- What’s On
Weary of the bustle of Beirut, where he was teaching in the 1960s, John Carswell set out to find a home on the coast. In the fishing village of Tabarja, he was seduced by a crumbling Ottoman house that would become his home until civil war tore Lebanon apart.
The story of the house (mansion, rather), in which I lived for many years – as so often in my life – was a fortuitous one. I was teaching art at the American University of Beirut (AUB) in the early 1960s, sharing an apartment with a fellow teacher, chain-smoker and alcoholic. When the summer came and he left on vacation, I invited an old friend, Honor Frost, an underwater archaeologist, to come and stay. She lived in London and when she had been away one summer I had settled in her flat and painted a series of black-and-white panels, mostly abstractions based on the gigantic medieval waterwheels at Hama in Syria, which I had visited the previous year. When Honor returned, she found them (I had naively left them behind). She knew all about the art world and showed them to Erica Brausen, director of the Hanover Gallery in London, who gave me my first exhibition in 1956. I sold nothing and mystified the critics, one of whom said, “It is hard to see what Mr Carswell is up to, or why?” Another accolade read: “The paintings appear to have been the work of an amiable slug.
But back to Beirut… After a while I got sick of life in the city, and one weekend I took a bus north, looking for an alternative. I stopped at Tabarja, a tiny fishing village. There was a café on one side of the bay and I had a drink. I looked across and saw a grand house. I asked who owned it and a man said it belonged to his family and told me something of its history. It had been built by his grandfather, who had emigrated to South America and returned a rich man. He died, and his widow refused to live in it alone. It remained empty until the Second World War, when the French military commander General Weygand lived in it for a time. During an Australian air raid the village was bombed and the house lost its pitched tiled roof. The present owner had a flat concrete roof put in its place, and it remained empty once again.
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