The art of the swimming pool

Lou Stoppard on the pool as a literary, cultural and artistic inspiration

Swimming Pool, 1984, by Franco Fontana
Swimming Pool, 1984, by Franco Fontana | Image: Franco Fontana/Courtesy of Baudoin Lebon, Paris

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On an achingly hot Tuesday in July last year, the pool at La Colombe d’Or in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, in the south of France was, as always, 27 degrees. The consistency in temperature is advertised by a small metal sign below the hotel’s reception booth.

There are many beautiful pools in the world, but a strong contender for the loveliest is this one. Notable both for the perfect hue of its green tiles and the Calder mobile that overlooks it, sitting inches from the edge of the shallow end and which gracefully turns as holidaymakers swim – the setup is popular Instagram fodder for guests such as myself. 

Inside the hotel, artworks by Picasso, Matisse, Miró and Chagall are scattered as if insurance matters are meaningless: gifts from the artists to the hotel’s founder, Paul Roux, a Provençal farmer who, in 1920, opened what was once a small inn and restaurant.

Swimming pools off Miami Beach, Florida
Swimming pools off Miami Beach, Florida | Image: Courtesy of Alex MacLean

Outside, guests arrange themselves with precision; the process of selecting a pool lounger – dark wood, furnished with an orange cushion – is key to the enjoyment of the day. There are just under 50 loungers, ordered neatly around the water. Two sit each side of the Calder, but are prone to dampness due to splashes from the shallows. By breakfast time on this particular day, nearly all the beds had been claimed with books as guests staked out their spots – some had nipped down from their rooms in dressing gowns to hurl something on a bed before heading in for coffee. By the diving board was a copy of The Great Gatsby, a book in which the pool is full of symbolism – a looming reminder of the emptiness of wealth, the illusive nature of fulfilment. On another lounger sat a lightly thumbed copy of On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong.

Guests arrived in floral kaftans, heeled wedges, Prada boat shoes. The famous ones wore the largest sunglasses. By 10am, only eight beds hadn’t been claimed. The pool boy, barely a teenager, paused between collecting Diet Coke orders and supplying towels to read Oliver Bowden’s Assassin’s Creed. In the water, three Swiss children played a frenetic game. A twentysomething in a green bikini arranged her summer reading, Lisa Taddeo’s Three Women, on top of an Apple statue by the Swedish sculptor Hans Hedberg, snapping pictures on her iPhone. Out front, lunch had begun. Waiters oscillated between reverence and rage as they struggled to comprehend the whims of diners. “Plus de pain!” “Rien?” “Tarte de la mère Roux!” It was a familiar dance, a daily tussle, a great performance. Beyond the bar, a small rope cordoned off the pool.

Later, as I floated on my back, looking up at the sun, an elderly man in striped shorts entered the water with a mask and snorkel. He swam determined lengths, his arms smacking the water like landing salmon. His partner, a timid woman, stood near the steps, hesitant. “Come on,” he goaded, pausing between lengths. “It’s fine once you’re in.”

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I have swum in various ways. As a child, I did so to be good, to try hard, to achieve. It was an activity my parents considered suitable, and so, a few times a week, we drove to an unremarkable pool in an unremarkable town and I whizzed back and forth like a wind-up toy. Later, I’d go to sleep, hair dripping wet, with a faded towel over my pillow. I trained myself to respond instantly to the sound of the gun. I learnt the strange body arcs required of butterfly, the flicks of the tumble-turns, the fearlessness needed to keep holding your breath for one more stroke, one more reach, one more second. I was fast, but not fast enough to make it further than my county, so, as with most childhood hobbies, it was put aside for ambitions with more measurable goals – deadlines, rewards, some promise of remuneration. I went to university and barely swam. 

A few years later, in Italy with a friend, having pedalled a tiny plastic boat out to sea, a case of beer slung on the back, I discovered suddenly that I was desperately afraid of deep water. Drowning wasn’t the concern – it was the thought of what could be lurking. Soon, the fear had extended to the pool. In the deep end, I found my eyes darting around, alert to any shadowy forms. I decided to deal with it in the same way I deal with everything in life – by blindly throwing myself in. I hurled myself into ponds and pools and seas in the hope that my anxious breath would eventually settle. And eventually, I learnt what it is to swim for pleasure – to feel a calm solemnness underwater. To escape to the water, rather than just to move through it.

Now, whenever I find water, I swim. I swim to think. I swim for quiet. I swim for the comfort of monotony – the lull of the repetitive strokes, the back and forth, the containing space, all uniform tiles and straight, firm edges. Sometimes, I swim to socialise. But mostly, I swim to be truly, truly alone. I spend what some would consider to be an eccentric amount of time doing this. 

