Richard Warren

"Clearly I tap to you clearly along the plumbing of the world" (W S Graham)

Category Archives: art

“‘Draw!’ he yelled”: Francis Bacon, babysitter from Hell

A few posts back, I took a brief glance at the early London career of the remarkable Guyana-born painter Denis Williams. In January 1955 the artist Keith Vaughan, a friend of Williams, had a visit from him which made a considerable impression. He wrote in his journal:

Denis Williams, ‘Plantation No 3’ 1950

Interesting account this morning from Dennis[sic] Williams of the time he lived and worked in a small room adjoining Francis Bacon’s studio; idolizing Francis at the time, longing to be of service to him and ending by becoming so wholly enslaved to his personality that he was incapable of any independent action.

‘There was nothing I could do. He would lie in bed in the morning, purple in the face, looking ill – terrible – unable to move until he had taken enough pills, but talking all the time about the paintings he had dreamed of. If I offered him a cup of tea he wouldn’t drink it. He just didn’t see
me. I could have been anyone else and he
wouldn’t have noticed …’

(“Enslaved” is a bit of a loaded term; did Vaughan register that?) Williams went on to tell how, as a simple act of thoughtfulness, he had once hung up a suit of Bacon’s, fresh from the cleaners, that Bacon had dumped carelessly on a paint spattered table in the studio. Bacon had returned, had promptly taken down the suit and, without a word, had laid it back in the paint.

‘I felt absolutely shattered as though my personality had been wiped out.’

It was moving to see how affected D. was by the recollection of this incident. I felt how easily I could occupy the same role … ‘He sees people as mountains of flesh,’ Dennis said. ‘He is obsessed by this extraordinary capacity for flesh to breathe, walk, talk.’

The almost mythic theme of Bacon the charismatic and controlling monster sits easily enough with Bacon the painter of monsters. An extreme take on this is voiced by, of all people, the painter Cecil Collins, in an interview of 1979 with Brian Keeble, in Keeble’s Cecil Collins. The Vision of the Fool and Other Writings (Golgonooza, 1994):

[Bacon] paints Hell, and Hell is a most popular subject today because so many people are in it. Hell is very stimulating and very easy to understand … Bacon paints a condition of mankind which you find all over the cinemas, on the advertisement hoardings, in the police-court news, and in newspapers … It’s profoundly uninteresting because it’s beside the point. But I respect him, in the sense that he paints it uncompromisingly. He is damnation, and damnation is very important. In a way he’s my brother. I’m not interested in what he says and yet I see, very clearly, that it has to be said. It’s inevitable, and it’s exactly the opposite to what I am concerned with.

He’s an inversion of the light.

And Keeble, eager to out-Collins Collins, glosses his relation to Bacon thus:

… from Collins’s point of view … Bacon’s images express the subhuman. To concede that they express the truth of human nature would be to invite the belief that there are spiritual values that can be nourished by something other than the divine. This would amount to thinking that there could be some sort of reparation (why else should such images be made?), through appealing to the concatenation of passions and appetites that comprise and motivate the empirical levels of our humanity.

It’s easy enough to write this off. Collins’ best images are seductive, powerful and arresting, but in too many of them the urge to purify creates a slenderness and slightness that approaches mid-century decorative. Even as a post-Christian New Ager, he was still stuck spiritually in a three-decker universe, with one escalator pointing Up and the other (not to be taken) going Down.

But here’s the But … In a series of notes and aphorisms written between 1939 and 1955 (“Hymn of Life”), Collins takes, unexpectedly, a far more positive view of Hell:

The meaning of life is to come to fruition, to bear the fruit of life, which is happiness. But this fruition can only be obtained through growth, and growth is suffering – Hell. Hell is a state of growth, and growth is a process of purification.

 

And in the 1979 interview with Keeble he even applies that insight to his own work, in relation to a period in the late ‘fifties when it turned, in Keeble’s words, “blacker, more harsh … strident … more violent in mood”. Collins explains this as a necessary expansion of direct, gestural energy, an enlargement before an inevitable condensation and a new formalising. Hell, then, is a necessary phase in the process. Despite Collins’ claims to see “no context for redemption” in Bacon’s work, the reverse turns out to be the case. “In a way he’s my brother”. A necessary monster, then.

