The Art of the Northern Renaissance by Craig Harbison (1995)

The period covered is 1400 to 1600.

‘Northern’ means north-west of the Alps, excluding Eastern Europe which had its own development, and Spain, ditto. So it includes the many different little German medieval states, France, but especially the northern part of the Duchy of Burgundy (modern-day Netherlands and Belgium). In these rich northern cities the wealth from the wool and textile trade created patrons who wanted paintings of themselves, decorations for their houses, but especially grand altarpieces for the big churches they built.

The Renaissance in Italy was closely linked to a rebirth of interest in classical statuary, architecture and literature, examples of which lay all around its Italian artists. This revival of learning led to new experiments in building in the pure classical style, to the introduction of mathematically precise perspective in painting, along with unprecedented anatomical accuracy in the human form. The paintings, like the architecture, were big, grand, monumental. At its peak, think of St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. Many Renaissance paintings are vast and use classical architectural features to emphasise their monumentality and to bring out the artist’s clever knowledge of perspective. I often find this art sterile.

By contrast, northern art is more continuous with the medieval art which preceded it. Curly Gothic architecture continues to provide its frame of reference and design. The figures often still have the elongated, willowy S-shape of medieval statuary rather than the new, muscular bodies being pioneered in Italy by the likes of Michelangelo et al. Harbison says that northern art of the 15th century is in many ways a transfer of late-medieval innovations in manuscript illustration to the public spaces of altarpieces, painted boards and frescos.

What I love northern art for is:

  1. its more flattened, less perspective-obsessed images allow for the surface of the work to be covered by gorgeous decorative schemes, particularly sumptuous fabrics and carpets
  2. it is always teeming with life – there are always tiny figures in the distance riding into a wood or firing a crossbow – every time you look you notice something else
  3. the faces – the people in northern art have much more rugged individuality than in Italian art – another way of saying this is that they are often plain and sometimes positively ugly in a way few Renaissance portraits are

As an example of gorgeousness of decorative design, I suggest Virgin among virgins in the rose garden by the unknown artist known from one of his other works as the Master of the St Lucy Legend.

There’s perspective of a sort, in that the wooden pergola covered with climbing roses creates a proscenium arch through which we can see an idealised version of the city of Bruges in the middle distance. But the overall affect of the foreground is more flat than in an Italian work. This brings out the wonderful detail of every leaf and petal of the dense rose hedge behind the characters; and emphasises the decorative layout of those figures, two on either side of the Virgin and in similar poses but with enough variation to please the eye. It allows the eye to rest on the sumptuous gold dress of St Ursula sitting left and contrast it with the plain white dress of St Cecilia sitting right. As to my ‘teeming with life’ point, I love the tiny figures of the two horse riders departing the city in the distance. In this work, I admit, the faces lack the individuality I mentioned, but I like this kind of demure medieval oval facial style.

Harbison contrasts this northern work with a contemporary Italian work, Madonna and child with saints by Domenico Veneziano (c.1445)

For me, all the human figures are dwarfed and subordinated to the ruthless application of the new knowledge of mathematical perspective. I find all those interlocking pillars and arches exhausting. And, ironically, somehow for me this does not give the image the desired depth of field but makes it appear flat and cluttered. The orange trees peeping up over the back wall don’t make up for the clinical sterility of the architectural setting. And although the human figures are obviously individualised and their clothes, the folds of their cloaks and gowns, are done with fine accuracy, these aren’t enough to overcome what I see as the overall flat, arid, washed-out and sterile effect.

As Harbison puts it:

In place of the clear, open, even and often symmetrical Italian representation, northerners envisioned subtly modulated, veiling and revealing light effects, intriguing nooks and crannies, enclosed worlds of privacy and preciousness. (p.35)

As an exemplar of this Harbison gives Rogier van der Weyden’s wonderful three-part St John Altarpiece (1450-60).

The dominant feature in all three scenes in this altarpiece is obviously the Gothic arch. (These repay study by themselves, with a different set of saints and small scenes depicted on each of the three arches.) The three main scenes depict, from left to right, the presentation of the newborn John the Baptist to his father; John the Baptist baptising Jesus; and then John’s head being chopped off and given to Salome.

The figures are given quite a lot of individuation, especially the balding executioner with his stockings half fallen down which gives a bizarrely homely touch. But the foreground scenes are really only part of the composition. Equal emphasis is given to the detailed backgrounds of all three. Perspective is used, but not ruthlessly – with enough poetic license to allow the backgrounds to be raised, tilted upwards, so we can see and savour them better.

In the left panel St Elizabeth being tucked into bed (a typically homely northern detail) is good, but better is the deep landscape behind Jesus in the central panel, with its church perched on cliffs on the right in the middle distance and city on a cliff in the remote distance left. But best of all is the right-hand panel, where our eye is drawn by the steps and tiled floors of King Herod’s palace, complete with a lounger staring out a window, a bored dog lying near the table where courtiers appear to be feasting.

And, as always, at the very bottom, in the corners, the humble, everyday, weedy flowers of northern Europe which I love so much.

The St John Altarpiece is a prime example of the richness of detail which characterises northern art and makes it – to me – so much more enjoyable, homely, decorative and domestic – funny, even, with its wealth of humanist touches.

The Art of the Northern Renaissance

The book is divided into four parts addressing different topics:

  1. Realism
  2. Physical production & original location
  3. Religious behaviour and ideals
  4. Italy and the North.

Within these there are 35 separate sections addressing issues like ‘artist and patron’, ‘manuscript illumination’, ‘the production of a panel painting’, ‘the pilgrimage’, ‘landscape imagery’, ‘the naked body’, and so on. From these sections we we learn lots of detail about specific areas of medieval life and their depiction, but nothing which affects the basic thesis that at the core of northern art is, as Harbison puts it, ‘a love of detailed description’.

It is as if one is always catching sight of something out of the corner of the eye. The ideal is not simple harmony but complex polyphony. (p.39)

Northern art is fragmentary, interested in detail. Italian art is more unified, classical and spare. Take this masterpiece by Rogier van der Weyden.

For a start it was a north European convention to depict the Deposition within an architectural frame (cf. The descent from the cross by the Master of the Bartholomew altarpiece) which gives it a kind of continuity with the Gothic architecture of the church where it is located.

I love everything about this painting, the cleverness with which ten human figures are composed so as to make a polyphony without excessive artifice; the colour of the clothes e.g. the olive green and high cord of the woman holding the fainting Mary, the sumptuous fur-lined cloak of the rich burgher (Nicodemus) on the right. Harbison points out the detail of Christ’s pierced bloody hand hanging parallel to the Virgin’s long white hand, providing a powerful and moving real and symbolic contrast.

And, as always, I love the flowers in the foreground – is that yarrow at bottom left and herb bennet at bottom right? Harbison gives a detailed analysis of another northern masterpiece:

The detail of daily life, the sense of real people in an actual community, is what I love about this art: the unashamed flat-faced ugliness of the three shepherds, the (married?) couple standing by the gate in the background beside the shepherds; the wrinkled face and hands of old Joseph praying on the left.

As always, flowers in the foreground, here the highly symbolic lilies and irises (symbolising the passion), columbine (representing the Holy Spirit) and three small dark red carnations symbolising the nails of the cross.

Harbison makes the interesting point that the shadows of the two vases fall sharply to the right as if the floor of the stable (incongruously tiled) is almost flat; whereas, somehow behind the sheaf of wheat the floor suddenly tips upwards, presenting a much more flattened surface than strict perspective would suggest – which is then ‘decorated’ with the various figures. There are perspective points in it, but the painting ignores a strict rule of perspective in order to create a more effective, colourful and ‘rhythmic’ composition.

Top artists of the northern renaissance

If I summarised every one of Harbison’s analyses this post would be as long as the book. Instead here’s a quick overview of the key players and some major works:

Early Netherlands masters

The weird

From the generation following the deaths of these early fathers of Netherlands painting comes the one-off genius of Hieronymus Bosch.

  • Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1450 – 1516) The religious triptych was the most common format of painting in this period, and Bosch produced at least sixteen, of which eight are fully intact, and another five in fragments. The most famous is the weird and wonderful Garden of earthly delights. No one has adequately explained where his bizarre fantasies came from.

The Germans

I find the Germans a lot less pleasing than the Flemish or French painters of this period. They lack grace and delicacy. Their depictions of the human body, especially of the crucified Christ, seem to me unnecessarily brutal. Albrecht Dürer is meant to be the great genius but I like hardly anything that he did.

After the Reformation

The Reformation forms a watershed halfway through the period 1400 to 1600, usually dated with great specificness to 31 October 1517, when the monk Martin Luther sent 95 theses systematically attacking Roman Catholic theology to his superior, the archbishop of Mainz. His arguments became a rallying cry and focus of decades of growing discontent with the corruption and over-complex theology of the Catholic church. His ideas spread quickly and were taken up by other theologians, who were often protected by German princes who had their own secular reasons for rejecting Papal authority, until it had become an unstoppable theological and social movement.

In artistic terms the Reformation’s rejection of the grandeur of Roman Catholic theology and the authority of the super-rich Papacy played to the strengths of the northern artists, who already produced an art often characterised by its relative smallness and intimacy.

Harbison very usefully brings out the fact that fifteenth century art was so dominated by images of the Madonna seated holding the Christ child because such a static image encouraged silent devotion and meditation – in contrast with the more dynamic and emotionally upsetting images of the Crucifixion and Resurrection.

He points out how the corruption of the official church had already alienated many Christians from public worship and created through the 15th century a cult of private devotion. It was onto this fertile ground that the anti-establishment teachings of Luther and his followers fell, and proved so fruitful.

Thus Reformation theology tended to foreground personal piety, meditation and reflection – moving away from bravura displays of big ostentatious public ritual. And so while the Counter-Reformation in Italy (the theological and artistic reaction against the northern Reformation) was marked by the increasing ornateness and vast, heavy, luxury of the Baroque in art and architecture, in northern Europe – although Christian subjects continued as ever – there was also a growth in depictions of ‘ordinary life’, in domestic portraits and still lifes.

It was during the post-Reformation 16th century that landscapes and still lifes came into existence as genres in their own right.

Quentin Matsys

A figure who straddles the pre- and post-Reformation era is Quentin Matsys (1466–1530) (also spelt Massys) founder of the Antwerp school of painting. His mature work dates from the period of the High Renaissance (1490s to 1527) but is the extreme opposite of the vast panoramas of human history being painted in the Vatican (the Sistine Chapel, the Raphael Stanza). Instead, Massys typifies for me the virtues of northern painting, with its small-scale atmosphere of domesticity, its focus on real, living people – not the Prophets and Philosophers of Michelangelo and Raphael – and its portraits not of heroic archetypes, but of plain ordinary and, sometimes, ugly people.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder

This increasing valuing of secular life is one way of explaining the rise of the genre of ‘peasant paintings’, which was, apparently, more or less founded by the teeming peasant panoramas of the wonderful Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

Hans Holbein the younger

The northern Reformation was suspicious of religious imagery. In many places it was stripped out of churches and burned; in others merely covered up. Certainly the market for grand altarpieces collapsed, and the period saw a rise in other more specialised subjects. Critics from centuries later define these as genre paintings.

