Special report by Chris Graeme
NORMALLY, when one pictures lady ambassadors and ambassadors’ wives, they are sitting comfortably in Lisbon hotel conference halls, impeccably dressed in twin set and pearls, listening to a speech by a local government minister.
Picture this then…20 or so of the cream of Lisbon’s female diplomatic community with an easel and paintbrush, behind a potter’s wheel, up to their eyes in glue and papier maché, or perhaps running around Sintra with a camera in search of artistic shots. Could it be that, behind the sheltered and well-guarded palatial residences hidden among the bougainvillea, we have a troupe of Bohemian artists? Surely not!
But that’s exactly what’s happening and it’s all thanks to Fact Finders Artists – a well-heeled group who have an artistic streak – and this is no amateur game. The work on display at EPAL’s Museu da Água, at Príncipe Real, was of a very professional quality. And let me tell you, these ladies are taking it all very seriously, taking time out to have lessons at some of Lisbon’s most prestigious art institutes and colleges to make sure they make the grade.
This year, the ladies celebrate their 20th anniversary with a dazzling exhibition of paintings, ceramics, origami, photographs, jewellery and Portuguese hand-painted azulejos. Elsa Dry, Ambassador for South Africa and the group’s president, explains: “Our Fact Finders are not passive admirers of art and culture, but in themselves nurture the flame of a creative spirit. This exhibition of works of art by our members is an integral part of our celebrations to mark 20 years of existence.”
One such artist is Patricia O’Connor,wife of the Irish ambassador, Patrick O’Connor, who has been painting her own azulejos. She has been in Portugal since September 2001, but she first encountered Portuguese azulejos during a brief visit to Portugal in 1991. It is only in the past year, however, that she has been painting on them, while also becoming interested in working with mosaics.
Elsa Dry explained how the group got started. In 1985, Mrs Renée Pretorius, wife of the South African ambassador, invited a dozen friends and wives of colleagues from the embassy for lunch. “She proposed to organise a small group with the main purpose to get to know Lisbon and Portugal, Portuguese art and monuments, private homes, museums and exhibitions. She had been part of such an organisation called Fact Finders in Taiwan where her husband had been the ambassador,” she explains.
The group quickly grew as ladies from the diplomatic corps could automatically become members and, within the first five years, the group had organised 45 visits to places of cultural interest. It was such a success that many members who have now left Portugal still write at Christmas to say how much they are missing the Fact Finders’ activities and Portugal.
What next, I wonder? Perhaps the ladies from the diplomatic corps could be persuaded to tread the theatrical boards and put on a good old-fashioned Cole Porter show for charity at the Coliseu?