Saturday, 28 March 2009

Walking on the Wild Side

The path by the river

Last Sunday, being Mothering Sunday, I rang Debbie at BBC Radio Berkshire as she was talking, in view of Jade Goody’s death that day, about children losing their mother at an early age. She hosts the show every Sunday morning from 9am to 12 noon and asked for people to ring and contribute. As my mother died when I was only thirteen we had a nice little chat. Afterwards, being at a bit of a loose end, I went for a long walk along the riverbank at Wargrave. The tiny path wends its way for a mile or so until it reaches the mouth of one of my favourite waterways – the Hennerton Backwater. (I’ll be rowing down there as soon as the little leak in my boat repairs itself.) Surprisingly I had the whole path to myself on that beautiful sunny spring afternoon with the trees bursting into life with their pink and white blossom. What a fantastic spring we are having this year – the best I can remember.

Blossom in the undergrowth

Pootle, my most faithful blogging friend, told me how to make it possible for anyone to add a ‘comment’ to my blogs. This is now possible.

In this country it seems we reward the guilty and punish the innocent! Last week a man was released from jail after serving 27 years for a murder he hadn’t committed. In compensation for his loss of freedom he will be entitled to a lump sum, but there’ll be a deduction for ‘board and lodging’ (his jail cell and food). However if guilty men and women are released early under a new scheme to end overcrowding, they are paid compensation of £35 a week for the loss of accommodation and food to which they would have been entitled had they served their full term in jail!

I was totally outnumbered the other day when I mentioned on my blog that I didn’t like the smell of popcorn right next to me in a cinema. No one seemed to agree with me, so I was amused yesterday when Max, one of my great nephews, complained that when his father takes him to the Cup Final next month he will be expected to take a meat pie and a cup of Bovril into the ground. Apparently it’s as much a tradition at football matches as popcorn, I am told, is at the cinema.

This morning a friend and I visited Timmy Mallet at his house in the heart of the Berkshire countryside. We visited his studio and Lynda brought us tea and cake. After a delightful walk round the large garden, we returned to the studio where Timmy pointed to the top of the surrounding walls. There he’d constructed a miniature electric railway. He’d also painted the backgrounds and ceiling. And being at eye-height, as the two trains made their way round the tracks, we had a good view of the wheels and pistons furiously speeding along. I’ll see if I can add a little video here. (Even if no picture appears, click on the triangle and it will play.)


Friday, 20 March 2009

A Lucky Escape

On Wednesday afternoon I was happily putting the finishing touches to Kay Petryszak’s miniature portrait when I heard an almighty crash from the bathroom. Convinced that the ceiling had fallen in I dreaded opening in the door, fearful of what I’d see. In fact the whole shower edifice above my bath/jacussi had fallen off the ceiling. Had I been having a bath at the time I would have either been seriously injured or possibly killed.
What had happened (one of the problems with flats) was that over a period of months the power shower in the flat above me had sprung a small leak. This had accumulated and, without me being aware of it, had filled the big hollow shower fixture with water making it so heavy that it detached itself from the ceiling.
Now I face weeks of waiting for the room to completely dry out, (luckily I have two bathrooms) and my upstairs neighbour will have to have his entire shower unit removed and repaired. The plumber pointed to a very small series of holes where the wall tiles join the shower tray. Such a small thing to cause so much damage. But as they say ‘for the want of a nail the battle was lost’.

Part of the fallen structure

Spring is wonderful this year. I’ve just been driving past hundreds of daffodils lining the country roads, motorways and roundabouts. Quite the best display I’ve seen in years. On Sunday I went for a walk down to the River and Rowing Museum for a light lunch, and asked Peter at Hobbs boatyard to bring my little dinghy back from winter storage.


Launching 'Marsh Midget'

So yesterday afternoon I had my first row of the season. Being a wooden, clinker-built craft there was quite a lot of water under the duck boards (I’m not having much luck with water these days) but I took this to be a result of the timbers contracting during its time out of the water, and I guess as the wood swells the leak will be kept to a minimum.
On the way down the river my phone rang. It was a new client asking me to paint a miniature portrait for an retiring Grand Master of a London Livery Company. I think he was surprised when he realised where I was – especially as he had to ring back when I nearly capsized!

