Friday 10 June 2011

Cherries from Chauvet's Orchard

We climbed out and drank in the view. Lines of crimson vines swirled out like a pleated skirt from where we stood on chocolate ploughed earth. To the right a cherry orchard seemed to have been dipped in beetroot juice and there was a custard-coloured lake of wheat to the left. The scene was punctuated in the middle distance by a butternut squash tinted field and three trees in quince green. The slopes of Mont Ventoux rose up behind, a turban of pink clouds wound around its peak.
                          From Cherries from Chauvet’s Orchard

As soon as I opened this book by Ruth Phillips, I knew it was special. I’ve read it twice now, since mentioning it in my “Cross-Channel reading” post, and I will undoubtedly read it again. In this extract, Ruth and her husband, the artist Julian Merrow-Smith see for the first time, in autumn, the hamlet where they will settle in Provence. And we see it with them, such is the vibrancy of the description. The term “painting in words” might be overused, but it is precisely what Ruth Phillips achieves.

Cherries from Chauvet’s Orchard is a passionate memoir of a painter who followed a dream, a wife who has her own artistic profession as a concert ’cellist yet becomes in addition, by default, his studio assistant, and their life together in an intense landscape of colour and light, nature – and love.

Each chapter is given the title of one of Julian’s Postcards from Provence, the daily paintings that have made his name – and what delights those titles are! Instantly, they give a delicious flavour of what is to come:  Pale Blue Iris; Two Pomegranates; Still Life with Summer Fruits

In October 2008, the thousandth of these small oil paintings that glow with inner life was sold. That milestone was passed while Ruth was away, in northern France playing The Marriage of Figaro by night. Her idea was to write to everyone who had bought one of the pictures, and ask them if they would like to tell her a little about themselves, where they lived and what the paintings meant to them.

From these responses grew the structure of this book, though it is far more a portrait of her and Julian than it is about the buyers. They provide a very short introduction about themselves which gives Ruth the lead to explore the background to each work - how and where it was painted - in vivid personal scenes, shot through with colour and observation, sometimes hilarious, sometimes touching, often painfully honest and intimate. This is no wide-eyed idyll. It is lyrical yet moving as she pulls no punches when writing about its darker corners: the days when the painter won’t paint, their struggle to have a baby.

Ruth Reading by Julian Merrow-Smith

This, for me, is what makes this such a rewarding read: it’s a book to lose yourself in, to feel as if you come to understand the personalities involved as well as the setting. Ruth Phillips is a gifted writer, alive to every nuance of tone and texture. I adored the richly-layered descriptive passages in which so much more than the superficial is encoded. 

   Julian presented the food. A fillet of sea bass with perfect griddle marks and a scattering of fennel picked from a nearby hedgerow. There were caramelized carrots, baby la ratte potatoes and a garnish of roasted tomatoes that had made a brief appearance in a painting that afternoon.

A perfect paragraph. It encapsulates so much unstated back-story: that Julian is an enthusiastic and excellent cook, that they gather wild food, the slow sweetening of natural produce, the conjunction of real life and Still Life in the immortalised tomatoes.

But you have to read it in context, because this vignette takes place amid a foul-mouthed onslaught by the French country neighbours from hell, in which Julian demonstrates that the classic British stiff upper lip is a potent psychological defence.

I highly recommend this engaging, lush, intensely visual yet thoughtful read. It will transport you to sunny uplands, lifting your heart along the way, though never losing sight of the realities of the hard road to fulfilment in any artistic or personal endeavour.

In February 2005 Julian Merrow-Smith started Postcard from Provence, a daily painting project at Shifting Light here. Each day he paints a small still life or landscape inspired by the countryside outside his studio, its fruits and everyday artefacts. All artwork on this post is his.


BookBagLady said...

Thank you for a fabulous review, it sounds delicious and one I'll be picking up.


Jyoti Mishra said...

its lovely !!!

Enjoyed the post.

;) said...

Alors moi aussi j'ai envie de me perdre dans ce livre... Merci.

Karen Wojcik Berner said...

Sounds wonderful.

Muriel said...

Can I have a cherry please? They look yummy!

totsymae1011 said...

I really love the process of how this book evolved. What you have here are a pair of soul mates who have composed a nice collaboration to share their artistry with the world. I love this.

Carol Apple said...

What a delicious post. I am not familiar with Julian Merrow-Smith but I can always rely on you to introduce me something new and exciting to check out!

Unknown said...

Deborah, I love your blog. I'm visiting today from She Writes - but I visit anyway, as you know. Good luck with the book and the new, earlier launch date. Very exciting! It was wonderful to see you in New York.

Meg Waite Clayton said...

Mmmm... Makes me hungry. I am going to go make some cherry walnut bread!

Mockingbird said...

Lovely post! I will definitely add this book to my future reading list. I am visiting today from She Writes, and have to admit that this is quite the most interesting blog journey I have made in a long time.

Deb said...

I now have a craving for fish and sunshine and fields of gold. Beautiful. Stopped by through She Writes, but am a regular anyway.

Unknown said...

How beautiful. I have never heard of this author. Thanks for sharing the wonderful painting of language. :)

Cheryl Hart said...

This sounds fabulous!

Anonymous said...

Oh dear, I am so far behind - computer problems, 10 days in Corsica and several days trying to catch up on our return have put me back weeks. This sounds a delightful book and I will order one from Amazon.

James Kiester said...

It sounds like a very interesting book, rich with imagery.

Niranjana said...

Oh my! what an interesting-sounding book, particularly the structure. My library doesn't stock it, so I'll have to scour the interwebs now.
Coming over for the SW ball, and in response to your comment on my blog, but I'll be visiting regularly now. And there's no rush for your WDLT essay--please send it in when you find time!

This comment has been removed by the author.


Excellent blog. I speak little English, I prefer my mother tongue. I also spent 20 years in journalism, but I've quit that career to be alone in poetry, and I have my small business in my "Náralit"-Tilarán, north of Costa Rica

Friendship and fraternal hugs in real poetry,

Frank Ruffino.

P. S. I let you link "writers around, " virtual anthology of the esteemed poet Santiago Medina, who I have recently published several texts and also uploaded to my blog space.


Forest Dream Weaver said...

This book is on my "to buy" list......thanks for the reminder! Lovely to see the portrait.
Your posts are always so interesting and informative Deborah.

Good luck with book sales!

Leovi said...

Yes, I agree with you, perhaps under the influence of the painter's eye of her husband, but these descriptions are very pictorial and make us think of them as a painting. Greetings.

Dianne said...

With a lovely title like that I really must read the book - especially since I have walked in this wonderful corner of provence.

renilde said...

Thanks for the tip, seems very interesting, i'll put it on my list.x

Carol said...

Congrats on making the TV Book Club 2011 list.
I did leave congrats on the posting showing book cover :)

Also gave a shout out on my blog news today.
Will be looking out for the TV Book club.
all best wishes


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