The Big French Road Trip began the very day after the school summer term finished. Since we are based in the North-East of England, it seemed like a really good idea to cross the sea from Port of Tyne, an overnight trip offered by DFDS (www.dfdsseaways.co.uk) which delivers you to Amsterdam the next morning all ready to start your holiday.
The impetus for the trip was the Tate Modern Exhibition of Matisse cut-outs (www.tate.org.uk/visit/tate-modern) in which we discovered that Henri Matisse had used this technique when designing the stained glass and clerical garments of the Chapel of the Rosary in Vence. This, then was our destination and the trip began to be referred to as a kind of pilgrimage. It certainly involved a lot of miles!
We camped in the South of France, near Antibes at a campsite called ‘La Vielle Ferme'(www.vieilleferme.com) and from there, made a day trip to see the chapel. Finding the street named after my hero indicated that we were on the right track.
I had imagined being able to sit in the stillness of the chapel and take in its beauty, but it was of course July and a good number of other people had the same idea. The chapel is only open at certain times of the week and we were joined by a large and diverse group as we waited for the door to be opened.
However, the stained glass is stunning and the bold use of just three colours: deep cornflower blue, sunflower yellow and jade green made a huge impact then and remains in the memory still. In addition, there is an exhibition of the chasubles designed by Matisse for the priest to wear – several were displayed for us to see and a booklet available to buy at the exit showed not only the final designs, but several of the initial designs for each of the vestments (www.vence.fr/the-rosaire-chapel).
.Another day trip took us to Grasse and to the Fragonard perfume factory (www.fragonard.com) to discover many classic scents, see an exhibition of perfume bottles and to see some contemporary perfumes being created.
Our third day trip was to Nice, including a stroll along the Boulevard des Anglais and a short dip in the Mediterranean, but also to the Musee Matisse, which was showing ‘Les Odalisques de Matisse’, drawings and paintings carried out during the artist’s prolonged residence in Nice (www.musee-matisse-nice.org).
Then we headed westwards and visited the extraordinary walled city at Carcassonne (www.tourisme-carcassonne.fr). After this came a visit to Rocamadour, built as it is on the side of a cliff and where we had the opportunity to go underground into the cave where an artist left his hand-print on the wall some twenty thousand years ago. The black pigment has been placed (or spat!) between the fingers of the hand, which was large (and therefore thought to have been male). There were other rock paintings to be seen here, but standing a mere metre away from the hand-print was extremely moving (www.grotte-des-merveilles.com).
Next was Chartres Cathedral, with its beautiful, jewel-like windows and the labyrinth set into the floor, for a visitor to walk round in a contemplative way, the maze representing the person’s life (www.sacred-destinations.com/france/chartres-cathedral).
The trip also included a brief stop in Ghent to see the famous van Eyck masterpiece ‘The Lamb of God’ and to find out about its mysterious stolen panel (www.mysticlamb.net/altarpiece).
Another night in the comfortable cabin on the return ferry (that we just caught in time!) brought us back to North Shields and to reality! However, there are colours, shapes and techniques which will find their way into my own designs in the coming season.