by hand to represent the River Jordan, and very special churches were constructed for the chosen ones to worship. And all because the Crusaders were ejected from the real Jerusalem by the Muslims under Saladin and thus became out of bounds for Ethiopian Christian pilgrims.

Bet Giyorgis, considered Lalibela’s masterpiece

After removing the covering of soil, each of the 11 churches is incredibly cut into the bare ground by chipping away at all the rock that you don’t need. Slowly dig down and then all the way around to release the church, but of course it is still connected to the rock at its base. When you want a window you chip in here, then a door there and chip away at the insides to create rooms. The most famous is the cruciform rock church of Beit Georgis, St George – Ethiopia’s patron saint. Apparently this was the last of the churches to be created after St George complained that of the ten original churches, not one was for him. So King Lalibela promised to create the best church for him. According to legend, it is said to have taken only 30 years to dig out, because the faithful locals worked on it through the day, and the angels worked on it through the night. All the churches are linked by a maze of subterranean paths and trenches connected by rickety bridges, all released from the rock in which they stand. The idea of the giant rolling ball chasing Harrison Ford in the film ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ is said to have been inspired from this amazing scenery.

The largest of the churches is called Beit Medhane Alem meaning ‘Saviour of the World’ taking the form of a large Greek Temple and said to be a replica of the original 4th century St Mary of Zion church built in Axum. Abba Libanos church is unique in that it is a cave church, where the four walls have been released from the rock, but the roof and floor are still attached. The rock out of which they are dug is a red volcanic tuff.

The cave church Abba Libanos is distinctive from other churches around Lalibela

In the dark recesses of the churches, elderly priests show some of the different types of crosses. The earliest dating from the 4th century were based on Egyptian Coptic designs, from where their first Abuna, or Bishop originated. The cross represents the crucified figure of Christ and as such, has to be adorned or ‘dressed’ before being paraded in public, so they all have loops underneath from which hang rich colourful fabrics. The thing I love about Lalibela is that it is not a sterile museum piece but still very much at the centre of everyday pilgrimage and worship for local people. You’re likely to turn a corner and meet a group of musicians, swaying and shuffling to the constant hypnotic music that drifts lazily across the clear mountain air.

Rich colourful fabrics hang from the priest’s cross in Lalibela

By the time we get to the next great capital at Gondar in the 17th century, the influences have changed forever – away from nearby Arabia and the Holy Land as Ethiopia looked towards India, South-East Asia and the increasing power of Portuguese navigators. The existence of a ‘lost’ tribe of Jews known as the Falasha in the Gondar region is another conundrum that could stretch back to the Queen of Sheba’s time. Mentioned by James Bruce in the accounts of his adventures in the 1770s, this group practiced an ancient form of Judaism, unaware of any Hebrew scriptures or language. So they must have departed the region of Israel at least 2,500 years ago, if not earlier. It is entirely possible that they are the direct descendants of Solomon and Sheba’s son Menelik and were the sons of Israel bringing the Ark of the Covenant to Ethiopia, who were detached from mainstream Jewish society unaware that any other Jews existed until about 150 years ago.

The ‘Camelot’ of Africa – the Fasilides castle in Gondar

No Falasha remain in Ethiopia today, but atop the great ‘watershed of Africa’ their abandoned settlements lie around the headwaters of the two great water sources that provide over two-thirds of the water for the River Nile – the Tekaze River and the vast Lake Tana, source of the Blue Nile. Even before the time of the Queen of Sheba, these were the trade routes that connected Ethiopia with Egypt and the Holy Land.

One thing is for certain – Ethiopia and its famous Queen are fascinating and mysterious subjects.

Chris Bradley is the author of ten guidebooks for Berlitz, Discovery and Insight Guides. Has an honours degree from Liverpool University and specialises in the history and art of North Africa and Arabia.

Chris will lead the ADFAS Travel tour to Ethiopia in September 2018 visiting many of the sites mentioned above.

On the road from Bendigo to the Yarra Valley

What goes into creating an ADFAS Travel itinerary? Inspiration, perspiration, experimentation and just a dash of serendipity. In 2017 Dr Nick Gordon took a road trip around Victoria to research and plan our upcoming Regional Galleries of Victoria tour. The trip started in Bendigo, travelled around the southern shores of Port Phillip Bay up to the Yarra Valley, following the proposed path of the tour. As the road trip progressed, themes and connections emerged, and the entire tour itinerary was reversed – but that’s why we take research trips.

In this blog Nick reflects on the trip.

Creating a new tour involves plenty of research, and even a familiar area such as regional Victoria requires careful planning that can’t be done over the internet. On the one hand there is visiting sites, inspecting hotels and sampling restaurants (well, someone has to do it!) to ensure quality. On the other hand there are the subtler aspects of tour design that bring out the thematic and historical relationships between sites – whether they are galleries, historic towns or the landscape itself – that make a tour more than just a collection of places.