Portraits also became more secular and more frequent, a trend which produced one of the most wonderful portraitists of all time, Hans Holbein the Younger.

Technique

Harbison explains a lot about the technicality of northern Renaissance painting. Some of the most notable learnings for me were:

Panel painting Almost all northern renaissance artworks were painted on wooden panels, ‘panel paintings’ as they’re called. It wasn’t until the 17th century that prepared canvas became the surface of choice for artists. Some works were painted on linen but almost all of these have been lost. A small number were painted directly onto metal and some onto slate.

The rise of oil painting Most 15th century paintings were made with tempera. Tempera, also known as egg tempera, is a permanent, fast-drying painting medium consisting of coloured pigments mixed with a water-soluble binder medium, usually egg yolk. Tempera also refers to the paintings done in this medium. But as the 1400s progressed, northern artists experimented with using oil as the binding material – first mixing colour pigment with oil then applying it to prepared surfaces.

Most of these new ‘oil’ paintings were built up from multiple layers. This required paintings to be put to one side for weeks at a time to fully dry before the next level could be done – a repetitive process which explains the incredibly deep, rich and luminous colours you see in these works.

Most Renaissance sources credited the northern European painters of the 15th century, and Jan van Eyck in particular, with the ‘invention’ of painting with oil media on wood panel supports (‘support’ is the technical term for the underlying backing of a painting). There is ongoing debate about where precisely it originated but it was definitely a northern invention which headed south into Italy.

Destruction and loss

The vast majority of European art has been lost.

  • Much of it was created for ephemeral purposes in the first place – for ceremonies, processions, pageants or plays – and thrown away once the occasion had passed.
  • Thus, much effort and creativity was expended painting on fabrics, such as linen or flags, on backdrops and sets and panels, which have rotted and disappeared.
  • Huge numbers of paintings in the churches of northern Europe were lost forever when they were painted over with whitewash during the Reformation. Outbreaks of popular or state-sanctioned iconoclasm also saw the systematic destruction of statues, wooden tracery and decorative features – all defaced or thrown out and burned in the decades after 1520.
  • Successive wars wreaked local havoc, destroying in particular castles which would have held collections of art sponsored by rich aristocrats. As an example, only ten paintings and thirty-five drawings survive of the entire life’s work of Matthias Grünewald – ‘many others were lost at sea in the Baltic on their way to Sweden as war booty’.
  • The destruction of the Great War – epitomised by the German army’s deliberate burning of the manuscript library at Louvain – was essentially localised to north-west Europe.
  • But the destruction of the second World War ranged all across Europe, deep into Russia and involved the destruction of countless churches, galleries, museums, libraries, stately homes, castles and chateaux where art works could be stored. Dresden. Hamburg. Monte Cassino. The loss was immense.

It’s always worth remembering that the comfortable lives we live now actually take place amid the ruins of an almost incomprehensibly destructive series of wars, religious spasms and conflagrations, and that the art we view in the hushed environments of art galleries is not an accurate reflection of what was painted and created in Europe, but are the scattered remnants and lucky survivors from a continent of incessant destruction and artistic holocaust.

Related links

Where to see some

You can see some masterpieces from this period for free in the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery (in London):

You can see the fabulous Seilern Triptych by Robert Campin in room 1 of the Courtauld Gallery, off the Strand, which currently costs £7 admission price, but is worth it for the stunning collection of masterpieces from these medieval pieces through the French post-Impressionists.

The Credit Suisse Exhibition: Michelangelo and Sebastiano @ the National Gallery

Introduction

Michelangelo Buonarroti was born near Arezzo, in Tuscany, in 1475. At age 13 he was sent to study art in Florence, the greatest centre of art and learning in Italy, where he was apprenticed to Ghirlandaio, a master in fresco painting, perspective, figure drawing and portraiture. Here he imbibed the Florentine principles of meticulous figure drawing and careful planning of a composition.

Sebastiano Luciani, later nicknamed del Piombo, was born ten years later in 1485 in Venice. He became a pupil of Giovanni Bellini and then of Giorgione. From the latter, especially, he absorbed a more improvisatory approach to composition, combined with a soft almost misty use of light, along with the traditional Venetian emphasis on gorgeous colour. (The greatest colourist of all, Titian, was born in Venice just 5 years later.)

In 1511 Sebastiano arrived in Rome whose art world he found riven with rivalries, especially that between the established genius, Michelangelo, who was hard at work painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (a commission which took from 1508 to 1512) and his main rival, Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino – otherwise known as Raphael – born in 1483, who was soon to be commissioned to paint the walls of the nearby Vatican library.

Michelangelo never liked oil painting; he was more a sculpture or a creator of frescos. He quickly realised that Sebastiano was the only oil painter in town who could take on Raphael, so there was a strong element of calculation in  his befriending of the younger man. Sebastian, for his part, was able to work with the greatest genius of the age.

It was the start of a 25-year-long friendship, which included a long correspondence, and collaboration on a number of major commissions. This exhibition features seventy or so works – paintings, drawings, sculptures and letters – which are masterpieces in their own right, shed light on the working practices of both men, and chronicle a unique friendship at the height of the Renaissance.

Differing approaches

Their differing approaches are epitomised in the first of the show’s six rooms by two unfinished works. Michelangelo is represented by a painting of The Virgin and Child with Saint John and Angels (‘The Manchester Madonna’). Note the careful composition, the adult figures and child figures in neat rows, and the high finish of the human skin, almost like sculpted stone.

The Virgin and Child with Saint John and Angels ('The Manchester Madonna') by Michelangelo (about 1497) © The National Gallery, London

The Virgin and Child with Saint John and Angels (‘The Manchester Madonna’) by Michelangelo (about 1497) © The National Gallery, London

Compare and contrast with Sebastiano’s Judgement of Solomon. It’s possible to see, on the unfinished legs of the figure at right, various other postures which have been tried out and superseded. Also the faces are much softer and misty, something which is especially clear on the face of the mother on the right.

The Judgement of Solomon (about 1506-9) by Sebastiano del Piombo © National Trust Images / Derrick E. Witty

The Judgement of Solomon (about 1506-9) by Sebastiano del Piombo © National Trust Images / Derrick E. Witty

Collaborations

1. The nocturnal Pieta

Lamentation over the dead Christ, also known as the Viterbo Pietà (about 1512-1516) was Michelangelo and Sebastiano’s first collaboration. Michelangelo did the design and detailed sketches of the figures (sketches which can be seen here, next to the finished work) while Sebastiano actually painted it, adding the background landscape characteristic of Venetian art. (Compare and contrast with the softness of the figures and the mysterious background in the famous Tempest of Sebastiano’s teacher, Giorgione). In fact, this is, apparently, one of the first nocturnal landscapes in European art.

For my money, by far the best thing about it is the body of Christ. It has the best of both artists – Michelangelo’s sense of structure and musculature, softened by Sebastiano’s smooth oil technique.

Lamentation over the Dead Christ (1512-16) by Sebastiano del Piombo. Museo Civico, Viterbo © Comune di Viterbo

Lamentation over the Dead Christ (1512-16) by Sebastiano del Piombo. Museo Civico, Viterbo © Comune di Viterbo

2. Raising of Lazarus

There are several stories about this painting.

1. It was commissioned by Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici in Rome, who simultaneously commissioned a ‘Transfiguration’ from Raphael. The Lazarus was taken to Cathedral of Narbonne, where Giulio was cardinal.

2. Raphael’s Transfiguration is arguably the better painting, in terms of the drama of its structure and composition. The Sebastiano comes over as more cluttered and cramped. In fact the reproduction below makes it look better – more dramatic – than it is in real life, where it feels immense and overpowering.

3. X-ray photography has shown that Sebastiano changed the posture of some of the figures. The audioguide suggests that Michelangelo dropped by after the initial outline was created, and suggested changes to make it more dramatic e.g. the arm of Lazarus (bottom right) originally stretched out towards Christ and his head was further back. Changing the arm and head positions makes his figure more dynamic.

4. Lastly, the painting came into the ownership of the British collector Sir George Beaumont who, in turn, left it to the nation in 1824, in the collection which was to become the foundation of the National Gallery. All the NG’s works are numbered and this painting is actually the very first in the catalogue – NG1.

The Raising of Lazarus (1517-19) by Sebastiano del Piombo, incorporating designs by Michelangelo © The National Gallery, London

The Raising of Lazarus (1517-19) by Sebastiano del Piombo, incorporating designs by Michelangelo © The National Gallery, London

3. The Borgherini chapel

The Borgherini Chapel was commissioned by Michelangelo’s friend and broker, the Florentine banker Pierfrancesco Borgherini (1488–1558) and was created inside the church of San Pietro in Montorio in Rome.

The frescoes showing The Flagellation of Christ and The Transfiguration were painted by Sebastiano. Michelangelo was slated to provide the designs, but left Rome for Florence after only providing drawings for the central Flagellation and possibly a layout for the Transfiguration. The entire wall and alcove of the chapel has been recreated using state-of-the-art digital technology by Spanish workshop, Factum Arte.

The composition is in three levels: centre bottom is Christ being flagellated; above in the ceiling is Christ rising to heaven; above that is the coat of arms of Pierfrancesco Borgherini. He is flanked by three sets of ‘authorities’: on the lowest level, by Saint Peter (left) and Saint Francis of Assisi (right) (the namesakes of the sponsor); to either side of the transfigured Christ are Moses (left) and Aaron (right); above, on the flat wall, are St Matthew (left) and Isaiah (right). It is these last two figures which are most reminiscent of Michelangelo; they could both have come straight from the Sistine Chapel ceiling.

The exhibition's digital recreation of the alcove at the Borgherini Chapel in the church of An Pietro in Montorio in Rome, featuring designs by Michelangelo but painted by Sebastiano del Piombo

The exhibition’s digital recreation of the alcove at the Borgherini Chapel in the church of San Pietro in Montorio in Rome, featuring designs by Michelangelo but painted by Sebastiano del Piombo

It’s only mentioned a few times, mainly in reference to the stunning over-life-size sculpture of Jesus by Michelangelo which is displayed here in two versions, but I was fascinated to learn how the image of the resurrected Christ was an object not only of anatomical beauty but of philosophical and theological inspiration for these artists and contemporary humanist reformers. The perfection of the naked body, as first created by Greek sculptors 2,000 years earlier, embodied a perfection of moral and theological being to which all humans could aspire. Hence there is a kind of luminous perfection of Michelangelo’s sculptures.

The Risen Christ (1897-8, after the Risen Christ, 1519-21, Santa Maria sopra Minerva, Rome) after Michelangelo. Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen © SMK Photo / Jakob Skou-Hansen

The Risen Christ (1897-8, after the Risen Christ, 1519-21, Santa Maria sopra Minerva, Rome) after Michelangelo. Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen © SMK Photo / Jakob Skou-Hansen

Catholic Christianity and its discontents

It’s sort of obvious, but all these works celebrate Roman Catholic Christianity, at its headquarters in Rome, working for its chief officer on earth, the Pope. As a Protestant I am always aware that these exquisite art works were produced with money mulcted from the peasants and poorest people of Europe by huge numbers of roaming tax collectors, penance providers, summoners and pardoners of the kind satirised by Chaucer over a hundred years earlier, and whose cynicism and corruption so disgusted the monk Martin Luther that he undertook a sweeping condemnation of the entire structure of the church and its underlying theology.

