Fran, Mick, Chris and Me…

These little stories are about two unrelated events that both have something in common – they both involve a certain amount of namedropping.

Part One

Many moons ago, I  studied sculpture  at St Martins ( take note Jarvis Cocker). There were some pretty big names teaching there at that time; Anthony Caro, Phillip King, John Hoyland, Frederick Gore and more. However, the amount of sculpting I did was limited slightly by the lure of various drinking establishments in nearby Soho.  One of these was the renown French House, run at that time by archetypal Frenchman, Gaston Berlemont.,_Soho


Monsieur G Berlemont

 Monsieur Berlemont was unique and fearsome, but he was also a welcoming landlord.  Soho at that time was reaching the end of an era. Its gradual decline as a magnet  for artists, writers, performers and various other “characters” was inevitable as the old guard  gradually faded away in a haze of gin fumes. Read Daniel Farson’s books for an evocative account of the period.  My college friend Simon ( who was later to become the Art Critic of the London Evening News) and myself would head  most lunchtimes towards Dean St where an opened bottle of Cotes du Rhone awaited us on the bar.  Amongst the regulars at the “French” was painter Francis Bacon.

Mr F Bacon

Mr F Bacon

One day as we were heading into Soho for our liquid lunch, we spotted the renown artist, reeling towards us. As usual he was  looking worse for wear with drink. On passing us he stumbled and fell towards the busy traffic along Old Compton Street. With lightning reactions I grabbed the legendary painter by the left arm and hauled him back out of danger. Back on the vertical,Bacon straightened himself up and headed off without a murmer . I was disappointed, a small painting was the least I might have expected by way of thanks after saving the life of one of the greatest painters of the 20th Century.

Part Two

A couple of years ago in Dymchurch we set up something called the Traders and Residents Group. This committee (and I use the word loosely) comprised all and sundry, basically anyone with a view on the state of the village.  Our original aim was to ensure the construction work on the new seawall did not adversly affect the economy of the village..  I was “lucky” to be elected Chair  of the Group, it was a bit of a poisoned chalice as it happened.  The way things turned out though, the seawall construction work actually brought the village to life. Birse Coastal, the contractors were incredibly considerate to the community, great communication, friendly professional workforce. They also gave the village cafe’s loads of much needed winter business. In fact Birse won a prestigious national award on the strength of the Dymchurch project.  Most mornings half the population of the village could be found on the seawall watching with amazement at the incredible feat of civil engineering that was taking place on their doorstep.

The “Dignitaries” I’m the one on the right who got the dress code wrong..

As is always the case, towards the end of the scheme, the bigwigs were invited to observe progress.  Lord Chris Smith, Chair of the Environment Agency and Baron Howard of Lympne  ( MIchael Howard to you and me)  turned up with their entourage to view the magnificent expanse of concrete.  To my amazement I too was invited in my role as Chair of the Traders committee. We were all issued with lovely shiny new safety wear and the dignitaries were ushered into a large (bulletproof?) black limousine for a tour of the wall.

To me the word “Gobsmacked” is the ugliest word in the English language, normally I wouldn’t dream of using it. In this instance however, it somehow seems quite appropriate. I found myself in the back seat of the limo sandwiched between Baron Howard and Lord Smith. Even Terry Preston our beloved Parish Council Chairman didn’t get a look in. Actually I think they were as surprised as I was to see me sat between them.   Making polite conversation and playing at being a “dignitary” was fun while it lasted though. The Traders and Residents committee folded shortly afterwards, (a blessed relief) and my glory days were over, at least for the time being…..


Richard Eurich and Dymchurch Beach

It’s difficult for artists to paint something like Dymchurch Beach, there isn’t much to get your teeth into really.
Paul Nash, despite wandering up and down the sandy expanse numerous times, didn’t actually concentrate on the beach very much.  For him it was more about the Wall and it’s relationship as a barrier between the sea and the Romney Marsh.  Other artists have pecked away at the subject in a half- hearted sort of way. Charles Simms  had one go and called it a day, Ben Nicholson obviously thought once was quite enough (though the one picture he did produce was rather good).  You can’t blame them entirely, unless you are a minimalist and look for less, rather than more, what is there to focus on?


The Beach with Buoy, Groyne and a Pole with a Red thing on top

There are several yellow buoys, tethered by iron chains. Occasionally one breaks loose and crashes menacingly against the seawall – (exciting!) We have the oak breakwaters, the poet John Davidson referred to them as “organ stops” in his lovely poem “On Romney Marsh”. At first glance there doesn’t seem to be much else of interest.
Having said all that there’s something that draws me to the beach and the vast swathe of flat sand that forms the crescent of St Mary’s Bay. The obvious reference points are the more distant landmarks, the Water Tower at Littlestone, the lightouses and power stations at Dungeness, the Martello Towers. The oddly shaped (and named) “Brittania Grand Burstin” Hotel at Folkestone. A white Art Deco’ish monolith.
I like to gaze out over the beach when the tide is out, there are pools of sea water that reflect the changing sky and the barnacle encrusted breakwaters. There are shallow rises and falls in the sand that create subtle changes of light. Distant dog-walkers and the occasional angler digging for bait punctuate the far off waterline. As you climb the slope up to the sea wall you never know what awaits as you peer over the top. The beach landscape is constantly altering as the day progresses.
On a clear night you can gaze into the darkness and see the rhythmic sweep of the Cap Gris Nez lighthouse beam, 20 or so miles away on the French coast. Nearer to home the single lights of the small fishing boats, which launch from the Dymchurch beach at low tide. To the east the Folkestone harbour light.

Another beach job for the Bomb Disposal

Another beach job for the Bomb Disposal

The other week I spotted the Coastguard vehicle parked on the sand, I couldn’t resist asking him why he was there. It turned out that part of a WWII torpedo had surfaced. (very exciting!). Eventually the Bomb Disposal Van turned up, a quick “controlled explosion” and another wartime relic was obliterated.

Dymchurch Beach by Richard Eurich

Dymchurch Beach by Richard Eurich

An artist who made some effort with the empty Dymchurch beach was Richard Eurich. Eurich (1903 – 1992) specialised in extensive panoramas and produced a large number of paintings as a war artist in WWII. You can see these on the superb BBC “Your Paintings” website just enter “Eurich” into the search box.  The picture at the head of this blog is by this artist and shows the sweep of the beach looking west towards Dungeness. Other works by Eurich show the view looking out to sea over the beach which is sparsely populated by tiny figures.The edge of the rock sea defences can be seen in the foreground.  Although Richard Ernst Eurich was born in Bradford he was of German descent. Interestingly his father was a pioneering forensic scientist who was renown for his research into the disease Anthrax.

Pacifism was in the family and that is why Richard became a war artist and was not himself conscripted for military service in WW2. That made possible his famous and very good pictures of Dunkirk and other wartime scenes.

Eurich is an underrated artist and deserves greater exposure, his paintings of the sands at Dymchurch certainly  capture the atmosphere and feel of our lovely beach.