Tuesday, April 25, 2023

Vladimir Ivanovich in Hollywood

‘We had a tour of the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio. It is a huge institution, located on fourteen acres of land. Everything here is large scale [. . .] We were shown the stores, set installations of entire streets and even towns, a huge set with a pool into which a submarine dives (this has been prepared for the new production of The Mysterious Island by Jules Verne), fragments of different shootings (for instance, the scene where a huge live boa constrictor is winding around the body of a half naked girl).’ This is from a diary kept when the influential Russian theatre director Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko visited Hollywood. Nemirovich-Danchenko - who died 80 years ago today - was a co-founder of the famous Moscow Art Theatre.

Nemirovich-Danchenko was born in 1858 into a Russian noble family of mixed Ukrainian-Armenian descent in western Georgia. His father was an officer in the Imperial Russian army. He was educated in Tbilisi, where he was already keen on drama, and then at Moscow State University. He left his studies to work in the theatre, first as a theatre critic, then as a playwright - his first play, Dog-rose, was staged in 1881 - and then also as a teacher. By 1891, he was installed as a teacher at the Moscow Philharmonic Society, where he trained many future famous actors. He espoused new ideas such as the need for longer rehearsals and less rigid acting styles.

In 1898, Russian theatre practitioner Konstantin Stanislavski (later to be renowned for his Method Acting) and Nemirovich-Danchenko founded the Moscow Art Theatre. This was conceived as a venue for naturalistic theatre, in contrast to the melodramas that were the main form of theatre in Russia at the time. Its first season featured plays by Ibsen, Aleksey Tolstoy and Shakespeare, but it was not until it staged several of Chekhov’s plays that the theatre became famous. Chekhov had envisioned that fellow playwright and friend Maxim Gorki would succeed him as the theatre’s leading dramatist but this was not to be. The theatre went into decline, until that is it took on international tours. With tensions growing between the two co-founders, Nemirovich-Danchenko set up, in 1919, a musical theatre studio branch. This was reformed into the Nemirovich-Danchenko Musical Theatre in 1926.

In 1943 Nemirovich-Danchenko established the Moscow Art Theatre School, which is still extant. He was awarded the State Prize of the USSR in 1942 and 1943, the Order of Lenin, and the Order of the Banner of Red Labor. He died in Moscow on 25 April 1943. Further information is available from Wikipedia, Encyclopaedia Britannica, IMDB, and Moscow Art Theatre

Nemirovich-Danchenko did not leave behind any diaries as far as I know, or certainly none that have been translated into English. However, a close associate of his, Sergei Bertensson who joined the Moscow Art Theatre in 1918, did keep a diary during a trip, taken with Nemirovich-Danchenko, to the United States in the 1920s. This was translated by Anna Shoulgat into English, edited by Paul Fryer, and published by the Scarecrow Press in 2004 as In Hollywood with Nemirovich-Danchenko, 1926-1927: The Memoirs of Sergei Bertensson. A few pages can be previewed at Googlebooks and Amazon.

According to the publisher: ‘Sergei Bertensson’s diary of his trip to Hollywood with Russian theatre great Nemirovich-Danchenko is a unique record of an extraordinary and under-documented chapter in film and theatre history. For a year Bertensson followed his employer as he met with directors, producers, and stars, forever discussing projects that would never be realized. Some of the leading figures in Hollywood history appear in this record, including Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and John Barrymore. Bertensson’s observations of life in Hollywood on the eve of the talkies revolution provide us with a compelling snapshot of movie history in the making, seen from the unusual perspective of an outsider.’

Here are a few extracts.

6 October 1926
‘The whole day has been spent on the reading of the script of François Villon; however, we have finished it. Vladimir Ivanovich likes the denouement, but on the whole he has found lots of vague and absurd details.’

10-11 October 1926
‘Vladimir Ivanovich remains keen on The Snowmaiden and fantasizes on this subject a lot.

The scheduled lessons with Marceline Day did not take place. She did not come, having informed us that she had been called for shooting. We went to see how a big mass scene on the square before Notre Dame de Paris was shot at the Universal studio. This involved about 600 people. There was much noise, animation, banal gesticulation, and swinging of hands. Barrymore himself, in the comic makeup mask of “the king of fools,” sitting on the head of a statue of a horse, played with full nerve, was brave, vivid, and graceful like a statue.

When I met Ms. Day there, I suggested that she should continue her lessons with Vladimir Ivanovich on the next day, but she became somehow confused and said that first she had to discuss this with Considine. When Barrymore finished his scene, Vladimir Ivanovich told him about this. The former got awfully angry and called it a shame and a disgrace and promised to sort it out by the evening.’

15 October 1926
‘We had a tour of the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio. It is a huge institution, located on fourteen acres of land. Everything here is large scale: the wardrobe - a four-story house, the storage of props and furniture - a four-story building as well, and it has enough furniture to furnish approximately 250 apartments. On a permanent basis they have thirty-four directors, fifteen “stars,” a group of actors (fifty people), 1,200 technical staff members, and 250 administrative people. The work is simultaneously carried out on seven to eight stages. They produce thirty movies a year, among them such big productions as Ben Hur, The Big Parade, and others. 

We were shown the stores, set installations of entire streets and even towns, a huge set with a pool into which a submarine dives (this has been prepared for the new production of The Mysterious Island by Jules Verne), fragments of different shootings (for instance, the scene where a huge live boa constrictor is winding around the body of a half naked girl). During one of the shootings Vladimir Ivanovich was photographed together with the “stars” Alice Terry and Ramon Navarro.

Upon completion of the tour, we were introduced to the director of the studio, Thalberg.

