Friday, 2 December 2011

Styles of European Art

Children seldom show much compassion for their teachers, possibly because they rarely recognise them as fellow humans at all. This was certainly the case at the boarding school near Sydney that I went to. Mind you, many of the teachers there were, if not subhuman, certainly extremely odd.

There was Miss F-, the French teacher, who smelled of fags and whisky and regularly wore her dresses inside out (and also had a bristly upper lip and an exceptionally lavish but slapdash hand with makeup and usually snored throughout assembly, except on one famous occasion when the headmistress was listing the attractions of a planned fundraising fete – "Tombolas, apple bobbing, bring and buy and raffles", she was telling us, when suddenly Miss F-'s head jerked up and her scarlet slashed mouth opened to utter three words: "and mulled wine").

There was Miss S-C-, the choir mistress, who had spectacles like the bottoms of bottles, a wart on her nose and thick down like a duckling's all over her face, (her claim to fame was that, astonishingly - to me at least - she played the piano with her legs crossed.)

There was Mr B-, the history teacher, who confirmed all our prejudices about the English and the best place to hide money from them, by wearing the same clothes daily, growing progressively smellier as the term dragged slowly on, and who could be made to turn an eternally fascinating and increasingly brilliant beetroot colour, if skilfully needled over the course of a 45-minute lesson.

There was Miss G-, the drama teacher, who covered everything in her living quarters, including the lavatory paper holder, with bright pink frills. We knew this because she regularly washed all the different varieties of frill and hung them out to dry behind our boarding house - that is, until the day the whole lot got eaten by a gastronomically adventurous goat that had escaped from the nunnery down the road.

There was Mr H-, the science teacher, whose outward appearance was almost normal but who nursed a special gory obsession - resulting from an oft-recounted 'personal trauma'. The subject was one he unhesitatingly returned to in conversation and during lessons, no matter what starting point he launched from. I'm not actually going to go into any detail about what it was exactly he could not leave unsaid; it really was fairly sordid and I would not only be taking up his flame and running with it, were I to divulge any more than that, but also betraying other people very close to him. Oddly, my first ever visit to Sydney was made in the company of Mr H-, who took our class on a bus to the blood bank, where, inevitably, we watched him donate a pint or two of his own, (which, equally inevitably, led to him recounting, yet again, the story of - well, never mind, you really don't want to know, and we most definitely didn't either, although, sadly, we were very much a captive audience.) Luckily, the experience did not colour the city for me.

There was, originally in joint pride of place, although latterly solitary - her friend having died shortly after my arrival at the school, (although in no way as a consequence, so far as I know) - the school's co-founder, Miss C-.  Reportedly, Miss C- was genuinely amazed when my best friend's mother, glimpsing her in Sydney called out, 'Hello, Miss C-', without a moment's hesitation, even though Miss C- was standing with her back turned toward my friend's mother at the time. 'How on earth did you know it was me dear?' my friend's mother claimed Miss C- demanded in response. She was hard-pressed to think of a reply that would not seem hurtful. After all, it would have been impolite to point out that a diminutive woman with a man's haircut, a hacking jacket, jodhpurs and well-polished riding boots was not a common sight in the ladies' section of Sydney's biggest department store. 

Not all the teaching staff were, to put it kindly, eccentric, though. One - or possibly that should read, 'The one' - who wasn't was the art teacher, Mrs Chr-, a soft-spoken American, with shining, long, fair hair. Apparently she had once been married to a hotshot American art historian. At some point in the past though, he'd abandoned her – the rumour was that it had happened in the South Pacific, although, as he was an authority on European art, this didn't make a lot of sense. Anyway, wherever it was and whatever had been the cause of his departure, Mrs Chr- and her two fine-boned, blue-eyed, blond-haired children - who drove her to despair by huddling over her collection of slides of old masters, giggling pruriently whenever they found a nude - had washed up eventually at this snobbish unintellectual New South Wales school for girls.

Our lessons with Mrs Chr- always took place on Thursday afternoons. Sadly for her, our weekly trip to the tuck shop also always took place on Thursdays, immediately before her lessons. It was the highlight of our week - tuck shop that is, not art, (although I suppose you could argue that art benefited a little from tuck shop's reflected glory - we certainly hated it less than many other classes).

Directly from lunch, we would rush to the tuck shop staircase and there we would form a long and impatient queue. Eventually, a wizened member of the kitchen staff, (all of whom, as a result, presumably, of a collective rush of blood to the head, made the extraordinary decision to stage Salad Days one year - the resulting performance was one of the odder theatrical experiences I've ever had), would throw up the shutters that protected the tuck shop and we would instantly surge forward, jostling to hand over our sweaty coins and receive paper bags filled with sugar-based products in return.

