Month: May 2020

Making May: Bookshelves and Baking

The making that I’ve done so far this month doesn’t really warrant a post – I’ve made some rather ramshackle bookshelves (wood rescued from a skip, cut to size and balanced on bricks) and done a lot of repairing of things that I’ve decided I’m too fond of to throw out – worn-out shirts, skirts that have had disagreements with my bike chain (and come off worst) and table cloths that have suffered one spillage too many. Everything has been patched and the shelves have solved the double-stacking problem but none of these remotely qualify as artistic achievements.

I’ve done a lot of baking that I’ve been grandly calling Necessary Recipe Testing but if I’m honest most of it was fine-tweaking rather than strictly necessary, particularly since I am working on an anthology of nature writing at the moment which involves no baking whatsoever. But my chief recipe testers (the estate agents) were back at work and keen for the supply of cakes and biscuits to resume. They tested my chocolate cake recipe versus Mary Berry’s and, in a socially-distanced, blind tasting, mine won!  Then two surprise berry cakes, which reveal a hidden centre of tumbling fruits – lemon won over chocolate here. The wonderful thing about this cake is that the hollowed-out centre gives you another, mini, two-layer cake. This went into the freezer for three weeks, came out and was iced (buttercream in the centre, water icing on the top) and was voted the Best Cake by one of the estate agents. Unfortunately it also shows just how crooked my oven is. I’m made painfully aware of this every time I remove a cake but, as it will involve pulling the oven out and somehow inserting a wedge beneath its back feet (do ovens have feet?), I always manage to convince myself it’s not really a problem, until the next lopsided sponge emerges.

I also made a blackberry and apple tart which is meant to have ragged edges but came out looking alarmingly like a yeti’s footprint. It tasted okay though. Finally, now we are allowed to visit people I made a belated Easter cake for the friend I usually visit at Easter. And I made a startling discovery; strawberries and asparagus may no longer have a ‘season’ as far as supermarkets are concerned but small chocolate eggs are unavailable by the end of May. It’s nice to know that some things still abide by laws of nature but it did mean that these poor unfortunate chickens had to hatch out of circular Maltesers. Perhaps that’s why they look a little dishevelled. 

The country’s Loo Paper Crisis earlier this spring paled into insignificance compared with my impending Flour and Sugar Crisis. While it’s great that the entire country seems to have taken up baking during lockdown, it has resulted in empty shelves in the baking section of almost every shop. I mentioned the problem to the testers and they took the matter suitably seriously. 


A Different Approach

Talking to Chris (at the end of a phone), I realise my approach to lockdown has been very different to his. While we share largely common tastes and enjoy doing things together very much, for me the actual viewing of the object/garden/event in situ is much more important than just seeing it on a computer screen, however good the rendering. Looking at the objects virtually has almost no appeal for me. The same is true of visiting gardens; I want to look at the flowers close up, smell them, discuss their merits with whoever I’m with and make a note of ones I’d like in my garden. This sort of behaviour simply isn’t possible on a virtual tour; the camera always seems to stop at the wrong plant, leaving me to scroll back and attempt to enlarge the image of a small flower that was skimmed over. The photos are details from last year’s Chelsea Flower Show that I’m sure I would never have seen if I hadn’t actually been there.

I would be the first to admit that as far as I am concerned the accompanying coffee/lunch/tea, that is obviously impossible on a virtual tour, is also a hugely important part of the whole event: the wonderful tiled cafe at the Victoria and Albert Museum, the beautifully painted restaurant at Tate Britain, the delicious food at the Garden Museum (although for me the garden has lost much of its ramshackle charm since the redesign of 2016-17) and charming cafes at almost every single National Trust garden. Even sitting on the grass on a crowded bank at the Chelsea Flower Show, juggling a vastly over-priced slice of pizza and an exorbitantly expensive drink was something I missed this year. 

This is not intended, in any way, to belittle what is being achieved by the gardens, events and galleries at the moment, it’s just not for me. Apart from what I’ve needed for writing, I have been on the internet far less than usual during lockdown. What I have enjoyed, since we’ve had such an amazing spring, is sitting in my garden reading. Even on the rare wet days I’ve simply retreated to the summerhouse rather than shelter indoors.  

A Book in the Garden: Garden Design Master Class

I still have piles of unread books in the house but, to be honest they don’t really worry me;

I know there is a perfect time to read any book and one day that time will come for most of these books. For the others I’m happy to keep them ‘just in case’, a simple mention from someone whose judgement I trust could miraculously save the book from its increasingly dusty place at the bottom of the pile. Lockdown for me has been more about rereading rather than new discoveries.


