Silvia was born in Malta where she lived for approx 4-5 years; I suspect this meant that the Mediterranean climate was always ‘in her blood’ even if she didn’t have many memories of her infant years on the island (see: TimeLine, 1892-97)
It would be interesting to know if, or how often, she visited France before WW1 and whether she was able to find out for herself what was happening in the art scene.
When, however, her mother moved to Mentone in approx 1920, Silvia had a perfect excuse to visit the Riviera in its heyday, during the 1920’s & 30’s. There are a few letters which indicate she visited her mother from time to time and, presumably, her mother came back to London – perhaps once a year. She also stayed in Antibes with the OGs in 1924 [?], together with the Rothensteins. I hope she had the chance to travel there on the famous Blue Train which had transformed the area into a must-see tourist destination.
Tangier & Paris, Spring 1938
Following the death of her mother and her husband, Silvia was clearly struggling with grief and possibly a near breakdown, (I like to think she would have had more support in today’s world.) As a way of coping, she chose to escape to the Continent, departing from Southampton on April 8th aboard ‘Sibajar’ a Royal Dutch mail-ship. This took her to Tangier, on the south side of the Gibraltar Strait. She had the somewhat idealistic notion that it would be a good place in which to live as, at the time, it belonged to six European nations. But she found the weather was very cold and it was rather too wild a place to settle down in. After two weeks, she went to Paris instead… staying there for several months, drawing animals in the Zoo and ‘figures’ at the Colarossi Academy.
Italy, Summer 1938 (& 1933)
After a while, however, she grew restless. Feeling suicidal one day, she remembered happier times in Portofino, which she visited with Athole[?]. On a whim, she took the train to Portofino (near Genoa) and stayed there for the summer months of 1938. She enjoyed drawing in the market-place and bathing in the beautiful sea. She made friends with some dancers who ran a ballet school in London but gave it up to become disciples of a Persian mystic… According to her journal (AL), she was there for the Feast of the Annunciation (25th March) with the local band performing and street singers but I presume she meant the Feast of the Assumption (15th August).
In her second journal (JY) she reminisces about Italy. It may have been a delayed honeymoon (their official honeymoon was in Yorkshire) as they went to Venice soon after she was married. There, they met one of her husband’s cousins in St Mark’s Square. He invited them to a dance that night in a Palazzo which the cousin had rented. Silvia was impressed by the women who had painted their eyelids with silver and wore water-lilies, dyed rose-colour, in their hair. When she was in pain and unable to sleep, she took solace in such memories which were as sweet to me as Turkish Delight. They also took a boat from Naples to Capri, filled with tubs of pink oleanders on deck and Italians strumming guitars whilst singing Neapolitan songs!
Silvia travelled to Cyprus around 1949. Having travelled the world by boat and train, she recounts that the best part of the journey was flying over the Greek islands. This is the first mention of flying anywhere – was it her first flight? Her timing, however, is unclear. She made a practice of leaving England during the winter months. There is s a reference to attending an Epiphany Ceremony in Kyrenia and that would have been in January; and another one tells us she moved to the mountains in August… We know she was in Cyprus for at least six months but it was possibly for over a year.
Cyprus was not divided until 1974 and Silvia would have thus had the advantage of visiting the riches of the whole island. She was glad to be back in the Mediterranean civilisation ‘where one belongs’ and was impressed by its 4,000 year history, as well as by the ancient sites – be they archaeological, biblical or those pertaining to Greek gods. She found that being in such an ambience helped soften the blow of leaving the Tahitian paradise and provided relief from gloomy Kensington where (after being away, on and off, for over a decade) she struggled to feel at home.
She observes the mountains are freckled with trees, the dry grass shines like gold but the landscape is austere. The social life, however, was not so austere. She met many leading lights of Kyrenia who were retired Anglo-Indians; their conversation at parties, she notes, was reminiscent of the snake-pits of Simla. She thought that people, who in pre-war days would have lived in Mentone (like her mother), now came to Cyprus. As in other countries, she learns about the island by reading the local newspaper and suggests that crime reports provide a useful perspective. She loved newspapers in the Tropics with their fantastic announcements ‘Close season for armadillos’ or ‘Young elephants for sale’.
Initially, she stayed in a hotel in Kyrenia and spent time in the harbour, with all its narrow cobbled ways and its tall houses built in the time of the Venetian occupation. She enjoyed watching the fishermen and sketching the ships, whilst sitting in the shade nearby.
