‘Happy are the painters, for they shall not be lonely. Light and colour, peace and hope, will keep them company to the end, or almost to the end, of the day’. Winston Churchill.

‘Only artists produce for each other a world that’s fit to live in’. D H Lawrence

In the late 1760s a young Frenchman , Noel Desenfans, arrived in London to teach languages, later marrying one of his pupils, who came with a fortune that her new husband used to acquire important works of art. Such was Desenfans’ success in the field, that King Stanislaus of Poland appointed him Polish Consul General in England with a mandate to collect pictures for the formation of a National Gallery in Warsaw. In 1795, when Desenfans had already acquired a substantial number of paintings, Poland was rudely partitioned by its neighbours, Prussia, Russia and Austria and Stanislaus was invited by the Russians to be a permanent houseguest in St Petersburg. In 1799, Desenfans, whose art collection now included all the unpaid works he had acquired for King Stanislaus, offered the whole to the British Government. Fully occupied with another war with France, the Government declined the offer. On his death in 1807, Desenfans left all his pictures to his friend, Sir Peter Bourgeois, a Royal Academician, who in turn, in 1810, bequeathed them to Dulwich College, a South London school founded in 1619 for the purpose of educating twelve poor scholars of the parish, but which, by 1950, was almost entirely focused on teaching the sons of the better off.

A gallery to house the collection was designed by Sir John Soane and built in Gallery Road, Dulwich. It opened its doors to the public in 1817, seven years before the National Gallery began business in Trafalgar Square. For several years I lived in the same Gallery Road, a boarder at the school that owned the picture gallery.  It was too convenient not to be incorporated into the school’s curriculum and on wet, weekend afternoons, when the cricket was called off, we formed a crocodile and marched to the gallery. In the late 1940s and early 1950s the collection was still mostly Desenfans’ original, largely Baroque, collection and the gallery was not the ‘vibrant, cultural hub’ it is today with its glass-encased cafeteria, shop, website and colourful, outdoor installations for children. It was heavy duty for a ten year old, but among the grim Velasquez portraits and dark, classic landscapes there was the odd, saucy work by Rubens and there was Van Dyck’s titillating ‘Samson and Delilah’ to store in the memory and take back to the dormitory. The gallery was a pointer as to how I would spend my future leisure time; art would come before sport.

Dulwich Picture Gallery

At school most of us drew and painted in our leisure time. At home my mother was an unhelpful critic – ‘Very nice, dear’, she would say as I presented her with another page from an endless portfolio of spaceships and dragons. How do life-long passions for a particular pastime originate? If you are a painter, is it from the covers and illustrations of our earliest books, or the pictures on the walls of our childhood bedrooms? Ideally, a hobby needs to get you to the very end. Keeping fit is not a hobby. I take heart from those photographs of Renoir and Monet in old age, sitting at their easels in their gardens, Renoir with his arthritic hands bound with rags, Monet half blind, both kept alive by their hobbies. Two of the more minor criticisms of my character that popped up frequently on my school reports were ‘needs to try harder’ and ‘gives up easily’. Recently, it came to me that after all these years, in spite of countless failures, I’ve never given up hoping that one day I will paint a picture that more or less lives up to my initial expectations.

Dulwich College, (1871) by Camille Pissarro, a refugee from the Franco Prussian war.

At my next school art was discouraged, buried in small print in the curriculum and listed after every sport and every dead language known to man. Those interested in art were treated like vegans at a Texas barbeque. Schools think their job is to prepare us for a career and forget that we have all that leisure time to fill, especially the lengthy, post retirement bit at the end. Not all of us are interested in a career. In spite of the lack of encouragement, my interest in painting was consolidated by three events, all independent of the teaching staff.