The exceptions are my gardening books. On a couple of occasions I have picked up an unread one and spent a very pleasant hour or so being transported to a garden or gardens outside my own. The first of these books was Garden Design Master Class edited by Carl Dellatore. The subtitle is 100 Lessons from the World’s Finest Designers on the Art of the Garden. Carl Dellatore is based in New York and it is published by Rizzoli, who are primarily an American publisher so, while I knew it would be beautiful, I also suspected that it might be a book I skimmed rather than reading straight through. It is a wild generalisation but I tend to find American gardens a bit too open, lacking the seclusion and privacy I love.

How wrong. It started with Cicero’s wonderful quote: ‘If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need’ so I instantly warmed to the editor. In the end I read the book straight through. The essays were short, just a page or two with a couple of accompanying photos but the perfect length for the writer to make their point. The subjects covered every possible aspect of gardening: Rhythm, Place, Meadows, Height, Annuals, Compost . . . There were Native Plants and Unusual Ones, Mystery & Surprise and Romance. The designers were an international mix with two things in common – they all had interesting opinions and wrote enticingly about them. At first I was infuriated that there was no information at all about the designers but I quickly realised that it didn’t matter; here it was their ideas that mattered and it is easy enough to research most people on the internet now. Many of the ideas are on a scale that is beyond my garden – I’ll never have room for borders or parterres, let alone a pool but none of that mattered, I was transported to other gardens in the company of Dan Pearson, Charlie McCormick, Margaret Brower, Matthew Cunningham and 96 others, and was inspired, not about what I could have in my garden, but by what was in those of others. 


Business, but not as Usual

Coronavirus has hit the art trade, valued at over $64 billion globally last year, even harder than we thought possible. An article in the weekend FT states that confidence is at even lower levels than during the 2009 financial crisis. Quoting a survey by the consultancy ArtTactic, it suggests the combined turnover of Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Phillips had fallen to about one eighth of their 2019 volumes for the equivalent period from the beginning of the year until 19th May. $528 million (including online sales of $174 million) this year as opposed to $4.2 billion in 2019. Figures from dealers are harder to obtain but most have been hit very hard indeed. Some, if not many, may well disappear.

This sector has always had to innovate to survive, but the crisis has dramatically accelerated a change already under way where purchasers’ initial interest was frequently kindled by online showcasing of objects. In a world where physical closeness may become a rare luxury, the transition to greater virtual contact is likely to proceed without brakes!

Christie’s for example plan a streamed relay-style rolling auction on July 10th, moving from Hong Kong to Paris, London and New York, possibly with some element of the activity in physical salerooms. The two top lots, a Picasso and a Roy Lichtenstein, are both estimated to over $25 million, so this is a pretty massive step up, even if there are guarantees in place, from the current online record of (I think) $1.3 million hammer price for a Giorgio Morandi still life. So very interesting to see how it will go.

Obviously transactions that take place entirely online will require an even higher degree of trust between the parties involved in a largely unregulated and sometimes opaque market with huge sums of money at stake and where misrepresentation, fraud and forgery are by no means absolutely unknown. Dealers’ reputation and long term client confidence and relationships will be, more than ever, absolutely crucial. Totally reliable auctioneers’ condition reports, cataloguing and images of the back as well as the front of paintings, will be essential to ensure good demand, competition and prices for high quality works of art.

One gallery that has made a long term investment in scholarship and its online presence is Robilant and Voena.  This very grand, but actually very friendly, dealer in predominantly Italian art is renowned for its strength in Italian Baroque, and especially Caravaggesque, art. Its high quality online offerings have occasioned  very favourable comments in the FT and Country Life. Its regular emails to clients, and anyone who wants to sign up, have included a series called Looking Closely. The first was appropriately entitled Painting in the Shadow of the Plague (their image of painting of a physician by Fede Galizia circa 1600-1605  is reproduced below right) and all offer very wide ranging, well written scholarship and insight into Italian art and culture across the centuries. Have a look at (

Art and antiques fairs used to be crowded to a level we won’t see again until a reliable vaccine has been rolled out. Currently most are either cancelled or have moved online. The TEFAF Fair at Maastricht ran for four days in March, albeit with fewer visitors before being closed abruptly when at least one dealer tested positive for coronavirus. Many dealers put their remaining stock online and apparently did so quite successfully. The London Original Print Fair, LOPF, has been running online only ( this month and continues, using a very well and carefully constructed site, until 6.00 next Sunday 31st May. Each exhibitor has a viewing room for their stock.Two who deserve particular mention are Andrew Edmunds and Lizzie Collins’ Zuleika Gallery.

