Sunday, 27 June 2010


I hate wire coat hangers with a vengeance! If any manage to venture into my wardrobe they instantly seem to mate with each other – causing me to swear loudly when I attempt to untangle them. If my bedroom was big enough I now know how to solve the problem – by hiring this 12ft high gorilla as a guard. Why? Because he’s entirely made of wire coat hangers and would surely keep my sex-crazed intruders from their devious games.
I spied this monster when we visited the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition in London on Thursday morning. He’s called ‘Silver Spark’ and was made by David Mach. A truly gigantic and arresting piece of work. You are not supposed to take photographs in the Royal Academy, but I couldn’t resist just taking this one – while my young friend scampered into the next gallery – pretending not to be with me!

Later in the day we collected a few miniatures and two of my large paintings from the ‘Not The Royal Academy’ Exhibition from the Llewellyn Gallery, where they’d been on display.
It turned out to be a day of exhibitions as Bindi, (Rolf Harris’s daughter) had invited me to the private view of her paintings and sculptures at the City and Guilds Art School at Kennington. Apart from being stuck on the overcrowded tube between stations for about twenty minutes on the hottest day of the year while an ‘incident’ was investigated (someone had pressed the emergency button), Bindi’s work was well worth seeing. This is one of her sculptures – It’s a cathedral in the shape of a female torso. All the little figures and faces are tenderly rendered and around the back runs a curved human vertebrae.

Later that evening I staggered over to the Henley Bowling Club to play my first competitive game. The rules state that the first player to reach 21 wins the game. I was dead tired after such an exhausting day in the searing heat of London, but maybe I should get knackered more often, because I won the game 22 to 5.
Bowling is a little like skittles, where on the previous Sunday I’d attempted to equal my record of last year at the Harpsden village fete. Although I got the top score – as did a few others – I failed in the final. This is the scene.

But I did win a coconut.

Encouraged by my win on Thursday, yesterday morning I went to Jackson’s Department Store in Reading to kit myself up a bit more from their bowling section. I need a decent carry-case to hold my woods in – and as there was a sale going on I bought a couple of shirts and a white hat as well.
I was hoping to make a trip up the Hennerton Backwater this weekend but my dinghy is still not completely mended. The leak is not too bad, but if two of us get into the boat we’ll either sink or my companion will be constantly bailing. So I found an experienced boatman who will repair the leak properly. He rowed Marsh Midget down to the boatyard the other day while I drove there to meet him. After up-ending the dinghy we discovered exactly what was wrong – a small hole in the bottom, and a couple of rotten planks. He’ll temporarily mend the hole so I can have the boat back for Henley Regatta nest week. (No I’m not rowing in it, but I'll watch some of the races from the booms along the course.) At the end of the season Trevor will replace the planking, properly repair any other defects, sandpaper the outside and apply about 4 coats of varnish. As this is a totally labour-intensive task and therefore very costly I’ll defer the sanding and varnishing of the inside of the boat till the following year.

Today, Sunday is forecast to be the hottest day of the year, with temperatures reaching well over 30º (near 90º Fahrenheit). Yesterday afternoon we took my big boat through Marsh Lock and up to Shiplake. I’d invited Debbie and her friend Kerry to join us for a boat trip. Debbie had made the picnic – we supplied the Pimms (in nice little cans – just perfect for the river). Poor Kerry, who was arriving from London, was unexpectedly confronted by a motorway closure at the Henley junction, so, apart from being stuck in a horrible and frustrating traffic queue, ending up on the other side of Reading. Anyway she eventually arrived, and we were all soon enjoying a lovely cruise up the river sipping our fruit decorated Pimms on the way. After an hour or so we found a secluded tree-shaded bank and moored there to eat our picnic. The sun beat down as it travelled down in the sky below the shade of the trees. We chatted away as we sat in the boat watching all sorts of craft gliding by on the sun-dappled river. About 8, after a refreshing cup of tea on Debbie’ s verandah, we finally made our way home through Marsh Lock where a kind American guy worked the intricacies of the new mechanism there.

I've just been watching England being beaten by Germany in the World Cup. Germany deserved to win, except for our would-be second goal which was clearly over the goal line. In these days of modern communications why can't they emulate tennis and have an instant replay based on the sightings from the TV cameras?

