Twelve Books for Christmas: Book Six: Delia Smith’s Christmas

This is obviously a brilliant book. The Parmesan-Baked Parsnips are the only way to cook parsnips, the Caramelised Cheese and Onion Tartlets are recommended as party nibbles for vegetarians but are far too good not to be made (in huge quantities) for everyone and the Truffle Torte is, as it says in the book, the best chocolate dessert. All that said, this book is actually included in this list because it makes me laugh. There is a chapter called The Last 36 Hours in which the reader is calmly taken though the run-up to the Main Meal. So far so good, the instructions have probably saved many Christmas Days from disaster. What makes me laugh is the entry for 8.55am: the turkey is in the oven, the bread sauce made and the frazzled cook is allowed to ‘take a break’. Everything should be under control and Delia suggests you ‘help the kids unwrap their presents, have a coffee or TIDY THE HOUSE’!!!!! Who tidies the house on Christmas Day – surely part of the fun is that every surface should be littered with wrapping paper, ribbon, chocolates, half-written thank-you letter lists and wine glasses? And one final quibble; her timings make no allowance for the Queen’s Christmas Message, unless one eats lunch very quickly.


As always we would like you to buy this book. Also, as always, we would like you to buy it from your local bookshop. Without your support it might not survive.

Twelve Books for Christmas: Book Five: Christmas in Exeter Street, Diana Hendry, illustrated by John Lawrence

The house in Exeter Street is a large, welcoming building with sash windows that appear golden from the light inside, a snow-covered roof and charming pointy red chimney pots. It is the day before Christmas Eve and the guests are just starting to arrive. Each page of this delightful picture book sees more and more people coming to the house, some expected, others a surprise, but all welcome. In the end the vicar and his wife sleep in the bath, five thin aunts sleep on the shelves of the dresser and a family whose car has broken down squash onto the (luckily wide) window sills. Father Christmas has to use his fingers and toes to count all the stockings. The small black cat, who crept in unnoticed, decides it is so lovely he’ll stay till next Christmas.


As always we would like you to buy this book. Also, as always, we would like you to buy it from your local bookshop. Without your support it might not survive.

Twelve Books for Christmas: Book Four: Roast Figs and Sugar Snow, Diana Henry

Wintery food is so much more inviting than summery fare. Admittedly summer has scones with cream and jam sitting on the lawn, ice cream on a beach and chilled white wine (that is food, isn’t it?) but I can’t, at the moment, think of much else. Winter has luscious, rich, recipes and this book contains the very best. Sadly, I’ve never been able to make my favourite recipe in this collection: Sugar-on-Snow. This is a kind of toffee which appears in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House in the Big Woods. It is very simple – all you do is heat maple syrup and butter to the required temperature, which you test by spooning the mixture onto snow. If it sets and forms a web of toffee, it’s ready. Apparently in New England they have parties with dill pickles (this I’m not sure I like the sound of), mulled apple juice and doughnuts.

The book also contains Tartiflette; the most ridiculously over-the-top concoction of potatoes, bacon, onion, Reblochon and crème fraiche, Pumpkin Tarts with spinach and gorgonzola (which taste even better heated up the next day), and the delightfully-named Peasant Girls in a Mist (softened apples layered with sugary-cinnamony breadcrumbs and topped with thick lemony cream).  Even the salads look tempting (which is high praise from me) with cured ham and potatoes, a farmer’s salad helpfully topped with fried eggs and a Friulian Winter Salad with chestnuts, pancetta, spicy Italian sausage, walnuts and pomegranate, oh, and a few leaves to justify the name. Writing this, I realise that this is one of my most-used cookery books. I just wish I could make the toffee. Perhaps this year.  


As always we would like you to buy this book. Also, as always, we would like you to buy it from your local bookshop. Without your support it might not survive.

Twelve Books for Christmas: Book Three: A Guinea Pig Christmas Carol

This is my third book connected to A Christmas Carol and the fifth in this delightful series. Previous titles include Oliver Twist, Romeo and Juliet, Pride and Prejudice and The Nativity. Opinion is divided as to whether these little books are utterly charming or indescribably naff but I was enchanted the moment I saw a small grey Mr Darcy in  top hat propose to a ginger and white Elizabeth Bennet. In later books ‘Elizabeth Bennet’ reappeared as the second shepherd and ‘Mr Darcy’ made a particularly intimidating King Herod. Each book contains an assurance that none of the animals were harmed or placed under any stress but I should imagine the reverse was true. We had a guinea pig a school and I looked after him for one holiday; he was a gregarious little creature and would have loved to have been involved in this sort of project. As it was he had to be content with the intricate obstacle courses I built for him.