Denis Williams may have felt desperately uncomfortable under Bacon’s influence, but it didn’t prevent him, if only as an occasional last resort, from parking the nipper with him. In Evelyn Williams’ excellent The Art of Denis Williams (Peepal Tree Press, 2012), his daughter Janice recalls the novel experience of being babysat by Francis:

Denis Williams, from the ‘Human World’ series, 1950

‘Denis shared a studio with Francis Bacon. From my earliest memories it appeared to be in a derelict building, bombed during the war, a wrecked shop front on the ground floor served as an entrance. Upstairs Denis had a room on one side of the landing, Francis on the other. Art materials and canvases were interchanged across the hall. A ray of light from a small window breached the dilapidated interior of Denis’ work space whilst Francis had metamorphosed his into a cavernous enclosure, blacked out and ominous. I can feel it now, being overwhelmed with the smell of turpentine and a dark foreboding. Denis was appreciative of canvases discarded by Francis, and would reverse them thus creating a clean serviceable area on which to paint. Francis didn’t have much patience with disappointing or unsatisfactory work. It would be quickly scrapped, a luxury most struggling artists could ill afford.

‘… a cavernous enclosure, blacked out and ominous … always in a black shirt, black trousers …’ Francis Bacon in 1950 by Sam Hunter

It’s like theatre in my head; the imagery and drama of such visits have remained with me forever. A highly charged tense atmosphere pervaded the studio emanating from both Francis and the decor. As a young child it was overpowering, seated on a rumple of bedding on the floor watching him paint on a large canvas hanging on the wall. He turned to check on me every now and then. “Don’t move and don’t talk to me,” he pronounced. Clutching my crayons and paper I was dumbstruck. “Draw!” he yelled. I gazed up at his face and black-attired body. He was always in a black shirt, black trousers and sandaled feet. At any given moment he could start shouting and swearing if things weren’t going well on the canvas. He was bold, intimidating and impatient; a big personality with big paintings. My memory tells me Francis had inherited family money from Anglo-Irish landed gentry connections. He didn’t visit our home more than a few times but I remember he was very fond of Catherine my mother. He gave her some beautiful cut glass dessert dishes, part of his inheritance which I now treasure, passed on to me in memory of the times Francis babysat me.’

She seems to have survived unscathed, with the cut glass to prove it. In fact, we might judge it a formative experience, a necessary phase in the process of growth. And who kindly provided the crayons and paper? My guess is Bacon.

(Incidentally, which of the various addresses at which Bacon worked in the early ‘fifties was this? In 1951 he sold his studio at Cromwell Place, and would not move into the famous Reece Mews studio – now reconstructed in Dublin – until 1961. Not that it matters …)

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The path to life lies open

Our culture is happy to recognise the reality of the Crucifixion, less so that of the Resurrection. The dialectic seems broken.

But this is the one good day, the day that shows us, if only in a brief vision, what can and must be. All happy endings are folk memories of this ending.

So Happy Easter! And here’s a David Jones.

A (dis)comforting Nativity

Just seven posts till now in 2018. But 2019 will see a revival. Oh yes it will.

In the meantime, it’s surprisingly difficult to find a decent Nativity within the usual parameters of this blog. So here’s Stanley Spencer’s of 1912. His first large oil, which won a Slade prize in that year, or so my big book of Stanley tells me. Is it really one hundred and six years since this was painted? It’s somehow both comforting and discomforting at the same time, combining an oblique offence to our expectations with a cool, slo-mo ecstasy, where all is at rest, free and immortal, as Traherne put it. And how vulnerable and isolated the Christ child is, plonked out in the open, in the half light, half shade, messing with his bits of straw.

The best Christmas to you.

Pantechnicon painter: Wyndham Lewis meets Denis Williams

From the October Gallery in Bloomsbury comes word of their show of work by Aubrey Williams, from their stable of artists, opening on 13 September. Much vibrant abstraction, and definitely worth a look – go here for biog and images. The circumstance that Aubrey Williams was born in Guyana reminds me to take a more considered look at the art of the remarkable Denis Williams, artist, art historian, archaeologist, anthropologist, biographer and novelist – no relation but also born in Guyana, of the same generation as Aubrey W, and also a young painter in post-war London.