The first was the decision to abandon watercolours and switch to oils. It was like parking the Vespa and slipping behind the wheel of a Ferrari. Watercolours are tiny, the domain of lavender scented, Victorian ladies; they prohibit the bravura brush stroke and lack the colour intensity and oozing beauty of a coil of oily pigment. Squeeze out some paint from a tube of New Holland and you will understand why Vincent liked to occasionally tuck into a tube of ultramarine. Watercolours are odourless; oils appeal to our senses. Although the smell of pigment is quite subtle, a good quality turpentine, distilled from the resin of Mediterranean pine trees, a heat-thickened linseed oil or a fine varnish deserve to be sniffed as you would an ancient cognac. Over time I have become addicted to resin and its Greek wine derivative, Retsina. Watercolours only require water, maybe a little gum arabic and a sable brush while oil painting requires a fascinating array of paraphernalia. My spare bedroom studio resembles Merlin’s cave, with its rows of bottles of siccatives, thinners, varnishes, glazing materials and gessos, forests of flat, round and filbert brushes, bundles of charcoal and selection of palette knives. Then there’s the romance behind the oil paints themselves, in tubes since 1841 when American painter John Goffe Rand patented the collapsible, screw top tube, without which, as Renoir pointed out, there would have been no impressionism. JMW Turner was a technical advisor to Winsor & Newton when they opened for business in 1832 but today their paints seem a trifle industrial compared to another, new British art supplier, Michael Harding. Charvin opened its doors in 1830 on the Cote D’Azur and has a very South of France spectrum. Try their Veronese and Prussian blue and you will be using the same paints that Cezanne used in his landscapes in Provence and around the Mont Sainte Victoire. Bonnard also squeezed his paint from Chardin tubes. Being French, Charvin likes to be different, using poppy oil instead of the cold pressed, extra virgin linseed used by most other suppliers. The Rolls Royce of oil paints is Old Holland, created in 1664 when a Dutch painters’ Guild began manufacturing its own paints. Rolls Royces don’t come cheaply and the more expensive pigments come at the same price as a box of Monte Cristos. Acrylics are an attempt to bridge the divide between oil and water, but the finish has a plastic, artificial feel and the colours lose the vibrancy as the paint dries.

Leave it to the French to sum up the subject in a few lines:

La peinture a l’huile
Est bien difficile,
Mais c’est beacoup plus beau
Que la peinture a l’eau.

A second epiphany occurred while reading a biography of Toulouse Lautrec, my first experience in linking a painter’s life with his work. As soon as I had put it down my future suddenly seemed bright and the road ahead clear. I no longer had to agonise over whether to seek a career in the army or join a sea of clerks in the City; I was going to be a painter and live in Paris. The Place du Tertre, a sort of open-air, art supermarket near the Sacre Coeur, seemed the ideal spot to set up an easel. The quality of the art work I had seen there was conveniently poor, mainly pictures of the façade of the Moulin Rouge or the old windmills that still stood in Montmartre. Most importantly I had a career objective that didn’t require the sort of swotting needed to become a brain surgeon or actuary.

Lastly, there was a visit to the National Gallery. At the end of one term, taking the special train that the school laid on for the sons of those parents too busy to collect their children, I left Charing Cross intending to make straight for Soho but instead, for motives I have forgotten, crossed Trafalgar Square and entered the National Gallery. Three paintings I saw that day I have never forgotten. The first was by El Greco, the Mick Jagger of Renaissance art, whose swirling lines and rebellious colours resurface in the later works of Van Gogh.

The Opening of the Fifth Seal, El Greco, 1614. Said to be the prime source of inspiration for Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon

Next was a peaceful, Dutch, 17thcentury landscape and the last an interior by Fujita, a Japanese artist and print maker who joined the international brigade of Modigliani, Soutine and others in Post Impressionist Paris. Epiphanies mainly happen while you are young.

Years later, still determined to live dangerously, I planned to enroll at St Martin’s School of Art (located conveniently on the edge of Soho), but doubts soon entered my mind when I explained my intentions to my flat mate who had just signed up to become a Chartered Accountant. Accountancy was a mystery to me at the time, and still is, but listening, I could see that here was life insurance with the whole premium paid up-front and a ticket to anywhere. Plus, I still wanted to shop at Harrods. My mistake was thinking that accounting was something to fall back on if the paintings didn’t sell. Once a clerk, always a clerk.

The day came when I was freed of my accidental clerkship and transferred to the firm’s Paris office as a newly minted Chartered Accountant. I knew the instant I emerged from the Gare du Nord just how Vincent must have felt when he arrived in Paris, fresh from the dung-coloured potato fields of Belgium. Out with the Sepia, the Burnt Ochre and Van Dyke Brown, in with the Ultramarine and the Cadmium Yellow. Clerkship in Paris was not unpleasant and I was both unhurt and unsurprised when occasionally clients or new acquaintances were stunned into incredulity or laughter when I announced my profession. And then, while painting one weekend in my apartment, a thought suddenly struck me – Is this not what I had planned all those years ago at school, to paint in Paris?

