Saturday, 20 December 2014

Happy Christmas everyone

I spent Christmas Day with my niece Louisa and her family in Marlow, first picking up Val in Henley on the way. Lunch was delicious. Here's Louisa carving the turkey.

And this is Kate, my eight year old great niece. 

Kate is a really interesting and talented little girl. Her ambition is to become an author/illustrator. And by the twenty page story she wrote for her mother I'd say she's well on the way to achieving it. She wrote a few more pages in the evening. 

Guy took a photograph of me when I fell asleep later in the evening which I'm sure is too horrendous to ever be seen in public. Later, while we watched television, Kate and her teenage brother played together in the next room where peals of laughter kept erupting. "What sort of game are you two playing?" I asked. "It's a game where you mustn't laugh" said Kate. One of Val's presents was this fur-collared cape.

And here's Louisa with the budding author.

Today - Sunday - I'm in Suffolk, staying with my young friend's parents. The sunshine was sparkling today so we made a visit to Minsmere nature reserve. On the way we passed Saxtead Green post windmill. ("Post" meaning the whole top turns round - not just the sails. 

We were hoping to see a murmuration of starlings today at Minsmere. This usually happens just before dusk but today we were told that they moved away a couple of weeks ago to another location. Nevertheless we walked around the reserve with our binoculars and visited  three hides. There weren't too many birds around today. Here's a view from one of the hides.

We walked back through the woods until sunset appeared through the reeds.

I'm a garlic hater, so imagine my surprise when we went to lunch the other day at The Quince Tree near Henley. I had the most delicious Thai fishcakes which after we got in the car to go home my young friend remarked that I reeked of garlic! I still hate garlic - but it certainly cured my indigestion. 

Just before Christmas we went over to Woodley to pay a visit to my cousin, Jill. When I was thirteen, during my mother's illness, I lived with her family in Wokingham and it was Jill who taught me to dance (ballroom, that is). So it was a great surprise when she gave me a Christmas card she'd found that I'd painted and given to them at the time. Here it is. 

Contrast this with the 5 inch wide miniature I painted a month or so ago. I haven't posted on my blog till now as it was a Christmas present to the lady on the left of the painting from the man on the right who commissioned it. As I had to get perfect likenesses of all four people - and the face of the man in the middle measured less than half an inch high - it wasn't an easy task. The chandeliers and wine bottles in the background weren't that simple to paint either. 

Still on the subject of painting this was my Christmas card for 2014. It's a painting of "The New Orleans" riverboat majestically proceeding down the river in the snow. 

Finally, having spent the past couple of months painting two very large portraits in readiness for submission to the BP Portrait Award at the National Portrait Gallery in London I was horrified last night when rereading the entry regulations to discover that watercolour paintings are not eligible for some reason. Only oil, acrilics and tempera mediums will be accepted. This is the first time I've ever heard of this type of restriction in a major open exhibition. I'm very disappointed but with only a few days left before submission date, maybe I have time to at least try to get one of my portraits into the Royal Society of Portrait Painters annual exhibition. 

Sunday, 14 December 2014

The Inscrutable Smile

I'm getting ready to enter the BP Portrait of the Year competition. There's another few weeks before entries have to be submitted and I'm well on the way with my second painting. So far I've put in about 140 hours on this large almost life-size watercolour. I met this man in northern Thailand some years ago and  was attracted by his lilac robes.

I'm going to call it 'The Inscrutable Smile' and as I reckon it needs another 100 hours to go before it's completed I doubt whether it will be finished before Christmas. Here's a close up of the face.

So far I've used five size 1 best quality Kolinski sable brushes, and estimate I'll get through a further three before the picture is completed. You can appreciate why I wear out so many brushes as the whole painting is done using just the point of the brush - millions of little dots and tiny strokes. 

