Monday, August 23, 2010

The Concrete Cafe and the Urban Jungle

Baldwin Street in old Toronto, showing outdoor seating areas of restaurants; note the window boxes with light green sweet potato vines; small trees and striped canvas awnings add charm; photo Joseph Wagenhals,

the outdoor area of the Second Cup Cafe Empress Walk in north Toronto; note the massive air vent, concrete paving and walls, and lack of plant material to soften the setting; there is no shaded area

lushly planted natural wood flower boxes a the Niagara Street Cafe, Toronto; image courtesy of
Irish Pub at College Park, downtown Toronto, with several large planters of petunias on the railings and potted palms on the pavement; colourful canvas umbrellas offer shade on Toronto's dog days and add old world charm; photo SwF

The outdoor seating area at Fran's Restaurant on College Street; the attractive bright green vines are sweet potato plants that are readily available at any garden centre, inexpensive, and very easy to grow; photo SwF

In the Empress Walk shopping complex adjacent to Mel Lastman Square in north Toronto, there is a very successful, thriving coffee shop. It is in the corridor leading into the subway station, so there is a lot of pedestrian traffic, and the shop is always full. It also has an outdoor seating area that hundreds of commuters walk past every day on their way to and from work.

The interior seems pleasant enough, with large windows bringing natural light. Unfortunately the outdoor area leaves something to be desired. In spring customer relations of the Second Cup was contacted asking that the litter be cleaned, and the shabby, rusty railings be painted. It was suggested that the area would be more attractive if there were a few plants. Several studies have shown that treed and planted urban areas are less susceptible to crime, graffiti, and vandalism.

A few weeks later, the area was noticeably cleaner, and new black rust paint was applied to the rusted iron enclosure. Sadly, no plants were ever put in the area. This is rather unfortunate as the paving material and adjacent walls are cement, and there is a massive air vent set into the wall of this area. Certainly a few plants would greatly improve this public space. In recent years, more and more cafes and outdoor restaurant areas in Toronto have been enhanced by flowers and plants.

Personally, I would rather have my coffee or lunch at the Fran's or Irish Pub on College Street than this bare outdoor cafe area. Perhaps the Second Cup, or the property manager of the mall, Rio Can, could offer a financial incentive for the franchises to accent outdoor areas with plants. It would be good business and it would make the shops better members of the community. Come on guys, buy a couple sweet potato vines, they're just a few bucks.

Starbucks at Yonge and Summehill, Toronto; photo SwF

Monday, August 16, 2010

A Roll in the Hay With Lagerfeld’s Chanel; Not Your Usual Burlap Sack

Chanel boutique, spring/summer 2010; jacket in neutral patchwork, wooden clogs, linen bag; Chanel photo

In an interview after the presentation of the Chanel Spring/Summer 2010 Boutique Collection, Karl Lagerfeld said that country life is different than in former times because today, technology keeps us connected to whatever we wish. The bucolic life is quiet and isolated only if one wants it that way. Lagerfeld has always been quick to embrace technology and it is well known that he has multiple iPods and he quickly embraces innovation and change. Lagerfeld is one of the most culturally aware and au courante designers of our time. He is adept at synthesizing trends, historic styles, and cultural influences. He processes them into clothes and accessories that are modern and fresh. His mind is quick, and just as he switches effortlessly from French to German to English, he can also conjure up a virtuoso collection without appearing stressed. Unlike many designers who take inspiration from other epochs and style, his style references never look costume-y.

The traditional, iconic Chanel style continues to enthrall fashionistas decades after it returned to prominence in the 1950s, however Karl Lagerfeld has done admirable work in keeping it new but recognizably Chanel. When I first viewed the spring/ summer 2010 RTW collection, inspired by Marie Antoinette’s country escapades in which she retreated to a small dairy village on the grounds of Versailles, I didn’t see much of a connection. It was French, it was country, but stylistically, I couldn’t see anything of the 18th century queen in these fashions of 2010. This summer, I've had the opportunity to view several pieces from the collection close up, and am having new thoughts about it.

