Saturday, 21 February 2009

Swallows and Amazons

The sun is shining brightly, the snowdrops are nestling in the grass, and a bevy of Canada Geese are making a real old rumpus as they chase each other around the millstream. I hope they don’t decide to make the bathing platform of my boat their home, as they are very messy creatures. From my vantage point on my front balcony I watched five small children have great fun as they manoeuvred their grandmother’s dinghy around and around. After a while they got the idea and managed to put the oars in the water simultaneously and steer a course under the bridge where the millstream joins the main river. The three boys in the group showed great enterprise by attaching a piece of rope to a big fifteen foot tree branch which my neighbour had spent many hours over the past three weeks coaxing out from under the sluices in the garden. Once back to shore with the heavy branch trailing behind them, with a great effort the boys hoisted it on to one of the landing stages while the two little girls looked on admiringly. It was lust like watching a scene from ‘Swallows and Amazons’. What a perfect weekend they chose to come over here for a short holiday - this time last week the river had risen to about two feet over the moorings. I wish my dinghy was in the water, but being a wooden clinker-built boat it is still in winter storage and won’t be back in the river till early April.

Even the cows are enjoying the warm weather – I picked this card up from the Farm Shop this morning while buying a few plants.

I’ve never been a fan of the Turner Prize selection – especially the so-called ‘Installation’ entrants and can’t believe that the majority will pass the test of time as pieces of art. I’m sure most of them are slowly rotting away in the bowels of Tate Britain. However, Mark Wallinger, the artist who produced one of the more artistic pieces for the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square – Ecce Homo, a figure of Christ crowned with barbed wire – has won the competition to create a landmark monument for the South of England. His giant white horse will dominate the landscape in Kent, and I for one will look forward very much to seeing it in a couple of years time when it's completed. I remember being impressed with Anthony Gormley’s ‘Angel of the North’ a couple of years ago when my train passed close by it as I returned from the Edinburgh Festival. We have horses carved out of the chalk landscape, which are part of our heritage – The White Horse of Uffingham and Cerne Abbas being impressive examples – but just imagine the size of Mark Wallinger’s horse. One hundred and sixty feet high (I still think in yards, feet and inches) the horse will be 33 times life- size - about as high as the Statue of Liberty in New York – you and I will become Lilliputians with our heads no higher than the horse’s hooves. What a sight it will be!

My week has been one long session of work. Nine hours a day, every day. I’m working on a large painting of our Olympic Oarsmen setting out on a misty day last summer on the river at Henley. About 26 inches wide it’ll probably take me about 300 hours to complete. This is my progress so far – and that’s nearly 60 hours work. There are 42 people in the painting.

My favourite story of the week concerns the Irish Police. Apparently in a six-month period, a Polish driver had clocked up over fifty traffic offences on Ireland’s roads. In vain the police tried to catch up with Prawo Jazdy, but never succeeded. Each time the driver gave a different home address. It wasn’t until an internal Police memo revealed that Prawo Jazdy - the name printed in the top right hand corner of the Polish driving license – was the Polish for ‘Driving License’!

Saturday, 14 February 2009

Computers! Grrrrr!

As they say, some days are crap! Today is one of those. My computer caught a virus on Thursday, but it seems Spyware Doctor has cured it. But maybe not, as now my PC won’t let me type anything! A real Doctor is coming over on Monday, so maybe he can bring it back to life.

Yesterday Felicity and I saw the film ‘The Peculiar Case of Benjamin Button’. We weren’t quite sure what to expect, but it turned out to be really good. How they aged Brad Pitt was superb. As you probably know the story is about a baby being born as a very old man who gets younger throughout his life till he ends up as a baby. The special effects were wonderful and although it was 3 hours long the time passed quickly. Well worth seeing.
On Thursday I joined a group of friends on a coach trip to Windsor. We were to see ‘A Pack of Lies’ at the Theatre Royal. As it was a matinee there was plenty of time for Sue, Tom and I to have lunch in a nice restaurant by the river. The river was flowing really fast and none of the river birds could swim against it. Sad to see the little coots being swept down stream and then having to fly just to get back where they started. We watched the changing of the guards as they marched out of the castle. It was a very cold day so they were wearing thick greatcoats, but still a stirring sound as the band marched past. Before the play started we had time to browse around the shops where we all bought cashmere sweaters as they were less than half price. The Theatre Royal in Windsor is one of my favourite theatres, but I found the play a bit slow. Jenny Seagrove headed the cast.
Windsor Guardsmen

The crooked house in Windsor

At last the river is going down a bit. It’s been quite high lately – we were just one brick away from our garden being flooded. I saw on the TV News the other night friends Robert and Shirley Cranmer- Brown being interviewed. They live near the river at Shiplake and said they’d never known the river so high. I was at their house just the evening before, having a game (and a lesson) of snooker with Robert in his new snooker room, and thought then that the water was lapping around a bit. The Environment Agency is supposed to alert us riparian dwellers about flooding, but certainly are not a patch on the old Thames Conservancy men. For example, Felicity had about 4 inches of water in her house at Shiplake yesterday and when she rang the EA the young man there assured her that she was wrong! “I’m looking at the water in my house right now!” said Felicity. “Oh no.” said the young man, “I’m looking at my computer and there’s no flooding where you are!” Can you believe it? I don’t think these people ever venture away from their computers into the real world at all.

