Going to mass in the USA is quite the experience. Apart from the fact that I can understand what’s being said (which is novel in itself), I get to see the insides of local communities, both rural and urban.
I write this from the ‘burbs of Milwaukee, WI. It’s morning here. The coffee is brewing and I’m checking emails before I leave for a day in the cemeteries. I like to do that – visit old cemeteries and see what those left behind have to say about those who’ve gone before them. Just ready to leave, I open an email and see that Budapest stalwart Alan Rees has passed away.
I’m not one to spend time in beauty parlours. I don’t do makeup or facials or such, but I am partial to a manicure and pedicure; the former cosmetic, the latter medicinal. I like having my nails done. Read more
On 20 August, Hungary celebrates its foundation and remembers St Istvan (St Stephen), its first king, who was inducted into the ranks of Hungarian saints by Pope Gregory VII on 20 August 1083.
Let’s fast forward to 20 August 1993, when Scottish painter Jim Urquhart arrived in Budapest in search of something new. It’s understandable that he was a little taken aback by the celebrations. He drove in, too late for the fireworks, and was left to make sense of the teeming crowds and the smell of cordite. Twenty-six years later, and recently inducted into the ranks of Hungarian citizenry, he’s still enjoying the mystery of everything Magyar.
Urquhart’s life to date reads like a series of chance encounters and happenstance, each linked by his insatiable delight in the ordinary and an innate curiosity that has him opening doors others might walk by.
His friend, travel and art writer Michael Jacobs, had suggested he contact Árpád Szabados, then head of Magyar Képzőművészeti Egyetem (Hungarian University of Fine Arts), when he arrived in Hungary. Szabados’ mother was Scottish and had met his father, a Calvinist minister, when studying in Edinburgh. During Urquhart’s first week in the country, at the behest of Szabados, he joined a football team made up of artists and writers and other creative sorts. One introduction led to another and pretty soon he had found somewhere to live, somewhere to paint, and that special someone he’d later marry – his wife Julia.
Back in 1968, his time at Edinburgh School of Art was cut short – he wasn’t the type of student they wanted on their books. Not that he lacked talent, but more that his political opinions weren’t exactly mainstream. Urquhart left Scotland for London where his days were spent labouring on building sites, his evenings at his easel. In 1975, he graduated with a degree in Fine Arts from the Central School of Art and Design, which through many marriages is now the Central Saint Martin’s College of Arts and Design. Ever the pragmatist, he went on to do a post-grad in teaching and then, in his mid-thirties, found himself Head of Department and teaching art, painting with his students in the classroom and having conversations with himself wondering how he’d gotten there. He describes the whole experience of teaching art and being an artist as ‘somewhat schizophrenic’.
When he turned 40, Urquhart decided that administration wasn’t his forte. Some people are cut out for working 9-5, five days a week, with a few weeks off for good behaviour throughout the year. Not he. But wishes and dreams don’t pay bills or buy paint. He compromised by working as a supply teacher, subbing for full-time teachers when they took unscheduled breaks.
He continued to do this after moving to Hungary, returning to the UK to teach for 4-6-week spells, earning enough to keep him in paint and palinka for 3-4 months. Around 1997, things really came together. Gábor Andrási invited him to exhibit his work at the Óbudai Pincegalériá. Andrási’s endorsement would open even more doors for the Glaswegian.
In 2000, Urquhart was one of the few foreign artists invited to exhibit at the Millennium exhibition in the Műcsarnok (Palace of Arts), confirmation indeed that Hungary thought well of her adopted son. In 2011, when artist Ilona P. Boros, curator of the Falumúzeum (Village museum) in Törökbálint, founded Asztal-Társaság (the Table Company), Urquhart was the only non-Hungarian invited to join the group of eight. Although no longer a member, Urquhart credits Boros’s excellent organisational skills for the invitations that followed to exhibit in Hungary and abroad.
It was a busy time. Soon, Urquhart found himself painting for the next exhibition. But when his mum passed away six years ago, his subsequent regular trips to the UK to check in on his dad played havoc with his schedule. Not that he begrudges a moment of the time he spends over there – he enjoys his old man and Hughie certainly seems quite the character. The apple, as they say, doesn’t fall far from the tree.
I first saw his work hanging in the apartment of a mutual friend. The piece was from his train track series. When he lived out by Kobanya Kispest, Urquhart would regularly cross the train tracks, rails of steel that clearly defined the space around them. They made him question the underlying matrix, the mathematics of the physical world, as it were. I still covet that painting and each time I visit my bad self harbours notions of spiriting it away in my purse but never remembers to bring one big enough.