Clearly, the Chanel spring/ summer 2010 collection is not intended to be a literal take on late 18th century French fashion. Rather, it is a philosophical or aesthetic inspiration of her idealized and deceptively simple escape to the rural. At her little dairy, Rambouillet, a 10 minute walk from the palace, the style was countrified, but of the highest level of refinement. The details of garments in this Chanel collection also appear simple and rustic, but in fact they are carefully conceived and have discreetly elegant details. At Marie Antoinette’s dairy, and in this Chanel collection, the highest levels of French craftsmanship, dating back to pre-Renaissance times, are evident. For her Hameau de la Reine, accoutrements were made by the best French designers and artisans. The milk pails, embellished with finely modeled heads of rams, were of exquisite Sèvres porcelain from the Royal Porcelain manufactory, hand painted with enamels in faux bois, rather than rough real wooden buckets. The creation of something that appears simple but is actually of fine material and highly skilled workmanship as these Sèvres milk pails were, is comparable to these Chanels. At first glance these clothes may appear as straw and coarse burlap, but they are quality silks and linens, used in carefully designed garments. In the 1920s, Chanel's little black dresses were described as "pauvre deluxe;" the idea of silk/linen "burlap" is Lagerfeld's 21st century example of luxurious poverty.

La Laiterie de Rambouillet, bas-relief, 1780-1787; Photo, Manufacture Nationale de Sèvres
Continental porcelain, likely Dresden, cooler or bucket from the London Home of Mrs. Charles Wrightsman, after the Sèvres model made for the dairy of Marie-Antoinette at the Hameau de la Reine, auctioned April 28th, 2010 ; Sotheby's photo

The workmanship, design, and quality seen in this collection are superb and of a refinement only possible in France or Italy. The most constant chromatic theme is the use of burlap, wheat, and straw-like and colours. Linking this to the preferences of Coco Chanel, straw beige was one of her favorite colours.

There was a very small collection within the collection that was red, white and blue, a summery look inspired by daisies, red poppies and blue cornflowers of the farm fields of France, and the July 14th Bastille Day decorations seen everywhere in France during the early summer. One "Bastille" look was of an ecru cardigan, matching skirt, burlap and wood clogs, and faux wicker or burlap purses, all with the applied red, white and blue patriotic flowers. This ensemble was one of the most popular, and was featured by many top fashion magazines. It is very charming, and it could be easily approximated by someone who loves it but can't afford it or find it. A style savvy woman could find a simple Orlon or cotton vintage cardigan at the thrift store and appliqué felt, silk, or crocheted flowers on it, and it would look delightful. But this would be like comparing a poster of a fine painting with the actual artifact in a museum. The skill and workmanship on these floral pieces was both sophisticated and detailed . Each flower was hand crocheted in a very fine gauge fiber. They were of just the right body and sturdiness to be dimensional and raised, but avoid being crushed or damaged worn. With tax, this piece would cost over $8,000.00 Canadian; it is certainly something that will have a limited clientele.

Chanel pullover from the Bastille Collection within the Spring/Summer Boutique collection, with applied crocheted poppies and cornflowers; pale gold buttons at the hip; photo courtesy of "darmardan" who recently had this top currently listed on eBay
a beautifully exectuted, hand-crochetted poppy; Chanel Spring/Summer 2010, image courtesy "darmardan"

For these summer 2010 Chanels, quality and taste are used in a discreet and modern way. On the surface, the silhouettes and cuts are not innovative or daring, but the pieces are very beautiful, flattering, and wearable. As production is limited, afficionados consider them collectable works of decorative, wearable art and craft. While much of the collection was monochromatic beige and cream, it avoided Grace Kelly propriety, with edgy, urban details such as delicate faux tattoos (a special edition Chanel Beauty product) the models had on their legs, and dark, almost black, lips and nails. The signature Chanel frayed hem and cuff looked especially appropriate when used for these country inspired, casual pieces. Jewellery and accessory collections were carefully thought out and related to the clothes of the collections. Stacked wooden and cork clogs of burlap, embellished with provençal flowers, contributed to a level of co-ordination usually seen in 1950s couture.