When it became too hot, Silvia went up to a grape growing area in the mountains. She stayed in a hotel surrounded by rushing streams, many kinds of fruit trees, vineyards and pine-trees. It was, however, devoid of all the amenities advertised in one of the Cyprus papers, such as sulphur baths and a daily bus service – she had been conned! So she moved on to a grand hotel where she spent ten days but it was a bit too grand for her – full of rich Greeks and Egyptians. At the other end of the scale, she moved to a deserted monastery that had been converted into a hotel. She slept in a tiny room, formerly a monk’s cell and dined in what had been the monk’s refectory.
Having stayed in a series of hotels, she changes tack and becomes a ‘PG’. This was a mistake as, even at her age, she was ‘under supervision’ – it only lasted two weeks! But she could sit on the flat roof of the house and paint the mountains with their shadows which, as they lengthened, transformed from ultramarine to the colour of Russian violets – violet mixed with indigo. Her next attempt was to embark on renting a house. With the help of the local Mayor she found a suitable place but subsequently felt she had been hypnotised into taking it by the owner who had eyes like inkwells. She signed a contract for a year (partly in an effort to quash her passion for travelling) but this of course chained her to the island. Inevitably, she later tried to wriggle out of it!
Her next challenge was to master the art of house-keeping again… but there were compensations – a garden with a bush of jasmine, blossoming like the Milky Way, pomegranate trees too, and lemons and mandarins, as well as views of the sea and the mountains. She takes in a female lodger, known as ‘H’ and has friendly neighbours who act as interpreters when she doesn’t understand the Greek Cypriot dialect. She orders shelves from a local carpenter but he takes his time and because I am so impatient she orders more from another carpenter, and then another, so that she ends up having to invent the necessity of more shelves to pacify them!
All the while, she would be sketching and painting. She often refers to people in terms of whether or not they would make a good model. In Cyprus, there was the beautiful young Andreas who seems to impose beauty even on the folds of his clothes and a blind beggar who wore smart shoes. Others mentioned include the son of a local priest and a laundry girl who was beautiful in a C19th kind of way, like a heroine of Byron. They are all paid for sitting and are offered cigarettes and chocolate.
Spain, 1950 (approx)
After Cyprus, Silvia returned to London for a while and moves into a house with eccentric owners and a variety of fellow lodgers. Again her timing is unclear but, at some point, she decided that she wanted to go to an artistic area in Spain, supposedly to draw beggars. She considered Majorca and Barcelona but then learnt about a hotel called Santa Margarita (her second name…) where one of her fellow lodgers grew up. It was in Torre Molinos, near Malaga.
Silvia was captivated by Southern Spain (in the days before there were any high-rise blocks!) and loved the stained-glass colours – blue sea, emerald-green grass and red earth. Across the bay, she could see Malaga with its crumpled hills, and behind them the snow mountains. Snow mountains guarding a summer sea – it is a sight for the gods.
She didn’t speak any Spanish and was obliged to resort to the sign-language which one of her friends called Desperanto! She had Spanish lessons and was eventually able to talk to her models and, luckily, several of her Spanish friends could speak English.
She found it was a wonderful place for models. When she wanted to draw she would sit on a low wall by the side of the road, and usually before five minutes have gone by someone comes along and offers to pose for me. At times, however, dozens of would-be models appear in the hotel drive and cluster around the fountain. When there were too many, the patron telephoned the Guardias Civiles to clear them out, and she gets into trouble for encouraging them – and is terrified of being forcibly ejected on this account because I love being here!
On one occasion a member of the Guardias Civiles came by appointment to see her drawings as he was an artist. Silvia was slightly alarmed in case he thought I had been sketching fortifications but she need not have worried as they ended up swapping drawings. Tristram Hillier whose work she had admired in the Tate Gallery stayed at her hotel at some stage, whilst Augustus John bought one of her pictures, when he was in Malaga.
Silvia would visit Malaga if she needed to go to the bank or post office and enjoyed taking the bus as there was plenty to look at and plenty of drama when waiting for it in the market square. She was particularly moved during Holy Week when, on Good Friday, all the lights in Malaga were turned off for a moonlit procession.
After an unknown period of time, as she approached the age of sixty, she returned to London with a squirrel-hoard of impressions and memories to comfort me when I’m old, and rejoined the friends of her youth. As far as we know, this is the last time she travelled abroad for any extended length of time.