Friday, 26 March 2010

Oops! Wrong Party.

On Monday evening Leslie Thomas launched his new book “Almost Heaven” at a very auspicious location – Salisbury Cathedral.The two-hour drive down to Salisbury was horrendous with driving rain and dark grey skies the whole way. Amongst the guests were a smattering of war correspondents and photographers who I found fascinating to talk to about their experiences in the fighting zones of Asia, especially as we had several friends in common from those far off days. On the back cover of Leslie’s book is reproduced the miniature portrait I painted of him a few years ago.

After the launch I made my way round the darkened precinct of the cathedral to Leslie and Diana’s house in the close where dinner for a few of the their close friends was laid on. At least I intended to be there. Having ascertained where the house was I knocked on the front door and was invited in. What a posh do, I thought, seeing the champagne and beautifully dressed guests assembled there. I didn’t see Leslie or Diana but was introduced to Lady Cathcart, who it seems was hosting the dinner party. It soon became apparent that I’d come to the wrong house! The Thomas’s lived next door! Highly embarrassed I started to retreat, but the most charming Lady Cathcart asked if I’d like to stay and have a glass of champagne. I politely declined and found my way to the correct house. About thirty guests were there. We were served shepherd’s pie and meringues. As the launch coincided with Leslie’s 79th birthday I decided to give him the miniature in a leather and velvet case as a present - which he loved. The icing sugar on the cake depicted the cover of the book. Here’s a picture of Diana holding it – taken from my phone it’s not a brilliant photograph.

The other day I went to see the Van Gogh exhibition at the Royal Academy in London.

It was really fascinating as many of the letters he wrote to his brother Theo were on display, as well as the paintings. I particularly liked the sepia drawings, which he included in most of the letters. One letter written in English to an Australian friend of his showed what a great command of the English language he had and how passionately he felt about his work. My favourite gallery was the one in which were displayed about twenty or so portraits. His use of colour was masterful and I hadn’t realised till then how much use he made of a flat-ended pen in his work. While buying a few things in the RA shop I saw Yoko Ono, John Lennon’s widow, browsing there also, looking very smart in a white fedora hat.
Having a couple of hours to spare before catching the coach back to Henley I had a quick lunch, then ambled along to Waterstone's in Piccadilly where I could relax in one of the arm-chairs dotted around the place and read any of the books I liked. Then to round off the afternoon I indulged in a shoe-shine in Burlington Arcade. There’s nothing like sitting on the raised chair and watching the expert bringing your shoes to life.

Sunday evening was spent at the Mill at Sonning with Paul - my cousin, Jo his wife, and four of their grandchildren. The occasion was a two-hour show entitled ‘An Evening with Paul Daniels’. We had a really good time – except that Paul picked on me a few times – especially as we were sitting right in the middle of the front row. But then I expected that. Three of the children were chosen at various times during the show to help Paul with magic on the stage. He was intrigued by their names – Lorcan, Robyn and Hebe. All three performed really well – and Robyn proved to be a very talented little trouper. Although I’ve seen many of Paul’s acts and illusions on a number of occasions I’m still baffled. Especially by the guillotine which cuts a trio of carrots in half but keeps the hapless victim’s head intact!.

And finally, to show I really do work hard, here’s my latest miniature which I painted last week. It’s of a friend, Peter Sutherland, wearing his white bow tie.

Sunday, 14 March 2010

A Day in The Life of ...

Yesterday was one of those really good days. After a hearty breakfast I put a few pieces into the 3,000- piece jigsaw that’s been languishing on my dining room table for a while. It’s an old-fashioned illustrated map of the world and is, to say the least, challenging.

Next stop was the Kenton Theatre in Henley where a champagne party was being held for those of us who were helping in the project ‘Kenton For Keeps’. As you may know the Kenton is the fourth oldest working theatre in England and it is aiming to raise one and a half million pounds over the next two years. This will ensure the future of the Kenton as a theatre in perpetuity. Yesterday’s party was such a happy affair, and I met so many friends there.

All the volunteer helpers just ooze enthusiasm. Here’s Sammy Webb from Hambleden.

And Debbie McGee with ‘Mrs Mopp’

Apart from the champagne, they were serving delicious meringues, cake and coffee – which had to serve as my lunch because at 1.30 Brian and Jane Hill were picking me up to drive in to London. Using the Tom Tom Satnav I’ve just installed as a new ‘App’ on to my iPhone we very easily found our way to the Museum of Brands, Packaging & Advertising which is based near the Portobello Road in Notting Hill. The Museum is a magical place and features over 12,000 items on permanent display, from Victorian times to the present day. It’s like walking through a time tunnel of cartons and bottles, toys and advertising displays.

