Not all sun and sea: a beach on the Italian island of Elba. Photo: Getty
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Tracey Thorn: Real life always intrudes on holidays. That’s how it should be

It’s taken me years to face up to the fact that, as Neil Finn so eloquently put it, everywhere you go, you always take the weather with you. Your own emotional weather. 

I’m writing this column on a sunbed by the pool. Don’t hate me. We’ve taken our holiday a little early this year. A week in a rented villa in the Med. It’s not like this is my life or anything. Although, as usual, life will keep intruding, even here.

It’s taken me years to face up to the fact that, as Neil Finn so eloquently put it, everywhere you go, you always take the weather with you. I was in denial about this for most of my adult life, insisting that holidays were nothing but joy, berating anyone who wasn’t having enough fun. But I’m getting better now, and coming to terms with the fact that, however idyllic the setting, you cannot help but bring with you everything that’s happening in your life, or in your head. Your own emotional weather.

I could also add that, because I’m an anxious person (I’ve told you this already), everywhere I go I take the contents of the bathroom cupboard with me. My suitcase resembles Mary Poppins’s holdall and can, on request, produce remedies, balms and unguents for any ailment you may choose to develop while travelling with me. This makes me a great person to go on holiday with if you’re prone to insect bites, allergic reactions to insect bites, infections of insect bites, or alarming complications arising from insect bites. Not such a great person to be around in the run-up to a holiday, when my anxiety levels rise at the same rate as the piles of lists.

This time, however, the weather proves ominous even before we leave home when we get the news that a friend who will be joining us on the holiday has just lost one of her closest friends to breast cancer. She’s going to come anyway, but warns us that she is sad, very sad. And then another friend due to meet us there has to cancel as he is in the grip of a debilitating depression and can’t get out of bed, let alone get on a plane. Sometimes the weather is so bad you can’t even take it with you. Sometimes rain stops play.

Holidays are supposed to be time out of time, perfect and dreamlike, but still they insist on coming at awkward moments, while we’re waiting for exam or biopsy results, or on the day a period starts. In his poem “Musée des Beaux Arts”, W H Auden talks about how moments of suffering take place “While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along”. Or indeed, on holiday. We can’t separate holidays from the rest of life, however hard we try.

Still, here I am in my bikini on my towel, and there is light, a lot of light, along with the shade. Other friends have arrived with their new baby, and nothing lifts the mood like the sight of that tiny creature, wriggling and gurgling, opening her eyes wide at the play of light through the leaves, all of us adults competing for her smile. Nobody’s weather changes faster than a baby’s, and the speed with which she can move from contentment to misery, nothing but a sneeze or a hiccup in between, is like a dramatisation of how close to each other those two states are.

The actual weather is interesting, too, bringing us a night-time Gothic thunderstorm, followed by a day of strong winds that leave shutters banging and send bottles of sun lotion skidding across the lawn. In between the hours in the pool and the sun, the youngsters have discovered Fawlty Towers and are practising their Manuel impressions. From somewhere inside the house, “I speak English VERY well, I learn it from a BOOK” comes ringing out. Hoots of laughter.

So, all in all, the week is working, but as I started out by saying, its tone isn’t entirely benign or neutral, any more than any other week.

There are teenage mood swings and menopausal mood swings; an earache, a splinter, an argument. A close friend texts to say that her mother has died. The boy bursts his football on a cactus. Through it all we bask in the constant warmth, the long evenings drawn out with wine and lazy chat, the things that enhance and soften everything.

And so, if anyone asks, I’ll say we had a lovely time. And we did, we really did. Look, here are the photographs to prove it. That view. Those smiles.

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 23 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double 2014

©HOLBURNE MUSEUM. THE FITZWILLIAM MUSEUM, CAMBRIDGE.
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A sketchy legacy? How Pieter's sons kept Brand Bruegel going

For all his business acumen, Pieter the Younger was no original and his skill was weedy compared to the robustness of his father’s.

