Friday, 27 June 2014

The Regimental Farewell

On Saturday last we drove over to the little village of Hermitage in Berkshire for the Reunion and Open Day of the Royal Engineers Military Survey (Geographical) Association. Many veterans of Military Survey and their families attended the event. In 1955, when Hermitage housed The School of Military Survey, I was posted there for training as a cartographer during my two years of National Service. Much has changed since then - especially with the introduction of computers. In my day, when drawing maps in Singapore for the Malayan Emergency, everything was done by hand - even the tiniest lettering. That is, until Letraset was invented and we could actually stick down pre-made lettering. We still had to hand draw all the symbols needed for the maps in that part of the world, such as jungle, rubber plantations, swamp and lallang. It's vastly different today with maps being produced at almost the speed of light. This is the way we worked then - and here I am slaving over a map while working in the heat of the tropics on night shift.

Back to the day. As the Royal Engineers are compiling a visual history of what is now called The Military Survey (Geographical) Branch of the Royal Engineers, I took along twenty or so photographs taken during my time in the Regiment. A Sapper is the name given to soldiers in the Royal Engineers, and as my young friend and I watched a number of soldiers attempting to raise an enormous hot air balloon this was revealed as the balloon started to rise. (But it never reached full inflation).

There were lots of activities to either watch or take part in. I avoided entering the 'Strongman' event - in fact it was a bit tricky just climbing down the almost vertical iron ladder after seeing what was going on in one of the technical vehicles, so I think either the strongman or the tug-of-war events may have been a tad more than I could cope with these days! (This reminds me of listening to one of my great nephews talking about the lesson his class had been given about the events between 1914-18. He said that "The Great Tug of War" took place then!)
This extremely smart soldier - I think he was the Regimental Sergeant Major - remained rigidly still throughout the band's performance.

He only moved when he ordered the assembled band to march away.

What a lovely day it was. Tinged with nostalgia for me, but a fitting farewell to Hermitage.

My young friend's garden is having a complete makeover. She has a brand new house and this was the garden when she moved in.

As you can see it is built on a rather severe slope. (Very difficult to mow the lawn). So the idea was to level about three quarters of the garden, make a raised area and build a path and create several borders for plants and small trees. The telegraph pole at the end of the garden will eventually become a design feature, but initially she had the boring and unlovely ginkgo tree removed. Hiring a very knowledgeable - and strong - gardener, the first few weeks were spent moving tons of earth from one side to the other in order to eventually create a small, and horizontal, lawn. This shows the garden as it looked last week - most of the sleepers in place to create the raised bed, all the below ground drainage work completed, and the foundation of the path ready for brick paving.

And here is the garden today

Still a way to go. At the far end, in the top corner, an area of wooden decking will be created. My young friend has decided to call it her "sun deck" and to have a pergola erected over it. To help out I made this little model yesterday based on her idea of the type of pergola she wants.

The perspective of this photograph gives a distorted view, nevertheless shows the sort of design she'll have made. And it will be the same blue colour we painted the shed the other week.

Apart from making little models and prising my fingers apart after a few battles with super-glue, I did manage to complete this miniature portrait of Richard Law last week. He and his wife are collectors so it was nice to be commissioned and to know that my portrait will hang alongside the others.

Saturday, 21 June 2014

Furry Friends

When I lived in Singapore in the 1960's I became a member of the Orang Utan Preservation Society. Together with a friend, Charles Shuttleworth, we would visit some of the private zoos, prevalent at the time. Charles, who had joined the Malayan Police Jungle Force at the beginning of the Malayan Emergency, was writing a book entitled "Malayan Safari". Often we would adopt clandestine personalities - I would take photographs which we would use as evidence to trap illegally kept animals in some of theses zoos. Quite dangerous at times because some of the animal traders were really nasty pieces of work. I won't relate some of escapades here, bur suffice to say we survived without injuries. Easily my favourite animals at that time were the many orang utans we came across. When visiting Singapore in January my young friend and I really enjoyed meeting a family of these colourful and delightful creatures at the well-appointed zoo there. And this is a watercolour painting I finished last week.

Don't you just love the little baby and his little tuft of red hair?

We seem to have spent quite a social time this last week. On Saturday, Gaby, a fellow aspiring sculptor, held her 71st birthdate party in Warborough. Not 70, because she's been suffering from a variety of serious illnesses most of the year and the actual date had to be postponed. Quite a glittering affair - literally - because her husband, Piers, had erected a firework display in the garden as soon as dusk fell.

Piers had been keeping a track of the wind strength and direction over the previous couple of days, but on the evening in question it changed direction so one or two people had spent rocket cases landing on them - including my young friend! But no damage or injury. We just moved further back.