Last night my young friend's Company held its Christmas party in The Old Brew House in Henley. Originally the building housed Henley's police station so it was interesting to see that we were seated right opposite what must once have been the cells. Part of one wall had been bricked but a big iron gate was still visible. We learned how to make dogs and hats from balloons 

While I was visiting the wife of my artistic friend on Saturday morning he rang through so I had a chance to have brief chat with him. He was hoping to sing a solo in the prison choir at Christmas but was told he could only be part of the main choir. At least he is allowed to draw a bit (but no portraits) and was lent some watercolours the other day so made a lovely humorous Christmas card for his wife. 

Finally all my Christmas shopping is done and mostly wrapped now. We decorated my Christmas tree yesterday afternoon and will start on my young friend's shortly. Here's mine.

I was reading the other day about a council somewhere in the West Country making cuts in its budget.  One of the jobsworths there had the bright idea of a way to cut the cost of hearing aids prescribed to the deaf. In his wisdom he decided that as we all have two ears, he could cut the council's cost in half by only allowing deaf people to have a hearing aid for just one ear! How daft! Try crossing a busy road with just one hearing aid when you are stone deaf. And that's just one example of the problem. 

A few days ago as I was driving home I heard a programme on Radio 4 about people obtaining autographs in unusual situations. It brought back the memory of when, some years ago now, I sat next to Mother Teresa on a flight between Bangkok and New Delhi. We chatted about all sorts of things and collected a number of food items in our sick bags as she wanted to give them to the poor children in India. During the flight I asked her if she would let me make a drawing of her. She agreed and as she talked and smiled all her many wrinkles seemed to dance around her face. My hair was considerably darker then and a Thai man sitting across the isle took this picture of me sketching away. 

I only had the back of an exhibition catalogue to work on but was delighted when she agreed to sign the drawing. Here it is.

Such an incredible person - and so modest. She only talked about the poor children of India, especially those in Calcutta. I asked her if she was ever ill.  it seemed she'd had nearly everything including malaria and dengue fever. When I remarked that her many awards must amount to quite a collection she said she didn't even remember where her Nobel Prize was!  I did ask why Mother Teresa of Calcutta was getting off in Delhi. She replied that she had to meet someone there before going home to Calcutta. It was only when I arrived home in England and was watching television that evening that Mother Teresa appeared on the screen. She was at a ceremony in Delhi where the Queen of England was awarding her The Order of Merit. She hadn't mentioned that to me. What a privilege it was to meet her. 

Monday, 1 December 2014

The Artist's House

Yesterday afternoon my young friend, her mother, and I visited Thomas Gainsborough's house in Sudbury, Suffolk. This is a view of the house from the garden.

And from the front.

Thomas Gainsborough was the leading English portrait painter in the mid eighteenth century. His only real rival was Sir Joshua Reynolds. Equally at home with landscape painting, Gainsborough was the undisputed master of combining both landscape and portraits within a single painting. We really enjoyed our time in his house. This is his self-portrait. It was left to the Royal Academy by his daughter but now is on display at his house. It was originally painted for his great friend Abel. 

Here's another of the portraits we saw in his house.

However, later in his life, he wrote "I'm sick of portraits, and wish very much to take my viol-da-gam  and walk off to some sweet village, where I can paint landscapes and enjoy the fag-end of life in quietness and ease".

I often order presents from the catalogue 'The Owl Barn' so was keen to visit its actual sanctuary in Suffolk on Saturday. There were scores of all sorts of owl to be seen but as my photographs didn't come out too well I'll only show this picture of one of the many birds of prey we encountered. 

Further on in the extensive grounds was an open enclosure containing a large number of meerkats frolicking around. I'd really only been aware of their elongated shape when standing on their hind legs so was quite surprised when I saw them scuttling around looking much fatter. 

Just before we left the sanctuary we came across this rather frightening Santa Claus substitute leading a pair of polar bears over the snow. (i think Santa had been eaten by a lion!) Christmas must be approaching I think. 

Talking of Christmas I'm well on the way with present wrapping. This is a corner of my living room today.

We frequently visit Bletchley Park - famous for the code breakers during the Second World War who solved the secret of the German enigma machine. This is a beautiful full sized slate rendering of Alan Turing - the man mainly responsible for the ultimate decryption. 