Having clerked and painted for many years, I have learned that art requires courage, clerkship a clean set of numbers. ‘I believe to create one’s own world in any of the arts takes courage’ said Georgia O’Keefe, echoing Churchill who claimed the first quality needed in a painter is audacity. I still sit in awe of each clean, new canvas, convinced the first mark will eventually condemn the whole project to the dustbin. When you get going fear can make you hesitant; agonising over a brush mark will result in loss of spontaneity and will show up in the finished work. To show a completed painting to others is to risk exposing a lack of taste; exposing a lack of talent is less damaging. I start off each painting with a clear idea of how the finished work will look but with the certainty that I will not be able to attain the perfection of the original conception.

There are artists, like Gauguin and Van Gogh, who pursue their own feelings and own self satisfaction and expect audiences to come to them. And artists, such as Scottish painter, Jack Vettriano, who exploit the desire of the audience to be wooed, amused and entertained. Vettriano, one of the world’s richest contemporary artists, only began painting in 1987 when he was 36, channeling Gauguin by leaving his wife and job in educational research to apply himself fully to his art. Success came in 1992 with The Singing Butler, which last sold in 2004 for US$ 1,340,640.

The Singing Butler. 1992

Reproductions on posters and greeting cards are reputed to earn Jack a similar amount annually. Called ‘the Jeffrey Archer of the art world’ and ‘a purveyor of badly conceived porn’, Jack’s paintings are shunned by the galleries but popular with the public and celebrities with taste like Jack Nicholson and Elton John. So satisfy yourself before others. Still, Vettriano does follow one rule and that is to attach a story to a painting. You do need a point of view.

What is the purpose of art; does it need a purpose, by what standards do we judge it? Is graffiti an art? In the Gaza Strip it’s politics, in London’s Mayfair it’s vandalism, in Hamburg it’s an art movement. John Fowles (author of The French Lieutenant’s Woman), who knows about these things, writes in The Aristos that it is the artist’s job to describe the outer world, to express his feeling about that outer world and to express his feelings about himself. The explanation of self by the expression of self. At least that was the old way of looking at it; the principal gauge of art is now STYLE. Style is acquired by painting subjects about which you have a point of view, trying different techniques until you find one that you are comfortable with. If you spend your life copying you will never find a style and you will never experience the pleasure of composition or choosing your own palette.

Has my painting suffered from not going to art school? Yes, because some important techniques like paint mixing and draughtsmanship need professional instruction. Many may disagree, but if you can’t draw you will never produce great art. Rothko with his two fields of intense colour, Jackson Pollock and his whirligig drippings, both began as master drawers. Dribbling liquids haphazardly onto a ground, swirling them around until you find, by chance a likeness of aurora borealis will produce no more than a bit of harmless fun.

I have also learned to avoid sport as a subject to paint; it has never been a topic for great art. A notable exception is the Panathenaic Amphora depicting athletes at the Panhellenic Games in 530 BC.

Amphora 530BC

If horseracing is a sport, paintings on the subject by Degas and Toulouse Lautrec may also be exceptions. It’s the horses that tip the scales; men and women engaged in sport present too trivial a subject to be represented in bronze or oils. Honey bee draws my attention to the mosaics in The Room of the Gymnasts in the Roman villa at Piazza Armerina in Sicily. Art, like the Amphora, it undoubtedly is -and I put this anomaly down to time, the length of survival of an artifact, which becomes a factor in its beauty: survival in time seems to add beauty and interest.

‘Movements’ are a convenient way to study art history and satisfy our urge to categorise everything. What movement are we in now? There have been countless art movements over time, but most are short lived. Take Dadaism, an attempt to intellectualise art by adding a moustache to the Mona Lisa. Duchamp had the sense to resign from the movement and take up chess after The Society of Independent Artists unsurprisingly rejected his urinal as not being art. The urinal was not art but a statement about art and a forerunner of those future statements featuring a pile of bricks or an unmade bed. Dadaism and all other movements are mere footnotes to the two ‘big bangs’ of art, the Renaissance and Impressionism. ‘Art requires the right space’ claimed Rothko and we are fortunate that most Renaissance art is to be found in the places intended for it by its artists, that’s to say the churches and historic palaces of Italy. In the Uffizi I came across a painting of Madonna and Child. It was a circular canvas, freshly restored and sitting on an easel, just where Raphael, the Prince of Painters, would have wanted me to see it. It is the first painting in my collection.