The following afternoon my cousin, Paul, had organised a lavish family tea party at his home, Allendale Farm at Great Shefford. It was a beautiful day, and we picked up Val in the early afternoon to drive over there. Paul has a lovely, and very extensive number of gardens. Here's a few views.

One of the reasons for the party - and the date was carefully timed to coincide with the blooming of Paul's wife Josephine's wisterias. Very sadly, Jo died earlier this year and Paul had commissioned me to paint a large watercolour of her surrounded by her wisteria. She always wore sunglasses when outdoors so this was the way Paul wanted the painting to portray her.

At the party Paul gave a very moving speech as he welcomed everyone there.

He'd also provided a variety of outdoor games from Croquet to Ten-pin Bowling.

My cousin Jill's lovely daughters Samantha and Michele added glamour to the occasion.

I was very sorry to hear from my old friend Jack Darrah that Bletchley Park, home of his magnificent collection of Winston Churchill memorabilia for the past may years, had decided to restrict this iconic and historic building to mainly the code breaking activities of Alan Turing and his colleagues during the war. Wonderful as this is it meant that many of the exhibits, including the Pegasus Bridge episode and others, including the Churchill collection had to find a new home. I have a particular interest in this as the series of six Churchill miniature portraits I donated to Bletchley Park were among the thousands of exhibits that were looking for new homes. Anyway I heard from Jack today that the Churchill collection will, from September this year, be housed in a large dedicated room at the Stratford Armouries Museum in Stratford on Avon in Warwickshire.

Early this morning, in glorious summer sunshine, I went to the annual breakfast of the Hennerton Backwater Association. The Hennerton Backwater is a marvellous little river leading off the Thames for about three miles and wending its way from Wargrave to Henley. At least once a year I take my dinghy there to savour the peace and tranquility of this tiny treasure. About 50 or so members gathered there this morning. It was at a new venue this year but was easy to find as soon as I entered Willow Lane - I just followed the aroma of barbecued sausages, bacon and coffee. Some arrived by boat.

And here are some of the audience listening to a fascinating talk about the history of the backwater. We heard stories about the professional work of the Thames Conservancy (real river professionals compared to the lamentable activities today of the Environment Agency), historical insights into some of the colourful characters who lived beside the backwater, tales of the wildlife here - and even stories of buried Roman Treasure.

Now to meet my young friend to visit Hermitage to say farewell to The Royal Engineers Military Survey's farewell to the town.

Friday, 13 June 2014

The concept of 'Thing-ness'

As a practising artist with an appreciation of abstract and certain examples of conceptual art - even though my own style remains representational and in certain aspects of my work, traditional - I really must comment on some of the latest self-indulgent exercises in impudence with regard to 'Art'.
The Arts Council in Wales, for example, has given painter Brendan Stuart Burns £20,000 to stop teaching for 12 months to give him time 'to make mistakes'. They said he was 'grappling with concept of thing-ness! What a load of old codswallop! The same quango also gave dancer Gareth Clark £24,894 to 'put himself in a place of contemplation and reflection'. So what did he do with the money? He walked across the 645ft Transporter Bridge in Newport and then 'reflected' that he was afraid of heights! And writer Richard Gwynn has been given £25,000 to tour Latin America in search of 'poets and wanderers'.
I think I'll apply for a grant from this Arts Council to 'look out of my studio window from time to time to check whether the river is still wet'. I don't want to appear greedy, so £15,000 will do.

Next month Christie's will be holding its Post-war and Contemporary Art Sale in London and one of the artworks on sale will be Martin Creed's 'Work No127:The Lights Going On And Off'. The expected price: A mere £70,000. Now what will the lucky (or, in my opinion, brain dead) purchaser get for his money? I should first explain that the original concept won the Turner Prize in 2001. Then it was entitled 'Work no 227:The Lights Going On And Off' and consisted of an empty room with lights going on an off every five seconds. The work being auctioned at Christie's has one incredibly creative difference - this time the lights will go on and off every thirty seconds. Wow! And what will the purchaser go away with? An empty room? Light bulbs? A nice new light socket?

. This is a switch in the 'Off' position.

And this is a switch in the 'On' position.

No. The purchaser will get none of these things. But he will receive 'a certificate of authenticity' signed by the artist. Now who is kidding who? The original 'work' No: 227 was subsequently bought by the Tate Gallery for more than £100,000. I don't know what the current owner of work no 127 paid for his work but I'm told the artist is regarded as one of the leading conceptual artists in the country. Other works have included a sheet of A4 paper scrunched up into a ball, a lump of kneaded Blu-Tack stuck on a wall, and athletes running through the galleries of Tate Britain.
One of the other works in the upcoming art sale on July 1st is Tracy Emin's unmade bed - expected to fetch £1million for current owner Charles Saatchi.

If these 'artworks' are supposed to be 'cool' then I'm completely out of touch as I regard them as pretentious overpriced junk. However I think I'll send an entry to the Turner Prize committee next year. It's my latest bit of painting and is entitled 'The unpainted screw on the hinge on the shed door'.

