Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Glimpses of Mon Repos

Walking up the long, pine sheltered drive, past an impressive pair of pillared gate houses that seem to be watched over by a scarcely interested caretaker, I asked a question in Greek and was treated to a full and knowledgeable survey of Mon Repos' 250 acre estate, nudging out over a slight promontory near Corfu town. I knew of the place only distantly and had seen photos of it in disrepair in the late 1990s. I was a little surprised then when I rounded the final curve in the paved road and saw the building in reasonable repair, doors and shutters tightly closed, several loud male voices evident from inside. I walked round the entire building searching for the source of this spirited discussion. Finally I tried a small door tucked in to the side of the front entrance and... Chaotic but welcoming I was told there was no admission fee and was free to wander around. I must admit to being disappointed at not getting to come in through the front doors to experience the hall's scale as I imagine the architect had in mind for anyone entering the building, but I had the place completely to myself apart from the attendants who moved around the polished floors turning on lights for me as I glided through or when I wanted a photo of the the lovely sweeping staircase. 

A view to the sea from the portico

Built on the ruins of St Pandeleimon church, and believed to be the site of the ancient city of Corfu, Mon Repos was first called The House of St Pandeleimon then The Casino by Sir Frederick Adam and his Corfiot wife. The regency style building was designed by architect Sir George Whitmore who also designed the palace of St Michael and St George in Corfu town. Sadly, the couple never enjoyed the palace as they were posted to Madras as Governor. Unfortunately Adam, although well-loved by the aristocrats on the island, left Corfu's coffers empty with his extravagance. After cession of Corfu to Greece in 1864 the palace was gifted to King George I of Greece and came to be known eventually as Mon Repos. It is also known also as the birthplace of Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, in 1921. After his birth the family remained in residence for eighteen months until the political winds of change overtook them in late 1922.

During the 1970s the building fell into disrepair. Furnishings were sold, sent to other houses and some disappeared, plundered. Being a hopeless romantic I found the building beautiful in its shabby repose. Of course the harsh climate would have turned it into a ruin eventually had its refurbishment in the 1990s not occurred. (Note: dates listed are approximate as different sources state widely variable dates) 

The rotunda lights the first floor hall and is supported by massive Ionic columns,
reception rooms leading off it in all directions
These days the building is The Paleopolis museum, probably in need again of a touch up here and there, as damp is invading in many places. Each room is a gallery; containing historical photos, documents, watercolours of the islands flora, artefacts from the various important archaeological sites both within the grounds and elsewhere on Corfu. It feels institutional, with lighting in the cornice and period furniture dotted around the place, the obligatory audio visual tour and displays, which admittedly are very informative. The interiors leave only a little sense of their former royal and official occupants. But there are some wonderful ancient figures and other artefacts in the galleries, evocative photos of the island's more recent past. I've always admired too the reproduction quality of bits of sculpture and ancient jewellery, not precious just a powerful reminder of an ancient past.

Miraculous BC survivor
The building has a feeling of being in transition, like many public buildings that have been repurposed from private homes, and of course like many buildings in Greece possibly earmarked for a firesale. I like to think of the building full of life; the smell of beeswax polish, children laughing and sliding down the banister in fancy clothes when the grown ups aren't looking, mother making an entrance on the same staircase in a somewhat more dignified manner, candles aglow, music in the background, the scent of night flowers wafting in through thrown open french doors. This should be a place for celebration.

The elegant staircase hall with pretty pink and white marble floor

Instead it is only me, dressed in humble linen, dreaming of a more glorious present for this place, a place where judgement of the Greeks, from each other and in the eyes of the world, is not afoot.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

A view of women's portraiture

Recently I've been researching women's portraits with a particular project in mind. I popped round to Philip Mould's eponymous gallery and was immediately drawn to a portrait occupying a discreet corner  in the front gallery. For weeks now I've awakened thinking about this picture, apparently an important find. Philip is holding his cards very close to his chest, so I don't know what it will take for him to part with her. But I've been told that unless an appropriate suitor comes forward, she may be taking her chances at Sotheby's.

The Duchess of Parma, attributed to Zoffany, is certainly beautiful, undeniably the portrait of a richly dressed, powerful, cultural woman. It is amusing to note her husband relegated to a portrait within a portrait in the background. Swift, almost coarse brushstrokes have produced an astonishingly sumptuous and precise portrayal of a lady's finery and accoutrements. It flatters the sitter, yet asks many questions.

Duchess of Parma, attributed to Zoffany, Philip Mould
"Philip's picture is a little gem and a very important subject," remarked Tim Corfield of specialist fine and decorative art advisors Corfield Morris during a spirited discussion over my current infatuation. My remark that Philip had referred to the eighties love of all things Zoffany led me to ask Tim what he thought the value of these sort of pictures is now. "The Zoffany market hasn't moved much in the last twenty years or so, but indications are that it could be coming back in fashion."

Further afield, I was reminded of another portrait that, although it is in a museum in Vienna, its subject created The Achilleion on the Greek island of Corfu. I was there recently looking at projects on this breathtaking island, awash with wildflowers in the temperate Spring air, the majestic olives telling the stories of many centuries. I am smitten and vow to deepen my passable knowledge of modern and ancient Greek.

The Achilleion is the palace created between 1889 and 1892 as a summer residence for the Empress Elisabeth of Austria. Her peripatetic existence, spurred by an aversion to her philandering husband, grief over the death of two of her children and her dislike of political duties, ensured that she spent very little time here. Her initial love affair with the island and the palace eventually waned as a reflection of her inner turmoil. The building, based on the lost structures of Pompeii and conceived by Warsburg with the help of Neopolitan architect Rafael Carito (although not finished by them), is beautifully sited where a modest villa once stood. And although many criticised its architectural pomposity, it has a beauty brought to life by the embracing climate of the island. As is often the case in Greece, as a museum it is wonderfully free of people breathing over one's shoulder to check whether one is stealing the family silver or destroying precious textiles with hated fingerprints! Windows were blessedly open to catch the breeze on this sweeping hilltop stucco confection overlooking the sea a few miles south of Corfu town. I was struck by the youthful exuberance of this painting, a quality I daresay the Empress lost later in life, but was captured here during a moment of hope, when her life was still an uncharted map of dreams yet to be revealed.

The Empress Elisabeth of Austria in dancing dress,
by Franz Xavier Winterhalter, 1865, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

"I wander lonely in this world,
Delight and life long time averted,
No confidant to share my inner self,
A matching soul never revealed."
(Sisi, The Poetic Diary)

The Peristyle of The Muses, a stunning space which sweeps out beyond a grand reception room connected by equally grand columns, surrounds this enviable tree sheltered expanse. It calls out for dancers to spill out of the brightly lit rooms in the palace on sultry summer nights. I envision Terpsichore swaying and strumming the lyre until she is moved to glide off her marble plinth and on to the swathe of black and white marble, the breeze teasing her hair out of its fillet.

The Nine Muses; Terpischore Muse of the dance,
The Achilleion, Corfu

The colonnade, busts of bards and poets cast towards
The Nine Muses and The Gardens. Striding along here one is reminded
of the raw emotive power of architectural scale and symmetry

The Achilleion's terrace, the Ionian barely visible in the distance, where
even the most scholarly would concede to a night of dancing and music
beneath the stars.