John Keats is buried in the Protestant Cemetery, Rome (Known also as the Cimitero acattolico or the Campo Cestio Cemetery). I knew that. One way and another, Keats has been with me since I first became interested in poetry. A few months after visiting the Keats House in Hampstead, I was in Rome, making plans to visit the house by the Spanish Steps where he lived for a short while and where he died. I also intended to visit his grave.
It was from Wentworth Place (now the Keats House) that Keats set out in September 1820, accompanied by his friend the painter Joseph Severn, to Rome on what was to be his final journey. He was seeking some relief in the kinder Roman climate but as a doctor he knew he was desperately ill and that death could not be far away. A tortuous passage, poor weather and an enforced quarantine in Naples meant they didn’t arrive in Rome until November, so missing the best of the weather. This, coupled with the ministrations of a Dr James Clark with his good but misguided intentions, did little but hasten Keats’ end. Joseph Severn had agreed to travel with Keats, though up until then he had been only an acquaintance. However, he quickly became a good friend and a dedicated nurse, and it was in Severn’s kind arms that Keats died on 23rdFebruary 1821. He was buried in the Protestant Cemetery and had left instructions that his headstone should bear no name nor date. However, Severn, together with Charles Brown (a mutual friend), decided to add, under a relief of a lyre with broken strings, the now famous legend, Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water
It was not until this visit that I realised how many other stories this fascinating place has to tell. And it was the point at which I realised that this is more than a protestant cemetery; buried there are people of many religions and none: Orthodox and other denominations of Christians; Jews; Muslims; Zoroastrians; Buddhists; Atheists. I’d gone there on a Keats pilgrimage but found myself listening to many other voices. Shelley—who, when he drowned off the coast of Tuscany and his body cremated there on the beach had his remains (minus his heart, which resides in the crypt of a Bournemouth church) interred here. While his body was being prepared for the pyre a small volume of Keats’ verse was found in his pocket. Edward Trelawney, a friend of Shelley’s had the ashes exhumed and reburied in a more favourable site near an ancient wall and marked by a tomb stone with the legend Cor Cordium—Heart of Hearts.Close to Shelly’s grave is that of the American ‘Beat’ poet, Gregory Corso, buried there at his request. The Italian political thinker Gramsci lies here, as does Goethe’s only son. This is an extraordinary place: to wander here—among the famous and the not so famous; between the grandiose and the understated; the proud and the modest; with the forgotten, the half-remembered and the celebrated—is to be with a silent crowd.
Many of those buried here have travelled the world to end here. One sarcophagus, however, has in a sense returned itself to the world: Angel of Grief.
This sculpture by William Wetmore Story serves as the gravestone of both the sculptor and his wife. It has become a widely recognised piece of modern funereal art and has been reproduced in one form or another in cemeteries across the world: from Canada to Cuba, from the United Kingdom to the United States.
However, an unexpected find for me was the grave of a British actress I remember from my adolescence, Belinda Lee. A neighbour had told me she was born in Budleigh Salterton, Devon to a hotel-owning family and spent her childhood there in a cottage overlooking the red cliffs of this small, genteel coastal town. But I wanted to know why she was buried here in this extraordinary place and how that came about.
Belinda Lee went to RADA where she was spotted and signed by Rank Studios. She soon graduated from her early demure rôles to playing ‘sexy blondes’ in lightweight British productions. She was married briefly to a photographer, Cornel Lucas but when the union started to crumble she moved to Italy. There she managed to escape playing ‘sexpots’ in more Frankie Howerd and Benny Hill films, nevertheless, she was still cast as a voluptuous temptress albeit in more dramatic productions. It was in Rome that she embarked on a much-publicised affair with an Italian Papal Prince while they were both still married to others. They both survived alleged suicide attempts only for her to perish in a car crash in California shortly after: she was not yet 26. And this is where her ashes are interred, in the Protestant Cemetery in a grave bearing the simple legend ‘BELINDA’.
An extraordinary life for a young woman from the town where I now live. There are people here who still recall the family, fewer, though, who remember the remarkable trajectory of the brief, tragic life of this beautiful young woman: from Budleigh Salterton to London and then to Rome; to California and then on her final journey, back to Rome, to the Protestant Cemetery. And so it was: I’d travelled to Rome with the spirit of John Keats only to return with the ghost of Belinda Lee, to the town where I live, the town where she was born.
© Don Oldham 2018
A version of this post was published in the Western Morning News on 8th September 2018.
