Sunday, 29 July 2018

An Artist in Corfu: Sophie Atkinson and Lawrence Durrell

Wheatfields and mountains.

I bought this watercolour the other day of wheatfields with mountains beyond, probably in western Canada. I bought the painting for its associations. It is signed S Atkinson 1926.

Signed S Atkinson 1926.

S Atkinson is Sophie Atkinson who was born in northeast England at Newcastle upon Tyne in 1876.  Both her parents were artists and both her grandfathers were too; Sophie herself went to the Newcastle School of Art and then studied under the renowned portrait painter, watercolourist, early filmmaker and Royal Academician Sir Hubert von Herkomer outside London. 

View across the strait from the Achilleion. 
Early in the twentieth century Sophie went to live in Corfu.  The fruit of her sojourn was An Artist in Corfu, published in 1911, a beautifully produced book illustrated entirely with her own watercolours and a marvellously observed account of life on the island, of that mix of Greek and Venetian culture that makes Corfu so special.

After the First World War Sophie travelled to India and later visited Denmark, Dresden and the Tyrol. In 1924 she went to California, then travelled through western Canada, and eventually settled in Revelstoke, British Columbia.

Sophie painted throughout her life, her subjects still lifes, townscapes, landscapes and Indian villages, and her work was exhibited in Victoria BC, Revelstoke, Calgary, Montreal, and in London, England.  She returned to Britain in 1968 and settled in Edinburgh, Scotland, where she died at the age of ninety-five in 1972.

Sophie Atkinson's book, An Artist in Corfu, made a great impression on Lawrence Durrell who lived on the  island from 1935 to 1939 with his wife Nancy, mostly at Kalami, while his mother Louisa and his siblings Leslie, Margo and Gerry lived here and there, in the Strawberry Pink, the Daffodil Yellow and the Snow White villas. The Second World War put an end to the family's idyll and they returned home to England, but not Larry who with Nancy and their infant child Penelope escaped the advancing Germans by sailing to Egypt.  

Paleocastrizza, a favourite place of Sophie Atkinson and later Lawrence Durrell.

There in Alexandria during the war, with Sophie's book before him, Larry wrote Prospero's Cell, his enchanting and sad tribute to Corfu, the island of his happiness.

Written in Alexandria
during the war and published
in London in 1945.
And because I am writing a biography of Lawrence Durrell, and because I know Corfu and Alexandria, and because I have loved Prospero's Cell and An Artist in Corfu, I now have Sophie Atkinson's watercolour of wheat fields in western Canada hanging on my wall. It is all about associations.