We had to wait for him for about ten minutes. Thalberg is a young man; he is not yet thirty, but his authority is absolutely unlimited, and he receives an enormous salary plus a royalty from the completed movies. He is said to be exceptionally smart and good at business. We stayed with him for just a few minutes and left with a strong impression that the whole organization was hallmarked with bad taste. As if after visiting the backstage of the Moscow Art Theatre you happen to visit the backstage of a provincial theater. If at Schenck’s studio there is not enough artistic atmosphere, here you do not feel such atmosphere at all. This is just a big and perfectly arranged factory.’ 

24-25 October 1926
‘We continued reading Camilla. We observed how a short love scene between Barrymore and Marceline Day was shot. The usual cliché: on her part - self-admiration and pleasant smiles; on his part - banal operatic gestures and movements (and he seems to feel uncertain and awkward inside).

The set is ultrarealistic. A piece of stone castle, a real stone staircase and landing leading to it; below there is a large garden and a pool with a fountain. The garden is a huge hedgerow made up of natural greenery, pruned in the style of Versailles. The entire garden is laid out with pieces of live green turf, and among this grass there are artificial trees with paper rose camellias. Paper roses decorate the branches of the bushes, fringing the castle windows. They persuade that in a photograph the artificial will brilliantly merge with the natural and will give quite a real picture. The arrangement of this garden demanded no less than two days of the most thorough work and lots of money.

Vladimir Ivanovich sent Mary Pickford a bouquet of flowers. He was greatly impressed with her artistry.’

Saturday, April 15, 2023

Hammer out a little idea

Today marks the 180th anniversary of the birth of Henry James, one of the US’s finest writers, and a major figure in 19th century literary realism. He was not a diarist as such, but jotted regularly in diary-like notebooks, developing ideas for stories he was hoping to write. As such, the notebooks, held by the Houghton Library at Harvard, are considered an important resource not only for understanding Henry James but for insights into the creative process.

James was born in New York City on 15 April 1843 into a wealthy family which travelled often to Europe where he was taught by tutors. His father was a Swedenborgian theologian, and his brother became a philosopher. Although briefly enrolled at Harvard Law School, James soon decided to be a writer, publishing short stories and contributing to magazines such as Nation and Atlantic Monthly. He continued to journey to Europe, where he met Ruskin, Darwin and Rossetti as well as literary figures including Turgenev and Flaubert.

In 1876, James settled permanently in London, and devoted himself to literature and travel. In his early novels - including Daisy Miller and The Portrait of a Lady - as well as in some of his later work, James contrasts the sophisticated, traditional Europeans with innocent brash Americans. After unsuccessfully trying to become a playwright he wrote some of his greatest novels, such as The Aspern Papers, The Turn of the Screw and The Ambassadors.

Later in his life, James lived in Rye, on the Sussex coast. He became a British citizen in 1915 and received the Order of Merit from King George V in 1916. He died the same year. Further biographical information is available from Wikipedia, Encyclopaedia Britannica, or the Poetry Foundation. James’s sister, Alice, is remembered largely because of a diary she kept which was published posthumously - see The Diary Review: Geyser of emotions, and The Diary Junction.

Henry James did not so much keep a diary as notebooks, and there are 16 volumes (1878 to 1916) held by the Houghton Library, Harvard University. According to the Library, James used the diaries largely to work out plots, problems of narration and point of view, as well to record addresses, appointments, and days, good and bad. The diaries were edited by F. O. Matthiessen and Kenneth B. Murdock and published by Oxford University Press in 1947 as The Notebooks of Henry James. The full text can be read online at Internet Archive. A more comprehensive (and less annotated) edition, put together by Leon Edel and Lyall Powers, came out in 1987 as The Complete Notebooks of Henry James (also Oxford University Press).

Generally speaking, James’s biographers have found the diaries of his sister, Alice, and his secretary, Theodora Bosanquet more useful than his own notebooks - see for example Henry James, a Life by Leon Edel, and Henry James at Work by Theodora Bosanquet. Here, though, are a couple of extracts.

8 May 1892 [about what would become Owen Wingrave]
‘Can’t I hammer out a little the idea - for a short tale - of the young soldier? - the young fellow who, though predestined, by every tradition of his race, to the profession of arms, has an insurmountable hatred of it - of the bloody side of it, the suffering, the ugliness, the cruelty; so that he determines to reject it for himself - to break with it and cast it off, and this in the face of every sort of coercion of opinion (on the part of others), of such pressure not to let the family honour, etc. (always gloriously connected with the army), break down, that there is a kind of degradation, an exposure to ridicule, and ignominy in his apostasy. The idea should be that he fights, after all, exposes himself to possibilities of danger and death for his own view - acts the soldier, is the soldier, and of indefeasible soldierly race - proves to have been so - even in this very effort of abjuration. The thing is to invent the particular heroic situation in which he may have found himself - show just how he has been a hero even while throwing away his arms. It is a question of a little subject for the Graphic - so I mustn’t make it ‘psychological’ - they understand that no more than a donkey understands a violin. The particular form of opposition, of coercion, that he has to face, and the way his ‘heroism’ is constatée. It must, for prettiness’s sake, be constatée in the eyes of some woman, some girl, whom he loves but who has taken the line of despising him for his renunciation - some fille de soldat, who is very montée about the whole thing, very hard on him, etc. But what the subject wants is to be distanced, relegated into some picturesque little past when the army occupied more place in life - poetized by some slightly romantic setting. Even if one could introduce a supernatural element in it - make it, I mean, a little ghost-story; place it, the scene, in some old country-house, in England at the beginning of the present century - the time of the Napoleonic wars. - It seems to me one might make some haunting business that would give it a colour without being ridiculous, and get in that way the sort of pressure to which the young man is subjected. I see it - it comes to me a little, He must die, of course, be slain, as it were on his own battle-field, the night spent in the haunted room in which the ghost of some grim grandfather - some bloody warrior of the race - or some father slain in the Peninsular or at Waterloo - is supposed to make himself visible.’