Some of the classic Chanel quilted handbags appeared to be of burlap but the material was not scratchy like jute, and the stitching was done with interesting, raised fibers, giving the whole piece a fuzzy, slightly spiky depth and texture. The jewellery was also thematically linked. The jewellery finish was a dull, pale, soft gold that was almost a metallic beige. One theme in the jewellery, the stalk of wheat, is a classic from the Chanel vocabulaire. In Chanel’s Rue Cambon apartment, the wheat motif is visible in several places; notably there is a tiny oil painting of a single stalk of wheat, by Salvador Dali. This season, delicate stalks of wheat embellished belt buckles, brooches and necklaces. The classic interlocking double C logo was done in faux bois to look like twigs from a country woodland. In all aspects of the collection great attention was given to detail. I spoke to the manager of one Chanel boutique who mentioned that customers were very interested in this beautiful collection, as are they for the global warming theme, faux fur Fall/Winter 2010 collection that will beginning hitting stores any time now.
a brooch from the Spring/Summer 2010 Chanel Jewellery collection in faded gold finish incorporating the wheat motif as a wreath with a central double C logo rendered in faux bois, private collection

The "Marie Antoinette in the Country" inspired collection is an ideal look for a 21st century summer. It speaks to our longing for the country when most of us live complex lives in congested cities. It is simple and comfortable, and at first glance doesn’t draw unwanted attention or evoke envy during these times of economic difficulties. It has a distinctly casual look that doesn’t look too formal or too ladies-who-lunch, at a time when social barriers are much less evident, and denim jeans are the default choice of many. It does however satisfy the desire for quality, excellent design, discreet prestige, and superb quality for those who have the means, and an understanding of the creativity and great care that have gone into this subtle but very fine collection.

The iconic Chanel camellia, spring/summer 2010 version, of linen "burlap;" a fine, barely noticeable gold thread in the fabric adds textural interest and a subtle touch of elegance

A simple flower made with plain burlap and a vintage Chanel button; design, photo, and styling by SwF

It isn’t enough to be able to afford it, because even for those who can, these limited pieces have moved out of Chanel boutiques very quickly and were sold out. And for those of us who cannot afford a $3,000 Chanel basket purse, a $25.00 willow basket, as the Europeans take to the morning market for shopping, will look every bit as charming. In fashion and design, taste and creativity are just as important as cash.

This week marks the birthday of Coco Chanel, born August 19, 1883.
for a few dollars, a simple wicker basket and flowers from the craft store makes a summer carrier as pretty as those by Chanel; photo and styling, SwF
Chanel 2010, straw basket style handbag; image,

resin heel in Louis XVI style with neo classical floral swags recalls those on furniture of the period; photo SwF

a layered, tiered hem of frayed faux burlap, racy black lace, and gold thread wheat motif embroidery, viewed with a delicate Chanel Beauty faux tattoo; an unfinished burlap garment could easily lapse into Li'l Abner potato sack territory, but Lagerfeld avoids this with a more complex hem; we see a border of embroidered wheat and a flounce of delicate black lace, traditionally associated with luxury and refinement; photo SwF

note the top tier of the hem. It is a band of unfinished burlap like material, used on the bias, with the artfully frayed edges stabilised with 2 rows of machine stitching; photo SwF

the elegant beige and white scheme so lovely for summer; edging and waist band of crocheted braid; photo SwF

Chanel's country casual cork clog, embellished with a summery white poppy, photo Swf

Monday, August 9, 2010

Annigoni Paints Sonja Bata, and Vice Versa, part II

Sonja Bata in her study showing her Annigoni portrait over the fireplace in her study, City and Country Home Magazine, May 1989 Portrait of Sonja Bata, Pietro Annigoni, oil on board, 1963 , image courtesy of Sonja Bata

As I interviewed Mrs. Bata, our discussion drifted from the fascinating portrait to Annigoni's work in general, architecture, and the Bata Museum, which celebrated it's 15th anniversary this year. Her knowledge in many fields is comprehensive, and her opinions demonstrate wisdom, intelligence, and experience.