Impressionism began in France and spread like a tsunami both into offshoots (Neo, Post and Fauvism) and geographically into, among other places, Bloomsbury where it spawned the Omega Workshop and ended up in its textiles. A hundred years later forgotten pockets of Impressionism were still popping up. The works of the Scottish Colourists, like a rare Bugatti found in a barn, were rediscovered the 1990s.

The Founding Fathers of Impressionism, Monet, Renoir, Sisley, Pisarro and Cézanne gave us those illuminated and brightened landscapes which were partly due to their research into the physics of colour. They also gave us a new painting method, alla prima, a quick, wet on wet technique that opened the door to we amateurs. I have chosen a Cezanne for my collection, Still Life with Onions, which I thought made a nice change from apples. Impressionism was all about the outdoors and still life paintings were unpopular at the time but Cezanne said ‘I will astonish Paris with an apple’ and he did.

Still Life with Onions. Paul Cezanne. 1898

Cézanne set the stage for the Fauvists, a group of wild beasts comprising the Dutchman, Kees Van Dongen and the Frenchmen, de Vlamink, Marquet, Matisse and Derain. I’m choosing a Van Dongen portrait – Woman with Large Hat (and bare breasts).

Woman with Large Hat. Kees van Dongen. 1906

Some painters fail at the end, something goes. Van Dongen had the chance to go out on a high when he painted the portrait of French Goddess, Brigitte Bardot. Brigitte fed it to her cats. One wild beast, Georges Rouault, set me off in the direction of the German Expressionists and to the work of Ernst Kirchner. I’m finding a spot for his deeply disquieting ‘Self-portrait with Model’, painted in the atmosphere of insecurity that preceded WW1. When the Nazis launched their ‘Action against the Un-German Spirit’ in 1933, Kirchner was one of the first to have his work deemed ‘degenerate’; a few years later 600 of his paintings were destroyed to protect the morals of the German people.

Self Portrait with Model, Ernst-Ludwig Kirchner, 1907

To be a collector with money and taste in Paris in the early years of the 20thcentury must have been Heaven. Most painters then seemed to congregate in two Montparnasse cafés, La Rotonde and Le Dome where, for the price of a glass of absinthe, you could take home a Modigliani sketch. There were so many wonderful artists in Paris at that time – Soutine, Lautrec, Matisse, Chagall, Vuillard, Utrillo and two very talented ladies, Suzanne Valadon and Berthe Morisot. I’m not adding a Picasso to my collection; he did remarkable things and stood against fascism but he was unkind to his chauffeur and to his women. The sheer ubiquity of Vincent has cooled much of my former enthusiasm; I’ve seen his art on too many coffee mugs, tea towels and mouse pads.

Tourism had yet to be invented when I arrived in Paris. There was no waiting three months for a table at Maxim’s and if you were visiting the Louvre you needed to wake a sleeping attendant and ask him to turn on the lights. In the department of the museum devoted to the Romantics you will find The Death of Sardanapalus, painted in 1827 by a 29 year old Eugene Delacroix.

The Death of Sardanapalus, Eugene Delacroix, 1827

Based upon Byron’s 1821 poem of the same name, it depicts the death in 876BC of the last king of Ninevah, who, to avoid humiliating defeat by his enemies decides to kill himself after destroying all his prized possessions, including his concubines and horse. There are references to Napoleon’s conquest of Egypt and the painting blazes with the sensuality and colour of a Rubens. You can feel the heat and excitement coming off this canvas; you won’t need central heating. Delacroix also provided the cover art for Coldplay’s album ‘Viva la Vida’.

Delacroix’s Spanish counterpart and fellow Romantic, Francesco Goya was caught up in the twin horrors of the Inquisition and the invasion of his country by Napoleon’s armies. The result were Goya’s breathtaking pictures of bandits and succubi, devils and dwarfs, witches riding on cats and women trying to pull out a dead man’s teeth after a hanging. I would like one of his macabre etchings but it might frighten the children so I’m choosing La Maja Desnuda, painted for Manuel Godoy, the Spanish Prime Minister.