12 January 1895 [about what would become The Turn of the Screw]
‘Note here the ghost-story told me at Addington (evening of Thursday 10th), by the Archbishop of Canterbury: a mere vague, undetailed faint sketch of it – being all he had been told (very badly and imperfectly) by a lady who had no art of relation, and no clearness: the story of the young children (indefinite number and age) left to the care of servants in an old country-house, through the death, presumably, of parents. The servants, wicked and depraved, corrupt and deprave the children; the children are bad, full of evil, to a sinister degree. The servants die (the story vague about the way of it) and their apparitions, figures, return to haunt the house and children, to whom they seem to beckon, whom they invite and solicit, from across dangerous places, the deep ditch of a sunk fence, etc. – so that the children may destroy themselves, lose themselves by responding, by getting into their power. So long as the children are kept from them, they are not lost: but they try and try and try, these evil presences, to get hold of them. It is a question of the children ‘coming over to where they are’. It is all obscure and imperfect, the picture, the story, but there is a suggestion of strangely gruesome effect to it. The story to be told – tolerably obviously – by an outside spectator, observer.’

This article is a slightly revised version of one first published on 15 April 2013.

Thursday, April 13, 2023

Climax in Crete

‘Before we knew what was happening, the skies were full of German planes which had apparently sprung from nowhere. There seemed to be hundreds of them diving, zooming, and criss-crossing as they bombed and machine-gunned all over the place. Then a flight of large silvery machines passed low down over our heads, coming from the south-west and making for Canea. They passed as silently as ghosts with just a swishing sound instead of the usual roar, and their wings were very long and tapering. It was only then that I understood that these were gliders and that an airborne attack on Crete had begun in grim earnest.’ This is from a WWII diary-memoir by Theodore Stephanides, a Greek-British doctor, biologist and poet. He died 40 years ago today, but is still fondly remembered largely for his friendship with the literary Durrells, and, in particular for encouraging a young Gerald Durrell’s love of nature.

Stephanides was born in 1896 in Bombay (then in British India). His mother came from a British family of Greek origin (the Ralli brothers), and his father worked for them. In 1907, his father retired, taking the family first to Marseilles, France, and then to the Ralli estate in Corfu. Only then did Stephanides begin to speak Greek. He served as a gunner in the Greek army on the Macedonian front in 1917-1918, and he participated in the Greco-Turkish War of 1919-1922. In December 1921, he refused, for political reasons, to take part in a service celebrating the king’s return to Greece and was subsequently detained and court-martialed. He moved to France, where he studied medicine (including radiology taught by Marie Curie), practiced astronomy, and began translating Greek poetry into English (publishing two volumes coauthored with George Katsimbalis).

In 1928, Stephanides returned to Corfu where, along with his friend Philoctetes Paramythiotis, founded the first radiological lab in the Ionian Islands. They co-directed the facility for 10 years.  In 1930, he married Mary Alexander, the granddaughter of a former British consul in Corfu and they had one child Alexia. In time, Stephanides grew interested in freshwater biology; with support from the Greek government, he began work on what would become his magnum opus, a treatise on the freshwater biology of Corfu (not published until 1948). While in Corfu, he became close friends with Lawrence and Gerald Durrell. In 1938, he moved to Thessaloniki, though he returned to Corfu occasionally, meeting Henry Miller on one such trip. Around this time, he participated in an anti-malaria campaign in Salonica and Cyprus organised by the Rockefeller Foundation. 

During WWII, being a British citizen, Stephanides served as a medical officer (lieutenant, and later major) in the Royal Army Medical Corps of the British Army in continental Greece, Crete, the Sahara and Sicily. Meanwhile, his wife and daughter spent the war years in England, living some of the time with the Durrells in Bournemouth. After the war, though, Stephanides divorced from his wife. He worked as an assistant radiologist at St. Thomas’ Hospital in London. He also continued to write and publish poetry, and to help edit books by Lawrence and Gerald Durrell, both of whom dedicated works to him. Gerald’s dedication in The Amateur Naturalist reads: ‘This book is for Theo (Dr Theodore Stephanides), my mentor and friend, without whose guidance I would have achieved nothing.’ Stephanides died in Kilburn, London, on 13 April 1983. A little further information is available at Wikipedia.

Apart from his own poems, translations of poems by others, and scientific works, Stephanides left behind some autobiographical material, in the form of memoirs. The earliest and best known of these was published in 1946 by Faber & Faber as Climax in Crete which tells of the WWII battle for the island. Although, in fact, a memoir, written retrospectively, Lawrence Durrell, who provided a foreword for the book, calls it a ‘diary’, and in parts the text reads as fresh and immediate as one. Here are some extracts from Durrell’s foreword, Stephanides’ own introduction and the main text.

Foreword by Lawrence Durrell
‘The following selection from his diary, edited by himself, gives an account of his adventures during the tragic Cretan campaign. It is not the smart, ill-informed writing of the so-called ‘trained reporter’, nor the shredded gossip of the American woman journalist; it is so bare and unassuming a narrative as to appear in places deliberately underwritten. Yet in the solid virtue of observed detail it evokes the atmosphere of Greece and Crete during the German attack with a fidelity I have not seen elsewhere equalled; and to those who were there it will no doubt come as a refreshment after the scrappy sensational prose works of the professional journalists. Certainly as a record of an epoch- making campaign it must outlive, by its very humility and simplicity and probity, more pretentious books.’