A cultural tour of regional Victoria? Seriously?

Victoria’s regional galleries have extensive collections and seen together they constitute one of the finest collections of Australian heritage and modern art. People don’t usually see them over the course of a week, so their collective value can be easily overlooked. An idea for a new tour was born from these premises.

Ballarat Regional Gallery, home of one of Australia’s finest colonial collections, and much more.

Seeing these galleries together makes them more than the sum of their parts: a collective history begins to come out and it extends well-beyond the confines of the gallery. Australia’s first two regional galleries – Ballarat and Bendigo – were founded by gold-rich citizens who aspired for their cities to rival Sydney and Melbourne, and each wanted to become Victoria’s second city. When you see them on consecutive days you realise how much this rivalry has continued: it’s apparent in the directions taken by curators and directors, in their approach to hanging, and even in the framing.

The new wing in Ballarat Regional Gallery

Geelong Regional Gallery also makes sense in this broader context – the centre of the wool export industry, and the squatters who supplied, couldn’t be left behind by the nouveau-riche gold diggers, and they founded a gallery, whose collection contains works celebrating life on the land – cattle, the wool industry and the unique features of the landscape – west of Melbourne, such as the You Yangs.

The galleries are further united by the role they are playing in the revival of regional cities. This is perhaps most evident in Geelong, which has undergone a much broader change of image over the past 20 years. But Bendigo too has done exceptionally well to put itself on the map through its recent temporary exhibitions, which have been of an international standard not usually seen outside of capital cities.

Private collections

Just as the older regional galleries were established by private wealth, so too are some of the most successful art endeavours after World War II. Heide has pride of place as one of the finest collections of Australian Modernism. It was a creation of John and Sunday Reed’s (once charismatic patrons of Sydney Nolan and Charles Blackman), originally a retreat for artists and intellectuals on the outskirts of Melbourne, with an excellent private collection, that was given over to the state and developed further (with a new building, a sculpture garden and a growing collection).

Heide Museum of Modern Art

Another highlight is McClelland Sculpture Park, which in addition to almost 100 large sculptures in park and bushland settings, sponsors one of Australia’s premier sculpture competitions. It was supported largely by Dame Elisabeth Murdoch for decades and the result is one of the best collections of Australian sculpture I have seen.

The inside story

Local expertise comes in myriad ways: academic contacts, picking up tips from locals and close scrutiny of local media are a few. I was fortunate on this trip to be joined by Ian Rogers. Ian has travelled to Europe several times with Academy Travel, but in his working life was the manager of regional arts and cultural development programs for the Victorian Government. Ian knew everyone in the galleries and had a deep knowledge of the collections, their history and how donors and directors shaped the collections over the years. His knowledge was truly encyclopaedic and his generosity in sharing it, immense. (Ian also happens to be the cousin of Academy Travel director Robert Veel, who was also on the trip. Robert was driving the idea to offer the tour, but fortunately not the car.)

Artwork in McClelland Sculpture Park

The back stories to the funding arrangements – and the quiddity of various directors and curators – speak of creative tensions as much as a belief in the value of many different projects. Equally important is the ongoing relationship each of these galleries has with contemporary Australian art, providing funding and public access for living artists. While other states have caught on more recently – MONA in Hobart, for example – the tangible support of contemporary Australian artists is relatively small by comparison.

Falling in love again…

Beyond the confines of the galleries and their collections, a different story was emerging. Much of my time travelling is spent overseas, and it is easy to forget how much is on our doorstep. I hadn’t forgotten the beauty of Australia – I grew up surrounded by bush and still take most of my holidays in Australia – but I had probably forgotten how much the landscapes can change in a relatively short distance. That one goes from green rolling hills and vineyards, to temperate mountain forests to rugged coastlines and bay views, to grazing plains and the harsh landscape of gold country is a rare treat.


In another sense, however, our journey was as much a road trip through Australian art, which started with passing comments about how a stretch of bush just north of Mount Macedon looks like something from a Peter Temple novel, and grew through a serendipitous exhibition of Fred Williams’ fantastic You Yangs paintings (after talking about the You Yangs in the car). We ended up looking through the Dandenongs for particular views painted by Streeton and co. Many of these landscapes are iconic, and seeing the source of inspiration and the paintings helped us see more in them both, such as the subtle manipulations of composition that come from familiarity with a landscape at different times of day, or different understandings of the use of light. That many of these landscapes have not changed much since their colonisation also suggests a conscious effort to maintain their appearance.

Nick and Ian take a close look at the Fred Williams exhibition at Geelong Regional Gallery. The You Yang mountains, between Geelong and Melbourne, feature prominently in Williams’s oeuvre.

Following through such conversations over dinner, in the car, at a gallery, or while grabbing a quick pie before catching the Queenscliff ferry (my two colleagues chose healthier options), it became clear to us that what we were tracing was a story about the birth of an idea of Australianness and its relationship to art and landscape. An idea for a tour to visit Victoria’s Regional Galleries because of the strength of what they contain had evolved into a bigger, more diverse picture. But that’s what research does.

