Saturday, 23 May 2009

An Interesting Week

My old friend Maurice Bowra (that's not him on the left - it's a wax image of Shrek) briefly stopped over in London on the way back to Bangkok from Belgrade the other day, which gave us a chance to meet up for a day out. I’d been planning to visit the Museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising
for a while, so we caught the bus from Paddington to Notting Hill. (I had a little map showing its exact location and as I had brought my portable satnav along with me we got off as soon as it told us we were at our destination.)
The museum was fabulous – thousands and thousands of items going right back to Victorian times. I even noticed 8 of the biscuit tines I’d designed when I was an apprentice in the late 50’s. I don’t suppose the golliwog shown in Santa’s sack would be acceptable today as far as the Politically Correct brigade are concerned.

After a fascinating hour or so in the Museum we made our way to Baker Street for lunch. I was looking for Mrs Hudson’s Tea Rooms (Sherlock Holmes’ housekeeper) but it had closed. Our next port of call was Madame Tussauds – I especially wanted to see their latest addition – Boris Johnson. If anyone is planning to visit Madame Tussauds, one word of warning – you’ll have to queue for at least an hour, and unlike the Disney queues it’s very boring. Also you have no idea how much it costs to get in until you finally reach the till. But it is worth it. They really have made the most incredible likenesses - I’ll post a few of the images here.

Boris Johnson - Mayor of London
Boris with the real Maurice

Richard Branson

Kylie Minogue

Daniel Craig
Johnnie Depp

Arriving back home I called in to Vince and Annie Hill’s (where I parked my car – they live two minutes away from the railway station) as I’d been invited for dinner together with a few mutual friends.

On Monday evening I went for my second coaching lesson at the Henley Bowling Club. Now that I’ve become a member I treated myself to a set of bowls last week. It’s such a friendly club – wish I could remember names more easily as most people there seemed to know mine! The weather was balmy and being adjacent to the Thames we were accompanied by a variety of river noises as we played. Still on the sporting theme Wednesday night was the ‘Colours ' tournament at Phyllis Court. This is a game played on the snooker table without the red balls. It was invented by a PC member many years ago and is quite enthralling. I think the next time I stay at the Tanglin Club in Singapore I’ll introduce the game there.

BBC Radio Berkshire telephoned me on Tuesday afternoon to ask if I’d be prepared to be interviewed live on air the following morning by Anne Diamond. So at 11 o’clock I presented myself at the studios complete with a small selection of miniature portraits, a couple of tiny brushes, my paint box and a few of the books I’d written. The interview was in two parts and took about an hour, so was quite comprehensive. Anne was very good at plugging my work – she even got me to quote my prices on air (as yet no commissions have materialised!). I thoroughly enjoyed the morning – but wish I hadn’t left a paint brush there, as it was one of my best.

On a mundane level, the new washing machine was delivered by John Lewis, but couldn’t be installed as promised. The reason being that they couldn’t undo the water taps. (They’d corroded so much due to our very hard water.) Dave – the washing machine man – came over yesterday to fix it, but even he had no luck. Eventually I got a plumber who, after a number of hours, managed to put everything back together. I haven’t tried it yet – I’ll wait till Tracey comes next Tuesday so she can tell me what buttons to press, as I’m not in any way a domestic God. I did manage to complete the Livery Company commission the other day.

Today, Saturday, is the first day of the Bank Holiday, and it’s shaping up to be a beautiful weekend already. I popped over to see an artist friend this morning and to see the progress on his latest – extremely large – painting. In fact I walked in to a houseful of friends. Shining Bear (he plays the didgeridoo) was back from Canada with his lovely girlfriend Karen, Buzz had made scones, and Fergus and his wife Zelia had brought clotted cream from the West Country. (They have a great retreat there called tipivillage.)

I’d brought fresh strawberries and cheese bread from the farm shop. We had a great breakfast - lots of fun stories were related, and I realised I’d painted portraits of four of the assembled group. I had to dash back home at midday as Kevin the carpenter was Artexing my bathroom ceiling.

On a final note I read this the other day:

In 2007 - the Chinese Year of the Chicken, bird flu devastated parts of Asia. In 2008 - the Chinese Year of the Horse, equine flu decimated Australian racing. In 2009 - the Chinese Year of the Pig, swine flu has affected hundreds of people around the globe. Next year, 2010, is the Chinese Year of the Cock, so I'm wondering what the year has in store for us men!