Introduction by Stephanides
‘The following brief account of what I saw during the Campaign of Crete was written immediately after my evacuation to Egypt. It was composed hurriedly, as I wished to set down the events while they were still fresh in my mind. For obvious reasons I had destroyed all notes in my possession and I was obliged to rely solely on my memory aided by some mnemonic signs I had scrawled in the margins of a pocket calendar.

It should be noted that this account does not aim at providing information of a purely military nature, as this angle has been far more competently dealt with in various official publications. My object is rather to describe the mental, moral, and psychological reactions of ordinary individuals - including myself - when suddenly confronted by a wholly unexpected emergency.

On re-reading the MS, its shortcomings were only too apparent, but I decided that it would convey a truer and more vivid picture of that grim period if left as originally written rather than if revised - and perhaps distorted - by too much pruning and correcting. No changes have therefore been made except for a few interpolations, generally to clarify the text.’

Chapter 1: The Evacuation from Greece
‘When the retreat from the north of Greece began, the 66th A.M.P.C. Group (O.C. Lieutenant-Golonel J. H. Courage), to which I was attached as regimental medical officer, returned in a hurry from Volo to Daphni. Motor- lorries brought us to Daphni Camp, about twelve kilometres north-west of Athens, on the afternoon of the 19th of April 1941. This camp, an agglomeration of tents of various shapes and sizes, was situated amongst lovely pine woods not far from the celebrated Byzantine chapel of the same name.

The next day I was able to get a few hours’ leave to go down to Athens. Everything appeared quiet and normal, except that air-raid alarms were sounding most of the time, during which all shops shut and all traffic stopped On the whole, everybody seemed cheerful and optimistic, and confident that the Germans would be held on the Lamia-Thermopylae line.

The suicide on April the 18th of Mr. Korizis, the Prime Minister, was known to everybody. The papers had reported it as ‘heart-failure’, but it was an open secret that he had shot himself.

The shopkeepers and all whom I came in contact with were particularly bitter against the Minister for War, who, they said, had betrayed Greece and ‘ought to be hanged in Constitution Square with all his accomplices’. Everybody agreed that ‘now everything will be all right as a more resolute Government will take charge’.

I saw a friend of mine, Lieutenant George Katsimbalis, who was of the opinion that the situation was very grave, but that the Lamia line could be defended. As he held a post in the Greek G.H.Q., I considered his verdict very reassuring.

On the 21st I went to the 26th General Hospital at Kiphissia to draw some medical supplies as most of my equipment had been left behind in Volo. On passing through Athens I noticed no marked signs of uneasiness, the shops and cafes were open as usual.

There was an air-raid alarm at about 10 a.m. while I was at Kiphissia and I saw a dozen German planes which seemed to be bombing the Tatoi aerodrome. There was some ack-ack fire and I saw two planes dive very steeply without reappearing above the trees which limited my view. It was impossible to say however if they had been brought down or if they were only dive-bombing. After one of these dives there was a terrific explosion and a great black column of smoke which mushroomed out at a height of several thousand feet. It was certainly something more than a bomb-burst, but I could not tell if it was the enemy plane which had crashed or a small petrol dump which had been blown up.

I handed in my indent at the hospital dispensary, housed in the Olympus, one of the luxury hotels of peacetime Kiphissia, and was told to call again the next morning for my stores.

That same afternoon we moved from Daphni Camp and were billeted in a pleasant little villa in Old Phaleron. Its one drawback was that it was situated just opposite the seaplane base, and I thought that it might become rather a hot spot if the enemy were to bomb the hangars.

Lieutenant-Colonel Courage invited Captain James, Captain Rose, and me to dine with him that evening at Costi’s restaurant. We had a very pleasant meal and everything seemed normal. The place was full of people, including British and Greek officers, and everybody appeared cheerful and confident. On our way to Costi’s, we had dropped in for a drink at the Officers’ Club just opposite the Grande Bretagne Hotel. All the officers we saw there were optimistic and they told us that the Germans were being thrown back with terrific losses all along the Lamia line. The news about the Greek army in Albania was not quite so good, but everybody seemed certain that it would be able to fall back all right and join hands with the rest of the forces.

We left Costi’s at about 11 p.m. and suddenly discovered that there was not a taxi to be seen anywhere to take us down to Phaleron. We had to walk the whole way and it was only when we had almost reached our billet that a private car passed us and an old gentleman with a white beard stopped and offered us a lift. We all bundled in out of politeness and almost immediately bundled out again opposite our front door. The old gentleman would take no refusal.

The next morning, the 22nd of April, we had breakfast as usual. None of us had the slightest inkling that an evacuation was contemplated. We even thought that we would go up the line again to Gravia in a few days’ time. I was given a small 15-cwt. truck to take delivery of the medical supplies from the 26th General Hospital. [. . .]’

Chapter III: The Battle for Crete
‘May the 20th dawned bright and fine. At about 7.30 a.m. some of the other officers and I were standing near the mess tent, chatting and waiting for breakfast to be served, when suddenly without any warning there was a terrific outburst of ack-ack fire. We all sprang into the slit-trenches, thinking that this was just another of the ordinary raids we had got so used to lately. But this time it was something very different. Before we knew what was happening, the skies were full of German planes which had apparently sprung from nowhere. There seemed to be hundreds of them diving, zooming, and criss-crossing as they bombed and machine-gunned all over the place. Then a flight of large silvery machines passed low down over our heads, coming from the south-west and making for Canea. They passed as silently as ghosts with just a swishing sound instead of the usual roar, and their wings were very long and tapering. It was only then that I understood that these were gliders and that an airborne attack on Crete had begun in grim earnest.

