A priest, in a snowy white surplice and gold embroidered stole appeared in the kitchen doorway as we lunched on asparagus and pasta at Maro Gorky and Matthew Spender's Tuscan farmhouse. The two leapt up to greet an old friend with enthusiasm and a barrage of chatter. I'd never before had an interview interrupted by a benediction, but at Easter in Tuscany this visit by the local priest is an annual ritual.
Gorky and Spender came to live at San Sano, Tuscany in 1968. Gorky had been partly brought up in Italy where her family moved after the early death of her father, the brilliant Armenian abstract expressionist painter, Arshile Gorky. Spender was escaping the constraints he felt put upon him as the son of the poet Stephen Spender. Both are artists - Gorky a painter, Spender a sculptor - so they were able to choose their place of work.
At that time, the ancient share-farming system ("mezzadria") was coming to an end. The peasants no longer split the profits from their smallholdings with the owner of the land; they became salaried workers, and many of them moved into the villages. This meant that many rural properties were left abandoned and were eventually snapped up by canny people in search of a rural idyll or, later, converted by the landowners for the purposes of tourism ("agriturismo"). Gorky's mother discovered Avane - the house is named after the wild grass that grows in the area - but the couple soon took it over.
The farmhouse has a square central tower characteristic of the area and sits in a garden that incorporates the structure of the original terraces in its framework. "All we did was build steps down through the walls," explains Gorky. These terraces would have been built by the peasants from the 18th century onwards as they shaped the hilly landscape for agricultural purposes. Now they are studded with Spender's sculptures in terracotta and marble.
Figures, mostly female, are everywhere you look, lounging in the grass, seated on benches, standing between the olive trees and viburnum bushes. Sometimes naked, but mainly swathed in Roman-style garments, there is something primeval about them, though Spender says he uses family and friends as his inspiration. They have a strong presence, a spiritual, detached air which makes one feel rather apologetic for invading their idyllic setting.
Great hedges of rosemary line the terraces, flanked by huge clumps of euphorbia. Gorky divides her time between the garden and painting; the balance depending on which is vying for most attention at that moment, sometimes a veritable tug-of-war. However, she finds that the two are not incompatible. "Gardening is very good for painting because it teaches you patience." It also provides her with inspiring imagery for her art. "I love alien-looking plants - the weirder they are, the more I like them."
There are bushes of giant fennel, huge thistles ("the peasants who lived here 40 years ago used the flowers to make rennet") and wild allium - "I adore the abstract shape of the dark purple pompoms." She uses many of these shapes in her bold, striking landscape painting. The pines and cypresses surrounding the house are recurrent shapes in her work. "I don't see things in the round, I see everything flattened out already. My father trained me to see that way."
At the back of the house is a vine-covered pergola where meals take place in the good weather. Beside it is a mulberry tree with great spreading branches. "It's fabulous, everyone lies around it in the summer." From here you look down to Spender's studio, "his cathedral to the arts", at the time of my visit, still doubling-up as the "limonaia" (the place where lemon trees are kept in winter). The terrace outside the studio is littered with marble sculptures and dominated by a rather gruesome gallows-like structure which turns out to be a hoist for lifting marble pieces.
Behind the studio is the swimming pool surrounded by a low fenced area; "it's the only place where the plants are protected from the ravages of the porcupines and wild boar." The ground is densely covered with anemones in red, purple and blue, interspersed with wild sage, miniature euphorbia, scabious, blue flax and tiny geraniums. "I've spent a great deal of time and money buying plants that don't work here because we don't water anything. In the end, I realised that the native plants were the best ones to use."
This is a productive as well as a decorative garden, there is a huge vegetable patch. "We grow everything except potatoes which we buy locally," says Gorky. An orchard of fruit trees on either side of the drive provides cherries, plums, apricots, apples and pears. Spender's sculptures stand solemnly among them, inviting contemplation. The drive is bordered by a thick hedge of old-fashioned roses, "many of them were grown from sprigs of plants we found near abandoned houses many years ago."
A henhouse frescoed by Gorky stands nearby, definitely the prettiest chicken's quarters I've ever seen. Some of the eggs are used to make egg tempura, which Gorky is busy painting with at the moment. There are clear vistas down through the garden to the fields of olive trees and vines belonging to the house.
In the courtyard at the front of the building, a peacock struts in front of a cedar carving of Liv Tyler, the star of Bernardo Bertolucci's Stealing Beauty, a story loosely based on the Gorky/Spender household which featured Spender's sculptures.
In his second career as a writer, Spender produced a delightful personal memoir of his adopted homeland. Within Tuscany begins with the lines "we came to live near Siena on a whim, tired of the thin blue light of London town. A year or two, we said, not more, or else the hayseed will germinate in our hair and the red corpuscles in our blood will became silted with wine lees. We must have had feet which rooted easily." Even on a drizzly April day, it's not difficult to understand why.
Maro Gorky's paintings are on show at Long & Ryle, 4 John Islip Street, London SW1P 4PX (020 7834 1434) 11 May - 3 JuneReuse content