Friday, 6 June 2014

The Mobile Museum

We saw some lovely old Royal coaches last weekend at Arlington Court in Devon, but nothing to match the magnificence of this brand new Diamond Jubilee State Coach. Yesterday the Queen travelled in this wonderful carriage on her way to the State Opening of Parliament.

And what an incredible coach it is. Only the second royal carriage to be built in a century, it's a veritable time capsule of 1,000 years of history. Everywhere you look there are relics of the many key moments in the history of Britain and the Commonwealth. I'm a lover of history, so imagine my delight when I found out just what was hidden in and around the coach. On the top is a crown made from the timbers of HMS Victory. The panelling includes slivers taken from Scott of the Antarctic's sled, wood from hut six at code breaking centre Bletchley Park, pieces from Sir Isaac Newton's apple tree, a small part of one of Sir Edmund Hillary's Everest ladder, and slivers from the beams of most of our great cathedrals.
Drawn behind six horses, the Queen will be sitting on a piece of Scotland's Stone of Destiny and surrounded by a bolt from a Spitfire, a musket ball from Waterloo, a bolt and rivets from The Flying Scotsman, and a button from Gallipoli. So many fantastic artefacts - there's even a fragment of the bronze cannon from which every Victoria Cross is cast, and a piece of metal from the wreckage from a 617 Squadron Dambuster.
This three ton coach, eighteen feet long, took 50 people more than ten years to assemble, and was the brainchild of Australian Jim Frecklington. In its construction he used the finest craftsmen and women from all over the Commonwealth, so all the leather and silk is Englsh, the door handles are from New Zealand - each is gold-plated and inlaid with 24 diamonds and 130 Australian sapphires. Even the bolts which fix the gold-plated hand supports to the bodywork have been finished using the same guilloche enamel as a Faberge egg.
I could go on, there's so much more. Apart from all these historical items the coach is totally up to date in many ways. For example lift up the armrests (formed out of teak handrails from the Royal Yacht) and there you'll find Bond-style controls for the heating and electric windows. The panelling includes yew from Glamis Castle in Scotland, where the Queen Mother grew up, ash from Blenheim Palace, and oak from Althorp.
What an amazing work of art. I'm definitely going to see it in the summer when my young friend and I pay another visit to the Royal Mews behind Buckingham Palace.

From the magnificent to the mundane - The other day we went to dinner at a restaurant at Peppard Common. We were trying out the new Italian management. As I've said many times before, my main hate is garlic (it comes a close second to wire coat hangers!) so when ordering my steak I reiterated my dislike a couple of times - just to make sure. When it arrived I took a couple of bites. And really hated it. Tried to persevere, but gave up and called for the cook. "No, no. No garlic" he said. But told me that as a special treat for me he'd cooked the steak in truffle oil. Now I don't know if all you garlic haters out there are aware of the taste - and smell - of truffle oil. Well, it's almost exactly the same as garlic. So that's just a little warning if you are ever offered this delicacy. (He made me a very tasty plain steak later).

Remember I told you that I finished my painting of the headmaster the other week and delivered it to his school. Well, today it will be unveiled at a special ceremony, and he will see it for the first time. Hope he likes it.

It's quite large - life size - and painted in oil, mounted within a lovely gold-leaf French frame. My young friend was very pleased when it left my home as every time she passed by the portrait, which was on an easel, his eyes followed her. She found it most disconcerting. As I hadn't painted in oils for over five years I was pleased to find out how much I enjoyed it.

Now I'm back to painting a miniature - trying out using very fine sandpaper to make the surface of the vellum even smoother.
My other painting job - that of my young friend's shed - is now completed. We put on the final coat last weekend - a tasty shade of dusty blue. As a contrast we'd decided to paint the hinges in Hammerite black. So I set to work on Sunday morning with a couple of small sable brushes - purloined from my collection - but found it very difficult not to stray on to the surrounding paintwork. It was only after I finished the first one that It struck me how foolish I was. Of course it made more sense to unscrew the hinges from the door and paint them elsewhere before putting them back on. Which is how I painted the other two.

My last blog wouldn't load properly for some reason. Maybe I'd posted too many photographs. So my young friend had to transfer it by retyping all my text to her computer and publish it that way. So let's see whether this one loads OK. But just before I finish I must tell you about an amusing scam I read about the other day. It read thus:

"A Malaysian who ordered a penis enlarger online was stunned when he was sent a magnifying glass. At least it came with a useful instruction: 'do not use in sunlight'. The victim, who paid £100 for his £5 magnifier, later reported the Internet scam to Malaysia's customer complaints bureau. It's chairman, Seri Michael Chong, said: 'As you can imagine, he is feeling rather disgruntled."