S.w.F.- I write about and discuss fashion in my blog. The red coat you wear in the portrait is beautiful. Who were some of the designers you wore during the period?

S.B.-I did at that time buy quite a few designers and I went to Paris quite frequently. It wasn’t Chanel, but one of those designers.

S.w.F.- I wondered if it could be Balenciaga.

S.B.- I had a beautiful piece by Balenciaga, but the red coat in the painting was not Balenciaga.

S.w.F.- The simple red coat you wore is an excellent choice for this portrait. It is so pure and rigorous that it defies obvious associations. It does not speak of status, era, function, or current fashion, and therefore does not distract the viewer from the image of the subject. The rich red attracts, but it is muted, almost antique, so that it doesn't overwhelm. It is a monastically simple coat, like many of the severe and simple garments of Balenciaga, Givenchy, Hardie Amies, or Oleg Cassini. It is perfect as it is so appropriate and compatible with the style of portrait, yet is a pure, architectural garment such as was fashionable in the early 1960s and is just as elegant today. I’m wondering if you can tell us anything about it or the designer.

S.B.-I cannot remember who the designer was, but it was one of the top designers. I remember I didn’t know what to wear to have my portrait painted, so I wore a very simple dress and I wore that coat over it, and when I arrived there he said, “Don’t take the coat off. I’m going to paint you the way you are.” I think he liked colour. So there was never any question about it. So he painted me in the coat and gloves, the way I wore them to the door. The starkness of it, again, as I mentioned...we had two slightly different approaches to Art. He was totally immersed in the Renaissance and everything that happened in the late 19th century and the 20th century was strange to him. He couldn’t comprehend it. Among modern painters there are classical modern painters. He tried to convince me of the Renaissance and what was involved in the Renaissance, and so we had these discussions. They went on for years, and after the portrait was finished we visited in Florence, and then he came to Canada, so we still saw each other from time to time.

Self Portrait by Pietro Annigoni, 1946

S.w.F.- Do you recall, approximately, the year Annigoni came to Canada?

S.B.-I would have to look it up. He painted my portrait in ’63, then it must have been ’67, '68, or '69? It was several years later that he came. He was an extraordinary man. He also knew how to live. He had so many girlfriends that it was outrageous. He loved women and he loved to drink, but in a nice way, you know, in a very nice way. Somehow he spoke about it rather frankly, and he was quite funny.

S.w.F.- It is well known that he was a womanizer and hard living. Did you see any evidence of a wild or reckless side to his nature or character?

S.B.- Oh, there was quite a bit going on in London. And one thing, he had a girlfriend that he was extremely fond of, and she posed for him as a Madonna which he painted for one of the British churches, and she really was not a Madonna! I remember he took me to show me this finished painting and I just couldn’t get over it. "You know who she is. She is a very beautiful woman, but here she is a Madonna!" It was very strange, she shouldn’t be painted like that (lots of laughter). We had fun; we laughed about it.

S.w.F.- Do you think Annigoni felt compelled to idealize women in his art in a way that he did not in portraits of men, as in the portrait of JFK, with a droopy eye, and in images of some male saints?

Portrait of John F. Kennedy, Time Magazine cover January 5, 1962

S.B.- The drawing of Bernard Berenson is a very good one. I have wonderful drawings he did of elderly men which were stunning. I think he was attracted by women, he enjoyed working with women and he brought out the best in them. He wasn’t interested in painting children.

S.w.F.- I understand that Annigoni bicycled to his studio each day. Does this appeal to your interests in ecology, sustainability, urban issues, or perhaps a certain admiration for a European lifestyle that is less dependent on the car?

S.B.- Well, I don’t know enough about it. I remember in Florence he walked to his studio. You know these are very old, narrow streets, cobblestone, and I don’t believe bicycles were there, so I think he walked quite a bit. He enjoyed walking. He loved to be in the countryside. He liked to be outside.