I mention this because we went to see the film 'The Imitation Game' the other day which tells the story of Alan Turing. Benedict Cumberbatch stars as Turing and I thoroughly recommend this film. One of the best I've seen for a very long time. 

I had a CT scan and comprehensive blood test at Dunedin Hospital in Reading about ten days ago - not my favourite activities. They were in preparation for my appointment with Doctor Gildersleve, my oncologist, to be given the results. I'd felt the Sword of Damocles had been hanging over me for a while... 

... so was mightily relieved when he gave me the results. It's been eighteen months since my last cancer operation and now there is no trace of cancer in either my lung, liver, or bowel. And my blood (which it seems can detect cancer in its infancy) showed nothing abnormal. I never really take in what the doctors say on these occasions, but my young friend, who always comes with me, remembers everything. And that evening she took me out for a lovely dinner at a very posh restaurant - my favourite - The French Horn at Sonning-on-Thames. 

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Train to Blenheim Palace

Yesterday we visited Blenheim Palace, and as the car park was quite a long way from the building we caught this miniature train to save a 30 minute walk.

Blenheim Palace , the current home of the Duke of Marlborough, was built between 1705 and 1722 by Sir John Vanbrugh for John Churchill, the first Duke. It was a gift by Queen Anne  for Marlborough's military victory in defending Holland from the French, culminating in the decisive victory at Blindheim or Blenheim on the river Danube in Bavaria on 13th August 1704. This was our view as we approached the Great Court and north front.

Blenheim Palace was the birthplace of Sir Winston Churchill on 30th November 1874 and there is now a really extensive set of rooms dedicated to his life, with many of his wartime broadcasts relayed there together with hundreds of memorabilia, including his maroon velvet siren suit he wore during the long nights he spent on duty during the Second World War. 

Wandering through the sumptuous rooms, halls and corridors we really enjoyed the paintings, tapestries, Grinling Gibbons carvings, furniture and porcelain.

I was particularly intrigued by this statue and wondered what material it was made with as it had a strange yellowish hue. As I studied the face, suddenly, and without any warning, it lunged at me with an outstretched arm and frightened me to death. I had no idea it was a living figure! As I jumped back with a  cry of alarm my young friend and a group of Chinese tourists lingering nearby burst into laughter! 

After a while we wandered around some of the many gardens. This is the Water Terrace. 

Commissioned by the 9th Duke it was built by Achille Duchene between 1925 and 1930. In 1929, when the work was virtually complete the 9th Duke wrote "Pray tell Monsieur Duchene that the ensemble of the terraces is magnificent and in my judgement far superior to the work done by Le Notre at Versailles. The proportion of the house, the terrace and the lake is perfect." 

After a nice little lunch in the champagne bar my young friend reminded me we hadn't had the experience of "Blenheim Palace - the Untold Story". This was a really interesting and innovative extra. 
A little group of us climbed a series of red carpeted staircases and entered a small, and quite spooky little room where we were transported back 300 years to the initial building of the Palace by the ghost of Grace Ridley - the ladies maid to the first Duchess of Marlborough. We saw the Duchess speaking via a mirror - so realistic. 

Grace traced the history of the Palace through the ages. She told how Grinling Gibbons struggled under the weight of the stone carvings and as we looked up there was his life size figure . After hearing and seeing all sorts of interesting things, a door in the room opened and we went into the next one. A little scene then took place with King Charles II's mistress in bed while the first Duke hid in the wardrobe. Quite a saucy scene was then enacted. 

Lots of interactive and audio-visual exhibits made the whole visit truly memorable. There were about five rooms altogether culminating in one showing the 8th Duke's pioneering scientific experiments. 

On Thursday evening we drove over to The Wycombe Swan to see Paul and Debbie in their latest show - 'Back Despite Popular Demand'.