Pier at Queenscliff

To learn more about our upcoming ADFAS The Yarra Valley to Bendigo tour, click here.

Beyond Mount Rushmore: Ten Fascinating Celebrations of the American Presidency

In a way that seems completely anathema to Australians, Americans love nothing more than celebrating their political leaders and commemorating their storied lives, on everything from throw pillows to carvings upon mountainsides. The focal point of this adoration has always been the Presidency. It’s a tradition that began with George Washington, a man whose personality and character made possible the once radical experiment of an elected head of state. His willingness to share and ultimately relinquish power ensured the survival of the democratic spirit that had elsewhere so often failed at the hands of elected dictators.

Not known for their understatement, Americans have continued this tradition in grand style, erecting hundreds of monuments and museums around the country to celebrate their ‘leader of the free world’, with varying results. Here is a selection of some of the more thoughtful, beautiful and intriguing amongst them.


The Washington Monument is an obelisk on the National Mall, built to commemorate George Washington

1. The Washington Monument – Washington, D.C.

A project that would take nearly 40 years to complete, the Washington Monument is the foremost memorial to America’s first president. Though many elaborate designs were initially proposed, a simple obelisk of bluestone, marble and granite was ultimately agreed upon, capped at its apex with aluminium. It was the tallest structure in the world upon its completion in 1885, and today offers the best views over the city to which George Washington gave his name.


Monticello was the primary plantation of Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United States

2. Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello – Charlottesville, Virginia

One of the great polymaths of his age, Thomas Jefferson’s greatest achievements extended far beyond his two terms as president. From his designs of the house and estate (inspired by ideas of the renaissance), to a dumb-waiter for wine hidden in a fireplace he built, Monticello is a beautifully preserved example of the 3rd president’s incredible intellect and ingenuity. Yet Monticello also reveals some of the great paradoxes at the heart of Jefferson’s life – his estate was perennially on the edge of bankruptcy and dependent on the labour of hundreds of enslaved blacks. For the man who had penned “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal”, it was a moral quandary that would torment him and his legacy.


A used postage stamp printed in the United States, circa 1956

3. James Buchanan’s Wheatland – Lancaster, Pennsylvania

James Buchanan had a decorated political career, but what he had hoped to be his crowning achievement ultimately became four unhappy years of presidency just prior to the Civil War. Despite his considerable skill and experience, Buchanan found he could not avert the looming disaster, and seven states were in rebellion when he passed the baton to successor Abraham Lincoln, who would within a month be fighting America’s bloody Civil War. Buchanan took much of the blame for the failure to avert a war, and retired a broken figure to Wheatland, his beautiful Federal-style estate in the South Pennsylvania woodlands. Though often ranked as America’s worst president, his home museum now stands as a thoughtful exploration of how sometimes even the most powerful and talented of leaders cannot always change the course of history.


The solitary figure of Lincoln sitting in contemplation

4. Lincoln Memorial – Washington, D.C.

Though hundreds of roads, counties and brands bear the Great Emancipator’s name, the Lincoln Memorial in Washington is the most beloved. Daniel Chester French’s sculptural masterpiece of a seated Lincoln sits enclosed in a Greek doric temple, straddling the Potomac River and the National Mall. Completed in 1922, the Lincoln Memorial is one of the closest things to sacred space that can be found in the USA, particularly for African Americans. Subsequent events, most notably Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, have continued to make the Lincoln Memorial an ongoing reminder of what Lincoln himself sought – to continue the struggle to realise the ideals of the republic on which it was founded.


The North Room in President Theodore Roosevelt’s trophy room at Sagamore Hill

5. Theodore Roosevelt’s Sagamore Hill – Oyster Bay, New York

A force that was larger-than-life, Teddy Roosevelt embodied the excitement and energy of America at the turn of the 20th century, ready to make its mark on the world and take its place as the foremost economic and military power. His achievements were remarkable and varied, from breaking up some of the biggest American corporations and establishing America’s first National Parks to building the Panama Canal and brokering the peace treaty of the Russo-Japanese War. His home at Sagamore Hill on New York’s Long Island, in which he lived from 1885 to his death in 1919, is a fascinating insight into the man and his times. You can see everything from exotic trophies from his hunting expeditions, to scholarly works and technical treatises on the newest knowledge of the age.


The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars

6. Woodrow Wilson International Center – Washington, D.C.

Woodrow Wilson was the only US president to hold a doctorate, and while in office was dedicated to fostering a positive role for the United States in spreading democracy, maintaining peace, and building global institutions. His greatest project was the League of Nations, the forerunner of the United Nations, yet domestic politics in his own backyard thwarted his internationalist ambitions. Though not a conventional tourist attraction, the Wilson Center in Washington, dedicated to continuing his work, is one of the world’s most respected think tanks on international affairs, and the Wilson Quarterly is an exceptional non-partisan publication on the issues facing the globe.


