Saturday, 16 June 2018

Skeleton in the Cupboard, Money Down the Drain

Never thought I'd see a REAL skeleton in the cupboard, but here he was, the other day.  We were exploring woodlands near Guildford, Surrey, and dropped in at the Watts Gallery Artists' Village.  

I think it's a real skeleton, or at least it was a real artist's studio.  The Watts Gallery has been hidden in the Surrey woods for as long as I can remember.  My memory is of a forgotten, charming little museum with a very nice cafe run by local ladies and owned a slightly decrepit gallery crammed with the Victorian paintings of G.F. Watts (1817-1904)

Watts' paintings were very popular in their day. Between you and me I was never a great fan, but I loved the gallery. So, some years ago, when I learned it had appointed a dynamic new director, I feared its atmosphere might be spoiled.  Mostly, though, the changes have been good. The place is still delightful but now the buildings have been repaired and updated, many have been reopened, and as well as Watts' pictures there's now a gallery of contemporary work with ever changing exhibitions and a really interesting programme of events and activities - way better than most galleries I know.  Oh, and the cafe and shop are also good.  Here is the website. so consider it for a visit if you are in reach of Guildford. 

  I'd actually intended a flying visit in order to see a large detailed map which one of my favourite illustrators, (and a friend), Peter Cross, had made in aid of a crowdfund to erect Watts' statue "Physical Energy" nearby.  Here is a photo of, well, some of  the statue, but it's big and not easy to photograph it all inside the sculpture studio.

I find Watts' sculpture more energetic and powerful than his paintings and I think this will look good on a hillside. In the background, you can spot a cast of another of his sculptures. This one depicts the poet, Alfred, Lord Tennyson - the finished statue was installed outside Lincoln Cathedral in 1905. 

The volunteer in the studio told me that the map  is everyone's favourite thing, and it is very typical of Peter's quirky and original work.   It's based on the punning idea of Watts and Energy, and features a wholly imaginary transport network and many local landmarks including an image of Watts' house, Limnerslease.  (Also, nearby Loseley House, built around 1568, a grand Elizabethan pile. I haven't yet seen around the house,but must.)

And... the map also features Mary Watts' chapel just down the road from the gallery.

Mary was G.F. Watts' second wife, and she sounds as if she was a lovely lady who doted on her (much older but very dynamic) husband.

Mary was very interested in art and design and started a pottery to give employment to the local villagers. (In those days, more than a hundred years ago, Surrey was full of hard-up farming folk - unlike today, when many local residents are wealthy).  Her biggest project was a cemetery chapel just up the road, using ceramic tiles from the pottery and designed in her unique style which is something between Celtic and Victorian. 

You can see what the outside of the chapel looks like from Peter's drawing - tall, thin, cruciform and made of decorative red brick.  Inside, it's a mass of multi coloured glazed saints covering the walls and ceiling, and saints in the same teardrop shape as in Peter's picture. 

Apart from the interior of their home, Limnerslease, this is the only surviving major work of Mary Watts. 

On our way home, we dropped in at the nearby church at Elstead, where we met the churchwarden who was just locking up. Here's a photo of the interior of the church. We were immediately struck by the massive beams at the far end,  hewn from oaks of gigantic size hundreds of years ago. This bit of the church is directly underneath the tower. 

The churchwarden pointed out something we would never have found.  On the right corner, there is a very old doorway, halfway up the wall and built on one of the beams. 

It is so narrow and hard to reach (impossible without a ladder) that you can tell it is very old. Peeping behind the huge beam, you see the door gives access to the tower up huge steep stairs cut directly into the oak.  I've never seen anything like this before, and can imagine that climbing those steps in such a confined space must have been very hard.   I took the photo below craning my neck looking upwards and so the perspective is strange, but take it from me that those maintained the bells or went to the belfry for any other reason, would need to be very agile indeed! Why, I wonder, did people in the past make life so difficult for themselves?  

On the way home we bought some eggs at a roadside stall. I liked the way the eggs were displayed on straw and there were some interesting cuttings and photos to look at. The stall is unmanned and you fill up the second-hand egg boxes yourself.  I think the owner had a sense of humour because ...

....payment for the eggs was made by an honesty system which involved literally throwing money down the drain!

