John Constable -A Suffolk Artist

Last month I went to see the ‘Creating Constable’ exhibition at Christchurch Mansion, Ipswich.

Born in East Bergholt, Suffolk, John Constable (1776-1837) is known as one of the most important of all British artists with many of his famous works featuring the gentle countryside of his bucolic home county, Suffolk. Constable’s landscape paintings not only showed a new way to paint, but through sharing his visual interpretation he also encouraged his audiences to view the landscape in a different way.

I think this idea of a historical and different way of perceiving reality, as well as a historical way of viewing any re-presentation of that reality by an artist of the corresponding period, is more difficult for us to imagine than we realise. We are, after all, living in a time after the Impressionists, after the Post-Impressionists and after the Modernists, indeed, we now appear to exist in a time considered so postmodern much of our realities are viewed with deep skepticism. Please just hold this in mind as you look at the next two paintings and as you read the context for their creation.

‘Golding Constable’s Kitchen Garden’. July 1815. Oil on canvas. H 33 x W 50.8 cm

On show in this exhibition is a very special pair of paintings. In the summer of 1815 with the health of Constables’ elderly father, Golding, failing and his wife, Ann, John’s mother, having died earlier that spring, John came to visit with his father in East Bergholt. During the course of his stay he spent many hours in the fields sketching and painting. Two paintings produced at this time were ‘Golding Constable’s Kitchen Garden’ (above) and ‘Golding Constable’s Flower Garden’ (below).

Constable never exhibited or attempted to sell these two paintings during his lifetime. Although highly finished, these were private works, records of the landscape that was precious to him at a difficult time. I think this is a fine example of the difference between the sensibilities of the early 19th century and our ‘show all, tell all’, skeptical 21st-century existence.

‘Golding Constable’s Flower Garden’. August 1815. Oil on canvas. H 33.1 x W 50.7 cm

Returning now to the exhibition more generally it is possible to detect that Constable believed in the necessity of being skilful at drawing. A capability in the world of art that has not always been fashionable. At the beginning of his career Constable often copied from Old master prints, to develop his technique. He continued this practice into later life, collecting prints by Dutch and Flemish artists such as this copy of Jacob Ruysdael’s ‘The Wheatfield’ (below).

‘The Wheatfield’ by Constable (top) after Jacob Ruysdael. 1818. Pen and sepia ink on paper.

Of course, the exhibition also displays some of Constable’s original drawn creations such as this pen, ink and watercolour study of East Bergholt church.

‘St Mary’s, East Bergholt Church: the exterior from the South West’. c. 1796. Pen, ink and watercolour on paper. H 25.8 cm x W 39.7 cm

On the picture it is just possible to make out a faint set of pencil grid lines drawn in preparation for the transfer and enlarging of the church into the finished oil painting.

‘East Bergholt Church’. c. 1796-97. Oil on board.

Naturally, there can’t be a Constable exhibition without at least one painting that includes some aspect of Willy Lott’s Cottage.

I had just taken the above photo and was about to leave the gallery when the Gallery Steward approached me and asked if I’d spotted the kingfisher flying over the water in the Mill Stream painting. I hadn’t.

‘The Mill Stream’. c. 1814. Oil on canvas. H 71.1 x W 91.5 cm. The building we see is Willy Lott’s Cottage.

I paused and looked. And looked closer, and closer and squinted and eventually he pointed it out to me. There it was a brush stroke of red and two of blue, the kingfisher.

A sequence ending in a spot magnification (thanks to computer wizardry) to capture Constable’s kingfisher flying across the Mill Stream.

Darker tones for darker times

January 2022 appears to be bringing with it more sombre greyness than just the weather. In truth the grey gloom of the weather and the pandemic has simply carried on from the end of last year into the beginning of this one. I remember when the news of Omicron first hit and, as is so often the case with me, the general mood of current affairs eventually filtered through and into my work.

When I began working on this large, 90 x 90 cm crepe de chine scarf in December I had intended the background to be entirely midnight blue.

Drawing out the basic design in gutta resist.

