Sunday, 29 November 2009

The Magic of Camelot

The other day, after a marathon tidy–up of my studio with Tracey, I came across an exercise I did some time ago. It was a small portrait of David Hemmings, and showed him in his role of Mordred from the film Camelot. The three portraits you see below were executed in pencil, watercolour and scraperboard. (You can enlarge them by clicking on the images).

Pencil drawing
Scraperboard drawing
Watercolour painting
I was living in Bangkok with my girlfriend – Jeanne - when the film came out in 1967. We played the record constantly. It contained some wonderful songs – “The lusty month of May”, “Camelot” of course, “The simple joys of maidenhood” and “If ever I would leave you”, to name just a few. In those days life for an expatriate woman in Thailand was very difficult. They couldn’t obtain work and police permits, hardly anyone spoke English, the city was full of beautiful young Thai girls, and we men worked extremely long hours. So sadly, after just six months of living together, Jeanne reluctantly departed Bangkok and moved to Hong Kong. The reason I mention this is that after she left I must have played “If ever I would leave you” every day for months.

This week has been mostly taken up with painting between 8 and 10 hours a day on my large watercolour of my two friends. It will eventually take over 300 hours to complete – so far I’ve done about 70 – but I’m very excited about it, Paul and Debbie came over for a simple supper on Wednesday evening. It wasn’t my best culinat0ry effort – mainly because I forgot to put the onions in the crock-pot! And I added some strange green vegetables, which seemed to dominate the flavour. But the chicken satay first course went down well. Debbie told me of a great shop to buy ‘girlie’ presents in Reading, so as I was having lunch with my watch-maker friend David Card and taking a couple of paintings to be framed in Caversham on Thursday, I called into the shop. It’s in the Oracle and is called ‘Octopus’. As you enter the shop you are confronted with the most spectacular blaze of colour. I bought half a dozen lovely presents there. And now I think I’ll have to go back sometime before Christmas to buy a couple more, having had time to think about it.

It’s good when artists get together and discuss each others work. Yesterday a friend and I took a trip over to Timmy Mallett’s studio in Cookham. Timmy has a great little studio in his garden, and paints in Acrylics. When we got there Timmy was working on a very nice painting of a snowball fight. My friend immediately sat down in front of the easel and added a few touches to the painting (with Timmy’s approval, I might add) then brought out his magic toothbrush and demonstrated by flicking white paint over the painting how to instantly add snowflakes to the scene. Very effective. I remember being taught how to do this when as an apprentice lithographic artist I needed to achieve the effect of a Cotswold stone cottage wall when painting a country scene. My friend paints in oil, Timmy paints in Acrylic, and I paint in watercolour, so we chatted about the merits or otherwise of each technique. While at Timmy’s I gave him a framed copy of the miniature I painted of him last year when he took part in the TV show “I’m a Celebrity – Get Me Out of Here!” filmed in the Australian ‘jungle’.

Miniature portrait of Timmy Mallett

The other day I arrived home in the late afternoon to find that a squad of workmen were digging a great big hole in our courtyard. It was dark, raining, and there was mess and rubble everywhere. Without even informing anyone here they – subcontracted by Thames Water - assumed there was a leak in our courtyard, and just started digging merrily away. The first my neighbour knew about it was the sound of a drill just outside his bedroom. When I asked them what on earth they were doing they said there must be a leak because they had detected running water under the courtyard. I pointed to the adjacent building and said, “Do you know what that building contains?” They didn’t. “It’s our dedicated sewerage plant" I replied, "and after doing its job, the purified water is released under the courtyard towards the river. So that’s your running water”. “Oh, that’s what it is” the chap in charge said. They left soon afterwards, leaving a terrible mess of mud and concrete for us to clear up. Now we have a horrible nasty scar in the courtyard- and not a word of apology!

It’s now lashing down with rain, so I’m going to work on my PowerPoint presentation for a talk I’m giving to the Women’s Institute next month. It will trace the origins of miniature portrait painting leading up to a visual demonstration of how I go about painting a miniature.