Friday, 1 June 2018

Fashioned from Nature

When I heard about the V&A Museum's exhibition, "Fashioned from Nature," I immediately wanted to go, and last week I did.  The show looks at how Western fashion has been involved with the natural world over the last four hundred years, and it takes in a huge variety of garments, from labourers' fustian smocks to  gowns decorated with beetles - as well as quite the most awful earrings I have ever seen in my life.

I won't try to tell you about everything, but it was good to see that many of the beautiful items on display were simply celebrating the beauties of nature.  The embroidery on this evening dress from 1810 shows swirling vegetation and tree ferns, and is thought to have been inspired by exotic St. Helena tree ferns that had just been given to Kew Gardens at the time.

And this 18th century fine French waistcoat is also a celebration of nature, with African plants and Colobus monkeys (shown at the bottom) which would have seemed very unfamiliar to Westerners.

At least the Colobus monkeys weren't being made into fur coats. Along with the admiration for nature there has always been a seeming determination to plunder it, as we know, and any show on this subject will inevitably include quite a bit about fur, skins, pelts and feathers.  I found it rather depressing to admire the wonderful breast plumage of the huge albatross, only to see, (as the vintage label at the bottom said ) that this specimen had been "dressed and prepared for use in Ladies' Muffs, etc."

I'll spare you a picture of those nastiest earrings I've ever seen - in fact, thinking about it, they are too nasty even to describe. So if you want to see them you must go to the exhibition and look at all the earrings and see if you can guess.   There was something distasteful too about common birds which were "altered" to make them look into more interesting, expensive and imposing hat ornaments, although I know that DIY taxidermy appeals to some people. 

So I will move on to embroidery with beetle wing cases, as shown in the dress below. This was a type of white muslin dress that was often made in India for fashionable Westerners. It is stitched with iridescent dark-green beetle-wing cases of the jewel-beetle Buprestidae.  This particular dress is relatively restrained: there's far more elaborate beetle embroidery on Pinterest.  I believe the beetles discard the wing cases naturally, but these days you can get equally iridescent effects with certain types of sequins, although to be fair they don't look as if they are crawling all over you.   

The show has examples of all kinds of unexpected natural fibres which have been used in fashion.  Forget about wool, linen and water-wasting cotton; I was more interested in more unexpected fabrics like glass and pineapple fibre.  Pineapple cloth is now made on a small scale as a leather substitute under the brand name Pinatex, but there was a much more elegant and time consuming use of  this tough substance in a wedding gown of 1820, in which pineapple fibres and silk were woven together. You might be able to see that the warp and weft of the silk was removed in part of the pattern, and only the see-through pineapple fibre remained.

(Or you might not be able to see that. I am sorry about the low resolution of the photos. I forgot both my camera and my phone,  and T kindly lent me his phone. But its camera doesn't appreciate low light levels. )

Another thing that caught my eye was this riding coat, not for its materials but for its shape.  I think it's for a young woman or even a girl, since is cut with space for wide skirts, but apart from that, it doesn't appear to be made for a human being at all. It is very tiny, and flat chested, with a waist that cannot be more than eighteen inches, and massive shoulders that must measure twice that. It is tightly buttoned and form-fitting so I suspect the unfortunate wearer would have been laced into a very weird shaped corset and stuffed inside before they climbed onto their pony and galloped off (side-saddle, of course.)    

Environmental issues and exhibits are a significant part of the show.  In the 21st century the major concern is the wasteful use of natural resources. There is so much throwaway fashion, and some of it, like cotton denim, takes incredible amounts of water to produce, so it is good to see that some major fashion companies are waking up to the idea of sustainability.  Here is a link to H&M's "Conscious" range (click the little square beneath the description of each garment to read exactly how it is sustainable). At present, though, the idea of eco-fashion still seems like a bit of a fad, so it would good to see it become more mainstream.  

All so different from the second world war, isn't it?  Then, just getting materials at all, of any kind, was a problem.  If you were a skilled craftsperson, though, you could create beautiful garments from used parachute silk, like this, fashioned by a clever London dressmaker in the 1940s. This might have been one of my favourite pieces in the show. 

Of course fashion comes up with all kinds of extraordinary ideas, and recent ones are just as impractical and probably just as uncomfortable to wear as that riding jacket. The shoes below are from the "Bird Witched" collection of Japanese designer Masaya Kushino.  I found them very hard to photograph, so I've manipulated the image so you can get an idea of how they looked.