La Maja Desnuda. Francesco Goya. 1800

Famous for the insolent way the little minx stares out of the painting at you as if to say ‘so what’ and the whisper of pubic hair (reputedly the first artwork to show this), La Maja was hung in Godoy’s ‘boys room’ alongside Velasquez’ Rokeby Venus and a score of other paintings of female nudes until it was raided and closed down by the Inquisition.

Whether you are painting, collecting or just looking, your choices will be bound up with your childhood memories. Mine are of the artwork of Arthur Rackham, Edmund Dulac and Heath Robinson and later of painters Stanley Spencer, John Piper, Paul Nash, Eric Ravilious, Peter Blake and Howard Hodgkin:

and David Hockney:

Portrait of an Artist, David Hockney, 1972

In 2018 Portrait of an Artist sold at auction for US$90.3 million, the highest amount ever recorded for a work by a living artist. Thankfully it is a painting that replaces the previous holder of this distinction, one of Jeff Koons’ Balloon Dog sculptures, which to me always give off the same message – ‘Look at this trashy world we live in’.

If you are an Aboriginal artist your palette consists of charcoal, kaolin ochre, white and black because you’ve grown up with Nature in its dead, burnt and crispy state. If you grew up in the lush, English or Irish countryside your palette will be green, blue and yellow. The mood is peaceful and nostalgic, as in Constable’s The Hay Wain painted in 1821 and left unsold at that year’s Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. It had better luck in the 1824 Paris Salon, where it won a medal and was praised by Gericault. The house on the left is still there today. The wain stands stationary in mid-stream to cool the horse’s legs and to soak the wooden wheels that can detach from the metal rims when dry. This is a painting about those ‘blue remembered hills’.

The Hay Wain, John Constable,

In 1999 English artist, Tracey Emin entered an unmade bed for the Turner Prize. My Bed failed to win the prize, pipped at the post by Steve McQueen and his home made video, but the fact that it was short listed caused a sensation. In 2014 it sold at auction for 2.5 million pounds. I didn’t bid as I was sure Honeybee would want to change the sheets. Between 1984 and 2019 only 6 winners of the Turner have entered paintings, the other 29 a mixture of videos, sculptures and installations prompting the question ‘Is painting dead, replaced by pseudo technology?’ In 1830 it was assumed the arrival of photography would kill off painting but it merely pushed artists, like Vincent, into distorting nature and using unnatural colours. Dadaism was once thought a brief threat but perhaps it’s back; maybe painting is not a medium that can express the amount of existing discontent. I’m quite unconcerned; I can always look at my own, un-made bed in the morning before I get behind my easel.

And then one weekend in Norfolk we lunched at the Gunton Arms in Norfolk, an 18thcentury estate, once used by Edward VII for naughties with Lillie Langtry and now restored and converted for hospitality by art dealer Ivor Braka. Ivor has decorated his hotel with an art collection that saves the locals a trip to London’s Tate Modern. There are David Bailey prints in the bathroom, a Lucien Freud painting in the TV room, a Damien Hirst hanging in the bar and in the corridor a Tracey Emin painted sculpture. Avoid this if you are about to go into the dining room for lunch.

Tracey Emin. Cockwork

Later I came across an exhibition of Tracey’s drawings at the Musee D’Orsay – think Egon Schiele in monochrome – convincing me that, out of bed, Tracey is a talented drawer.

The mention of Lucien Freud makes me think about how life imitates art:


The Venus of Willendorf. 25,000BC

The Venus of Hollywood, 2019


Venus Reclining (Big Sue) Lucien Freud, 1995

We only have a small apartment but I can squeeze in one more painting and it will have to be a Gauguin.

Breton Calvary, Paul Gauguin, 1887

What stories exist, both in his own quest to find some nobility in life and in the paintings themselves! Hardworking, eternally poor Gauguin was only 54 when he died. If you wish to get near him you should visit the small Breton town of Pont Aven where he, Emile Bernard, Paul Serisier and others painted in the mid 1880’s and where cloisonnism was born. He also had some important advice for us amateurs: ‘L’art est une distraction. Tirez-la de la nature en rêvant devant et pensez plus a la création qu’au résultat’.

