Summer Holidays, the words alone sum up nostalgic memories of hot sunny days on wide sandy Cornish beaches with Kelly’s clotted ice cream running down the outside of the cornet, creating messy fingers, sticky and dusted with sand. Running wild in deserted sand dunes with legs getting scratched by brambles and curious spiky grasses; being barefoot for days on end somehow making me feel “native” and part of the surroundings; crazy games of beach football and cricket with holidaying strangers; huge sandcastles designed and built to defy the tide and decorated with shells, driftwood and stones; precious unique pebbles harvested from rock pools and put safely in sandy pockets “for the collection”. Then as I grew bigger and started messing about in clinker built boats with rust coloured sails, heavy wooden oars, nylon hand lines wound on wooden frames with dangling knobbly circular lead weights, short fishing rods with Toby spinners, little British Seagull outboard motors with oily fumes, bright yellow oilskins and life jackets and woven wicker lobster pots.
I can still feel the bitter wind on my face and sea splashed hands, sometimes so cold that I couldn’t move the fingers, can taste the crusty salt on my lips and feel the sting of sea spray in my eyes. I remember the intimidating force of the spring tides in the estuary; the hoarse cries of gulls fighting for scraps of freshly caught fish; the lifeboat siren summoning butcher, ferryman, boat builder, ironmonger, barman, house painter and others, to drop everything and rush to the slipway to heroically launch the gleaming lifeboat.
I still conjure up images of the serene calm at high tide on magical evenings with little vessels nodding to their moorings, while we skittered flat stones over the water towards them; can see the sun gleaming on crisp surf and feel the glorious satisfaction of riding a powerful “beacher” wave; can taste the warm peppery pasties eaten from their wrapping in old copies of the Cornish Guardian and can stare at the sand left in the bottom of my bath and still wonder at where it had all come from.
Then there was the sleep, so deep and luxurious that it seemed to pass in a few moments, no room for dreams.
There were high conifer trees visible through my bedroom window and on waking the tips of them served as a kind of primitive barometer. They hinted at the the force and direction of the wind and in conjunction with any clouds, colour of the sky and state of the tide, indicated what sort of a day lay ahead, which in turn dictated our “plans”. These were my primary concerns. I never thought about school, exams or the little pile of “holiday reading” or “homework” I had packed, if for no other reason than it was the Summer Holidays and there was too much to do, until they came, as they inevitably did, to an end.
Then wearing shoes again, we returned reluctantly towards real life with responsibilities looming ahead and things needing to be done!
Nothing much has changed.
Now we always spend some summer time in France and still occasionally go back to Cornwall, but more frequently in the spring, when the familiar villages, coves and waters are less peopled. Some of my heart still lives there with those boyhood memories and thanks to the Duchy and the National Trust the coastal landscape remains largely unchanged and my brother has a house in the area, which we are lucky enough to enjoy.
However, since our now 25 and 23 year old sons were aged 4 and 6 and we were introduced by family friends to the massive landscape and huge skies of southern Wyoming, it has become an annual summer destination and they in turn, have created their own “Western” childhood memories and we have all developed friendships, interests and attachments there, as well as those in Cornwall and France.
We returned as usual this year, immediately after Exhibiting at Masterpiece London and just a week after the huge forest fires had torn through Northern Colorado and into Wyoming. There were still some smouldering, bare and blackened hillsides scarring the landscape on our journey up through the foothills of the Rockies and our preferred route up through the Poudre Canyon was closed to all traffic, creating the need to drive through the famous old cowboy town of Laramie. (This is Native American Indian country).
We have only ever known the Rockies in July, and are accustomed to bright sun and hot days with big wide skies and cotton wool clouds, clear cold star lit nights, chill dewy early mornings, shimmering Aspens and tall cluttered conifer forests, wide open prairies and plains hosting roaming cattle, deer and all sorts of critters, watched over by the occasional gliding bald eagle and various circling birds of prey, massive agitated robins and diminutive humming birds and a network of lively, bright freestone rivers in the valleys. All this life and the survival of the hardy Ranchers, outfitters, cowboys and small close knit communities are dependent on the snowfall of the long winters.
In 2011 there was more snow than anyone could remember, in the Spring as snowmelt began, the rivers were so full that they broke their banks and wildlife was abundant. The prairies were rich and green with brightly coloured carpets of wild flowers, the cattle grew fat and the Ranchers harvested two full crops of hay.
The snowfall over this last winter was a record low, this meant that less people ventured to the mountains for winter sports, then the rivers never flowed generously enough to feed the Rancher’s irrigation channels and having had too much water for good fishing the previous year, now there was not enough and the fly fishermen travelled elsewhere. So the local inhabitants and their small businesses suffered a barren season. Then in the extraordinary hot spring and early summer the trees and grasses became parched and vulnerable and the electric storms came, (what the locals know as “dry storms”, thunder, lightning and wind, but no rain). This is how the fires are ignited, fed and not extinguished.