Back in his late teens and early twenties, Urquhart was a true believer in abstract. He was a fan of the likes of Wassily Kandinsky, Mark Rothko, and for a brief while, Jackson Pollack. Then he came across the figurative work of David Hockney and found it very ‘disturbing’. Okay, he thought, figures have their place in a historical context, but in contemporary art? And drawings of everyday life at that? Hockney’s work sent Urquhart in another direction, one that married everyday observances with abstract thoughts and figures.
In his telephone box series, the abstract representation of a telephone box is set off by a dress of the same colour in a shop window in the background. The dress is his nod to the idea of a person – but when you put a person in a picture, they become the focus and this wasn’t what the series was about.
Urquhart’s bathing series is his take on a historical concept and context. Rather than painting cherubs in the sky, his bathers have that same angelic sense but in the water. ‘Abstraction’, he explained, ‘the colours and the content…they’re like the vocals in a piece of music.’
I’m particularly taken by his vapour trail series, inspired by his musings on where everyone is coming from and going to. He sees the streets of Budapest as valleys, sided by tall buildings, creating a triangle of blue intersected by the white aeroplane path – something akin to the Kandinsky triangle, and the abstract concentration of power.
Kandinsky’s philosophy about spiritual life and art is founded on the idea of a three-tiered triangle containing all of humanity […] The triangle is slowly—nearly imperceptibly—moving forward and upward, towards a higher level of enlightenment. […] The most spiritually elevated people exist in the top section and are, as such, the smallest group; they see today what others will not understand until tomorrow.
The apex of that same triangle is also seen in Michael Angelo’s The Making of Adam when God and Adam touch fingers, he told me. His art classes must have been interesting, I thought.
Commissions aside, Urquhart paints for himself. ‘It’s difficult enough to guess what people like to eat, let alone to try to second-guess what they’d like to buy’, he said. He sold one of his metro steps series to someone who had just recovered from a serious illness. In those steps, leading out of the darkness of the underground into the light of day, they saw a visual connection with their own escape from death.
For Urquhart, success isn’t measured in high-priced canvases or rave reviews. He’s not searching for international acclaim, although his paintings hang in rooms around in North America, South America, Spain, France, Germany, Hungary, and the UK. He paints what he sees. His work chronicles the every day, the mundane, but at his hand, take on a new life. He loves to paint and paints what he loves: life as it’s being lived. His measure of success is being able to do what he wants to do on a daily basis.
In September, Urquhart will exhibit alongside two other Budapest-based British painters, Michael Pettet and David Stuart Sutherland. The one-night show, hosted by the British Ambassador to Hungary, Iain Lindsay, and his wife, Bridget, at their Buda residence, is sponsored by the British Chamber of Commerce in Hungary (BCCH). Each of the artists will have their own room and will be available to chat. Don’t expect to see too much by way of a written explanation of Urquhart’s art, though. As he says himself, ‘If galleries have to say a lot about your paintings, perhaps you should consider writing a book instead.’
First published in the Budapest Times
I’ve been known to use the word surreal when I’m describing some of what passes for politics in Hungary to people who’ve never been here. The reaction to the latest Coca-Cola Equal Love ad campaign being a case in point. Read more
The responsibility that comes with having a garden weighs heavily on me. It dictates what I do and when I do it. I’m tied to the kitchen. Try as I might, I can’t seem to get Mother Nature on my schedule. Her lastest parry has been of the green tomato variety. Read more
Boss is an avid puzzler. He spends a chunk of his day, every day, doing crosswords and puzzles. The crosswords I get; the puzzles I’m not a huge fan of. And I’ve never gotten the hang (or the point) of Sudoku. But he maintains to that keep your memory, you have to exercise your brain every day. Read more
I have friends in the hospitality business who on occasion fall foul of bad reviews. I listen to their stories of guests wrecking the place, leaving traces of drugs in the bathrooms, being generally boorish and obnoxious. And then, when challenged or asked to pay for damages, the guests/punters take to social media and leave a bad review with little thought and even less consideration for the damage their irresponsible reviews can do.