Denis Williams

My copy of Evelyn Williams’s The Art of Denis Williams is still in the mail as we speak, but meanwhile there’s plenty to be found online. In passing, I’m struck by the wholehearted enthusiasm demonstrated for the young Williams and his work by the ageing Wyndham Lewis, who reviewed him twice for The Listener, and then did his best to give the young painter a leg up in the art world. Lewis’s collected Listener pieces from 1946 to 1951 are immediately accessible thanks to the invaluable work of Jan Cox and Alan Munton, hosted here (no distinct url’s for articles, but the artist A to Z is in the menu at left).

In July 1949 Lewis took a look at the work of “two coloured artists” at the Berkeley Gallery. That of Ghanaian Kofi Antubam he dismissed quickly, finding it Europeanised and saccharine, but Williams he hailed for his “most remarkable gifts” and on the strength of it asked him round for a chat:

… this descendant (as he tells me) of African slaves responds to European barbarism with enthusiasm. The ‘dark unconscious’, as Lawrence would have called it, staring at itself in the Picassoan mirror, is unquestionably a fascinating spectacle – though when I mentioned Picasso he answered, ‘It is not a case of my going to Picasso, Picasso came to Africa and to me’.

Wyndham Lewis in his later years

The whole question around modernism’s espousal of “primitivism” is now rightly found uncomfortable in several respects; we might also curl the odd toe at some nuances of Lewis’s language, though it would have been considered unusually respectful at the time, and there’s no doubt that Lewis gave generously of his time and effort to assist Williams. The young painter had been in London for three years, the first year on a British Council art scholarship and then working at the Colonial Office. In a few days’ time, he told Lewis, he would be leaving for the ‘States. Lewis promptly took the liberty of giving Williams the New York address of the academic Felix Giovanelli, a close friend of Marshall McLuhan, and wrote to Giovanelli to let him know:

Denis Williams is an extremely intelligent young man … He will not be a disagreeable contact (though I hope he will not be a socially embarrassing one) … you may by chance know a Negro artist? – you might assist him re any charitable organisation to help visiting Negroes of the student type. That sort of thing … it seems abominable for the British Council to give him one years lift, and then drop him. Guiana is no place in which to be a painter. It would be wonderful if he could stay in New York … The main fact in all this is that he is a very unusually promising artist. I hope I have not done the wrong thing in giving this young chap your address …

By late 1950 Williams was back in London, with a one man show at Gimpel Fils, which Lewis reviewed at length:

I do not wish to be guilty of what is called overpraising … but I consider Denis Williams a young man of very remarkable talent. He paints pictures the size of a pantechnicon with as little effort as the blackbird sings. But these huge canvases are not the apparently carefree vocalism of a bird, they are heavy with human import … The canvases are big because there is such a volume, such a weight, of emotion there, requiring a big receptacle into which to pour itself …

Human World, 1950

One of the three large canvases described at some length in the review was Human World (1950), since justly celebrated. Lewis found this a “parade of symbols”, focused around “pregnancy … standing for the new regenerate mankind … encompassed by human obtuseness”. The symbolism he found sympathetic but also a little problematic:

The lot of the Negro, and related to that the lot of the underdog everywhere, is, with Williams, an ever present tragedy. The word ‘Korea’ is for him a violent irritant … Williams is an existentialist, or has been greatly influenced by the teaching of Sartre. ‘Anxiety’ is a word that often recurs in his conversation: the Kierkegaardian ‘Angst’ receives a new interpretation entangled with contemporary politics. ‘Horror’ is another word obsessively frequent.
It is what Anxiety merges in when stimulated
by such symbolic names as ‘Korea’ or ‘MacArthur’.

While gently dissociating himself from Williams’s philosophies, Lewis admits gladly their stimulus to his painting.

All I have to do here is to acclaim these pictures, full of power and vitality. No one interested in what is being done in London today should fail to see them.

Human World has been so much reproduced online that I feel able to add to that accumulation here without permission. It’s an impressively humane and stonkingly powerful piece of painting, and was subsequently purchased to form the basis of the National Collection of Guyana. Today, in the aftermath of the “Windrush Generation” scandal, we might be more inclined to read the painting as an image of a migrant community confronted by an alien and industrial society. And I’m surely not alone in seeing in it clear afterimages of some of the mannerisms of the painter Wyndham Lewis?

