Painting the Southern Peloponnese:
In the footsteps of Patrick Leigh Fermor
‘When God had finished making the world, he had a sack of stones left over and he emptied it here...’ Patrick Leigh Fermor, Mani-Travels in the Southern Peloponnese
“To our left loomed the great crag of Mt. Elijah about Boularii, stark in the morning light, but exquisitely beautiful when we had seen it the previous evening in the full glow of sunset...an indescribably rich yet delicate shade somewhere between rose-pink and mauve that lasted about five minutes before the sun disappeared into the Messenian Gulf.” (Greenhalgh)
I was always fond of John Craxton’s cover illustrations for Patrick Leigh Fermor’s travel books, but had not really understood the longstanding connection between these two men or their mutual love for Greece until Ian Collins’ retrospective exhibition and monograph on Craxton in 2011. It unveiled a remarkable series of luminous paintings, many in tempera, that seemed to distil the essence of Greek landscape and life (Cretan in particular). Their linear form owes much to modernism, but also to the close study of Byzantine painting and the mentoring of Greek painter Niko Hadjikyriakou- Ghika, a lifelong friend to both Craxton and Leigh Fermor. This creative fellowship played out during the second half of the 20th century moving between their homes on Crete, Hydra and the Mani peninsula and has just been celebrated in an exhibition called ‘Charmed Lives in Greece’ at the British Museum earlier this year.
‘the sun was already high in the limitless Greek sky: a sky which is higher and lighter and which surrounds one closer and stretches further into space than anywhere else in the world.’ Patrick Leigh Fermor, Mani-Travels in the Southern Peloponnese
I read ‘Mani, Travels in the Southern Peloponnese’ (largely written while staying in Ghika’s house on Hydra) while visiting Kardamyli , where I found the Leigh Fermor house on a low cliff surrounded by olives and cypress trees. While walking in the nearby Vyros Gorge, I was transfixed by a tiny figure leading goats high up in the Taygetus mountains; a scene straight from the book of 60 years earlier. Because of this evocative writing and the Greek landscapes of Craxton and Ghika I so admire and partly because of it's strange beauty, Mani cast a spell; it got under the skin. I decided to return and paint some of it for myself.
‘The very desolation and melancholy of this neglected church in so beautiful a setting would have stimulated Byron or Shelley to write verses that Burne-Jones would have loved to illustrate.’ p.103 of ‘Deep into Mani’ Greenhalgh/Eliopoulos, Deep into Mani
My plan was to walk in the footsteps of Leigh Fermor and in October 2017 I caught a bus with a friend, from Kalamata down the coast to Itilon, where began a walk around the southernmost tip of the peninsula, known as ‘Mesa Mani’ or the ‘Deep Mani’.
‘Its geographical seclusion, locked away beyond the mountains on the confines of Sparta, and the steepness and aridity of its mountains are the key to the whole thing.’ Patrick Leigh Fermor, Mani-Travels in the Southern Peloponnese
We walked along narrow lanes of red earth between drystone walls enclosing gnarled olives, donkeys, a few precious cows; small, black and horned. They stood where they could among rocky outcrops, shattered boulders as big as cars and sharp stones of every size. The bare bones of this place poke through at every turn.
Figs, agaves and occasional surprise at pomegranates; skins like glazed ceramic, mottled red and orange. The flash of a Jay among branches. Scattered cigarette packs and spent gun cartridges.
During a three week trek, I made a number of pleinair studies on a route which took us over mountains, along treacherous cliffs and across plains baked by the sun. We slept out in olive groves, in abandoned war-towers, by derelict Byzantine churches and once on the very top of Mount Sangias under a full moon.
‘Soon we were rounding a cape and sailing at a slant across a broad inlet that penetrated a few miles into the mountains...when we left the caique’s cool awning the sun came stampeding down to the attack.’ Patrick Leigh Fermor, Mani-Travels in the Southern Peloponnese
On my return, I began to work a number of studies into larger paintings and made others in response to the experience and memory. They are my attempt to translate the sensation of being there, the physical harshness and aridity; the fierce sun, the empty space, the colours and light of this unique place apart.
Toby Wiggins 2018
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