Sunday, 22 November 2009

Enigma at Bletchley Park

On Wednesday I, together with a young friend, visited Bletchley Park, also known as Station X, in Buckinghamshire.

During World War Two Bletchley Park was England’s main decryption establishment. Ciphers and codes of the Axis countries were decrypted there – most importantly ciphers generated by the German Enigma machine.
The establishment and its activities were kept a complete secret till many years after the war, leading to Winston Churchill’s famous remark “The geese that laid the golden eggs but never cackled”.

A striking picture of Churchill

My good friend Jack Darrah showed us around the amazing Churchill Rooms in Bletchley Park where many thousands of pieces of Churchill memorabilia are housed. I have always been a Churchill admirer, and a couple of years ago donated six miniature portraits I had painted of the great man to the museum but hadn’t realised that they are now housed in a special cabinet together with a number of my books – very flattering.

Jack Darrah and me in the Churchill Rooms

Bletchley Park was declassified as a wartime code-breaking establishment and its existence revealed to the general public in the mid 1970’s. It was finally decommissioned in 1987 after 50 years association with British Intelligence.
Bletchley Park is rightly described as the birthplace of the modern computer, and in one of the rooms we discovered this wonderful rendition – in slate – of Alan Turing, sculpted by the artist Stephen Kettle.

Alan Turing, together with Gordon Welchman, developed the ‘Bombe’ - a machine used to crack the Enigma codes. Recently a complete replica has been made and when in operation the spindles have drums fitted to them representing the three wheels of the Enigma machine. Colossus machines were electronic computing devices and were the world’s first programmable, digital, electronic computers. The encrypted messages were read at high speed from a paper tape, which goes round at a speed of about 30 mph!


Speeding tapes

An Enigma machine

In another building there was a special section devoted to carrier pigeons. They were used extensively during the war to carry messages and were often dropped by parachute. This photo shows the type of parachute used by the pigeons.

Pigeon parachutist

I thoroughly recommend a visit to Bletchley Park – there is so much to see and so much history of the code-breakers to learn.

My working week has almost exclusively been devoted to starting a large and very detailed painting of two friends of mine. Maybe I’ll show the progress at a later date, as the painting is bound to take at least two months to compete. For the past three days I’ve worked on it for 10 hours at a stretch.

Yesterday evening Jilly and I played skittles. The boat section of Phyllis Court had organised a dinner together with a skittles match at the Upper Thames Motor Yacht Club on Mill Island at Sonning. We had a good time there and didn’t disgrace ourselves as we both scored eight out of nine in two of our three games.

I’ve bought and wrapped nearly all of my Christmas presents – only about 12 to go – and all the Christmas cards are ready to post, so I can relax on that score and settle down to paint hard - in fact although I never usually paint on a Sunday I’m so excited about the painting I’m working on I think I’ll put in 4 or 5 hours now before I go to Val’s for dinner.

Christmas is a coming

Saturday, 14 November 2009

Lest We Forget

Last Wednesday, at the11th hour of the11th day of the11th month of the year Armistice Day was observed in Westminster Abbey in the presence of the Queen. A truly memorable event, especially as this year marked the sad deaths of the remaining survivors of the First World War – Henry Allingham, Harry Patch and William Stone.

This is the last picture that William sent me – just a week or two before his death earlier this year. (He’s the Jolly Jack Tar in the wheelchair on the right). The service in Westminster Abbey was especially dedicated to these three veterans. Now (apart from a lone British survivor who lives in Australia) there is no one left who fought in that long ago and dreadful war. Anne, William’s daughter, had the great honour of reading the first lesson during the ceremony. She and her husband Michael sat at the front of the Abbey next to Margaret Thatcher and John Major.
The Abbey is where the tomb of the unknown warrior is located. I hadn’t realised until the other day, when a film was shown on TV, that at the end of the war a small group of soldiers went from mass grave to mass grave in the battlefields and returned with a small number of bodies – all unidentified. They were then brought back to England and placed before an Army Major who was blindfolded. He then tapped on the coffin of one of the bodies. This soldier thus became the unknown warrior. I wonder just how many relatives of the war dead have passed by the tomb wondering whether their son, husband or lover is buried beneath the black marble slab.

