Spring in Derbyshire and starry daffodils fill the garden. Undeterred by last year’s rabbit-savaging, the snake’s-head fritillaries are back. After months of winter darkness the dazzling sunshine hurts the eyes. It’s as if a huge and powerful light has been switched on.
There are bees about, and a new blackbird with a new song - a possibly ironic ‘Tweet. Tweet.’ When I took the children to Arbor Low (Derbyshire’s Stonehenge), the sky was full of larks ascending. They descended pretty sharpish when a couple of ospreys sailed into view.
Another species flocking to the area is the hipster. It’s not that people with beards and vintage clothes are unusual in these parts. Just that, until recently, neither were fashion statements. All is changed now though, since my local town of Matlock became the regional capital of shabby chic. In the past couple of years, an abundance of businesses selling everything from old LPs to battered school trunks has opened in a stretch of formerly struggling shops. This means that, most weekends, visitors with elaborate facial hair, polished brogues and extreme spectacles are to be seen wandering around with dolly tubs and standard lamps.
One of those responsible for this upsurge in local fortunes is the wife of a local wine merchant. On trips to France, while her husband was negotiating with the negociants, Suzanne went to the antiques markets, brocantes and vides greniers. Like the saleswoman she is, she saw an opportunity. Back came the van to Derbyshire full not only of wine but also elegantly distressed mirrors, bolts of toile de jouy, sets of Ricard glasses and rusting French signs.
They went down like gateaux chauds; soon Suzanne found herself importing on a major scale and other dealers followed in her wake. Making the northern Midlands, of all places, one of the best spots in the country to get that rural French look. Old-fashioned bicycles, wine crates and milk churns now stand outside most of the Dale Road shops. One specialises in a line of French-inspired interiors-ware called, I kid you not, Jeanne D’Arc Living.
But not everyone who goes there is after meat safes or decommissioned organ pipes. A small glass cabinet in the Matlock Antiques Centre is Mecca for my small daughter, a budding numismatist. Here, Roman coins go for as little as £3.50 and Isabella has for years been blowing her pocket money on denarii from the reigns of obscure emperors (Amelianius, anyone? Romulus Augustus?) as well as bigger names like Vespasian.
Buying is a serious business; she goes down there armed with magnifying glass and torch, the better to pick out the details. A member of staff has to stand by the cabinet while she frowns over her selection.
Once made, and taken home, she consults various websites for verification, although the most reliable source is still the battered mouse-mat featuring the heads of all the Roman emperors which we bought years ago on Hadrian’s Wall.
The brilliant Derby Museum and Art Gallery has just opened a fascinating new exhibition, Joseph Wright And The Lure Of Italy. Wright was born in Derby in 1734 and despite training in London, with famous portraitist Thomas Hudson to boot, was famously fond of home. He frequently returned, eventually permanently, and is known to posterity as ‘Joseph Wright Of Derby’.
The Derby Museum has the world’s biggest collection of Wright’s paintings, including his famous ‘A Philosopher Lecturing On The Orrery’, in which mysterious candlelit figures surround an antique model of the universe. Wright’s ‘An Experiment On A Bird In The Air-Pump’, a broadly similar composition, hangs opposite Turner’s Temeraire in the National Gallery.
Wright is an absolutely fascinating character and the Italian trip that is the subject of the new exhibition was taken partly to conceal a secret marriage. It came to an abrupt end when word reached him that Thomas Gainsborough was leaving Bath. This meant that there was a vacancy for a fashionable portrait painter and, thinking it the opportunity he was looking for, Wright rushed back to Britain.
What could possibly go wrong? There was no doubt about his artistic genius. And Bath was teeming with rich potential patrons. But Wright lacked one crucial talent; schmoozing. He was absolutely incapable of smarming up to the aristos, slebs and hipsters of the day. So his studio remained empty and to fill in the time, Wright worked up into paintings the sketches of the amazing light effects he had seen in Italy - volcanoes in the South, fireworks in Rome. Word spread and soon the very people Wright had been hoping to attract as patrons were queuing round the block to see his pictures. So it all worked out in the end.
Had it not, Joseph Wright might have been interested in a recent ad in my local Spar. It was for a ‘Sandwich Artist’ in the shop’s Subway concession. The notice was on the wall by the till; as I fished out the money for my milk, I despairingly decided that it marked the moment when the term ‘artist’, endangered for many years, finally became meaningless.
“Are you looking at that ad for Sandwich Artist?” asked the till person. Gloomily, I confessed that I was.
“You would not believe,” my friend responded cheerfully, “how many conversations that starts.” It transpired that people had been coming in and laughing at the ad all week and anything that adds to the gaiety of nations can’t be bad. So I got over myself and cheered up. And now, along with the rest of the community, I’m watching the Subway counter with interest.