The flooded Thames from Henley Bridge

Wednesday was the day of my neighbour Bunny’s funeral. Held at the Reading Crematorium it was over half-an-hour late starting – as the vicar had forgotten he was conducting services that day. Bunny was a lovely lady, had lived in Africa at the time of ‘White Mischief’ and had many a tale to tell. Afterwards we all went to the Grandstand at Phyllis Court for tea. It was about 5pm when we walked across the lawn, and there, completely framing the bare trees of winter, was a perfect and complete 180-degree rainbow. Wish I’d had my camera with me.

Jack Babbington’s 80th Birthday party last Saturday evening was lovely. All the men were dressed in dinner jackets. I was seated next to a very glamorous lady called Tiffany. She’s a model, and in fact two of the ads she was in were featured in that morning’s newspaper. Both she and her husband liked the large sepia painting of Jane which was hanging in the lounge, and talked about commissioning me to do one of Tiffany sometime soon. I managed to negotiate the slippery bridge over the river on the way back home. Luckily it was a moonlight night and I stayed upright.

Timmy Mallett’s miniature is finished, but I’m not sure whether to leave the ‘jungly’ background in or to wash it out and paint a more nondescript background.
I’ve just started a new large painting. It depicts (or it will eventually) a river scene of our Henley Olympians as they got ready for a row-past last summer. There’ll be an eight in the water and a pair about to get in. All against a very misty morning. I may paint the Henley Dragons boat somewhere in the mid ground. When I start a detailed painting like this it takes about a week (of 9 hour days) to properly get going. Then I just can’t put it down. And as I normally don’t paint on Sundays I’m really looking forward to getting up early on Monday morning to start work on the painting. It will probably take about 6 weeks to complete.

Saturday, 7 February 2009

Snow and Sunshine

The Little bridge in the snow

Today it’s gloriously sunny, and I’ve just walked across the bridge spanning the river at Marsh Lock. Still lots of snow and ice around, but I’ve really been testing how slippery my route to Brian and Jane’s house is, because this evening their ballroom will become the venue for their very good friend Jack Babbington’s 80th birthday party. As I’ve been invited too and will be venturing back late at night in the dark with a forecast temperature of minus ten degrees, I need to know where the particularly icy stretches are. The river is running very fast now. I took a little video of the weir a few minutes ago so will see if I can successfully add it to this blog.

For several days this week I’ve been totally redesigning my web site. It’s about time for a complete revamp. Now it’s done and hopefully it’ll be up and running in a couple of weeks as soon as John Brooks does all the technical bits.

Timmy Mallett came over at the weekend to pose for me. He’s such a colourful character that I thought I’d like to make a miniature of him. He brought a whole range of bright clothes and half a dozen pairs of coloured spectacles. We decided however that the gear he wore when he was in the Australian jungle recently, performing in ‘I’m a Celebrity – Get me out of here!’ was the best for the painting. It’s already started.

My New York client emailed yesterday to say she’s delighted with the miniature I finished last week of her 3-year-old daughter. I hate sending a scan of my miniatures to the client before they have seen the painting itself because it’s so easy to blow the miniature up to ten times the actual size and see all the little imperfections. This was quite a difficult miniature to do, as I have not seen the child and worked from 3 separate photographs – one for the face, another for the hair, and the third for the dress. So I'll courier the miniature off to the USA on Monday.

On Saturday Val and I drove to Bampton in the Cotswolds to have lunch with Joanne Dalston and her daughter, Nicola, who is visiting from Seattle for a few weeks. We went to the Clanfield Tavern – a charming little old pub just up the road.

The Clanfield Tavern in the Cotswolds

A Plethora of Beer Mats by the Bar

In the afternoon they read my blog entry, ‘Misery in Miami’ and were convulsed in laughter at my experiences there, comparing me to Mr Bean! I must admit it did seem very amusing in retrospect.

Joanna Morgan, one of my oldest friends, who lives in Vienna, came to stay on Monday night on her way back from a funeral near Windsor. We joined Brian and Jane at my favourite Italian restaurant in the evening, and because of the bad weather I checked later on the Internet that her BA flight home the following day had not been cancelled. Next morning just before I put her into a taxi I checked again. Delayed slightly, but not cancelled. But of course by the time she reached Heathrow, it was, and she had to join a 3-hour queue for rebooking the next day. Maybe my luck with airports had rubbed off on to Joanna because, after a night at the Castle Hotel in Windsor, while on her return to the airport the next morning, the phone rang in the taxi informing her that she’d left all her travel documents at the hotel! However she made the flight OK and rang from Vienna later to tell me what superb service she’d had at Terminal Five.

I’m a real BBC Radio Four fan, and a bit of a TV addict, but over the past few years have noticed a gathering left wing bias on many of their programmes. Which brings me to the latest row over Carol Thatcher. Quite understandably I can see how people find the word ‘golliwog’ unacceptable – and even racist, these days. However the BBC liberal elitists seem to be falling over themselves to be regarded by the so-called oppressed ethnic minorities as their champions. The BBC 1 Controller stated that Carol Thatcher “had caused real offence”. She probably had, but we still don’t know the context of the conversation or what she actually said. She was sacked from future programmes because of her remark. But wasn’t Jonathan Ross even more offensive over his sexual goading of both David Cameron and Gwyneth Paltrow? (He even used the f- word in his, on air, proposition to her). And just yesterday Jeremy Clarkson publicly called the Prime Minister “ A one-eyed Scottish Idiot.” Were either of them sacked? No of course not. Methinks the BBC took the opportunity to punish Carol Thatcher as a way to get back at h her mother.

This morning I was supposed to photograph a little 5-year old girl for a commissioned miniature. But there was no way she was prepared to pose. No Sir! She squirmed and screamed and there was nothing her little sister or her parents could do. So the session had to be abandoned. You’d think I was a dentist!

The raging river by the weir