Monday, 30 August 2010

The Gardens at Highgrove

Highgrove in Gloucestershire is the family home of The Prince of Wales, bought by the Duchy of Cornwall in1980. Now open to the public on certain days, and on a strictly invitation only basis, I joined a few friends and WI members on Friday morning as we wended our way through the countryside by coach to Highgrove. And what a lovely day we all had. We set off at 8, the rain cleared by 9, and as our tour was due to start at exactly 10.25, by some miracle the coach driver timed the two and a half hour journey perfectly to within 2 minutes.

The original house was built in 1796 in a Georgian neo-classical design, and since 1980 both the house and garden have been subjected to many thoughtful and innovative changes. When the Prince first arrived, Highgrove possessed little more than a neglected walled garden, an overgrown copse, some pastureland and a few hollow oaks. Now, apart from being the family home of the Prince, the Duchess of Cornwall and Princes William and Harry, it’s also a centre of excellence for organic farming and gardening as well as a haven for wildlife.

As Prince Charles said
 “It is to achieve a sense of harmony that I have, over the past twenty years, worked with various people whose professional skills I admire in order to blend the arts of imagination and architecture into what, I hope, has gradually become a garden which delights the eye, warms the heart and feeds the soul.”

Although we were not allowed to take our own photographs at Highgrove, here are a few glimpses of some of the sights we saw.

From the Thyme Walk, Woodland Garden, Southern Hemisphere Garden and Arboretum, to the Azalea Walk, Walled Garden, Wildflower Meadow and the Sanctuary, everything we saw in our two-hour tour of the gardens was a delight to the eye and certainly fed the soul. The second picture shows the Tree House – one of the favourite haunts of the young Princes William and Harry.

The above bronze by the late American sculptor Frederick Hart, situated within the Arboretum, appealed to me most of all. It’s titled ‘The Daughters of Odessa: Martyrs of Modernism’ and is dedicated to all the oppressed people of the world, and is partially surrounded by a curved seat made by Stephen Florence for the ‘Healing Garden’ which was designed by the Prince of Wales for the Chelsea Flower Show in 2002 and dedicated to Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother.

I wish you could see the serene faces of these lovely young women. Our guide said the sculptor most probably based them on the features of the four daughters of Czar Nicholas II of Russia, who were cruelly put to death by the Bolshevics in 1918. I could have gazed at these beautiful faces for hours.

Later in the afternoon we had a chance to have lunch and a walk around the nearby town of Tetbury – thankfully not blighted (yet) by a succession of chain stores and dreary modern shop-fronts.

We arrived back home just in time for me to do a quick change before going out to the Orangery at Phyllis Court to celebrate Brian Hill’s birthday.

So far I’ve spent about 100 hours on my painting of Sir William McAlpine’s carousel. It’ll probably take me nearly 200 more to finish the picture. Here’s a close-up of part of the painting at an initial stage.

Sunday was selection day in London for the forthcoming annual exhibition of the Royal Society of Miniature Painters. Braving the endless road-works in London and discovering the Mall was closed, I finally managed to find my way to the Mall Galleries in time to join the other committee members. Out of over 700 entries we selected nearly 600 for exhibition. I also made a decision on my prize ‘The Mundy Sovereign Award’ for the best portrait. It will go to Michael Coe for his lovely little portrait entitled ‘Needlepoint’. Here we are at the selection.

Quite a long day – it was nice to get home before six and relax over a delicious roast dinner with Val.

Oh yes. On Monday evening the President of the RMS rang to tell me that my portrait of the photographer and artist Gilbert Adams (below) had won the Bonham Portrait Award. This especially pleases me as Bonhams is the leading auction house for miniatures.

Sunday, 15 August 2010

Fabulous Faberge

From time to time, over the past 20 years, I’ve been commissioned by a Far Eastern collector to paint miniatures for his Faberge frames. These frames are quite fantastic – some cost over £40,000. However I had an email the other day from Asia to tell me that fungus had appeared on at least six of the miniatures (under the glass and on the portraits themselves). Would I meet the collector in London and see what could be done to repair the damage? As I’m no expert in this field I engaged the service of Bob Wood, the best miniature frame maker and expert in miniature frame restoration in England, to meet me and the client in London last Thursday. Arriving at the house we were surrounded by the most fabulous Khymer, Indian and Oriental statuary we’ve ever seen. Here’s one of them – this piece is about 5 ft high.

Bob removed the solid gold screws from the frames and discovered that a particularly nasty growth was present under the crystal. However, my miniatures, being painted in watercolour, enabled him to remove the offending spores by the use of lighter fuel. Magically no damage was done and all six miniatures have become virginal once again. We did wonder why such beautifully made frames would allow spores to intrude under the crystal, and came to the conclusion that as small oval sepia photographs, mainly of the Russian Royal family, were originally housed within the frames, a perfect waterproof fitting was not crucial. Had Faberge flourished in the years before the invention of photography in 1830, when watercolour miniature portraits were all the fashion, I’m sure he would have ensured his frames would never have allowed a hint of moisture to intrude.