The Herbert Hoover National Historic Site is a unit of the National Park System in West Branch, Iowa

7. Herbert Hoover National Historic Site – West Branch, Iowa

Herbert Hoover, the 31st president, had an unlikely story. Born into a tiny farming community in rural Iowa and orphaned at age nine, he made his fortune as a self-made mining engineer in Australia and China before mounting a successful second career as a bureaucrat and administrator, and eventually mounting a successful run for president despite never having previously held elected office. Much was made of his rags-to-riches story, and his birthplace became a tourist attraction during his presidency as a symbol of the small-town America that was rapidly disappearing under industrialisation. Today over 48 hectares of West Branch has been protected and restored to Hoover’s period, protecting not just Hoover’s birthplace, but the bygone part of America into which he was born.


The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum is dedicated to the memory of the nation’s thirty-fifth president

8. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum – Boston, Massachusetts

With beautiful views overlooking Boston’s Dorchester Bay, the Kennedy Presidential Library commemorates a life and presidency that was cut tragically short. The building itself is an architectural jewel by renowned architect I.M. Pei, and explores not just the defining events of the Kennedy years – the space race, the Cuban Missile crisis and the civil rights movement – but the extraordinary contributions made by his brother Robert Kennedy, his wife Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, and the later generations of the Kennedy family.


Lyndon and Lady Bird at the LBJ Ranch on election day in 1964

9. Lyndon B. Johnson Ranch – Stonewall, Texas

A garrulous Texan who could charm and intimidate in equal measure, it was Lyndon Baines Johnson who achieved many of the landmark changes that Kennedy had first promised, including great leaps in health, education, social security, and at long last the legislation that would dismantle segregation and disenfranchisement of blacks in the South. The Vietnam War would be his final political puzzle and one he couldn’t solve, and it overshadowed many of his achievements. Johnson’s lifelong home was in the Texas Hill Country, and his ranch in Stonewall was the ‘Texas White House’ – more than 20% of his presidency was spent there. Visited by dignitaries from across the nation and world during his term, the preserved ranch (and nearby library in Austin) commemorates his remarkable but complex legacy.


Looking over the gardens and reflecting pool at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum

10. Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum – Yorba Linda, California

Perhaps the most complex of all the presidents to understand, Richard Nixon has become a byword for corruption and political malfeasance. Yet behind that reputation lies one of the most intelligent, but insecure, men ever to occupy the Oval Office. Never particularly sociable or popular, Nixon’s drive and intellect led him to a long but hard won political career and a long list of achievements as president. Yet his drive often turned to obsession that was to be his undoing, and the Watergate scandal which ended his career forever changed American politics. His home and library, set amidst beautiful parkland in Southern California, offers an engaging and unorthodox view into Nixon’s life and world, and a balanced reflection on the great highs and lows of his life.

The Best Travel Books on Spain

Spain’s remarkable history makes it a compelling destination for travellers. Its origins go back to at least the 11th century BC, when Greek and Phoenician settlers first encountered indigenous Iberian tribes. As the Roman province of Iberica, Spain was the birthplace of the emperors Trajan and Hadrian, before becoming a substantial Visigoth kingdom. Seven centuries of Moorish Islamic civilization – unique in Europe – created an artistic legacy of glittering palaces and mosques. By the early 16th century Spanish rulers controlled most of Europe and the New World, heralding a period of unprecedented wealth, and an explosion of building and artistic patronage. In the 19th and early 20th centuries a new dynamism and independent spirit emerged, expressed in exuberant modernist art and architecture.

With such an overwhelming history, we recommend taking the time to read up on this fascinating destination before planning a visit! But where to start? With so many books on offer, we asked our tour leader Dr Jeni Ryde for her comprehensive list on the best reads to prepare you for a tour of Spain.


Blue Guide: Spain

By Ian Robertson (A&C Black, 2002)

Blue Guides are perfect for the kind of cultural tour we take and strong in their treatment of art history. The Blue Guide for Spain has not been reprinted since 2002, but copies are available on secondhand book websites (more information below on how to access these) and most of the information is still relevant.

Spain: Eyewitness Travel Guide

By Nick Inman (DK, 2011)

A readily available travel guide which is well illustrated.

The Rough Guide to Spain

10th ed. Rough Guides, 2002.

Rough Guides are often available in e-book formats (for those with Kindles, iPads and iPhones).



The Cuisines of Spain

By Teresa Barrenechea

We have cooked from this book, and can say that the recipes are as good as the essays! The latter contextualise the diversity of Spanish cuisine in the country’s history and geography and are great for those with an interest in gastronomy.