Shells from our ack-ack guns were bursting all around the gliders and their accompanying planes, but these were so many and our guns so pitifully few that little damage seemed to be caused. I saw one glider twist sideways with a jerk and come down behind the trees at a very steep slant, and I guessed that it must have crashed, but most of the others - about thirty, I estimated - slid serenely on and descended in the direction of Canea. They were going much slower than an ordinary plane and I reflected what a hash a few of our Hurricanes would have made of them if only they had been there.

I was just gazing at a bomber which appeared to have been hit, as it was swaying from side to side with a long plume of black smoke trailing behind it, when there was a shout from Captain Fenn: ‘Look! Parachutists!’

I spun round and saw a row of tiny black dots falling from some of the planes which were buzzing around. They seemed to have been loosed from a very low altitude, and they blossomed out almost instantly into little white umbrellas which disappeared behind the trees. Some of the parachutes appeared to be coloured green or brown, but they were too far away (luckily!) for me to be certain. Some again were much larger than the others and had a curious elongated shape; it was only later that I learnt that these were triple parachutes carrying light mortars, munitions, and other heavy stuff. The planes weaved about continuously in all directions and dropped wave after wave of these parachutes in a long arc extending from roughly south-west to north of us. Fortunately they all seemed fairly distant, but parachutists are too near in my opinion wherever they may be. It was difficult too to judge distances and to know exactly where they had come down owing to the densely crowded trees which surrounded us.

Incidentally, it was not until I had actually seen them that I realized the enormous size of a parachute. I had pictured parachutes to be four or five times as large as an umbrella, but in reality they looked twenty or thirty times that size, quite dwarfing the tiny figures of the men who dangled beneath them. When the distance is great enough, only the parachute itself is visible.

In the meantime a terrific outburst of Bren, rifle, and tommy-gun fire was added to the other noises and, what with the ack-ack, the bursting bombs, the shriek of diving planes and the rattle of their machine-guns and light cannon, the uproar reached an almost unbelievable intensity. It did not add to our peace of mind, either, to reflect that none of us knew what was really happening, that we had never received instructions what to do in a similar emergency, that nearly all our men were unarmed, and that none of us had the faintest idea as to how near the Germans really were to us. It was impossible to see very far though the trees, but the small-arms fire was very close to the west of us. [. . .]’

Tuesday, April 11, 2023

Drawing of boats and town

‘Some sun though hazy, to Devoran - did awkward drawing of boats and town. Rushed back to Tresilian & did sketch from car.’ This is the painter and illustrator, John Nash (not to be confused with John Nash the architect) - born 130 years ago today - writing his diary in the twilight years of his life. Though less well remembered than his brother Paul Nash, it was John Nash who was the subject of the first ever retrospective exhibition by the Royal Academy of a living painter.

Nash was born on 11 April 1893 in London, the younger son of a lawyer and his wife who came from a family with a naval tradition. In 1901, the family moved to Iver Heath, Buckinghamshire. Nash was educated at Langley Place in Slough and afterwards at Wellington College, Berkshire. His mother died in a mental asylum in 1910. Nash went to work as a newspaper reporter initially but, increasingly, was drawn to the art world thanks to his older brother, Paul, who was studying at the Slade School of Art, and to Paul’s friends Claughton Pellew and Dora Carrington. It was Carrington who introduced Nash to Christine Kühlenthal, another artist (who he married in 1918). He enjoyed his first success as an artist at a joint exhibition with Paul at the Dorien Leigh Gallery, London. He joined the so-called London Group, and exhibited in 1915 at the Goupil Gallery.

At the outbreak of the First World War, Nash was prevented from enlisting by ill health but, from November 1916, he joined the Artists Rifles. He served as a sergeant at the Battle of Passchendaele and at the battle of Cambrai. In 1917, he produced what would become his most famous oil painting, Over the Top, now to be found in the Imperial War Museum. On his brother’s recommendation he was employed as a war artist in 1918. After the war, he settled first in Gerrard’s Cross, then he moved, in 1921, to Meadle, near Princes Risborough, also in Buckinghamshire, which remained his permanent home until 1944 (though he bought a summer cottage in Suffolk). In 1920, he was a founder member of the Society of Wood Engravers, and in 1923, he became a member of the Modern English Water-colour Society.

Increasingly, Nash worked on woodcuts and wood engravings as illustrations to literary periodicals and for books produced by the private presses. Having become the first art critic on the London Mercury, he also took up teaching at the Oxford Ruskin School. From 1934, and then for ten years after the Second World War, he taught at The Royal College of Art. During the war, he again served, this time in the Observer Corps before becoming Official War Artist to the Admiralty in 1940.

After the war, Nash lived at Wormingford, in the Stour Valley in Essex, and he taught at the Colchester Art School. He was one of the founders of Colchester Art Society and later its president. In 1951, he became a full member of the Royal Academy, which gave him a retrospective exhibition, the first for any living painter. Nash’s wife died in 1976, after 58 years together, and Nash died a year later. Further information is available from Wikipedia, Colchester Art Society, and the Jenna Burlingham Gallery.

Nash is not known as a diarist. However, a recent and excellent biography - John Nash: The Landscape of Love and Solace (Thames & Hudson, 2020) by Andy Friend - includes a good number of references to diaries Nash kept in his later years. Mostly these references are used by Friend as source material for his text, but he does also, occasionally, include a few quoted extracts, such as the following.