The Swimming Pool by Deanna Templeton
The Swimming Pool by Deanna Templeton | Image: Deanna Templeton/Courtesy of Gallery Fifty One

Often, I have realised, one swims in the hope of finding a moment’s clarity. One hopes, sometimes, that the world will have changed during your spell under water – troubles will have dissipated, order will have been found, difficulties forgotten. Perhaps, when you grasp that smooth metal ladder and pull up, all will be well again. I have come to find that, while the pool will never be a time machine, or a portal to a better life, usually it does take you to an easier place. When you get out, time has passed, you’ve moved through a new state, your breathing has changed – you’re a new person, even if only slightly.

There has been a fashion of late to sing the praises of “wild swimming” – of brisk, rejuvenating laps around chilly lakes and rivers. As a London resident, surrounded by pollution, people and ever-multiplying vape shops, I understand the impulse to be near nature. I am a regular at the Hampstead Ladies’ Pond, where I frequently emerge with skin scarlet from the cold, mud slicked across my belly and thighs. Praise is less frequently bestowed upon the pleasures of hotel pools, yet I particularly savour the delicious loneliness of swimming solo in some new place, among strangers. The hotel pool, whether a clinical aqua rectangle in need of renovation or a marble-lined tub of luxury, is resolutely unwild; it is polite, it is ordered. It is a strange bunker – blocking out the world and all its trouble. 

In these moments, swimming alone with other transient beings, I am, I imagine, Bill Murray as Bob Harris in the pool of the Park Hyatt Tokyo in Lost in Translation: despondent, jet-lagged, buckling under the pressure of high expectations, unwelcome commitments, and infinite choices. I am Dustin Hoffman as Ben, floating in the pool in The Graduate: I am drifting. Always, I am Neddy Merrill in John Cheever’s The Swimmer, moving endlessly from pool to pool, the delight of the blue an easy distraction from anything else less than perfect, anything troublesome, tricky or inevitable. The fluidity of the water is a tonic. When life gets too much, I disappear below the surface – uncontactable, privy only to the rush of moving water in my ears as I push off the side, and the familiar slap of my hands on the surface as my stroke beats on.

The seaside swimming pool at Albatroz Beach & Yacht Club in Madeira
The seaside swimming pool at Albatroz Beach & Yacht Club in Madeira | Image: Diogo Jardim

Particularly perfect for solo laps is the pool at the Four Seasons hotel in downtown New York. At 75ft (23m), it is long and lean, like many of the polished guests who mill around the hotel dressed in tones of grey and taupe, matching the pool’s marble. I swam there one drizzly October afternoon, the lifeguard quietly pacing the length of the pool alongside me. “No breathing contests”, read a sign behind his stool. The shallow end has black crosses mosaiced into the edge – a nice target for a satisfactory hit as one reaches the end of each lap. On the floor, the mosaics run in three long black lines, serving as elegant versions of a lane rope. An underwater speaker played something rousing enough to motivate me to keep going. Later, as others on the streets below hurried home from work and tourists wandered by the neighbouring One World Trade Center and 9/11 memorial, I lay alone, on a plush wooden lounger topped with a marshmallow-like cushion, and thought about nothing. I felt numbed, both by the water and the muting pleasantness of the surrounding, unblemished good taste: no stains, no marks, no shocks, no surprises. The temperature wasn’t overly hot. It felt like a pool for swimming, not floating. And the vague chilliness reflected the similar coolness of the luxury – the precisely folded white towels, the perfect smooth surfaces, the quiet voices of the ever-so-pleasant spa workers. I left feeling very clean.

A few blocks uptown, The Greenwich Hotel has a lantern-lit pool. One can lie beneath the wooden beams of a 250-year-old bamboo farmhouse, imported from Japan and erected beside the water. Outside, New York is still New York – the traffic horns, the piles of trash, the smoke from the grates, the rats, something curious or interesting around every corner – but in here, everything is still.

In London, buildings house pools like secrets. Hotel Café Royal’s Akasha pool and spa sits just metres from Piccadilly Circus. Picturing the masses outside heightens the solitary pleasure of lapping the water in silence. By Knightsbridge station, five floors down, is the 25m pool at the Bulgari Hotel – the largest hotel pool in central London. Glass columns run the length of it, reflecting the light. When swimming, shimmering mosaics on the floor catch the eye – the water seems to sparkle as if under the sun. A staff member informs me that guests have gone on to have the pools in their homes modelled on this one. Next to the main pool is the “vitality pool”, which is small and warm and covered with gold-leaf-glass mosaic tiles. A waterfall can be activated by pushing a button. I bob along the bottom, watching my hands wrinkle.