Andrew Edmunds ( has built up such a superb reputation amongst his many loyal existing customers for top quality prints and caricatures from the eighteenth and early nineteenth century that he should do well at LOPF.  He offers a particularly fine Gillray, The Monstrous Craw for £12,000 and an exceptional set of Hogarths’s Harlot’s Progress, exhibited at the Soane Museum last year, for £24,000.

Zuleika Gallery has carefully curated offerings at the Fair including a series of prints by Nicola Green entitled In Seven Days, based on the time she spent with Barack Obama’s campaign in 2007. Lizzie states This unique body of work is seen together for the very first time, following artist Nicola Green’s first-hand witness of Barack Obama’s meteoric ascent to power as the first African-American President of the United States. Two-colour silkscreen images, 35 x 33 cm, from a series of 20 cost £600 plus VAT; and there are several unique large originals at £12,000 plus VAT. Of these, Struggle,Glory, 2009 is reproduced below and is executed in two-colour silkscreen with gold leaf. The big ones really should end up in a public collection, although whether any institution has the budget at the moment is an open question. A significant milestone in history painting I think. On the LOPF site you can find a video of an interview with the artist in which she discusses the circumstances of her original trip and the subsequent long drawn out creation of her images.

Finally, good materials suppliers such as Jacksons  have provided a constant feed of posts on subjects such as interviews with artists as well as help  with practical matters such as materials and techniques, and I’ll turn to this and the many online life drawing sites in the final post next week.


The Virtual Museum

If we have to suffer this pandemic, we are lucky to do so with the internet and social media to lessen the inevitable limitations of distance and time under lockdown. However, the enjoyment is bitter-sweet in this new waste land of physical absence. April was indeed the cruellest month for all of us who had been prevented from attending the new crop of high quality exhibitions in London and indeed throughout Europe, for the online content was of such quality as to make us thoroughly jealous.

I missed Titian and Artemisia Gentileschi at the National Gallery, Warhol at Tate, Van Eyck In Ghent and Cecil Beaton’s work at the NPG.

All were all showcased to very high standards on the institutions’ web pages, in You Tube videos, on Instagram and many more channels. A You Tube snippet by the Beaton exhibition’s curator, Robin Muir, is fascinating about the artist’s  early years. I had also intended to return to the Royal Academy’s Picasso and Paper so the online video  ( remains a great treat. 

Obviously all museums and not-for-profit organisations are facing huge challenges when deprived of their flow of visitors and funds. The major national museums and art galleries have a tremendous amount to lose from the cancellation of their vastly expensive block-buster exhibitions filled with internationally loaned exhibits, but their scale and resources are such that their survival at least seems guaranteed. Most had already developed their highly sophisticated online activity as part of their marketing and educational roles, and now that is really paying off. The British Museum, for example, offers digital tours of the building. You can go from room by room of the entire building as if an estate agent were showcasing the best features of the collection. There is also detailed access to over 2 million digitised items in the collection. Most of the major public galleries upload new images most days on Instagram with expandable content and links to take you further into the subject if you want. The NPG is, amongst others, very good.

Of course it doesn’t entirely make up for not being there. Obviously we lack the sense of occasion, snacks, cappuccinos, cakes and lovely outings in company! There’s little sense of texture or feel or of sensations such as scent. We are deprived of the complexities of binocular vision that make appreciating any object, and especially a three dimensional one, a much more satisfactory and complete experience. Nor can one easily gain any sense of scale. Those curious striped and banded rulers seen in early photographs of archaeological excavations were there for a purpose. But just imagine how little we would have had to make us jealous even twenty years ago! 

For smaller museums and galleries the current lack of public access might be overwhelming without the support of their friends and patrons. They have responded to engage with them in every way they can. Pallant House Museum ( in Chichester, with its focus on twentieth-century British art in general and neo-romanticism in particular, offers an excellent series of online articles, sound-casts, talks and and lectures to its largely regional but very loyal members. Compton Verney, a major but insufficiently visited  museum and art gallery situated in a fine Georgian house and Capability Brown grounds near Stratford-upon-Avon, offers very good compensatory online presentations of its two currently closed exhibitions. These are Lucas Cranach the Elder ( to be found at and Fabric – Touch and Identity accessible through the same site.

So much of this site is based on gardening and so many of our followers are keen gardeners it’s worth a quick look at what’s on offer in this field. It’s a bit early to see  how the idea of NGS garden owners’ videos for virtual visits works in practice but it’s a good idea anyway. Having garden centres and nurseries open again is lovely but doesn’t compensate for losing access to the big shows. Virtual Chelsea on the television is a fascinating use of archive footage but no substitute. However it would have been so much worse not to have tried at all. 