In 1916, thirteen years after Gauguin had died in the South Pacific, Somerset Maugham travelled there to research the exotic life of the French artist. The result was ‘The Moon and Sixpence’, published in 1919, which tells the story of a bank employee who, in middle life, abandons career and wife to devote his life to painting. After struggling for years without recognition he sets out for Tahiti, settling down with a young Polynesian woman in a hut whose walls he covers with astonishing paintings. Before dying of leprosy he instructs his companion to destroy his work after his death. Only on the discovery of the canvasses he had tossed aside in Europe does the world of art realize that it has lost a genius. It’s the story of a painter who was a clerk.
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I don’t know about you but I’m addicted to the graphic image and the printed word. As a child I ate quietly and obediently, absorbed with the nutrition charts on jars of (my) baby food and later with the marketing drivel on the backs of cereal packets. My first instinct on visiting someone’s home is to scan the walls for literature and, if that’s all there is, I will settle for a framed Lord’s Prayer in crotchet. There is a small library in our toilet where I am reading Herodotus in bathroom instalments and I cannot enjoy a new bottle of wine without reading both front and back labels. In fact, when it comes to the overall enjoyment of wine, the label seems to play a not insubstantial part.



If I’m looking at a choice between two previously untried, similarly priced wines, I let the label decide. Is the front label a thing of beauty, with the gravitas that signals a noble drop or has the design work been given to the winemaker’s niece who is in her first year at TAFE? Worse, are you looking at an excruciatingly poor attempt to appear cool and funky.




‘Avoid any wine with an Australian animal on the label’ says top Sydney sommelier Tim Watkins. Good goes further, advising us to shun any wine with a label bearing pink goannas, holograms, fuschia, animals smoking or wearing glasses, PowerPoint clip art, bananas, wedding invitations and any using the font types, Comic Sans, Papyrus, Curiz and Chiller.



These are the labels of the counter-culture, a reaction to what is still sometimes perceived as the domain of the cultured and the elitists. It’s easier to break down elite doors than to become part of the elite. Defenders of the pink goanna will simply tell you it sells wine.

Then there are the so-called celebrity or Rock and Pop wines. Some are serious winemakers and label accordingly. Top of the list is Queen Elizabeth II with her conservatively labelled Windsor Estate sparkling chardonnay. The label on Francis Ford Coppola’s Californian cabernet sauvignon is also in classic style. Brad and Ange’s Mirval Rose (shortly to be sold in halves) comes in a display-sized Eau de Toilette bottle while Sting spoils some fine Tuscan reds by naming them after his songs – ‘Sister Moon’ and ‘When we Dance’. Very naf, but positively restrained compared to ‘Chateau Madge’, Madonna’s Napa Valley winery, which, in 2006, produced ‘Confessions on a Dance Floor’ showing the producer, hand-painted, dancing under etched disco lights.



Celebrity Cellars, a wine company owned jointly by Barbra Streisand and her manager, Marty Erlichman, takes a different approach, partnering with celebrities to market etched or labelled bottles using the stars’ logo and imagery. Apart from Barbra herself there are bottles etched or labelled with the images of KISS, Celine Dion, Neil Diamond, Bob Dylan and The Rolling Stones, or rather Mick’s tongue which sticks out on the particularly grotesque ‘Glitter Tongue’ six-pack.



‘We are not selling what’s in the bottle but what’s outside’ says Marty, adding that ‘only one in five buyers actually drink (the wines)’. Yes, better they remain unopened on display in the den where, if they remain there long enough, they may appreciate in value like the 1995 ‘Frank Sinatra’ cabernet, seen recently on sale on e-bay for US$540. It was a very good year.



At the other end of the spectrum are the labels of Chateau D’Yquem, Romanee Conti and the other great wines of Bordeaux and Burgundy, which only change in respect to the year of vintage or to accommodate new wine regulations; then, why would you pay for new art-work when your wines are retailing for US$1,000 a bottle. There is one Grand Cru Bordeaux however that changes its label annually. In 1924 Chateau Mouton Rothschild first used a well-known artist to illustrate its label and, since 1945 has continued the practice for every vintage. Paintings by Jean Cocteau, Braque, Dali, Miro, Chagall, Picasso, Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons and Francis Bacon have all been featured on the label. In 1965 Dorothea Tanning was chosen over her husband Max Ernst and, as a ‘special’ in 2004, Prince Charles contributed an incredibly dull effort to mark the 100th anniversary of the entente cordiale, currently being extinguished by Theresa May and Boris Johnson.