In November 1950 Lewis tried again on Williams’s behalf, this time tugging at the sleeve of Herbert Read:

… if he is to survive he must be found a job. Because of colour this presents great difficulties. It is a pity that all this talent should be lost for no better reason than that its possessor’s skin is controversial.

In the end, Lewis helped to enable Williams to obtain a teaching position at the Central School of Art in London. He later taught at the Slade, exhibited at the ICA and went on to participate in the legendary This is Tomorrow exhibition of 1956. Later he came to feel that he was working within a culture that was not his own, and moved on to other forms of success.

For devotees of Lewis, the image of a “pantechnicon”, used by him for the hugeness of Williams’s canvases, rings a bell. In Blast, decades previously, he had characterised Ezra Pound as

Demon pantechnicon driver, busy with removal of old world into new quarters.

If we choose to apply it to Denis Williams, the description takes on a interesting new resonance. Was there, at the back of Lewis’s mind, some distant echo of Pound in Williams?

An Individual Eye: Edwin G Lucas on show

A couple of posts on this blog – here and here – have celebrated the truly remarkable (and often, as we say these days, left field) work of Scottish painter Edwin G Lucas, who died in 1990. Now comes word from his son Alan of an important show of Lucas’s work, opening on 4th August at the City Art Centre in Edinburgh. Edwin G Lucas: An Individual Eye (more details here) includes more than sixty pieces from public and private collections, tracing the whole of Lucas’s career, his blink-inducing “surrealist” phase included.

It comes with a very welcome catalogue written by Helen E Scott, published in June and now readily available.

The influence of surrealism on Lucas’s work has been rightly noted, but it would inaccurate and be far too narrow to tag him as simply a “surrealist”. Most of the time he is out there in a place all of his own – a place where you haven’t quite been before …

‘Band Saw’ © the artist’s estate

Incidentally, the slide show on the City Art Centre site includes the splendid Band Saw of 1946, which considerably predates the Man and Machine series (1951-57) of David Carr (second item down on this page), to which, I now notice, it relates closely in theme and mood, though without Carr’s spiky cubist superstructure.

The show runs till February 2019. It deserves to be a great success.

Us and Mr Jones: the Roberts meet David

It’s a small world, and once it was even smaller. In Thomas Dilworth’s new biography of David Jones (scrupulously detailed and documented and full of interesting moments) I was surprised to find this:

[Robert] Buhler sent ‘quite a number’ of younger painters to see [David Jones], including Robert Colquhoun and Robert MacBryde, known as ‘the Roberts’. They were Glasgow Scots nationalists, openly homosexual, interesting talkers, fine storytellers, warm and charming, but usually too drunk, Jones found, to converse with properly. Liking his pictures and finding in them encouragement for their own
non-abstract work, ‘they were’, Buhler said, ‘mad about him’.

(There’s more on both Jones and the Two Roberts elsewhere on this site; use the tags – down on the right – and/or the two “Colquhoun and MacBryde” page tabs – up the top.)

This was in 1943, and is referenced to Dilworth’s interviews with the painter Robert Buhler in the ‘eighties. I was surprised because neither Jones nor Buhler show up at all in Roger Bristow’s fine book on the Roberts, The Last Bohemians, nor in the ‘forties chapter (by Patrick Elliott and Adrian Clark) in the National Galleries Scotland picture book of the Roberts’ 2014 show.

 

But this meeting does make sense, at least to the extent that Jones and the Roberts can be seen to share certain concerns: a folkloric sensibility, forms of Celtic heritage, the supreme value of the drawn line. In other important respects – colour, texture – they seem poles apart, but the heavy post-Picasso angularity of the Roberts’ work from about 1945 onwards was yet to come, and at this time it still employed a certain Palmerish fluidity of which Jones would have approved.

John Davenport by Robert Buhler

The odd man out here is the third Robert, Robert Buhler, of whom I’d not heard before. The link is Prudence Pelham, one of the great unrequited loves of Jones’ life, who became Buhler’s partner (and changed her name to his by deed poll) in 1943. Four years later Buhler became an RA; Jones later declined the offer of his own nomination, declaring that to be accepted by the RA would be ‘an absolutely disgusting betrayal of everything I ever believed in’. Buhler seems to have combined a Bohemian lifestyle with a rather safe approach to painting that must have proved popular. His Art UK page shows a large number of perfectly competent but unexciting landscapes that fall somewhere between Impressionism and the Euston Road School, plus some very brown portraits of notables, from which the sitters (Spender and Auden among them) struggle to emerge alive. An exception is a rather more animated image of the ubiquitous John Davenport, ghost writer for Augustus John, partner in parody with Dylan Thomas, and much else of
considerable interest.

