Sunday, 25 July 2010

The Swan Uppers

As I write this I am sitting on a bench looking out over a tranquil pond at Ewelme – a picturesque village a few miles west of Henley. A mallard is quacking and here come three others to join her. There are rooks squawking high in the trees above, joined from time to time by a whole variety of bird life. A trio of wood pigeons call to each other from the surrounding woodlands, and looking out at one of the ducks foraging for food under the water reminds me of Ratty from The Wind in the Willows when he recites his poem about “Up Tails All”.

Talking of the river, on Wednesday the Swan Uppers came to Henley. I’ve described them before in a previous blog but this year on a glorious hot and lazy day they marked two little families of swans in the millstream right next to where I live. Here’s a small portion of a video I took of the ceremony.

David Barber, Swan Marker to Her Majesty the Queen – the one in the scarlet blazer with a swan’s feather in his hat – was leading his group of six wooden skiffs, each rowed by four men belonging to the livery companies, Dyers and Vintners. The remaining two skiffs fly the Queen’s flag. Each year I join a little group of enthusiasts at Marsh Lock where we watch the Swan Uppers as they come through the lock. There we sip wine and Pimms and chat to the oarsmen and crews of the support boats. The Swan Upping ceremony dates right back to the 12th century when the crown declared ownership of all swans which were then considered a delicious dish at banquets. Swan Upping’s original purpose was to keep the Royal larder stocked with meat (the birds are now protected by law and it is illegal to capture, injure or kill them). Swan Upping takes five days in all, where all the new cygnets in the Thames from Sunbury to Abingdon are marked depending upon which family they belong to.

It’s been a busy week for painting as well. On Thursday I completed a miniature of Russ Abbot in readiness for the RMS exhibition in London later this year.

Now I’m halfway through another miniature, this one of a very talented and glamorous Barbadian singer I met at the Henley Music Festival last year.

Talking of miniatures, from time to time I’m commissioned to restore miniature portraits. This week a gallery owner asked me to help him out of a dilemma – a client of his had given him a badly cracked and damaged miniature for restoration. Although an expert in restoring oil paintings, his attempt to restore the watercolour portrait on ivory proved to be beyond his area of expertise. Obviously I won’t mention any names, so without another word I will give you an idea of how I solved the situation by showing the “before” and “after” of the face.



On Thursday I was asked to appear on BBC Radio Berkshire on their hour-long arts programme together with Jane Corry who runs the Norden Farm Arts Centre in Maidenhead. However I nearly didn’t make the show because, foolishly disregarding the instructions given by the lady on my TomTom satnav, I ended up lost in a very congested part of Caversham – way past my destination. Anyway, having phoned the radio producer, with a couple of minutes to spare, I managed to get there in time. With Phil Gayle, the presenter, we covered such topics as the recent gift of a painting by David Cameron to Barack Obama in Washington, to a contestant on Britain’s Got Talent TV show who is suing Simon Cowell for over two million pounds. Jane talked about her school and I related a few anecdotes from my career in art while we both discussed the possible effects of the necessary financial cuts and how they might affect us.

Yesterday, Saturday, we had a big family party at cousin Paul and Jo’s farm in Great Shefford. Another lovely day. About 60 or so were there and everyone brought something. I took Val – she’d made meringues, pies, a trifle and goodness knows what else. My contribution was easy – just wine and a few cans of Pimms. We had a really good day. Jim and Tim organised it and started the day by roasting a whole hog – and very tasty it was too!

We played skittles in the garden and some of us competed with a small shotgun in the adjoining field where a clay pigeon trap had been set up. Great fun, especially as I tied for first place with my nephew Tim – and he’s a highly qualified police marksman!
Here’s a couple of pictures showing Stew and Louisa with their families.

And this photograph shows nearly all the family group - some had already left when the picture was taken.

Saturday, 10 July 2010

Fireworks at the Festival

Last Sunday I was invited to the Henley Music Festival. Each year it is held on the banks of the Thames at Henley in the week following the Royal Regatta. The weather was absolutely gorgeous – balmy and warm – even the slight breeze wafting its way across the river as dusk fell was not chilly.

The star of the show that evening was Ronan Keating. Although the gates were not opened till 6.30pm a very loyal group of his fans – all girls – had apparently waited outside from 2am the previous night to make sure they could all get prime positions for his concert right next to the stage.

Apart from the lovely champagne dinner with charming companions and music supplied by an assortment of performers there were many examples of art and sculpture dotted along the lawns.

My companion for the evening was Joceline – a model friend of mine. Here we are posing against a very interesting piece of sculpture.

We were so lucky this year regarding the weather as for the whole fortnight of the Regatta and Music Festival the sun shone brightly every single day. How about this view at a garden party I went to last Sunday afternoon? The dappling of the sunlight made for a typical English country scene.

It’s now Saturday afternoon and I‘ve just come back from day one of the traditional boat rally held every year at Fawley Meadows. Every sort of craft you can imagine was assembled there. People picnic, some wear Edwardian clothes, others come in vintage cars, or even on penny-farthing bicycles. Scenes from ‘The Wind in the Willows’ were enacted by the riverbank. Here’s Mr Toad himself.

In the afternoon a flotilla of ‘Dunkirk Little Ships ‘ paraded along the river, and it was good to see that my old friend Raymond Baxter’s ship, ‘L’Orage’, was amongst them once again. It would be nice to think that Raymond, from his resting place in heaven, could see how lovingly his pride and joy has been restored by its new owner.

