Monday, 20 February 2012

Back Home

After the colour, sunshine and variety of cultures that make up Singapore, coming back to a cold and frozen England was a bit of a shock – to say the least.

We had to leave Singapore last Saturday morning by the 7am plane – which meant getting up at 4am! Not my favourite time of day. My travel agent had insisted that Singapore Airlines wouldn’t be able to book the luggage all the way to London as there was an airline change in Bangkok to Eva Air. As this meant we would be hanging around in Bangkok airport for about 6 hours, I pointed out that the 10 o’clock plane from Singapore would still give us time for the changeover. And I also said that from past experience I knew that Singapore Airlines would direct the luggage all the way home. But I was overruled. Grrrr! So we had to wait for 2 hours in Bangkok until the Eva Air Evergreen Lounge opened in the morning, and a further 4 till the plane departed. Another Grrrr! Anyway, apart from a couple of hours of turbulence over the Himalayas and Afghanistan, we had a very comfortable flight home.

It’s as if I’ve not been away now that I’m back in the throes of painting Henley from the air. (Wish there weren’t so many houses here as it’s taking ages to paint them all). Sculpture class on Friday was interesting – apparently my clay head had frozen solid during my time away, but Shirley managed to save it from cracking. I’ve got a long way to go before the result approaches a good likeness.

On Wednesday I went for an Ultrasound Scan at our local Townlands Hospital to investigate a ‘clementine size’ moveable lump in my chest. It’s not been a great worry – more of an irritation. However, although the doctor said it was not ‘sinister’, her prognosis was summed up in one word – “I’m flummoxed!”

Saturday was a good day. I’d never been to Hampton Court Palace, so decided to spend the day there. Home of Henry VIII (and his wives)…

,,, and later William and Mary, I was quite overwhelmed by the size and magnificence of the place. There’s just so much to see.

I don’t normally go for a guided tour device, but those provided at the Palace were really good. The commentaries were highly informative, and they included a photograph of the room you were in as you progressed. The incredibly large kitchens became my first stop, and as it was a very cold day I tarried awhile by the big Tudor roasting fire after I took this picture.

I learned that buried beneath the Palace are remains of the first known house, built for the Knights Hospitallers of St. John sometime before 1338.The most beautiful room of all, in my opinion, is the Chapel Royal - still in active use today. In fact it’s been in continuous use ever since Thomas Wolsey built it almost 500 years ago. Henry VIII installed the magnificent vaulted ceiling in the 1530’s. It was the only place in the Palace where photography is not allowed, so this picture is from a postcard.

It is said that Catherine Howard’s ghost runs screaming to the door of the chapel from time to time, but unfortunately she didn’t appear during my visit! Throughout the Palace are hundreds of wonderful paintings. This is part of a large painting showing Henry VIII’s family. His third wife, Jane Seymour, is by his side.

Having a great liking for Trompe L’Oeil painting I had plenty of examples to enjoy here

This is a view of the King’s Staircase, with murals by Antonio Verrio leading up to William III’s apartments.

In one of the outside courtyards I came across a collection of mythical figures carved above long poles.

And this one looks as if it’s been designed by Damien Hirst.

In one room two paintings dominate. One is called ‘The Field of Cloth of Gold’ and the other, I photographed here, is entitled ‘The Embarkation of Henry VIII at Dover’

As I walked around the Palace (at one stage looking idiotic by wearing a long, green, but warm, cloak) characters dressed in period costume would suddenly glide past. “Queen approaches!” was the cry from costumed courtiers as a beautifully robed figure sauntered along the corridor. Here are two I glimpsed.

All in all a very good day. It was raining later so I didn’t venture into the garden, but intend to visit Hampton Court Palace again in a couple of months as there is so much more to see.