These years of glorious artistic achievement also saw the start of what came to be known as ‘the Reformation’, triggered when Luther nailed his 95 theses against the church to the door of his local church in Wittenberg in 1517.

Luther’s theology was diametrically opposed to the optimistic humanism of Michelangelo and many of the other artists of the High Renaissance. While they thought humans could aspire to an almost supernatural perfection – bodied forth in their immaculate statues – Luther emphasised the irredeemably fallen state of degraded sinful humanity – incapable of anything, any action, any moral behaviour, any thoughts of beauty, without the all-powerful grace of God to lift us.

The sack of Rome

The Reformation itself doesn’t impinge on any of these works, but the chronic instability of central Europe certainly does. For the cardinal who commissioned Sebastiano’s Raising of Lazarus went on to become Pope Clement VII, ruling from 1523 to his death in 1534. In the interminable conflict between the Holy Roman Emperors (in this case, Charles V), the Papacy and the rising power of France, Clement made the mistake of allying with France. This led a large mercenary army of Charles V to lay siege to Rome and, on 6 May 1527, to breach the city walls and go on a week-long rampage of looting, raping, killing and burning.

Clement retreated to the enormous Castel Sant’Angelo, where he was accompanied (presumably among many others) by Sebastiano who forged a close friendship with him. Before and after the siege Sebastiano painted several portraits of Clement. As a result, in 1531 Clement appointed him piombatore, or keeper of the lead seal which was used to seal papal messages. It was a lucrative sinecure paying a stipend of some eight hundred scudi and explains why in later life he was nicknamed ‘del Piombo’, which translates literally as ‘of the lead’ and, more figuratively, as ‘of the seal’.

Portrait of Clement VII (1525-6) by Sebastiano del Piombo/Museo di Capodimonte, Naples © Soprintendenza Speciale per il Polo Museale di Napoli

Portrait of Clement VII (1525-6) by Sebastiano del Piombo/Museo di Capodimonte, Naples © Soprintendenza Speciale per il Polo Museale di Napoli

End of the friendship

Raphael had died suddenly, very young (aged 37) in 1520, at which point Sebastiano became the leading painter in Rome. During the 1520s he gradually lost his Venetian style, adopting more monumental forms and a cooler range of colour. According to Michelangelo’s friend, the painter and great historian of Renaissance art, Giorgio Vasari, Sebastiano grew increasingly lazy, addicted to gaming and drinking.

His friendship with Michelangelo seems to have ended in the mid-1530s. Michelangelo had spent much of the 1520s in Florence, carrying out various commissions for the Medici family. In 1534 he returned to Rome and to a major commission to paint the end wall of the Sistine Chapel with the scene of the Last Judgement. The story goes that Michelangelo asked his old collaborator to prepare the wall for him, but that Sebastiano prepared it to be painted in oil – using a technique he had developed in Michelangelo’s absence. Apparently, Michelangelo was furious, had Sebastiano’s preparatory work torn down and insisted on doing the fresco his way.

Maybe. But Michelangelo was notoriously touchy. As the historian who is interviewed on the audioguide put it, Sebastiano had a longer run than most friends of the irascible genius, possibly because through most of the 1520s they’d lived in different cities. Maybe it was simply living in the same city again, that led to an inevitable break.

The works of art in this exhibition are stunning. But it can also be enjoyed as the story of a remarkable friendship; as giving fascinating insight into the compositional and painting techniques of the High renaissance; and as shedding an oblique light on the seismic contemporary events of the reformation and the Sack of Rome.

Although housed in just six rooms, it feels very, very full – of ideas, insights and breath-taking works of art.

Favourite

It’s easy to be over-awed by the brilliance, or certainly the size, of many of the works on display here. For me (the copy of) Michelangelo’s sculpted Pietà was head and shoulders better than anything else on display. It is an astonishing work and mind-boggling to realise that he made it when he was only 25!

Pietà (copy after Michelangelo's Pietà, 1497-1500, St Peter's, Vatican City) © Photo Vatican Museums

Pietà (copy after Michelangelo’s Pietà, 1497-1500, St Peter’s, Vatican City) © Photo Vatican Museums

But it would be easy to overlook the maybe thirty sketches and cartoons by both artists – the Michelangelo generally more forceful and energetic than the Sebastiano. My favourite work in the whole exhibition was Michelangelo’s Seated nude and two studies of an arm. I love sketches and drawings which emphasise structure and draughtsmanship. And I like unfinished works, which are full of mystery and suggestion. So this really pulls my daisy.

Seated nude and two studies of an arm (1510-1512) by Michelangelo © Albertina, Vienna

Seated nude and two studies of an arm (1510-1512) by Michelangelo © Albertina, Vienna

The video

No self-respecting exhibition these days is without at least one promotional video.


Related links

Reviews of other National Gallery exhibitions

Sicily: culture and conquest @ the British Museum

I’m aware of three exhibition spaces at the British Museum: the big Sainsbury space for blockbuster exhibitions at the back of the main hall; the temporary display room 3a, immediately on the right of the main entrance; and the medium-sized space on the first floor of the Rotunda in the main hall.

This exhibition is a medium-sized one in the Rotunda: the ticket collector on the door said it would take an hour to go round and this compactness was confirmed by the lack of audio-guide.

Two eras

I was expecting a comprehensive historical overview of Sicily – the largest island in the Mediterranean, the triangular island at the foot of Italy and only 96 miles from the coast of Tunisia. In the event, the exhibition manages to be so compact because it focuses on just two key eras in the island’s long and chequered history.

1. Classical Greek

First is the classical Greek era, from the earliest colonies founded in the 730s BC, which overlapped with sporadic Phoenician settlement in later centuries, all the way through to the period of the Roman conquest, circa 200 BC. In fact the decisive battle in which Rome won the island was fought on 10 March 241 BC.

The early rooms contain fascinating artefacts from this long period, which taken together show the evolution of Greek sculptural art from abstract designs through stylised human figures and onto the astonishing realism of full classical Greek art. As an example of the earliest artefacts, there is a large stone tomb cover, decorated with a huge abstract carving – fertility symbols, some kind of religious imagery? No one knows.

Representing the middle period is a marvellously preserved terracotta altar, dating to about 500 BC, featuring the standing figures of three fertility goddesses.

Terracotta Altar with three women and a panther mauling a bull. Gela, Sicily. C.500 BC. Museo Archeologico Regionale di Gela © Regione Siciliana

Terracotta Altar with three women and a panther mauling a bull. Gela, Sicily. C.500 BC. Museo Archeologico Regionale di Gela © Regione Siciliana

There are numerous other statues, including a glass case with 10 or more foot-high figures of Cybele, goddess of fertility, festooned with her distinctive necklace of grapes, hieratic heads from temples, along with numerous coins from this, the earliest period of coin history, before you start to encounter the supremely realistic depictions of human and animal figures which are the glorious achievement of classical Greek art.

For me the outstanding example of this later period was the stunning  terracotta horse’s head from an equestrian group which surmounted a temple in Sicily, c. 480–460 BC.

The flared nostrils and the swollen veins of the horse bring it vividly to life; you can hear the whinnying, the snorting and smell the hot sweaty horse smell.

2. The Normans

Then – surprisingly – the show skips the Romans altogether, along with the reconquest by the Byzantine Empire of Justinian I (530s) and conquest by Muslim forces (820-1020), leaping over 1,000 years forward to the Norman period, starting when the Normans conquered the island in 1061 and continuing through their period of dominance to around 1300.

I found this second section the more interesting of the two, which may be a simple reflection of the fact that we have much more written evidence from this period. Normans (descendants of 9th century Vikings who had settled the area that became ‘Normandy’ in north-west France) had already established bases on mainland Italy and during the 11th century mounted raids on Sicily. Eventually in 1061 they established control over the entire island.

Marble bust of Frederick II, Italy, 1220–50 AD. Deutsches Archäologisches Institut, Rome. © H. Behrens, DAI Rom

Marble bust of King Frederick II of Sicilty, 1220–50 AD. Deutsches Archäologisches Institut, Rome. © H. Behrens, DAI Rom

Due to its long history, sketched above, the island was now home to a checkerboard of communities including Italians, Byzantine Greeks, Muslims, Jewish immigrants and now its Norman rulers. Sicily was ruled by a succession of Norman kings – Roger II, William I and William II – who turned it into a military power base but also created a unique hybrid, multi-cultural court. The exhibition has a room devoted to the amazing Palatine Chapel, commissioned by Roger to sit at the heart of the royal palace at Palermo, which was covered in gorgeous decoration mixing twelfth-century Byzantine-style mosaic with marble and wooden Islamic-influenced architectural decorations.

Sicilian facts

Sicily has always enjoyed an unusually fertile soil created by the regular volcanic eruptions of Mount Etna. This large sloping mountain dominates the island in every direction.

Sicily contains some of the best-preserved classical temples in the Mediterranean and a stunning ancient theatre built on a hillside overlooking a bay with Mount Etna in the background.

Speaking of stunning landscapes, probably the most striking feature of the exhibition is a number of really massive, wall-sized, colour photographs of the Sicilian landscape, along with temples and ruins, which cover many of the walls and really bring the subject to life. It’s a technique the Museum used in the Viking exhibition a few years ago, and it really helps situate the dry artefacts into a living breathing (and very sunny) environment.

My favourites

The show includes some 200 artefacts from its two chosen eras. I went with my son and we each chose our favourite objects. I liked:

Gilded falcon, dating from the early 1200s and harking back towards the winged eagles and birds of prey which formed bowsprits to Viking warships.

Gilded bronze falcon, Bronze, traces of gold, Sicily or southern Italy, 1200–1220 AD © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Gilded bronze falcon, Bronze, traces of gold, Sicily or southern Italy, 1200–1220 AD © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Palatine chapel ceiling The chapel stood at the centre of the royal palace in Palermo. It was commissioned by the Norman King Roger II and consecrated on 28 April 1140. For the exhibition the extraordinary ceiling of the chapel has been recreated (admittedly the three-dimensional roof with alcoves and arches has been recreated as a flat two-dimensional photograph) and is suspended low above one of the exhibition rooms. Shame there wasn’t a mat for visitors to lie on and look up and study the highly detailed intermixing of abstract patterns, decorated with Islamic script, among which sit rosettes holding quaint medieval portraits of Christian saints and holy men – all the work of Fatimid woodworkers and painters from North Africa.

My son’s favourites

Bronze rostrum The exhibition includes a direct remnant of the battle in which the Romans conquered Sicily in 241 BC: a bronze battering ram that was fitted on the front of the Roman warships to sink enemy ships, and which was only recently excavated from the waters around the island.

Bronze rostrum from Roman warship, from the seabed near Levanzo, Sicily. c.240 BC. Soprintendenza del Mare © Regione Siciliana

Bronze rostrum from Roman warship, from the seabed near Levanzo, Sicily. c.240 BC. Soprintendenza del Mare © Regione Siciliana

Tabula Rogeriana The book of maps which King Roger II commissioned from the Arab scholar Al-Idrisi, who took 15 years creating a description of the world and world map, the first one anyone had attempted in a thousand years. The Tabula Rogeriana was completed in 1154 and the exhibition has a splendid 14th century copy of it.