An Interpretation of Spain and the Spanish People

By John A. Crow

This work is a standard text for undergraduate history courses so it’s readily available. A history of the various groups that have settled in Spain and their differing cultural outlooks. It can be heavy-going in parts.

Fire In the Blood

By Ian Gibson

The book is a companion to a BBC series and covers the “New Spain” after Franco. A natural companion to Crow, focusing on a more recent history. You should be able to locate secondhand copies easily online.

The Shock of the New

By Robert Hughes (Knopf, 1991. Various editions, and also a TV series for PBS in the late 1970s.)

Iconoclastic Australian art historian Hughes’s work is useful because his direct approach forces the reader to make up their own mind! The Shock of the New treats modern art generally and puts Spain’s modernista and surrealist movements into a global perspective. Barcelona is a sensitive biography of the city.

The Arts in Spain

By John F. Moffitt, John F (Thames & Hudson, 1999)

From the World of Art series, this introductory work covers the earliest surviving origins of Spain’s art (the Iberian and Roman periods) and works its way systematically through to Modernism. A useful survey.

Time of Silence: Civil War and the Culture of Repression in Franco’s Spain

By Mike Richards (Cambridge UP, 1998)

This book is particularly good for those with an interest in the Spanish Civil War. It offers a close reading of Spain’s time under Franco. A special-interest study.

The Story of Spain

By Mark Williams (5th ed. Santana, 2005)

This is better written than the widely available Traveller’s History of Spain. You may need to look for it online, and it will also be available in a number of museum shops on our trip.



Don Quixote

By Miguel de Cervantes

This work is to Spanish literature what Shakespeare is to English. We don’t recommend that you attempt to read all of it, but a brief encounter with it will demonstrate its wide-ranging interest in the human condition.

The Islam Quintet, particularly Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree

By Ali, Tariq. Verso, various editions.

This Pakistani film director, journalist and activist has an abiding interest in the history of Islam and its interactions – peaceful and otherwise – with the Christian West. The first book in his Islam Quintet is set in Granada just after the Reconquista and considers the clash of Islam and Christianity from the perspective of one family.

The Shadow of the Wind

By Carlos Ruiz Zafon (Penguin, 2005. and various editions)

A gripping mystery set in Barcelona under Franco’s Spain, this bestselling work owes much to the style of writers like Italo Calvino and Jorge Luis Borges, but is perhaps more accessible!

The Sun Also Rises and For Whom the Bell Tolls

By Hemingway (Available in numerous editions)

Hemingway’s style – and subject matter – is not for everyone, but he presents an unflinching account of the ways in which violence and disorder can underpin the most basic human emotions and needs.

Blood Wedding, Yerma and The House of Bernarda Alba

By Federico García Lorca

A poet, dramatist and theatre director, García Lorca’s political activism brought him into conflict with the anti-Communist feeling of the Spanish Civil War and he was probably “disappeared” by the death squads. The Rural Trilogy we recommend above gives a good sense of Spaniards’ relation to their earth.

As I Walked Out One Midsummer’s Morning and A Moment of War

By Laurie Lee (various editions)

These come highly recommended: Lee details, in the first, how he caught a ferry to Spain in the 1930s and walked the length of the country before the outbreak of the Civil War. In the second, he fights with the anti-Franco movement alongside other prominent intellectuals. Very evocative and beautifully written.

Homage to Catalonia

By George Orwell (various editions)

Orwell served in Catalonia and Aragon for six months, fighting in the Spanish Civil War. In this work he chronicles his time there and offers a powerful message about the dangers of totalitarianism.



The UK-based website, Book Depository ( has a massive inventory of new books at heavily discounted rates and does not charge postage to Australia. Abebooks ( brings together the inventories of second-hand bookstores the world over, and you can narrow your search down by country (which brings down the postage). Check delivery times as these vary according to the provider you choose.

Taiwan – an island waiting to be discovered

ADFAS Travel tour leader Robert Veel takes a closer look at an emerging destination not far from home.

20 years ago the Entombed Warriors of Xi’an captured our imagination. About 15 years ago the magnificent jungle ruins of Angkor opened up to international visitors, closely followed by the pagodas of Myanmar and Luang Prabang in the northern mountains of Laos. For the last 5 years or so it’s been Kyoto and the smaller cities of Japan. And so the list grows. No longer a ‘place you fly over on your way to Paris’, the stereotypes have fallen away and Asia is at last being taken seriously as a destination for cultural travellers interested in history, art, architecture and archaeology.

One country which has so far been off the radar to non-Asian tourists is Taiwan. Although well known to the Chinese, there are relatively few visitors from other countries, in spite of the efforts of the Taiwanese tourism authorities. While Taiwan’s sites are not all necessarily in the blockbuster league of Angkor or the Entombed Warriors, there is much to reward the inquisitive traveller. In this short article, I aim to introduce you to some of Taiwan’s chief attractions for ‘cultural travellers.’