During the afternoon a Wartime Lancaster Bomber flew over very low as part of the celebrations. The sound of its throaty Merlin engines took me right back to my childhood days when we boys gazed up at the planes flying overhead. I’ll add a little snippet of video I took at the end of this blog.

I think my coot is a sex maniac! Not only did she lay a clutch of seven eggs and hatched five of them a couple of weeks ago (three of which survived), she’s been at it again and has now made yet another nest – and laid five more eggs. She’s also very clever, because instead of building the new nest on the bathing platform of my boat as before – which made it impossible for any of the new-born chicks to get back up to the nest once they’d fallen into the water, this time she’s chosen a location on the propeller housing which is level with the river surface. Ten out of ten for ingenuity and for learning by her previous mistake.

It’s not all been socialising for the past two weeks – although I must admit the Regatta, Festival and Trad Rally are major distractions – I did manage to complete the watercolour of the Hennerton riverside scene yesterday. I call it ‘River Reflections’

To end this blog with a bang here is a video showing part of the firework display put on by the Henley Festival on four of the evenings last week.

Sunday, 4 July 2010

What a Clever Coot!

Since I last wrote about the coot who nested on my boat the three remaining babies have all survived – thanks to the ingenuity of their parents. It seems the first two in the clutch of five either drowned or were eaten by pikes because they weren’t able to climb the nine inches or so from the water up to the bathing platform after they fell off the nest into the river.
So how did the coots solve the problem and save the lives of the remaining three? By making a new nest - and in less than one day - this time by floating it on the water. They then coaxed the baby coots to jump down from the old nest into the river where they safely swam to the new one. Clever.

What a busy week it’s been. I only managed about 30 hours painting my riverside scene, but a lot of the time has been taken up socialising during the Henley Royal Regatta, which started on Wednesday.

On Monday I picked up Marsh Midget from Trevor Green, who had temporarily mended the leak. As I got into the boat at the boatyard to row it back home Trevor handed me the oars and the rowlocks. The metal rowlocks are made in two pieces. Unfortunately one of them came apart just as he was handing them to me and plopped straight into the river! Luckily I remembered that Ivan – another local boatman – was nearby and possessed a big magnet, and luckily also the rowlock was not made of brass. It took about half-an-hour but I finally retrieved it from the murky depths of the reed-covered river.

Wednesday evening heralded Rolf Harris’s 65th years in art. Jilly Adam and I had been invited to the private view of the show at the brand new, and beautifully appointed, Clarendon Fine Art Gallery in London. As I’d seen most of the paintings in their early stages as Rolf painted them, it was good to see them all framed and looking their best under the exquisite lighting.

I seemed to know a lot of the people there- among them were Zelia and Fergus, who’d driven up from Devon,

During the evening Fergus told me that he’d read my last blog about my hatred of wire coat hangers, and wanted to give me a present. Wrapped carefully with strands of trailing ivy adorning it, this is the coat hanger lovingly made by this very talented couple. I’ve found a home for it on the back of my bedroom door, and as it is so special, now I have to decide what to hang there.

And so to the Regatta. On Thursday eight of us enjoyed a sumptuous meal in the dining room of Phyllis Court. Lots of fun was had by all. And the girls looked glamorous in their flowing finery and big hats.

I’d reserved eight deckchairs asnear to the finish line as possible, so we had a great view of the racing and the ever changing scene in front of us as a myriad of river craft slowly paraded past us. From large paddle steamers, ‘gin palaces’, and cabin cruisers to punts, dinghies and slipper launches, there even was one boat full of about six Elvis Presley’s. (I wondered where he’d got to.)

There’s a tradition in Henley that the Saturday night of the regatta ends with a firework display. We decided to watch them this year from the river. So, after a lovely meal at the Curry Leaf Restaurant in Wargrave, Paul, Debbie, my sister-in-law Val. and a young friend settled down in my big boat to cruise into the sunset. Earlier in the day we’d bedecked the cruiser with flags of the nations and looked pretty colourful as we slowly made our way downstream. The Berkshire bank was full of revellers – nearly a mile long – all the way to Temple island at the starting gates of the racing. We eventually moored up next to a boat on the booms in the middle of the river and happily enjoyed Pimms, fruit and coffee. Here’s Paul being ‘King of the World’ on the prow of the boat

Then as darkness approached the fireworks started. They were the best ever, and lasted for nearly half-an-hour. (I’ll put a little video of a few minutes of the display at the end of this blog.) Going back home in the dark is a bit frightening – only because so many boats of every size and description are weaving about on the river, many of them without lights. I enjoy nighttimes on my boat and, apart from a couple of close encounters, managed to avoid crashing into anything. Back at the mooring, my little solar light guided us in safely – in fact it was about the most successful mooring I’ve ever made.

Still more regatta yesterday. I’d been invited to lunch with Herchel and Terry Jordan at their home in Wooburn Green. Eleven of us sat down to a great lunch made by Herchel. Terry, one of the best joke-tellers I know, kept us all laughing, then at about two in the afternoon we made our way to Phyllis Court once again. Here’s a couple of pictures - one showing Herchel, her grand-daughter Annabel, and daughter Charlie. The other is of my god-daughter Emma and her mother Felicty.

Now it’s back to work to make up for a lazy, hazy week full of sunshine, good company, nice meals, and meeting up with countless old friends.