Flanders. Wandering though the memories of hopeless war this week. Friday was the anniversary of the day in 1918 when the treacherous guns of World War I fell silent. On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, the war was over.
Not everyone was told. One hour later, the great uncle of my Number One Fan was killed by a German sniper.
On that same day, Hariet, the mother of Wilfrid Owen, perhaps the humblest of the Great War poets, was told that her son had been machined gunned to his death at the Sambre-Oise Canal.
These moments lay uneasily in the mind. The poppy became the symbol of the memories of that war and the pity of it all are refuse to lie down in the poetry of the likes of Siegfried Sassoon and Owen. The poppy bloomed across the Flanders fields where, I promise you, the souls of those who perished on both sides of the forward trenches still keep watch.
This year, I began sketches of the war. But I was not there. How ever could I attempt to capture the pathos in, for very good example, the work of the American painter John Singer Sargent. See his Gassed in London’s Imperial War Museum and see the blind leading the blind through the debris of lunacy. So, I abandoned the work.
But I’ve been asked to come back next year when the poppies bloom and paint them to illustrate what, I think, will become one of the most moving reflections on that terrible conflict. It’s not a morbid project. In all aspects of art there has to be truth and therefore hope, otherwise why go through the agony of doing it? The poppy symbolizes hope.
When I’ve finished, we will show some of it here in The Morton Report - smart, swanky, chic maybe, but never, never forgetting.
London. There’s always the lighter side of everything. My portrait of Prince Michael of Kent has at last had its unveiling. It’s now hanging alongside a portrait of the Queen, his first cousin. Loads of people with loads of fizz gathered round and all said the Okay things. Great. Fabulous. Looks like Tsar Nicholas. Superb painting (that’s more like it). But the question that had them all silent and waiting for an answer came from the daughter of one of my patrons: “Did you have to curtsey?”
I promise you, it was the biggest dilemma of the five sittings. I looked up protocol books. Went on line. What sort of curtsey does a paint-smocked artist with a hankering for a double espresso and Armagnac at ten in the morning do when a handsome prince comes into the studio?
The best bit of advice came from an old hand along the Privy Purse Corridor in Buckingham Palace. “You could curtsey, but not so low that your knees crack. Equally, you could simply bob. But whichever one you do, you have to make sure that HRH is aware that you’ve done it. Royalty feels royal. If nothing else, even a bob reminds them that you’re in no doubt who they are.”
What did I do? The first time I gave a quick curtsey. And? The knees cracked. After that a bob seemed fine. For us both. Now I’ve been asked about another royal portrait. Fine by me but will the knees hold out for another five sittings?
My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity. Wilfrid Owen