My favorite room
Wilbur Smith

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 45, Winter 2015

Page 64

My favorite room
Wilbur Smith

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 45, Winter 2015

Page 64

My favorite room
Wilbur Smith

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 45, Winter 2015

Page 64

Monet's water lilies in the Musée de' l'Orangerie are an unmissable panorama whenever the novelist Wilbur Smith visits Paris

I am cheating a bit, because there are two – the consecutive rooms in the Musée de l'Orangerie in Paris, where Monet's paintings of water lilies are really special. It is a peaceful, beautiful place, built in 1852 to house the orange trees in the Jardin des Tuileries over the winter, and which later became home to part of the national collection of contemporary artists.

I don't have a favorite room there, they complement each other. Monet had a big hand in how they were arranged – you can sit in the middle and just contemplate the panorama of water lilies – Les Nymphéas – willow branches, tree and cloud reflections.

Monet had been working on these paintings for years and donated them to the collection the day after the Armistice of 11 November 1918, as a symbol for peace. The oval rooms were specially built to house them and they were finally installed a few months after his death in 1921. The paintings are monumental: eight panels, each two meters high and spanning a total length of 91 metres.

I went to Paris for the first time when my first book came out in the 1960s, and that was also my first visit to the gallery. I grew up on my father's ranch in Zambia and was educated in South Africa, but I read frenetically about art, theater and culture in preparation for that visit to Europe. Whenever I could afford to go back to Paris, I would stay in the same little hotel opposite the Jardin des Tuileries, a 'cheapo' with an inexpensive restaurant next door. That was 50 years ago and I don't know what's become of it now. I used to wander around with a guidebook, visiting museums and galleries – and the Orangerie has stayed at the top of my list of beautiful places to see.

I love all the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists – Degas, Renoir, Manet, Cézanne and especially Monet. I've also visited his home and garden in Giverny with my wife, Mokhiniso. I'd love to own one, but they are a little beyond my price range. I collect paintings by South African artists such as Irma Stern – a flamboyant lady and prolific portrait painter who's very sought after now – and also by Alexis Preller, who traveled a lot in Europe and North Africa. I never write about art in my books, though, I stick to what I really know. But Africa is like a great gallery in a way, from the pyramids of Egypt to the Cape of Good Hope. It has everything – deserts, mountains, rivers and the sea. Nowadays, we spend half the year there and the other half in Europe: we don't do winters anymore.

When I write, I batten down the hatches, whether in Cape Town or London, where we have a flat. But I love traveling when I'm not writing, and we hop over to Paris on the train. A perfect day for us there is just wandering around, taking our chances – but always with a visit to the Orangerie. I never take anyone else there – I like to share it only with Mokhiniso, who loves the Monets as much as I do. I usually crack a lot of terrible jokes, which drives her mad, but I don't talk much when I'm there. For me, the Orangerie is a sort of spiritual temple.

Wilbur Smith's latest novel is Golden Lion (HarperCollins).

Musee de l'Orangerie, Jardin Tuileries, 75001 Paris; musee-orangerie.fr

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