14th Century copy of a map of Sicily - A double page map of Sicily from Al-Idrisi’s Treatise, Unknown, c.1300–1500AD © The Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford

14th Century copy of a map of Sicily – A double page map of Sicily from Al-Idrisi’s Treatise, Unknown, c.1300–1500AD © The Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford

Summary

So the exhibition is far from being a complete overview of Sicilian culture. Instead it’s a collection of many wonderful artefacts from two distinct moments of European history which – along with the dazzling and enormous colour photos of various landscapes of the island – really whet your appetite to go and visit this fascinating and beautiful island.

The trailer

Related links

Reviews of other British Museum shows

The Angry Mountain by Hammond Innes (1950)

I stiffened in sudden, mortal terror. I knew those fingers. Lying there I knew who it was bending over me in the dark. I knew the touch of his hand and the way he breathed as certainly as if I could see him, and I screamed. It was a scream torn from the memory of the pain those hands had caused me. And as my scream went shrieking round the room, I lashed out with the frenzied violence of a man fighting for his life. (p.92)

Hammond Innes makes Eric Ambler look like Tolstoy. The tone is fraught and hysterical from the start of this melodramatic page-turner.

Backstory

The story is told by a deeply unreliable narrator: Dick Farrell represents B.&H. Evans, machine tool manufacturers of Manchester. He flew bombers in the War, then was transferred to fly supplies to partisans in north Italy. He was shot down, captured and a particularly sadistic Italian doctor experimented on his damaged leg: it could have been saved but instead they carried out three amputations – each one without anaesthetic. By the third operation he confessed and gave the names of the British officers he’d just flown in and where they were hiding. The two officers – Reece and Shirer – were picked up and themselves experimented on by the sadist doctor. As the War drew to a close the doctor, Sansevino, asked them to sign a document saying he had treated them well if he would let them escape. He starts giving them proper rations and one night helps them escape: next morning he is found at his desk where he has shot himself. Farrell, who couldn’t join the escape because of his leg, is told the two men were captured and killed by a German patrol, but not before Reece had written a letter telling his sister, Alice – to whom Farrell was engaged – how Farrell had betrayed them.

Farrell

All this explains why, although he has a decent job, Farrell

  • has a metal leg to replace the amputated one, which is uncomfortable and sometimes painful and about which he is terribly self-conscious and embarrassed
  • has frequent nightmares, night sweats, lives with vivid memories of the agonising operations and the guilt of betraying his colleagues
  • drinks heavily, very heavily – quite routinely he has to be helped to bed, passes out, has to throw up, or gets drunk enough to start shouting at people, throwing his glass across the room etc – he is a deeply damaged man

In all these ways he is reminiscent of the protagonist of Nigel Balchin’s 1943 novel The Small Back Room, David Farrar, who has a prosthetic foot, is in constant pain, has a bad temper and drinks to excess. Even their names are similar.

The plot 1 – Czecho

Starts in Czechoslovakia. Farrell is visiting a few factories to sell his firm’s wares. In Pilsen he looks up an old friend from their Battle of Britain days, a Czech named Tuček. Out of the blue an Englishman he knows called Maxwell tells Farrell he must give Tuček an urgent message: tell him tomorrow night, not Saturday night. Maxwell also amazes Farrell by telling him that Shirer and Reece, who he thought had been killed five years earlier, in that prison escape, are both still alive. In his usual fashion Farrell responds to pressure by drinking himself comatose and the bar staff have to help him to his hotel bedroom. In the morning the porter winks that he received a guest in the early hours but Farrell has no recollection of it. When he returns to the Pilsen factory to convey Maxwell’s message he finds Tuček absent and his room being searched by secret police. When he arrives for his plane to Italy the secret police detain him and take him to be ‘questioned’: he has to account for every minute of his visit and every word he exchanged with Tuček. By now he is quaking with fear and, back at the hotel, drinks the day away until he can catch the next flight out of Czechoslovakia and to Italy.

The plot 2 – Milan

But, when he arrives in Italy – in Milan, to be precise – Farrell finds he hasn’t escaped the nightmare. Almost immediately, Maxwell finds Farrell and tells him he couldn’t find Tuček at the factory because Maxwell had successfully smuggled him out of Czecho by plane. But when the plane arrived at Milan, Tuček wasn’t aboard. Did he come and see Farrell? Did he give him something? Has he heard from him?

Meanwhile, it turns out Reece is staying in the same hotel and, when they bump into each other, has murder in his eyes – he hasn’t forgotten the wartime betrayal. And Reece’s sister, Alice, is there too – they have a tormented encounter in which she says she can never forgive him etc; he tells her about the leg tortures but it doesn’t change anything – neither of them can go back to how it was.

And Maxwell then produces Tuček’s daughter, Hilda, a freckle-nosed young woman, desperate to know what Farrell knows, what did her father tell him, did her father give him anything? —What the hell is it all about?

Next, a Milanese manufacturer contacts Farrell and is keen to see him. Out at his apartment Farrell meets the seductive contessa Zina Valle. They are ‘getting to know each other’ when the man Farrell knew as Shirer from the wartime hospital walks in. Amazed and surprised he leaves immediately, as Farrell leaps up.

The contessa seduces Farrell. She is onto him from the start with a soft voice and alluring looks and compliant body.

The smooth mounds of her breasts seemed to rise up out of the shoulderless dress, the ruby blazed at her throat and her eyes were large and very green. (1973 Fontana paperback edition p.143)

But Farrell has been seized by a horrific thought: his friend Shirer and the sadist doctor Sansevino were always similar in appearance. What if… could it be… might it be Sansevino who escaped and Shirer whose suicide was faked, all those years ago?

That night Farrell gets roaring drunk and is walking up and down his hotel bedroom ranting so loudly about torture, Nazis, sadist doctors, partisans, beautiful contessas etc, that he wakes up the nice decent American next door, Hacket, who comes round to calm him down. After some chat Hacket suggests Farrell needs a complete break, a rest, a holiday. ‘Wire your firm you need a few days off, catch a flight with me down to Naples, the sun and sea will do you good.’ So Farrell allows himself to be flown south for a break.

The plot 3 – Naples

Turns out the contessa owns a villa outside Naples. Farrell checks into a hotel on the seafront and enjoys one carefree day before the net closes in on him again. He is surprised to see a former street urchin, Roberto, who the Allied troops used to pay to guard their cars back during the War, now dressed in a chauffeur’s uniform. Then amazed to discover that he is chauffeur to the contessa. He has, of course, been tailing him.

The contessa offers to take him and Hacket, a keen tourist, round the ruins of Pompeii. Farrell is horrified to discover that Maxwell and Tuček’s daughter, Hilda, have followed him to Naples. What do they want with him? And why does the chauffeur, Roberto, change his attitude to Farrell from servantly deference to mounting antagonism?

The contessa invites Farrell away from everyone up to her isolated villa on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius. Here she combines barely covered breasts with lashings of booze till Farrell almost passes out. But he manages to just about keep conscious, then to throw up, which makes him awake at the moment someone slowly opens his door and creeps into the room. Farrell slips out and down the hall and discovers the contessa in the same room where Roberto had been. Suddenly a lot of things become clear:

  • the contessa is at heart a Naples street urchin got lucky; she married the ageing count for his money, he for her sex
  • she is in love with Roberto the street urchin turned chauffeur
  • she has been blackmailed into seducing Farrell and luring him to this isolated villa by Shirer who is in fact the wartime sadist doctor Sansevino
  • and at last Farrell realises that whatever everyone’s after, Tuček must have slipped it into his artificial leg when he was out cold in his hotel room in Czechoslovakia! No wonder everyone’s chasing him.

 Plot 4 – the angry mountain

Farrell realises all this as he confronts Sansevino in a dark room at the villa when — Mount Vesuvius erupts! There’s a big bang followed by a continous fine cloud of ash covering everything. Everyone in the villa wakes up and rushes into the drawing room: Zina, Farrell, Sansevino, Roberto, when there’s a knock at the door and Hacket appears (!) he had been staying nearby to view the volcano – and then a few moments later, Maxwell and Tuček’s daughter, Hilda. There’s a fantastically intense scene where volcanic ash is coming in through every window and chimney as the contessa plays Faust on the piano and all the people in the room size each other up, weighing what they know about each other and what they hope to get from each other.

Until the tension breaks, the contessa snaps and begs Sansevino for her morphine: aha, so she is a junkie, that is his hold over her. And it is Sansevino. And before he can stop her she babbles about the other hostages up at the old monastery, letting Maxwell and Farrell know these hostages must be Tuček and his companion who had escaped from Czechoslovakia on the secret plane, then gone missing. So Sansevino hits her, hard, and next thing Roberto smashes him in the face and is advancing to beat him to a pulp when Sansevino draws a gun and shoots Roberto dead. Pandemonium – while Vesuvius flares blood-red with flames through the windows!

And suddenly the lights go out and Sansevino is up and out of the room, across the ash-filled courtyard into a car and driving like a maniac up to the old ruined monastery of Santo Francisco, and our heroes jump into their cars and follow him! It’s all breakneck stuff, littered with exclamation marks!

I gripped her hand, nerving myself for the dash to the doorway, for the groping along endless corridors and through huge, silent rooms expecting every shadow to materialise into that damnable doctor. (p.185)

The tension is racked up to fever pitch as Sansevino cunningly traps Maxwell and Hacket in the same medieval prison tower as Tuček, then corners Farrell on an ash-laden rooftop, takes Farrell’s gun and unstraps his false leg to reveal the secret packages Tuček had stashed there. Aha! So the treasure is finally revealed. Then Sansevino bolts the door to the roof and leaves Farrell to be killed by the advancing barrier of molten lava.

The next 30 pages or so describe in a high fever Farrell’s pitiful efforts to open the thick, ancient oak door. He is only freed as the entire house begins to collapse as it is crushed by the thirty-foot high wall of approaching lava! And then Farrell’s frantic attempts to find and free the others, trapped high in a tower of the monastery as the lava slowly creeps towards them. Preposterous tosh and absolutely gripping!

Someone to believe in me

Buried somewhere in all the adrenalin-packed frenzy there is a sort of theme to do with trust and belief: Farrell has never been a man since he was forced under torture to reveal the whereabouts of Reece and Shirer; a lack of trust compounded by Reece’s sister’s refusal to accept him, and then nobody believing him when he told them that Shirer was in fact the evil Dr Sansevino. This drunken failure, this man haunted by a sense of his own inadequacy, is strikingly similar to the protagonist of the Balchin novel.

But unlike in Balchin, it is all redeemed in a very Hollywood-style movie ending when, against all the odds, Farrell not only manages to escape his own collapsing building but rounds up Tuček’s daughter in the flaming village square, then is instrumental in freeing all the others from their gaol, and then – improbably but somehow fittingly – finds a mule which they hitch to an abandoned cart and which trots them out of the lava-threatened village.