Last year I was lucky enough to interview abstract painter Liz Cleves as she was preparing work for her upcoming exhibition at the Penwith Gallery, St Ives, from 5th March to 8th April 2019.
THE BIG POND: an interview with abstract painter Liz Cleves.
Liz is an abstract painter living and working in Budleigh Salterton. Originally from Cornwall, she retired from teaching and resumed painting—which had always been a passion—concentrating initially on landscape. More recently, though, Liz found a new creative direction and turned, successfully to abstract painting. She has had work shown in several exhibitions including a successful one-woman show at the Woodhayes Gallery. I caught up with Liz as she was preparing work for a forthcoming exhibition in the Penwith Gallery, St Ives.
What do you think makes an artist?
Everyone can be take up the invitation to be an artist of some sort. By that I mean that…. everyone can essentially be an artist - an entirely new and unique artist indeed. I believe that it is an essential aspect of being a ‘creative being’ that we find the ‘creative centre’ of our lives and explore that in its uniqueness.
I don’t think that being creative is at all easy. Because being true to one’s self and exploring the contents of one’s own life - one’s own experience; one’s particular way of looking; one’s motivation and feeling - requires resolution and dedication. And because of that one has, at times, to neglect the opinions and persuasions of others.
You showed me your painting The Big Pond and you told me it signaled a move from your earlier style as a successful landscape and representational painter to an abstract one. What was behind this?
I find it hard to respond to being asked about why I do what I do, without sounding strangely out of kilter with life as others seem to see it. I am often asked by people why I don’t paint the world as they see it. When I can paint perfectly ‘normal’ scenes from the visual world, why would I paint something that is difficult for others to relate to; to give purpose and reason to? Why on earth do I put myself in the strange and ‘unaccompanied’ position on a quest for recording some new, and previously undiscovered ways of expressing colour and form? I do know though, that I paint what is important in my mind.
What are the important elements in abstract art, given that you’re not trying to represent things in the ‘real’ world? I mean, where does colour fit in, for example?
Colour gives such a sense of jubilation: to stroke it on to canvas and watch what it does to the rest of the canvas; laying on a colour and another colour and maybe another, too. It is an adventure into the unknown. The uncharted surfaces of the brain are as unimagined as planets in other solar systems. So why not go there? Why not? Go, and see what can be conjured up!
Is form secondary, then?
I paint form and I think, importantly, about the relationship of each of those forms—in itself and in relationship to the whole composition. However, colour affects form and form colour. Only by trying the two together does one get a sense of what might then occur. For sure there will be a dynamic created. It is safe to try this and try I must.
So colour and form are equally important.
Colour in my work comes from a huge kaleidoscope of colour memories and ideas that have been stored in some unfathomed part of my brain over a lifetime of looking. (I remember colours from when I was little and I treasure them like others do jewels).
Shapes come into my work as a result of shapes I have seen somewhere, at some time. The references tend to be plants seascapes and built environments. But also forms come from a sense of ‘feeling’ of how things are; from moving, and listening, and looking—and being still.
What about the process of painting?
It is easy to paint away at a work and neglect to stand back and get ‘the bigger picture’. Often time away from the work is well spent as thoughts regarding form develop in one’s head. It is after such times that a return to work may offer fresh inspiration.
I believe it was the French poet Valéry who said something like “A poem is never finished, merely abandoned.” So, when to stop? When is the picture ‘done’?
Here is a tantalizing issue that crops up regularly in conversations between artists. Often artists have ‘an idea’ of when to stop work, but they may, at a later time, review progress and begin work again, having seen things that might be added or modified.
Do you ever feel you are overdoing it? Spending too much time on a particular work?
One gets a sinking feeling at times when it is evident that too much work or too much thinking has been done on a picture. The result perhaps of applying too much paint; having a seemingly unresolvable problem with composition; or loss of inspiration for the piece. One might admit that nothing can be done, though on occasions the situation can be turned around.
Is this, perhaps, only difficult with an abstract painting?
The solution for finishing a piece of 2 Dimensional ‘figurative’ work is usually more obvious than with more abstract pieces. Probably (though not exclusively) because it is easier to see when a figurative piece matches the material it is intended to represent).
Liz has accumulated a substantial body of impressive work now and submitted some paintings to the Penwith Gallery, St Ives. During her earlier life in Cornwall, Liz had visited the gallery many times. She had always hoped that one day that she could exhibit there, in the gallery where many of the artists important to her had shown: Hepworth, Frost, Barns-Graham among them. She was delighted to learn that her work had been accepted and Liz is now preparing some new work for the exhibition scheduled for 2019.
©2018 Don Oldham