Each Month From my Window: January

Last month I bemoaned the fact that the best photographs of gardens in winter were usually photos of beautiful or evocative weather conditions. Of course it helps to have a good basic structure but I’m sure this is often easier on a larger scale. Monty Don’s front garden consists of 26 yews cut into cones of differing sizes and, while I don’t know the exact dimensions of this part of his garden, I suspect it is probably eight or even ten times the size of my entire plot. They achieve a beauty throughout the winter that my half-empty pots are never going to match. The following extract comes from Gardening at Longmeadow and describes looking out onto the garden at 2.30 on a February morning in 2002:

‘A breeze rippled the dark like a river and the silvery monochrome stripped away everything but shape from the yews. Twenty-six cones, each different but for that moment each perfect and each with its shadow like an echo……. It felt like a door had opened and shown me a parallel garden in another dimension.’

Much as I love the grasses in my front window boxes, they have some way to go before they will conjure up this level of magic.

But my bulbs are starting to appear and, with a judicious rearrangement of pots, I can see them as I write. The winter jasmine is still flowering merrily and, this morning, I spotted the first witch hazel flowers from the kitchen window.

Most of the photos are, I have to admit, a bit of a cheat. I see the plants from my window but I can blot out the parked cars, neighbouring houses and less-than-spectacular surrounding plants, which a photograph can’t. So, to misquote Eric Morecambe’s famous statement to the unfortunate Andrew Preview, ‘These are all the right plants, just not necessarily viewed from the right angle’.   

Jane

Making Week 25: Cushions and Not-New-Year’s Resolutions

Patchwork has got me through the last few weeks of ‘making’ and resulted in a couple of robust cushions that will make the uncomfortable garden bench positively cosy.

I have never been good at keeping New Year’s resolutions so, when I started the weekly making project back in July I deliberately decided on 25 weeks as I knew it would get me safely past the crucial time of making unsuccessful resolutions.

In fact I made a series of ‘resolutions’ on 22nd December and fine-tuned them on Twelfth Night. As far as I am concerned, once the winter solstice is passed it is a gentle slope all the way to summer: bright sunny mornings, long twilight evenings and meals in the garden.

Having roughly got the hang of papier mâché and put my patchwork fabrics into some sort of order my plan is to complete things this year. First the remaining fifty boats. Then the partly-made castle, the planned patchworks and a host of other things that are at the ‘to be started/finished very soon’ stages. I am planning to set aside one day each week for making, and ideally finishing, things. I’ll post them once a month to balance the garden posts, which I’m going to alter slightly this year.  

Roy Lancaster has started a new series in The Garden, the Royal Horticultural Society’s monthly magazine, called Through my Window. I spend a considerable time looking out of the window, both intentionally and when I am meant to be working. Unlike his, my garden is tiny and, also probably unlike him, I do very little actual gardening between October and March. The lack of space means I can’t rely on trees to provide year-round interest and the same lack means I can’t afford much space for ‘winter-interest’ plants. Summer is when I spend most time in the garden (gardening and sitting) so it is then that most of my plants need to look their best. But I look out of my windows all year and I’m convinced that I always have something, however small, to look at. The following posts will see if this is true. For the moment here are some wafty grasses, winter jasmine flowers and someone who knows she is not meant to trample through the window boxes.

Jane

Childish in Chalks?

Occasionally one produces something that bears no relation to one’s intentions. A few weeks ago I decided to use chalks on blue paper for two poses of our faithful model, Kathryn. What I’d hoped to do  was obtain a few delicate flesh tones. What actually happened was the brightly coloured chalks produced an effect like a small boy’s vision of a naked lady before the age of the internet. It was strangely successful, without having any pretensions to art, although I have a curious feeling that Prince Andrew might refer to it as “a harmless bit of fun”. 

Chris

Making Week 24: Waylaid by the Garden

I had planned to spend today making boats but it was so beautiful I went into the garden to do some ‘quick tidying’ and stopped four hours later. This is the thing I probably love most about my little garden; the fact that it accommodates my wishes regarding when I want to garden. I tidied the ivy, tied up the climbers, cleared the dead leaves and had a delightful and productive time. But none of the things I did were urgent, they could happily have waited a few weeks or even months. When I was a child there always seemed to be an urgency about the garden. To be fair, it was large but my memories are of things that had to be done, rather than done because it was a beautiful day and one wanted to be outside.  