Also with us that day was Sir Winston Churchill’s great grandson, Randolf Churchill. Being very interested in art himself he hinted at a possibility of a commission for me of a miniature based on the John Singer Sargent oil portrait of Jenny Jerome (Lady Randolf Churchill) - Winston Churchill’s mother.

When I got back from London I called in to see Vince Hill in Shiplake. (I usually park my car in his drive when I catch the train to London). There I met the publisher who is preparing to launch Vince’s autobiography in October. He asked whether he could use my painting of Vince on the cover, which I readily agreed to.

I’ve just started a large painting of a portion of the carousel we saw last week at Sir William McAlpine’s estate. It’ll take me ages to paint as the detail and thousands of colour changes of the horses, portraits and silver railings will need great care and a very steady hand. But I’m so intrigued with it that I can’t wait to spend all day and every day on the painting if I can.

I have to admit that I bought an iPad the other day when I was in London. So far I am delighted with it and have installed many of my paintings and miniatures on it as well as hundreds of songs, audiobooks and other reading material. When I go abroad, instead of taking my laptop, I’ll take the iPad as it will be so much more convenient being smaller and lighter. Hopefully I’ll have worked out by then how to put pictures and write my blog on it. .

I’ve mentioned the Hennerton Backwater Association before. This is a photograph of a scene of one of the lovely gardens taken from the backwater.

Apart from the AGM and alfresco breakfast by the river, we also have an annual dinner and a frog race. A frog race? Yes, six cardboard frogs were threaded on strings between chairs about 20 ft apart. At one end six people each hold a string – it must never be held above the knee – and on the command “Go” they wriggle the string thus enabling his or her frog to progress to the other end. The winner is the frog that gets there first. Last Friday, after a very good dinner in the Grandstand beside the river at Phyllis Court Club, we started on the Frog Championship. Joe Haynes, who acted as adjudicator and starter, outlined the history of frog racing as performed by the Hennerton Backwater Association. He also put forward the hope that a form of frog racing could become a Olympic event! Some hope. Most of us at the dinner took part. I even reached the semi-finals and then the final but was pipped at the post. Coming second doesn’t mean anything to me but it was a great evening. Here’s a little video – sorry about the quality, it was taken on my phone – and clearly demonstrates what a load of big kids we are.

Sunday, 8 August 2010

A Puzzle No More

The 3,000-piece jigsaw puzzle of the ancient map of the world is finally completed. It’s taken nearly 6 months (with the help of a young jigsaw puzzle enthusiast) to do, and as it’s taken up most of the space on my dining room table perhaps I’ll be able to host a dinner party there soon!

The other week I had a commission for four pencil drawings of a client’s grandchildren. One of them – a small boy called Sebastian - I made into a miniature portrait, which I’ll submit to the forthcoming Royal Society of Miniature Painters exhibition in London in the autumn.

On Saturday evening Debbie and Paul gave a really lovely dinner party for friends and family. It was the last day of the Wargrave and Shiplake regatta so when dusk fell the fireworks started. From the garden we had a perfect view, between the trees, of the display – almost as if they were put on specially for us. About 24 guests were there – we all sat around a long table on the verandah – a glittering and very happy evening.

Fawley is a small village near Henley. Yesterday morning eight of us picnicked there in the grounds of Sir William McAlpine’s home where he had opened his garden railway to a number of invited visitors. A beautiful sunny day, Pat Williams, who organised the picnic, had reserved us a prime spot high on a hill guarded by an ancient cannon and overlooking part of the railway track. Apart from the full-size steam trains, signal boxes, junction buildings, other railway artefacts and an amazing museum, the grounds contain a number of fascinating animals including lemurs, giant rabbits, and some of the rescued and injured animals repaired by the Tiggywinkles Wildlife Hospital near Aylesbury. During the afternoon we saw a small deer with only three legs and a number of geese, donkeys, peacocks and other assorted animals and birds all lining up together to be fed. It looked like a scene from Dr Doolittle (or Noah’s Ark).
This large carousel called “The Gallopers” was unfortunately out of commission on Sunday, otherwise we all would have had a ride on it.

After a fabulous picnic – very posh – there were five courses as everyone contributed with the food and drink – we wandered down to the Somersham Station (dating from 1889 and now erected in Fawley – to have a ride on the steam train ‘The Fawley Mountaineer’

On the way we called into the museum where I soon located the lovely paintings by Terence Cuneo. (Sir William owns a number of Cuneo’s paintings, and we took great pleasure in searching for the little mouse Cuneo always included somewhere in his paintings) This fine painting of the ‘Hudswell Castle’ at Fawley is by Terence Cuneo. Can you find the mouse?

