A shot at greatness
John Stewart was recovering from the horrors of war when he arrived by chance at La Colombe d’Or in the South of France with a brand-new Leica camera. A few days later, he had photographed Picasso and Matisse
Even 60 years ago, La Colombe d’Or, the small auberge at the centre of the hilltop village of Saint Paul de Vence, about 20km from Nice, was known for three things. One was what the Michelin guide called its ‘old Provence’ charm. Another was a sign that announced ‘Ici on loge à cheval, à pied ou en peinture’, which roughly translates as ‘Here we accommodate people on horseback, on foot or with paintings’. The third — a consequence of that sign — was the extraordinary art collection that the patron, Paul Roux, had amassed in exchange for hospitality: Picasso, Matisse, Braque, Léger, Miró had all found space for themselves, and their works, at the inn.
But what did Roux see in John Stewart and his young Russian wife, who turned up one spring day in 1951? Perhaps there was something about the easy charm and quick wit of a man who said he’d come to figure out what to do with the rest of his life. Or perhaps it was the shadow of war that still hung over him.
Born in London, Stewart had been a 20-year-old novice merchant banker when the Second World War broke out. In 1942, serving with the Intelligence Corps, he was one of at least 80,000 British and Commonwealth troops taken captive when Singapore surrendered to Japan.
Held prisoner until 21 August 1945, when the Japanese surrendered following the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he described the horrors of captivity in his book, To The River Kwai. In one camp where he was held, 90 per cent of prisoners died. So perhaps Roux, who had fought in the First World War, understood that beyond the wit, the new wife and the shiny car, there was a man scarred by terrible experience. Or perhaps he could see the nascent artist.
‘The war changed my attitude completely — I didn’t want to be a banker,’ said Stewart in one of his last interviews. He died in March 2017, after an extraordinary life, at the age of 97. ‘I’d had a difficult war and needed an antidote to four years in the jungle of Burma and Thailand. So I went to ski in Vermont and then settled for a while in New York, on the Upper East Side.’
‘I asked Picasso to stand by himself next to the goat. I snapped — the Leica’s first clicks’
In 1949, aged 30 and living off an inheritance, he met an 18-year-old Paris-born Russian girl called Natacha Dorfman, who went home and told her grandmother that she had met her future husband. After their marriage in December 1950, Natacha told him it was immoral for a man not to work, to which Stewart replied, ‘Let’s go somewhere wonderful for a couple of months and think seriously about my future.’ He bought a Leica in New York and a black MG sports car ‘with big chrome headlights’ when they flew into London. They then drove south, slowly, towards Saint Paul de Vence, pulling up outside La Colombe d’Or at the beginning of May.
‘We were seated near the entrance, paintings on the wall, flowers on the tables, white doves fluttering in the courtyard… a most inviting place.’ Stewart announced that they would like to stay a month, maybe two. Roux clearly liked the look of them, because although they had no art to exchange, he offered a room at a very reasonable rate and with a Matisse above the bed.
‘That evening, he introduced Natacha and me to people from the world of art, movies, theatre… and I found myself sitting next to André Verdet.’ Verdet, a poet, artist and resident of the village, was a close friend of Picasso’s, and before the evening was over, Verdet had asked if he would like to meet the great artist. ‘Tomorrow. In Vallauris…’
Picasso was approaching his 70th birthday and working at full tilt. In May 1951, he was living with 30-year-old Françoise Gilot, with whom he had two children, Paloma being one of them, and was working on a range of paintings, from the political Massacre in Korea to the domestic Smoke over Vallauris, lithographs and lino-cuts, bronze sculpture, ceramics, sketches of war. His time was precious, and many photographers were refused an audience, but along with Verdet, Stewart was welcome.
He looked around while Verdet chatted to Picasso, who was wearing dark trousers and a white vest. Near them was a sculpture of a she-goat (now in the garden at MoMA, New York). ‘I asked Picasso to stand by himself next to the goat. I snapped — the Leica’s first clicks.’ Stewart’s first photographs.
Picasso was usually photographed in his studio, with friends in a bar, or holding his children; Robert Capa had famously caught him carrying an umbrella behind Gilot on the beach in Golfe-Juan. ‘Unaware of my outrageous behaviour, I requested that Picasso go and sit in a nearby field of high grasses, take with him pad and pencil, and draw. He did as told. The result was my first portrait, posed, directed, thought out.’