I was not expecting flowers so the roses and snapdragons were a bonus. Equally heartening but less surprising was the winter jasmine.

Jane

Brush and Wash

We had a life drawing session a couple of weeks ago and I had a go at using water soluble black ink and a fairly fine brush. The two drawings below, though far from brilliant, were among the more successful images that I produced. We had rather a good model, Kathryn, who fortunately possesses a sense of humour. If nothing else it was a pleasant evening.

Chris

 

 

 

 

Making Week 23: Waylaid by a Poem

Gyles Brandreth’s new book Dancing by the Light of the Moon is in the Hatchards catalogue so, for some time I have intended to look at it properly. The Hatchards review is accurate but based on a quick read and a skim which gives me an idea and feel of the book which is all I need for the sixty or so words I am meant to use for each review. Most of the ones I really want to read have to wait till later.

The premise of this book is that everyone would be better in every way if they learnt poetry. A nice idea, I thought, but never one I would put into practice. By the second page I was intrigued, by the fourth, completely hooked. My plan, written here so I stand a faint chance of implementing it, is to learn a poem each week next year. 

Jane

Salute to Paul Henry

Not having posted anything I made for months it seems a good opportunity to catch up between now and the New Year. This one, oils on canvas as usual, was inspired by the Irish artist Paul Henry who died in 1958. It’s not actually a copy, and certainly lacks the skill of his brushwork and gradations of colour, but is very much in his manner. No-one who hasn’t been to the West of Ireland will ever believe the hills and mountains are really that blue, but I absolutely promise they are!

Chris

 

Holiday Reading

First, a warning: I’m afraid this is a ridiculously long post – but there was no way round it as it contains seven books and several discoveries. I went to Edinburgh recently and, as always, based my reading on the rhyme from The Stockmistress of the now-closed QI Bookshop in Oxford:

Something old, something new, something made-up, something true, one that’s here and one that’s there and one that could be anywhere.

Something old: Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows

I have not read this since I was about ten but an erudite friend who is a poet rereads it every year. I was curious as I simply remembered a rather charming story about a capable water rat, an over-excited mole and a ridiculous toad. How wrong. The descriptions are the things that make this book special; wonderful glimpses of countryside, waterways and picnics:

 

The Water Rat’s picnic for the Seafaring Rat: ‘Then he got out the luncheon-basket and packed a simple meal, in which, remembering the stranger’s origin and preferences he took care to include a yard of long French bread, a sausage out of which the garlic sang, some cheese which lay down and cried, and a long-necked straw-covered flask containing bottled sunshine shed and garnered on far Southern slopes.’

Or the Otter’s description of snow: ‘My! it was fine, coming through the snow as the red sun was rising and showing against the black tree-trunks! As you went along in the stillness, every now and then masses of snow slid off the branches suddenly with a flop! making you jump and run for cover. Snow-castles and snow-caverns had sprung up out of nowhere in the night – and snow bridges, terraces and ramparts – I could have stayed and played with them for hours.’

Something new: Caroline Scott, The Photographer of the Lost

Three brothers enlist in the army during the First World War and, predictably, not all return home. Harry, now a photographer, is searching for his elder brother in France, whilst Edie is searching for the same man, her husband. A man who quotes Yeats to her on their first meeting, telling her to ‘Tread softly because you tread on my dreams’. Caroline Scott is a historian so, as one would expect, the story rings true but what is remarkable about this book is the extent to which she has recreated the feel of the period and landscape of war-ravaged France. I really cared about the characters and I found myself sitting for hours in Edinburgh cafes, never quite able to tear myself away from the intertwining tale she so skilfully weaves.

