In the summer of 2006, we went on a family holiday to Tuscany. While we were there, two exciting things happened. Italy won the world cup. And my mum bought a flat in a small town called Anghiari, on the border of Tuscany and Umbria. “What does signing mean?” she asked naïvely as she remortgaged our house in London, but there was no way anyone could convince her to change her mind. She had fallen in love with the flat, and with it, she had fallen in love with Anghiari.
Two and a half years later, and we are all beginning to understand why she felt so strongly. It’s not just that the flat, with its airy, square rooms and marble floors is beautifully peaceful, but also that Anghiari is almost the antithesis of South East London, where we’ve lived as a family all of my life. Anghiari’s streets and buildings are neatly rounded on the side of a hill, almost as if someone had built the town out of sand and patted its sides till they were smooth. Its inhabitants are gentle, friendly people whose families have lived in the region for generations, and who stop in the streets to talk to each other whatever else they might have been doing. And, perhaps most differently to South London, Anghiari is a town whose history is very much a part of its present.
From the sombre masked march up the main street at Easter, to the Palio in June in which the town’s inhabitants re-enact the ancient battle of Anghiari, the town is alive with traditions. Some of them, like these, have probably existed for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. But there are other, smaller traditions which seem to shape everyday life – traditions which most of us wouldn’t think twice about. Every day you know when the fish seller will arrive, or when the church bells are going to ring, when the shops are going to shut mid-afternoon, and even when the next-door neighbours will hang out their washing. There is, surprisingly enough for Italy, a general lack of chaos.
My mum’s work has always been a celebration of the things we repeat over and over again in our lives – a cup of tea in the afternoon, chopping an onion, watching EastEnders – so for her, seeing these traditions confirmed everything her work rejoices in. Being in Anghiari for one week a month (a routine she now firmly sticks to) has given her the chance to create her own traditions and to notice the broader patterns in life which she otherwise doesn’t have time to spot. And, because she is there at so many different points over the year, she has enough distance to notice the tiny transformations which locals are probably immune to.
With the changing seasons come new festivals and traditions in the town, but also new flowers in the fields, different weather, and new fruit in the shops. And with each new season, my mum’s own daily routine changes, too. In the winter she paints all morning and goes for a walk through the fields in the afternoon. In the summer, she paints all day and only ventures out when it is cool enough in the evening. She has become a seamless part of the town, fitting in to the artistic tradition of the region (Anghiari is surrounded by Piero della Francesca’s frescoes), learning Italian well enough to make friends with the locals, and even being invited to two weddings in Anghiari’s medieval church.
I suppose it’s now quite obvious where the angels came from. But without this explanation, it would be easy for people, particularly fans of my mum’s work, to question how the series fits with her past pictures of our family. What do ploughed fields have in common with a family having breakfast? How is autumn in any way related to a surprise birthday cake? The answer, which I hope most people will have realised after reading my description of Anghiari, is that they are all small things which people have been doing for thousands of years. Each one of the 52 angels is a celebration of something which most people overlook, or wouldn’t think twice about. They are not celebrations of success, careers or material things (although Angel with New Boots might be an exception!), but fleeting moments in time which have been captured and squeezed into frames. In Anghiari, a place where all these cycles, patterns and routines fit so perfectly together, it seems only right that there is some kind of spiritual force watching over each one, making sure it fits with the rest.
Some angels, like the Angel of the Snow and the Angel of the Rain, are huge, towering over mountains and watching over whole towns. Others, like the Angel of the Strawberries (my favourite) are tiny, hiding cheekily under leaves or sitting amongst the flowers. But all of them, whatever they represent, have been drawn on paper of the same size and dimensions, and have been painted with acrylic – a departure from my mum’s usual choice of oil paints (it’s not easy to transport boards between Italy and England). So the Angel of the Palio fills the same size frame as the Angel of the Laundry, and the Angel of Spring matches the Angel of the Mosquito bite. There is no discrimination between big events and small ones, and no division between specific images, like the white cat who lives in the flat below, and more general ones, like the mist which envelops Anghiari on autumn mornings.
A lot of the paintings have personal stories behind them, like the Angel of the Christmas Lights who is wrapped in a blanket because my mum once went to the flat in December and had to stay under a duvet until the heating kicked in. Or the Angel Startled by a Pheasant, who was inspired by a walk on an autumn day through the local fields. But for most people, these stories are irrelevant. The angels, like the everyday pictures of our family, are recognised by almost every person who looks at them. Everyone knows how soft a peach is, or how relieving a gentle breeze can be on a stiflingly hot day. These pictures make us conscious of these moments – they make us stop and think about how each one feels, or about what each one means.
My mum once said that to judge if a picture is any good, she imagines it as a fresco on the wall of a church. If she thinks it would make people smile, then it’s good enough. But what’s amazing about this series of paintings is that each one would make someone smile whether they were from the year 1200, or the year 3000. They are not of fashions, or fads, or things we will look back on and cringe over. They are of things that people have always enjoyed and will always relate to. And for that, they are timeless.