Memories of man with 'firework imagination'
He was one of South Shields' most colourful characters, a man who counted Picasso and George Bernard Shaw among his friends, and who ended his days here in the town.
He is Baron Avro Manhattan, an Italian-born aristocrat, who local film-maker Gary Wilkinson intends making a documentary about.
As part of his research, Gary has been in touch with a family friend of Avro’s, Gunda Kraepelin, who lives in Germany.
I mentioned previously in these pages that Gunda was hoping to shed more light on the life of the Baron, so here is her latest memories of the man.
“Avro Manhattan’s name when I knew him was Gardini. Here is the result of my thoughtful journey into the past.
“In 1930, when I was not yet a year old, my mother travelled with her children to Lake Maggiore, in Italy. My grandfather, the well-known German psychiatrist Emil Kraepelin, built a villa in the Italian country house-style for his family in 1908.
“Here I spent my childhood, and here I also met Gardini. He was then a radiant young man of about 20 years, attractive, head-to-toe from the sun, and always in a good mood.
“He was reserved and very modest in his demands. He always came dressed in the same uniform: a white shirt, white trousers, shivering around the slender figure, held together by a brown leather belt and worn, brown leather sandals.
“When Gardini appeared with his easel, somewhere along the lake shore, crowds of children and adults from the area gathered around him and marvelled at his ability.
“We children loved Gardini. We called him lovingly ‘our Marsucci’, perhaps in the childlike association with the Martians, of whom he knew such exciting stories.
“His imagination was simply limitless! My mother (who later told me Gardini was ‘the love of her life’) was a hobby painter and they painted together.”
At that, Gardini lived a few houses away from Gunda’s family, on the banks of the lake, with the famous Russian sculptor, Prince Paolo Troubetzkoy, whom he called his uncle.
“Otherwise,” adds Gunda, “he did not tell me about his family, and we did not ask him about it.
“Essentially, Gardini was financed by the low income from his painting, and occasional sales at one of his exhibitions.”
When he left Italy, the Baron moved to London, from where he wrote several letters to Gunda’s mother.
“Then he was silent for many years, and we did not hear of him,” added Gunda.
“In 1943, my mother moved us to Parma, where, at the Goethe Institute, she became a lecturer in German language. We stayed until 1944 before being forced to return to Germany on an adventurous journey through the effects of the war.
“Later I studied and became professor for microbiology at the University of Braunschweig, and then Berlin. Since 1993 I am retired and live today in Cologne.
“Recently I read one of Gardini’s books, written in 1936. It is in Gardini’s typically colourful language, an exciting firework of imaginative, never-ending imagination.
“It is very astonishing for me that Avro Manhattan is hardly known in England as a painter and one finds on the internet only some, little appealing, recent pictures of him. Not one of the beautiful, impressive pictures from his heyday as a painter at Lake Maggiore. For me, this lovable person remains our Marsucci, always alive in my memories.”