Saturday, 24 October 2009

Snow Scene

I went to Reading this morning for a final visit to the surgeon who did my operation. All seems fine, and he was very pleased with my progress. He did, however, insert a camera ‘where the sun don’t shine’ for an internal examination. Not something I’d recommend to friends!

I’ve just completed the snow scene for my 2009 Christmas card. The printed card is vignetted in a rounded rectangle shape. For anyone interested this is a watercolour, and to retain the sparkle I haven’t used white paint at all. The white you see on the painting is the paper itself. I find the use of gouache, or body colour white, tends to dull a watercolour painting too much.

Watercolour painting "Snow and Sunshine"

In my advertising days I designed many airline and hotel logos, and produced hundreds of graphic design elements for our clients. So when Louisa, my niece, decided recently to start her own advertising and marketing company, I asked whether I could be of any use on the design front. Apparently unless I understand Quark, and other advanced computer programmes I’d in no way be able to produce designs for this modern age!

I had a silly thought the other day when I was reading an article about the lack of space in graveyards. Why not be buried vertically! I realise the words ‘laid to rest’ are supposed to mean laying down horizontally, but when we are in our coffins we are probably not too worried about which way up we are. These silly thoughts flit through my butterfly mind from time to time!

Had a quick trip around the River and Rowing Museum again this week. Apart from it being the best museum devoted to rowing and the river in England, it also has a very well-stocked shop where they sell a great variety of high quality river-related items. The Henley Section – entered by passing by a full-size replica carving of the face of Thamesis – is easily my favourite part of the museum.

One of the most interesting features is an animated sound and visual large map of Henley though the ages. From the 14th Century to the present day the highly informative display graphically shows how Henley has progressed.

I fail to understand the stupidity of some of our courts. Listen to this – it happened last week. An illegal immigrant was due to be deported to his own country – Bolivia. However when he and his girlfriend pleaded that they would miss their cat too much, the judge – unbelievably – said that to send him back home would - wait for it – “breach his right to a private and family life”. So here he stays – living on benefits, no doubt. Where will all this human rights nonsense end? This same court refused to deport fifty foreign criminals, which included sex offenders and killers. Why? Because it might “infringe their human rights!”
Another minor, but ludicrously stupid, offence was reported the other day. A woman bought a greeting card in a supermarket. When she reached the till the card made a ‘bleep’. “It’s OK you are allowed to buy the card as you are obviously over 25” said the assistant. What was the reason for the bleep? The card had a picture of a wine glass, corkscrew and bottles of wine on the front. ‘Health ‘n Safety’ rules, it seems, prohibit cards of this description to be sold to under 25’s. I despair!

Here I am on my little boat – Marsh Midget – having a last little tootle around on the river the other day – where sanity reigns supreme.

Musn’t forget to put the clocks back tonight. Or is it forward?

Saturday, 17 October 2009

Decisions, Decisions.

For the past 35 years I’ve made my own Christmas card out of one of my paintings. Too many people collect them, it seems, so it would be discourteous to stop now. This year I decided to paint a ‘Snow Queen’ picture based on one of the window displays I saw in Fortnum and Mason’s last Christmas, but after a week’s work abandoned it – for the time being anyway. I trawled through my old files, pulled out half a dozen possibilities, then discarded that idea. I tried to make a card out of ‘The Stationmaster’ but that didn’t work either. So now I’m a couple of days into a new snow scene depicting a view from the towpath looking towards the river. I’ll vignette the edges when I finish it. Here’s the progress so far:

An artist friend of mine, Denise, came to stay for a few days this week. She has just been elected to become a full member of The Royal Society of Miniaturists and wanted to go to the private view of the RMS on Monday. I quickly popped into the surgery to have my wound dressed before we caught the train from Shiplake to London. Trains are mobile phone territory these days. Why do people think they have to shout when talking on them? On the tube from Ealing Broadway to South Kensington a guy was talking very loudly in some sort of curly language – I think it was Tamil – all the way. He talked non-stop. If anyone was on the other end they didn’t seem to have much to say, as he seemed not to even pause for breath. The only relief – after the 7th stop – was when a young woman got on with a wailing baby. It ‘out-noised’ the garrulous gent. We got off just as the competition was hotting up!