Sunday, 17 May 2009

A New Birth

Seven cygnets were born today by the river at the bottom of our garden. The two remaining eggs are still in the nest, but I doubt whether they will hatch now. Still, seven healthy cygnets is a very good number for a clutch. I’ll post a couple of videos I took this morning on this blog – it’s great to see the newly hatched birds tumble down the bank. See how the pen quickly comes to the rescue - and gives me a warning hiss for good measure!
Swans are marvellous birds - the pen lays one egg every other day until there’s a clutch of five to nine eggs. The cob stays nearby to help guard the nest and to look after the pen. It takes five weeks for the eggs to hatch. The young swans are born with their eyes open and when they dry off they become tiny bundles of fluffy down as you can see from my second video.
The cygnets break out of the eggs with a special nail at the end of their beaks. It’s very sharp, is called an egg-tooth, and drops off a few days after the cygnets hatch, Hopefully I’ll be able to take a few pictures over the next few days of the pen carrying her babies on her back. However the baby cygnets know how to swim as soon as they are hatched.

Saturday, 16 May 2009

Cruising Down the River

Proud Parents and their Goslings by the Riverbank

Well, hardly cruising. More like languidly rowing. As Sunday was such a beautiful day I decided to row my little boat all the way to Wargrave – and if the river wasn’t too high – to navigate the length of the lovely little Hennerton Backwater. It was a magical afternoon. To enter the backwater from upstream you have to push yourself – and the boat – under a tiny arched brick bridge no more than 3 ft high in the middle. It’s quite a performance but once achieved you enter a tranquil scene of utter peace. This is the time of year to see the young chicks, goslings, grebes and coots. The cygnets have not yet hatched, but it won’t be long before they do.
As, of course, I face backwards to row, and as the backwater is narrow and twisting in parts, branches and overgrown tree-trunks cause a bit of a hazard, but ‘Marsh Midget’ is used to the occasional bump. On the way upstream I stopped briefly at Vince and Annie Hill’s house to drink one of the cans of Pimms I’d brought with me, then on to have another one at the end of Paul and Debbie’s garden across the river. They were not there, but ‘The Lovely Debbie McGee’ was moored by the creek

'The Lovely Debbie McGee'

I deliberately chose to enter the backwater from the Wargrave end so I could drift downstream on the way back. Just to rest the oars and manoeuvre with a small paddle - facing forwards - meant that I could really appreciate the scene before me without hitting the riverbank too often. The solitude of the afternoon was happily broken by the many river sounds all around me. The splashing of Canada geese as they proclaimed their territorial rights, the twitter of all the hedgerow birds, and the rustle in the fields as the rabbits scampered away as I rowed past. (My squeaky rowlocks would have signalled my approach.) Bordering the backwater are many secret gardens – hidden from most people’s view. But I have a favourite – it has a green Japanese –style bridge and Lapis Lazuli coloured large pots dotted everywhere in the garden.

Bridge across the backwater

Finally emerging into the main river I reverted back to a vigorous row over the last mile up to Marsh Lock, where I was greeted by Nigel, the Lock-keeper, and Tracy (who occasionally gives me freshly laid eggs from her chickens). I suppose the whole trip was about 7 miles. It keeps me fit.

On Saturday I popped over to Paul and Debbie’s for a little lunch. It was one of their rare free days at home. Both were hard at work – Debbie spring-cleaning, and Paul wielding a pressure hose to clean the patio stones.
Later in the afternoon I started a new painting of a girl wearing a turquoise-coloured cheongsam. I love painting exotic materials, and as yet haven’t decided on the background. It might be a Chinese brush-painting scene or an intricately carved wooden fan depicting a pair of exotic birds.
In the evening I joined Jane, my second cousin twice removed, and her mother Mollie for dinner at the Orangery at Phyllis Court (Third night in a row at Phyllis Court!). As I’m now a member of the snooker section and as Jane told me how she learned to play snooker at her father’s knee, so to speak, we booked the snooker room at 8.30 and played till 10. Mollie ‘advised’ us on almost every shot, usually with the words “ Too hard” or “Wrong angle”. Great fun. Jane is a good player and beat me. But only just!
Earlier in the week I photographed a decorated and robed member of a London Livery Company. This was to give me reference for a commissioned miniature portrait of the gentleman. I love painting medals, decorations and any sort of insignia or regalia, so will really enjoy painting the portrait – and have already started it.
Talking of miniatures, I finished the eighteenth miniature of my great niece Becky last week. Here she is.

Becky aged eighteen

Mona Diane Conner, an extremely talented American miniature artist, recently gave me her ‘Mini Blog Award’. It’s a real honour – thank you Mona. We don’t seem to have this sort of award here in England, as one of the conditions is not only to nominate two miniature artists to pass the honour on to, but to list my all-time favourite films.
I’m giving my first award to Jill Keppens. She is an exquisite miniature portrait painter, lives in Belgium and in fact was the recipient of The Mundy Sovereign Award last year at the Royal Society of Miniature Painters annual exhibition. Jill is also very young. My other award may mean that I’m breaking Mona’s rules, however I’m nominating Sydney Shorthouse. Sydney very sadly died recently – he was a wonderful miniature portrait painter and was a long-standing member of the RMS.
My all-time favourite films are: Gone With the Wind, Lawrence of Arabia, Titanic, Doctor Zhivago. and Atonement.