Back Home

Friday, 10 February 2012

The Forbidden Hill

We paid a visit to Fort Canning Park yesterday afternoon. It was once the home of Stamford Raffles when he built his residency there in 1823 and named it Government Hill. During the early years of Singapore's history this strategic location was the site of grand palaces protected by high walls and swamps. The Majapahit princes who ruled Singapura in the 14th century were buried there. (Archaeological excavations in the area have uncovered remains from the period - and it was rumoured that Royal spirits haunted the place). At that time Fort Canning was known as Bukit Larangan (The Forbidden Hill) because no commoner was allowed there. Raffles chose the site because it was a good vantage point for spotting enemy movements at sea. In 1936 an underground command centre was built there as the nerve centre for British Military operations in South East Asia. We entered this 30 ft. deep, bomb-proof bunker with its maze-like complex of 26 rooms and corridors, now called 'The Battle Box', for a rather haphazard tour of the place. It was here that Lieutenant General Percival, commander of the British forces, decided to surrender to the Japanese on 15th February 1942.

This wax tableau re-creates the event. Other life-size recreations are contained in more rooms.

This is a map of Singapore showing the military situation in the few days leading up to the surrender.

Wartime leader Winston Churchill called the ignominious surrender to the Japanese "The worst disaster and largest capitulation in British history". But contrary to what the history books traditionally purvey, the British military in Singapore and Malaysia were not caught napping by the Japanese. They'd even drawn up a detailed battle plan, code-named 'Matador' to stop the invaders who were expected to land along Thailand's eastern coastline at the isthmus of Kra and in north-eastern Malaya. But 'Operation Matador' was never launched. It was stalled repeatedly by Churchill who wanted the scarce resources of aeroplanes, troops, and other equipment diverted to his other priority areas, such as Russia and The Middle East.

As the 70th Anniversary of the fall of Singapore is imminent, several other events will be taking place. One of which was the launch of two special exhibitions at the National Library Building yesterday evening. My friend, Dahlia Shamsuddin, who is the President of the Singapore Heritage Society, invited me to this launch. The subjects were '4 Days in February - Adam Park, the Last Battle' and 'Images of Internment - The Eye and Art of William Haxworth'. Hundreds of poppies were strewn around the centre-piece and scores of the artist's sketches and watercolours were displayed. Of interest to me were descriptions of how he managed to obtain colours for his paintings and other materials for the drawings. Here's just a few:

It was a really good exhibition - and fascinating from an artistic and military point of view, as I was a soldier and artist whilst doing my National Service in Singapore. And I also knew several people who had been interned at Changi gaol during the War. Here I am at the exhibition.

This morning we decided to visit the Chinese and Japanese Gardens at Jurong on the west of Singapore. As it was quite early - we needed to get back for a special lunch - we took a taxi to avoid the rush hour on the MRT (Underground) - and almost had the place to ourselves. These gardens are styled after Beijing's Summer Palace. The landscaping, inspired by the Sung Dynasty, is a harmonious blend of natural elements.

I especially liked the Twin Pagodas.

And the steps leading up to the enormous 7 Storied Pagoda.

The Garden of Beauty is a Suzhou-style bonsai garden with more than 1,000 bonsai - one of the largest collections outside China.

After a while we walked over the Bridge of Double Beauty to the adjacent Japanese Garden and tarried awhile in the shade by this little red bridge.

So much to see, and with the accent on simplicity, the park exudes tranquility with its Zen rock gardens, stone lanterns, ponds and shrubs. Here's just a few of the many photographs I took during our wanderings.

And so on to the long walk back through the Chinese Garden to the MRT station and finally home to the Wheelhouse at the Tanglin Club for lunch with Sultana Nora of Johor and friends Jill and Jeff Allan. I've known The Sultana for over 35 years from the time when I became 'The Court Painter to the Sultan' Not an official title I might add. But as I'd painted many portraits of Sultan Ismail, both miniatures and large oils, and several of the two Sultanas (one died - he didn't have two at once) and various Princesses, the title stuck. In fact my very first painting accepted at The Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in London was of the Sultan.

