In good company

18 October 2013 | This 'n' that

Portrait of an artist: Joel Lehtonen, sketched by Pietro Annigoni in Florence, 1931. Picture: literary archives of the Finnish Literature Society

Portrait of an artist: Joel Lehtonen, sketched by Pietro Annigoni in Florence, 1931. Picture: literary archives of the Finnish Literature Society

Margaret, Countess of Snowdon (Princess Margaret, 1930–2002), Joel, Master of Putkinotko (1881–1934), and Philip, Duke of Edinburgh (born 1921) met in the same museum case in Florerence in October, when an exhibition of the work of the artist Pietro Annigoni (1910–1988) was opened.

The morganatic juxtaposition of the English royals and the Finnish writer is based on Annigoni’s reputation as one of the best-known portraitists of the 20th century, in whom the royal courts of England and Denmark, among others, placed their trust.

Joel Lehtonen, author of the novel Putkinotko (‘Hogweed Hollow’, the name also refers to a place) and classic of Finnish literature, is included on account of the fact that, in celebrating his fiftieth birthday in Florence in 1931, he partied throughout the night with students from the Accademia di Belle Arte ‘to the rhythm of an excellent Chianti’.

Also present was the young Piero Annigoni, who, in a cellar restaurant, took out his working tools. A red-chalk portrait of Lehtonen was the result, along with a series of dancing girls drawn in Indian ink. ‘It was five in the morning before I realised,’ Lehtonen wrote back to Finland.

Lehtonen had already spent a year in Italy in 1908 translating Boccaccio’s The Decameron, which, to his annoyance, was censored by the publisher. He published a volume of poetic prose based on his Italian experiences, Myrtti ja alppiruusu (‘The myrtle and the rhododendron’), of which one section is dedicated to Florence, that ‘glittering, passionate city of the spirit’.

Young Florentine artists were used to world-class artists. When the poet Dylan Thomas visited the city in the 1940s, the poet and author Luigi Berti – an acquaintance of Lehtonen’s – complained that ‘poets travelling in Italy no longer give themselves the airs of “milords” – behave like Lord Byron.’ Lehtonen, however, was able to party stylishly and thoroughly in a way that appears to have pleased the sons of Florence.

As he set off on the return journey to Finland, Lehtonen wrote to his wife: ‘An embarrassing day is over’, ‘I am in fine spirits! Heat the sauna.’ He brought with him Annigoni’s works, which are now in the archive of the Finnish Literature Society.

The curator of the Florence exhibition found more sketches of Lehtonen in the Museo Annigoni: in the current show, they are placed alongside sketches of Princess Margaret and Prince Philip.

The opening of the exhibition, in the premises of the Ente Cassa di Risparmio di Firenze, was attended by 300 of the city’s elite. It was as if the nobility of the portraits of the Uffizi art gallery had stepped out of their frames to honour Annigoni, whose paintings continued the traditions of the renaissance. The Corriere della Sera and La Repubblica gave prominent coverage to the event. The young politician and Florence mayor Matteo Renzi said in his speech that in northern Italy Annigoni’s significance to art is parallel to that of Olivetti to industry.

Annigoni’s early portraits of Lehtonen are shown in a section entitled Opere rare o inedited. The 240-page catalogue also includes brief description of Lehtonen as a writer and an account of that night in Florence in 1931.

Translated by Hildi Hawkins

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