Trying to work out from which country Maro Gorky is expatriate is a puzzle. For more than four decades the painter and her husband Matthew Spender, a sculptor, have lived in rural Tuscany, creating and embellishing their house and garden on a hillside in Chianti so that it is an elaborate collaboration of their twin arts. “The Italians certainly consider me English,” says Gorky. “Our weird life to them is so un-Italian. We dress so badly for one, we don’t keep up appearances as they do – we don’t have the bella figura.” The Italians, according to Gorky, don’t like to show any cracks in the surface. “Our Anglo-Saxon attitude is quite different.”
Gorky’s parents came from cultural backgrounds that were poles apart. Her father, the Armenian abstract expressionist painter Arshile Gorky (a retrospective of his work took place in 2010 at Tate Modern in London), emigrated to the US as a young man, having lost his mother to starvation during the Armenian massacre in Turkey during the first world war. His early life was one of oppression and hardship. Her mother was from a well-to-do Bostonian family, with a naval officer father who had postings all over the world. Their life was one of comfort and privilege.
When Maro was five, Gorky took his own life and, shortly after, she, her sister and her mother left the US to live in Positano on Italy’s Amalfi coast. “Mummy was like a character in a Henry James novel,” says Gorky. “We rented beautiful houses in Italy, Spain, France then England and met hordes of interesting people. She loved to have a changing backdrop and a cast of thousands.”
One summer, on holiday in Crete, Gorky met Matthew Spender, son of the poet Stephen Spender, at the home of the neo-Romantic painter John Craxton. They have been together ever since, even while Gorky went to study at the Slade School of Fine Art and Matthew read history at Oxford. “We lived in a beautiful little flat in Percy Street [in London] that belonged to George Orwell’s wife Sonia – George’s old clothes were still in the attic.”
In 1968 the couple left England for Italy in search of a new life in the country. “We needed to escape from our parents in London,” she says. “Their networks were overpowering … ” Gorky says that she and her husband were sure, at the time, that anyone in Italy who worked the soil was a rustic philosopher.
At Avane, their Tuscan farmhouse, almost everything you look at is made or decorated by Gorky or her husband. There are mad, beaded chandeliers and lampshades, frescoed walls, painted furniture, and, of course, Gorky’s striking paintings and Spender’s serene sculptures. The couple’s daughters, Cosima and Saskia, grew up here, though both now live in London.
As a child Gorky painted with her father in his studio, where he let her dabble on the back of his canvases. He showed her books with illustrations by his favourite artists, Edward Lear’s nonsense poems and Gustave Doré’s drawings for The Divine Comedy. Now her own light-filled studio dominates the heart of the house. It’s not cut-off and sacrosanct, as one might expect, but at the centre of operations: a thoroughfare to several bedrooms.
Her paintings of Italy express a love of its landscape, yet she claims she could live anywhere. “I do love Italian Renaissance art and living in this countryside is just like inhabiting the background of one of those paintings. My favourites are Paolo Uccello, Cosmè Tura and Carlo Crivelli and I can see their work easily in the museums and churches here. However, I feel I have an imaginary internal landscape that could be triggered off by catalysts in many different places.”
“I couldn’t say I’m Armenian, American, British or Italian,” says Gorky. “I don’t feel a loss from not belonging to one country because I’m part of an international fellowship of artists that I can tap into wherever I go.”
‘The Geometry of Nature’, an exhibition of Maro Gorky’s paintings at the Long & Ryle Gallery, London, until April 13, www.longandryle.com
● Tuscans have a good sense of irony
● The standard of local craftsmanship is high
● The poor reputation of Italian politics
● Some Italians maintain an outer façade of perfection, which can be a barrier to deep friendship
What you can buy for …
€490,000 A restored 3-bedroom apartment with a garden in the market town of Gaiole in Chianti
€980,000 A renovated 4-bedroom, 3-bathroom Tuscan farmhouse set in 3.5 hectares of communal garden that includes a swimming pool and tennis court in a pretty rural setting 3 miles from the market town of Buonconvento
● Knight Frank International www.knightfrank.com/italy