Something made-up: Philip Pullman, The Ruby in the Smoke

In July I rather rashly said that I would buy ‘fewer books’. There were lots of exceptions and a complicated set of rules regarding what I was allowed (known only to me) but I have pretty well stuck to it. This has allowed time for rereading. Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials easily stood up to the umpteenth reading, so I am now rereading the first in his Sally Lockhart quartet. It is a Dickensian mystery with Indian palaces, opium dens, a charming photographer and, at its heart, a heroine with a pistol. And yes, it’s well worth a second read.

Something true: Gillian Tait, 111 Places in Edinburgh That You Shouldn’t Miss

I wish this book had been published when I lived in Edinburgh. Admittedly that was years ago and many of the recommendations in the book didn’t exist or were lying forgotten but it is packed with things you might otherwise miss so I’m sure Gillian Tait would have found the same number of interesting things then.

 

I rediscovered the Stockbridge Colonies; small, affordable dwellings built for and by skilled workmen and artisans in the nineteenth century. They are ingeniously-designed terraces of ‘flattened cottages’ with raised front doors on one side of each terrace so each flat has its own private entrance and garden. Situated alongside the Water of Leith, these properties are now ‘highly desirable’ in estate agents’ parlance and humble artisans have probably been priced out.

The book also introduced me to Dunbar’s Close Garden, just off the Canongate on the Royal Mile. The series of courtyards looked lovely, even on a cold, damp, foggy day (the Scots have a word for this: dreich, which perfectly describes the grey skies and thick mist which is almost rain but not quite). In the seventeenth century this area was outside the city, just beyond the grand but heavily-fortified Netherbow which was one of the six points where people could cross the city walls. The area consisted of spacious mansions, outside the cramped city and conveniently close to Holyrood Palace. Forty years ago Dunbar’s Close Garden was created to give an idea of the terraced gardens attached to many of these houses. The structure ensures it looks good year-round but the planting merits several seasonal visits.

Another discovery was Dovecot Studios. This is a swimming bath converted into a weavers’ studio. You can look down from the gallery, which also hosts exhibitions, and see the weavers at work. It’s fascinating to watch them but the building is also a stunning piece of Victorian architecture with graceful arches and rooftop windows.   

One that’s here: Alexander McCall Smith, The Importance of Being Seven

Whenever I go to Edinburgh I read one of the 44 Scotland Street books. Many years ago I lived a couple of streets away and Alexander McCall Smith captures the area and its residents perfectly. Starting one of the books is like meeting up with an old friend after a long gap; there are no unpleasant surprises, it is gentle, funny and yet surprisingly thought-provoking. If you have ever stayed in, lived in or even just visited Edinburgh’s New Town (actually largely Georgian) I cannot recommend them highly enough. But you must read them in the correct order: 44 Scotland Street is the first.

One that’s there: Kate Atkinson, When Will There be Good News?

When the fifth Jackson Brodie novel Big Sky was published this autumn I decided to read the earlier ones again. Each story is complete but the back story about Jackson develops through the series. In this, the third, he is again embroiled in a slightly unbelievable series of coincidences but it doesn’t matter. The books are excellent and definitely stand up to the test of rereading. The crime is there but doesn’t dominate and Jackson definitely passes the charisma test – I’m not a huge fan of crime unless there is a charismatic detective (Donna Leon’s Commissario Brunetti, or Kyril Bonfiglioli’s the Hon. Charlie Mortdecai: ‘Degenerate aristocrat, amoral art dealer, seasoned epicurean, unwilling assassin and knave about Piccadilly….’).

One that could be anywhere: Neil Gaiman, Stardust

A young man goes on a quest to find a star to win the heart of the woman he loves. So far, so usual. But this quest involves the land beyond the Wall – the land of faery, and three princes and a witch are racing against him. Reasonably enough, the star herself does not wish to be taken by anyone. The story gallops along with the urgency of a traditional fairy tale enlivened by Neil Gaiman’s amazing imagination. Another book which gives more with each reread.

Jane

These books should be easily available at ‘all good bookshops’, please buy them there, if you can, rather than from a characterless online site.