The last outpost of old China

Over the last 30 or so years, mainland China has raced headlong into the future. Traditional low-rise neighbourhoods have been bulldozed and replaced by shimmering high rise. Outdoor markets have given way to fast-food malls in shopping centres. High speed trains take you from big city to big city at jaw-dropping speed. Taiwan has all of this too, but it has simultaneously managed to preserve many of the more traditional aspects of ‘old China’ in its social and economic fabric. It’s ironic that today one of the main charms of Taiwan for Chinese mainlanders is the nostalgia factor – Daoist temples filled with worshippers and an almost equal number of gods to choose from, night-time food markets offering an endless array of ‘small treats’, betel nut stands on busy truck routes and villages still prospering from tea-growing and fishing. Step into the narrow laneways of Tainan, in Taiwan’s south, and stroll past dozens of temples – Daoist, Buddhist and Confucian. Look for the students praying to the ‘exam god’ for success, the old ladies burning bank notes for deceased relatives or pregnant women throwing crescent shape blocks to determine the sex of their child. The sense of the past is everywhere, and it feels lived and real, not a Disneyland recreation.

A pavilion reflects on Lotus lake Tainan Park, Taiwan

Taiwan’s particular history – there was neither communist nor cultural revolution here – and its decades of isolation from mainland China have helped hold back the tide of modernisation. But it’s also the Taiwanese sense of identity and a determination to avoid the excesses of mainland modernisation that has led to an appreciation of the simple charms of tradition.

In Taipei, good places to see ‘old China’ include the busy Shinlin night markets north of the city centre and the amazing Longshan Temple, right in the middle of a modern commercial precinct – not that you’d know it once you step through the temple gates. The rampant polytheism of a traditional Daoist temple is something to behold – this must have been what ancient Rome was like too. I can’t help feeling sorry for the European missionaries 400 years back, trying to establish Christianity here. No doubt the temple custodians would have allocated a corner of the temple to this Jesus chap and waited to see if he could deliver miracles as well as the God of War and Commerce, or the Protectress of Seafarers (On Sun Moon Lake, in the central mountains, there’s still a sign pointing to the ‘Jesus temple’, presumably a Christian church).

Longshan Temple, Taipei

The mainland Chinese settled along Taiwan’s western shores about 400 years ago, so the cities and towns along this highly-developed coastal strip are the best places to get the flavour of ‘old China’. The small town of Lugang (which translates as ‘deer harbour’, thanks to the trade in deer-hide to Japan for Samurai armour), for example, contains a beautifully preserved wooden Confucian temple, several Daoist temples of note, and dozens of laneways lined with shop houses offering everything from bicycle parts to high fashion. Further to the south, Tainan is site of the original Dutch East India settlement and where Chinese general and folk hero Koxinga overthrew the Europeans and established Chinese rule. This small city is renowned for its culinary traditions (perhaps an acquired taste for many westerners) but it’s also got the largest and best preserved historical centre of all Taiwan’s major cities.

Indigenous culture

Long before the Europeans and mainland Chinese arrived, Taiwan was the home to an indigenous population closely related to Filipinos and Malays to the south. As traders rather than conquerers, neither the Chinese nor the Europeans were particularly interested in the original inhabitants. Right through to the Japanese colonisation in 1895 they were left to themselves in villages in the mountainous interior of Taiwan and on the remote east coast and outlying islands.

Taroko Gorge, whose custodians are the local Truku tribe

These regions are still the best place to come face to face with indigenous Taiwanese. One highly recommended excursion is to the beautiful limestone Taroko Gorge, whose custodians are the local Truku tribe. More adventurous travellers might consider a flight from Taipei to Orchid Island, home of the Tao ethnic minority for at least 800 years.

A Japanese sensibility

Once you’ve been in Taiwan for a few days, you can’t help noticing that it seems more orderly and, well, quieter than mainland China. This is perhaps just one of the many almost intangible remnants of nearly six decades of Japanese rule, from 1895 to 1949. The Japanese influence runs deep in Taiwan. The rigorous education system was established under the Japanese in the early 20th century. Taiwan’s post World War II economic miracle is largely attributed to the economic and social underpinnings provided by its excellent schools, technical colleges and universities. The health system and public hygiene are both excellent, public transport is efficient and there is widespread regard for the rule of law. Aesthetically, there is an understated Japanese sensibility to much of the art, architecture and design. Taipei in particular is adorned with graceful and sober Meiji public architecture, and there are many Japanese style gardens to enjoy. It creates a sense of calm and order that is a little at odds with Taiwan’s historically precarious place in the world.

The Japanese influence has not been uniformly positive. Most major industries are still in the hands of a small cartel of established families, sapping dynamism from the economy. And the Japanese attempt to ‘civilize’ the indigenous, non-Chinese Taiwanese resulted in substantial social and economic dislocation. Today Taiwan’s indigenous communities face a raft of issues similar to those faced by indigenous Australians.