One of the cabinets at the RMS Exhibition

The miniature show this year was excellent – very high quality. It was good to meet so many friends there. The exhibition is held in about 5 rooms in the Mall Galleries. Perfect for miniatures, but because of the crowds, a bit hot on that day.

I shouldn’t talk about food, I’m told, but this week I certainly sampled a variety of cuisines. On Sunday evening Val cooked a wonderful English meal with a honey-based chicken, vegetables from her garden, and five different puddings. Monday, after getting back to Henley we had a Chinese meal at the Chef Peking. Tuesday we went to the Curry Leaf in Wargrave with some friends, and on Wednesday had a lovely time with Paul and Debbie at the Villa Marina. It’s Italian of course, and when they have halibut, give it a try – Its marvellous. Also it’s one of the few to escape from ‘Elf ‘n Safety’ as it serves dessert on a sweet trolley.
I had an interesting package from Charles Fleischmann in Cincinnati this morning. Charles is the most important collector of miniatures in the USA (and has a marvellous collection of portrait miniatures dating right back to the 17th Century, I believe). He’d sent me a 30-page copy of a booklet by an American artist called Ethel Frances Mundy. Born in 1876, her biography records details of her ancestral home in England - Markeaton Hall in Derbyshire. “ This seat of Francis Mundy Esq, has been in the possession of the family of Mundy from the early period of Henry VIII and records a long list of distinguished Mundys, beginning with Sir John Mundy, Knight, the Lord Mayor of London in the year 1522”. Although I can’t claim kinship ( I come from a long line of publicans, carpenters, farm labourers and blacksmiths) we do have something in common. Ethel was a miniaturist – and a very good one. Her speciality was wax portraits, having studied sculpture at the School of Fine Arts at Fontainebleau. She became very famous and her sitters included J.P.Morgan and the Rockerfeller family. Ethel also made a beautiful wax portrait of our Queen when she was Princess Elizabeth. I wish I could show you examples of her work but the black and white illustrations I have will in no way reproduce successfully here. Nice to have a famous namesake – even if she is no relation.

You might be interested in a miniature portrait I was commissioned to paint a couple of months ago. As it’s now been presented to the sitter – Group Captain Gerry Bunn CBE, I’m able to show it on my blog. I must admit I really like painting medals, uniforms and all sorts of paraphernalia.
It’s Saturday afternoon and I’ve just got back from a visit to Katie Boyle in Hampstead. She’s looking good - although still a bit slow on her feet. Margherita, her glamorous sister, had just arrived from Geneva for the weekend, nursing a bruised eye and chin - she’d tripped over yesterday and fallen flat on her face. The last part of the drive home was enlivened by autumn tints in the woods bordering the roads near Henley

Saturday, 10 October 2009


When 21-year old Emma Sheppard reached the checkout at her local Tesco the other day she was asked for ID. Why? Because the checkout girl was holding a pack of teaspoons Emma had bought. Apparently the UK’s Criminal Justice Act makes it an offence for anyone under the age of 16 to be sold knives, blades, razors, axes, or any sharp item, which could cause injury. OK, I agree with the thinking, but spoons? In the end Emma wasn’t allowed to buy the spoons, as it seems Tesco didn’t want a mad woman racing around the store threatening to stab people with her spoons!

A dangerous weapon

On Tuesday evening at dinner with my cousins Paul and Jim, I related this story. Jim then said he was stopped at Heathrow Airport recently for the same offence. Not because he’s under age (being just a bit younger than me) but because it seems he was carrying an offensive weapon. When Jim remonstrated and said they were merely a small set of desert spoons he was told that he could easily file them down to a sharp point and kill or injure a fellow passenger! File them with what? His teeth!