The colours of autumn were either blown away or washed away in today’s high winds and rain. However they were still there last Sunday when Val and I visited Joanne Dalston in the Cotswold village of Bampton. On the way we passed through the beech woods in Nettlebed where I took these photographs.

Val taking photographs of the woods

The snooker section at Phyllis Court held their ‘Colours’ tournament last Thursday evening. Jilly bravely came also – as the only woman amongst 16 men. She did very well – and won one of her three games with a spectacular pot of the blue ball. (We’d sneakily been practising this opening shot earlier in the week). One of these days I intend to win the trophy, but Thursday was not one of them.

The Snooker Room at Phyllis Court

Just another couple of days to go and I’ll complete my latest painting – an autumn scene by the creek at Bird Place. I’ve left a little space in the middle of the picture where I intend to paint a miniature view of Henley’s church and pub right by the bridge.
Not much has happened this week. I did unearth a big crock-pot that hasn’t been used for over twenty years and, with cubes of Aberdeen Angus and an assortment of fresh vegetables, assembled them all in the morning to cook on a slow setting for about 7 hours. It was delicious by the evening when I subjected my young friend to a tasting.

Saturday, 7 November 2009

Lasting Reminder of a Legend

Next week I’ve entered a snooker-style ‘Colours’ tournament at Phyllis Court and as I’m a bit rusty at the moment (when was I not?) Jilly and I had a sneaky practice game yesterday evening. Neither of us will win, mind you, but we both needed the practice.

‘The Henley Standard’ – our local newspaper - did an article about one of my large watercolour paintings this week under the caption “Lasting reminder of a Legend”. It’s called ‘Vince Hill-this is your life’. Incidentally I usually include a little secret in my larger pictures, and if you click on this one you may be able to see the words ‘Vince Hill’ painted on the edge of his collar). Vince will be appearing at the Kenton Theatre in Henley on Wednesday December 9th in aid of the ’Kenton for Keeps’ campaign. It should be a great show. For tickets (£15) call the box office on 01491 575698.

Talking of legends, my grandfather, Arthur Staniforth, was a minor legend in his time. Between the two World Wars, when he was living in Henley, managing the prestigious Royal Hotel, he felt so sorry for the scores of poor barefoot children in the area that he bought new shoes for them all. This was just one of his many philanthropic deeds. He also befriended hundreds of the young women widowed in the First World War and gave most of his money away. I used to visit him often on my leaves from the Far East in the sixties and I always remember one of his pieces of advice – “If you’ve got a three-penny bit, a pen-knife and a piece of string in your pocket you can look anyone in the eye!” Here’s racy picture of him (he’s on the top right) with my grandmother, and their four children – my mother seated on the left).

Apart from domestic things – like having a new tap installed in the kitchen (which overnight caused a dangerous amount of water to cascade down into the control cupboard in the hallway below!) – my week has consisted of 8 to 9 hour painting days. There were two highlights however. One, I was treated to a birthday dinner at my favourite Italian Restaurant on Tuesday evening by my young friend, and on Thursday went to an art exhibition and wine tasting at Fawley Hall – the magnificent home of Sir William McAlpine. Lady McAlpine’s daughter, Vicky, is a really good artist and her versatility shone out in her large oil portraits of cattle, incredible still-life paintings of apples, nectarines and other fruit. She also showed a number of delicate drawings on toned pastel paper of babies. For a part of the evening Vicky was carrying her five week-old baby in her arms. And what a little charmer she was! Passed around from person the person little Polly seemed to gurgle with delight. The other guests were interesting too – Alan’s bronze and resin full size sculpture of a stag welcomed us to the event at the main front door and I met Gray Jolliffe, the cartoonist who introduced ‘Wicked Willie’ to the world in a series of hilarious books published in the eighties. (I’d better not put an example of the cartoons on my blog or it might get censored!) The main room where the exhibition was held had an intriguing floor design – a very large and intricate map of the Oxfordshire area. Apparently it rolls up to reveal the indoor swimming-pool. One of my favourite artists is David Shepherd and I was delighted to see an original elephant painting of his hanging above the fireplace.