In real life, the shoes were black and grey, with black plumage feathers at the back, and sculpted metal bird claws which are the part you actually walk on.  Since they stand several inches off the ground, anyone using them would need a wonderful sense of balance! 


Jean-Paul Gaultier, as ever, contributed one of the most amazing garments. This dress, from his "Russia Collection" is called "Cat Woman," but in fact it depicts a leopard.  It is not made from real leopard skin but is created with many thousands of beads, and the label said that it took over 1,000 hours to make. You will see that the "leopard" face forms the entire bodice of the dress, and to me it looked as if it was holding the model in a close embrace.

A bit creepy, as so much of this fashion is - but for me that's one of the things that makes it so fascinating. 

After seeing the show, we emerged, blinking, to soak up some rays in the Madjeski Garden, in the museum's central courtyard.  In the beginning, I suspect this garden with its calm lawns and shallow pool was originally intended as an oasis of serenity.  Well, it's anything but that, now, and all the better for it.  The museum seems to have decided that it should be a child friendly zone and added water jets to add to the fun, which I'm sure weren't there originally.   There's now even an  an icecream stand in the sunniest corner, where you can sit and watch the kids play and notice everything that is going on in the square.

On the way home, we stopped off by the Paddington Canal to see what was new.  More children, more water jets.   This little person below spent a while figuring how to catch water from the jets shooting upwards all around her. She was very persistent, and in the end she realised that her mug had to be right way up, catching the water as it fell.  It may seem obvious to us, but I thought that was a real feat of reasoning for a little tot. 

I know that the weather in some countries is pretty bad right now, so I hope you're getting some pleasant summer days where you are.  And, if you want to go to the "Fashioned From Nature" exhibition - which doesn't finish until next January - I do recommend it, and the details are here. 

Monday, 21 May 2018

Should've Been in Italy, but...

Well, long time no post.  I'm sorry to have been out of touch. And my last post sounds like a different, wet world, doesn't it?  Thankfully that's not so any more, for this May has been amazingly hot,  bright and beautiful.

Actually, we should have been in Italy to meet up with family. I should have been telling you all about the Duomo, and icecreams, and stuff like that. But, T needed an operation, nothing very serious, and there was a bit of to-ing and fro-ing about the timing.   So we didn't go. As it turned out, the weather in Turin was nasty and in England it was beautiful, so it turned out for the best that we stayed, and it was a chance to follow up on the project of exploring nature, wild places and nature reserves. (In the UK it's possible to find some fantastic places by checking out local wildlife trusts.)

We stayed for just over a week in Eastern Suffolk, and found a place called Darsham Marshes that we'd never seen before.  One of the highlights there for us was this tree in full blossom, all 30-odd feet  of it (10 metres). It's actually one fallen tree which remained alive and some of its branches transformed themselves into trees, so now it seems like a whole grove of flowering apples.  A picture doesn't do it justice, but what an experience standing in the midst of it surrounded by blossom with the birds singing their lungs out.

Not far away, near the drowned village of Dunwich, we took a footpath leading up onto low cliffs, to see what remains of Greyfriars Abbey.  

There is not a great deal, although enough to be interesting.  The abbey was sacked by King Henry VIII, who left the gatehouse you can see in the centre of the photo (someone stables horses inside the site), and the walls surrounding the site are still there, showing from the sheer size that it was a pretty important place.  There are also remains of the abbey itself within the walls, though much of the stone from these huge ruins was used by local people for building their own places, I believe - and very sensible of them too, as it turned out, since the sea would have got the abbey anyhow a couple of centuries later. ... look at this set of rather blurry old pictures.  

They show what happened to the local church, St. James, which stood right by Greyfriars.  Now, no trace of the church remains on the site. The sea also devoured the churchyard, except for just one grave which stands right by the cliff edge.    When Jacob Forster's grieving relatives buried him in 1796, they can't have imagined he'd have achieved this posthumous fame, can they? 

In fact, while we were awaiting this op, the weather forecast was good nearly every day, so it was the perfect distraction to go out.  One evening, sitting in a field at Aston Clinton, Buckinghamshire, by the river, I noticed great green and purple dragonflies flying all around.  It was clearly their mating season so I evilly violated their privacy by taking a few photos.   I don't pretend to understand exactly how it works, or how they stop their legs getting tangled up.  