However, as I added other colours to the scarf the blue background didn’t feel dark enough.

The process of painting with dyes.

The blue, even as dark as it was, was not creating enough contrast to make the muted pinks and muted mouse browns as crisp and sharp as I wanted.

Pure black behind making seed heads more defined.

So, I got to work with the unadulterated black. Although, I frequently use small areas of black to achieve depth, it is a long time since I have used black for a background. I think you can see the difference it makes compared to the blue.

A large scarf like this takes some time for me to paint and, additionally, I had a break over Christmas when I cleared my studio to offer a comfy space for a large, visiting dog. When I returned to my work, I immediately saw that there seemed to be a gash in the design. It was not intentional. The order in which I had painted the colours had revealed this shape, gradually emerging running diagonally across the scarf as the pinks and reds were added.

A gash has appeared across the design.

At this point, and with the New Year fast approaching with hope in its wake, my mood changed and I felt I wanted the gash to be filled with soft colour.

Muted pinks making for a softer background.

The result was a background of the muted pinks with the seed heads painted with the mouse browns. I think you can see the line of the browns flowing diagonally from the top left to the bottom right of the scarf in this photo below.

The painting is finished and the scarf is ready for steaming.

With the scarf completed it is clearer to see how much black I’ve ended up using. Dark and moody, yet with more pink than I planned when I changed the blue for black. I guess the daylight hours are increasing and maybe Omicron is not as bad as it was first considered and the result is a little more colour and a little less black.

The scarf has now been steamed and photographed and added to my shop, and as usual, the photos don’t really give an accurate portrayal of the piece. I must say that considering the times in which it was painted, I at least, am very happy with the finished scarf. In truth and unexpectedly it’s turned out to be one of my favourite pieces of work! Clouds . . . silver linings . . . and all that.

Festive Promenade, Felixstowe

During those recent festive in-between days the weather here in Suffolk, like much of the UK, was grey and wet.

Cranes, a pier and beach huts – what more could you ask for?

In fact it rained and rained and all eyes checked various weather apps to catch a time when rain was not forecasted. We looked at maps and wind directions and tried to estimate when rain would finally clear the east coast.

Plenty of painted beach huts, but only a couple as bright as this green coat!

We usually go up the coast to Orford, Aldeburgh or even Southwold, but there was only a short afternoon window with no rain and enough remaining daylight to make a visit to the beach worthwhile.

If you look carefully you can also see the containers piled up behind the houses.

With time an issue the 20 minute route to the beach at Felixstowe became our destination by default.

Time for off the lead and on to the beach with the dog too.

We were lucky the rain stopped as we arrived. There was some gorgeous light and gentle, shimmering reflections off the wet pavements.

Lumps of rock sea defences, the sea wall and a well-maintained walkway.

And, I loved it.

Almost at the end.

I only wished I’d taken my camera.

Across the River Deben estuary and bar towards Bawdsey.

Fortunately today’s phones make forgetting your camera less of an issue than in ‘the olden days’ as the youngsters like to say.

Heading back.

It might still have been too soggy to sit awhile and appreciate the view, but

And walking off into the sunset . . .

the walk back along the prom into the shimmering sunset was delightful.

Please don’t leave me behind.

Christmas Trees at the Mansion

The other week, before Omicron arrived, I popped into Christchurch Mansion to catch up on the latest ‘Creating Constable’ exhibition. The gallery is only a 15 minute walk from where I live and I always enjoy walking through the Mansion’s park on my visits, particularly at dusk.

A winter sun setting as seen through the old glazing.

As I said I went to see the art, but I was distracted by the fine sunset and then the Christmas Trees on display. And, as this is my last post before Christmas this year, I thought we might make a toast or two in the Servants’ Hall.

In 1923 this room was fitted with panelling and an overmantle taken from The Old House, 32 Carr St, Ipswich.

The servants’ hall was first recorded as such in the 1840s, although it was probably used in this way much earlier. The space was conveniently situated near to the kitchen, to the servants’ staircase to the attic bedrooms and to the service wing of the mansion where the work of running the house was carried out.