Saturday, 19 June 2010

From a Hoot to a Coot

After seeing the England vs. Algeria football game the other evening the less said about that and the accompanying hoots the better. So, what of the coots? The nest is still there on the bathing platform of my boat, and of the original seven eggs as of today the mother is sitting on three little chicks. I fear the rest of the chicks have either got lost, been eaten by swans or pike or didn’t hatch properly in the first place. Here’s a photograph of the mother coot and her little brood.

Also I made a little video. If it doesn't display in your browser, you can try clicking here to view it on the YouTube website. (I even have my own YouTube channel where I post other videos from time to time).

If there’s one thing (well, probably a lot more) that I’m useless at it’s DIY. And that certainly includes trying to repair leaks in wooden boats! My little dinghy – Marsh Midget – has sprung a leak and for the past few days I’ve been trying to repair it. So far I’ve emptied two expensive cartridges of teak-coloured glue, discarded three other types of repair kits, covered the lock and gunwales and myself with unsightly long spirals of glue, and yesterday – even after Alan White – the boatman - came to my rescue I managed to drop great globules of dark brown glue all over the sleeve of a brand new shirt. Tracey can usually work miracles with stains on my clothes, but this time she thinks she’ll cut the sleeves off and transform the shirt into a short-sleeved version. Alan tells me the repair (if it works) can only be temporary, which means that I’ll need to have a copper plate riveted to the bottom of the boat before the season is over.

Most of the week has been spent painting a miniature portrait for a new client. Just a couple more days and it should be finished. Not every piece of vellum I use reacts the same way to watercolour. In this case the surface was slightly more absorbent than usual so I needed to paint even faster than usual. When it’s done I can get back to the larger size painting I’m working on. It’s a river scene of a collection of traditional boats nestling in the corner of the gardens of Ivy Cottage at Wargrave – the venue of the annual breakfast and AGM of the Hennerton Backwater Association. This is a photograph of some of the canoes, skiffs and other craft I might include in the final picture.

I go every year, and it’s always sunny. Last week was no exception and at about 9.30 about 50 of us munched our way through a variety of sausages and bacon in baps or rolls. There’s nothing like an alfresco breakfast to start the day. To add a bit of human interest to my painting I collared Richard Butler and a beautiful cream-coloured dog called Custard and had them pose for me, as I want to include them in the foreground.

The bowling season has started again. It is good to be back in full health as last year I had to abandon the game when I became too weak to pick up the woods. On Monday, as a competition took up most of the green, only two of us were there for coaching. Which was great because John the coach was able, for a couple of hours, to give us his total attention. I learned a lot that day and feel that I'm definitely beginning to improve. Earlier in the afternoon I was in Reading to hear from the consultant the results from my latest CT scan and was very glad to hear that all is well.

I wrote the other week about my nephew Neil nearly drowning when the tide rushed in while he was night fishing. At the very last moment he managed to find the toggle which inflated his life-jacket. A few days after he recovered from his ordeal he wrote to the manufacturers of the lifejacket thanking them for saving his life. They, in turn, very kindly not only sent him a replacement canister of gas, but gave him, free of charge, a new life-jacket which automatically inflates when submerged in water.

A young friend and I are becoming increasingly competitive on my Nintendo Wii. She beats me hollow on power boating and skydiving; we’re about level with archery and golf, and I’m ahead with bowling and – until yesterday – basketball. Maybe I’ll practice secretly on my own over the next few days. I do love the Wii.

Horizon Gallery have just produced limited editions in two sizes of my painting “The Olympians”. The quality is really excellent and they are hoping to sell quite a few during the coming Henley Royal Regatta.

By the way, RG9, Paul Daniels’ new blog is now active and interesting.

On a final note I read the other day that the Science Museum in London recently conducted research which reveals the top ten lies told by both sexes. Here they are:
1. I didn’t have that much to drink
2. Nothing’s wrong, I’m fine
3. I had no signal
4. It wasn’t that expensive
5. I’m on my way
6. I’m stuck in traffic
7. No, your bum doesn’t look big in that
8. Sorry, I missed your call
9. You’ve lost weight
10. It’s what I’ve always wanted

1. Nothing’s wrong, I’m fine
2. I don’t know where it is, I haven’t touched it
3. It wasn’t that expensive
4. I didn’t have that much to drink
5. I’ve got a headache
6. It was in the sale
7. I’m on my way
8. Oh, I’ve had this ages
9. No, I didn’t throw it away
10. It’s what I’ve always wanted

Sunday, 13 June 2010

What a Hoot!