My dentist has a little art gallery on the ceiling of his torture room. (I shouldn’t say that because he’s a very good dentist and never hurts me). The main picture is a full size Giclée print of my Swan Uppers at Marsh Lock painting. It contains about 50 characters, which should help patients forget what’s happening in their mouths while they count them. (I suggested to Robin, my dentist, that he gives a free consultation to the first person to either guess the correct amount or to identify how many people I’ve painted twice).
On Sunday – nearing the end of the Henley Literary Festival - while walking up to our Town Hall to hear Carol Thatcher and Stanley Johnson talk about their lives, I chanced upon these beautiful Harley Davidson machines adorning the town square.

Carol Thatcher was hilarious. She gabbled along, hardly pausing for breath, and gave a very exciting glimpse of family life in 10 Downing Street when her mother was Prime Minister. She answered all the questions from the audience with total honesty and real humour.
Stanley Johnson (father of London Mayor Boris Johnson) followed her. What a superb raconteur he is! Regaling us with tales of his life both at home and abroad, I was particularly amused with one of his stories about his youth. Being a little shy of the opposite sex he asked his best friend (a bit of a roué it seemed) how to chat up girls – with a view to enticing them into bed I gather. “Find out what they like and then profess to like the same thing,” his friend said. “For example, if she says she likes apples, tell her you like apples too. Then follow up with – shall we go to bed!” Stanley thought his was a good idea so when he met a girl he fancied he said, “Do you like France?” She said she did. “And do you like Paris?” he added. “Yes I do,” she replied. “Well will you come there with me for the weekend?” said Stanley. To his surprise she said she would. So off they went, and when they got there they found a little café where Stanley ordered a bottle of wine and told her to stay there while he found a hotel. A few streets away he located a small hotel where his only dilemma was whether to book one room with two beds, two rooms, or best of all one room with a double bed. Having booked the latter he retraced his steps to the café. But couldn’t remember where it was! So the poor girl was left there, as he never did find it again. About 15 years later he chanced upon the girl, whose first words were, “And where did you get to?”
Here’s the cover of his book. I bought a copy and hope it’s as hilarious as his talk was.

Talking of books, I’ve just received my copy of ‘Hero of the Fleet’. This is William Stone’s autobiography and contains a reproduction of the miniature I did of him, as well as several quotes of conversations I had with him. One of which was soon after my teeth implants were made in Hungary. I asked him if his teeth were his own, and was very impressed when he said they were (he being about 106 at the time). But his next sentence made me laugh out loud. “I know they’re mine because I paid for the buggers”, he said. Sadly William died this year, as did Harry Patch and Henry Allingham – the last three survivors of the First World War.

Another book came my way last week. This one is called ‘The Panda and the Prince’ and traces the story of the panda and how it became the symbol of the World Wildlife Fund.. The author used the drawing I did of Prince Philip a number of years ago at Buckingham Palace (he’s the Prince referred to in the title) in the pages of the book.

Also within the pages is an old photograph of me with a few of our top executives, just after we alighted from a helicopter in Hong Kong in the 70’s. I’m the slim character on the left, by the way.

Saturday, 3 October 2009

War Horse

The highlight of my week was undoubtedly on Wednesday. Joanna had booked tickets for ‘War Horse’ at the New London Theatre in Drury Lane. Brian and Jane picked me up just after five pm. How we managed to get to Sarastro’s restauarant in London – which I’d booked for just one hour later – in time for a hurried meal, I’ll never know. But we did. (I call Jane “Last minute dot com” as she is invariably late, but she and Brian always seem to arrive in time somehow).
Sarastro’s is the most colourful restaurant in London in my opinion. You sit in little decorated golden gondolas and feel as if you are taking part in an amazing Venetian pageant.
I’d recommend ‘War Horse’ to anyone. It’s so different to anything else I’ve ever seen, and is set in Devon just before the First World War. It’s the story of the war as seen through the eyes of a horse. The visual part of the story is projected on to a huge 25 metre torn page as if ripped from a sketchbook. Sometimes you are looking at a Devon landscape, then a floating cloud, next a vast horizon, then eventually a battlefield – complete with loud and terrifying sounds of war. There’s no way I can describe the story or spectacle of the highly original staging. The young horse – Joey – and later the full-size horse, together with other horses, are made from wood and worked by men inside the structures. What was amazing was that after just a short while you only saw the horses – the men inside seemed to disappear. Every gesture, snort and movement was faithfully depicted. Maybe these pictures will give an inkling of their construction.
We had fantastic seats – right in the centre of the theatre - and being in the second row from the front in the dress circle, we had the most wonderful panoramic view of the whole show.
Wandering through Covent Garden after the show, as the evening was so balmy we stopped at a little outdoor café and drank cappuccinos till midnight.

