De Francia, Peter (1 of 20). National Life Stories Collection: Artists' Lives.
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2000-02-24, 2000-03-23, 2000-05-15, 2000-07-20, 2000-08-11, 2000-09-28, 2000-10-04, 2001-02-14
Interviewee's home in London
De Francia, Peter, 1921- (speaker, male)
Roberts, Melanie (speaker, female)
Peter de Francia [PdeF] was born in the South of France, near Nice, on the 25th January 1921. His father's family were from Genoa, but were subsequently dotted all over the Mediterranean including Malta and Gibraltar, with the Genoese family all dying in an epidemic in the 1870's. PdeF knew little about his grandparents although he was told that his paternal grandmother had drawing lessons with Messonier. Because of the way that the war disrupted his life he also knew little of his immediate family. After living in Nice for two years, the next sixteen years of de Francia's life were spent in Paris. His mother was English and he was brought up to be totally bi-lingual which had the curious disadvantage of his being invited to fight for both Britain and France in the second world war. He moved to Brussels in 1939 where he lived on his own until the German's invaded in 1940, when he came to England and volunteered for the British Army. Little is recalled of his early years in Nice where he lived in Beaulieu sur Mer. PdeF describes living in a very large apartment in Paris, and remembers this time as being secure and happy, and having a very normal and enjoyable experience of home and school. He talks of having had little direct contact with his parents, leaving Paris for Belgium when his father died when he was sixteen, in order to study at the Academy there. He remembers the Academy building as being huge with massive rooms heated by coke stoves. PdeF talks about how little administration there was, with artists coming in looking like a stereotypical image of nineteenth century Academicians. He appreciated the freedom that the college offered. PdeF describes Brussels as a very provincial town. He recalls going to see James Ensor in Antwerp, describing the countryside as being very Breugel-lian commenting on Belgium's total lack of modern development at any level. Returning to his childhood, PdeF refers to his relationship with his parents as being normal but not intimate. He talks of having little connection with his father who was a lawyer. His mother was very English, kind and practical, but with no imagination and he demonstrates what he means by telling a story of his having escaped through Belgium under fire to be greeted by his mother in England with 'why haven't you shaved?'. PdeF says that his mother was born in North London but knows very little about her background or her childhood. He talks of un-lavish but regular entertaining taking place in the home. The apartment was in the 16th arrondisement . The extended family on his father's side was very rich and PdeF says that he avoided getting too close to them as he did not identify with their interests which were touring Europe and generally living a rich upper middle class life. His own home had 12 - 15 rooms and he remembers there being a full time cook. He can't remember his room, or having any toys, but does recall having books and drawing soldiers, trains and so on. Friends from school came to play in the afternoon and at the weekend. Peter de Francia remembers his parents being entirely at ease with each other, but not obviously having an intellectual life. He does not remember them reading very much but they gave him lots of books to read. He recalls a handsome edition of Jules Verne, and Robinson Crusoe. He is uncertain whether they selected these books themselves or were advised. PdeF thinks that his parents had no political views although he speculates that his father's family could be termed 'black reaction' by which he means very right wing, although he does not remember ever talking politics with them except in a very 'pussy footing' way. Referring to his father's not actively practising law but being connected to international companies in a legal context, he speculates that his father had little knowledge of his own father who lived in Geneva except that he was thought to have known Mark Twain. Peter de Francia says that he formed attitudes very early and that these were brought into sharp focus by the German invasion. This reminds him of the extraordinary number of rights of way across fields in Belgium. He goes on to describe in detail people fleeing across the very flat landscape during the invasion, and his own experience of escaping with fellow students from the architectural school in Brussels on bicycles. He refers particularly to a student called Kisselov who set up an architectural practice in Tel Aviv. Having talked about his sense of loss at not having strong early memories he sees this event as being central and vividly recalled likening it to the Dulle Gret by Breugel.