In this moment of respite, he finds Tuček’s daughter, Hilda, looking up into his eyes. He has saved her. He has saved her father.

The blood was suddenly singing in my veins. She believed in me. She wasn’t like Alice. She believed in me. She offered me hope for the future… I looked past her to the gaunt remains of Santo Francisco and the mountain behind it with the great belching column of smoke and the broad bands of the lava and I was glad I’d been there. It was as though I’d been cleansed by fire, as though the anger of the mountain had burned all the fear out of me and left me sure of myself again. (p.220)

Except that, as they trot out of Santo Francisco they can all see that the two spurs of lava have joined up south of the contessa’s villa. And, covered with ash and exhausted, who should they meet blundering up the track but Reece who confirms that they are trapped, surrounded by 30-foot high lava flow which will slowly merge. they are doomed.

They trot over to the villa in the mule cart to drink, for the contessa to get a fix of morphine, for Hilda to fix up Maxwell’s badly broken leg, and for them all to realise that their only hope lies in one last-ditch act of heroism, when Farrell will have a final opportunity to convert all the unbelievers and allay all the doubts which have gnawed his soul away for five long years!

Will it work? Can he save them? Can he be a whole man again? Will he and Hilda Tuček live happily ever after? And what is inside the packages smuggled in Farrell’s false leg? You’ll have to read the book and find out!

Conclusion

Being narrated by an alcoholic nervous wreck means the entire text is on edge and over-wrought from the start. Every time he hears a car backfire or a door slam, Farrell has flashbacks of the grisly operations on his leg, the accusation in the eyes of Shirer and Reece, his torment at the loss of the love of Reece’s sister or some other psychic wound. You need to get used to this hysterical tone and the claustrophobic effect of the same characters popping up no matter where Farrell flees, and accept the book for what it is, a well-made and exciting pulp thriller, with a nail-biting air of tension, double-crossing, terrible secrets, a sultry Italian dame and a fair young marriageable maiden to be rescued. But fear is the dominant key, fear and panic.

I didn’t say anything and we faced each other. There was a sudden void in the pit of my stomach and the hairs crawled along my scalp. (p.156)

Related links

1952 Bantam edition of The Angry Mountain (Cover art by Mitchell Hooks)

1952 Bantam edition of The Angry Mountain (Cover art by Mitchell Hooks)

PS – Paradise Lost

At least the third of Innes’ novels which references Paradise Lost, comparing the red glare of the lava flowing down Vesuvius to Hell in Milton’s poem (p.147). ‘The whole night sky seemed on fire like a scene from Paradise Lost.’

Hammond Innes’ novels

1937 The Doppelganger
1937 Air Disaster
1938 Sabotage Broadcast
1939 All Roads Lead to Friday
1940 The Trojan Horse – Barrister Andrew Kilmartin gets involved with an Austrian Jewish refugee engineer whose discovery of a new lightweight alloy which will make lighter, more powerful aircraft engines leads to him being hunted by an extensive and sinister Nazi network which reaches to the highest places in the land. The book features a nailbiting chase through the sewers of London and a last-minute shootout on the Nazi ship.
1940 Wreckers Must Breathe – Journalist Walter Craig stumbles across a secret Nazi submarine base built into a ruined tin mine on the Cornwall coast and, along with local miners and a tough woman journalist, fights his way out of captivity and defeats the Nazis.
1941 Attack Alarm – Gripping thriller based on Innes’ own experience as a Battle of Britain anti-aircraft gunner. Ex-journalist Barry Hanson uncovers a dastardly plan by Nazi fifth columnists to take over his airfield ahead of the big German invasion.


1946 Dead and Alive – David Cunningham, ex-Navy captain, hooks up with another demobbed naval officer to revamp a ship-wrecked landing craft. But their very first commercial trip to Italy goes disastrously wrong when his colleague, McCrae, offends the local mafia while Cunningham is off tracking down a girl who went missing during the war. A short but atmospheric and compelling thriller.
1947 The Killer Mine Army deserter Jim Pryce discovers dark family secrets at a ruined Cornish mine which is being used as a base by a father-and-son team of smugglers who blackmail him into doing some submarine rock blasting, with catastrophic results.
1947 The Lonely Skier Writer Neil Blair is hired to visit the Dolomite mountains in Italy, supposedly to write a script for film producer Derek Engles, in reality to tip him off when key players in a hunt for Nazi gold arrive at the ski hut in the mountains where – they all think – the missing treasure is buried.
1947 Maddon’s Rock Corporal Jim Vardin, convicted of mutiny at sea and imprisoned in Dartmoor, breaks out to clear his name and seek revenge on the captain and crew who pretended to sink their ship, the Trikkala, but in fact hid it at a remote island in the Arctic circle in order to steal its cargo of silver bullion.
1948 The Blue Ice Mineralogist and industrialist Bill Gansert sails to Norway to discover the truth about the disappearance of George Farnell, a friend of his who knew something about the discovery of a rare metal ore – an investigation which revives complex enmities forged in Norway’s war-time Nazi occupation.
1949 The White South Narrator Duncan Craig becomes mixed up in the disaster of the whaling ship Southern Star, witnessing at first hand the poisonous feuds and disagreements which lead a couple of its small whalecatcher boats to get caught in pack ice, fatally luring the vast factory ship to come to their rescue and also becoming trapped. It then has to evacuate over 400 men, women and children onto the pitiless Antarctic ice where Craig has to lead his strife-torn crew to safety.
1950 The Angry Mountain – Engineering salesman Dick Farrell’s wartime experiences come back to haunt him as he is caught up in a melodramatic yarn about a Czech spy smuggling industrial secrets to the West, with various people from his past pursuing him across Italy towards Naples and Mount Vesuvius, which erupts to form the dramatic climax to the story.
1951 Air Bridge – Bomber pilot fallen on hard times, Neil Fraser, gets mixed up with Bill Saeton and his obsession with building a new type of diesel aero-engine based on a prototype looted from wartime Germany. Saeton is helped by partner Tubby Carter, hindered by Tubby’s sex-mad wife Diana, and spied on by Else, the embittered daughter of the German who originated the designs. The story moves to Germany and the Berlin airlift where Saeton’s obsession crosses the line into betrayal and murder.
1952 Campbell’s Kingdom – Bruce Campbell, given only months to live by his doctors, packs in his boring job in London and emigrates to Canada to fulfil the dream of his eccentric grandfather, to find oil in the barren patch of the Canadian Rockies known as ‘Campbell’s Kingdom’.
1954 The Strange Land – Missionary Philip Latham is forced to conceal the identity of the man who replies to an advert to come and be doctor to a poor community in the south of Morocco. Instead of curing the sick, he finds himself caught up in a quest for an ancient silver mine, a quest which brings disaster to the impoverished community where it is set.
1956 The Wreck of the Mary Deare – Yacht skipper John Sands stumbles across the wreck of the decrepit steamer Mary Deare and into the life of its haggard, obsessive captain, Patch, who is determined to clear his reputation by revealing the owners’ conspiracy to sink his ship and claim the insurance.
1958 The Land God Gave To Cain – Engineer Ian Ferguson responds to a radio plea for help received by his amateur radio enthusiast father, and sets off to the wilds of Labrador, north-east Canada, to see if the survivors of a plane crash in this barren country are still alive – and what lies behind the conspiracy to try and hush the incident up.
1960 The Doomed Oasis – Solicitor George Grant helps young tearaway David Thomas travel to Arabia to find his biological father, the legendary adventurer and oilman Colonel Charles Whitaker, and becomes embroiled in a small Arab war which leads to a siege in an ancient fortress where the rivalry between father and son reaches a tragic conclusion.
1962 Atlantic Fury – Painter Duncan Ross is eyewitness to an appalling naval disaster on an island of the Outer Hebrides. But intertwined with this tragedy is the fraught story of his long-lost brother who has stolen another man’s identity. Both plotlines lead inexorably to the bleak windswept island of Laerg.
1965 The Strode Venturer – Ex-Merchant Navy captain Geoffrey Bailey finds himself drawn into the affairs of the Strode shipping company which aggressively took over his father’s shipping line, thereby ruining his family and driving his father to suicide. Now, 30 years later, he is hired to track down the rogue son of the family, Peter Strode, who has developed an obsession with a new volcanic atoll in the middle of the Indian Ocean, whose mineral wealth might be able to help the Maldive Islanders whose quest for independence he is championing.
1971 Levkas Man – Merchant seaman Paul goes to find his father, eccentric archaeologist Pieter Van der Voort, another typical Innes obsessive, this one convinced he can prove his eccentric and garbled theories about the origin of Man, changing Ice Age sea levels, the destruction of Atlantis and so on. Much sailing around the Aegean, feelingly described by Innes, before the climax in a vast subterranean cavern covered in prehistoric rock paintings, in an atmosphere heavy with timeless evil, where his father admits to being a murderer.
1973 Golden Soak – Alec Falls’ mining business in Cornwall goes bust so he fakes his own death and smuggles himself out to Australia to take up an invitation to visit a rancher’s daughter he’d met in England. He finds himself plunged into the mystery and intrigue which surrounds the struggling Jarra Jarra ranch and its failed mine, Golden Soak, a mystery which leads him on a wild chase out into the desolate hell of the Gibson desert where Alec discovers the truth about the mine and the rumours of a vast hill of copper, and witnesses archetypal tragedies of guilt and expiation, of revenge and parricide.
1974 North Star – One-time political agitator and seaman Michael Randall tries and fails to escape his treacherous past as he finds himself embroiled in a plot to blow up a North Sea oil rig, a plot which is led by the father he thought had died decades earlier.
1977 The Big Footprints – TV director Colin Tait finds himself caught up in the one-man war of grizzled African hunter and legendary bushman Cornelius van Delden against his old friend, Alex Kirby-Smith, who is now leading the Kenyan government’s drive to cull the country’s wildlife, especially its elephants, to feed a starving population and clear the way for farmers and their cattle. It’s all mixed up with Tait’s obsessive quest to find a remote mountain where neolithic man was said to have built the first city in the world.
1980 Solomon’s Seal – Property valuer Roy Slingsby prices the contents of an old farmhouse in the Essex countryside and is intrigued by two albums of stamps from the Solomon Islands. He takes up the offer of a valuing job in Australia and finds himself drawn into the tragic history of the colonial Holland family, whose last surviving son is running machine guns to be used in the coup and bid for independence of Bougainville Island. Though so much of the detail is calm, rational and business-like, the final impression is of an accursed family and a fated ancestral house which burns down at the novel’s climax.
1982 The Black Tide – When his wife dies blowing up an oil tanker which has hit the rocks near their Cornwall home, ex-merchant seaman Trevor Rodin goes searching for the crew he thinks deliberately ran her aground. His search takes him to Lloyds of London, to the Nantes home of the lead suspect and then on to the Persian Gulf, where he discovers several ‘missing’ tankers are in fact being repurposed by terrorists planning to create a devastating environmental disaster somewhere on the coast of Europe. With no money or resources behind him, and nobody believing his far-fetched tale, can Rodin prevent the catastrophe?
1985 The High Stand – When gold millionaire Tom Halliday and his wife Miriam go missing, their staid Sussex solicitor Philip Redfern finds himself drawn to the old gold mine in the Canadian Rockies which is the basis of the Halliday fortune, and discovers that the illegal felling of the timber planted around the mine is being used as a front for a gang of international drug smugglers, with violent consequences.
1988 Medusa – Former smuggler turned respectable ex-pat businessman, Mike Steele, finds his idyllic life on the pretty Mediterranean island of Minorca turning very nasty when he gets mixed up with mercenaries running guns onto the island to support a violent separatist movement and military coup.
1991 Isvik – Wood restorer Peter Kettil gets caught up in a crazy scheme to find an old Victorian frigate allegedly spotted locked in the Antarctic ice by a glaciologist before his death in a flying accident. His partners are the nymphomaniac Latino wife of the dead glaciologist, Iris Sunderby, a bizarre Scottish cripple, Iain Ward, and a mysterious Argentine who may or may not have been involved in atrocities under the military junta.
1993 Target Antarctica Sequel to Isvik. Booted out of the RAF for his maverick behaviour, pilot Michael ‘Ed’ Cruse is hired by Iain Ward, the larger-than-life character at the heart of the previous novel, Isvik, to fly a C-130 Hercules plane off a damaged runway on the Antarctic ice shelf. There are many twists, not least with a beautiful Thai woman who is pursued by the Khmer Rouge (!), before in the last few pages we realise the whole thing is Ward’s scheme to extract diamonds from the shallow seabed, whose existence was discovered by the sole survivor of the frigate found in the previous novel.
1996 Delta Connection An astonishing dog’s dinner of a novel, which starts out reasonably realistically following the adventures of Paul Cartwright, scrap metal consultant, in Romania on the very days that communist ruler Nicolae Ceaușescu is overthrown, before moving on to Pakistan and the Khyber Pass where things develop into a violent thriller, before jettisoning any attempt at realism and turning into a sort of homage to Rider Haggard’s adventure stories for boys as Cruse and his gay, ex-Army mentor, battle their way through blizzards into the idyllic valley of Nirvana, where they meet the secret underground descendants of Vikings who long ago settled this land, before almost immediately participating in the palace coup which overthrows the brutal ruler and puts on the throne the young woman who Paul fell in love with as a boy back in Romania, where the narrative started. A convoluted, compelling and bizarre finale to Innes’ long career.