At last I’ve found the perfect surface for pencil drawings! It’s taken a lot of experimentation over the years. From Not Pressed to Hot Pressed, line and wash Saunders watercolour board to Daler-Rowney’s acid-free Smooth paper, etc, etc. But today, hooray, a couple of Schoellwershammer line and wash watercolour boards arrived. The surface is just right for my style of drawing and I’ve already started a large portrait, only reluctantly putting it down to write this blog.

Today is Saturday and Henley is in the middle of its Literary Festival. Now in its third year, there is so much to do. This morning Val and I boarded the ‘Hibernia’ a 75 foot riverboat – where we listened to poetry readings as we cruised up to Marsh Lock and then down to Hambleden before returning an hour later. Many of the poems were about the river and the four readers were all experts, one of them – Sally – is a famous Shakespearean actress (as well as being the daughter of the Everest conqueror, Sir John Hunt).

The Poetry Readers

So much is happening this weekend. Last night we went to the Kenton Theatre to listen to a talk by Ben Fogle and James Cracknell. Oarsman James is an Olympic gold medallist and Ben has appeared on many television shows. A couple of years ago they rowed across the Atlantic (Ben had never rowed in his life before that), and recently they entered a race to the South Pole, only being narrowly beaten to their destination by a Norwegian army team. Talk about endurance – the trek (they walked all the way dragging their sledges behind them) took six weeks, in which time James Cracknel lost over 40 lbs. They do so much for charities. For example after the show last night, at about 10pm they were due to be picked up by car and driven through the night to Edinburgh. There they plan to be harnessed to a pair of rickshaws where they will walk for about 60 hours to London dragging the rickshaws behind them. What an amazing pair!

Felicity and I saw Jeremy Paxman – of TV fame – give a very interesting talk about Victorian painters (also at the Kenton) in the afternoon. I’m particularly fond of Victorian art and had already seen his TV series on the subject. My American readers may not know who Jeremy Paxman is, but apart from anchoring ‘Newsnight’ on the BBC he is in charge of ‘University Challenge’ on BBC 2. His abrasive and incisive style frightens most people. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, for example, refused to be interviewed by him, I’m reliably told. So you can imagine how frustrated he became last night when the computer images of about 100 paintings didn’t work properly. The poor operator was at his wits end, and as the images kept popping up out of order Paxman became increasingly irritated. (If the computer man had been closer to him I’m sure he would have felt Paxy’s fist rather than just the verbal tongue-lashing and ire we experienced). Eventually the show progressed after a fashion. Luckily Jeremy Paxman is a good speaker and knew his subject well, so we really enjoyed the afternoon. This painting by J.W.Waterhouse is one of my favourites.

"The Lady of Shalott"

I’d better not write much more or cousin Paul will tell me that my blogs are becoming too long! However it has been a good week and although I got in over 40 hours painting I fear it might be wasted, as in rubbing out the pencil marks under a fine line of vermillion I’d just painted, somehow paint got on the rubber (‘eraser’ to my US friends) and made such a nasty mark on the painting that I don’t think I can save it. That’s the worst of watercolour – at least in the style I paint – you can’t make a mistake!

So briefly my week, apart from the above, went something like this - Felicity (who knows the layout of hospitals like the back of her hand) took me to the Royal Berks to have a chest x-ray on Tuesday, I took Josie and Tom Campbell to dinner at the Curry Leaf in Wargrave on Thursday, then later on to a swanky ‘after-show’ Literary party at the Hotel Du Vin. Went to lunch with Paul and Debbie, Bill and Dee at Phyllis Court on Monday and welcomed Molly for tea on Sunday after her arrival from New Zealand a few hours earlier. That woman has stamina!

To end with - here’s a photo I took last night from my studio window.