 David Hockney’s 2014 label salutes the passing of his friend the Baroness Philippine Rothschild, while the 1989 label by George Baselitz, with its two upside-down rams, is a reference to the fall of the Berlin Wall. ‘Druben sein jetzt hier’ he wrote, ‘Over there is now over here’.

Dining alone with Scarlett (Johansson) in a private room at Antoine’s last week, I chose a bottle of 2010 Celebrity Cellars’ Honeymooners Collection Edition.honeymooners Our waiter, Chuck, holding the bottle as if it was the infant Jesus in his white-gloved hands, complimented me on my choice. ‘I think you will find the wine focused but unobtrusive, supple yet intense, sir’, he added, and unscrewing the capsule, poured a tiny sample into my glass, which could have accommodated a dozen goldfish. The wine had almost evaporated before it reached my lips, but I could already tell that the acidity and tannins were beautifully balanced. ‘I think you’ll like this’, I told Scarlett, ‘it’s fruit-forward with some aggressive notes of spring’. Chuck loaded both glasses and watched with disinterest as Scarlett tasted the wine. Still holding her glass she leaned back against the red velour banquette and closed her eyes, savouring, inhaling. ‘There are definite notes of graphite and pencil shavings here. I think I can detect cigar and tiger-balm too, perhaps even a hint of cappuccino’. I took another sip, trying hard, to no avail, to pick up the pencil shavings, but as the malic acid reacted to the air, my taste-buds suddenly detected additional, intense notes of incense, sea-weed, saddle-soap and chocolate. And, yes, the wine was elegant, enticingly layered, with a buttery nose and a velvety finish. Meanwhile Scarlett had found something else in the inky cabernet. ‘O my God’! she said, after dipping her petite, retrousse nose deep into the goblet, ‘I’m getting childhood summers in the Catskills!’       




Only stockbrokers or the people who lived in Downton Abbey drank wine when I was growing up in England in the 1950s; our family meals would have been accompanied by water or beer. Mother had her annual glass of Dubonnet at Christmas while my father couldn’t taste anything less than 40 degree proof. His loyalties seemed to lie with the Navy as I can only remember him drinking Cutty Sark whisky, occasionally with a beer chaser, and smoking Capstan Full Strength or Senior Service. ‘Your father’s three sheets to the wind again’ my mother would say, continuing the maritime theme when he was a little unsteady on his feet. Stronger language was employed for those occasions when he was, as PG Wodehouse described it, ‘oiled, boiled, fried, plastered, whiffled, sizzled and blotto’. Mother claimed he would live forever because his insides were pickled in alcohol; sadly this turned out not to be true. It was only when I moved to France that I finally came to grips with wine. 

Paris in the 1970s was bristling with British and American expatriates, mainly accountants and lawyers, and we tended to stick together.


On Sundays we met for lunch at La Brasserie de L’Isle Saint-Louis or at Chartier and on Saturdays the more sporting kicked a ball about at the Standard Athletic Club in the forest of Meudon. Like many clubs around the world it was created by British ex-pats in the back-room of a bar, this time the Horseshoe Bar in the rue Copernic. That was in 1890; four years later the Club won the first ever French Football Championship; the Frogs sometimes forget where their soccer history lies. During a state visit to France in May 1972 Queen Elizabeth toured the Club’s playing fields in an open car. She had left a little too late an important part of her visit, a last meeting with the Duke of Windsor, for the Duke was too sick to leave his bed and died a month later.  Paris was full of Brits struggling with the perfect subjunctive. img_0033-2

A very dapper David Hockney was designing sets for Roland Petit’s ballet, Shirley Bassey was appearing at Le Theatre des Champs Elysees, Mick occasionally held court at Castels and we all danced at Le Palace.

 Everyone read the Herald Tribune, in those days graced with the wit of Art Buchwald, as well as the Paris Metro, a weekly English language paper where we scanned the classifieds for baby sitters and second-hand appliances, read reviews of new films and in-vogue cafes and attempted the world’s first bi-lingual crossword.

It was in the Paris Metro that I saw an advert for a newly-opened wine shop that dealt in img_0028New World wines as well as French and where a customer could taste the product before buying; these were not just innovations they were revolutionary ideas in France at the time. Only in retrospect do we understand what times we lived in.