The pool at La Colombe d’Or, Saint-Paul-de-Vence
The pool at La Colombe d’Or, Saint-Paul-de-Vence | Image: Nicholas De Lacy-Brown

The pool at The Langham is neat, small and bright blue. Under the watchful eye of a discreet security camera, I swam 20 lengths, vaguely aware of the rumbles of Regent Street outside. My goggles fogged after three laps and the bright underwater lights at the end of the pool became like Daisy Buchanan’s green light across the bay – vague, flickering, drawing me back. The Langham pool is built inside an old bank vault, a staff member said. “Some guests joke that they are swimming in money.”

In 1974, Laurie Colwin wrote a short story titled Wet. In it, Carl grows violently jealous of his wife Lucy’s love of water. He learns she has been swimming every day in a Chicago pool without him knowing: “Walking home, he decided to confront her, but he could not arrange a question that was neither accusatory nor whimpering, and he could not articulate the source of his pain. Was it that she swam, or that she didn’t tell him?” He follows her, he attempts to swim with her, his jealously remains. He lies in bed awake, as she sleeps: “What had grieved him was simply a fact: every day of her life she would be at some point damp, then drying, and for one solid time, wet.”

It’s not totally irrational to be jealous of the pool, of a loved one’s taste for the allure of swimming. So private is it, so routine, and often so freeing, that it is no wonder that those close to us swimmers could feel rejected in favour of it – are we escaping them? Where do our real loyalties lie? The French poet Paul Valéry wrote: “To plunge into water, to move one’s whole body, from head to toe, in its wild and graceful beauty; to twist about in its pure depths, this is for me a delight only comparable to love.” 

Alain Capeillères’ pool in Six-Fours-les-Plages, Var
Alain Capeillères’ pool in Six-Fours-les-Plages, Var | Image: Romain LaPrade and Villa Noailles

Swimming, like love, is hard to pin down. Its appeal is slippery – difficult to explain – and the sensation is near impossible to put into words without resorting to clichés. The feel of being in water is so familiar, a return to a womb-like state, yet also so unusual, so exotic, so erotic, sometimes, that attempts to describe its multiplicity tend to fall short. Yet throughout history, the pool has attracted so many who seek to capture it, whether in film, painting, literature or image-making. At points, one feels hard pushed to find a photographer who hasn’t captured one at some point. Many are moved by the theatre of swimming – the action that happens not in but around the water: the posing, the preening, the pool parties. For them, it is a movie set, ready for action. To some, often male photographers, the pool is an excuse for lithe bodies, undressed for summer fun. To them, the pool is bikinis and tan-lines, cocktails and kisses, curves and bright white teeth and summer romance – it’s Phoebe Cates as Linda in her red bikini in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Yet for others, the pool is about an emotional, rather than physical, state – an idealised version of a mind, undisturbed, open, serene. The pool can be gritty, a place of past glory. It can be sombre, silent. It can be a shining symbol of everything you ever wanted – time, style, wealth – or the setting of something terrible: abandonment, accidents, drowning.

Through my years of swimming, which often I do to break from writing (there is a particular irony when I’m writing about swimming), I have come to see that the two are not far apart. Both require an acceptance of solitude, tedium, and the rigmarole of preparation. As Hanya Yanagihara writes in her essay A Brisk Swim Across Martha’s Vineyard, “Swimming is the writer’s sport, because it is the sport most like writing. To swim, as to write, is to choose an intense state of socially acceptable aloneness. You can be a serious runner or bicyclist and still have to occasionally nod at a passerby or negotiate traffic. Swimming, however, precludes interaction with the world. When Anne Sexton won a fellowship from Radcliffe in 1961, she used the money to build herself a pool, which has always seemed to me a sensible artistic decision, if those two adjectives can ever be paired.”

I agree with Yanagihara, and I envy Sexton. I swim to break from writing, but my methods barely change – the activities are one and the same, except one is dry and one is wet. You are absorbed but unfocused – mind a blur until it lands on something: the edge, another swimmer, a floating piece of debris, a past faux pas, a good fact, a perfect sentence, your hopes, your dreams. Always, it’s you and your thoughts. Alone with your rhythms – willing yourself to push forward, keen to go on. 

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Parts of this text are extracted from Lou Stoppard’s new book Pools: Lounging, Diving, Floating, Dreaming: Picturing Life at the Swimming Pool (Rizzoli, £50).

This story was originally posted on 27 March 2020.

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