River view from my boat

About an hour into my row I stopped at ‘Tollgate’ – just below Henley Bridge where my friends John and Kate Hutchinson live, and was invited in for tea and hot cross buns. Judy Fraser was there as well (she’s a wonderful artist who paints on eggs) and we spent a pleasant hour in the conservatory enjoying the sunshine and watching the occasional eight pass by (they are practising for the Ladies Regatta this Sunday).
With daffodils and pink and white blossoms on the trees along the riverbanks and the first green haze on the weeping willows, the row back home was tranquillity itself. The bird life was dominated by the raucous squawking of Canada geese and little coots bobbing up and down in the water in their search for food. I had the river all to myself – nothing else was moving on the water. Wonderful.

This is my latest commissioned miniature portrait. It’s of Kay Petryszak – the President of The Miniature Artists of America, and a very good friend of mine. It’s always easier to paint someone you know well. Kay has seen the portrait via email and has given permission to include it in my blog.
I’m often asked how I go about painting a miniature portrait, and as I scanned this particular portrait from time to time as I painted it, you may be interested in the following:

Initial painting of clothes on the vellum surface

Completed clothes - I love turquoise

First painting of the face and hair

Background added to give tonal balance

Final Portrait of Kay Petryszak

If you click on to any of the portraits you should see them enlarged. You’ll also see the brush-strokes I expect. The original miniature is just over 3 inches high, by the way

Yesterday evening Paul and Debbie picked me up and we spent a happy evening at the Chef Peking in Henley. They are off on the drive up to Morecombe today where Paul will be performing tonight. That man does travel.

Final note: I’m in a minority of one it seems, as Mona – another good artist and Florida friend – has left comments on my blog and has joined the throng of females who eat popcorn in cinemas. OK - I’m outnumbered, I admit it. (But I still don’t like the smell of popcorn in my face – unless I’m eating it myself, of course!)

Sunday, 15 March 2009

The Dragon Boats Are Here

I’ve just spied a whole collection of Dragon Boats. The sound of their drums are reverberating in the morning sunshine. You can see a couple of them in the distance beyond the wooden bridge on the main river. Maybe you can even hear the drums.

Saturday, 14 March 2009

That Was The Week That Was

It’s been both a prolific and social week. I changed the background on Timmy Mallett’s miniature as the jungly green leaves background was too dominant, and detracted from his face. I also finished the painting of lovely little Juliana. This was a commission from a client in New York. I’d already painted the same little girl at the age of two. Her mother was so pleased with the result that she wanted to have another one done of Juliana as a 7-month baby.
Baby Juliana at seven months

Timmy Mallett in Jungle Gear

Felicity and Fenwick joined me on Tuesday evening to see the film ‘Young Victoria’ The costumes were lavish, as were the settings, but to my mind the characters were either too pretty, pretty, or wrong. For example Lord Grenville – the Prime Minister when Victoria became Queen was shown in the film as a relatively young and handsome man, when in fact although he was a real charmer, by all accounts he was in his mid-fifties. But it was the abrupt ending which I thought silly. Even though the film was about the young Victoria, the 15 or so years up until Albert’s death were telescoped into just a few minutes, with a history lesson given to the audience by way of a series of captions. It was as if the producers had run out of money half way through filming and just packed up there and then.


Jilly rang on Wednesday to see whether we could have a game of snooker that evening at Phyllis Court. Both of us are getting better. This time she brought a copy of the rules, which she’d found on the web. Good idea, as last time we played we were a bit hazy about some of the values of the colours. Snooker is a lot to do with geometry and working out the correct angles, and we both played quite a few really good shots. We can only get better.

The Mill at Sonning is currently showing ‘A Sentimental Journey’. It’s about the life of Doris Day. Sally Hughes, one of the owners of the Mill, is a talented director, singer and actress. She played the part of Doris Day superbly. (In fact she was so good that I’m going again next week with some other friends!). Sally must be very careful to preserve her voice as she’s on stage all the time and as well as making many changes of costume she sings twenty-seven songs!
I’ve talked about the Mill at Sonning before – it’s even mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086. When the mill closed it was one of the last flourmills on the Thames driven by wheels. It couldn’t compete with the larger mills and when one of its major customers, Huntley and Palmers (my old employers) stopped making biscuits in Reading it finally closed in 1969. However Tim and Eileen Richards, Sally’s parents, bought the derelict building in 1977 and converted it into the intimate dinner theatre it is today. The whole place – and some of the surrounding houses - is now powered by water and in the cocktail lounge you can see the gigantic wheel slowly revolving behind a warm coloured glass window.

