Monday, 18 May 2015


I last visited Venice in 1964. Times have changed. We were warned about the crowds, but in fact by booking tickets in advance for visits to the Doges Palace and the Basilica we managed to really enjoy ourselves last weekend on a very eventful three day holiday. My young friend and I booked a private water taxi to transport us from the airport all the way to our great little hotel - the Locanda Vivaldi. A really fast hour long trip through choppy waters and hundreds of boats of every size zooming along beside us until this marvellous city came into view. 
Venice is built on a patchwork of more than 100 islands in the middle of a swampy lagoon. The early Venetian builders used impermeable stone supported by larchwood  rafts and timber piles. Most Venetian buildings have stood for at least 400 years. Here are a few photographs we took soon after we arrived.

Next morning, up early, we paid a visit to the Doge's Palace - only a ten minute walk from the hotel. This incredible building started life in the 9th century as a fortified castle, but was destroyed by a series of fires. The existing palace owes its external appearance to the building work of the 14th and early 15th centuries.

The designers perched the bulk of the pink Verona marble palace on lace-like Istrian stone arcades, with a portico supported by columns below. This lavish sight greets you as you enter the building. 

The ornate ceilings and walls are adorned with paintings by the great masters - Tintoretto, Carpaccio, Hieronymus Bosch, Titian, and many more famous artists. 

Moving on to the Armoury, several large rooms were full of swords, crossbows, arrows, guns, and large canons. 

We found our way through the maze of underground cells, the State Inquisitors' room,  the Torture Chamber and the prisons. 

It was from these cells that Casanova made his spectacular escape in 1755. We also walked through the infamous Bridge of Sighs - once crossed by offenders on their way to the State Interrogators.

As almost everywhere you go in Venice is made by boat we decided to buy 2-day go anywhere tickets on the many vaporetti, or water buses. So on the following day we took a trip to one of the neighbouring islands. Like the city of Venice, Murano comprises a cluster of small islands, connected by bridges. It has been the centre of the glassmaking industry since 1291 when the furnaces and glass craftsmen were moved there from the city. Here we watched a master craftsman at work.

This is where the mosaic mural I designed for the Singapore Airport in 1963 was made. At the time I bought several hundred smalti (small pieces of glass mosaic) in order to make my own 'Thai Dancers' mosaic. This is it.

On Sunday morning we climbed up to the top of the Campanile (actually we took the lift) in St. Marks Square. This tower was rebuilt in 1902 as the first one, built in 1172, suddenly collapsed. The view from the top is magnificent (it's where Galileo demonstrated his telescope to the Doge in 1609)

As we were in the area containing the five enormous bells the resonant ringing on the hour must be deafening. We went down again before this happened.

And as the bells rang out we made our way to the vaporetto station to board a largish boat for an hour's ride to the island of Burano.

This island is the most colourful of the lagoon islands and lies in a lonely expanse of the northern lagoon. The Buranese are fishermen and lacemakers by trade. So we ate a fish lunch and I bought a lace table runner. One of the island features is the brightly coloured painted houses that line the many waterways. 

Back in Venice we went on line to book timed tickets to visit the Basilica in St. Marks Square. To me this is the most awesome of all the Venetian buildings. Currently part of the outside is covered with scaffolding but this view shows the beautiful design of the Basilica. 

And as we entered the Basilica we were struck by the sheer size of the place, its mysterious lighting, the mosaics glittering with gold, and its rich store of eastern bounty.

Built on a Greek cross plan and crowned with five huge domes, it is the third church to stand on this site. The first, built to enshrine the body of St. Mark in the 9th century, was destroyed by fire, and the second pulled down in the 11th century to make way for the more spectacular edifice we see today. We wandered round for a while thoroughly enjoying and appreciating its magnificence. 

And so with a last dinner in the roof garden restaurant in our hotel we bade farewell the following morning to a really great weekend to face the 2 hour wait on our aircraft at the airport due to high winds at Heathrow and long, winding queues upon arrival. 