In this volume Scrooge is a wonderful long-haired guinea pig called Beverlie-Anne, who looks particularly fetching in reading glasses and a nightcap. His nephew Fred is a dashing ginger and Marley’s ghost is positively scary. There is a portrait of Charles Dickens unlike any other.


As always we would like you to buy this book. Also, as always, we would like you to buy it from your local bookshop. Without your support it might not survive.

Twelve Books for Christmas: Book Two: A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens

Having read Miss Marley I had to reread the story that had inspired it. Jacob Marley had always been a peripheral character and I had never thought about Scrooge’s past. Now I read the story with a new insight. They had both been enthusiastic and likable young men but a grim determination not to be poor had overtaken both of them and turned them into money-grabbing monsters. I had always regarded them as simply greedy and mean but Miss Marley shows that both had good reason to fear poverty. There are a great many different editions available but I like this one as it slips easily into a pocket.


As always we would like you to buy this book. Also, as always, we would like you to buy it from your local bookshop. Without your support it might not survive.

Repton’s Red Books

This year marks the bicentenary of Humphry  (notably always spelt without an ‘e’) Repton’s death in 1818. Amongst the series of events, talks, walks and celebrations taking place (many organised by, or in conjunction with, The Gardens Trust) is the exhibition Repton Revealed at the Garden Museum. This runs until the 3rd of February and has been sponsored by City and Country, a developer of heritage properties, who currently own the Mansion at Sundridge Park where they are restoring part of the Repton Garden.  They have lent the original Red Book, which they own, for the property as part of their contribution.

The exhibition is a must for garden historians, Repton specialists and the Friends of the Museum. The more the viewer already knows the more valuable it is. It is built up around a core of 24 of Repton’s ‘Red Books’, those beautifully produced, and usually red leather bound, marketing presentations with which he wooed potential clients. Since only around 200 are estimated to survive the presence there of so many is a tribute to the powers of persuasion of Christopher Woodward, the Museum’s Director, his Trustees and staff and the exhibition curator, Professor Stephen Daniels. The books are supplemented by some of Repton’s watercolours, drawings and informative text panels as well as, crucially, by a digital presentation of the Red Book for Armley, a Repton garden near Leeds.

Repton’s marketing technique was as simple as it was effective. After a visit to the potential client’s property, where the socially affable and sophisticated Repton unleashed all his charm, a Red Book would be produced in the same way as a consultancy client would now receive a follow up Power Point presentation. Here a structured series of past and proposed views of the client’s property would be revealed as the owner turned the pages and lifted the flaps on each page of beautiful watercolour. As the Museums’s own publicity states Clients would open the book to see Repton’s delicate watercolours of their garden as it currently appeared, and then would then lift a flap, revealing Repton’s new design for their garden as it could be (provided they paid Repton handsomely to make the design a reality!). As pages are turned, trees rise or are felled, a stream becomes a lake, an untidy farm becomes a genteel park, or, as is the case in the Sundridge Park Red Book, a house is suddenly replaced with another, grander manor.  The accompanying text, now somewhat flowery and verbose to modern eyes, would recall the pleasure of Repton’s visit, the natural beauty and potential of the site and the poise and standing of the owner, that could only be enhanced by implementing the proposed improvements.

On account of the fragility of the main exhibits it is a given that low light levels are essential and there is obviously no possibility of actually turning the pages of any Red Book. Herein lies the only problem with this exhibition. For all its strengths it can offer only limited engagement with the essentially dynamic process of viewing a Red Book as a client once might.

Christopher Woodward has pointed out that Repton was a man obsessed with change and speed, whose ideal viewpoint would have been taken from a fast moving travelling phaeton, as frame gave way to frame. He would, he claims with justification have become a filmmaker if born in the last century. It’s equally possible that he would have been a high powered salesman, perhaps of some exotic commodity, supporting his pitches to Ultra High Net Worth Individuals with sophisticated Power Point presentations and embedded video!