S.w.F.-I have a question about the room situation and the frame that the portrait is in. In the photo in City and Country Home Magazine, it is over a neoclassical mantelpiece, and it seems to be more of a traditional room. Is that the way it is now?

S.B.- Yes it is. It is in a study which is paneled with wood, and it hangs over a fireplace.

S.w.F.-So you would say it’s in more of a traditional setting.

S.B.- Yes it is.

S.w.F.- I am curious about the frame which sets the work off so beautifully. The frame seems to be a substantial, plain gilt molding, which is classic and traditional, but as simple as possible. It is classic enough to be 18th century, Renaissance, European, or English.

S.B.- Annigoni picked the frame in Florence. It came with the frame. I could have no influence on the frame whatsoever!

S.w.F.- Well, I think it’s perfect. It’s absolutely perfect.

S.B.- He chose the right frame, and that was it.

S.w.F.- Has the painting required anything in terms of conservation?

S.B- No, I think I really should get it cleaned because the fireplace underneath is used from time to time and so probably it should just be cleaned with distilled water, no special cleaning.

S.w.F.- If an important museum such as the National Portrait Gallery had an Annigoni retrospective, would you consider loaning your painting, if it was requested?

S.B.- I think if it is an important museum, yes. Yes because I think the painting is one of his better works. It’s funny. The things he liked himself are not necessarily the most popular ones.

S.w.F.- You’ve already touched on this, but what is your opinion of the Princess Margaret portrait.

S.B.- No!

Portrait of Princess Margaret, oil on canvas, early 1960s; note the highly Renaissance style and details, and religious feeling with an illuminated cloud behind the head suggesting an aura or halo

S.w.F.- I wonder if she found it embarrassing.

S.B.- I don’t know but he did a portrait of the Queen later on when she got some doctorate or something, she has one of those funny hats on.

S.w.F.- I suppose you would have been uncomfortable if he would have painted you in such a sweet, kind of sentimental way.

S.B.- Ah, I don’t think he wanted to, and I would have walked away...(laughter).

S.w.F.- Have you ever considered having the image on a postcard for the Bata Museum shop?

S.B.- No. No, because it’s rather private. It’s funny, but very few people know about the portrait, few people come to my house, so not too many people know about it.

S.w.F.- I read of a firm David Bird, whose English firm, Family Copies, specializes in copies of fine, valuable paintings, and that many Annigoni portraits hanging in homes are reproductions while the originals are in vaults. Have you considered having a copy made for the museum, or for other family members to enjoy, or for safety?

S.B.- I know where another image of the face is. About 3 or 4 years after he painted me, he got a commission by a family in New York, Stillman is their name, for huge painted wall frescoes, and I am one of the figures in this work. He introduced me to the family because he told them he was using my head. It’s one of 6 or 7 figures in a landscape. The family, as a hobby, was involved with horses and they came to a horse show in Toronto, and we met at that time.

(Note to reader: Chauncey Stillman was an American philanthropist, connoisseur, and architect. Annigoni spent a year painting frescoes in the ballroom of his neo Georgian residence, the 1,200-acre estate, Wethersfield)

S.w.F.- You talked a bit about the womanizing aspect Annigoni, but he also did so much religious work. Did you sense anything spiritual or religious in his character or behaviour?

The Glory of St. Benedict, 1980-1985, Abbey of Montecassino, Italy, fresco; this genrous work is 40 m²

S.B.- Ah, that’s a funny question because he enjoyed working in churches and he enjoyed painting saints. You had a feeling that in painting saints that he felt he was painting somebody really special. He certainly wasn’t a church going individual as far as I know. He had a tremendous respect for things which were religious.

S.w.F.- You said that you discussed your great interest in architecture with Annigoni. I believe you love modern architecture and innovation, such as the Moriyama design for the Bata Shoe Museum and the architecture of your home in Batawa. I would imagine that if Annigoni loved classical portraiture, he also admired classical architecture derived from the Renaissance and from and antiquity. Do you think that you shared common ground with regard to architecture?