Yesterday evening a friend came over to watch England’s first match in the World Cup in South Africa. Having set ourselves up with cider, Kettle Chips and a flag for her to wave, we settled down to enjoy the game. At the stadium the sound of thousands of 127-decibel, 3 ft long vuvuzelas eerily resembling a million hornets was quite deafening, but my friend joined in competition by downloading a special app on to her iPod which emitted a hooter-like sound. So we were well-prepared. However just 3 minutes into the game the picture vanished, to be replaced by a Hyundai car advertisement! That would have normally been OK but the ad came on at the very moment when Steven Gerrard scored England’s sole goal! The mistake only happened on high definition TV sets apparently. (I won’t mention the goal that keeper Robert Green let in.)

Now is the time of boat shows and regattas, so last Saturday we visited the Beale Park Boat Show at Pangbourne in Berkshire. I almost swapped my 23 ft.Windy for a smaller boat whilst touring all the stands, but decided instead to have a brand new tonneau cover made for the Windy. I like boat shows – there is always so much to see and do. Here’s a couple of photos I took there.

Talking of boats, Vince Hill’s sister and her family were staying with them at Sagamore last weekend so I was invited to lunch and a trip up river on their Electric boat. Vince put on his clipped English accent as we were going along – imitating a wartime Royal Navy captain giving orders to sink the enemy submarines. It was quite hilarious and I don’t know what the occupants of the little rowing boats and slipper launches thought as we went past with the children on board our boat joining in by acting as naval ratings.

On Friday a new client came to visit and to be photographed for a miniature portrait. After chatting for a while we soon found out that we had both worked for the same International adverting company. What was most intriguing in that it was only two weeks ago that Murray Livingstone Smith came to visit me from New York. It transpired that Murray was my new client’s closest friend and colleague in days gone by. I painted Murray many years ago dressed in a Spanish Bullfighter’s costume – for what reason I can’t quite remember.

Greys Court in Henley dates from 1346, when the De Greys were granted ‘licence to crenellate’ (fortify) the building. The ‘Prospect of Greys Court’ – above - was designed and made by Lilian Dring in 1964 and happily hangs in the kitchen there. Greys Court is now owned by the National Trust. We paid a visit yesterday afternoon, spending the first hour or so in the beautiful gardens before touring the house itself. They even have a well-designed maze on the other side of the vegetable garden inspired by Dr Robert Runcie’s enthronement address as Archbishop of Canterbury in 1980 in which he spoke of ‘the mazelle muddle in which the world finds itself’. This very comfortable family home we see today was created by Sir Felix and Elizabeth, Lady Brunner, who bought the estate in 1937. They restored the house and rescued the garden from dereliction.

In the grounds behind the house stands the Well House. Built in 1586-7 this medieval well is 200 feet deep. Water was raised by a vertical tread-wheel, which was turned by a donkey. All the wooden mechanism is still in perfect condition. The only thing missing today (I’m glad to say) is the donkey. Apparently the donkey kept moving until it heard the clink of the bucket at the bottom of the well as it filled with water. This then became the signal to walk the other way and thus lift the bucket.

A number of years ago Lady Brunner asked me to paint a large oil portrait of herself and Sir Felix. Although Sir Felix was only able to see me for a short while, due to his illness, I managed to complete the painting from life with lady Brunner, but dressing up a friend in Sir Felix’s pullover and holding his walking stick. His face I painted from a tiny sepia photograph. Here is the painting as it appears in the official guide-book.

When I met Sir Felix, because of his fear of strangers at the time, I was given the choice of who I was to be presented as: The new butler, the gardener, or ‘the man from the National Trust’. I chose the latter knowing nothing about butlering and not too much about gardening. However there is a small PS regarding the painting. Lady Brunner told me one day that her son Hugo was told by the vicar of the small village of nearby Turville that when he marries young couples he always advises them to pay a visit to Greys Court where they will see a painting depicting love in old age, which they should aspire to. (The vicar never knew how the painting was arrived at.)