The Garden Museum, without the benefit of any public funding, is in a potentially serious financial condition.   It’s had to postpone its exhibitions  but has kept its members updated with a constant feed of images, catalogues and films available through email letters and its website. Content ranges from the useful, through the informative to the positively surreal. Consider for example: Object of the Week: News from the Cornish Jungle (1953). This promotional booklet was published by The British Bamboo Cane Co., a 40 acre bamboo producers near Bodmin in Cornwall. One of their marketing ploys in the booklet was “Every garden should have a clump of canes”. To add to the sense of improbability the inside front cover contains an image of the then President of the Board of Trade, and subsequently UK Prime Minister, Harold Wilson with his wife Mary. Echos of Private Eye and Inspector Trimfrittering perhaps?











Life Under Lockdown

Nothing can take away from the horrors of the Coronavirus outbreak and its terrible impact on so many lives. However, for those of us so very lucky enough not to have been directly affected by it and to live in the country with a bit of space there have also been some consolations.

Of course there are many things things one misses. They include meeting friends and extended family, my regular life drawing classes both locally and in London, increasingly a haircut (I’m either not brave enough or too sensible to try myself), getting a watch battery fitted, and visiting museums and galleries.

The compensations have included fresher air, lots of peace and quiet and getting on with some proper vegetable gardening. The old orchard sports several rows of potatoes: after the effort of double digging through years of nettles and brambles they really had to be Pink Fir Apple!

A kind neighbour has loaned us their otherwise unused greenhouse and apart from hundreds of my wife’s Zinnia and Cosmos seedlings, I am growing tomatoes there and have germinated yellow courgettes, Painted Lady runner beans and Cosse Violette climbing french ones. Abandoned nine foot hazel rods discovered off a nearby footpath have been reclaimed (“foraged” perhaps) from the weeds that had started to engulf them and are perfect for a bean frame that really must be constructed in the next fortnight.

To my surprise, many of the unexpected pleasures have been driven by technology and social media. In the past, although I was never Luddite about these matters and was happy enough in Excel if the occasion demanded, I really thought of them as sophisticated screwdrivers. Of course we’ve been posting here on WordPress for years but since we both write books and both garden, including on occasion for other people, that has always seemed a logical choice.

From my pre-virus viewpoint I saw Zoom as an insecure contender to Skype, You Tube a means of curing a foolishly turned on child lock on the hotplate, while Instagram was for posers who wanted to show  off expensive jewellery by the pool side of an AirBandB Caribbean villa. Now these same apps have expanded my world and given me considerable pleasure. 

Instagram drove the first breach in my defences. Our new dog, Polly the wire haired fox terrier, provided the perfect justification for starting her page in lock down (pollyterrier just in case you were wondering, and she does like to be followed and liked!).

Over the coming few days I intend to put up a series of posts about those areas of social media that may also be of interest to other people. The problem in each case, when so much is available, is not what to include but what to leave out. Broadly the first will cover museums and public galleries including exhibitions. The next will deal with commercial art galleries and auctioneers. The last post will cover some of the online resources available to those of us who draw, paint or make things. 


Making April: Not Settling

I assumed that lockdown would mean I’d spend most of my time making things. For various reasons I’ve done less this month rather than more. This was partly because I’ve been working flat out compiling an anthology of nature writing. This involved selecting pieces from over two hundred books, many of which are firm favourites that I decided to reread. To compound the problem, rather than working my way through the piles of unread books in the house I also reread the Cazalet Chronicles by Elizabeth Jane Howard and the Pallisers, or Parliamentary Novels by Anthony Trollope. In these unsettled times I find I want to read books that I know I’ll like; now is not the time for taking risks, least of all in one’s choice of reading. To go with my reading I’ve also been making biscuits. These were orange and cranberry (with only a little chocolate) and so were almost healthy as well as delicious.

Last month I decided that slow was good so I started a patchwork of windmill sails. Put together the squares form an optical illusion of sails which is both striking and intriguing. Unfortunately they are very fiddly to make and the overall design depends upon an exact repetition of the fabrics. I had exactly enough of the red and white fabrics for one square and, having completed it I came to the conclusion that while slow is good, that slow was a step too far. Instead I remade a huge quilt of shells that I had made years ago and stupidly backed with a rather heavy tweed for warmth. The quilt was warm but so heavy that one was pinned down in bed. Removal of the backing and a bit of tidying and I created a perfect cover for one of my very tatty armchairs.

I am now on number eighty-five of the One Hundred Boats. The main fleet sail through my bookshelves, weather permitting these sail through the garden. In honour of the NHS and Thursday evening clapping, they have rainbow sails. The pattern I use is from Ann Wood’s wonderful website which is a treasure trove of ships and many other charming things.