Majorca Observed: lessons learned from Graves and Hogarth’s book13th October 2017

Majorca Observed is a collection of essays by Robert Graves with illustrations by Paul Hogarth published in 1965. It took me some time to get my hands on a copy but, when I did, the book proved to be a revelation. Only not in the way that I expected.

The story of Majorca Observed

According to Tomás Graves, the book was the idea of the illustrator Paul Hogarth who lived in Deia and had made some drawings of the island. Hogarth asked Graves to write a text to accompany his illustrations but Graves was too busy and simply gave him all the ‘bits and pieces’ he’d written about the island to put together into a book.

Tomás told me that the book was an ‘unexpected success’ although his brother William thinks that ‘the book sold reasonably well but not fantastically or second-hand copies would not be so rare’. I can testify to the fact that Majorca Observed is a pretty difficult book to lay your hands on and, when you do track down a copy, not cheap.

Interestingly, William also told me that under Franco it was difficult to import English books to sell in Spain. Presumably, this meant that, when the book was first published, it was hard to buy Majorca Observed on the actual island that Graves and Hogarth celebrated.

Apart from one essay, which we’ll get to later, it has to be said that the real triumph of the book is Paul Hogarth’s illustrations. So who was he?

Paul Hogarth

The obituary for Hogarth in The Telegraph described him as ‘a highly prolific illustrator, graphic artist and draughtsman whose drawings and watercolours captured, with great economy, the essence of a place and mood.’ This is certainly true of his illustrations for Majorca Observed which are, as the obituary goes on to say, ‘vivid and energetic snapshots whose aim was to record’.

Speaking of his illustrations for the book, Hogarth said that the hardest thing for him to do was draw Graves. He compared this to ‘drawing a lion in his den’. Apparently, Graves was ‘morose because a hawk had taken one of his Abyssinian cats’. (Isn’t that a perfectly Gravesian story?) Hogarth was so nervous he broke several pencils. Graves wasn’t particularly keen on the portrait.

Hogarth, who died in December 2001 at the age of 84, worked with a number of writers apart from Graves, including Brendan Behan, Graham Greene and Stephen Spender. He was best known for the Penguin book covers he did for Greene’s novels.

According to The Telegraph, Hogarth lived in Deia from 1969 but, of course, he would have been on the island much earlier to do the drawings. William says that Hogarth had Ca’n Bi in the Clot and ‘must have been there in the early 60s but I’m not sure’.

Tomás remembers Hogarth as a ‘very warm and open man who lent himself to acting in the satirical plays performed on Robert’s birthday. I remember him playing the manager of Es Moli as a Nazi frog-marching his clients across the lawn. In one play there was a send up of the Deia drug scene to the tune of the Yellow Submarine: ‘We all live in a yellow haze of smoke, but everybody’s broke, there’s nothing left to smoke…’

The lesson of Majorca Observed

A few days ago I sat in the shade outside Sa Fonda with a couple of friends. As it always does nowadays, our conversation turned to the seemingly inexorable rise and rise in the number of tourists coming to the island.

While we sat bemoaning the way things were changing, I thought of Majorca Observed. Graves ends his 1965 postscript to the terrific 1953 essay ‘Why I live in Majorca’ which opens the book, with ‘No-one can stop progress. One can only side-step it. But the still unexploited Majorcan hinterland is constantly shrinking as the roads improve. Where shall we retreat?’

It occurred to me that we were retreating, just as Graves, Hogarth and their contemporaries had done. We were retreating into good conversation in, as the English poet Marvell put it, ‘a green shade’. And, although we might think there’s less and less of the island to retreat to, perhaps we’re wrong and it’s only our perception.

Having said that, something that struck me immediately about Hogarth’s illustrations of Mallorca was the sheer sense of empty space they convey. One in particular that looks to be of a Deia street is dotted with crowlike figures of old ladies mainly carrying shopping baskets. Were Hogarth to draw that same street today, would he have no choice but to fill it with phalanxes of hikers and people raising their smartphones to the sky, recording where they’d been without ever appreciating where they were?

But, then again, perhaps Hogarth only drew the little old ladies in black because they – contrasted with a young couple smooching by a mobylette – were what caught his eye. What did he choose not to include?

I take comfort from something Graves wrote in ‘Why I live in Majorca’. He suggests that there is a ‘strange, hallucinatory power that Deyá exerts on foreign visitors’. Like generations before us did, we see the village how we want to see it. It’s an idea for most of us far more than it is a reality.

Personally, I’m always happy to leave Deia, as Graves puts it, ‘a little dafter’ than when I came.

Postscript

Graves and Hogarth collaborated again in 1972 on an A1 size folder of beautifully produced lithographs of the Deia area illustrating five of Graves’s love poems for a limited edition of 150 sets. DEYA: A PORTFOLIO OF FIVE POEMS & LITHOGRAPHS is now worth a couple of thousand euros or more. According to Tomás, the Deia town hall has a copy. Wouldn’t you love to see it?

 

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