Friday, 4 June 2010

A Novel Way to be Cheered Up!

We collected all the paintings on Wednesday morning from the gallery – the walls of my flat are now happy again. I sold a few prints and a book, but the most surprising sale was a small nude I painted of my friend and fellow artist, Paula, a few years ago. It was bought by a little old lady. Chris, the gallery owner, told me that she said her husband had recently recovered from an operation in hospital, and she thought the nude painting would ‘cheer him up’. (Hope it doesn’t make his heart beat faster!)
By the way, although our local newspaper, the Henley Standard, only briefly reported the exhibition after it was all over, they did make a 2 minute video of the event. It can be seen on Youtube by clicking here (

Here’s another photograph taken at one of the private views - Chris, Joceline and me,.

It was a glorious spring morning last Friday as I drove down to Frome in Somerset to stay the night with Sharran and Mike North (of ‘Dragons den TV fame).The Hilliard Society of Miniaturists were holding their annual exhibition in Wells, and Sharran and Mike were joining me for dinner in the Town Hall. Once there we were surrounded by an extremely impressive collection of miniature paintings.

Early the following morning Sharran and Mike left to set up their ‘Olive Trail’ stall just outside the entrance to The Bishop’s Palace in Wells market place. I followed a couple of hours later – in pouring rain – and found a comfy spot in the lounge of the Crown Hotel while I waited for friends Fergus and Zelia to join me. They were the subject of my first ‘double’ miniature - see my blog earlier this year – and it was to be displayed at the exhibition.) After they arrived we had a coffee and then wandered around the market square before going in to the lunch in the Town Hall.

After lunch Paddy Davison – the Hilliard Society President – made a nice speech (very flattering to me) in which he remarked that Fergus and Zelia were “a lovely couple and your likeness of them reflects their beauty and their love for each other”.
Prizes were then given out and I was pleased to be awarded ‘The Presidents Choice’ prize. And as I’d won the ‘Bell Award’ for the Best Portrait last year I was given my replica at the same time.

Later in the afternoon I drove down to Bishopsteighton near Torquay in Devon to stay with Ian and Jane Stevens for a few days. (Ian being an old friend from my time in Singapore). Unlike last year where I became totally frustrated when stuck in a 5 hour traffic queue, this time I chose a tranquil country route to Bishopsteighton.

When I got back home on Tuesday I had a call from Val telling me about my nephew Neil’s very lucky escape from drowning. Neil is a great fisherman – mainly salmon and trout. (This year he won the “Mundy Cup”, given in memory of his father by the John Lewis fishing club, located on the River Test at Leckford). Last Sunday at about one in the morning he, together with two friends, were night-fishing on the River Itchen. The river Itchen is tidal, and suddenly, with virtually no warning, the tide roared in, rising rapidly up to Neil’s chin. Although he was wearing chest-high waders they were soon filled with water, and being waterlogged he couldn’t move. Quickly handing his rod to one of his friends he asked him to pull him out of the river. Unfortunately the rod separated and Neil fell back under the water. With his heart beating rapidly, he said that his children’s and father’s images flashed before him. Realising that he was drowning, he frantically searched for the toggle on his lifejacket (luckily Stephanie, his wife, had reminded him to take it with him that evening) and almost gave up – but at last he located it and the jacket inflated, bringing him to the surface where his friends managed to haul him out of the water. What a very lucky escape!

Neil with his catch on a better day

It’s Friday evening now and my young friend and I have just returned from a trip down the river. There was just one little problem – a coot had built its nest on the bathing platform at the back of my boat and was sitting on seven eggs. Was I to become a murderer? Nevertheless we set off with the coot still sitting on her nest and made our way to Phyllis Court. Upon mooring the coot jumped off and swam towards the middle of the river, eyeing us disapprovingly. When we returned from a delightful dinner, al fresco, the eggs were still there on the nest, but the coot had gone. Unbelievably she had flown back to my landing stage because when we got home there she was waiting for us and the return of her family. So all’s well that ends well and we didn’t commit a heinous crime.