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Sunday, 15 December 2013

An artist in Albania

I have just finished reading Edith and I , a book written by Elizabeth Gowing. I have reviewed it on https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/733589531 . It is about the life of Miss Mary Edith Durham (1863-1944), and concentrates on her visits to the area of the Balkans that is now the Republic of Kosovo. Miss Durham is known affectionately by modern Albanians, whose cause  she championed before and after the First World War, as Mbretëresha e Malësoreve  (the 'Queen of the Mountains'). 

Until I read Gowing's book, and then looked up Durham on Wikipedia, I had not realised that Miss Durham had been trained as an artist and illustrator long before she embarked on her travels to the southern Balkans. Long ago, I acquired an early edition of Durham's book entitled High Albania. It is a brilliantly written account of her travels in the rugged mountains of northern Albania  and neighbouring Kosovo and of the people whom she met there. 

I took a fresh look at my copy of High Albania, and realised that its author was indeed a fine illustrator. The rest of this article is dedicated to presenting a few examples of Durham's hand-drawn illustrations in her book. Her attention to detail was marvellous, as was her ability to capture the 'atmosphere' of a place. Despite the presence of her own photographs in her book, it is the drawings that help to make it really special.

Of this picture, Miss Durham wrote, "To study head tufts one must go to church festivals. Only then are a number seen uncovered."

The two pictures shown above are of anthropological and/or ethnographic interest. It is not surprising to learn that Miss Durham's inherent ability to observe the characteristics of people and to report on them scientifically was recognised by the Royal Anthropological Institute (of Great Britain & Ireland) who appointed her a Fellow of it. The next 2 pictures illustrate Durham's skills in capturing both great detail and also the genreal  'atmosphere' of places that she visited.

The first of these two shows the interior of a house in Skreli, in the northern highlands of Albania. The crosses drawn on the wall next to the hearth indicate that the house was home to some of the many Albanian Roman Catholics who lived in the area. The second of these, the kavajee or coffee-maker, shows him holding the jezva, in which Turkish-style coffee is brewed, in one hand and the cup into which it will be served in the other.  The next picture shows Durham's skill in depicting architecture.

The drawing above, although very competent must have been drawn at speed, as the accompanying text, which I have copied, suggests. It shows a couple of kulle or fortified tower residences that are not only typical of the lands inhabited by Albanians but can also be found in the Mani Peninsular that projects from the southern Peloponnese (see my picture below). 

As Gowing's book relates much about Durham' s visits to Kosovo, I have decided to include some of the pictures from High Albania that were drawn whilst Edith was there. Here is one showing a Serbian woman from Ipek carrying a cradle on her back:

And, here is another one showing two of the fine frescoes inside the Serbian monastery at GračanicaGraçanicë), not far from the Kosovan capital as well as the site of the Battle of Kosovo Polje where the Serbs were narrowly defeated by the Ottoman army on the 15th June 1389. 

Today, visiting the monastery is not as simple as it was when I visited in 1990 (see my recently published book about Yugoslavia Scrabble with Slivovitz - click here ). When Elizabeth Gowing visited it, the Serbian monasteries in Kosovo had become like tiny rocks in a vast sea of Albanians. Surrounded by razor wire fences and guarded by heavily armed militia to protect these islets of  Serbian culture from the Albanians, who rightly or wrongly lose little love for the Serbs, entry to them is subject to intensive identity checking and might be denied. The last of my examples of Durham's drawings brings us back to northern Albania, which is the main subject of High Albania. It shows an old man of Shoshi, which is somewhere north of Albania's River Drin that flows towards its mouth near to Shkodra.

I hope that this small sample of illustrations drawn by the intrepid  Edwardian traveller Mary Edith Durham serve to demonstrate her skills as an artist and illuminator.

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