21 April 1975
‘A lady from Sotheby’s to call about 30c. She brought me the painting which I had thought not mine from the Photo. Decided it was mine, probably circa 1015 in the Cotswolds. On the back of another. Biblical scene. Lot & family being led from Sodom & G. by angels, also probably by me. Damaged in parts. 1913 or so? The Cotswold picture badly cracked. Probably done when w. Father in Cheltenham.’

3 March 1976
‘Some sun though hazy, to Devoran - did awkward drawing of boats and town. Rushed back to Tresilian & did sketch from car. Sun gone and mist coming up. Tried to another. Very poor light.’

30 November 1976
‘The last day of this vile and malignant month, an utter curse fell on it and all its horrible events. Christine’s death, poor old Hog as well. The only bright spots have been the kindness of dear friends and the kind letters which all affected one because they expressed the feelings of love & respect felt by all for her. Now I must try and battle on & start again. God help us, if there is one.’

Thursday, April 6, 2023

I am a socialist

Idris Davies, a Welsh poet best remembered for The Bells of Rhymney, a ballad set to music by Pete Seeger, died 70 years ago today. Diaries of his, archived at the National Library of Wales, have not been edited or published, but one or two extracts can be found online.

Davies was born in a 1905 in Rhymney, Monmouthshire, a welsh-speaking community. At 14, he followed his father into the coal mines. He lost a finger in a work accident, and became increasingly political, taking part in the General Strike of 1926. When his pit closed, he chose to seek alternative ways of living, and eventually qualified as a teacher. His first appointment was in Hoxton, East London, in 1932.

Davies’ emergence as a poet is said to have conincided with the launch of the magazine Wales, edited by Keidrych Rhys, to which he became a regular contributor. He also contributed to London magazines such as the Poetry Review and The Adelphi. His first volume of poetry, Gwalia Deserta, was published in 1938. This included The Bells of Rhymney, perhaps his most well known verse, which was set to music by Pete Seeger and covered by many other famous singers.

As a conscientious objector, Davies was permitted to continue teaching during the Second World War, and did so in various places. It was at Anstey in Hertfordshire, in the summer of 1941, that he wrote The Angry Summer which is regarded as his finest work. He was moved around from school to school, working in London and then in Treherbert, the Rhondda valley, where he stayed for two years. This is where he completed Tonypandy and Other Poems, accepted by T. S. Eliot for Faber and Faber in 1945. It is also where he met Morfydd Peregrine: although they never married, the two were said to be devoted to each other.

Finally, after years of trying, Davies secured, in 1947, a permanent posting at a school back in the Rhymney Valley. He was, though, biographies say, disappointed to find the area had been ravaged by unemployment, emigration, and social deprivation. He died from cancer on 6 April 1953. Wikipedia has an article on Davies, as does BBC Wales. The fullest online biography can be found at the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (ODNB) website (though this requires a log-in).

According to the National Library of Wales archive for Davies, he left behind diaries for a number of years (1938, 1940, 1946, 1948, and 1951). These were used by Islwyn Jenkins for his biography of Davies; and the ODNB biography, which refers to Jenkin’s book, says the diaries provide evidence that his relationship with Morfydd Peregrine was sometimes strained.

One diary entry by Davies is widely quoted, on Wikipedia and elsewhere: ‘I am a socialist. That is why I want as much beauty as possible in our everyday lives, and so I am an enemy of pseudo-poetry and pseudo-art of all kinds. Too many “poets of the Left”, as they call themselves, are badly in need of instruction as to the difference between poetry and propaganda. . . These people should read William Blake on Imagination until they show signs of understanding him. Then the air will be clear again, and the land be, if not full of, fit for song.’

The BBC web page (mentioned above) quotes another extract from Davies’s diaries: ‘Any subject which has not man at its core is anathema to me. The meanest tramp on the road is ten times more interesting than the loveliest garden in the world.’

This article is a slightly revised version of one first published on 6 April 2013.

Tuesday, April 4, 2023

Set up the box

‘Decided to spend the day photographing. Saddled pony and started for the mountain taking camera and plate changing box with a dozen plates and during the forenoon made eight exposures, all on rock subjects.’ This is the famous early American photographer, William Henry Jackson, born 180 years ago today, writing in his diary on a formative mission to photograph the Union Pacific railway line in 1869.

Jackson was born in Keeseville, New York, on 4 April 1843, the first of seven children. His mother was a talented painter, and influenced William Henry who was something of an artistic prodigy. As young as 15, he started working as a retoucher in photography studios. In 1862 he joined the Union Army though saw little if any action in the American Civil War, since his unit was usually on garrison duty. He returned to Vermont in 1863, and to working in a studio. In 1866, after a broken engagement, he went West, working as a bullwhacker for a freighting outfit. He sketched landmarks and lifestyles along the Oregon Trail. On returning from the west in 1868, he opened his own photographic studio in Omaha, Nebraska, and, while travelling in the surrounding area, took many of his now-famous photographs of American Indians.

In 1869, Jackson won a commission from the Union Pacific to document the scenery along the various railroad routes for promotional purposes, and this led to him being invited to join a geologic survey to explore the Yellowstone region. He was then the official photographer of the US Geological and Geographic Survey of the Territories, and became one of the most important national explorers. His photographs are credited with helping convince Congress to establish Yellowstone National Park, the first such park in the US. In 1879, he opened a studio in Denver, Colorado, and established a large inventory of national and international views. Commissions for railroads followed in the early 1890s, and in the mid-1890s he took many photographs for the World’s Transportation Commission.