If it wasn’t so stupid I’d find the latest victim of our draconian ‘Elf and Safety’ laws, hilarious. Last week the London Fields Lido in Hackney was closed. Why? Because of a brief burst of rain! All the swimmers using the pool were told to wait until the shower stopped before getting back into the pool. The closures are ‘to protect swimmers safety’. They say that the lifeguards can’t see the pool properly when it rains! Why? Are they employing partly sighted lifeguards?
We are becoming overwhelmed with silly regulations and totally unnecessary expenses. York Council, for example, recently fitted sat-nav systems to its dustcarts in an attempt to keep track of them. Did it work? We’ll never know, as they were all stolen the following week! But not to be outdone, York Council has just forked out £6,000 to equip its fleet of lawnmowers with satellite navigation. They won’t get lost mowing York’s football pitches now, will they?




Saturday, 7 March 2009

Don't Laugh While Driving!

It’s hard to believe, but Company Director Gary Sanders was stopped by a policeman in Merseyside for ‘laughing while driving’. The reason given by the policeman was that he was ‘laughing excessively’. He was questioned for over 30 minutes – one of the questions being about his hair colour! (It reminded me of a Smith and Jones TV sketch when Griff Rhys Jones, acting as a young thrusting police officer, arrested a youth for ‘having frizzy hair’) But this was no joke, and the policeman insisted that Gary Sanders produce his documents at a police station, despite admitting – eventually – that no offence had been committed. I think he deserves a grovelling apology, don’t you?

Spring has nearly sprung and the daffodils are beginning to adorn the verges and roundabouts. We even have a tulip in our garden.


My week has been one of 9-hour days of painting, relieved by a game of snooker with Jilly at Phyllis Court on Monday evening and a visit from old primary school friends on Thursday. You’d have laughed if you’d seen us playing snooker. Both of us are amateurs, and the rules posted on the wall were printed in a typeface too small for either of us to read. We didn’t know how many points each ball carried, and at one stage I forgot to put a couple of the coloured balls I’d potted back on the table. Nevertheless we had a good time and a good laugh - no policemen around, so we weren't arrested! We'll be better informed next time we play. Afterwards we went to the new Italian restaurant in Henley but I couldn’t find anything on the menu that didn’t contain cheese, tomato or garlic, (my pet hates) so we ended up the road in a late night café. My other highlight was to see Pat and Averil again. They came laden with home made cake, prawns, crusty bread and chilli sauce. So not only did we have a nice lunch, but Pat, bless her, ironed nearly twenty of my shirts while watching ‘De-Lovely' (the Cole Porter story) on my big screen.

Two of my most prolific blogging friends – Pootle and Bluebells - are ganging up on me! Because I said I don’t like people sitting next to me in the cinema eating popcorn, and that if I owned a cinema I’d ban it, I’ve incurred, if not their wrath, the vow that neither of them will ever go to the cinema with me.

The Angel on the Bridge

Debbie in the Sunshine

Yesterday was gloriously sunny. Paul and Debbie invited me to join them for coffee at the Café Rouge in Henley. The whole town was glittering in the sunshine. One of the things I like about living in a small town like Henley is that you constantly meet people you know. Mike Sweeney, the Chairman of the Regatta, stepped out of a taxi on his way back from a skiing holiday as I walked over the bridge, and Martin - the Henley Standard cartoonist - showed me round his new art gallery in Hart Street. Paul told me he’s joined ‘twitters’. It sounds like fun, but as my phone doesn’t have email access there’s no point in me being a twitterer. It doesn’t even have a camera. Paul’s inventive mind never stops. I’d mentioned that I'd like to have an exhibition in Martin’s Gallery but I felt it was too small. Quick as a flash he suggested that as I paint miniatures I could stage an exhibition in a phone box.

