Tuesday, 27 September 2011

The Toussaint Miniatures

From time to time I get commissions that are a little out of the ordinary. A case in point occurred a couple of months ago. The New York Historical Society – a very prestigious organisation – approached me with a request – would I paint a facsimile of one of their miniature portraits dating from the mid 1700’s? Apparently they will be mounting two exhibitions at one time. I was very happy to oblige. It is always a challenge to reproduce another artist’s work as; of course, every artist has his own unique style. This, therefore, is my facsimile of Augustin Brunais’s miniature portrait of Dominique Francois Toussaint L’Ouverture - painted in 1797.

This commission was followed by two more – these by a different artist – Anthony Meucci, who had painted miniature portraits of Mr and Mrs Pierre Toussaint in 1825. It was extremely difficult to match the colours and styles exactly (including the blemishes), bearing in mind that initially I was only given computer images via email. But eventually good colour images were sent by mail so I was able to make exact facsimiles. Here are my two paintings: (all three have just been given permission by the curator of the New York to be shown here on my blog)

Currently I’m working on a large watercolour painting of a raven-haired lady playing the saxophone. I’m really enjoying painting the contrasts between the shine and reflections of the sax with her face and the clothes and jewellery she’s wearing.

Last week Jane celebrated her birthday so five of us went to the French Horn in Sonning for lunch. It’s a great restaurant (Last week Michael Winner – well-known for his culinary expertise – championed the restaurant’s marvellous bread and butter pudding). It was a glorious day and the autumn tints were spectacular. Here are Jane, Brian, Norma and Jack standing outside in the sunshine,

It’s been a pretty good week for sunshine and I rowed down the river last Friday evening, stopping just past the bridge to have tea with John and Kate Hutchinson. That’s one of the nice things about the river – popping in to see riparian living friends from time to time. On Saturday afternoon my young friend and I took ‘Marsh Mundy ‘ out for a trip up to Hambleden lock. Hardly anything on the river that day. But as we returned to my mooring I suddenly found the steering had stuck! All I could do was to reverse quickly, which positioned the boat near enough to grab the upright, while I switched off the engine. After tying up I wondered whether weed had wrapped itself around the propeller so raised the propeller arm. No weed was evident, but the arm wouldn’t go down again! Yesterday Ivan, the boatman, came over and managed a temporary fix, but it means that sometime this week the boat will have to be craned out of the water for a proper repair – and to see what is wrong with the steering.

Last Thursday evening we went to see Paul’s show in Camberley. Giving ourselves plenty of time – I even cooked dinner early – we aimed to be there about half an hour before the show, but at only three miles from the venue we became stuck in a long traffic jam on the A30, which made us frustratingly 20 minutes late. Both Paul’s son Martin and Debbie were performing magic too. Paul and Debbie really do work hard – they’ve only just returned from a month long stay at the Edinburgh Festival, and now here they are on a 39 performance tour travelling the length and breadth of the country.

Saturday evening was the Hennerton Backwater ‘Bash’ in the Grandstand at Phyllis Court. A really good time was had by all. It has become a tradition to have a ‘frog’ race where we all have to partake by holding on to a large cut-out frog and by wiggling the attached string, aim to reach the other side of the room first. I got to the semi-finals but failed in the finals. David, who was sitting at our table won. (I’m not sure I would have wanted to keep the trophy - it's a bit ugly - for one year anyway!)

I did a stupid thing the other day. Henley’s Literary Festival starts tomorrow and I have booked tickets for about eight of the events over the next few days. It goes on till Sunday. My sister-in-law, Val, rang me on Friday evening to ask why I hadn’t been to the Alan Tichmarsh event at the River and Rowing Museum which she’d just come back from. ‘Because it’s next Friday’ I said. I’d got it wrong, as apparently his event was an addition prior to the start of the Festival. I felt a complete fool, and was sorry to deprive my young friend as well because we both had tickets. Never mind, I’ll be there tomorrow, and on Thursday will be introducing Vince Hill at Le Parisienne when he’ll be talking about his life and book ‘Another Hill to Climb’.

