Derek Hill, three monks, oil on canvas
Derek Hill, H.R.H.A. (1916-2000) Sketch for St Basil’s Church, Athos signed, inscribed and dated ‘Sketch for oil panel on wood of St Basil’s church/Chilandar/Athos/The panel stolen in Liverpool, Gatacre Pk Hotel Oct 1/82 + 7 other small landscapes/Derek Hill’ (on the backboard).
Jim Lees Milne made a journey to Mount Athos with Derek Hill. After the usual Greek busses and rocking boats stuffed with peasants and their livestock, there were customs and form-filling, Derek telephoning an important monk to little avail. Once on the magic mount the horror of the expedition became clear. Carrying heavy knapsacks, they struggled up steep rocky paths to the monasteries. They slept in dormitories with other pilgrims, in iron beds with dirty, hairy rugs. They washed in a trickle of cold water in a filthy basin with no plug. The lavatories were so terrible that Jim remained constipated. The refectories produced beans floating in oil and hunks of dry bread; no butter or eggs because cows and hens are forbidden on the sexist mountain. The few decrepit monks prayed all night, the churches were too dark for a glimpse of Byzantine treasures, and they were not allowed to see Mary Magdalen’s left hand, though an icon which had come on a beam from Palestine, taking 300 years, they did see. Tourists were few, and the beauty of Greek mountains and sea and ruins was like living in a Claude. But they squeezed themselves with alacrity into a jeep full of monks, to avoid a tiring climb. Sharp turns and bumps made the monks fall in heaps, losing their tall hats, their buns of hair coming down; it sounds worse than a vaporetto in the Venice rush hour. One monastery offered lumps of delicious Turkish delight: Derek took two. Jim liked the pious atmosphere, unchanged since the sixth century. But what about the jeep and the telephone? Robert Byron loved it 70 years ago despite fleas, but he was in his twenties.