The Polish experience #1

In the early 70s I was a regular visitor on Saturdays to Portobello Road flea market. I loved old bric a brac and would scurry around window shopping.

I loved a small shop at the top end next to the bureau de change. It was a crazy mixture of quirky old objects and modern paintings, sculpture and flimsy cut paper hangings from Poland that swayed as you passed by as it was the post-era for fashionable mobiles. This little shop was an advertisement for their 'Centaur Gallery', Highgate Village, North London in a listed building having been the old abattoir decades before.

The owners, Jan and Dinah Wieliczko were colourful characters. They had a formidable third partner, German Jewish Rita Maseron originally from Berlin pre-1939, mother of Tom Maschler, the publisher and his wife, the acclaimed food writer and critic Fay Maschler. I befriended feisty Rita who was the representative for Gallery Five, the well established greetings card company in the 70s and also the Camden Graphics greetings cards, a company I would later supply with nostalgia images from my photo library Retrograph but by then, in the mid 80s, Rita had departed this world, like her partners.

 Dinah always wore wonderful vintage pill box hats and looked the business. Apparently she had worked for the London office of Christian Dior in marketing. Jan was a trained sculptor and artist who had fought side by side with the British airforce in WW2.  He always had a roving eye for the ladies and even asked me to sit for him in his Highgate studio at the art gallery. I declined.

One Saturday I espied an interesting small sculptural bench which would go well in my new flat at 8 Alexandra Mansions, a red brick Edwardian block in West Hampstead right on West End Green. Jan delivered the masterpiece explaining it had been made from oak and loving carved by an elderly Polish sculptor friend of his. Jan approved of my artistic intimate abode and so overnight I became a proper client and not just a time waster!

After that I was on the invitation list for their annual Midsummer party at their unique Highgate art gallery. All of London's Polish intelligencia were there including the feminist holocaust survivor film maker, painter and writer Mira Hamermesh who I ended up working for. From then on I was to meet older artists, writers, film makers and inspirational creatives over the coming years at Midsummer.

I had to dress up, bring a partner and a bottle of wine. Their younger son would open the heavy oak door to a resounding rat a tat tat on the lead knocker, take your handmade invitation and welcome you in, wearing Polish national shorts even when he became a teenager and felt foolish.  You had then entered the amazing large shop cum gallery full of paintings, antiques and quirky objects. Jan and Dinah lived in dark dismal tiny rooms above up a creaky narrow wooden staircase. Downstairs you passed into a hall which led to the old abattoir on hilly ground. Their property was immense and worth a fortune.

To the left of the hall was a closed door. Everyone knew that at 9.30 pm on the dot the door would open and every greedy piglet would rush in for the kill and gorge!  You could hardly reach the large table which would be groaning with the best Polish produce. This was my first experience savouring the sausages and charcuterie for which Poland is famous. Copious amounts of gherkins and other pickles, a host of Polish cheeses including the largest Brie I have ever seen, not to mention delicious orgasmic plum chocolates, plus a generous selection of light and dark rye bread. Jan's studio was above all the food, up more creaky stairs but I never ventured up to his lair.

Outside the pathway to the pigsties was lit with hundreds of candles creating a magical glow to the slopes of the garden which were full of Jan's wooden and metal sculptures. The actual pigsties were where the established Centaur Gallery was housed. Everything on offer was by Polish artists and sculptors and the exhibitions were changed every two or three months so there were always events and openings. An excuse for more cultural gatherings and merriment.

Outside, their eldest son Max, the budding solicitor, would be preparing the BQ in the  moonlight. Another eccentric, as his bed was housed in a real boat in his bedroom so I was told. The whole place was enchanting. Guests milled around chewing on tasty pork sausages and drinking copious amount of wine laughing and cajoling into the early hours of the morning. Outside was for social intercourse, dancing took place in the main gallery area inside at the witching hour.

It was there one year I met a delightful artist called Eva Bal from Krakow and Jacek Czeczot an art restorer from Warsaw. Both suggested I should visit Poland, despite being repressed and Communist in that decade. Between them everything would be organised with their families.

And it was!

Written in the Roman Boutique Hotel, Pafos, Cyprus, January 2017.


The river of angry dogs by Mira Hamermesh published 2004.
Review from The Independant on Google.