Impressionist Painters Lead Art Attack!

Award winning travel writer John Trew gets an impressionistic view on his latest trip

Here’s a riddle to get us off to the fastest ever start on a journey through my speciality subject – Art and Cultural Tourism – to discover an Impressionist genius whose paintings of sea and sunshine are already attracting crowds of new admirers to London’s National Gallery.

It’s an exhibition entitled Joaquín Sollora, Spanish Master of Light, due to transfer to the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin where I hope to attend the Irish launch on August 10, at the start of a blockbusting run ending November 3. How long did it take – and how much did it cost – for me to get to know JOAQUIN SOROLLA for the first time? You probably never heard of him either but the citizens of VALENCIA love him enough to have voted to have their High Speed Train Station named after him. Here’s how the narrative began: We were ensconced in MADRID when we were advised to have a look at VALENCIA, a regional capital that has all the advantages of an historic city which also happens to be a Mediterranean beach resort.

To get there, we went along to Madrid’s delightfully quirky ATOCHA Train Station, with its indoor Tropical Garden and – of all things – a large pond filled with turtles and terrapins, piled on top of one another. Watching them beats anything ever devised to amuse waiting passengers! My amusement ended abruptly when we reached the Ticket Counters and were told the price of the next High Speed Train (AVE in Spanish) to travel the 188 miles to Valencia – nearly £90 each – that’s 50p a mile! However, if we waited a while longer, we were informed, the following off-peak train was much cheaper. No problemo.

We had a nice lunch in the station, caught the next train, and travelled faster than I have ever experienced on land – 300km an hour at one stage, according to the digital notice board in the carriage. That’s 188 mph which meant that Valencia would be exactly one hour away from Madrid; as it happened, the average speed was a measly 220km/h so the journey took nearer two hours. The scenery whisked by so quickly I only gained an impressionistic view of the landscape – and this very conveniently brings me back to Sorolla, whose impressionist paintings of the well-lit landscapes of his native province of Valencia have made him Spain’s Greatest Impressionist Painter. Examples can be seen on posters in the railway station which proudly bears his name – Estacion Valencia Joaquín Sorolla – a bit more poetic-sounding than our own George Best Belfast City Airport!

Leonardo stars in Belfast until next month WHILE I AM on the subject of big-name exhibitions, there is no greater name in world-class art than LEONARDO DA VINCI who just happens to the artist responsible for the ULSTER MUSEUM’S current showcase of drawings. Yes, Leonardo comes to Belfast and will remain in residence until May 6! In the dim light of a space that is almost packed every time I have visited, you will find a dozen examples of his prolific works from the Royal Collection, selected to reflect the astonishing range of Leonardo’s interests and expertise – painting, sculpture, architecture, music, anatomy, engineering, cartography, geology and botany. A true Renaissance Man.

The Ulster Museum’s share of a nationwide series of different works in UK regional galleries, includes two of Leonardo’s most impressive works – The Head of St Anne, drawn around 1510 in preparation for his famous masterpiece The Virgin and Child with St Anne, which hangs in the Louvre, and a gruesome anatomical drawing from 1489, The Skull Sectioned. Some other illustrations – such as the tiny wing bones of a dead songbird – I found difficult to see. A big magnifying glass would have helped us better appreciate the magic of the Master… Personally I thought the show was a wee bit underwhelming, apart from the showcasing of all the drawing materials employed by Leonardo, including pens and inks, red and black chalks, watercolour and metalpoint. But then, as regular readers know only too well, I buy more pens, pencils,inks and paints than I will ever paint or draw with!

Up in our loft extension are about 20 unused canvases – as white as when I bought them at 2for1 sales over the years I painted, before turning to ceramics. Nowadays I buy enough glazes and tools to last until I get to 103! New Van Gogh Show prompts happy memories VINCENT VAN GOGH, my favourite painter by far, will be in the vanguard of this summer’s Art Attack on London by tourists keen to lap up the very best in our popular culture. VAN GOGH AND BRITAIN at the TATE until August 11, presents the largest collection of Vincent’s paintings in the UK for nearly a decade. I wrote here in TREW’S TRAVELS about attending the exclusive Press Preview of that earlier collection in London in 2010.

That exhibition was entitled: The Real Van Gogh: The Artist and His Letters to which I was invited on January 19 at the ROYAL ACADEMY. I flew to London the day before, in case I would miss one minute of the 11am Media Tour of 65 paintings, 44 drawings and 40 of his delightfully newsy letters. This correspondence with his brother Theo provided a ‘self-portrait’ of Vincent as a complex but companionable and good-humoured person, far removed from the self-harming depressive that many people still believe he was. I was enthralled by that show and I have a cardboard box beside me as I write this, containing the well-thumbed glossy exhibition catalogue; translations of the letters (from English,Dutch and French); Press Pack, flyers, freebies plus the Show DVD and other ephemera I bought in the R.A. SHOP that freezing January day nine years ago. During the packed Press Preview, my grey beard and arty-farty black corduroy cap prompted a request from the Press Association photographer to pose in front of Madame Gachet’s portrait. After the pic was taken by about 10 other photographers, I was asked by a Russian TV crew for an interview.