My reason for the visit was because, being a package designer in a previous life - when I worked for Huntley and Palmers as a biscuit tin designer, I was to be filmed for a 90 minute documentary.

After being made-up I went upstairs where Robert Opie, the founder of the collection, was conducting the interviews. I’d been asked to spend some time walking around the museum and noting down anything that sparked memories of my youth, or of other times gone by. Of course with so much to look at, from old nine inch black and white television sets to biscuit tins (some of which I’d designed myself in the fifties), I was able to rabbit on in front of the camera about the Sobranie individually coloured cocktail cigarettes we youths used to smoke – mainly to impress the girls – and about the memories, during the war, of my mother’s favourite perfume (An Evening in Paris) and her favourite cigarettes (Craven A) all of which were there in the museum. I especially remembered the after-shave ‘Old Spice’ and here’s the little story I related to Robert.
“Having served my time as a National Serviceman in Singapore, where I was drawing maps for the British Forces during the Malayan Emergency, I was returning home on a York aircraft, when the most wonderful aroma drifted down the aisle. It belonged to a sailor who had recently been in New York. At the risk of sounding effeminate (those were the days when men very rarely used after-shave) I asked the sailor what he was wearing. ‘Old Spice’ he replied. It had just that month been launched in the USA. As soon as I got home I spent a large portion of my demob money on a bottle. In its white porcelain container it still resides in my bathroom cabinet. And what’s more, after 50 years, it still retains its aroma!”

Jane was utterly transported by the memories she saw – especially the individual fruit pie she used to buy every evening at Waterloo Station on her way home from work. When she watched me being interviewed her enthusiasm was so apparent that Robert Opie asked her if she’d like to appear on camera as well. Which she did. She also, much to Brian’s delight, decided to donate some of her hoarded ‘treasures’ to the museum.

Eventually we negotiated the heavy traffic leaving London that evening and called into the ‘Little Angel’ for dinner, where we joined my neighbours, Chris and Nicky Williams, who had managed to find a quiet spot in the corner of the restaurant. Thank goodness, as the restaurant was extremely rowdy with the Henley rugby team and their supporters celebrating either a victory or a defeat – I didn’t bother to find out.

As I was home before ten, I framed and catalogued the miniature I’d finished on Friday. It’s of a Ugandan farmer.

Then I relaxed in front of the TV till about 1am. And so to bed - as they say.

Thursday, 11 March 2010

Where are you Cinderella?

How are these two pictures connected? You may well ask. No, I’m not developing a foot-fetish. In fact both are made of chocolate. The chocolate shoe was a present from my friend Bluebells who visited Henley on Sunday afternoon. My dilemma now is where to start – heel or toe? Or maybe the chocolate button. Decisions! Decisions! As far as the Easter pack of chocolates is concerned I’ll relate a little story. Last week, when shopping at Waitrose, I bought the pack above (as I buy about twenty-five different eggs and other Easter goodies - mainly for the family- I stagger my purchases over a number of weeks). When I looked for it yesterday it had disappeared. Perhaps I’d left it my car boot? No. In the refrigerator? No. The only other possibility was that I’d left it in the trolley in the car-park. About four days later I called in to Waitrose, harbouring the extremely remote thought that someone had handed it in. They had! So thank you kind person, whoever you are. And thank you Waitrose for keeping it for all those days.

I completed the three-miniature portrait commission for the New York client on Friday and now look forward with great interest to see how the jeweller makes the fabulous Faberge styled frames within which they will be housed.
Also on Saturday I put the last touches to my first double miniature portrait. It’s of friends Fergus and Zelia – they live in the woodlands of deepest Devon.

When I mentioned the other day that I gave an illustrated talk to the Remenham WI and all they offered was ‘electricity’, I was looking forward to giving a presentation on Tuesday morning to PROBUS (the professional businessmen’s organisation) as they had informed me that all I need bring was a CD as they were fully equipped with everything. I should have known better. I did take my laptop as a precaution, but soon after my arrival at the venue ( Badgemore Golf Club) I discovered they had no digital projector or sound system – pretty basic items for a 100 image presentation with a bit of video I would have thought. Luckily I own a digital projector, so the chairman whisked me back home to pick it up. My talk was entitled ‘A Brush With Life’ and basically was about my life in art. The 50-strong audience was delightful – the oldest man there was 92 and had been a bomber pilot during the war. In fact another five ex RAF pilots were there, all of whom had flown Spitfires. I really enjoyed the day – and they served a nice lunch afterwards.