S.B.- Well I think the ground we shared was that architecture is good if it’s not trendy, with other words, if it is good it stays good. I believe with modern architecture as with the work Moriyama did for me, the Bata Museum was opened in ’95, and I still think the proportions are right, it fits in the street scape. So as long as it fits into the environment, it becomes part of the environment. Modern architecture can be very beautiful.

S.w.F.- He agreed with you on that?

S.B.-We agreed.

S.w.F.- It is exactly 15 years that the Bata Museum has been opened. Have you been satisfied with the endeavor?

S.B.- I’m very happy about the building. Moriyama was given an award for the building, and he said it is his favourite museum and his favourite building.

The Bata Shoe Museum at Bloor and St. George St. in downtown Toronto, designed by Raymond Moriyama, opened in 1995

S.w.F.- You grew up and were educated in Europe, specifically Switzerland, with a central location that gives one excellent exposure to the art, history, and design of northern and southern Europe. How important is it to spend one's formative years surrounded by great and important art, architecture, and design?

S.B.- You know, as I get older, I find it is terribly important. Because even on my way to school I passed all these ancient cathedrals. You see good architecture, so you are educated with that, and you learn how to look at things.

S.w.F.- And you just subconsciously absorb the proportions, right?

S.B.- Yes you do, and you see other things, and it reminds you of what you remember. So I think it means a great deal to be surrounded by these things.

S.w.F.- In that sense do you think that this is possible in America in the way it is in Europe?

S.B.- Well, I think we have to improve our man made environment a little bit. We do so many things just to shock or be different, and it is horrible.

S.w.F.- How do you feel about the new Royal Ontario Museum Crystal?

(note to reader: The Crystal is an irregular, aluminum and glass, deconstructivist addition designed by Daniel Libeskind. The multi story, 175,000 square-foot structure was completed in 2007, and is integrated with the original 1930s neo-Byzantine stone structure.)

S.B.- Well you know, it is interesting, I think that they wanted to do something special for Toronto, and they wanted an architect to design some sort of a monument like Bilbao, but they never spoke to the curators about it. Having the input of the people, it is very important that the people who work there have some input. He devised an extraordinary design, but it doesn’t work out.

S.w.F.- Do you feel your affinity for modernism in architecture is related to leaving the sadness and destruction of the war in Europe, and the desire for things that were fresh, new, clean, and optimistic?

S.B.- I like minimal and clean things, and functional things, and I like things which are not decorated just for decoration’s sake. So even the decoration comes automatically by having a very beautiful line. So it’s just my taste. I’m not a fan of the Victorian period.

S.w.F.- Thank you so much for taking the time to discuss your portrait, Annigoni, and your aesthetics. I have been fascinated and delighted.

S.B.-You observed the portrait very closely and you did a study on it. That’s very intriguing.

S.w.F.- Ever since I’ve seen it, it was in my subconscious. For two decades, it absolutely was, and it still is. Thank you so much.

Interview has been edited and condensed.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Pietro Annigoni Paints Sonja Bata, and Vice Versa, Part I

Pietro Annigoni, portrait of Sonja Bata, oil on board, 1963

This year is the centenary of the painter Pietro Annigoni's birth (June 7, 1910-October 28, 1988). Annigoni is important for his distinctive style which was representational, realistic, and often in the tradition of the Italian Renaissance. His work contrasted with the modernist and post-modernist styles of the second half of the 20th century.

In May of this year I was honoured to interview Sonja Bata regarding her portrait, painted by Pietro Annigoni in 1963. Since the late 1940s, Sonja Bata has been directly involved in the Bata shoe business throughout the world. She has worked in many philanthropic, cultural, environmental, and educational activities and causes. Mrs. Bata has received numerous honours and awards throughout her distinguished life.