Sunday afternoon I decided to visit a few of my haunts from my childhood days, so we drove over to find the two lakes - Kingsmere and Queensmere near Finchampstead. Both seemed to have disappeared. (I rang a friend who lived nearby who told me that both were now part of big private estates). I remember clearly seeing cars being driven over the ice covered Kingsmere in the hard winter of 1947, and Queensmere was the lake I launched the twin- seater kayak I’d made in 1954. Never mind, we found a lake called Heathpool, which we walked around. My young friend took this picture of one of the swans with her new (big zoom) camera.

On the way home we called into Joel Park in Wokingham – the scene of my defeat by the (girl) leader of the Rose Street gang when I was a boy. It was Joel Park that I mapped, again as an impecunious boy, and sold copies – all drawn by hand – for threepence each.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

An Island Retreat

Henley was staging an ‘ultra-triathlon’ last Sunday with many road closures scheduled from 6am till late into the evening. Competitors were to complete a 3.8 km swim, a 180km cycle ride and a 42km run, which meant that many properties would be cut off from dozens of roads. A phone number was given out to enable motorcycle marshals to be despatched to escort trapped homeowners to their destinations – and then only if important journeys were contemplated.

Given that the road by my flat was very likely to be closed for most of the day, my young friend and I decided to avoid any problems by spending the time in the Isle of Wight. I’d last visited it as a boy and my friend had never been there. So on Saturday morning we headed south. Before catching the afternoon ferry we stopped at Mottisfont in Hampshire. Originally an Augustinian priory in the 12th century, it was converted into a private house after the dissolution of the monasteries. For more than 800 years people have lived and worked on the Mottisfont estate, sheltered in the valley of the river Test. Anglers have been coming to Mottisfont for generations.

We wandered through the house and eventually came across the cellarium. This dates from the early 13th century and is the most complete part of the mediaeval monastic building to survive.

In 1934, Gilbert Russell, a merchant banker, whose much younger wife was a society hostess and patron of the arts, bought the house and breathed new life into the place. Among Maud Russell’s many friends invited to stay at Mottisfont were Ian Fleming and Rex Whistler. We visited the ‘Rex Whistler Room’ and I must say I was spellbound by his amazing trompe l’oeil murals painted in a light- hearted gothic style. Most impressive was this marvelous trompe l’oeil alcove.

While Maud Russell was away for the weekend Rex Whistler decided to embellish his paintings and at the same time tease her about her hatred of bonfires (the butler would be sent to put them out). You can see how Whistler’s ermine-draped urn is puffing out clouds of smoke as it sits in the alcove surrounded by objects signifying Maud Russell’s interests, including books and a lute. You need to see the actual painting to appreciate the effect. (Sadly this work was Rex Whistler’s last and finest piece before he was killed on active service in France during the Second World War). 

In another room we came across a whole table devoted to iced cakes. (And we didn’t eat any of them!)

On to Lymington where we caught the ferry that afternoon to Yarmouth in the Isle of Wight

After a very windy visit to the Needles

…where I was too lazy to attempt the steep 40 minute walk to and from the Old Battery as it was howling a gale – we made our way to a very comfortable B&B near Yarmouth where we stayed the night.

The following morning we decided to visit Osborne – the estate bought by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in 1845 as an escape from court life in London and Windsor.

The rooms are full of exquisite works of art. (The only things I didn’t much like were little marble sculptures depicting the limbs of many of Queen Victoria’s babies). She used Osborne for more than 50 years, and entertained visiting ministers, foreign royalty, and her own extensive family there. We weren’t allowed to take photographs inside the house but the tour was quite thorough in true Victorian style. Stepping outside the house we wandered around the garden – again beautifully maintained.