While Stewart was at Vallauris, Natacha was talking to another village resident, Célia Bertin, a writer who had just launched the literary magazine Roman. The cover of the first issue carried an image by Bertin’s close friend, Henri Matisse. ‘Have you really photographed Picasso?’ Bertin asked Stewart at the auberge that evening. ‘Would you like to take another portrait?’ Five days later, Stewart and Natacha were standing in front of a house in Cimiez, on the inland side of Nice, in front of a door with a card thumb-tacked to the frame: HENRI MATISSE ARTISTE-PEINTRE.
‘Matisse was in bed. There was a wooden tablet across the bed, and sketches were pinned on the wall as maquettes. Natacha sat by Matisse’s bed and talked to him.’ Apart from his age (81), his illnesses and asthma (perhaps, Stewart thought, an allergic reaction to his cat), Matisse was preoccupied with preparations for the opening of the Chapelle du Rosaire, which he was creating for the Dominican Sisters in the neighbouring town of Vence. The culmination of four years’ work, it condensed a lifetime of experience, and Matisse considered it his masterpiece.
An image of Saint Dominic was drawn on the wall behind the master’s bed. In front of this sat Matisse, propped up in bed wearing a cardigan and covered by a tartan blanket. Snap: Stewart had his portrait. A few days later, Georges Braque appeared at La Colombe d’Or and — snap! — Stewart took his portrait, too.
Other portraits followed: of Roux in the hotel bar, sleeves rolled up, hat on his head and glass emptied; of the head waiter who also happened to be a champion runner — he was snapped in front of some of his trophies; of the postman; of children in long white robes and angels’ wings walking to communion. But after six weeks of what Stewart described as ‘carefree, beautiful days’, Natacha protested: ‘You’ve done nothing about your future. You’ve just played around with your camera. I’m going back to New York.’ And she left.
Hindsight gives an unfair advantage. Had either of them understood that it was possible to make a living as a photographer, his ‘playing around’ might have looked more serious. Had she known then what she discovered later, that he had a great talent for photography, that when he returned to New York he would be accepted into Alexey Brodovitch’s masterclass in Richard Avedon’s studio, that he would shoot fashion for Harper’s Bazaar and American Vogue and take portraits of notable people, Warhol among them, but most brilliantly of Muhammad Ali at the height of his fame, she might have encouraged him to stay a while longer.
While the homily was given, Stewart walked around until he met a man with a similar Leica. ‘And what is your name?’ he asked. ‘Henri Cartier-Bresson,’ came the answer
He stayed anyway, to attend the opening of Matisse’s chapel in mid-June. The chapel is small and shed-like, with a blue corrugated roof, the simplicity of the design offset by the beauty of the light that fills the space through Matisse’s stained-glass windows. While the homily was given, Stewart walked around until he met a man with a similar Leica, black where Stewart’s was chrome. A question as to which magazine Stewart was working for was followed by another as to where he would develop his film, and a recommendation to visit Pictorial Service in Paris. ‘And what is your name?’ asked Stewart. ‘Henri Cartier-Bresson,’ came the answer.
At our last meeting, Stewart talked about le hasard et la nécessité, the idea that evolution happens by random chance. I understood he was implying that his own life had been shaped by chance, by random meetings. But if those opportunities came about by chance, Stewart made the most of them by being open, by searching and questioning. It was that, perhaps, that led Roux, Verdet, Bertin, Cartier-Bresson, Brodovitch and others to help him. They all recognised something in him — a sensibility, an eye, an openness to ideas and experiences, perhaps a need, and certainly a longing.
His later, more personal work was shaped by that same sensibility as well as a remarkable, many-layered memory, and enhanced by charcoal printing, which gives the images a dreamlike quality. Stewart recognised how the years he spent in close proximity to his Japanese captors had shaped his aesthetic, most obviously in his subtle, sensual images of lotuses.
Perhaps he also remembered laundry hanging from the windows of La Colombe d’Or, and Matisse’s beautiful sketch for St Veronica, the sixth Station of the Cross in Vence, because he developed an obsession with creating still-life images of draped fabrics, and once a year, over a couple of decades, devoted himself to shooting veronicas, fabrics that relate to 17th-century painter Francisco de Zurbarán’s paintings of St Veronica holding a cloth with Jesus’s face on it. And there were still lifes right to the end.
‘I don’t expect at the age of 97 to have the same élan that I had at 47,’ he said. Then he sketched out an idea for an image involving an old doorway in the Luberon where he, like Cartier-Bresson before him, had spent part of many years. ‘But I still have ideas for things I would like to do that would be unlike anything I have done in the past…’