Stephen McGinty: Nice way to find your muse

Since the late eighteenth century, sun-starved Scots have found their inspiration in the south of France – including a long, illustrious line of writers and artists, finds Stephen McGinty

AT THE Hotel Windsor, a few brief blocks from the wide sweeping promenade in Nice, there lives a cockatoo in a garden shaded by orange trees. Looking down from the balcony you can just about make him out, hoping between perches in a most contented manner. For a couple of days last month I would gaze down on the cockatoo then up at the clear blue sky and ponder how nice it is to be in Nice.

When it comes to travel I have strict rules which I have learned to break at my peril. I like to travel in only two directions south and west. Just as there are those fortunate enough to only ever turn left when entering an airplane towards the soft cushions of First Class rather than the nylon wrapped rocks of economy, so, whenever I take off I prefer the plane to be heading west to America or south to France. Friends may extoll the virtue of the near east, and the Far East to which I tend to give a Larry David style “Meh”. Now, I do appreciate that in three letters I appear to have written off half the globe and it’s not that I haven’t travelled in the east – I’ve ticked off India and Singapore – I just have no burning desire to return.

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I simply know what I like, nah, love and have long since swooned into the arms of Marianne, the beautiful maiden who remains the symbol of the French Republic. And in this I am not alone. One day during my recent weekend in Nice, I visited the city’s oldest beach club Opera Plage, which dates back to 1889, and whose owner Michel Maiffret is a staunch Scotophile. It was a beautiful clear blue day filled with golden sunshine and the crystal waters were bracingly chill at first but soon provided a luxuriant warm wallow.

Later, as I lay out on the strangely tilted lounge chair, drugged by the sun into that delicious narcotic state of contentment where one is oblivious to the slow cooking of one’s flesh (I would be peeling strips of skin from my legs for weeks after) I began to ponder the Riviera Scots in whose wake so many of us now follow. Watching the fat men, the tattooed ladies and an army of fearless children tumbling into the surf, it became a point of national pride to think that the pioneer of swimming in the warm blue waters off Nice was a Scot, who, in 1764 was carried from his rented accommodation the two miles to the beach in a padded sedan chair.

Tobias Smollett can best be described as the father of the French tourist industry whose book Travels Through France and Italy (1766) inspired his fellow countrymen to explore the perfumed landscape safe in the knowledge that he had already chartered a course that pointed out favoured inns over those who would take advantage of a weary traveller. Or, at least, attempt to take advantage. When presented with a bill in Nice which he considered padded with illegitimate expenses he threatened to beat the innkeeper with his cane rather than meekly oblige him with prompt payment. While the host relented, this is an approach best avoided today.

Born in Renton, Dunbartonshire, in 1721, Smollett had, at first, fixed his eye on a career at sea as a ship’s surgeon, but the quill trumped the scalpel and instead he pioneered a living as a professional writer at a time when it was usually the hobby of men of independent means. His novel, The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle (1751) became a favourite of Charles Dickens, but it was the letters he wrote from France, later collected in a popular volume, that had the greatest impact. The bright sunshine of the south of France illuminated the darkest period of his life, as he and his wife had travelled after the death of their daughter. He spent ten months in Nice and described his accommodation as follows: “I have likewise two small gardens, well stocked with oranges and lemons, peaches, figs, grapes…When I stand upon the rampart and look round me, I can scarce help thinking myself enchanted. The small extent of country which I see is all cultivated like a garden…roses, carnations, anemones and daffodils, blowing in full glory with such beauty, vigour and perfume as no flower in England every exhibited.”

The beauty of the blooms were created by the judicious use of human compost with Smollett noting that from the privys of well-fed Protestants was prized more highly than that from underfed Catholics. At one point he thought of writing “a complete natural history of Nice” before deciding he had “neither the health, strength nor opportunity”.

Just over a century later another Scots writer became enchanted with the French Riviera. Robert Louis Stevenson travelled to Hyeres, a Mediterranean dream of russet-coloured roofs, in the hope that the dry warm climate would ease his tuberculosis, He wrote: “I was only happy once; that was at Hyeres”. Yet if the contrast between the cold, rain-spattered cobblestones of Edinburgh was appreciated by Stevenson in 1883, it was positively adored by the Scottish Colourists who were hypnotised by the region’s bright light.

JD Fergusson and his wife, the dancer Margaret Morris, whom he met in Paris, were friends with George Davison, a director of Kodak and were regular guests at his chateau at Cap d’Antibes, where Margaret held her summer schools and Fergusson sketched the lithe-limbed students. The bright sunlight of the Riviera, so beloved of painters such as Cezanne, whom Fergusson so admired that he kept a notebook and jotted down the composition of his palette whenever he visited his studio, is reflected in his paintings, but it shines brightest in a golden statue he crafted of Eostre, the Saxon goddess of spring which he said symbolised the sun’s triumph “after the gloom of winter”. (It is a description that I think is particularly apt for the Cote d’Azur, especially for we rain-sodden Scots.)

Samuel Peploe, meanwhile, painted in Cassis and George Leslie Hunter moved, in 1927, into the Colombe d’Or, the little restaurant with rooms in the hillside village of Saint Paul, where his work now hangs beside that of Picasso and other guests who paid their bills with oil and canvas. From his hilltop eyrie, he travelled down to the coast and sketched the landscape of Antibes and Saint Tropez. As he wrote to Alexander Reid, his agent, who paid him £600 per year for his work: “I know the coast now between Monte Carlo and Cassis and have made over one hundred drawings in colour.”

Today another Scots artist has made his home in Cap d’Antibes. Jimmy Boyle, the convicted murderer who reinvented himself as a successful sculptor has surrounded himself with petunias packed into earthen pots and black-eyed pansies and always the blue of the Mediterranean. Dotted along the coastline today are a collection of Scots. David Coulthard, Irvine Laidlaw and Ken McCulloch, the hotelier, are in the tax-haven of Monte Carlo, while Richard Emanuel, David Murray and Pete Irvine also have homes on the coastline.

The French Riviera has never been more easily accessible to Scots with direct flights from Glasgow and Edinburgh to Nice and Marseilles. In fact, France has been opened up with 6,500 seats on direct flights to the country each week. A far cry from the long and arduous journey by ship, coach and donkey endured by Tobias Smollett. What would he make of his countrymen, 600,000 of whom head to Paris alone each year, with Scots spending £300 million per year in France, or the equivalent of £400 per visit? Were he to return to Nice today there are certain elements that would be familiar and about which he wrote 250 years ago: “There is less rain and wind at Nice than in any other part of the world that I know and such is the severity of the air, that you see nothing above your head for several months together, but a charming blue expanse, without cloud or speck.”