Les Caves de la Madeleine was in La Cite Berryer, a narrow thoroughfare linking rue Boissy-d’Anglas  and rue Royale and its proprietor was Steven Spurrier, a young English Master of Wine with the effrontery to sell the French their own wine.


Three years later he purchased the locksmiths next door and turned it into a wine school, which many of us soon found more interesting than the sports club on Saturday mornings. img_0020Courses at L’Academie du Vin were conducted in English because it was designed to attract the expatriate community, but soon the natives were clamouring to get in and Francophone experts were added. Spurrier was now actually teaching the French about wine; the sheer cheek of it! But it didn’t end there.

Spurrier was convinced that great wines could be produced outside of France, but there was little enthusiasm for foreign wines in a country where Burgundians didn’t drink Bordeaux. His answer was to organize, together with Patricia Gallagher, an American journalist at the Herald Tribune, a blind tasting of wines from France and the USA. The tasting took place in the Intercontinental Hotel on 24th May 1976; it was to be a fitting bicentennial nod to the American Revolution.  The judges were all French and all wine connoisseurs (including Raymond Oliver of Le Grand Vefour, and Christian Vanneque, somellier at Le Tour D’Argent), leaving a general assumption of a French victory.

Four white Burgundies were matched with six Californian Chardonnays and four red wines from Bordeaux with six Cabernet Sauvignon wines from California. The French were fielding some big guns, Mouton-Rothschild and Haut-Brion among the reds, Meursault and Puligny-Montrachet amongst the whites, while none of the American wines were well known. Each judge assessed each wine, presented in neutral bottles, by giving a score out of twenty. The result was a bigger upset than Waterloo. Californian Chardonnays took first, third and fourth places; not one judge placed a Burgundy in first spot. Stags Leap, a Californian winery, took top honours in the reds. Jurist Odette Khan, Editor of La Revue du Vin de France, asked to change her vote while a more generous Aubert de Villaine of Romanee Conti merely said ‘On a pris un coup de pied dans le derriere.’

In the mythological version of the Judgement, Paris’ choice of Aphrodite, or the sensual life over the contemplative and active, resulted in a ten year war and the destruction of Troy. The wine ‘Judgement of Paris’, a term coined by George Taber of Time magazine, produced happier results. Californian wines boomed, Chateau Montelena, the winning white, became a star and in 2007 Stags Leap, created only four years before the tasting, was sold for US$185 million. No, French wine shops did not suddenly start stocking USA wines, but the point had been made, if great wines can evidently be produced in California, why not South America, South Africa and Australia?  One important result was that French producers began joining the competition instead of fighting it. In the latest ‘Eldorado’ of wine, the high country of Oregon, there were 65 vineyards thirty years ago, now there are 676. Among the growers is none other than the Drouhin family from Burgundy, makers of the Beaune Clos des Mouches that lost out in the Judgement.

A film of the event ‘Bottle Shock’, made in 2008, left Spurrier unimpressed even though he was portrayed by that gentle artist, Alan Rickman.

Footnote 1

With Spurrier’s financial backing, an ex-employee, Chuck Scupham, opened a restaurant next to the Academie. It was called Le Moulin du Village and its faux rustic air and ‘cuisine du marche’ made it a novelty at first, but Chuck is an unfortunate name for a chef.  In 1980 another ex-employee of Spurrier, Mark Williamson, opened perhaps the first real wine bar in Paris. When the choice in most French cafes was between a basic red and white varietal, Willi had an extensive selection of fine, especially Rhone wines; he was known as the ‘Rhone Ranger’. Willi’s is still there, where it first opened, in rue des Petits Champs. L’Academie du Vin was sold to Baron Rothschild’s Chateau Clarke in 1988. 

Footnote 2

An Australian expatriate, Barbara Harvey, spotting some 1978 Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon at the Caves de la Madeleine, and mindful of Spurrier’s good taste, bought a case of the same as soon as she returned home to Sydney in 1981. Thirty five years later we drank her last bottle at Tetsuya’s, or rather most of it, because due to a decanting mishap some of it was lost. A week later Barb received a call from Tetsuya himself, asking for details of the lost wine. Two weeks later a bottle of 1978 Coonawarra Cab Sav arrived on Barb’s doorstep. That, mes amis, is class!