Thereafter, Jackson became a partner in the Detroit Photographic Company which acquired exclusive rights to use a form of photography processing called Photochrom, allowing the company to mass market postcards and other materials - many taken by Jackson - in colour. The company went out of business after the war, and Jackson moved to Washington, D.C. in 1924, where he produced murals of the Old West for the new US Department of the Interior building, and wrote two autobiographies. He is also credited with being a technical advisor for the filming of Gone with the Wind. He died in 1942, aged 99. Further information is readily available on the internet, at Wikipedia, for example, National Park Service, and the University of Chicago Library.

The New York Public Library holds a large archive of Jackson’s papers, including many of his diaries. According to the information online: ‘The diaries vary in depth and breadth of coverage, as well as in format. Some are original holograph journals. Others are holograph or typed transcripts made by Jackson from the originals. Some which appear to be transcripts are Jackson’s narrative reconstructions based on the original diaries; others are memoirs based on brief notes. These “diaries” as a whole cover his nine months in the Vermont Regiment, 1862-1863; his first trip West in 1866-67; the opening of his studio in Omaha; his photography along the line of the Union Pacific Railroad in 1869; his “photographic campaigns” with the U.S. Geological Survey, 1870-1878; his travels abroad with the World’s Transportation Commission, 1894-1986; and his years in retirement, 1925-1942. There are no diaries covering his years as a commercial photographer in Denver, 1879-1897, and only one diary (1901) and one notebook related to the 27 years he worked for the Detroit Photographic Company (later Detroit Publishing Company).’

The Diaries of William Henry Jackson was published in 1959 by Arthur H. Clark Co. as part of The Far West and the Rockies Historical Series. This is freely available to view online at the Hathi Trust. Photographs of the original pages from the June- September 1869 diary are available to view online at the New York Public Library website, as is a typescript of the same.

24 June 1869
‘The morning was cloudy but we thought promised a fine day so we went to work & set up the box. Worked around the streets from different quarters until about noon when it commenced raining & we stopped. Kept it up at intervals all P.M. Heard that some of the demi-monde wanted some large pictures of their house. Hull & I thought we would go around & see if we couldn’t get a job out of them. Talked it up a while but they seemed indifferent. I called for a bottle of wine soon after they began to take considerable interest in having a picture taken. Had another bottle & then they were hot and heavy for some large pictures to frame & began to count up how many they should want. So we left promising that if the weather permitted we would surely be on hand & make their pictures. Just before six the rain came down in torrents, making rivers in every street. As it slacked up a little we got our instruments out & made three or four negatives of the flood, getting some very good effects. This evening was but a repetition of the last.’

25 June 1869
‘Silvered paper in the morning and attended to printing all day. Not a good day for outside work so we did not make any negatives. Got along very well with printing & even after toning our pictures looked first-rate - but the fixing bathfixed them & we were very much disappointed, some of them turning out poorly. Printed up about 4 or 5 dozen. Shall probably get quite an order from McLelland for them. After supper sat in Sumner’s store listening to tough yarns from John & his brother of fighting scrapes &c. After taking a look in the Gold Room we retired early.’

26 June 1869
‘Morning opened bright. Got things out at once to make negatives. Set the box up in the yard & made a few up town of Rollins House, Ford House &c., &c & them went down to the depot securing half a dozen different views. After dinner went over to Madame Cleveland’s to make the group of the girls with the house. Weather was just hazy enough to soften the light down for an out-door group. Made three exposures - first two not good but the last very good. Occupied the rest of the afternoon varnishing and retouching the negatives made.’

27 June 1869
‘Yesterday I received a letter from & in the evening wrote one to Mollie. This A.M. slept until 7 & then went over to John’s & commenced sivering paper at once. Kept steadily at printing until about 2 P.M. getting off about 12 sheets of paper. The pictures printed well, but in toning came up mealy much to our disgust & to add to our troubles got them overtoned - had toning all done by 4 O’clock & by 5 had 20 of Madame Cleveland’s shebang all mounted. Concluded to wait until to-morrow before we delivered them. After tea took our usual walk to the depot to see the Western train come in. Things begin to look as though we should sell quite a number of pictures & it is time we did for the last two days I have been just about strapped.’

25 September 1869
‘Decided to spend the day photographing, Saddled pony and started for the mountain taking camera and plate changing box with a dozen plates and during the forenoon made eight exposures, all on rock subjects. In passing the plate box from one to another in coming down over the rocks it slipped out of hand and in falling was damaged so that it would not work. This put an end of picture making for the time being and we all went back to camp and spent the afternoon fishing. Just before sunset, however, I repaired the plate holder and exposed the remaining plates on fish subjects.’

This article is a slightly revised version of one first published on 4 April 2013.

On parade for execution

‘500 Jews stood on parade for execution by shooting . . . lined up ready to be shot . . . I don’t much care for shooting defenseless people - even if they are only Jews. I prefer honest open combat.’ This is from the extraordinary diary of Felix Landau, a Nazi executioner of Galician Jews, who died 40 years ago today. He was eventually caught and tried for his crimes, serving only 10 years in prison, but his short diary stands as a horrifying first hand account of mass murderer.

Landau was born in Vienna in 1910 an illegitimate child given the name of his Jewish stepfather. In 1925, he joined the National Socialist Youth and was expelled from Catholic boarding school for active recruitment activities. In 1930, he joined Austrian Bundesheer (2nd Dragoner Squadron), yet by mid-1933 he had been expelled for Nazi actions. Thereafter, he joined the SS but was jailed for taking part in the assassination of Austrian chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss in 1934. 