A twenty-minute walk in the grounds led us to the Swiss Cottage garden. In one of the thatched- roof huts was a collection of little wheelbarrows and pulling carts – all marked in gold initials of the various Royal owners. Prince Albert gave the children a plot of ground in the garden where he or she could grow soft fruits and vegetables to sell at commercial rates to Prince Albert as a practical exercise in market gardening. The gardens were left as the children had them until 1905, when they were given over to flowers. This is a view of the Swiss Cottage from the garden

Further on we came across Queen Victoria’s bathing machine. This photograph of the bathing machine shows some of the original stone rails brought from the beach. Behind it you can see the Alberta deckhouse. It came from the royal steam yacht Alberta – a tender to the Royal yacht Victoria and Albert. (This deckhouse spent many years as a garden shed in Portsmouth until rescued by the Navy and given to Osborne in the 1970’s)

Next stop, the Butterfly Farm on the east of the island. It was like stepping into a tropical garden as we entered the aviary (or whatever it’s called). A number of really beautiful, large blue butterflies fluttering around greeted us. I wondered why we never saw one at rest, until my young friend pointed out that when settled they showed a completely different pattern from the other side of the wings. Like this

I tried gentle blowing on one of them to see if she would reveal her blue underside but she was having none of that and fluttered off again, but a very large white butterfly brushed my head as it went by. My young friend said it was trying to mate with my white hair! This green and black butterfly appears to have lost one of its appendages but the white one looks perfect to me.

We carried on round the island, enjoying an ever- changing undulating landscape – even seeing a red squirrel – well I didn’t, but my companion did. Luckily the grey squirrel hasn’t reached the Isle of Wight yet.

The Dinosaur World attraction was a little disappointing but at least they had a lot of real dinosaur bones as well as the gaudy models. As we parked the car a lady gave us her tickets, as it seems her young son was frightened and they didn’t get past the first exhibit. This one is real however.

So our day ended with a visit to a photographic studio at Freshwater. I was particularly interested as they were holding an extensive exhibition of the inspired Victorian photographer, Julia Margaret Cameron, who lived on the Isle of Wight. We were hoping to buy a little glass jar full of multi-coloured sands from the island, but by the time we reached the only place that sold them (the Needles) we were too late as the shop had closed. We’d booked the evening ferry back to the mainland so had time to enjoy an early fish dinner at the Blue Crab restaurant in Falmouth before we drove on board under the arch of this rainbow.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

The Swimmer

David Walliams, the actor and comedian, swam the length of the river Thames over the past week, from Lechlade to his final destination yesterday evening by the Houses of Parliament in London. I happened to be on the river last Friday so saw him when he got to Hambleden. His 140-mile swim raised over one million pounds for the Sport Relief charity. You’ve got to admire him after ploughing through effluent, gulping bacteria and battling disgruntled swans. Here he is at Henley (this picture taken by my young friend).

Purely by chance I happened to be on the river that day as Tony Hobbs, owner of the Umpire launch ‘Enchantress’ had invited Val, Mollie (just arrived from New Zealand) and me for a trip up to Marlow. The launch will celebrate its one-hundredth year in 2012 so Tony and his wife Jackie are planning a big celebration – probably on Temple Island in Henley. Here’s Tony at the helm.

After mooring by the towpath in Marlow we enjoyed a nice picnic, and I went to buy cakes in Burgers on the corner of the high street. Burgers is one of the last truly English cake-shops – they make fabulous strawberry tarts and a whole variety of meringues. I spotted this sign on a large Dutch barge moored near the bridge.

On the way back to Henley we kept a lookout for David Walliams and just as we reached Hambleden lock there he was climbing back into the river. I thought I’d got a good picture of him until Val pointed out that David was wearing a white cap. It was his support man in the red cap that I’d photographed.

And here is one of the yellow canoes that accompanied him all the way. The whole day was a real treat - Tony and Jackie being the perfect hosts.

On Saturday we picked up Val and made our way to the Henley Show. This year it was held at Greenlands Farm in Hambleden. I always enjoy this day as there is so much to see and do. Something for everyone. As I am a member of the Henley & District Agricultural Association I’d booked a ringside position for my car so we could watch all the events in ring one from a good vantage point.
 I think this lady is in love with ‘Thing’

This cow seems to be having a good time too,

And here’s a selection showing some of the sights at the show. We missed the sheep racing.

I haven’t skived off work lately but am still halfway through a large pencil drawing which is taking much longer than I expected it to.

Yesterday evening I called over to see Vince Hill. Vince is taking part in the Henley Literary Festival at the end of the month with his new autobiography ‘Another Hill to Climb’. As I will be introducing him at Le Parisienne in Henley on the 29th of this month I’d written a short 3-minute piece, which we went over before dinner.