Many historical railway edifices have been relocated to Fawley when changes made them redundant in their original locations. These include the Waterloo Station Arches and the highly decorated cast iron Blackfriars Bridge Capital which arrived at Fawley in 1986. Near the station is a plethora of old advertising metal billboards. I might use one of the dozen or so photographs I took as a background for a painting one day. Here’s one of them.

As we were waiting for our turn to travel round the Fawley Estate on the train we heard the news that somewhere along the line the train had become derailed, so no more trips were held that day. However this little video shows the train earlier in the day, as seen from our picnic vantage point.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Alfresco Dining

Riverside lunch parties are always special to me - and last Monday was no exception. It was Olive Bond’s birthday (which she had kept a secret from the guests) and about 30 of us enjoyed a wonderfully jolly time – Here’ a photograph showing the view from one of the tables on the verandah.

Olive’s husband, Gordon, made a delicious Pavlova – he’s an expert Pavlova maker – this time with added pieces of stem ginger. (Ginger is one of my staple and favourite foods). Paul was on our table and kept us laughing with his many stories and magic tricks.

A couple of years ago a very talented Barbadian singer called Rosemary Phillips came to Henley and I was lucky enough to not only see her performance at the Henley Music Festival, but was invited to join her and my hosts at a very late supper party after the show. She agreed to pose me with the idea that sometime in the future I’d paint a miniature of her. That sometime was last week – and here’s the result. I think I’ll exhibit it in the January MASF Show in Florida.

Waddesdon Manor in rural Buckinghamshire is an extravagantly turreted chateau now owned by the National Trust but originally created over a period of 24 years by Ferdinand de Rothschild who bought the land in 1874 from the Duke of Marlborough.

Last Wednesday a friend and I visited the manor, where we were warmly welcomed by a very dear friend, Suzy Barron, who is the Marketing Executive there. Many magnificent treasures are housed in Waddesdon - a superlative collection of English paintings hangs besides the finest French 18th-century examples of decorative arts, set in rooms clad in panelling from the grandest Parisian town houses. When I gazed at this painting by Thomas Gainsborough of Lady Sheffield it suddenly struck me that when I was a lowly apprentice some 50 years ago, I based the portrait I was asked to paint as the centrepiece of a porcelain-style biscuit tin on this particular painting. This, therefore, was my very first real miniature portrait.
As we toured the manor we came across a number of pieces of contemporary art in a special display. My favourite amongst them was a spectacular huge chromium steel egg by the famous American artist Jeff Koons. He called the sculpture “Cracked Egg (Blue)” The mirror-like surface was quite dazzling. In one of the rooms this curved table laid out for a banquet would be the type of table where Louis XIV would sit – at the head, of course.

Other lengths of table could be added on both sides for less important people to sit, then even less important people further down would have to stand.
The gardens of Waddesdon Manor are beautifully laid out and impeccably maintained. (Apart from the resident gardeners I believe there are a willing band of volunteer helpers dedicated to keeping the gardens immaculate).

I’m a bit of a film addict, so it’s fortuitous that Henley has such a great little three-screen cinema complex. Over the past two weeks I’ve seen two animated films – both in 3D and needing Polaroid glasses. (I’d rather see them without 3D as the polarisation tends to dull the image too much for my liking – and as one of my eyes doesn’t work too well I can’t really appreciate the 3D effect anyway). Last week I saw Shrek 2 and this week Toy Story 3. Both were really good, but Toy Story3 was superlative – so real and evocative. I must admit a tear or two crept into my eyes towards the end of the film. I guess I’m just a big kid.

It’s nice to be back bowling once more. For the last two Monday evenings I’ve spent a very pleasant couple of hours being coached – yesterday I had one-to-one coaching with John and learned a lot (I think). However after two hours my arthritic hip took a bit of a battering, but the lovely weather on both evenings and the sounds of the river at the end of the green made me forget the pain for a while.

There’s the Henley Royal Regatta and then there’s the Town and Visitors Regatta. On Saturday it was the latter. Our lovely little local Regatta – well not so little as crews came from all over the country – played host to a perfect day. As I’m a subscriber we were able to wine and dine in the President’s tent. Very swish – I was the only male there not wearing a blazer - one man was in a glorious scarlet and white college blazer. (I must improve my sartorial image next year!) I said dine, it sounds posh but actually all we had was a hot dog, burger, and a banana!
Later in the morning I decided to test myself on the rowing machine prominently erected on the grass by the towpath. It seemed I’d recovered enough from my operation last year to exercise my stomach muscles, so I had a go.
The distance to row on the machine was 300 metres. For the first 200 I pulled really fast and hard- buoyed on by a few rowing types, but suddenly my strength seemed to ebb away and the last 100 metres took much longer than the others. My time was one minute eight seconds, which at least was faster than the fastest woman and the under sixteen’s. Wish there had been a veteran’s section. But here I am - straining hard.

Incidentally I am often amazed to see who reads by blog, and where in the world they live. After all it’s only a diary of some of the things I get up to during the week. But a quick check on my stat counter the other day came up with this map showing where my readers live