The presenter (who spoke little English) had somehow gained the impression during the melée of photographers that I was Van Gogh’s great-nephew, so I just kept repeating how this was the greatest art exhibition I had ever seen in my whole life. Later that day, as I rushed to the GATWICK EXPRESS I picked up a free copy of the London Evening Standard because it had a big photo of me on the front page basking in the vibrant colours of a Van Gogh masterpiece. A Korean couple on the train got me to pose for them with the newspaper. International fame at last! Anyway, the current TATE exhibition bring together some of Vincent’s most famous works from around the world – including Shoes, Starry Night on the Rhône (NOT the more famous Starry Night with cosmic swirls which my grandson brought back for me from MoMA in NYC T-shirt) plus L’Arlésienne, and the very rarely lent Sunflowers from London’s National Gallery a few streets away. I am looking forward to seeing two works he painted while he was being treated at St Paul Asylum for a mental breakdown following his ear-mutilation episode, Prisoners Exercising and At Eternity’s Gate. (This latter title has been appropriated for the new movie with award-winner Willem Dafoe as Vincent, whose release coincides with the Tate opening.) ‘Van Gogh in Britain’ has been chosen as a title because he lived in England as a young man for several crucial years. He walked the streets alone, dreaming of the future. He fell in love with British culture, especially the novels of Charles Dickens. He was inspired by the art he saw here, including paintings by Constable and Millais which are featured in the Tate exhibition. They affected his paintings throughout his career.

The exhibition also looks at the British artists who were inspired by Van Gogh, including Francis Bacon, David Bomberg, and the young Camden Town painters as well as the Ulster painter/ceramicist John Trew. (I put that last bit in for fun) I sould also add that another excuse for art lovers to fly to London this month is to see the PIERRE BONNARD Colour of Memory exhibition at TATE MODERN (until May 6). My daughter Suzanne was delighted to witness such a concentrated show of his colourful works and I was motivated to go on-line and buy the catalogue for my growing collection entitled ‘Catalogues of Exhibitions I Get My Family to See For Me’.

Fine View to the Finest Cuisine

DAFT EDDY’S complex of restaurant, bars and coffee shop is beautifully located near the bottom left of this aerial photo from Tourism NI, on the right-hand side of the causeway to Sketrick, the nearest island. The views from Daft Eddy’s are in competition with the view on your plate in this highly-regarded establishment. From fine view to the finest cuisine AMONG THE CLUBS that tolerate me as a member is the Bangor Social & Learning Group which has an annual coach outing to fascinating places like Seamus Heaney HomePlace, Down County Museum and Belfast Charitable Society (Clifton House). I have recommended all of these excellent visitor attractions in this column over the years. One of the highlights of every excursion is The Lunch, usually booked at the best hotel or restaurant in the neighbourhood which is equipped to cater for a score or more of superannuated learners requiring a pee, a pleasant repast and another pee.

Among the most memorable have been the recently renovated DOBBIN’S INN, Carrickfergus; the equally characterful DENVIR’S HOTEL, Downpatrick; and one I won’t name which assumed learners would enjoy a nostalgic school dinner, complete with lumpy mashed potatoes, overcooked cabbage and weak orange cordial that could have been left over from a tee-total wedding. Our latest lunch venue was the best yet: DAFT EDDY’S on Sketrick Island, near Killinchy. I have been a patron for many years and my good friend, Ulster’s most popular artist Neil Shawcross, always goes there after his weekly all-year-round swim in Strangford Lough.

The views over Whiterock Yacht Club and the pladdies of the lough are peerless — especially from the outdoor tables that are at a premium on warm balmy evenings.. Our lunches were perfect: for me, tender slices of roast beef in real gravy with local veg and roasties plus the crispest Yorkshire Pud of the Year. Golden chips were cheerfully substituted for celeriac purée by one of our attentive servers; my wife Karen’s seared salmon was done to perfection as would be expected in a seafood speciality restaurant; and my neighbour praised her colourful baked vegetarian pie as “scrumptuous”. The desserts were delightful and my coffee had the crema I crave,but rarely get. This area is a sailing paradise as you will see from the photo. I have sailor friends and in-laws who use Daft Eddy’s and its newish coffee bar Little Eddy’s as a kind of alternative clubhouse for the Strangford Lough Yacht Club and the neighbouring Down Cruising Club whose HQ is Ireland’s last floating lightship.

Thankfully, the place is no longer as cliquey as it used to be when I was somewhat intimidated by bronzed yachtsmen and their windswept blondes. The food is always great.