Making Week 22: Having a plan for the bad times

This is a direct quote from Ann Wood but anyone who writes about the 100 Day Project stresses the same thing – you need a plan for when things don’t go well. My problem is that although I’ve been back from Edinburgh for nearly two weeks I haven’t got back into the boat-making routine. I’ve got lots of excuses: Christmas, work, writing, etc. but that’s all they really are – excuses. And at the moment I can’t see anything improving as one thing I have learnt is that to make the boats I need to be very focused, which I’m not at the moment. I can pick up patchwork for twenty minutes and achieve something; the same cannot be said of the boats. So the plan is going to be that I shall do patchwork for the remaining three weeks. Then, in January, I can decide what I’m going to do for the remaining fifty boats that I still need to make.

In the meantime here are eight miniature patchworks. I still haven’t got a clue what to do with them but I hope that, in due course, a plan will reveal itself.  

  

Jane

Worth the Detour : Two Exhibitions At The Estorick Collection

Yesterday I had a really pleasant surprise. Taking the Victoria Line to Highbury and Islington and walking for a few minutes to Canonbury Square, brought me to the Estorick Collection (https://www.estorickcollection.com) which occupies a fine Georgian house at number 39a. This is one of those galleries everyone has heard of and no-one visits, which is a shame and a mistake. It’s definitely worth the detour. If you are interested in the Italian Futurists, or more generally 20th Century Italian art, then you really ought, indeed probably need, to go.

The key plus points are the excellent permanent collection and thoroughly good and unusual exhibitions. The incidental plus points include a lovely setting, a warm welcome and the probably unfortunate fact it’s very quiet and there is nobody breathing over your shoulder or getting between you and the art.  There is also a very good and reasonably priced cafe serving Italian food that transcends the normal expectations of gallery catering. I ate home-made penne con tonno and drank a good glass of Chianti  for a little over £12.

The foundation was set up by the late Eric Estorick, who possessed a remarkable eye and assembled the permanent collection while making a profitable success of his lifelong devotion to the art of this period at the Grosvenor Gallery. There are works by virtually every significant Italian  artist from the 1890s to the 1950s. Lottery funding played a significant role in the renovation of the building.

Of the two exhibitions currently running, the first, Lithographs from Leningrad, is a remarkable selection of high quality images, many printed in colours and just not what one would have expected from a supposedly tightly controlled Soviet art establishment! However, the other, and probably more important, is Umberto Boccioni: Recreating the Lost Sculptures.

The gallery website states of the lithographs: During the early 1960s, when Eric Estorick (1913-1993) was running London’s Grosvenor Gallery, he developed a strong interest in Soviet art alongside his passion for modern Italian painting. In 1961 he mounted a landmark exhibition of Soviet prints – the inspiration for this special display – which features graphic works by 15 of the artists from the original show: Brodsky, Ermolaev, Izrailevich, Kaplan, Kuks, Lanin, Latash, Maslennikova, Matyukh, Nemenova, Skulyari, Steinberg, Vasnetsov, Vedernikov and Yakobson. This is the first time since 1961 that these artists have been exhibited together in the United Kingdom. Estorick had visited Leningrad’s Experimental Graphics Laboratory in 1960, and was so impressed that he bought several hundred works on the spot. For a number of years his gallery hosted a stream of exhibitions featuring work by artists from the Soviet Union and, for the first time since the Russian Revolution, Westerners were able to see and acquire contemporary art from the USSR.

Of the many ground-breaking sculptures the Futurist artist Umberto Boccioni (1882-1916) created between c.1913 and 1915, only a handful remain in existence today. A number of his most important plaster and mixed-media sculptures were destroyed in 1927 and this constituted a very significant loss for avant-garde art. Using a combination of vintage photographic material and 3D printing techniques, the digital artists Matt Smith and Anders Rådén have recreated four of Boccioni’s destroyed works: a volumetric study of a human face titled Empty and Full Abstracts of a Head, and three of the artist’s iconic striding figures. As the gallery states This ground-breaking display enables modern audiences to ‘see’ these lost masterpieces for the very first time. The exhibition contains a detailed technical exposition of the methodology involved and you can see the 3D printer in action, which is both fascinating and fun.

Both exhibitions close on 22nd December so not much time remains. Next year there will be four new exhibitions, of which the first is Tullio Crali: A Futurist Life, running from 15 January – 11 April 2020.

Chris