We really liked the theatre - a very friendly welcome when we arrived for a pre-show dinner at the restaurant there. I'd seen most of Paul's illusions before - but not the final act. Debbie lay on a settee while Paul draped a large golden sheet over her. Then holding the sheet by two of the corners he slowly raised it with the shape of Debbie's body seemingly raising at the same time. When she had been well and truly levitated he let the golden sheet drop - and there was nothing there. Debbie had completely disappeared. I'm a sucker when it comes to magic. 

Every Sunday morning on BBC Radio Berkshire they have a gardening hour. Colin, the resident expert gardener is always there to answer any questions the listeners may have. So I rang in last Sunday with a question about Canna Lilies. My young friend and I had spent time the other day digging up seven of her cannas to get them ready for the winter. We weren't sure of the best way to protect them and whether to get rid of all the earth still adhering to the roots. Colin advised us to leave the soil there but to place each plant in a pot, add a small amount of compost around each plant and leave them in the shed till the spring. It's great to have such a friendly radio station willing to take calls on any subject - especially from the gardening expert. 
I'd especially wanted to see the film "Mr Turner" as it's about the life of J.W. Turner - one of my favourite artists. ( I can't imagine what he would make of some of the works selected for finalists in the annual 'Turner Prize' exhibition in London - he'd turn in his grave I expect). We went to see it last week and found it a bit slow, but very well done - especially the many tableaux scenes. Timothy Spall was quite remarkable as the artist himself and apparently had spent many hours over the past two years learning Turner's painting techniques. 

Last Saturday morning while visiting his wife, I spoke to my imprisoned artist friend and was saddened to hear that the authorities won't allow him to draw while there. It seems a bit harsh to me. A few weeks ago I wrote him a three page letter - but only on one side of each sheet in the assumption he could use the blank sides to draw on. But not to be I suppose. As an artist myself I must admit I'd be quite upset not to be able to practice my art - unless, that is, I was sketching out escape routes! 

Saturday, 8 November 2014

A view from the Top

My young friend and I were very privileged to have been invited to watch Reading (the Royals) play Charlton Athletic at the Madejski Stadium this afternoon. No we didn't dress down and wave supporters scarves to watch the match from the cold stands, we dressed up as we were invited by Sir John Madejski to join him in the Directors Lounge for a sumptuous lunch. Then at three o'clock we were escorted to our front row seats giving us a marvellous view of the game.

It was my young friend's first ever football match she had watched from inside a stadium. And it was my second as my father had taken me as a boy to watch Reading play in their old Elm Park Stadium. (In those days they were called 'The Biscuit Boys' after the Huntley and Palmers biscuit company) What a contrast to Sir John's magnificent Madejski Stadium. During half time we went back to the lounge where tea and cakes were served. Then back to the game. Unfortunately Reading lost 1-0. A real afternoon to remember. 

It was my birthday on Thursday which we celebrated at The Reformation in Gallowstree Common in the evening. Sister-in-law Val, cousin Paul, Brian and Jane came and my young friend surprised me with this beautiful birthday cake.

It represents my gardening exploits in her garden - although we didn't grow any carrots there. And this is what it looked like when the candles were lit. 

We had a lovely evening - good food. Very friendly atmosphere and great company. I was told by the pub owners that on Thursday evenings the 'Tractor Boys' descend on them and it could be a bit rowdy. These men parade their tractors from time to time, sometimes totalling over 40 at a time. When they came in I noticed quite a few rustic faces amongst them - good subjects for portraits. But I didn't have a sketchbook with me. I did, however, have a portrait with me as I had just made a pencil drawing of cousin Paul and gave it to him during the evening. 

He looks a bit suntanned, but he has just returned from a week's holiday in Spain where the temperature was in the high thirties. 

I'm very fortunate in that my studio looks out on to a lovely view of the river which hopefully will never change - except, that is with the seasons. Here we see spring changing into winter through high summer and autumn. There's also the occasional foggy day. 

The Miniature Art Society of Florida will be holding its fortieth annual exhibition in Tarpon Springs in January. Of all the major miniature exhibitions this one attracts the most entries from all over the world - almost one thousand. I've just been told that my sepia miniature entitled 'Jane in Lace' has been awarded the Best Portrait prize.