It was an Alice in Wonderland in 3D evening yesterday at the Regal cinema in Henley. I just loved the inventiveness of the costumes, and the way recognisable actors were morphed - or whatever technique was used - into characters such as the Red Queen (Helen Bonham Carter) and Tweedledee and Tweedledum (Matt Lucas). I guess I’m still a boy at heart - I even revel in Disney World – but although the screenplay wasn’t the greatest, the sets and sheer imagination won me over. I’m still not sure whether my defective eye allows me to experience the full 3D effect - perhaps I need to see it on Imax or a 180 degree big screen.

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Magic Pencils and Silken Maps

The lovely Joanna Lumley – who greets me every time I open my computer in AOL - was performing at the Watermill Theatre in Newbury last Wednesday.

Cousin Paul had invited me to accompany him to the show. This wonderful little theatre seats just 220 people. It’s located on the banks of the river Lambourn in West Berkshire. A mention was made in the Domesday book of a theatre on the site. For hundreds of years the Watermill produced corn and paper, then in the early 1960’s was converted into a theatre.

Joanna Lumley was great – so elegant and friendly. She talked about her time alone on a desert island when she made a pair of shoes out of her bra (informing us that her breasts were the same size as her feet!). People in the audience were encouraged to ask questions as she described her time in the Avengers TV series, the James Bond film, and of course the hilariously funny ‘Absolutely Fabulous’ TV series. She talked about her wonderfully uplifting visit to the Northern lights in the Arctic – I remember it clearly. A truly great afternoon.

Inside the Watermill Theatre

When we got back to Paul’s house he spent some time becoming a follower on my blog and downloaded a picture of one of his prize bulls as his identification symbol. It won’t be long before he starts his own blog as he’s already drafted out his first. Later in the evening we were joined by Jo and went for dinner at a very friendly pub in the nearby village of Chieveley.

I went for the annual check-up at my optician the other day – my records there go back over 40 years. Luckily my one good eye is ‘super-duper’ and does the work of two. In fact I can still read the very smallest point size (about 2 pt.) on their chart. As I regularly have an ‘Optimat’ test – which photographs the back of the eye - it was interesting to see that the very tiny beginnings of a cataract hasn’t moved or grown over the past ten years. However the optician said that if it does ever become a problem, a mere 20 minute procedure would replace the lens and not only solve the problem but would almost definitely cure my astigmatism. Thank goodness we are living in an age of such rapid progress in medicine.

Over the past three weeks I’ve painted three miniature portraits for a client in New York, and am very much looking forward to seeing them in their frames, because they will be housed in the most spectacular solid gold and coloured enamel ‘Faberge styled’ frames which will cost about twenty times my fee for the portraits! They are to be a present for a rich man’s 70th birthday.

Last night I was watching ‘Priceless Antiques’ from the Antiques Road Show on television and was intrigued with one of the objects.

Just a pencil you’d think – that is until the owner showed how the rubber (or eraser for the benefit of my American friends) at the end of the pencil unscrewed to reveal a tiny compass. And inside the shaft of the pencil was a complete rolled-up map of Germany, printed on the thinnest of tracing paper. These pencils were smuggled in to our prisoners of war in Germany during the Second World War, and with just these two items an escapee could hopefully find his way out of the country to freedom. This reminded me of a truly intriguing story I read about recently. Again, during the war, when devices were sought to facilitate escapes from the prisoner-of-war camps, Waddington, the makers of the board game ‘Monopoly’ was approached to help. As ‘games and pastimes’ was a category allowed to be inserted into CARE packages sent to prisoners of war by the International Red Cross, under the strictest of secrecy in a securely guarded workshop in the grounds of Waddington’s, a group of sworn-to-secrecy employees began mass producing escape maps keyed to each region of Germany or Italy where allied POW camps were located. MI5 had the idea of printing escape maps on silk. Silk because it is durable, can be scrunched up into tiny wads, makes no noise, and can be unfolded as many times as needed.

Hidden inside Monopoly playing pieces these maps were augmented by a small compass, a two part metal file that could be screwed together, and useful amounts of high denomination German, French and Italian currency. These were hidden within the piles of Monopoly money. Air crews were advised before taking off on their first mission, how to identify a ‘rigged’ Monopoly set – by means of a tiny red dot, located in the corner of the Free Parking square. Of the estimated 35,000 Allied POW’s who successfully escaped, an estimated one third were aided by the rigged Monopoly sets. Everyone who did so was sworn to secrecy indefinitely, since the British Government might want to use this highly successful ruse in a future war. In fact the story wasn’t declassified until 2007, when the surviving craftsmen from Waddington’s, as well as the firm itself, were finally honoured in a public ceremony.