Wednesday, 1 March 2017



‘Lamu, An Artist’s Impression’ (posted February 28, 2017)

By Sophie Walbeoffe,

Text by Errol Trzebinski & Julia Seth-Smith
Published by Herbert Menzer


Herbert Menzer may have arrived in Lamu by sheer happenstance, a serendipitous fluke that could easily be interpreted as his destiny. But ever since he ‘discovered’ what he says the guidebooks call ‘the jewel of Kenya’s coastline’, he’s come to spend increasing chunks of his life moving between his hometown of Hamburg, his other favored European city of Amsterdam and Shela, the fishing village on Lamu Island where he’s made for himself and a multitude of new and old friends, a home away from home.

Herbert has not only refurbished and restored old run-down Swahili homes, transforming a few into elegant little boutique hotels and five-star ‘flats’ that feature not just the classic Lamu doors, window frames and vedaka-embellished walls; they also include all the modern amenities that any sophisticated traveler would want to enjoy such as 24/7 electrical services, modern plumbing complete with hot showers and steam baths.

Herbert also commissioned the Kenya-based British artist Sophie Walbeoffe to paint a whole book’s worth of radiant watercolor paintings featuring his beloved Lamu Island. He gave her free reign to paint to her heart’s content, taking whatever topics she cared to touch upon.

Herbert wasn’t being glib or beguiled by this charming English lass. Indeed, he’d been an art lover all his life and had even introduced the Lamu Painters Festivals to the island in 2011 so that professional artists from Europe could discover the beauty and blissful serenity of Lamu for themselves.

No, Herbert had been looking for quite some time for the perfect painter to take up the challenge and help him realize his dream, of creating a beautiful book that embodied the spirit, magic and ineffable charm of the island including its heavenly fauna, flora and most especially its gracious and gentle people.

This is exactly what Sophie has done with her book, “Lamu: An Artist’s Impression”.

However, the book is so much more than an exquisite picture book of paintings that reveal everything from delicious dawns and colorful dusks, stunningly blue skies contrasted with bleached sandy beaches exposed periodically at every low tide.

Sophie clearly planted herself among the people, in their markets, outside their mosques, at their seafronts and in their narrow streets; she even climbed onto a dhow more than once so she could paint the shoreline from the perspective of the sea, all in an effort to capture the essence of the island in all its sun-kissed light and color.

But Sophie shares her book with two other outstanding artists, both writers with one providing a deeply researched (all-too-brief) history of Lamu going back to at least 800 BC and the other sharing delicious stories about some of the colorful characters who have lived, loved and helped to shape Lamu’s modern and contemporary history.

Julie Seth-Smith is the researcher-writer historian who provides the cultural, social and historical context for understanding how and why Lamu has come to be, look and feel like it does today. Hers is essential as the painter picks up on the visual as well as the intuitive which in Sophie’s case is infused with a long-standing love for the region, even after having traveled and painted all around the world. One can see her affection for all aspects of Lamu in both her watercolors and the delightful sketches apparently meant to mirror Julia’s texts and the topics she explores on the same page.

The other writer, Errol Trzebinski, includes marvelous anecdotal stories about mainly colorful colonial and post-colonial European characters, some of whom, like Yony Waite, are still alive and well. Meanwhile, a number of others, such as Bunny Allen, ‘Dougie’ Collins and Percy Petley who founded Petley Inn, are eccentrics who died some years ago. Yet Errol writes about all of them lyrically as if they are alive, well and being either wickedly outrageous, like Bunny, or winningly progressive, like Yony who managed to bring a second-hand ‘etching press’ all the way to Lamu by assorted means, including a dhow, so that not only she but other people, could create lovely prints using her press which is situated in Yony’s Wildebeest Workshop.

One of those who’s made use of Yony’s press in the recent past is Sophie, who isn’t only a watercolorist, but also a multi-talented oil painter, poet and print maker.

Errol writes about a whole range of whimsical topics in the book, including everything from cats and donkeys to historic shipwrecks and cowrie shells.

The one thing the reader needs to know is the Errol’s texts are in italics, on off-white paper and signed E.T. The rest are by Julia apart from two pages of ‘an artist’s impression’ by Sophie and the open words by the ‘Patron of [the] Lamu Painters’ Festival’, Herbert Menzer.

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