Café scene Ponte Leecia, Corsica

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Café scene Ponte Leecia, Corsica
Ponte Leecia is a village at the junction of the only railway branch on Corsica, the most mountainous island in the Mediterranean, more than 200 kilometres offshore. It’s a spectacularly beautiful French territory of craggy peaks, dense pine forests, sheltered coves and beaches, with a distinctly Italian culture. The café patrons here are no-doubt taking refuge from the scorching sun outside.

Douglas first explored and painted on the island while he was in the Alpes-Maritimes area of the south of France, living and working au pair on a friend’s farm inland of Nice, near the medieval village of Tourrettes-sur-Loup, during 1951. He had just returned to France to make his life as a painter. His friend was a wealthy Parisian antique dealer Pierre who was as fond of the rugged island for the wealth of collectables waiting to be uncovered, as Douglas was for the artistic possibilities of its dramatically precipitous terrain and intense light. When Pierre took time out from his Paris business, they roamed Corsica together.

Air travel has made Corsica more accessible than it was in the 1950s, when the shortest way of getting there was a rough, overnight ferry ride – “a long night in a hard deckchair”. Even today, ferries take between eight and 11 hours to make the crossing, depending on your destination.

The island was exactly Douglas’ sort of landscape - everything the boy in him had imagined the Mediterranean to be– a place of medieval history, wild rocky vistas, rich traditions, ramshackle villages, long human continuity and adventure.

“The air is calm as two centuries back,” he wrote home to his parents. “Really one takes a leap out of the familiar world. Many burdens still carried on the head, the women in voluminous black. Toured around marvelling at the hard, rose rocks and cliffs, tawny burnt grass, green sea and dull orange and grey villages…”

Once Douglas settled in Paris, he returned to Corsica for a few leisurely weeks in 1955, 1964 and 1981, captivated as much by the landscape as the resilience of the people, and the novelty of a distinctly Italian culture on French soil. With his love of the classical world and ancient mythology, here was a place where he could picture himself in a different time.

Unfortunately, Douglas has never kept any record of his watercolour paintings or pastels. Café scene Ponte Leecia probably came to New Zealand early in 1956. His composer friend Douglas Lilburn visited him in Paris while on sabbatical in Europe and took a bundle of paintings back to Wellington to sell privately, mainly watercolour landscapes of Provence, the Cote d’Azur and Corsica – very exotic scenes for Kiwi living rooms.

Anna Cahill
Biographer – Colours of a Life: The life and times of Douglas MacDiarmid (2018)
Director | MacDiarmid Arts Trust
Watercolour on paper
250 mm x 360 mm
Signed and dated
Accession number