On his release from jail in 1937, Landau renewed Nazi activities and became a naturalised German citizen. He married Marianne Grzonka in 1938, and they had two children. By this time he was employed as a police assistant in the Gestapo. In 1940, he transferred to the Gestapo’s intellitence service (KdS/SD), and then volunteered for the Einsatzkommando (the mobile killing squads) based first in Lwów, Poland (today Lviv, Ukraine), and later in Drohobycz.

By the latter part of 1941, Landau was in charge of organising Jewish labour, and he was living with a typist, Gertrude, whom he had met a year earlier. Having divorced his wife, he married Gertrude in 1943. After the war, in 1946, a former worker recognised him in Linz. He was arrested by the Americans but escaped from Glasenbach prison camp in August 1947. He changed his name to Rudolf Jaschke and started up an interior decorating company in Bavaria. In 1959, however, he was arrested and accused of participating in massacres. He was condemned to life imprisonment in 1962 at the Stuttgart Assize Court, but was released in 1973. He died on 4 April 1983. Further information is available from Wikipedia, Remember Together Across Borders, and from an article in the Los Angeles Review of Books

Landau’s name is remembered today because, briefly, he kept a diary in which he wrote about the horrendous atrocities - mass killings of Galician Jews - which he was undertaking for, and in the name of, the Nazis. The diary typescript in German is available online at Digital Kenyon; and the same website has published translations into English of several of the diary entries - as below. The translations were made by Tuviah Friedman, former Director of the Institute of Documentation of Nazi War Crimes in Haifa.

3 July 1941, Lemberg
‘On Monday 30.6.1941, after a sleepless night I volunteered . . . for a Commando Operation . . . At 4 PM on 2 July 1941, we arrived in Lemberg. In comparison Warsaw is harmless. Shortly upon arrival, the first Jews were shot by us. As is usual, some of the modern-time leaders become mad with a superiority complex, really imagine to be what they seem. . . Whilst writing the order is given to get ready. Commando operation with steel helmet and rifle, 30 rounds of ammunition . . . 500 Jews stood on parade for execution by shooting . . . lined up ready to be shot . . . I don’t much care for shooting defenseless people - even if they are only Jews. I prefer honest open combat.’

5 July 1941
‘. . . Today we might have our first hot meal . . . there is the smell of corpses everywhere when passing burnt houses. Time is filled out with sleep. In the course of the afternoon about another 300 Jews and Poles are put down. At a street corner we saw several Jews covered all over with sand. We looked at one another. All thought the same thing. The Jews had crawled out of the grave of the shot people . . .

Instead, they learn that Ukrainians had rounded up some 800 Jewish men and taken them up to the ruins of the Citadel on a hill. Landau’s Einsatzkommando unit was scheduled to shoot them the following day, but they were released and in the process a group of Wehrmacht soldiers beat them mercilessly:

We continued driving down the road. Hundreds of Jews with blood streaming down their faces, holes in their heads, broken hands and eyeballs hanging from their sockets are running along the road . . . soldiers standing with cudgels thick as fists lashing out and beating anyone crossing their path . . . Jews heaped row upon row, like pigs, whimpering terribly. Nothing against it only they should not let the Jews run around in this state. For today we have nothing else to do . . . Comradeship is still good . . . I am disappointed . . . too little combat, hence this bad mood.’

12 July 1941, Drohobycz
‘At 6 o’clock I am suddenly being woken out of my sleep. On parade for execution. Alright then, so I can play hangman and afterwards grave digger, why not? It’s  . . . strange, it is combat one loves, and then one has to shoot down defenseless people. 23 are to be shot, amongst them the women already mentioned. They are to be admired. They refuse to accept as much as a glass of water from us. I am designated a marksman and have to shoot eventual escapees. We drive along the road for a kilometer and then turn to the right into a wood. We are only 6 men  . . . and are looking for a suitable location for the execution and burial. A few minutes and we found such a place. The death candidates step forward with shovels to dig their own grave. Two of them are crying. The others appear to have tremendous courage. What may go through their minds at this moment? I think each has a small hope that somehow, he will not be shot after all. The death candidates are being paraded in three rows as there are not enough shovels. Strange, nothing moves in me. No pity, nothing. This is how it is, and that’s all there is to it. Only very gently does my heart beat when uncalled for emotions and thoughts awaken . . . And here I am today, a survivor standing in front of others in order to shoot them. Slowly the hole gets bigger and bigger, two of them are crying continuously. I keep them digging longer and longer: they don’t think so much when they’re digging. During work they are quieter. Valuables, watches and money are being put on one heap. After all of them are brought to a vacant place, the two women are made to stand at one end of the grave as first in line to be shot. Two men are already shot . . . in the undergrowth . . . The women stopped to the pit, tremendously composed and turned around. Six of us had to shoot them . . . three men to aim to the heart, three men to the head. I take the heart. The shots are heard and brain matter whiz through the air. Two in the head is too much.’

22 July 1941
‘. . . In the morning the workers ordered arrived. When I then wanted to go to the committee of the Jews, one of its members arrived and asked for my assistance, since the Jews refused to work there. I went over there. When these arseholes saw me, they ran away in all directions. A pity I didn’t have a pistol on me, or I would have shot some down . . . I declared that unless 100 Jews would fall in within one hour, I would choose 100 Jews to be shot. Scarcely 30 minutes later, 100 Jews arrived, and another 17 men for those that had escaped beforehand. I reported the incident and at the same time demanded that those that had run off were to be shot for having refused to work . . . 12 hours later, 20 Jews were killed.’