Alpine and tropical

Taiwan is tropical, in fact the Tropic of Cancer passes through the centre of the island. The vegetation is lush and prolific, and in the summer the beaches are certainly inviting. At the same time, Taiwan’s dramatic geological history (it is located on the Pacific ‘Rim of Fire’ and several major fault lines cross the island) has produced a central mountain range worthy of the Swiss Alps – there are more than 100 peaks over 3,000m high! Crossing the central ranges and descending into Taroko Gorge along one of the three Japanese-built highways is one of the world’s great road trips and well worth including in an itinerary. However, it makes timing a visit a little difficult – mild in the mountains means hot and humid on the coast, whereas from November to April the mountain roads can be closed.

The tropical coastline and adjacent high mountains create a perfect environment for growing tea, and if tea is to China as wine is to France, then Taiwan is the Bordeaux and Burgundy of Asia. Formosa Oolong is one of the premiere varieties, and there are fine Alishan and Green teas to be enjoyed too. The best place to sample them is in a tea room, in a ritual that is reminiscent of a Japanese tea ceremony, but more relaxed and down-to-earth at the same time.

Oolong Tea garden at Alishan in Chiayi Taiwan

Taiwan’s long, rugged coastline makes for some dramatic scenery. The north coast is filled with rocky cliffs and inlets, which proved perfect for pirates in centuries past. Travelling down the East Coast from Taipei, one first encounters steep cliffs, as the massive central ranges face directly on to the sea. Towards Taitung, these give way to long sandy beaches, regarded as some of Asia’s best, and rolling hills. The densely populated western plain is less memorable, although it contains the best cultural sites.

Cultural treasures

For anyone who knows anything about Chinese art, Taiwan means one thing – the National Palace Museum. In his epic struggle with the Chinese communists, Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-Shek arranged that the very best of the Chinese imperial collection – 3,000-year-old old bronzes, sumptuous Song dynasty paintings, Ming and Tang pottery, intricate Qing ivory carving – was safely stored away from Beijing and the depredations of civil war. Over one million pieces made their way to Taiwan when Chiang fled there in 1949, and these form the basis of the revered National Palace Museum in Taipei. The museum is the main objective of many Chinese tourists, so you need to weave your way among groups, but the museum buildings are large enough and the collection extensive enough that you are guaranteed moments of genuine discovery and delight. A 3,500-year-old temple bell? An intricately carved olive pip? An impossibly elegant (not to mention downright uncomfortable) porcelain child’s pillow? It’s all there.

Green Mountains and White Clouds Wu Li (1632-1718)

Taiwan’s artistic treasures don’t begin and end at the National Palace Museum. In Taipei there’s an excellent contemporary art museum (home to the ubiquitous biennale) and several private collections that can be accessed. Outside of Taipei, one of my favourites is the museum of ancient Buddhist art attached to the Chung Tai Chan monastery, outside Puli in the geographical centre of the Island. The vast and very wealthy monastery is built around a startling 31-story post-modern pagoda in the form of a seated Buddha. The museum contains Buddhist treasures from China and beyond in stone, bronze and wood covering a 2,000+ year period. And the vegetarian restaurant next to the museum is a nice change from seafood.

Chung Tai Chan Monastery

ADFAS Travel is running a tour to Taiwan in 2018 > click here to find out more.

Ten cultural experiences in Florence not to miss!

You’ve waited in line to see Michelangelo’s David and you’ve sighed over Botticelli’s Birth of Venus – so what else shouldn’t you miss in Florence, the cradle of the Italian Renaissance? Tour leader Dr Kathleen Olive, who lived and studied in this beautiful city, has some suggestions.

“As long as you avoid the major tourist sites, you can very much have Florence to yourself,” says Kathleen. “You just need to watch your program on Mondays, when most of the state-owned museums are closed, and plan to do most of your touring in the morning, as a number of the minor museums close at lunch and don’t re-open.”


1. Florence’s neglected history

The Museo Archeologico is a great place to appreciate Tuscany’s earliest history: don’t miss the wonderful Etruscan chimera, dug up in the sixteenth century in Arezzo, or the early Roman statuary. The garden, particularly lovely in spring, has reconstructions of Etruscan tombs.

Outside the museum, in Piazza Santissima Annunziata, the Museo degli Innocenti recently re-opened inside the Foundling Hospital designed by Brunelleschi in the fifteenth century. It’s a fascinating insight into the organisation of Florence’s long-running orphanage, and also contains some stand-out artworks by Domenico Ghirlandaio and Piero di Cosimo.

The rooftop café – which you can enter without visiting the museum, if you prefer – has wonderful views over the cathedral and out to Fiesole.


2. Medici Magic

The Museo di San Marco, not far from Piazza Santissima Annunziata, was once a Dominican convent which architect Michelozzo redesigned at the Medici family’s expense. It is now a museum dedicated to the art of Fra Angelico, the “angelic friar” who lived here and frescoed the monks’ cells with his quietly beautiful masterpieces.

