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
Ventoux rose up behind, a turban of pink clouds wound around its peak. Mont
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
. 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. Provence
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
, 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… Provence
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
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. France
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
, 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. Provence