 

Sea, sun and fascism

Having just tried it, I’m not sure I’d wholeheartedly recommend a cruise holiday. (Unless, of course, you like the idea of being imprisoned in a floating holiday camp with a couple of thousand Daily Mail readers.) But at least it took us to Athens, Crete and Rhodes, including the remarkable Palace of the Grand Master of the Knights of Rhodes aka of St John, aka Hospitallers. In the thirties under the Italian occupation, the palace was heavily repaired; the resulting mediaeval-deco “restoration” came across to me as highly staged – vast, uninterrupted, checked stone walls, baroque angels looted out of their context and isolated in bare niches, huge Japanese vases (gifts from an Axis ally), all punctuated by wrought iron chandeliers that only emphasised the empty hardness of the surfaces. With its gratuitously surplus uninhabited spaces, its alien aesthetic of impersonal, almost anti-human, tastefulness and order – anti-human both in scale and in texture – the whole interior felt still drenched in fascism, as if we were wandering through a set for some lost scene from Bertolucci’s Il Conformista.

 

Had the Greeks not seen fit to deconstruct and reclaim all this? How was the fascist period of the Italian occupation regarded now? We’d just been to the monastery at Filerimos, built likewise in the thirties with its Italian Way of the Cross, but also home to an ancient, inexpressibly dolorous and affecting icon of Mary; so how far had the occupation tolerated the Greek Orthodox church? I asked our tour guide.

 

I couldn’t actually make out her eyes behind her sunglasses, but I could tell that they hardened instantly. Her previously modulated voice became intense and emotional. It had been horrible for the people of Rhodes. Horrible. In 1922 they had replaced the old governor with a fascist. Most of the churches had been closed. Children had been forced to learn Italian in school. All opposition had been eliminated. Her mother, as a child, had seen people executed in the street. It had been a dreadful time for Rhodes. She gestured behind her to a large plaque in Italian, still prominent on an outside wall, crediting the palace restoration to Il Duce. My fellow Brits appeared bemused or indifferent.

 

High on one vast checked wall inside we saw carved between roses “Fert”, the motto of the House of Savoy. No one translated; looking it up now, I see that various unlikely acronyms have been suggested, but in simple Latin it can be read as “S/he suffers”. That seems appropriate enough. The next day we found ourselves at Arkadi monastery in Crete, besieged by the Ottoman army in the Cretan revolt of 1866, where a few hundred women and children, barricaded into the powder room, had blown themselves to pulp rather than be taken alive. The attached museum displayed a long hank of human hair, retrieved later from a roof top.

Back on the boat, having finished W G Sebald’s excellent but distressing Rings of Saturn (more journeys, more atrocities), I found myself in need of fresh reading material; the only half decent book on offer in the little shop turned out to be Robert Harris’s Selling Hitler, a fascinatingly repellent account of the forged Hitler diaries scandal of 1983. Following the revelation that Goering’s yacht was appropriated by the British royal family and rechristened the Prince Charles, I read that Hitler’s paintings are technically so poor as to be a doddle for the amateur forger, and so boring that in the final analysis no collector of them really cares whether what they have is faked or real. That evening the ship’s tannoy announced a poolside Last Night of the Proms-themed singalong, to “celebrate all that makes Britain great”. The holiday was not turning out quite as I’d expected.

There are plenty of images of the Grand Master’s Palace online but those above are mine. Click for enlarged slides. I haven’t linked to any image of the icon at Filerimos, as no reproduction or copy really looks like what we saw, nor gives any sense of the experience of being in its physical presence. For the first time, I’m prepared to credit an icon as being an effective and transmitting thing-in-itself. As being in some sense “alive”.

Set that against the deadening art of fascism!

Living paint: Edwin Lucas’s ‘Resurrection’

To mark this best of all possible days, here is a bit of a cracker (click to enlarge) by the always interesting, and sometimes startling, Edwin G Lucas (1911-1990), the subject of an earlier post on this blog. (A biography and whole galleries of his work can be found here.)