A couple of days a go I took this photograph from our back garden of a solitary swan glistening in a shimmering sunlit scene.

I totally agree with RG9‘s comment on my last blog. Yes Sir. Roll on the day when a Minister for Common Sense is appointed here in England.

Sunday, 1 November 2009

Red, Yellow and Gold

I love warm colours and as this autumn has been especially kind - almost tropical - the myriad of red, yellow, orange and golden tints in the countryside is wonderful to behold. I popped in to see my friends Peter and Diane on Saturday afternoon. Their house is right next to the river by Henley Bridge so I wandered down to the creek at the bottom of the garden and took a few photographs. Here’s a couple:

I haven’t done much this week, but Thursday was my birthday, so in total contrast to last year (when I ‘made merit’ at the start of the day by rising at 5am to feed nine saffron-robed monks as they sauntered down Sukhumvit Road in Bangkok) Dee and Bill had organised a lovely birthday dinner party for me at their home in Henley. And what a nice evening it was. Just twelve of us enjoyed pink champagne and a gorgeous Indian meal. Chris Hollis was there - he’s currently appearing on ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ on BBC TV and partners the professional dancer Ola (she who wears the skimpiest and sexiest of costumes). Chris is the sports presenter on Sky in the mornings and has to get up at 4am, so to follow this at 10am with about 9 hours rehearsal at the dance studio must be particularly tiring. But he survived last night and didn’t have to face the dance-off.

Party friends
After nearly sixty years of shaving the old-fashioned way with lathered fingers I have now entered the elite group of men who lather their faces with a brush before shaving. So I was delighted when Brian and Jane presented me with a very smart badger shaving brush for my birthday present – I’m treating it as a life-changing event!

It’s been a pretty crap day today. Woke up to incessant rain - then at about 8 this morning the power went off. It came on about an hour later so I reset all the clocks, microwave, cooker, answer phone etc. Of course the power failed again ten minutes later. I think I’ll wait till later before doing the rounds again. Somehow the power cut lost my setting for Radio Berkshire just as I was listening to Debbie’s programme and when it returned I was subjected to a full half-an-hour of rubbish music (thinking Radio Berkshire had lost power too) before Paul phoned to put me right, and I retuned the station!
But the good news is that about ten minutes ago I received a nice email from America. It seems I’ve won the award for ‘Best Traditional Portrait’ in the upcoming Miniature Art Society of Florida show. It’s of Jane.

Felicity and Fenwick invited me to dinner last night. They‘ve just had a new - and expensive - new Sky HD system installed, but couldn’t make it record, or play high definition. Could I help? It was pretty obvious why the HD wouldn’t work, as their television set is over ten years old and in no way HD ready. Because of this it wouldn’t record either. What makes me cross is that the Sky installer assured them it would all work perfectly, when he knew full well it was impossible.

My friends think I’m daft because I’ve already printed nearly three hundred Christmas cards and have addressed all the envelopes. Same thing with presents – half are wrapped already. I wanted to get all this done early this year so I can fully absorb myself in painting over the next few months. I’m just about to start on an autumn scene as soon as I can figure out how to show a little view of St. Mary’s Church peeping out in the distance between the trees. I’ve just realised Radio Four is on in this room, Radio Two in the bedroom, and Radio Berkshire on in the living room. – all at the same time.

Last week I wrote about a supermarket querying the age of a shopper when she attempted to buy a greetings card with a picture of a wine glass on it. Well, they are still at it. This time it’s Asda’s branch in Aberdeen. They refused to sell a customer two individual lemons. Why? It seems it’s Asda’s policy to 'protect the public' by not selling individual lemons because local yobs have been known to throw lemons at people. Lemons in packs of ten can still be bought because to quote the store ‘They are smaller and less dangerous’. Incidentally the customer is seventy years old!
By the way, if you don't already know, you can enlarge any of the photographs above by merely clicking on the image.