One of the many complications that make the Bruegels the most confusing clan in art is the letter H. Pieter Bruegel the Elder, the founder of the dynasty and its greatest artist, was the painter of such celebrated works as The Hunters in the Snow (1565) and The Tower of Babel (1563). Contrary to the elegance and elevating tenets of the Italian Renaissance, he made the peasant life of the Low Countries his subject, in all its scatological, rambunctious and therefore human detail. In 1559 he dropped the H in his surname and started signing in Roman capital letters – Brueghel becoming the rather more stately Bruegel.

Bruegel had two sons, Pieter and Jan, aged four and one at the time of his death in 1569. Both became painters, too, and as their careers took off Pieter the Younger reinstated the H his father had discarded (though in later life, to add to the disorder, he reversed the order of the U and E) and it remained the moniker of the innumerable painting Brueghels who followed. Rather more confusing than this alphabet jiggery-pokery, though, is the sheer number of painters in the dynasty – some 15 blood relations over the course of 150 years, before a plethora of apprentices, collaborators and intermarriages is factored in.

It is partly to unknot this family tree that the Holburne Museum is running “Bruegel: Defining a Dynasty”, a small but choice exhibition of about thirty pictures that show the distinctiveness of the leading family members. What makes the ­early-generation Bruegels worth looking at in detail is that each was significant in a different way.

The geographer Abraham Ortelius wrote of Pieter the Elder: “That he was the most perfect painter of his age, no one – unless jealous, envious or ignorant of his art – could ever deny.” For all the earthiness of his peasant subjects and their rural pastimes, he was collected by the richest of Antwerp’s merchants, by the Spanish governor general of the Netherlands, Archduke Ernst, and by the Holy Roman emperor himself, Rudolf II in Prague. His patrons recognised that he was no mere Hieronymus Bosch derivative but a highly innovative artist (candlelit interiors, snow scenes, landscapes) whose depictions of human folly mixed the comedic with the serious, but nevertheless contained the belief that wisdom and virtue were the means for redemption.

When Bruegel died, his two sons were trained in painting by their maternal grandmother, Mayken Verhulst, an accomplished miniaturist in her own right, and came of age at a time of Bruegel mania, when there just weren’t enough of their father’s pictures left to go round. There are only three Bruegel the Elders in the whole of Britain, and the National Gallery has lent its Adoration of the Kings (1564) to the show, the first time in a century it has left Trafalgar Square.

Pieter the Younger set out to milk the market and painted large quantities of copies of his father’s most popular works by using the original preparatory cartoons – scale drawings with holes pricked around the figures, which, when dusted with charcoal, would transfer the outlines to a panel beneath. The resulting pictures were very saleable Bruegels by Brueghel: he painted 45 versions of his father’s Winter Landscape with a Bird Trap, 25 of The Peasant Lawyer, and 31 of the 100 existing versions of the riotous Wedding Dance in the Open Air. There’s a lot of Pieter the Younger about.

For all his business acumen, Pieter the Younger was no original and his skill was weedy compared to the robustness of his father’s. It was the second son, Jan “Velvet” Brueghel, who was an artistic pioneer. Nature was his topic and although he, too, repurposed his father’s peasant scenes in his work, as in A Flemish Fair (1600), he shrank the goings-on to make them merely an incident within a diaphanous landscape, rather than the main subject.

Jan painted works of great refinement in oil on copper rather than wood, and also developed the genre of pictures of vases of flowers of kaleidoscopic colour that then became such a popular strand of 17th-century Dutch art. He also frequently worked with collaborators, usually figure painters such as Rubens (who was godfather to at least one of his children), realising that a joint Brueghel-Rubens painting was worth more than one by himself alone.

To add to the mix, one of Jan’s daughters, Anna, married the Golden Age genre painter David Teniers, while another, Paschasia, married into the van Kessel family – their offspring becoming popular for their miniature paintings of insects and plants.

What emerges from this tangled genealogy is that though talent ran in the family, it did so unevenly: Pieter the Younger was a pretty competent painter, Jan a good one, but Pieter the Elder had a genius his descen­dants never got close to matching.

Runs until 4 June. More details: holburne.org

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times