Brenda Chamberlain: Postcard from Hydra

When the man she was having a love affair with was charged with murder of a tourist Brenda Chamberlain fled to a convent on the far side of the island of Hydra. It is one of the incidents caught in her record of seven years of island life in the 1950s now republished in the Library of Wales series.

Writer and publisher Lewis Davies climbs the island paths.


This morning I climbed the track up mountain to the convent. On the way up I stopped to talk to a man labouring on the construction of a new paved footpath up through the pines. He has worked in London in a restaurant while studying art at Goldsmiths College . He has work in a gallery in Piraeus but not here in Hydra. “It is difficult here, difficult to make a living, which is why I’m building this path.” He offers to show me some of his work. I am to meet him in his cousin’s bar this evening. “I will show you some work.”


The afternoon is cooling now and thick clouds rise above the mountains of the Peloponnese to the west. It is still warm enough to sit out on the terrace in a pair of shorts and write postcards. Hydra climbs up the hill from the harbour, much as Brenda Chamberlain described it in A Rope of Vines Journal from a Greek Island. More houses now probably, and boutiques on the front selling jewellery and art – but maybe they had boutiques in the 1950s here too.


Brenda Chamberlain arrived here in the early 1950’s fleeing an unhappy relationship and the failed fleeting promises of the art world. She was no stranger to islands having spent the previous seven years living on Ynys Enlli (Bardsey) at the end of the Llyn peninsular. She was an artist and a writer, her work had won awards and critical praise but she was still searching, perhaps looking for a place where she could settle for a few years, find a way through life.


It is the words that she wrote on these island exiles which draw me here. I remember being entranced by the magic realism of her work in Tide-Race. And it is the colours of her work in paintings on Bardsey which stand out, deep bold reds and blues, the self-portrayal of her and her French artist lover on a fishing boat, physicality and perception. On Hydra it is as if the shear force of sun bleached the colours from her work. She turned to work in pencil, stark, vivid line drawings. She drew Venetian houses, dark priests on donkeys, a cat sprawled on a terrace, a wine jug on a balcony.


And in the same time and space she kept a journal. The writing is spare, deliberately trying to capture the hard, sun shaped character of Hydra. She is trying to write herself into the island. She becomes involved with an islander who is charged with the murder of a tourist. She flees to the convent and the nuns offer her sanctuary. She writes as if it is an exile of years but she will only stay for a few days. The story is elliptical and never quite as true as it sounds.

The rooftops are tiled and still. There was a cockerel crowing earlier and this morning the disconcerting braying of donkeys carrying overweight tourists around the streets. I buy a bottle of cheap wine in a plastic bottle from the supermarket – four euros for one and half litres. It helps writing the postcards.


Lewis Davies is a writer, playwright and publisher. His most recent book is Love and Other Possibilities.

Brenda Chamberlain’s work on Hydra A Rope of Vines Journal from a Greek Island is available as part of the Library of Wales series.

A biography of Brenda Chamberlain: Artist and Writer by Jill Piercy will be published in 2012. Literature Wales will also be running a Literary Tour on Brenda in Autumn 2012.

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