Finally I’m adding two videos. (It seems I can only add videos at the end of my blog.) One was when I was drifting down Hennerton Backwater last Sunday. The other is of our swan in the garden yesterday as she rearranges her eggs – I think she has nine. Hopefully when the cygnets hatch I’ll be able to make another video .

Monday, 4 May 2009

Bluebells at Blickling Hall

On Sunday we visited the one-time home of Anne Boleyn – the second wife of King Henry VIII. (Her father, Sir Thomas Boleyn, Earl of Wiltshire, owned Blickling Hall).

Anne was beheaded on the 19th May 1536 and it is said that every year, on the anniversary of her execution, her headless ghost arrives at Blickling Hall in a carriage drawn by a headless horseman. Her head comes too, it is said, as she carries it along with her. We didn’t actually see her ghost this time (even though Blickling Hall was voted the most haunted house in Britain in 2007) but we imagined how much she must have enjoyed the wonderful bluebell paths we wandered along.

Anne Boleyn

This is a great time of year to visit country houses – especially those with magnificent gardens. Blickling Hall prides itself on its year round colour and stunning parterre gardens surrounded by fabulous topiary.

I recently joined the Henley Bowling Club. Luckily Vic is a member of the Lakeside Bowling Club in Norfolk, so he took me there on Sunday morning. Here was a golden opportunity to steal a march before I have my first lesson in Henley next week. All eight rinks in the indoor green were free, so we had the whole place to ourselves. I didn’t beat Vic of course, but did manage to get within 6” of the jack a couple of times. I had no idea that the woods curved in to such a degree – which meant you need to aim about 15 feet away from the target.

Just before I left Norfolk yesterday I made this little video of Vic and Christine’s horse Lulu. Sorry about the noise of the wind.

And here are some of the bluebells at Blickling Hall. There's a big black bull in the field behind with all the cows.

Colour the Fields Yellow

In the springtime I spend a weekend in Norfolk with my friends Vic and Christine Granger. Vic and I worked together back in the 60’s as artists designing biscuit tins for Huntley and Palmers. On Friday afternoon I drove the 150 miles to Stanfield where they live. A glorious day – the blue of the bluebells in Berkshire metamorphosed into bright yellow fields of rape as I neared my destination. By the way you can always click on the pictures to make them bigger.
A rape field in Norfolk

Vic is now a well-respected painter of wildlife, specialising in greyhounds and whippets.

'Cleo' - one of Vic and Christine's whippets

When I was a small boy I always wanted a train set, but my mother never could afford to buy me one – so all these years later imagine my joy when Vic and Christine suggested we take a trip on the Bura Valley Steam Railway. So on Saturday morning we drove to Aylsham to board a lovely little steam train called ‘Wroxham Broad’. These little trains run on tracks just 15 inches wide with comfortably cushioned cabins seating four people at a pinch. The clickety-clack as we travelled the nine miles to the coastal town of Wroxham was made doubly enchanting by the toot-toot of the hooter (I’m sure it has a special name) and, best of all, the heavenly nostalgic smell of the steam as it passed by overhead - I wish I could transmit it via this blog. Talking to the engine driver before we set off I heard him shout out something like “The stick just fell off the top” to another driver (they have 5 little locomotives on this line) and asked him if they were special technical terms. “They are round here!” he replied. Here are three of the steam engines:

'Blickling Hall' - a 2-6-2 Tender Locomotive

'Spitfire' - a 2-6-2 Tender Locomotive

'Wroxham Broad' - a 2-6-4 Tank Locomotive

At Wroxham it was just a short 20-minute walk to The Queen of the Broads’ for a 2-hour river trip (To any American friends amongst my readers The Queen of the Broads is not who you think it is, but an elegant 150 seat passenger boat which navigates sedately around the waterways of northeast Norfolk.) The captain was very knowledgeable about river life and although living on the river myself, and being fairly conversant with most of the antics we saw, I didn’t realise that coots transfer some of their own breast feathers to their young after softening them, which apparently gives a lining in their stomachs thus protecting them from sharp fish bones.

An original thatched cottage on the Broads

The return train journey was uneventful and we had a chance to look at some of the other steam engines in the station. I’ll add a little video of ‘Wroxham Broad’ passing us by on the return journey.