I have travelled the world and tasted many foods on location, some fabulous, some hazardous (resulting in my sweating in a tin sheet toilet in Rajasthan) and some that are just plain bizarre. On location in the Loire Valley in France for a Woolmark shoot, the client and art director took me to dinner at this beautiful chateau, with no prices on the menu. I was endeavouring to sound sophisticated, like a true Francophile and ordered Ortolan not knowing what it was because I liked the sound of it. Little did I know it was a minuscule songbird, presented in a small dish of hardened clarified butter with just two small forlorn legs protruding upward. I was absolutely horrified at the site before me and said, “No, I’m sorry I just cannot eat that.” In that instance the client said, ‘Oh, that’s a delicacy of this area and immediately scooped it up and ate it in one mouthful, complete with bones. I was aghast.
And speaking of small bizarre culinary incidents, years later I found myself working at the cavernous apartment of the divine and visionary Jean Muir in Albert Hall Mansions. Jean who hummed and gesticulated every time she spoke in a highly unique way, made us aware that her Spanish maid was in the kitchen was serving lunch. At this point there was a large party attached to the shoot, hair, make up, a stylist, two models and two assistants and of course myself. We were all very hungry and had been working hard all morning since 8am.
Jean said in her tremulous voice, which she punctuated with gestures from her large and graceful hands with Mmmm, Mmmmm. So she said ” Lunch, Mmmm, Mmmm, is served, Mmmm, Mmmm, in the kitchen” and with a great flurry directed us all towards the kitchen. We walked through the minimalistic and white flat into the white marble kitchen (with no shoes on, they were not allowed), expecting a standard selection of sandwiches, fruit and cold cuts. Instead we were confronted by a single child’s mini pizza on a dining plate, looking lonely. It must have been all of five inches across and was dwarfed by the dining plate. Th plate sat regally at the centre of the kitchen table, surrounded by more dinner plates, napkins, glasses and knives and forks, presented beautifully. Jean, without any sense of irony said, “Mmmmmm, Mmmmm, Enjoy” as if she had presented an eight-course gourmet meal, arms triumphantly gesticulating towards the feast. The maid had very kindly cut the pizza into eight pieces that were no bigger than a minuscule Ortolan.
Everyone looked at me with a look of desperate hunger, with begging eyes that said, “please do something”. This was the disadvantage of being the figurehead of the shoot, I also took their and my own hunger seriously. I scrambled around in my pockets and gave Rudolpho my first assistant all my money and said, “Quickly run to the nearest sandwichery and gather sustenance for my motley crew”. The sigh of relief could be heard on the moon. “In the meantime I said, “share the Pizza amongst yourselves, you can have my portion” sacrificing myself for the good of the shoot. I then attempted to ask the maid in my faltering Spanish, “Could we have tea or coffee” this didn’t work as she did not speak any English at all, so eventually the make up artist took pity on us and intervened in her own faltering Spanish, pointing to the tea caddy and the instant coffee jar (much to my distress, send a barista!).
Refreshed after our delightful victuals we returned to shooting. The next set up was the model emerging down some steps through an archway down a long white corridor towards the camera. Sadly I do not have this image as I gave the transparencies to Jean, who was Miss Muir to everyone else on the shoot. My assistants had moved a large and valuable abstract painting, which I seem to recall, was a De Kooning, and was now, with her permission leaning against the wall to one side of the arch. I think Jean was concerned the edge of the painting was in the shot. As we continued and the model moved backwards and forwards, Jean appeared behind the model at the top of the steps in the archway and she said, “Mmmmm, Clive, Mmmm, Mmmm, the painting, Mmmmm, Mmmmm, the painting.” I looked down into the Hasselblad and said, “It’s okay Jean, the paintings not in the shot. She glided serenely out of the archway and disappeared for a moment, only to lean her torso back into the archway, with her tendril like expressive hands, which she waved and twirled to emphasise what she was about to say. At which point she declared to myself and the crew, in a soprano like voice, that ended on a high note that hung in the air, “Aestheticcccccs”, declared like an ominous warning to us all.
It was extremely difficult not to laugh, particularly after the incident with the Pizza, she was coming across as beautifully eccentric. It reminded me of the famous line from Oscar Wilde’s fabulous play, The Importance of Being Earnest, when Athene Seyler as Lady Bracknell says “Found where, in a hand bag”. My adventures continued with the iconic Miss Muir when the Arts Council asked me to shoot her, Roald Dahl, David Attenborough and Greta Scatchi to name but a few, with their favourite artwork. I’m going to write about that soon, as I then ended up being asked to participate myself with my favourite piece of Arts Council Art. Here is Jean with her choice of painting, the Bridget Riley Op Art. Which somehow she almost became part of in this picture in her little black dress.
I also shot some images of Jean Muir with her fan club of talented society women, who adored Jean’s clothes. Jean Muir really new how to design for women and her dresses were a triumph of minimalist couture. She was the greatest British designer of the little black dress, much like Givenchy was in Paris. It has to be said you cannot surpass a classic and Jean certainly was one. Yes, I suppose on reflection it all comes down, as Miss Muir put it to, “AESTHETICS