Oil on linen 100cm x 100cm
The Winter bit hard in late November, I could feel it in the studio, every morning, that sting of cold damp air. The stove had been burning all the previous day but regardless of that fact and during the dark of night, the cold had crept in, it crept under the doorways, in through the glass, down from the cold, blue-grey slate and settled on everything like an invisible, heavy, damp dust. So when you moved through the room, you disturbed it and then you felt it, on your face, in your nose, heavy on your shoulders and in your clothes. But there were logs to chop, and timber to cut, cut everything down to size, old newspapers to twist into rope like igniters and there were twigs to break. Lots and lots of twigs to break.
The stove was a big square imposing block of iron, rigged up with plumbing to pump hot water to the four big radiators that were along the studio walls. But it was a greedy monkey, a needy child that wanted constant attention or it might give you the cold shoulder and then the cold feet and then the hands.
There always comes a time that I have to call it a day, when I find a situation is no longer working, I need to change it. So I booked a ticket to get out of there and on one cold day in November I loaded up the vehicle with canvas, paint and brush, clothes and provisions and I headed off to Dublin Port. The latest car ferry had just been launched, a great big hulking shiny new ship, that promised comfort and ease and warmth. This winter exile, as I called it, had been made many times before but I was looking forward to this sailing, check out the new ship, throw a few ideas down on paper, no cell phone, no distraction, some good wines and 17 hours until I landed at Cherbourg, in France.
After six hours of driving I stoped outside of Bordeaux, a beautiful small town called St Jean d’Angely but this was not the destination I had in mind, I was going to go down as far as Portugal, somewhere along the Algarve, maybe over towards Spain. I was going to go down there for no other reason than it was going to be warmer than my studio and it would offer me a break from being the Johnny forty coats, wood chopping, lumberjack, part-time painter that winter had made me.
After I had found a place to rent in the working town of Alhåo, east of Faro and away from the built up resorts of the western side of the Algarve, I went about setting up my studio. It was an old house with lots of space, lots of different rooms, rooms off of rooms. It was a traditional Portuguese house, complete with blue tile and heavy oak furniture, carved, solid, clunky and lovely. There were fresh food markets and fresh fish everyday as it was an important fishing port. Restaurants and bars and peace and solitude and anonymity. The family lived next door and I found my new living situation to be motivating and charming, the studio had all the morning light and the heat of the sun, and when I felt it, it was like the starter coil on a diesel engine, warming the diesel in the pistons before firing them into action., before launching me into action. It was a long sun room with high ceilings, walls of windows and enough cotton blinds to defuse the brilliant, warm, welcome light. But the studio also had enough shade where I needed it and although the larger back room was north facing and the light was better, it remained cold.
And that was never going to do.
Jade would come to visit and we would spend some of the days painting and then we would be off, exploring or just wandering the town, the sun was always up and it felt good on your face, on your arms, your back and it played well into making all interesting and new. One day we drove up to the small town of Estoi. A friend of mine had mentioned it to me, as it being her favourite place in Portugal, I had not known about it before then. After finding it on the map, off we went. It was mostly a village in slumber with shops closed for siesta and a few distant bodies shuffling indoors. We had been ambling aimlessly about when a man caught our eye, motioning to us from behind two great, old stately gates. He communicated through gesturing that we should come in, walk up the drive and look around, there was a little grunting and a lot of un-interest from this large sun stained sentinel, who had his tiny chair squirrelled away in the shade of the bushes, I wondered had he been poised on that chair, like a Puma, waiting for aimless tourists, but then I thought he definitely - had not. He was mostly direct and did not feel the need for unnecessary pleasantries.
Who were we to argue and besides , what else were we doing.
Up the avenue we wandered and at the brow of the hill we were met by some wonderful grandiose, marble and stone staircases. All adorned with mosaic and fresco, how odd this appeared and how unexpected. Atop the two communicating flights of great steps we could get a sense of the sweeping tiered and tired gardens we were entering, old but not very old, beautiful but not beautifully executed. The frescos and the blue tile scenes were not of the highest standard and It immediately made me think of the efforts of the infamous 81 year old lady in Spain, who tried to restore a 19th century fresco of Christ in her local church. The end results left Jesus looking a lot worse for wear, a little like the sole of a sandal and indeed, some wondered and it had been widely speculated that maybe she had painted it with the sole of her own sandal.
Onwards up we went and it became apparent that this was a very large folly, an early Victorian rambling mansion and gardens, It was a menagerie of all things, mostly Rocco style with a wonderful bent towards the blue tile art of Portugal. An endless mass of stone and busts and marble and mosaic, columns and grottos. And the frescos, ahh the frescos, all lovely in a sort of tilting of the head way, a corrugating of the brow and squinting of the eye way, all lovely in their own unusual way.
After finding this delightful small wall of tile I asked Jade to step in and pose, it had a wonderful higgledy-piggledy way about it, with no real sense of a flat surface and the sunlight gave it a look of an undulating, choppy sea, a storm of tile.
After we had experienced all the endless nooks and crannies, grottos and tiled walls ,the ante rooms and the stained glass, the painted ceilings and the ornate Rocco stucco, we went back down the long drive and towards the gates. It seemed the only way in or out but our gate keeper was nowhere to be seen and our great gates were locked and chained. Over to different parts of the estate we went but to no avail. Then back to the main gates and back to the empty chair in the shade that could not answer our repeated question of how the hell do we get out of here now. Back up to Mansion through the old house and out through the new modern hotel, low lying, two storey hotel, sympathetically added on to the old mansion. Clean architecture with long lines and invisible from the gardens until you reached the top. Out through the hotel and out into the back end of the town, walking around the quiet, still streets until we came around to the front of the estate again, where the first person we saw was our sun stained gate keeper. spilling out over another tiny chair at a small bar, in the sun, having a beer, not worried about any gates or his siesta. I nodded at him but he looked through me and I thought to myself, “good man”. I respect that.
After doing some research, I found that it was built by the a wealthy family but had fallen into decay and ruin after the last of the family had died. Then it was purchased by an investor who fell in love with it and restored it to its former glory. He was renowned for having lavish parties and it became somewhat of a hideaway for the political and wealthy. He was later made the Marquises of Estoi but after his departure the house and gardens fell into decay again and it was not until the government moved to take it on as a project of national heritage and importance, did it start to live again .It is a magical and unique, strange, beguiling and original place, where I felt it was borne of someones passion and will to build and witness what they desired, and in doing so it became the following of ones own drum, an escaping of a cage, of tradition. A strength to fly free and in doing so, keeping both eyes open to possibilities and acknowledging routine and that routine is the cage.
And that is a cage I want to be free from..
For there always comes a time, when I have to call it a day.