Emma Tennant: 'The Argentinian estancia I lived on 50 years ago had much in common with lockdown'

Emma Tennant
·4-min read
Emma Tennant hard at work in her studio - Ben Wood / Island images / Copywright Hermatige Rugs
Emma Tennant hard at work in her studio - Ben Wood / Island images / Copywright Hermatige Rugs

In 1964, recently married and eager for adventure, my husband Toby and I took off for South America. He had always wanted to be a farmer and reckoned that, if cattle breeding is your thing, the Argentine is a good place to learn. There are millions of cows there. So he went to work for an international cattle-ranching company and I came along for the ride.

We lived on a very remote estancia in the province of the Chaco, otherwise known as Green Hell. The subtropical climate was intensely hot and humid, and the mosquitoes were fearsome. The calves were sometimes so badly bitten that they died from loss of blood.

Home comforts were few and we only had intermittent electricity. In the evenings we read by paraffin lamps and I cooked on a primitive wood-burning stove. But we enjoyed the challenge. After all we were looking for adventure, and that is what we found.

Christmas was tricky. We missed church, there was none in reach. December was one of the hottest months of the year. The nearest town, miles away, was a dusty one-horse place with hardly any shops. 

During her time in Argentina, Tennant would paint 'Margarita del Campo' as they appeared in their thousands after rain - Lalalimola 
During her time in Argentina, Tennant would paint 'Margarita del Campo' as they appeared in their thousands after rain - Lalalimola

We learnt the luxury of limited choice. An aged Russian refugee, who told tales of his childhood in Czarist days, kept a market stall where I found an old silver-mounted bridle for Toby, who spent most of his time on horseback. He gave me a beautiful butterfly which he caught out on the savannah.  For Christmas lunch I made ice cream with brandy, nuts and raisins, a sort of Chaco version of Christmas pudding.

I was already interested in botany and in painting. Luckily I took my paintbox with me. One beautiful pink flower used to appear by the thousand after rain. It was called locally the 'Margarita del Campo' - literally the 'Daisy of the Field', though anything less like a daisy is hard to imagine. Only when I returned to Britain did I discover that the 'margarita' was Habranthus robustus and that it was a member of the Amaryllis family. Nowadays I grow it in the greenhouse as a reminder of hot, but happy, days in Green Hell.

Tennant's Christmases are now far more traditional, in Scotland with her family - Ben Wood / Island images / Copywright Hermatige Rugs
Tennant's Christmases are now far more traditional, in Scotland with her family - Ben Wood / Island images / Copywright Hermatige Rugs

Looking back after more than 50 years, it strikes me that life at La Aurora, The Dawn, as the estancia was called, had much in common with lockdown. There was virtually no social life. We quickly learnt to speak very bad and very rural Spanish but we found it difficult to communicate with the local people, most of whom were Guarani Indians who spoke their own language. We had no car so travel was very difficult.  We were thrown back on our own resources. Our unusual Christmas was a memorable one.

Christmases at home in Scotland since with our children Isabel, Eddie and Stella (and now with their children too) have felt opulent by comparison but luxury comes in many forms.

Habranthus robustus painted last year - she grows them in her greenhouse as a reminder,  - Emma Tennant
Habranthus robustus painted last year - she grows them in her greenhouse as a reminder, - Emma Tennant

As a family we enjoy a traditional Scottish Christmas and we are lucky that our children and grandchildren live nearby. For me, it can't be traditional enough. Church in the morning, our home produced beef for lunch with vegetables from the garden and a walk after the Queen's speech. We open stockings after breakfast and presents at tea time. 

I give books every year bought from Heywood Hill, the wonderful book shop, run by my nephew by marriage, and from the equally wonderful Forest Bookstore in Selkirk run by Alan Harknes and his wife.

This Christmas I am exhibiting my botanical watercolours together with my daughters Isabel and Stella's (Tennant and Tennant) gilded panels and William Plumptre's ceramics at the Billiard Room Gallery near Skipton.

For further details contact Katie Pertwee on 07939 155 277. Emma's recent publication An Artist's Journal of the Plague Year (2020) is available as an e catalogue from katie@katiepertwee.com

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