A tale of two Nigels

Dear Reader, please meet Nigel. No, not Nigel F., the one you’ve seen on telly, but Nigel K., one of the many who will suffer the consequences of the other’s politics. Yes, alas, this is about Brexit.

Nigel Konstam, like the other one, has been an inspiration to many. He already was a well-known sculptor in 1970s Britain before moving to Tuscany in 1980, not long after the UK had joined what would later become the EU – a pioneer of Freedom of Movement, as we now know it. He literally built his life there, in a small town that time seems to have forgotten, Casole d’ Elsa: he bought a derelict granary, which had once been used by the local nobleman to collect his taxes in kind from the peasantry, gutted and rebuilt it. He turned it into the Verrocchio Arts Centre, a home away from home and studio for himself and a stream of painters and sculptors who come from afar for workshops or residences. Choral workshops were added in 2010, which is how I came to know and love the place and its people. I’ve been back every year.

The Centro is, among other things, a business that must pay its way through the hard work, skill and artistry of Nigel K. and his small team. Surely the other Nigel would be proud of his British entrepreneurship. Like the granary in which it is housed, the Centro has had lean years, but it is doing okay these days. Visitors join a non-profit membership association, and there is an income from course fees and the artfully simple on-site accommodation, topping up money from commissions and sales of Nigel’s art. In turn, the Centro employs local staff: Caro, who manages the place with quiet efficiency and is a painter in her own right; Loredana, the resident culinary artist, who will feed glorious Tuscan food to any number of guests. Some of the longer-term artists in residence work in return for room and board. No one will get rich from this labour of love and beauty, but the books somehow balance, for now.

The Centro, as it is known locally, probably has one of the most-painted views of any Tuscan landscape in the past century. Its foundation must have contributed immeasurably to the town’s efforts to turn itself into a local hub for the arts, making Nigel K. a pillar of his community. Nowadays, the mediaeval centre of Casole abounds with Nigel’s own statues and other artwork, much of it modern. The local Osteria runs a series of jazz gigs, the main street has several galleries of locally resident artists (one hails from Berlin), and the town square and church play host to concerts in various genres. By such attractions, this hidden gem of a place has attracted a pleasantly modest stream of tourists and become home to a community of retired British expats.

Despite his status as a local hero in a foreign place, Nigel has remained quintessentially English, with an appealing combination of dash and eccentricity. In his work, he is a conservative iconoclast, cleaving to the traditional notion that art originates in observation rather than self-expression. His hero is Rembrandt, not Hirst; he has never been a member of the metropolitan art elite, nor would he want to be. His Centro houses the “Museum of Artist’s Secrets” where, for years, Nigel has puzzled out ways in which classical and Renaissance artists did their work, with implications that have either been ignored by most art historians or infuriated them. Did Rembrandt use mirrors to duplicate his models, and have art historians mis-attributed much of his work? Did the Greeks develop the classical style of sculpture by casting from life, and did the foundry underneath the Acropolis that was used for this purpose pollute the Acropolis so much that half of the Elgin Marbles off the Parthenon were later Roman copies? Like that other Nigel, this one will hold forth on his passions, articulated with deep intensity in crisp, sonorous RP. Unlike the other one, this Nigel may prove right.

Nigel K. doesn’t do party politics, and he doesn’t talk much about Brexit, nor indeed about himself. His life, I guess, is too full and interesting to be thus preoccupied. On my last visit, in August, I asked him about what would happen to his life and work after Brexit. He was not altogether sure himself. I am no expert, but I knew enough to ask some questions. His prospects were not looking great to me – and of course, as a long-term ex-pat, he had no vote in the matter. Worse, his circumstances are such that he cannot hedge or defend against the hazards on his path.

The stone and polymers that Nigel uses for his sculpture nowadays are sourced in the region, so that won’t be a problem. In Tuscany, he will have fewer concerns about food security than the average Brit may face if Brexit happens without a deal. But his business faces tougher times, at best.

Nigel’s paying guests are an international crowd. Many come from the UK, the rest mainly from other EU countries and the wider English-speaking world. Will British residents, their purchasing power eroded by the post-referendum slump in Sterling, be able to afford their stays at the Centro if their currency weakens further? Perhaps not. His British guests, friends and family may end up needing visas. Nigel’s own bank accounts and cards may be affected by the UK’s loss of passporting rights, and his visitors’ bank cards may no longer work at the local cash machines. As a British citizen in the EU, Nigel will retain the right of residence in Italy under the draft Withdrawal Agreement, but he will lose his freedom of movement (hindering any scholarly visits to the Rijksmuseum) and the right to do business in other countries. Will he be able to accept payment from his Dutch guests? Will the informal arrangement by which much of the Centro’s business is run from the UK, by a family member, survive the loss of the UK’s single-market membership? How about the visiting workshop leaders, whose lives and incomes generally are UK-based – will their work at the Centro become illegal, buried in red tape, or rendered unprofitable by dual taxation?

Nigel K. is now in the 8th decade of his life. His artistic legacy is secure, being literally carved in stone. He is unlikely ever to want to retire and draw on his pension, if he has one, so the provisions for international transfers of pension benefits across EU state lines are moot. He is active and eats well, but his health could be better nonetheless. Is he relying on British private health insurance or an EHIC card, which would cease functioning after Brexit? I don’t know, and I did not wish to pry. I cannot imagine him moving back to the UK, either. He has too much integrity to have gone native, yet he seems to have become too much part of what he has built abroad to establish another life now back in Blighty without sacrificing too much of his spirit.

I left our shared dining table on the Centro’s patio, and a few days later the Centro itself, with sadness and apprehension. My concerns for the life that Nigel had built in his adoptive home would need to be addressed in any Brexit deal now under discussion, and even more so if no deal is reached. The storm clouds over the Centro were no longer only the natural ones, which mark the national holiday of Ferragosto and the end of the summer in these parts.

Brexit, as is now increasingly plain, is a project by a section of the British political elite, abetted by international players, yet it makes hay of populist anti-establishment sentiment. In Nigel K.’s world of art and artists, the binary categories, in which such matters are framed by Nigel F. and his ilk, become hopelessly tangled. Nigel K.’s art is built on deep skill and understanding, yet he works with his hands. He is rich in spirit, but probably not in monetary terms – again, I did not pry. He is a small-town resident whose daily life seems entirely unburdened by luxury, but whose status as an artist might mark him as a member of the metropolitan elite. He is very much a citizen of somewhere, albeit that he is not resident in his country of birth. Over the course of his life’s work, Nigel has had much influence in his immediate sphere, while being disregarded by the Establishment in his field. He is a man of considerable personal presence, with a unique legacy, yet with regard to Brexit he is merely another bargaining chip, moved around or tossed aside by forces beyond his influence. His life, which has been beyond class and politics, matters not one jot to those who are now failing to serve their country and citizens in government, yet it will be a unique snowflake in the avalanche of collateral damage that will be left in their wake. His fate is shared with the other 5 million who will find themselves on the wrong side of the Channel in six months’ time, yet Brexit truly is personal.

Robert Busch is a scientist at the University of Roehampton and an amateur choral singer. Twitter @robert_busch65.

The Verrocchio Arts Centre is at http://www.verrocchio.co.uk/cms/index.php.

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