The organisers are well aware of this problem and to overcome it have commissioned an 8 minute video and voice over based on Repton’s designs for Armley, a villa then on the outskirts of Leeds. The text of the original has had to be adapted for modern ears but the process of seeing the illustrations appear successively on screen is highly effective and no-one should leave the exhibition without sitting down and watching it. Had more funds been available perhaps the other books could have received the same treatment and been made available to visitors by a link to their phones.This should not detract from the success of the exhibition or deter visitors from seeing it, but it is only right to point out that the problem exists.

An interesting and surprisingly modern sidelight of Repton’s life is his very personal concern for overcoming disability. After a carriage accident which severely damaged his back and left him suffering continual pain,he focused much of his energy on the design of suitable vehicles to get about with limited mobility and planned routes for his clients’ estates that would suit disabled and able bodied visitors alike. The exhibition is a worthy tribute to a man in many ways ahead of his time as well as being a significant input into garden history and a great credit to the Museum. See it if you can.


Twelve Books for Christmas: Book One: Miss Marley, Vanessa Lafaye

Here is a reverse Twelve Days of Christmas, leading up to the day rather than away from it. I have chosen a mixture of festive fiction, cookery books, picture books and children’s stories that I particularly like.

This is a prequel to Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and aims to uncover the mystery of Jacob Marley’s past. When the story opens Jake (Jacob) and his younger sister Clara Belle are living rough on the streets of Victorian London, uprooted from their previous comfortable and well-to-do life. At twelve, Jake is tough and determined to survive, telling Clara each night, ‘I promise that we will have a good life again. And I will always keep you safe’. Following their early lives this book brilliantly explains why Marley and Scrooge became as they did and also explains some references in A Christmas Carol that I’d never even really noticed. At the end of the book there is a separate, fascinating twist but I shall leave that unexplained. It only remains to say that this is a delightful little hardback which would grace any stocking. Just make sure that the recipient also has a copy of A Christmas Carol. 


As always we would like you to buy this book. Also, as always, we would like you to buy it from your local bookshop. Without your support it might not survive.

Gallery Round-Up

This seems a good moment to start a series of posts about what’s on in London galleries and museums this month. There’s a pretty good choice this December. Repton’s Red Books are the subject of an exhibition at the Garden Museum. The National Gallery has a free exhibition of Lorenzo Lotto and charging ones of Mantegna and Bellini, and Pictures from Samuel Courtauld’s collection. Annie Alber’s weaving is at Tate Modern. At the RA there are some particularly fine, even if sometimes disturbing, works on paper by Klimt and Schiele from the Albertina in Vienna. The British Museum meantime offers ‘I am Ashurbanipal: king of the world, king of Assyria’. And these are only some of what’s on.

London Art Week, ( which started a few days ago on Thursday 29th and ends in a few days’ time, seems a good place to start. It’s a collaboration between over 40 leading Mayfair and St James galleries and auctioneers who positively encourage visits from the general public in the hopes of wider publicity and finding new customers. Many put on special exhibitions or store up particular treasures for the occasion. There are in fact two such weeks annually, with the more established one in the summer, but this additional event is running well. Obviously one can’t mention or even get round to seeing everything but since this column is written for pleasure rather than out of commercial motivation I make no apologies for just mentioning the things I liked best.

Sam Fogg in Clifford Street ( has a fine display of predominantly medieval antiquities. I was particularly taken with a series of early sixteenth-century glass roundels (c 1520-30) with religious subjects or armorials, and areas of a lovely golden yellow achieved through the use of silver stain. They are priced between £4,000 and £7,000. Among many other fine things is a single leaf of Kufic script from a Qua’ran, perhaps originating in ninth-century Damascus. That is priced at £20,000 which seems either a lot for a page or very little for such a rare and beautiful survival over 1,200 years old.

The very grand, but friendly, Robilant and Voena ( in Dover Street have focused on the effect of Artemisia Gentileschi on subsequent painting. As one of the best and best known of seventeenth-century female artists, she could hold her own against nearly all but the very greatest painters of her time, regardless of gender. She is also very now in the year of “Me Too” since she was raped by her father’s studio assistant Agostino Tassi and chose to appear as a key witness in the action her father brought against him for damages to the value and reputation of his unmarried daughter as his property. To ensure the veracity of her evidence it was felt necessary to torture her. Some things at least have changed!