Dead and Alive by Hammond Innes (1947)

My sense of loneliness made the throng of life in the drab back-streets more vivid. The film of dirt on the hairy legs of the girl who shuffled ahead of me in wooden soled sandals, the urgent shrill cries of the ageless women behind the street stands, the beggars, the boys who wandered barefooted through the streets pimping for their sisters who were still in their teens, the tawdry make-up of a woman standing hopefully beneath the tinsel-decorated lamp-lit shrine of the Madonna at the street corner, the poverty and the dirt, and the sour smell of streets that had no proper sanitation… (p.127)

This is a very short thriller (158 pages in the Fontana paperback) in two starkly contrasting parts: first, the mood and feel of recently demobbed English sailors at a loose end and kicking around the Cornish coast; then a travelogue across recently liberated Italy in all its poverty and corruption. It packs a lot of description, history and feeling into a small space.

The plot

A man adrift

David Cunningham captained Royal Navy landing craft during the war. In the first few pages he is holed up in the Cornish boarding house where he and his true love holidayed before the war. While he was away serving, she married a RAF pilot who was subsequently killed and then she was killed in a German air raid. Her mother sent on a box of jewellery and trinkets. Just to complicate matters, he fell for another woman on a short home leave but now the war is over, and he’s reunited with her and her mother and family, he realises he’s not ready for marriage, he doesn’t know what he’s ready for, he’s confused and disorientated, so he’s run away to this remote Cornish house.

He stares moodily into the fire. The landlady says, ‘Why don’t you go find out about the wreck along the coast?’

Turns out a big landing craft got washed ashore onto rocks in a narrow cove the year before. Another disgruntled vet, Stuart McCrae, bought it off the Admiralty and is living in it. (In a typical Innes coincidence, their paths actually crossed during the war, when Cunningham piloted his landing craft carrying tanks onto the beach at Anzio where, amid the chaos and corpses, the very brave McCrae stood amid the shells and bullets and guided him in.)

Floating the boat

Over a scotch and war reminiscences, David says he thinks he can float the landing craft. And so the first 50 pages are a long and detailed description of how he wangles equipment off Navy mates, then rigs up scaffolding, gantries, hawsers and cables and dragoons passing tourists into helping build a rock and sand slope, with which they manage – despite various setbacks (some fierce storms destroy all their work and they have to start again) – to get the LC back into the water. Along the way they pick up another stray ex-Navy man, Dugan, an engineer who fixes the motors, and who knows another bloke, Boyd, from Plymouth who signs on as crew.

They name the ship Trevedra after the nearby village.

The Monique storyline

Turns out one of the local holiday-makers who they persuaded to help building the ramp and gantries, is a newspaperman. He publishes a piece about their epic labour in a national newspaper, along with photos which prompts a surprising amount of ‘fan mail’, which he passes on to our chaps. Among the 124 letters is a moving one from an Emily Dupont. She married a Frenchman in the 1920s and lived in Paris. In the war her husband and son were killed. At an early stage of the German invasion, she packed off her daughter to stay with Italian cousins for safety. She writes that, if the guys are travelling to Italy, as the newspaper reports, could they please please please look for her daughter, Monique. The letter encloses a photo of a pretty 15-year-old and the address of the people she was sent to stay with.

The business deal

Meanwhile McCrae proposes a simple business set-up. He and Cunningham go 50-50 in a new company. The two crew get a percentage of profits. Cunningham will be captain and have absolute authority on the ship. McCrae will negotiate cargo and business deals. They shake on it. While Cunningham finalises the ship’s refurbishment, McCrae goes off to London to do business. He comes back with the news that Italy – which they both know – is poverty stricken, and desperate in particular for all forms of transport. McCrae has fixed up with an old Army pal to buy some knackered Bedford lorries and spares. They’ll load these with fags and booze and sail to Italy, selling at a good price and use the money to buy a return cargo – probably all the rare wines and liqueurs Italy is famous for, and British soldiers came home with a taste for, but which are difficult to obtain here. A mate of his in London has agreed to distribute any fine booze they bring back and is already making enquiries about potential business customers.

Very thorough of Innes to put in these details. Very plausible account. And very typically ordinary, low level, not international corporations. Very much the man on the street, the demobbed soldier or sailor trying to start again from scratch, as in Killer Mine.

Sailing to Italy

Fairly uneventful, full of accurate and evocative descriptions of the sea which are Innes’ trademark.

Post-war Italy

The novel’s deep value may come less from its plot than from its searing and moving descriptions of post-war Italy, a corrupt and devastated shambles. Innes gives powerful descriptions of war-torn Naples, the damaged people and buildings. They dock, meet their business contact and dispose of the lorries and cigarettes on the spot for a big profit, then bank the proceeds and have a night on the town. Next day they are invited to a swanky party of a local bigwig up on the hill at Posillipo. In this swish villa, among the sleek men and scantily dressed women, Cunningham and McCrae are revolted at the contrast between the chattering rich and the absolute poverty in the city below, where people are literally starving to death.

When the bigwig, Del Ricci, takes them for a business chat and proposes buying the landing craft for double its market value, McCrae loses his temper: He knows Del Ricci is an ex-fascist, he knows he wants to use the landing craft to run guns to support his extortionate business practices, and he gives a big speech about how many British boys died horribly to liberate this country, not to give it back into the hands of fascists and crooks like him. When Del Ricci goes for his pocket pistol, McCrae lays him out with a big British punch. In the taxi back to the port Cunningham warns him, you shouldn’t have done that…

Looking for Monique

While McCrae pursues business contacts, Cunningham asks their local fixer to track down the address Emily Dupont gave him for Monique. Slowly the trail unfolds. Seems the address he was given was for a dodgy apartment block, a ristorante on the ground floor and brothel above it, with one respectable apartment where the Galliani family lived along with Monique. But the present owners say family and girl are long gone. They moved to a farm in the country.

Cunningham sets off to find her, taking Boyd, the cockney sailor, with him, telling McCrae they’ll be back in a day or two. He is so upset by the waste and horror of war, by the poverty and misery of Naples that – suddenly – finding her for her mother feels like a mission, a purpose, to try and put something right in this screwed-up world.

In fact it takes many days to follow the trail: first to a dusty farm, where Cunningham finds two old ladies. They confirm that the family from Naples came to stay here along with the girl. But at the end of the war, they describe a sickening incident when the Germans parked an 88mm flak gun by the farmhouse and used it for a while to defend a nearby bridge. When the Germans left, they set fire to the farmhouse. When the menfolk tried to intervene, the father was covered in petrol and set on fire, the others shot in the face. It is a revolting story, and typical of the violence and brutality Innes’ war-haunted protagonist sees all around him. Every road and hill and village brings back terrible memories of the war and its atrocities…

The women think Monique is in the village of Pericele. Boyd and Cunningham drive on through the killing grounds of the war, towns and cities flattened or pock-marked with artillery and bullet marks. Pericele turns out to be an impoverished dump and the parish priest a shifty creep who lies to them. After much prevarication it they discover that Monique has been sold into semi-serfdom to the village bully, Mancini. They track her down to a stream on his farm where she is dressed in rags and tells them how Mancini routinely whips her and beats her: he wants her to come begging to him for sex. She bursts into tears. Boyd and Cunningham are appalled at the humiliation and degradation of this still very young woman, but they see Mancini coming towards them in the distance, along with farmhands carrying shotguns. Boyd and Cunningham beat a hasty retreat but promise to return for her that evening.

That night Cunningham and Boyd, true to their promise, return to Mancini’s farm, parking the car some distance away and sneaking up quietly on the silent buildings. They discover Monique has been locked in the outdoor privy. But they make too much noise getting her out and Mancini comes roaring out of his house with his bullwhip. Cunningham tackles him and there is a bitter, unglamorous fight there in the farmyard muck. By wriggling free of his jacket Cunningham manages to get to his feet and run to the car Boyd has ready. They escape at top speed but, by the time they arrive back in Naples, Cunningham realises all his money, his wallet and his passport were in the damn jacket.

Stuck in Naples

Boyd and Cunningham make straight for the docks only to be stunned to learn that the Trevedra has sailed without them! What! Surely McCrae would never leave them. When they go to the bank where they happily deposited their profits a few days before, they discover McCrae emptied the account before leaving! What! I immediately suspected that McCrae has been killed by the mafioso he insulted and hit up at the hilltop villa.

Meanwhile, Cunningham and Boyd and Monique, united by their midnight exploits and their plight, pawn Cunningham’s watch and reluctantly move into the very sleazy apartment block-cum-bordello where Monique lived when she first came to stay in the city. It’s dirt cheap and has the advantage that the madam is tolerant of them. Also that it brings them into contact with the raddled old deserter who lives in one of the rooms and forges documents. The British Consul had agreed, reluctantly, to grant Cunningham a temporary passport to replace the one he left behind at Mancini’s farm, but refused point blank  to give one to Monique. Now, when Cunningham returns despondent from a day going to various offices (consulate, bank, harbour office), Boyd and Monique proudly show Cunningham her forged passport and travel documents. Job done.

