I've been twice now to see Charmed Lives in Greece, a highly enjoyable (free) exhibition at the British Museum celebrating the creative lives of Patrick Leigh Fermor, John Craxton and Niko Ghika. In between these visits, we actually had a holiday in Greece (this wasn't planned, but in his review of Charmed Lives Alastair Sooke wrote that it will 'make you itch to book a holiday beside the Aegean Sea, because the Hellenic fantasy it offers is so irresistibly compelling.') Whilst I'm sure readers of this blog will be familiar with Craxton and Leigh Fermor, Niko Ghika is perhaps less well known. His paintings are as colourful and appealing as those of Craxton - nothing ground-breaking but very redolent of a time when the art world was still coming to terms with the influence of Picasso and Matisse. The exhibition includes photographs, letters and wall quotes that convey the joie de vivre and intellectual curiosity you experience in reading Leigh Fermor...
Of course Leigh Fermor's 'charmed life' in Greece was facilitated by his partner Joan's private income and loyal, emotional support. He and Craxton also made use of their friend Ghika's house on Hydra (there's a nice photograph of Craxton sketching there on the British Museum's blog post about the exhibition). It was on Hydra that Leigh Fermor wrote Mani (1958), his digressive account of a journey round the southernmost tip of the Peloponnese. Here is a passage from my favourite chapter, 'Short Summer Nights'. It describes the unique sharpness of the sunlight in Greece.
...'All the vapours that roam the Italian atmosphere and muffle the outlines of things are absent here. A huge magnifying glass burns up the veils of distance, making objects leagues away leap forward clearly as though they were within arm's length. The eye shoots forth a telescopic braille-reading finger to discern the exact detail and texture of a church, a wood or a chasm ten miles off. Things in the distance co-exist on equal terms with those hard by; they have a proprietary and complementary share in the patterns that immediately surround one. A distant cordillera completes a curve begun by the vein along the back of a plane-tree leaf, a far-off belfry has the same intensity as a goat's horn a few yards away, a peninsula leans forward to strike the stem of a dried up thistle at right angles. Mountain ranges that should melt with the heat-haze and recession, lean forward and impend till one is at a loss to say whether a hill is a small nearby spur or a far-away Sinai...'This long paragraph continues with further examples before progressing to other properties of Greek light, such as the way it seems to sprinkle surfaces with 'a thin layer of pollen like the damask on a moth's wing.' These surfaces retain light in the same way that they retain heat. Shadows appear more real than the phenomena they echo. And 'it is probably because of all this that a strong mystical and sentimental significance pervades the actual surface of the earth, the rocks and the stones of Greek mountains. The adjective theobadiston, 'trodden by the feet of gods (or God)' in ancient Greek and in the Byzantine liturgy comes to mind.' All of this, he concludes, has a strange effect on the Greek landscape. Nature becomes supernatural and 'the frontier between physical and metaphysical is confounded.'
John Craxton's cover for Mani