Have you heard of 'Smilers'? It's where you can add your own picture to postage stamps and use them in the normal way. As the current first class stamp is a reproduction of the first stamp ever - my favourite - the penny black. So I ordered a number of them and added my sepia miniatures of my grandparents who were both born in the Victorian era. Here it is 

Now to get ready for an operation tomorrow at the Circle Hospital in Reading. 


Wednesday, 13 May 2015


To continue with my anecdotes. A few years ago I took on the task of organising all the graphics and computer image work for the Henley Conservatives special dinner. The idea was to emulate the highly successful BBC television programme "Have I Got News For You". Quite a daunting task. Also, together with a colleague, we wrote the entire script complete with as many topical jokes we could think of. First of all we needed a chairman. At that time Boris Johnson was the MP for Henley. He agreed, and as for the four panel members - Frederick Forsyth, the author. Paul Daniels, the magician, Kenny Lynch, the comedian and TV personality, and Laureen Williamson, the author and lecturer, all agreed too. It took months of work to write the show and called it "Has Boris Got News For You" I learned so much about computer imaging in the months that followed. And as I needed to rehearse Boris in the final script (allowing for him to ad lib as much as he liked) he agreed to come over to my flat for an hour or so, and also agreed to pose for a few dozen photographs for me to use as reference for a miniature portrait. His hair was as wild as always so I lent him a comb. (It didn't make much difference!). Here is the portrait. (And I tidied the hair as much as I could).

Being a Member of Parliament at the time ( now, as you know he is the Mayor of London as well as recently elected MP for Uxbridge) I painted the Houses of Parliament in the background. The miniature was eventually acquired by the Society of Limners for their collection. Incidentally, Boris really enjoyed the evening and wrote me a number of very flattering letters. And I've just finished reading his latest, and superb, book entitled "The Churchill Factor". When I was studying his face for the portrait I noticed similar furrows above his brow - similar to those which Winston Churchill had throughout his life. Which prompted me to remark that one day I predicted he would become Prime Minister himself.

Last Saturday, after depositing a couple of paintings at the Llewelyn Alexander gallery in London, we thought we take the dinghy out for our first trip on the river this year. The wind was blowing half a gale and the current was strong, so I had to admit I just didn't have the strength to row for more than half an hour. It was nice to be back on the river though. And right next to my mooring we spied a little family of Canada Geese on the river bank.

We can't use my big boat yet unfortunately as it won't idle properly, and I can't risk stalling or crashing into the wall of our building when coming in to moor. The carburettors have been checked very carefully and the boat expert can only conclude that somehow water has become mixed with the petrol over the long winter idleness. Hope it's fixed soon. 

Paul, my cousin, came with me to he sculpture class yesterday as I was finishing the sculpture head I am making of him. This is the clay stage, just about complete. Next week all the waxing, fibreglassing  and final bronze work will start, so hopefully within six weeks or so I'll show you the final head.

For the past month or so I've been working on two miniature portraits for clients in Indonesia and the USA. Both wanted their young daughter's portraits painted. But both being overseas the only way of showing them the final results before sending them the originals is to make computer images of them. This presents several problems because a computer image, no matter how good the scanner is, cannot produce an exact reproduction of the original painting with all the subtlety I put into my miniatures. And as I have to work from photographs of people I will never meet I only have these images to work from. Invariably when the client receives the computer image they blow it up to many times the actual size and often bring a variety of friends and family in to comment. And as it seems that everyone feels they have to comment ( on paintings, but rarely on photographs with the excuse that the camera can never lie!) I may get all sorts of tiny suggestions sent back to me. This happened with both clients, but all is well now with my latest miniature winging its way to South Carolina as I type this blog. 

I mentioned in a previous blog that I realised at the last moment that my painting of Alan, the boatman was ineligible for acceptance in the BP Portrait of the Year Award in the National Portrait Gallery in London this year because watercolours are not allowed. So I've painted a new portrait, different pose, of Alan, this time in oil colours and life size. Here it is and ready for submission next year.