The man who was paralysed

That night the forger asks them round for drinks. In a melodramatic scene worthy of Robert Louis Stevenson or Conan Doyle, he is given a long monologue in which reveals himself to be an embittered and crippled Scotsman, who got into various types of trouble in the Army, before deserting at Monte Cassino and making his way to Naples. He had always fancied himself an artist but here in a city racked by crime, discovered his true métier was forging papers, at which he has now become a master. The melodrama of his early escapades with the Army and then setting-up as a master forger, switches to lachrymose sentimentality as he starts talking about his dear old mum back in the wee Scots village of Ballachulish. He makes Cunningham swear to tell her – using his authority and swank as a former officer – that her son was a success, a prosperous businessman with a beautiful wife and bonny baby boy. But that, tragically, he was cut down in a street accident and has passed away. He’s forged the papers and even a will. He is, he points out bitterly, dying of syphilis anyway. He just wants his dear old mother to maintain her illusions.

— This extraordinary chapter is built from paper-thin clichés – how the idealistic young man slowly realises he is a rotten artist and becomes disillusioned; how he hates and loathes the Army and all its brutality; how he hates the pukka, public-school-educated officer class who had effortless confidence in everything they do; how the one and only ‘true’ work of art he ever made was the portrait of fair Monique, back when she was living with the Gallianis, and inspired by her beauty and innocence etc. Switching back to bitterness, he vents his scorn on the raddled Neapolitan prostitute he now lives with and her bastard son. The whole thing reeks of Victorian melodrama and is enjoyable as a remarkable reversion to the sensationalist fiction of the 1880s and 90s.

But it isn’t a completely random insertion: it also serves to move the plot along, because the paralysed man says that, if Cunningham swears on the Bible to take the message to his wee old mother, he’ll tell them what happened to their ship. Cunningham swears on the Bible. The paralysed man reveals that he forged papers for the Trevedra. He forged papers giving it a new name and naming its legal owner as Del Ricci. Aha. It all falls into place. Rather than buy the ship off the offensive McCrae, Del Ricci has just stolen it.

The paralysed man says it’s currently moored at Porto Giglio, on an island near Elba. He gives our chaps the name of a local ex-partisan and communist who very much wants to prevent the neo-fascist Del Ricci becoming the dominant power on this western coast. He says he’s arranged a rendezvous with this man, nicknamed the ‘Little Octopus’, at the trattoria in the Vicoletto Berio the next morning.

The Little Octopus

Our chaps meet the Octopus. When they tell him where the boat is moored, he makes arrangements and tells them to wait that night at a point on the road out of town. That night they have all their bags with them, and jump aboard the lorry carrying sacks of flour which arrives to collect them. They drive for hours north towards Rome and then west to the coast. Here they park at a harbour and load into a waiting island schooner, a filthy vessel run by an even filthier old captain, all spit and vino. The schooner sails out to Porto Giglio. Cunningham notices feet sticking out from under one of the collapsed sails. The Octopus notices and smiles cruelly. ‘If you live like a rat you die like a rat,’ he says. He shows Cunningham the cigarette tin and lighter with Del Ricci’s initials. They’ve murdered him. A little later his body is dropped overboard. Boyd comments that there is no law in this god-forsaken country and, on the evidence of this novel, there really doesn’t seem to be.

The schooner sails into Porto Giglio, where they execute their simple plan. They deliberately bump the schooner against the landing craft, which is moored in the centre of the harbour. The LC’s crew come out and start arguing and shouting, as Italians do, whereupon our lot of Italians hold them up at gunpoint. It could have been left at that, but again there is an excess of violence as, once they have tied and gagged the sailors, the Octopus proceeds to torture one of them with the tip of his lighted cigarette, stuffing a rag in his mouth to stifle the man’s screams. He is in the middle of doing this when Boyd on the bridge is overpowered by a baddy who’d been hiding below-decks. The Octopus shoots him without hesitation. Brains splatter onto Monique’s dress. She had wanted to see ‘fighting’. Now she realises she doesn’t like it.

The tortured baddy reveals that McCrae and the other crewman, Dugan, are in the lockers in the stern. Cunningham releases them, very much the worse for wear for having no food or water for two days. With that the Octopus says farewell. He has murdered his rival and deprived his organisation of a useful vessel. ‘How can we repay you?’ asks Cunningham. ‘Oh, you will return to Italy one day and maybe I will need help. That is all I ask.’ And he and his men climb back aboard the schooner and are gone.

Cunningham sets a course away from Italy out into the clean bracing air of the Mediterranean. McCrae and Dugan are recovering in the cabin. Boyd is running the engines. In an image which recurs in several later books, Cunningham guides Monique’s hands onto the spokes of the wheel and feels her warm body press back against his. They are in love. The future is going to be good.

Thoughts

As you can see the plot is pretty over-ripe, tipping into Victorian melodrama at points, but nonetheless it is gripping and well-told. It could have made a taut b&w 1950s movie starring one of the square-jawed English heroes from the time.

But the book is really worth reading for the tremendous flavour it gives you of a devastated Italy immediately after the war, the poverty and squalor and hopelessness, among which sit islands of opulence and plenty, all overlaid by the menacing presence of fascist bullies and mafia criminals. The drive through former battlefields as Cunningham relives the heat and sweat and blood and spilling guts of dying men in every village and field is very powerful. There is nothing, absolutely nothing glamorous or redeeming in the war that Innes describes. And the Italy he portrays couldn’t be further from the tourist fantasia of our times.

It’s powerful testimony to a now-distant and terrible era.


Credit

Dead and Alive by Hammond Innes was published by William Collins in 1941. All references are to the 1980 Fontana paperback edition.

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Hammond Innes’ novels

1937 The Doppelganger
1937 Air Disaster
1938 Sabotage Broadcast
1939 All Roads Lead to Friday
1940 The Trojan Horse – Barrister Andrew Kilmartin gets involved with an Austrian Jewish refugee engineer whose discovery of a new lightweight alloy which will make lighter, more powerful aircraft engines leads to him being hunted by an extensive and sinister Nazi network which reaches to the highest places in the land. The book features a nailbiting chase through the sewers of London and a last-minute shootout on the Nazi ship.
1940 Wreckers Must Breathe – Journalist Walter Craig stumbles across a secret Nazi submarine base built into a ruined tin mine on the Cornwall coast and, along with local miners and a tough woman journalist, fights his way out of captivity and defeats the Nazis.
1941 Attack Alarm – Gripping thriller based on Innes’ own experience as a Battle of Britain anti-aircraft gunner. Ex-journalist Barry Hanson uncovers a dastardly plan by Nazi fifth columnists to take over his airfield ahead of the big German invasion.