A few hundred metres down the road is the Palazzo Medici Riccardi, once the family home and now used as state offices. A ticket gains you entry to the palace’s glittering jewel, the Cappella dei Magi, entirely frescoed by Benozzo Gozzoli with the procession of the Wise Men.


3. Something completely different: Museo “La Specola”

Just beyond Palazzo Pitti is the Museum of Natural History, known as “La Specola” for the observation room that housed Galileo’s instruments.

It has a dusty collection of flora and fauna (the butterflies are wonderful), but the real highlight is the collection of wax anatomical models. They offer a fascinating insight into medical history of the Enlightenment, so I’d recommend it for anyone with this interest.


4. Beyond church fatigue

Not everyone has my tolerance for popping into every church I pass, looking for new treasures! But some of Florence’s churches offer just as much insight into the masterpieces of the past as museums like the Uffizi or Accademia do, and they’re rarely crowded.

I particularly recommend Santa Trinita (the Sassetti Chapel is a real highlight), Santa Maria Novella (now entirely a museum, and with wonderful works by Masaccio, Filippino Lippi and Paolo Uccello) and Orsanmichele (for early masterpieces by Ghiberti, Donatello and Giambologna).


5. Find the green spaces

Head up to the hillside above Florence, at Piazzale Michelangelo, not just for the stunning views over the city, but also for some of the best springtime gardens. The Iris Garden, where competition-winning blooms carpet an olive grove, is open in April and May only.

The Rose Garden, on the other side of the square, is open year-round but its blooms are best in May and June. It’s a lovely place for a picnic lunch, has a wonderful view, and is dotted with quirky sculptures donated to the city by Folon.


6. Take an artisan walking tour

Florence’s fortunes were based on the expertise of its craftsmen, and you can still visit many artisan workshops today. A lot of the leather you see in Florence now is imported, but if you go to the official Scuola del Cuoio (Tuscan Leather School) behind Santa Croce, you can see where the region is still training leatherworkers.

For paper, Il Torchio on Via dei Bardi makes paper and leather-bound books on the premises, and is a short walk from Alessandro Dari’s workshop – he’s a self-described “alchemical jeweller” whose amazing creations are displayed like fantastical artworks inside vitrines.

And for perfumes and toiletries, don’t miss the Farmacia di Santa Maria Novella (which now has a sweet tea room inside), Aqua Flor on Borgo Santa Croce, or Monastica (a monastery shop inside the Florentine Badia).


7. Shop with the locals

Florence’s Mercato Centrale recently underwent a facelift, and now boasts a chi-chi gourmet foodhall on its upper floor. But for a more authentic experience, head near Santa Croce to the Mercato di Sant’Ambrogio and spend a morning browsing with the locals.

Once you’ve had your fill of checking out the produce, you can have an inexpensive lunch inside at Trattoria da Rocco, which is a train-like compartment selling classic Tuscan fare based on the market produce outside. You’ll be seated alongside locals – lots of professors and students from the nearby university – and it’s a great experience.


8. Quirky museums

Very few people visit the Museo Stefano Bardini – he was an antiquarian (and, just quietly, a bit of a shyster) whose taste for displaying ancient artworks and modern recreations inspired Isabella Stewart Gardner back in Boston. His house museum in Florence has some wonderful pieces and is an interesting place to ponder the “rediscovery” of the Renaissance.

There’s a very inexpensive and sweet Shoe Museum under the Ferragamo shop on Via Tornabuoni, which tracks the company’s history making pieces for the great and the good, but which also hosts thoughtful contemporary art exhibitions.

And if you’ve never been to the Bargello museum, a treasure trove of sculpture (both large scale and small decorative objects) awaits you!


9. Get a different perspective

Queues to climb the cathedral’s dome are now very long and require advance bookings. Fewer people climb Giotto’s belltower, which enjoys the same view (and has less steps), and fewer again know that you can climb to the top of Orsanmichele in central Florence, free of charge, on Mondays.

To get a good view with even less exertion, head to the rooftop café on top of the Rinascente department store in Piazza della Repubblica.


10. Enjoy yourself!

I love a special glass of wine and nibbles at Volpi e l’Uva, just alongside the church of Santa Felicita, or at Cantinetta dei Verrazzano on Via dei Tavolini (right in the centre of town).

It’s a bit further out – near Santa Croce – but the young guys who run Club Culinario Toscano da Osvaldo have real verve and the food is a fantastic interpretation of classic Italian cuisine. Olio et Convivium is an intimate restaurant that specialises in Tuscan products – you’ll never look at bruschetta in the same way again!

And for a sweet treat, I head to Robiglio (tucked away near the cathedral on Via dei Tosinghi, or over near Santissima Annunziata) or Caffé Pazkowski in Piazza della Repubblica, where they still make their own pastries and cakes on the premises.