My inspiration: my dad's watercolour portraits and poetry

My dad, Alec, was a carpenter/joiner, a master craftsman who studied watercolour portraiture for seven years in the run up to WWII. 

He was also a poet whose war-time verses my mother Anna - then an interpreter - typed out and translated into her native Italian.  Copies of the poems - about the war, love and his feelings for England - are now kept in the Imperial War Museum.

Following in his footsteps

It was 10 years after he died that I followed in his footsteps to study portraiture - in oils.  And when my mum died some years later, his beautiful portraits - and poems - passed to my sister and me.

Myrna Loy watercolour portrait by Alexander George Heath Saunders

These two female portraits, the first of American film actress and dancer Myrna Loy, and the second of a friend from before the war, now hang where I can see them where I wake.  They have taught me much about subtlety, how an artist can draw your attention to what he's interested in by omission as much as inclusion, and how to bring emotion into a portrait.

Female watercolour portrait by Alexander George Heath Saunders

The third painting is one of my beloved childhood mouse - Topo Gigio, the lead character of a children's puppet show on Italian television in the early 1960s.  Dad could easily have represented him from the front but I remember him turning my Topo around in his hands and positioning him against the light when I begged him to paint him.  Dad was clearly interested in the shape made by the silhouette of his ears and, in abstracting the background, made it appear that Topo was looking out - perhaps towards the future into which I would move and, eventually, with great sadness, leave them both behind.

Topo Gigio watercolour portrait by Alexander George Heath Saunders

It was that thought of moving into the future that inspired this oil painting of  'Mum and me' from an old transparency.  My mum remains forever with the viewer in the present while I seek adventure.

Mum and me oil on canvas by artist Stella Tooth

Arts as legacy

It is this legacy that is the most beautiful thing about the arts.  They leave a trace of the both the creator and the subject behind even when they have been long gone. 

So, in these dark winter days, where the Covid-19 vaccine is bringing hope of a return to some form of normality, and warmer temperatures are being forecast, I share with you this poem written by my dad in November 1943.  He was then stationed in Italy, having fought in the North Africa Campaign. And the Italian government had, that October, joined the battle on the side of the Allies.  I don't know whether he had yet met mum, who he later married in war-ravaged Italy.  But his thoughts were turning to the green grass of home...

One fine day by Alexander, George, Heath Saunders

I stood 'neath the arch of heaven

with the sunlight streaming down

on the emerald fields of England

and plough-land rich and brown.


I gazed at the sight before me 

while the soft sighing wind seemed to say

go forth meet the glories of nature

for this is England, in May.


A perfume sweet and evasive

pervaded the air, - was it thyme

verbena or first early roses?

No! No, this was May - Lilac Lime.


All the cares of the world were forgotten

as from me the years seemed to fly

once more as a child, I walked freely

a mite 'neath a flawless blue sky.


I wandered way down to the valley

still shedding the glistening dew

and saw from a woodland pathway

carpets of yellow and blue.


From the trees a million small voices

proclaimed the crowning of Spring

and the rustling leaves seemed to echo

urging all beings to sing.


A brook with its bubbling waters 

making their way to the sea

chanting, eternally, chanting

the beauties of nature are free.


And turning I made my way homeward

humming a melody gay

Inspired by this transfiguration

of England! - in Spring time, - in May.

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