Opinion piece Artwork 201 November/December 2017
Wasn’t joining the EU the most sane thing we’ve ever done? For my generation and that of my parents, it was a proud moment. In their youths, my Mum and Dad were conscripted to fight Germans and Italians. Mum tried to shoot down German bombers while RAF pilot Dad, dropped bombs on Sicily. Damaged by war, they welcomed the founding of the then European Economic Community as, if nothing else, it would ensure peace. When an uncle, a diplomat, worked with Edward Heath, to secure Britain’s entry into the EEC, someone in the family asked why. “Isn’t it better to be part of Europe than a satellite of America?” he replied.
That was in the late 70s. We now see Mrs May, not just shaking Trump’s hand, but holding it. Of course, Scotland, to its credit, voted to remain in the EU but while we’re part of the UK, we’re all Brexiteers, whether we like it or not. The worst of it is the backlash created by voting out and particularly in the arts.
When, after decades away, I returned to live in Scotland’s southwest, I began to appreciate some of the community’s remarkable figures, not least the recently deceased architect and town planner, Antony Wolffe, MBE, FRIAS, ARIBA, MRTPI, FSA. Kurt Wolfgang Schmidt was born in Berlin and settled in the UK shortly before the war. During hostilities, he was interned on the Isle of Man, then Quebec. In 1947, he became a British citizen, taking the name, Antony Curtis Wolffe. Settling in Galloway in 1952, he conducted a thriving architectural practice there until he retired in 2012. Wolffe was renowned for his sensitive restoration and conservation work on country houses, churches and farm and mill buildings. He was appointed Dumfries & Galloway inspector of historic buildings and compiled the first statutory list of buildings of architectural and historical interest in Dumfries & Galloway. His contribution to architecture in the southwest and appreciation for its traditional buildings were immense. Wolffe’s enthusiasm for his adoptive country echoes that of art and architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner, celebrated for his 46 volumes of English county-by county guides. Pevsner, of German Jewish heritage, settled in England in 1933 and was also interned as ‘an enemy alien’ during world war 2.
This little island, which can be absurdly complacent, needs to appreciate figures like Wolffe and Pevsner, individuals from cultures other than our own, who have helped it appreciate its assets. Born and educated in Scotland of Italian roots, Ricky DeMarco is another remarkable example and at 87, a national treasure. I’ll never forget a cold, Sunday afternoon in 1977 on the summit of Arthur’s Seat, listening to (eavesdropping actually) Ricky waxing eloquent on Edinburgh’s Georgian architecture and skyline. On that day, he cheered me up by helping me see the city in a different way to what I’d done before: with imagination, excitement and delight.
I suppose Florentines and Venetians can also be blasé about their native cities. I know Venice had Canaletto to paint the Doge’s palace and the canals but it was foreigners like
J.M.W. Turner and John Ruskin, who brought a real fillip to the appreciation of the city. Barcelona architect, Enric Miralles’s design for the Scottish Parliament building pays tribute to two great European architects: his compatriot, Antoni Gaudi and Scotland’s Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Miralles’ enthusiasm for the Scottish countryside, architecture, art and literature (he loved R L Stevenson), is revealed in a number of details in his design like the upturned boats and ironwork, echoes of Mackintosh’s delicate flower paintings. First Minister, Donald Dewar’s choice of hiring Miralles to design Scotland’s Parliament building, proved that this country shares an architectural heritage with Europe and is enriched by its other cultures.
A poignant story illustrating the common thread uniting Europe, is when in 1944 author and SOE officer, Patrick Leigh Fermor, led captured German general, Heinrich Kreipe, through the Cretan mountains. Gazing up at the snow-covered peaks, he mumbled lines in Latin from Horace. “Vides ut alta stet nive candidum Soracte (“Do you see how Soracte stands white with deep snow?”). Leigh Fermor continued the ode where the German left off, reciting it to the end. For a moment, both men were united by their knowledge of the classics, sharing their European roots before going back to war. As Leigh Fermor put it, they had ‘drunk at the same fountain’ of learning.
In a sense, so has my 27 year old daughter in her education but also as a student at Glasgow University where she made close friends with young men and women from other EU countries: France, Finland and Germany. It’s her generation I feel most concerned for. She and her friends can’t understand this regressive step that’s been taken. Neither can I.