The writer and artist Brenda Chamberlain lived on the Greek islands during the 1960s. This week, the writer and traveller Brenda Squires visited Ydra and helped with Parthian’s international distribution by calling into the bookshop and newsagents on Odoz N. Votsi street just up from the harbour with a few copies of Brenda Chamberlain’s memoir of island life A Rope of Vines: A Journal from a Greek Island, first published in 1965, now republished in the Library of Wales series.
Brenda Squires, also an artist, has been working on a series of paintings of contemporary island life in her journal of travel through the Dodecanese before reaching Ydra.
"On an island without vehicles donkeys as carriers are everywhere. Laden with bottles, cans, vegetables and even building materials they plod in pairs behind their owners." - Brenda Squires
Brenda Chamberlain’s evocative line drawings which seem to capture the spare spirit of the island illustrate her journey into the heart of the culture at the time of great change in Greece.
She collaborated with other writers and artists, and wrote a play The Protagonist’s which seemed to criticise the slide into military rule under Papadopoulos in the late 1960s. It was a dark time for Greece with people jailed, tortured and murdered for their political opinions. The island of Ydra was a kind of haven for artists, bohemians and dreamers. Most didn’t stay long, a few weeks, a year or two at most before the intensity of the place seemed to exhaust them. There is a good account of this period in the island history in When We Were Almost Young: Remembering Hydra through War and Bohemians edited by Helle V. Goldman (Create Space).
Brenda had come to Ydra from another island, Bardsey or Ynys Ennli, a remote rock with a few farms a mile off the tip of the Llŷn peninsula in north Wales. It is a place long associated with religious pilgrimage. Born in Bangor in 1912, she studied art at the Royal Academy and established herself as an artist early in her career and won the Gold Medal for Fine Art at the National Eisteddfod of Wales twice. She exhibited widely and her luminous and absorbing Self Portrait, 1938 is on permanent display at the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff. It is a shining jewel in the pantheon of Welsh art. Her work should be more well-known and recognised. Her time on Enlli was captured in her work Tiderace (1962) now republished by Seren Classics. She had moved there with the French adventurer Jean Van De Riji after a short tempestuous first marriage to the artist John Petts with whom she had produced the Caseg Broadsheets featuring work by both Dylan Thomas and Alun Lewis.
Tiderace is wonderful evocation of a time and place while her description of crossing Bardsey Sound in rough weather is early example of magical realism in prose a long-time before the description was used to describe the boom in south American writing in the 70s.
Brenda would also write another memoir The Watercastle (1964) about a winter journey to visit a German friend she had corresponded with and who had visited her in Bangor. He was a minor count and had fled to West Germany to avoid the Russian advance which absorbed his family’s lands in the east of the country after the end of World War II. Brenda’s descriptions of a country in the grips a biting hard physical winter after the depredations of the war are a poignant portrayal of time and place. She also wrote poetry which is currently being prepared for a selected edition by Brenda Chamberlain’s biographer, Jill Piercy.
Brenda Chamberlain was forced to leave Ydra in 1970. She returned to Bangor and died in 1971. A plaque commemorating her life was placed at Ty’r Mynydd in Bethesda.
The biography Brenda’s life Brenda Chamberlain: Artist and Writer by Jill Piercy is being published by Parthian in paperback October 2019 and will be launched at the Crickhowell Literary Festival.
Brenda Squires is an award-winning writer, her novels Landsker and The Love of Geli Raubal are published by Starborn and Parthian. She is preparing an exhibition of her current work.
Parthian are offering an exclusive buy one get one free offer on Brenda Chamberlain's books in the Library of Wales through our website. The books are A Rope of Vines, which includes a foreword by Shani Rhys James and The Water-castle with a foreword by the poet Damian Walford Davies. Please add BRENDA as the offer code at the checkout on our website.