1946 Dead and Alive – David Cunningham, ex-Navy captain, hooks up with another demobbed naval officer to revamp a ship-wrecked landing craft. But their very first commercial trip to Italy goes disastrously wrong when his colleague, McCrae, offends the local mafia while Cunningham is off tracking down a girl who went missing during the war. A short but atmospheric and compelling thriller.
1947 The Killer Mine Army deserter Jim Pryce discovers dark family secrets at a ruined Cornish mine which is being used as a base by a father-and-son team of smugglers who blackmail him into doing some submarine rock blasting, with catastrophic results.
1947 The Lonely Skier Writer Neil Blair is hired to visit the Dolomite mountains in Italy, supposedly to write a script for film producer Derek Engles, in reality to tip him off when key players in a hunt for Nazi gold arrive at the ski hut in the mountains where – they all think – the missing treasure is buried.
1947 Maddon’s Rock Corporal Jim Vardin, convicted of mutiny at sea and imprisoned in Dartmoor, breaks out to clear his name and seek revenge on the captain and crew who pretended to sink their ship, the Trikkala, but in fact hid it at a remote island in the Arctic circle in order to steal its cargo of silver bullion.
1948 The Blue Ice Mineralogist and industrialist Bill Gansert sails to Norway to discover the truth about the disappearance of George Farnell, a friend of his who knew something about the discovery of a rare metal ore – an investigation which revives complex enmities forged in Norway’s war-time Nazi occupation.
1949 The White South Narrator Duncan Craig becomes mixed up in the disaster of the whaling ship Southern Star, witnessing at first hand the poisonous feuds and disagreements which lead a couple of its small whalecatcher boats to get caught in pack ice, fatally luring the vast factory ship to come to their rescue and also becoming trapped. It then has to evacuate over 400 men, women and children onto the pitiless Antarctic ice where Craig has to lead his strife-torn crew to safety.
1950 The Angry Mountain – Engineering salesman Dick Farrell’s wartime experiences come back to haunt him as he is caught up in a melodramatic yarn about a Czech spy smuggling industrial secrets to the West, with various people from his past pursuing him across Italy towards Naples and Mount Vesuvius, which erupts to form the dramatic climax to the story.
1951 Air Bridge – Bomber pilot fallen on hard times, Neil Fraser, gets mixed up with Bill Saeton and his obsession with building a new type of diesel aero-engine based on a prototype looted from wartime Germany. Saeton is helped by partner Tubby Carter, hindered by Tubby’s sex-mad wife Diana, and spied on by Else, the embittered daughter of the German who originated the designs. The story moves to Germany and the Berlin airlift where Saeton’s obsession crosses the line into betrayal and murder.
1952 Campbell’s Kingdom – Bruce Campbell, given only months to live by his doctors, packs in his boring job in London and emigrates to Canada to fulfil the dream of his eccentric grandfather, to find oil in the barren patch of the Canadian Rockies known as ‘Campbell’s Kingdom’.
1954 The Strange Land – Missionary Philip Latham is forced to conceal the identity of the man who replies to an advert to come and be doctor to a poor community in the south of Morocco. Instead of curing the sick, he finds himself caught up in a quest for an ancient silver mine, a quest which brings disaster to the impoverished community where it is set.
1956 The Wreck of the Mary Deare – Yacht skipper John Sands stumbles across the wreck of the decrepit steamer Mary Deare and into the life of its haggard, obsessive captain, Patch, who is determined to clear his reputation by revealing the owners’ conspiracy to sink his ship and claim the insurance.
1958 The Land God Gave To Cain – Engineer Ian Ferguson responds to a radio plea for help received by his amateur radio enthusiast father, and sets off to the wilds of Labrador, north-east Canada, to see if the survivors of a plane crash in this barren country are still alive – and what lies behind the conspiracy to try and hush the incident up.
1960 The Doomed Oasis – Solicitor George Grant helps young tearaway David Thomas travel to Arabia to find his biological father, the legendary adventurer and oilman Colonel Charles Whitaker, and becomes embroiled in a small Arab war which leads to a siege in an ancient fortress where the rivalry between father and son reaches a tragic conclusion.
1962 Atlantic Fury – Painter Duncan Ross is eyewitness to an appalling naval disaster on an island of the Outer Hebrides. But intertwined with this tragedy is the fraught story of his long-lost brother who has stolen another man’s identity. Both plotlines lead inexorably to the bleak windswept island of Laerg.
1965 The Strode Venturer – Ex-Merchant Navy captain Geoffrey Bailey finds himself drawn into the affairs of the Strode shipping company which aggressively took over his father’s shipping line, thereby ruining his family and driving his father to suicide. Now, 30 years later, he is hired to track down the rogue son of the family, Peter Strode, who has developed an obsession with a new volcanic atoll in the middle of the Indian Ocean, whose mineral wealth might be able to help the Maldive Islanders whose quest for independence he is championing.
1971 Levkas Man – Merchant seaman Paul goes to find his father, eccentric archaeologist Pieter Van der Voort, another typical Innes obsessive, this one convinced he can prove his eccentric and garbled theories about the origin of Man, changing Ice Age sea levels, the destruction of Atlantis and so on. Much sailing around the Aegean, feelingly described by Innes, before the climax in a vast subterranean cavern covered in prehistoric rock paintings, in an atmosphere heavy with timeless evil, where his father admits to being a murderer.
1973 Golden Soak – Alec Falls’ mining business in Cornwall goes bust so he fakes his own death and smuggles himself out to Australia to take up an invitation to visit a rancher’s daughter he’d met in England. He finds himself plunged into the mystery and intrigue which surrounds the struggling Jarra Jarra ranch and its failed mine, Golden Soak, a mystery which leads him on a wild chase out into the desolate hell of the Gibson desert where Alec discovers the truth about the mine and the rumours of a vast hill of copper, and witnesses archetypal tragedies of guilt and expiation, of revenge and parricide.
1974 North Star – One-time political agitator and seaman Michael Randall tries and fails to escape his treacherous past as he finds himself embroiled in a plot to blow up a North Sea oil rig, a plot which is led by the father he thought had died decades earlier.
1977 The Big Footprints – TV director Colin Tait finds himself caught up in the one-man war of grizzled African hunter and legendary bushman Cornelius van Delden against his old friend, Alex Kirby-Smith, who is now leading the Kenyan government’s drive to cull the country’s wildlife, especially its elephants, to feed a starving population and clear the way for farmers and their cattle. It’s all mixed up with Tait’s obsessive quest to find a remote mountain where neolithic man was said to have built the first city in the world.
1980 Solomon’s Seal – Property valuer Roy Slingsby prices the contents of an old farmhouse in the Essex countryside and is intrigued by two albums of stamps from the Solomon Islands. He takes up the offer of a valuing job in Australia and finds himself drawn into the tragic history of the colonial Holland family, whose last surviving son is running machine guns to be used in the coup and bid for independence of Bougainville Island. Though so much of the detail is calm, rational and business-like, the final impression is of an accursed family and a fated ancestral house which burns down at the novel’s climax.
1982 The Black Tide – When his wife dies blowing up an oil tanker which has hit the rocks near their Cornwall home, ex-merchant seaman Trevor Rodin goes searching for the crew he thinks deliberately ran her aground. His search takes him to Lloyds of London, to the Nantes home of the lead suspect and then on to the Persian Gulf, where he discovers several ‘missing’ tankers are in fact being repurposed by terrorists planning to create a devastating environmental disaster somewhere on the coast of Europe. With no money or resources behind him, and nobody believing his far-fetched tale, can Rodin prevent the catastrophe?
1985 The High Stand – When gold millionaire Tom Halliday and his wife Miriam go missing, their staid Sussex solicitor Philip Redfern finds himself drawn to the old gold mine in the Canadian Rockies which is the basis of the Halliday fortune, and discovers that the illegal felling of the timber planted around the mine is being used as a front for a gang of international drug smugglers, with violent consequences.
1988 Medusa – Former smuggler turned respectable ex-pat businessman, Mike Steele, finds his idyllic life on the pretty Mediterranean island of Minorca turning very nasty when he gets mixed up with mercenaries running guns onto the island to support a violent separatist movement and military coup.
1991 Isvik – Wood restorer Peter Kettil gets caught up in a crazy scheme to find an old Victorian frigate allegedly spotted locked in the Antarctic ice by a glaciologist before his death in a flying accident. His partners are the nymphomaniac Latino wife of the dead glaciologist, Iris Sunderby, a bizarre Scottish cripple, Iain Ward, and a mysterious Argentine who may or may not have been involved in atrocities under the military junta.
1993 Target Antarctica Sequel to Isvik. Booted out of the RAF for his maverick behaviour, pilot Michael ‘Ed’ Cruse is hired by Iain Ward, the larger-than-life character at the heart of the previous novel, Isvik, to fly a C-130 Hercules plane off a damaged runway on the Antarctic ice shelf. There are many twists, not least with a beautiful Thai woman who is pursued by the Khmer Rouge (!), before in the last few pages we realise the whole thing is Ward’s scheme to extract diamonds from the shallow seabed, whose existence was discovered by the sole survivor of the frigate found in the previous novel.
1996 Delta Connection An astonishing dog’s dinner of a novel, which starts out reasonably realistically following the adventures of Paul Cartwright, scrap metal consultant, in Romania on the very days that communist ruler Nicolae Ceaușescu is overthrown, before moving on to Pakistan and the Khyber Pass where things develop into a violent thriller, before jettisoning any attempt at realism and turning into a sort of homage to Rider Haggard’s adventure stories for boys as Cruse and his gay, ex-Army mentor, battle their way through blizzards into the idyllic valley of Nirvana, where they meet the secret underground descendants of Vikings who long ago settled this land, before almost immediately participating in the palace coup which overthrows the brutal ruler and puts on the throne the young woman who Paul fell in love with as a boy back in Romania, where the narrative started. A convoluted, compelling and bizarre finale to Innes’ long career.

The Golden Keel by Desmond Bagley (1963)

‘It’s like something from the Spanish Main,’ she said, ‘or a Hammond Innes thriller.’ (Ch 1, 6)

This is a ripping yarn, a gripping tale, a cracking story, the best of the four Bagleys I’ve read so far.

Like the author, the hero Peter ‘Hal’ Halloran makes his way across Africa after World War II and ends up in South Africa. Here he becomes a successful boat designer and builder and one day meets a drunk in a bar who assures him he fought with the Italian partisans and tells a long story about how he and a few others ambushed a convoy of Nazis which turned out to be carrying a fortune in Italian government gold, jewels, currency and papers. The partisans hid the lorries bearing the treasure in abandoned mine workings and blew up the entrance but have been pondering on and off for the last 15 years how to get their hands on it.

This turns out to be much more complicated than you’d think as you can’t just carry four tons of gold through airport security. Hal’s idea is to sail from SA to Italy in a yacht of his own design and manufacture, melt the gold down into the shape of a keel, and swap it for the lead keel they’ve sailed there with – then sail home with a golden keel!

Except things become much more complicated than they expect – as they fall foul of a criminal mastermind in the stopping-off point of Tangiers, then are forced to take into partnership survivors of the Italian partisans who know about the treasure, and then are subject to an all-out attack by Italian mobsters who have discovered the scheme. All this before they make the final nerve-racking voyage across the Med into the teeth of a ferocious storm and chased by an enemy gunship.

Bagley’s expert knowledge of boat building and sailing are well to the fore but highly relevant and dramatically convincing. Many of the characters are stereotypes – the smooth-talking gangster, the noble Italian patriarch, the weak alcoholic who fouls things up, the angry Afrikaaner who turns out to be a pillar of strength, not to mention the little girl who helped the partisans but 15 years later has blossomed into a raven-haired beauty – but they work here, in the context of a fast-moving thriller, the whole thing is well-handled and immensely enjoyable.

Related links

Cover of the 1973 Fontana paperback edition of The Golden Keel

Cover of the 1973 Fontana paperback edition of The Golden Keel

Bagley’s books

1963 The Golden Keel – South African boatbuilder Peter ‘Hal’ Halloran leads a motley crew to retrieve treasure hidden in the Italian mountains by partisans during WWII, planning to smuggle it out of Italy and back to SA as the golden keel of a boat he’s built for the purpose.
1965 High Citadel – Pilot Tim O’Hara leads the passengers of a charter flight crash-landed in the Andes in holding off attacking communists.
1966 Wyatt’s Hurricane – A motley crew of civilians led by meteorologist David Wyatt are caught up in a civil war on the fictional island of San Fernandes just as a hurricane strikes.
1967 Landslide – Tough Canadian geologist Bob Boyd nearly died in a car wreck ten years ago. Now he returns to the small town in British Columbia where it happened to uncover long-buried crimes and contemporary skulduggery.
1968 The Vivero Letter – ‘Grey’ accountant Jeremy Wheale leads an archaeology expedition to recover lost Mayan gold and ends up with more adventure than he bargained for as the Mafia try to muscle in.
1969 The Spoilers – Heroin specialist Nick Warren assembles a motley crew of specialists to help him break up a big drug-smuggling gang in Iraq.

1970 Running Blind – British secret agent Alan Stewart and girlfriend fend off KGB killers, CIA assassins and traitors on their own side while on the run across the bleak landscape of Iceland.
1971 The Freedom Trap – British agent Owen Stannard poses as a crook to get sent to prison and infiltrate The Scarperers, a gang which frees convicts from gaol but who turn out to be part of a spy network.
1973 The Tightrope Men – Advertising director Giles Denison goes to bed in London and wakes up in someone else’s body in Norway, having become a pawn in the complex plans of various espionage agencies to get their hands on vital secret weapon technology.
1975 The Snow Tiger – Ian Ballard is a key witness in the long formal Inquiry set up to investigate the massive avalanche which devastated the small New Zealand mining town of Hukahoronui.
1977 The Enemy – British Intelligence agent Malcolm Jaggard gets drawn personally and professionally into the secret past of industrialist George Ashton, amid Whitehall power games which climax in disaster at an experimental germ warfare station on an isolated Scottish island.
1978 Flyaway – Security consultant Max Stafford becomes mixed up in Paul Billson’s quixotic quest to find his father’s plane which crashed in the Sahara 40 years earlier, a quest involving extensive travel around North Africa with the charismatic American desert expert, Luke Byrne, before the secret is revealed.

1980 Bahama Crisis – Bahamas hotelier Tom Mangan copes with a series of disastrous misfortunes until he begins to realise they’re all part of a political plot to undermine the entire Bahamas tourist industry and ends up playing a key role in bringing the conspirators to justice.
1982 Windfall – Max Stafford, the protagonist of Bagley’s 1978 novel Flyaway, gets involved in a complex plot to redirect the fortune of a dead South African smuggler into a secret operation to arm groups planning to subvert Kenya, a plot complicated by the fact that an American security firm boss is simultaneously running his own scam to steal some of the fortune, and that one of the key conspirators is married to one of Stafford’s old flames.
1984 Night Of Error – Oceanographer Mike Trevelyan joins a boatload of old soldiers, a millionaire and his daughter to go looking for a treasure in rare minerals on the Pacific Ocean floor, a treasure two men have already died for – including Mike’s no-good brother – and which a rival group of baddies will stop at nothing to claim for themselves, all leading to a hair-raising climax as goodies and baddies are caught up in a huge underwater volcanic eruption.
1985 Juggernaut – Neil Mannix is the trouble shooter employed by British Electric to safeguard a vast transformer being carried on a huge flat-bed truck – the juggernaut of the title – across the (fictional) African country of Nyala towards the location of a flagship new power station, when a civil war breaks out and all hell breaks loose.

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