Above the roar of Henley’s Friday morning traffic I made a little video of Debbie greeting blogland – with Paul acting as co-star


Sunday, 1 March 2009

The Maharajah's Well



Last Sunday Debbie McGee and I visited a riding School at Checkendon, and on the way back home stopped at a little village called Stoke Row, where a most impressive 386 feet deep well is located. It was given to the village in 1863 by the Maharajah of Benares. The Maharajah had become very friendly with Mr Edward Anderdon Reade who had lived and worked in India for 34 years. He was the Governor of North West Province for a period, including the mutiny in 1857, when he and the Maharajah worked closely together. One of his many deeds there was to sink a well in 1831 to aid a local community in Azimurgh.
Some years later the Maharajah decided on an endowment in England, having recalled Mr Reade’s generosity and childhood tale of a Stoke Row boy being beaten by his mother for stealing a furtive drink of water (the ponds and clay pits - the main water sources - dried up in times of drought).
The Maharajah suggested that he provide Stoke Row with a free and public well. This beautifully ornate structure was opened on the 24th May 1864 – Queen Victoria’s birthday – and served the local community until 1939, yielding 600-700 gallons each day. The well’s pristine condition today is a result of a complete restoration between 1979 and 1983.

Debbie had mentioned on her BBC Radio show the previous Sunday that she wanted to grow sweet peas. This was picked up by Trevor Beales, a keen gardener, who gave me a quantity of really good seeds for Debbie. And as they need a fair amount of horse manure to prosper, he suggested we pick some up at the Checkendon Equestrian Centre. Which we did, on that bright and sunny Sunday afternoon. It did pong a bit! (When I take a girl out for a treat she doesn’t exactly expect to be shovelling s***!)

Debbie doing her bit

On Thursday evening Felicity, Fenwick and I called in to my favourite Chinese restaurant – the Chef Peking in Henley – before seeing the award winning film ‘Slumdog Millionaire’. It certainly deserved all the Oscars it won, in my opinion. Having been to Bombay on numerous occasions I could really appreciate the colour, pace, poverty and especially the great music in the film. I’ll definitely buy the Blu-Ray version when it’s released, and enjoy it all over again at home in full surround sound glory.

I like travelling by train, and as I’d been invited to my old friend Connie Briscoe’s 80th birthday party on Friday evening in Padstow, decided to book a first class seat to Cornwall on Friday afternoon. Spot on time – to the minute - I was extremely impressed with the service and comfort on the train. Free drinks and biscuits, it purred along for 3 hours or so in complete silence.
Connie’s son-in law, Jeremy, met me at Bodmin Parkway – the nearest station to Padstow - and I spent a very nice couple of hours with them before checking in to a comfortable bed and breakfast farmhouse near Padstow. About 50 people were at the party – held in the very smart and brand new Royal Cornwall Pavilion Centre. I only knew three other people there, but was so pleased to find Arthur and Valerie at my table. We, together with Connie, had first met in Singapore in 1960 when Connie’s husband was in the Royal Air Force and Arthur was a Royal Marine Officer.
Yesterday, Fiona took me for a little walk around Padstow. What a pretty little town it is with its enclosed harbour, fishing boats and scores of delightfully named shops and boutiques.

Weird Fish Shop
Steep Cobbled Streets

Padstow Harbour

Just before meeting Connie and her friend Arlene for lunch, we visited the National Lobster Hatchery in Padstow. Their main purpose is to stabilise the lobster population and preserve the marine biodiversity of Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly. Since they opened in 2000 they have released over 50,000 juvenile lobsters into the sea around Cornwall. Fishermen bring ‘pregnant’ female lobsters into the Hatchery to give them a chance to release their delicate offspring in captivity where there are no predators. The young lobsters are then raised to a size where they can be released back into the sea and look after themselves. Here’s a couple of things you may not know about lobsters – they can taste with their feet, and, amazingly, they can live to be a hundred years old. We saw a few old fellas (and old dears) there. This one is fifty years old!

The Old Fella
The other picture is a lady lobster (with the name of Thermidor) and is known as a colour morph lobster. Being bright orange, she’s one in only ten million. I made a little video of her. Don’t you think she’s beautiful?