A couple of days later, at Aston Rowant, Oxfordshire, these hillside woods were shaded by what I think was once a beech hedge. The hedge must have been abandoned at least a century ago as what there is now is a line of  bushy trees with long spreading branches. 

Also around this area - chalk hills called the Chilterns - we were surprised to find so many woods still full of bluebells.  I think the extremely cold early Spring held all the usual flowers back. 

By contrast, here are the trunks and branches of the tall confirous woodland near Marlston Hermitage in Berkshire. I thought they looked decorative enough to have been painted - as the backdrop of a play, perhaps.  I once saw a performance of Chekhov's "Wild Honey" which is set in a mysterious Northern forest, which could suit  these trees very well.  

Maidensgrove, nearby, has a fabulous common currently full of all kinds of wild flowers, including buttercups, and lots of wild may out on the trees.  My new blog header photo was taken there. And the village also has a  17th century pub called the Five Horseshoes, which has an idyllic location and does great food.

Back in London,  T had his operation on Saturday, so we both missed the Royal Wedding. To his great surprise (and pleasure) he felt well enough to come out for a walk across Regents Park today and as a result we saw more daisies in one place than either of us had ever seen in our lives.

And the baby ducks are growing well.

 On the other side of the park we went to a small but ingenious exhibition at the Royal Institute of British Architects about perspective and imaginary spaces.   He insisted on having his photo taken walking through one of the perspective installations, so he really is feeling better.....

Having been outside so much this month, I'm seriously behind with just about everything that happens at home, so I'd better start catching up now that the sun has gone in.  Everything from sorting out a malfunctioning credit card, to sorting out plants, and of course catching up on writing.  I have been looking at (though not commenting much) on blogs -   but I will, and I hope you've also been enjoying the month of May.

We are also considering trying to pop over to Northern Italy a bit later in the summer for a long weekend.  We'll see.

Wednesday, 4 April 2018


We haven't had the heavy snow that's affected some areas of Britain over Easter - our holiday was just wet.   And everything has stayed... damp.  The weather didn't stop the kids having an Easter egg hunt in the garden, but it was perishing as well as soggy, and their poor little hands were all red with cold. 

These papier mache bunnies, in the shop in St. Martins-in-the-Fields' Crypt, (which I think I've mentioned before) were more my style, even though they were made of papier mache so you couldn't even eat them. You only have to look at them to see they come from a hot, bright, flowery place.

Naturally we bought out the collection of chick and bunny egg-cups for Easter breakfast.....

and had a relaxed Easter - inside. 

We've been feeling the lack of exercise, though.  First, being stuck inside for weeks because we were both ill with this bug earlier in the year, and now because the weather has been so uncongenial that it hasn't seemed like an attractive prospect to be out all day.

Yesterday, though, we took the tube up to Kingsbury, which is on the Jubilee underground line. We'd never been to this suburb, and wanted to see what kind of a place it was, and perhaps explore the small country park nearby if the rain held off for an hour or two. 

It turned out to be a pleasant multi ethnic area with a a good selection of curry houses, Indian sweetshops and truly mega food-supermarkets selling food from all over the world. 

The country park was accessed from a suburban street, and just as well we bought waterproof hiking boots.  The ground was like a bog - no, this is not a stream, below. 

Walking was a matter of stepping from tuft to tuft of grass and avoiding as much water as possible.

Yet it was worth going. The area was obviously once farmland, and consists of woods and small fields divided by thick thorn hedges and hedgerow trees.  The hedges didn't look at all interesting at first, being entirely leafless, but if you went close up and looked inside them, they were wonderful. 

 Everything is very late this year,  but the different coloured buds, mosses and lichens and the mass of twigs created a wondrous effect like a great intricate embroidery.

or what looked almost like pieces of jewellery.

Some parts of the hedgerow were like an ocean of life, with each part ready to go. 

On the way back to the tube, the suburban gardens, by contrast, were neatly tended and stocked with garden plants in bright colours.  My eye was taken by this dinosaur scene - the dinosaurs are arranged in an artfully created little valley of rock and vegetation.  I like to think of someone having fun creating it. 

We have a small field in East Anglia which we generally let out for grazing, but the farmer emailed yesterday suggesting it might be a while before he brought his cows along this spring, and sent a photo by way of explanation.   I've never seen the land flood before, but it really looks as if it could support a few ducks at the moment, doesn't it?