The further and more frightening impact of the fires is that they take the forests and then there is nothing to hold the snowpack in subsequent years, so the run-off is uncontrollable, causing landslides and flash flooding and the water cannot be held or managed. The mountainsides remain treeless for years, until hardy new growth emerges and the cycle starts over again.
This beautiful wild, hostile landscape is sparsely populated and largely by intrepid settlers or descendants of settlers. People who have carved out new lives for themselves with their own hands and spirit, driven by a passion for the outdoors and the space and freedom it affords them. As they face these circumstances, everything they have built and strived for is threatened. No snow = no snowpack = no snowmelt = no water = low rivers = insufficient irrigation = no fat cattle = no crops = necessity to buy in feed. Then on top of this no winter sportsmen, no visiting fishermen, no horseback riders, no bird watchers or hikers and ultimately no income and an unsustainable life.
This year, the specific area that is close to our hearts just escaped the fires and our various friends who have built small family businesses lodging visitors, guiding them on the rivers and mountains, feeding them and entertaining them will survive to fight on, just! A really long hard winter will make their lives tough for seven months or so, but they long for it, as long as it brings snow, hopefully lots of snow.
As we have passed through over the years, I have envied the lives of these people. The camaraderie and sense of community, the respect they hold for the power of nature, their healthy appetites for fun, music and food, the knowledge and understanding they have of their surroundings and their brave raw determination to make things work.
Much like I had envied the lobsterpot men in Cornwall chugging off at dawn with a shaggy mongrel, (invariably with a touch of Collie), on the bow of their boats, enamelled mug of tea rattling on the shelf of the little upright wheelhouse, off to pull up their wages from the seabed. I envied their confidence and competence, their weather-beaten faces and powerful horny hands, (often missing a finger or two), and the fact that this was where and how they lived. I saw their glistening catch and heard their calls and ribald laughter. I saw them in the mornings and returning in the gloaming and somehow, as a small boy, I identified an enviable simplicity in their lifestyle and imagined that like the Wyoming folk we know in July, they were permanently on Summer Holiday.
Nothing much has changed in this respect either.
I still dream a little and we hope one day to spend more time in these places, but for now we just enjoy the precious times we share there and still return a little reluctantly, still without having done all the holiday reading or “homework” we had planned, yet somehow refreshed, inspired and ready as a schoolboy with a bright new exercise book and renewed appetite.
We who work in the Art and Antiques industry are not so vulnerable to shifts in weather patterns, stormy seas, fires and other natural elements, but there are other forces at work, even above and beyond the reach of international economics and the banking crisis. We are subject to the vagaries of fashion, an invisible power that creeps up and washes over us. Over the last decade or so, perennially popular French Impressionists works; English Pre –Raphaelite paintings; fine polite but not important Georgian Formal Furniture; elegant fine quality Victorian Porcelain and Grand Tour Bronzes for example, have all slipped down the bestseller lists, whilst we have witnessed an astonishing growth of interest in and perceived value of Contemporary Art, Art Deco, Vintage Photography and C20th Designer pieces and many small dealerships that built their business and reputations on other more traditional works have been left behind and several forced to close. Now we hear whispers that some of these new markets may be wobbling a little and interest waning, and in spite of widespread economic strife, more traditional disciplines such as Old Master Paintings, Early Furniture, Medieval Sculpture, Tribal Art, British Modern Art of the mid C20th, fine vintage Taxidermy and even stylish industrial pieces are enjoying significant growth in popularity and appeal.
Here at Robert Young things move ahead gradually. Josyane and I still hold and share much the same vision and beliefs that we set out with 37 years ago. Over the course of the journey our knowledge, taste and interests have evolved, but we retain a passion for enticing original surfaces and textures, strong lines and inspiring form within the vernacular. We look for and cherish originality and integrity in our pieces, but are increasingly less concerned with their period and more interested in their rarity, quality and presence. Somehow we have survived the various movements in fashion and have met with growing interest and enthusiasm for the pieces we value, possibly because there is a certain timelessness about them. They were never “high style” or “designer” when originally created and in most cases retain an individuality and character that sits comfortably in both traditional and contemporary environments and alongside works from diverse cultures and periods. Somehow as the French would say, the objects we admire are “comfortable in their own skin”, which made me realise that the same can be said of the Cornish day boat fishermen, the Wyoming ranchers, wranglers, mountain men and fishing guides. May there be a common thread here somewhere?
Anyway, the Summer Holidays help to take us away from what we are so close to for the rest of the year. They help put things in perspective, without our doing any “homework”, but simply by spending time away in such different environments, challenged by other problems and sharing briefly in the diverse lives of others. So when we come back down from the mountains and return here, to our chosen way of life, we are reminded of what we set out to do and why and to more clearly identify what we would like to change to help keep our original vision, dreams and ambitions alive and to focus more clearly on the things we believe to be worthwhile.