I’m at a loss as to how to explain to her-next-door that there are only two of us. Twenty eggs. (Eggs come in boxes of 10 here.) Two kilos of uborka (pickling cucumbers). A kilo of cherry plums. Two kilos of peaches (or maybe they were apricots). And two massive zucchini. And this was just last week. With so many fruit trees in the village and so many locals growing their own veg and such, getting rid of what you can’t (or don’t want to) use is like a convoluted game of pass the parcel.
When the farmer up the road at home drops into my mother with eggs, she bakes him a tart in return. She mightn’t want to bake. She mightn’t have planned to bake. She mightn’t be in the mood to bake. But bake she will. There’s some sort of unwritten code that demands it. I always thought she was mad. I figured my city-loving genes would have long-since throttled any lurking country ones, given that a greater percentage of my life has been lived within the madding crowd than without. But no. I’m turning (or perhaps have already turned) into my mother. (And that’s not a complaint – she’s a grand woman.)
No matter what I’d planned to do that day or what I might have wanted to do that day, if the eggs arrive, I have to bake. Anything. Something. I think though that herself has gotten smarter. She’s seen the Pavlovian pattern. I’m sure she realises that if she drops off eggs AND zucchini, then zucchini bread will follow. Perhaps I’m giving her too much credit, but I certainly have my suspicions.
So, when life hands me a mammoth zucchini. I bake. Walnut and zucchini bread. Loaves of it. And then I pass the parcel to anyone who might drop by that day. Or the next. The painter got lucky last week. He’s sold on it. But when I gave him the first one to sample, his wife sent him back with uborka that I added to the bucket already awaiting pickling. Village life is a never-ending cycle of give and take.
After nearly three years, I’ve finally mastered the unregulated gas oven. I bake now by smell. But that means I can’t leave the kitchen lest I miss the crucial turn-around point and the even more crucial turn-down point. But when I get it right, I get it right.
Recipe for zucchini and walnut bread
Some of you have asked for the recipe. That, too, I’ve fiddled with to the point I can do it blind. Here it is. (Forgive the translation – it’s for me.)
In the first bowl, mix
- 3 cups of sieved flour (finom liszt if you’re in Hungary – not the rétes liszt)
- 1 teaspoon of baking soda (1 teáskanál szódabikarbóna)
- 1 teaspoon of baking powder (1 teáskanál sütőport)
- 1 teaspoon of salt (1 teáskanál só)
- 1 tablespoon of cinnamon (1 evőkanál fahéj)
In the second bowl, mix (manually rather than electronically – am not sure why this is better but it makes a difference – I found this out the day I couldn’t be arsed taking out the mixer)
- 3 eggs (3 tojás)
- 1 cup of sugar (1 csésze kristálycukor)
- 1 cup of vegetable oil (1 csésze növényi olaj)
- 3 teaspoons of vanilla extract (3 teáskanál vanília kivonat)
Then add the dry ingredients to the wet ones (not the other way around) and when it’s mixed, add
- 2 cups of grated zucchini at least (Legalább 2 csésze reszelt cukkini)
- 1 cup of chopped walnuts (1 csésze dió)
Grease two pans with just enough butter to make them shine – too much and they’ll burn. Oil doesn’t work … I’ve tried.
Put in the oven and bake. I can’t help you with temperatures because I’ve no markings on my oven knobs. I turn it to 8 pm for about 10 minutes and then turn the pans around before turning it down to 7 pm and waiting for anywhere between 20 and 35 minutes. Again, no clue what the difference in time is – but when you start to smell it, keep an eye on it. When you can stick a knife through the centre and it comes out clean, you’re done. Take them out of the oven but let them sit in the tins for a few minutes. I found this out because the phone rang one time and I got distracted. But letting them sit makes a difference. Then cool them on a wire rack.
Store, not in a tin, but in Tupperware in the fridge. Or freeze them wrapped in baking paper. They’ll keep for 10 days or 2 weeks in the fridge and only need a couple of hours to defrost from the freezer.
I’m slowly getting the hang of village life and on a good day, I revel in the bounty. On a bad day, I curse it. But thankfully, I have more good days than bad.
The French philosopher Voltaire is reputed to have said ‘We look to Scotland for all our ideas of civilisation.’ Presumably, he was talking about the French. Some three centuries later, the British in Hungary are looking in that direction, too, this time for ideas on how to revamp the long-established British Chamber of Commerce in Hungary (BCCH). Enter Duncan Graham, one of the city’s best-known Scotsmen, and recently appointed Chair of the BCCH, the first non-Hungarian to hold the position in 15 years. Read more