Stay dry!

Monday, 26 March 2018

Stoke on Trent

Oh heck, if I don't get this posted it'll be April.   And I hope the weather will be better then!  Since I last posted we have had more snow, which was quite pretty, and we also stayed in a particularly beautiful part of Staffordshire - Consall Forge,  not far from Stoke on Trent.  

At Consall the woods were beautiful in a wintry way but there was very little sign of Spring. I was struck by the almost fluorescent green of the moss on the trees. 

The purpose of the visit to the Stoke area was a reunion. I'm not usually one for reunions, but I liked this one. They'd been an entertaining bunch even when you saw them day after day, and although some have sadly passed away, it was fun for us survivors to meet again, hear the funny stories and see what had become of everyone. 

But isn't it strange what people end up doing?  I still remember my surprise in my late twenties when I met up with a couple of friends from art school. Ten years ago, one of them had been a brooding passionate genius wedded to his sculpture. Ten years later he was a schoolteacher and said that the most exciting thing in his life was the weekly trip to Sainsbury's!  But another friend, who'd never seemed interested in very much, had become rich, and was working as a jeweller, creating amazing portrait rings for wealthy people.   Have you ever had any surprises at reunions?  

 Anyway, back to Stoke. Here's a locally made plaque by Johnson Tiles showing the city's history and created by children under an artist's direction.  See the bottle kilns on the left? 

It's in the railway station, where we arrived after a remarkably cheap though slow train ride from London - just £8.  You might have seen the recent Guardian documentary series of short films on Stoke and if you view them or read this you may get an idea of the place.  Like so many ex industrial towns, Stoke has an interesting history and some great buildings and good people.   When I lived there, heavy industry had made it spectacularly hideous, but it was still a true working landscape with a very strong identity. 

Now, nearly all that's gone. I don't think anyone denies that the city needs something big to replace the the pottery, coalmining and steel industries that used to be at its heart. Walking out of the handsome station, I was glad to see the North Stafford Hotel still stood opposite. It was built in the beautiful neo-Elizabethan/Jacobean style which characterised the local railway company in Victorian days.  Doesn't it look like a mansion?

The hotel's still there and on the card you can see a statue at the bottom left which is also still there today.  It shows Josiah Wedgwood, who set Stoke on course to be the centre of pottery making for two centuries.  

We stayed with old friends and visited some local pubs.  My favourite has always been the Black Lion at Consall (and that's our friends' dog). I remember visiting the Black Lion when it had no road access - you could only reach it by canal or footpath. Something about the owner of the road not allowing access, I think.  But it kept going and now the adjacent railway has returned to life and runs steam trains, so you can reach it by steam train too.

While we were drinking our Pig Squeal or Hogfather (for goodness sake) in the bar... 

...I picked up a children's book which happened to be lying on a table. It was called "Dash Makes a Splash" and it was by a local author.   I instantly fell in love with the happy, colourful pictures. 

Dash is a little puppy who has a simple adventure. He gets lost, is taken in by a couple of canal boat restorers at Consall, and restores a lonely natterjack toad to the bosom of its family before returning to Consall in time for Christmas.

The story is just the kind of tale that little kids can understand and sympathise with, and that is not as easy to find these days as it once was. I liked it so much that I went to visit the lady who did the book, and bought a copy from her. It is also available on Amazon, but visiting was more fun!  I learned she learned to paint plates in her family pottery business, can't you just imagine those flowers above, garlanding the edge of a plate? 

Although Stoke still has many problems, it's a lot cleaner and brighter than it was all those years ago. I was startled to learn that Etruria Hall (once the home of the Wedgwoods) is now part of the Stoke on Trent Moat House Hotel.   I still remember how amazed I was when I first saw Etruria Hall, presiding over a completely industrial landscape at Shelton Iron and Steel Works, a little bit later than the picture below admittedly but a spectacular panorama scene of industrial devastation, the like of which I had never seen in all my young life! It was actually such a busy scene that I was quite fascinated by it, though, and wish I'd photographed it myself. 

And here is another view of Etruria Hall as it was years ago, at about 0.58 on the "Staffordshire Men" song below.

I'm not going to presume what people of Stoke are like now, or what they want for their city, but I'm hoping to return to have a better look around later in the year. Times are changing and I'd like to think Stoke will soon start to get the break it deserves.  

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