The National Gallery recently paid £3.6 million for her self portrait as St Catherine from about 1616 which alludes, in her representation of herself as a tortured martyr, to these events. On offer here in Dover Street is another painting by her, a full length, very fine and rather later (1625 to 1640) portrait of Antoine de Ville which she signed by painting the silver trinkets around his neck to form her initials. It won’t be cheap -price on application!  Amongst other delights in the same gallery is Pompeo Batoni’s half length 1762 portrait of George Craster, in full red, blue and gold regimentals, painted in Rome and combining swagger with sensitivity I feel as good as anything he did. It has excellent provenance by descent and the painter Nathaniel Dance who was working in Batoni’s Roman studio at the time observed of it “Pompeo has made one of the best heads he ever painted”. It is fairly priced at about £550,000.

In Jermyn Street, Galerie Neuse ( from Bremen have a wonderful display of goldsmiths’ work hosted by the textile dealers S Frances. Amongst many excellent  things is a very fine baroque silver helmet-shaped ewer and basin made in Augsburg  around 1720 by Johann Daniel Schaffler. It entered the Royal Household when Mary of Teck, subsequently Queen Mary, married the then Duke of York and future George V. It was subsequently used, as the inscription on the reverse of the basin attests, to hold the water employed at the christening of their various offspring including the future Edward VIII, and by repute but not noted on the inscription, the present Queen’s father, George VI. It is an outstanding example of how history and association add interest and indeed value to something that was outstanding  right from the time it was made.

Finally the major auctioneers have pulled out all the stops. In particular Christies offer some exceptional lots. Tonight, December 4th, a drawing by Lucas van de Leyden of a young man with a sword is amongst some 200 lots to be sold by Rugby School to benefit its endowment funds. It is arguably the last drawing by the artist, of which only 28 are recorded anyway,  that remains in private hands and might well make over a million pounds. On December 6th the evening old master sale includes a superb Van Dyck Portrait of Princess Mary (1631–1660), daughter of King Charles I of England, full-length, in a pink dress decorated with silver embroidery and ribbons, date-able to 1641. It is estimated to go for between £5 and £8 million.

The events go on until this Friday 7th December and if you in the Mayfair and St James area it’s well worth dropping by to any of the 42 galleries involved, even if you have neither the intention or the means to buy anything. If of course you have you would be even more welcome!


Front Gardens

I have been walking round Fulham quite a lot lately and I’ve realised that most front gardens don’t contain anything other than a couple of dustbins. The next most common garden style seems to be a single pot containing a dead or dying plant, particularly olive trees. This seems sad when one considers how many of these houses probably have amazing back gardens. Or perhaps they don’t. I don’t like to think of it but perhaps most of the houses in Fulham are simply surrounded by neat but dull paving or slabs of cracked concrete. A brief look in the estate agents’ windows shows that most back gardens do, at least, have a few functioning pots but these may simply be there to help the sale. Everyone knows that, along with de-cluttering and baking bread, you should tidy your garden if you want to appeal to would-be buyers.

I’m not even putting pictures here; it’s too gloomy.

I have always described my house to first-time visitors as ‘the one with all the plants’. This has been true but, until this year, they have mostly been largish shrubs and perennial thugs: Japanese anemones, hardy geraniums, evening primroses, escallonia and winter Jasmine. More delicate plants came, and often went. Watering was a pain and consequently the plants at the front had to survive on less water and less food, less often than their counterparts in the back garden. Those in pots often objected.

This year all that changed with the arrival of The Tap. I have sung its praises before but it’s only now that I am realising the full potential for the front garden. I have just given the garden (front and back) its autumn tidy. Most annuals that haven’t done well so far won’t do anything now and the pots need to be made ready for next spring with bulbs and wallflowers. Doing it I realised how well everything in the front garden has done and, perhaps more importantly, that I can now plant almost anything I like there. This is useful as it faces west and has (by my standards) a largish flower bed which is not used to its best at the moment. There was a hebe which overreached itself and had to be cut down (cuttings are growing well in pots so, in theory, I could repeat the cycle). At present the bed contains a large pink, elderly but brilliant rose at one end, an evening primrose and an enthusiastic pink hardy geranium which has taken over the space and flowered all summer but could happily breathe in a bit.

I’ve moved some pots from the back and have repotted a Chinese foxglove and some English ones into nicer (new) pots and put them by the front door.  I shall also plant more roses: a climber by the door and another shrub in the flower bed. The tap has meant that I’ve gained about a third more practical planting space.