We had a very nice lunch, if a bit noisy with the enlargement of the Wheelhouse.

Now our holiday is just about at an end - we leave for England early on Saturday morning. It's been great - I've met many old friends, been to places I hadn't seen before, eaten some memorable meals, been entertained royally, and hopefully shown my young friend what great places Singapore and Thailand are. My next blog will be so boring - best not bother to read it!

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

A Walk on the Wild Side

On Tuesday - after a long stroll around Singapore Zoo - my young friend had set her heart on visiting the Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve located on the far north edge of the island. Our taxi driver had never been there so it was quite an adventure for him, but after much poring over our guide book we finally arrived. Not knowing how we were going to get back to the city (as taxis wouldn't be available) I left my young friend in the taxi, just to make sure we wouldn't be stranded, while I enquired at the Reserve entrance. All was OK as a little bus ran every so often. Set in a large area of mangroves, mudflats, ponds and secondary jungle it's a rare oasis of tranquility and home to unique plants and animals, as well as a wintering ground for migratory birds. As we went in the young lady at the desk said to beware as a cobra had been seen on one of the pathways that very morning. We hadn't walked far when we spied a large monitor lizard slithering along the path in front of us.

I suppose it was about 5 or 6 feet long. I took the precaution of breaking off a sturdy branch from a large bush just in case we were confronted by snakes - or anything else slithery for that matter! In the end we walked for about an hour without mishap. We saw two more large monitor lizards on the pathways in front of us but they moved out of our way as we approached. There were quite a few interesting birds in the marshlands and on the ponds, and as it was such a hot afternoon quite a relief to linger at hides and platforms erected at strategic intervals. My young friend took this photo looking out over the mudflats.

We ended our walk by meandering through a mangrove swamp for about half an hour. Well not through it - just a bit above it.

Mangroves smell a bit - and we didn't see too much, so after a nice cooling drink the little bus turned up and we jumped on it, travelled to the Kranji underground station, and were soon home, with just time to get ready for a nice evening having dinner with Pierre and Sandy Moccand (old friends from the sixties when I first went to Singapore) and their son Pierre junior.
But I mentioned the zoo, didn't I? That was our first outing of the day - but because it happened to be Thaipusam (the Hindu festival where devotees honour Lord Muruga, god of bravery, power and virtue, by performing feats of mind over spirit. Devotees, in a trance-like state have their bodies pierced with metal hooks or spikes attached to a kavadi - a cage-like steel contraption which is carried on their shoulders), I told the taxi driver to take us past the route taken by the devotees. Here are a couple of the photos we took.

We finally got to the zoo. (However a couple of nights ago we went on a night safari there. I think it's the only one of it's kind in the world. You sit on a moving open-sided tram and are slowly taken through the park where you see most of the larger animals under an almost moonlight glow. A wonderful experience). Now it was daylight and very hot. But we managed to get round just about everything. About 3,000 animals inhabit this lush tropical rainforest. No point in boring you by describing them - I'll just post some of the more interesting photos on this blog.

And this one really needs a funny caption - can't think of one right now but will do when I print it out for my photograph album.

On Monday lunchtime Tan Siok Sun invited us to lunch at the Raffles Hotel. Very smart. There were eight in our party and it was held in the Bar and Billiard Room restaurant. Absolutely superb. Siok Sun has been a friend for over 35 years - we met when she was a client of mine when she worked for Cold Storage. Now she is one of Singapore's most prominent citizens. After lunch my young friend and I went to the famous Long Bar in the Raffles (moved from its original position next to the Palm Court to a new location on the first floor) where she naturally sampled an equally famous Singapore Sling.

As a small postscript we then went to the Raffles Shop and bearing in mind the comment left by my faithful follower. 'RJ9', I bought a Raffles mug to give to Mrs RJ9 who apparently has used hers so much that the lettering is beginning to wear out.