Only then, once we had loaded up with our cloying booty, did we start to move in the direction of the Art block. Staggering under the weight of our purchases, (actually that's a bit of an exaggeration), we trudged up the steps of the building and into the airy wooden-floored studio where Mrs Chr- spent her days. Crunching on freckles (large chocolate buttons covered in hundreds and thousands) and nibbling at milk bottles (no, not the glass kind), we would find our places at the big paint-splattered work tables, taking our time to arrange our delectables and make ourselves comfortable, too drugged by sugar to realise how rude we were being to our teacher,  too thoughtless to see that our behaviour betrayed our lack of respect for her.

Finally, either once we were settled or when she ran out of patience, Mrs Chr- would get going, each week making a fresh assault on our indifference to European artistic achievement. She never seemed to lose faith that one day we would ignite with excitement, provided she reminded us often enough about the engineering feats of Brunelleschi, (wow, those hidden chains), and the wonders of Ghiberti's dazzling gates. Sadly for her, though, that never happened, at least not in my time.  Week after week our attention was exclusively directed not to the marvels of the Renaissance but to the contents of our bulging paper bags.

In our defence, I should point out that we were at least a docile audience. We never interrupted Mrs Chr-, which was, I hope, a small comfort. I admire her now for keeping going, when the only response she ever got was the sound of munching. She might as well have been preaching to a dairy herd - albeit one that that subsisted, judging by the mingled scent of licorice and something more sickly, on a diet of musk sticks and Choo-Choo bars.

I presume Mrs Chr- escaped eventually. I hope she did and that she did not regard her time at the school as entirely wasted. While the fascinating information on Fantale wrappers did occupy almost all of my curiosity during her lessons (to the extent that I somehow missed the information that Florence was a Renaissance city, leading me to ask my mother after a trip to England during which I went to a dance and met several girls who said they were going to Florence after their O levels, 'Is Florence a finishing school?' [to which my mother replied, correctly, 'Sort of']), thanks to her I discovered for the first time the artistic styles called Baroque and Rococo.

I'd never heard of either of these until Mrs Chr- introduced them into one afternoon's eating, I mean lesson. Perhaps that is why, even to this day, they've stuck in my head exactly as she said them. Even now, even though I have been told countless times - mainly by my mother, through clenched teeth - that this is not the correct way to pronounce them, in my mind they remain Baroque as in Coke and Ro-co-co, as in the first syllable of rowing plus cocoa with a final stress. Meanwhile 'genre', whenever I encounter it on the page, will always sound exactly as Mrs Chr- first introduced it to me - like jeneer, (pronounced to rhyme, more or less, with Vermeer)* .

I wonder if Mrs Chr- is still out there somewhere. I think she was only in her thirties then so by rights she should be. I hope she doesn't think that during her time at that school she achieved absolutely nothing. After all she left this lasting, if not entirely satisfactory, legacy with me.   

*Now I come to think of it, could these little habits of pronunciation provide the key to her husband's mysterious disappearance - did his exasperation lead to the downfall of her marriage? Is the puzzle solved at last?   


  1. I really want to know Mr H's story

  2. You definitely have the American sounds down for baroque and rococo, but I've never heard genre pronounced to rhyme with engineer.

    Otherwise I found myself thinking of the lines from Tom Lehrer's "My Old Home Town":

    The guy who taught us math
    And never took a bath
    Acquired a certain flavor of renown...

  3. Re. as he was an authority on European art, this didn't make a lot of sense.

    Gauguin enthusiast? Decided to give up civilisation in favour of underage wives and breadfruit?

  4. A joy to read. When does the first ZMKC novel hit the shelves? I always love your "characters."

    On another note, if you don't pronounce it to rhyme with "Coke," then you can't say, "If it's not Baroque, don' fix it . . ."

  5. And many men would not blame him for taking that option, I suspect, Umbagollah, if indeed he did.
    Chris, you are extremely generous. Thank you. I think possibly your argument actually works in favour of my mother's preferred pronunciation. I suppose it depends on how intense one's fondness is for really old jokes.

  6. Nurse, you only think you do, because you don't

  7. George - my mother thinks the only possible rhymes with genre, as prononunced by me, involve the word 'sneer': 'at you, I sneer, with your genre', she mutters, 'is it wrong to sneer/ at a daughter who says, "genre"', et cetera.

  8. Hmm.

    Just for America's honre
    I must say we do say it jon-re.
    In my old high school class
    Any poor sorry ass
    Saying "geneer" would be surely a gonnre.

  9. Well, George, I give a cheer for geneer