Mrs. Bata describes the highly specialized techniques of Annigoni, the character of this complex man, and the exquisite jewel of a painting that is the enduring legacy of a fascinating meeting of two highly cultured, dynamic people. I am not aware of any previous interviews with Mrs. Bata regarding this portrait, and she was very enthusiastic and willing to share her thoughts and memories of the commission and the process of how the portrait developed. As she spoke of the portrait, her animated words sparkled with joy. Her compelling description of her dear and esteemed friend, Pietro Annigoni, is a portrait of him painted in words and memories.

Mrs. Bata graciously answered many questions and supplied interesting anecdotes along the way. This interview has been divided into two parts.

S.B.- I am intrigued that you are investigating the portrait.

S.w.F.- It is a sort of personal subject, so I hope it isn’t uncomfortable to talk about something as private as a portrait. I first saw the portrait in the May 1989 issue of City and Country Home. I don’t know if you recall that feature.

Sonja Bata in her study showing her Annigoni portrait over the fireplace, City and Country Home Magazine, 1989

S.B.- I remember that it was in some magazine. It’s a good portrait, and I very much like it, not because it’s me.

S.w.F.- What drew you to commission the portrait from Annigoni?

S.B.- Oh, it was really my husband who wanted to have the painting done. I was extremely hesitant. Annigoni had painted some friends of mine, and did a really superb job, and earlier than that he painted a portrait of the Queen which is very famous. It was on postage stamps and it’s all over the place. For me it is a little bit too sweet, and in fact he didn’t like it himself. He said, "It looks like the cover of a chocolate box.” So it’s not one of his favourite ones, and I shared his opinion. But this is really how I met him, and we met socially in London, and then it was my husband who asked him if he would be interested. He was interested, and then he started painting me in London. He had a studio in England, and Pietro was a really fantastic individual in the way he behaved, and a very interesting individual to talk to, very into Art, highly educated, and then after he painted me, for many years we corresponded. He wrote to me in French, although he spoke English fluently, but he preferred French.

So he started the painting in London, with layers and layers of lacquer and paint, lacquer and paint. It takes a long time to build up and it’s really a fantastic way of painting, and then one day he said, "I really would prefer that it would be a larger portrait." I wore a red coat, and that time he was going to leave. So he said, " Take off your coat and gloves, and I can get someone to stand in for you and I will finish your portrait in Italy." Many of his portraits at that time have an almost Tuscan background. And I told him, “You know the Tuscan background? That’s not for me." I told him that as a young girl I wanted to be an architect, I studied Architecture, and I also like some modern art, not the school of modern art, but I do like some of the modern art. And Annigoni and I, we always had a tremendous argument about it, and he thought a lot of it was junk.
Sometimes I took him to the Tate Gallery and he took me to other museums and we would discuss what Art was all about. But you know that in front of my portrait there is a plain straightforward railing, which is a little bit of a hint of what he thought about my modern art (aesthetic). You see that there is a very plain iron railing in the foreground of the painting. This is a suggestion of my interest in Architecture and the simplicity and minimalism I like.

Pietro Annigoni, detail from the Portrait of Queen Elizabeth II, oil on canvas, 1955

detail of the dreamy, Tuscan landscape from the Annigoni portrait of Queen Elizabeth II

S.w.F.- When you were growing up in Zürich with your parents’ fine art collection, did this prepare you or give you an appreciation for this type of art?

S.B.-Very much so. My mother was on the board of the local Art Gallery in Zürich, and had quite a collection of Impressionist paintings, so we had beautiful art at home and a really valuable art collection, so I was surround by Art, and loved Art very much.

S.w.F.- Bernard Berenson (1865 – October 6, 1959, American Art historian and expert on the Renaissance) said, "Annigoni will remain in the history of art as the dissenter in a dark age for painting." It seems you disagree with this?

S.B.- It is funny you should mention that. He always showed that drawing which he did of Berenson, and he kept on repeating what Berenson had told him, that he was such a talented artist. I would say that Berenson’s remark carried Annigoni through some very difficult periods. This man really saw in his drawings this capability. It is funny that you mention that. To him it was probably the most important remark that anybody made at any time, and it influenced him greatly.