I occasionally receive a letter, email or text quite out of the blue. Last week I read an old army pal’s account of the time we happened to spend together on the troopship ‘Dunera’ and subsequent trials in a transit camp. But just yesterday I received an email from Australia from someone I last saw when she was about three or four years old. I’ll reproduce it here because it’s so charming:

Hi, I don’t know if you remember me but I never forgot you.
My name is Michelle and many years ago – 40 or more – you went out with my mother Carolyn Chapman.
I hope I was a good child, but I have the feeling I was probably a pain in the ass.
Anyway I’ve been looking at your insanely good paintings, especially your silver goblet paintings young and old.
When I was about 3 or 4, I remember watching you do a portrait of my mother I know I was being an annoying shit.
I kept wanting attention but was also watching you scribble about on the sketchpad and slowly my mother’s face appearing on the piece of paper.
It shut me up and I watched in awe coz I didn’t know pencils could do that.
I still have that drawing and want to thank you for that experience it was a peak experience for me and ever since that day I pushed myself to do really good drawings.I grew up to work in animation for several years, sold some of my pictures. I work with dogs now, my other passion, and I love to draw them. I’m 47 years old, married no kids. Mum lives in far north Queensland with her husband jean Pierre. I live in Sydney.
Anyway I don’t expect a reply from you – just wanted to thank you for the inspiration and to tell you that you are such a great artist.
All my love

Isn’t that a lovely email? (especially the bit about 'didn't know pencils could do that') Of course I replied, and asked if she could send me a copy of my drawing as it would be great to se it after all these years. And yes I do remember Michelle – she was always attached to Carolyn’s hip.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Spoiled by the Weather

In 1963 I visited Venice, courtesy of the Singapore Government, to select ‘smalti’ or glass mosaic pieces, for the construction of a large mural I’d designed to be erected at the (then) Singapore Airport. While in Venice I bought a couple of dozen bags of smalti with the aim of making my own mosaic when I returned to Asia. This I did a year or two later when I went to live in Bangkok. It was of a pair of Thai dancers. It eventually adorned the centre of a teakwood coffee table I had made. Unfortunately the large mosaic was much too big to fit into my relatively small flat when I returned to live in England. So for the past 30 years it’s been residing on the floor of one of my outside balconies. Big mistake, as over the years, being exposed to the ravages of our weather, and at times left covered in snow, some of the pieces have deteriorated - especially the lighter colours. My reason for mentioning this is to ask if anyone out there in cyberspace knows how to resurrect glass to bring the mosaic back to its former glory. I fear, however that the damage is too far-gone, but anyway this is how it looks today.

And these close-ups show the sort of deterioration – even on the brighter colours, which are nearly as bright as they were 40 years ago. Any suggestions, folks?

The season has almost finished as far as boating and the river is concerned. We have to snatch those sunny days to take advantage. On Saturday I went to the ‘Regatta for the Disabled’. Held in the grounds of Phyllis Court, all sorts of watery activities took place. This boat, sometimes used on Royal visits to Henley, is called ‘Royal Thamesis’.

The main event of the day was Dragon Boat Racing. As the races were open to anyone, as well as the disabled, I was hoping to collect a crew together, but asked around a bit too late. Here’s one of the boats and a close-up of the dragon prow.

You can hear the drumming in this little video of one of the races,

We took a trip down the river later in the afternoon, passing this lone black swan on the way.

Although on Sunday morning it rained most of the time I still intended to go the Greys Village Fete in the afternoon. Luckily the rain stopped before two. Too late for the Marlow Town Band to perform, as they were afraid of getting their instruments wet. Lots of stalls were open when we arrived at the fete. Here are the ladies who make cakes.

And this brave man is having wet sponges thrown at him.

I had a go on the rowing machine. Luckily only ten pulls at a time as it was set at maximum resistance. I didn’t beat the record.

Also, as usual, I tried everything, from the raffle, coconut shy, throwing a ball through a clown’s mouth, removing nails from a board, tombola, (where I won a measly can of pop), to the golf game.