The Resurrection, dated to 1940, is lifted from the Art UK site, where it’s credited to NHS Lothian, the owners, perhaps surprisingly, of nearly 500 paintings. So I guess you might stumble unexpectedly across this abstract expressionist parody of the baroque somewhere along the meandering corridors of an Edinburgh hospital, or at least let’s hope so.

I’m left wondering how Lucas achieved the consistently gorgeous, squidgy, almost munchable plasticity of his rapid brush marks. And how did he get those edges and tonalities into each sweep of paint? Presumably he left the bare strokes to dry off a bit before painstakingly tweaking in the details that transform some of them into teeny tiny people with little beards and haircuts, the multitudes of the redeemed. It’s a feat of technical virtuosity, and a witty celebration of the sheer incarnational lushness of paint, the brush marks coming to life – in more senses than one – before our eyes. And at the heart of it all, the luminous, cross-shaped body of Christ pings from the tomb. Alleluia!

As a rule I disapprove of God as a sky-god, but I rather like the big cartoony egghead Father at the top here.

If the 1940 dating is secure on this, it’s hard to think of anything else comparable. It would be more than a decade before Howard Hodgkin (to whom I’ve compared Lucas in a different respect) would start cramming his spaces with plasticky splatches. In fact, it doesn’t even resemble anything else by Lucas that I recall seeing. Maybe it’s a quite wonderful one-off?

Hell is harrowed. Happy Easter!

Kettle’s Yard: Vortex Gaudier-Brzeska

How have I contrived not to visit Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge until now? But we’ll certainly be going back. More Gaudier-Brzeskas than you can manage, almost to the point of fainting, plus some extraordinary David Jones and Christopher Wood, and a whole lot more besides. In 1926 H S (“Jim”) Ede bought up a couple of thousand drawings and other pieces from the Gaudier estate, following the sad death of Sophie Brzeska, and many of them are still in his preserved home, which forms the core of the expanded “New” Kettle’s Yard, just reopened.

To be honest, the house and its contents are still the important bit. The new bolted-on gallery spaces are a fine asset, but I found the curation of the current show a bit nebulous, and the quality of the contemporary work a little up and down. You can’t grumble though; it’s an amazing place.

Ede’s core mission was to reclaim and to make permanent Gaudier’s standing in the aftermath of his posthumous fall from fashion. And indeed, the more you stare at his work, the more important it appears. Once stuffed away in a box on the margins marked “Interesting cul-de-sacs”, Gaudier’s sculpture has since assumed its proper place at the core of things, articulating a language of form that, in its full and happy integration of the mechanical and the natural, seems more appropriate today than ever. “Plastic soul is intensity of life bursting the plane”.

Here are snaps of some favourite pieces in the house; I haven’t identified them individually as the entire collection can be called up bit by bit in the “collection database” on the Kettle’s Yard website, which also has 360 degree doodads of the interior of the house and a great deal more worth browsing. Photos just can’t do justice to David Jones; his drawing is properly visible only face to face, in its actual scale. But I’ve put some in anyway. Click everything to enlarge as slides.

Christopher Wood

David Jones

 

Henri Gaudier-Brzeska

 

Baby Jesus in the green and pleasant

I seem to have gone a bit AWOL lately on this blog. Again … But things will pick up in the new year.

Meanwhile, here’s Samuel Palmer’s tiny, bejewelled Landscape with the Repose of the Holy Family, or The Rest on the Flight into Egypt, as it’s also known, tucked away in a corner of the Ashmolean. The palm tree(?) at the right seems as much of a late intrusion into the Kentish vales as is the holy family, who are plonked, maybe a bit awkwardly, at the foot of one of Palmer’s trademark diagonals. But are they really refugees on their way to Egypt? No donkey, and it all seems oddly relaxed, settled and timeless … Less of a flight than an arrival.

It’s almost as if Palmer had a little landscape going spare, smoke from the cottage chimney and all, into which they have been visualised and inserted, not as an apparition but as an inculturation. It’s their cottage. In Palmer’s world, the holy lamb of God really is seen on England’s mountains green; waking from a nap, the divine countenance looks up at his mum and dad, then out across our clouded hills and pleasant pastures.

Happy Christmas! In the full sense of those two words.