The back garden gives me seclusion but the front provides a beautiful, ever-changing screen between me and the outside world. The table in the bay window is my default place for doing most things and it now looks onto a wonderful plant-filled world. In particular a growing (in both senses) collection of grasses. All cats eat grass occasionally – ideally plain grass. Mine favours ornamental cultivars and last year she kept a previously-flourishing Imperator rubra down to a neat 1 ½ inches. In spring I divided it into two pots and put them onto the front window sill where they grew to a much happier 18 or so inches and glowed brilliantly when the sun shone on them. A fescue (Festuca glauca ‘Elijah Blue’) sits beside them like a blue hedgehog and screening the next part of the bay is a wafty Pennisetum ‘Fireworks’ and a delightfully stripey Miscanthus ‘Zebrinus’. I’ve just planted camassias (C. quamash) which I hope will complete the screen next summer. For years I never understood why people liked grasses, now I am completely seduced by their gentle charms.

Working in the front garden is pleasantly sociable. People smile as they walk past and often say how much they enjoy walking past my house. Yesterday a teenage boy stopped. I assumed he was going to ask directions or the time but no, he simply said how much he liked my garden. I could not have been more pleased. For a short amount of a builder’s time and a few pounds my garden is transformed. Before we tell everyone not to pave over their front gardens we should, perhaps, suggest that they install a tap.


A Cloud of Cosmos

Looking out of my kitchen window I see a cloud of dainty white flowers – Cosmos bipinnatus ‘Purity’.  They have flowered brilliantly all summer and now, when many other plants are starting to fade, they resolutely ignore the coming cold and continue their magnificent display. The evening primroses are turning their attentions to seeds rather than flowers, the witch hazel is changing to its autumn colours and the roses and hollyhocks are beginning to fade but the cosmos are behaving as it if is still high summer. The same applies at Fulham Palace, where I go most days to write. Their flower beds are filled with cosmos from pure white to crimson, with every variation in between.

I have a lot of cosmos in my garden, mainly because, each year, I am tempted to try different cultivars but resolutely refuse to give up my stalwarts of previous years. For a few years the permanents have been ‘Purity’, ‘Versailles Red’ and ‘Candy Stripe’. Last year I tried ‘Xanthos’ and this has now joined the ranks of the permanents.

‘Purity’ is beautiful but it is really a bit too tall for my garden where, because of the size, everything is viewed close-up. The flowers are beautiful and the plants airy and graceful but most of the flowers are on wafty stems over 6ft up – and I’m not that tall. I don’t usually like double flowers but this year I’ve grown ‘Psyche White’ which is a semi-double with prettily-edged, pure white petals which look like an eighteenth-century gentleman’s ruff. It grows to a more manageable height of about 3ft, and, although it doesn’t have as many flowers as some of my other cultivars, I think that may be because it was sat on by a neighbouring thug when young (an over-enthusiastic cucumber).

‘Candy Stripe’ is one of the many varieties of pink-and-white or red-and-white cosmos. On a single plant the flowers vary from pink with white highlights to white with the merest hint of pink at the edge of each petal. The snag for me is that, like ‘Purity’, it’s very tall. ‘Velouette’ is shorter and has deeper carmine markings and, with a RHS AGM, might be a good alternative. 

Xanthos’ grows into a bushy, flower-covered plant reaching about 2-3ft and has exquisitely-shaped pale yellow flowers with white centres. The buds are tiny, so tiny that at first I thought they’d never grow into flowers. I snip each flower off just above the next bud and, in a few days, am rewarded with new flowers.  The RHS magazine in August recommended ‘Lemonade’ which is 2ft tall and has similar-coloured flowers but in a simpler single form. Another one to try.

‘Versailles Red’ reaches 3ft and has rich deep red flowers but this year I also grew ‘Rubenza’ which is taller, at 4ft, and has dark pinky-red flowers. The ‘Versailles Red’ petals seem slightly more velvety but that appearance may just be down to the fact that they are in the prime position in my garden; a container by the kitchen door that is in full sun and which I always remember to water. Rather than producing different coloured flowers ‘Antiquity’ has blooms that change colour as they age. The buds open to a deep rich crimson and then fade to a delicate pink, rather like velvet that has been hanging in a sunny window for many years. At only 2ft it is one of the few cosmos that doesn’t need staking. ‘Rubenza’ is another cultivar that fades with age, whilst the ruffled petals of ‘Apollo Carmine’ seem to remain a fabulous deep magenta. I either need a bigger garden or to grow nothing but cosmos next year.