S.w.F.- What were your initial impressions of the portrait and how did friends and family receive it?

S.B.-I think they received it well. People liked the portrait. It also has that wonderful magic of a Renaissance portrait that the eyes follow you wherever you are in the room. It doesn’t matter where, the eyes look at you. It is magic. It is a Renaissance technique that he incorporated in my portrait.

S.w.F.- What was your husband’s reaction?

S.B.- He liked it, he liked it very much. And Annigoni came to Toronto, and when he was here he painted a portrait of my husband. Frankly, I don’t like it very much, his eyes are very good, but there is something wrong with the nose. He asked Annigoni to have a studio next to his office and he would come in from 3:30 to 3:45, and he would keep on looking at his watch and somehow with Annigoni this didn’t work. He was not the type of man you could say, “Now paint. Now stop painting.”

S.w.F.- Do you feel any differently about your portrait 45 years later?

S.B.- You know it’s funny. I never look at it as my portrait. I look at it as a very beautifully painted portrait. So I feel a detachment and looking at the portrait I realize how he achieved the colour of the face and the transparency of the paints. I saw him do it, and I saw the tremendous amount of work that you need and that is necessary with these layers and layers of paint and lacquer on top of each other. He mixed his own paints and he had his wine, and he put a little wine in from time to time! It was very interesting.

We had some very interesting discussions about the restorations (of important Renaissance paintings) and at that time and Annigoni felt that they had ruined them. These paintings had also been painted with the technique of alternating layers of lacquer and paint, and lacquer and paint. They removed the top lacquer that is very soft to start with, and they don’t know where to stop. He tried to explain to me in detail, all the wrongs that were being done, and he was terribly upset about it.

S.w.F.- At the time had you considered other contemporary painters, you were in London, such as Graham Sutherland, or perhaps Dali or Picasso?

S.B.- No. I never would have wanted Picasso. I think that Dali did some fantastic paintings, but not as a portrait.

S.w.F.- How do you feel about portraits by artists such as Bacon, Freud, or when they exaggerate or distort the features?

S.B.- No, I couldn’t live with it. But I think Picasso is in another class because the work is great but you don’t look at it really as a portrait. Portrait painting is a really special art. You can be influenced by an African mask, or influenced by anything, but I believe that to paint a portrait is difficult; there are very few people who can do that.

S.w.F.- I read that in the late 1950s Annigoni had to turn down hundreds of portrait commissions. Was it difficult to have him accept the commission due to his having prior commitments, commissions, or projects? It sounds like he accepted it quite soon after your husband asked.

S.B.- He did. I think he accepted if he liked the face, and if the face was a challenge, and it had nothing to do with being beautiful or not. The face had to intrigue him in some way. You know it could be an old man or anything, but somehow he had to be able to relate.

S.w.F.- I read that in the 1950s his portraits were about $5,000.00, likely the equivalent of $50,000 today. Did it feel extravagant, or did you think of it more as your being patron of a piece of very fine art or something that was a significant cultural exercise, and for posterity?

S.B.- At that time the fee was expensive but not outrageous because of the work which is put in. Oh, it took so many sittings. There was a tremendous amount of work. He had become famous because of the portrait of the Queen which he himself didn’t care for, but this is what put him on the map. Actually, of Annigoni’s work, I have some of his sketchbooks. He sketched people left and right and he would throw these sketchbooks away afterwards in an offhanded way, keeping one or two sketches. I’ve bound them in leather because there are so many brilliant ideas in there and it is in his sketchbooks that he shows his immense talent as a draftsman. It is incredible.

I also think that some of the sketches look a little bit more modern. He did some things…at that time I was in London and I was involved in the opera as a volunteer, and I needed something for an opera program, so he said, “Fine, I’ll sketch you an opera program." In no time at all, he sketched me an opera loggia with people; he said it was more of a caricature, but it was very modern and very funny. So if he wanted to he could be modern.

To be continued. Please check Square with Flair next week for the second part of this interview. Interview has been edited and condensed.