That’s the butler perhaps.

All the servants ate together in the hall, but it was expected that the butler and the housekeeper would retire to take wine and a dessert. These formal meals provided an opportunity for junior servants to learn how to serve by waiting on the older servants.

Yes, that is a red hat on top of the tree.

The furniture now on display is not typical of a usual servants’ hall, but represents the sort of pieces that might be found in a large farmhouse kitchen or country inn. I think the idea is to give the visitor an essence of Victorian life rather than historical accuracy. Also, I am not sure how many servants would have been offered a serving of the rather fancy apples à la Parisienne!

Pommes à la Parisienne

And, as for those toasts

Early Christmas Present Brings Mixed Feelings

Long term readers of my blog will know I am a keen gardener, but also a big moaner about the trials and tribulations of gardening in a backyard shaded by a large, mature eucalyptus tree.

Left – the big old eucalyptus this summer. Right – the day of the big chop.

Well, on Monday of this week Christmas came early for gardening me as the supremely professional ‘Acorn Trees’ arrived in the backyards of my neighbours and began the process of chopping down the eucalyptus.

As a kid I loved tree-climbing, but these days, no thanks.

It took the guys all day to carefully chop the tree down, pretty much branch by branch.

One half cleared, now to begin on the other side.

As the tree began to disappear the daylight to the rooms at the back of my house increased and, of course, my backyard that hasn’t seen full winter sun in decades, fairly glistened.

The skilful tree surgeon securing the next branch to be removed.

It wasn’t all good news though as I know that such a large tree was perch and roost to many birds and environmental me doesn’t like to see the loss of a single tree.

However, there’s no doubt it was very much the wrong tree in the wrong place. It was far, far too close to four or five nearby homes and with the increasing number of bad storms perhaps it was considered too risky to leave standing.

Left -from the guest bedroom the last moments of a leafy view. Right – view from my office the floor above just the trunk to go.

Finally, it has been a case of careful what you wish for. The view from my office window used to be all green and leafy, but now it is the ugly backs of some dreary interwar housing.

That’s it the tree has gone and the top half of my office window is now all sky.

But, but, but am I looking forward to spring gardening in my sunny backyard, you bet I am!

Five Sunsets and a Daybreak

As I write this the jury is still out on whether the Omicron variant is making people more or less sick. However, there’s already been confirmation that this new variant is more transmissible than our old enemy Delta, sigh. With all the gloom I thought it was time for a glass-half-full blog post.

Dawn lighting up the view from my office – Stratocumulus?

Okay, it’s winter, there’s already been a couple of nasty storms and the days are short, but, oh my, when the sky is not overcast the winter light is gorgeous as the sun rises and sets.

Golden skies above the Old Cemetery – Altostratus ? perhaps

Add a few clouds, and there’s mystery and drama. Who can resist a slightly eerie stroll through the Old Cemetery as the sun sets whilst absolutely making sure you reach the grand, iron gates to exit before lock up.

A pink mackerel sky at sunset – Altocumulus, I think

And, when was the last time you walked down a bog-standard, terraced street transformed by a pink, mackerel sky into the dramatic backdrop for a post-apocalyptic sci-fi film.

A very still Ipswich Waterfront at dusk – some Cirrus in the upper sky

Of course, not all winter weather is stormy. There are those surprisingly still days and, with the sunsetting as early as 3.45 in the afternoon, there’s plenty of opportunities to capture some inspirational sunset photos.

That’s the sun going down on Sunday, 5 December at 15.38 (precise time from my phone’s photo info [don’t you just love technology!])

It may only have lasted for a mere five minutes or so, but the rich, fiery orange of the setting sun reflected off the low clouds was most dramatic and in a way uplifting too.

Well, well, well – alpha, beta, delta . . .

Omicron. Yes, the latest variant of concern has brought with it the return of compulsory mask wearing in shops and on public transport in England. A point to note here is that the rest of the UK, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (devolved for matters of health from the UK’s Westminster government) had not joined England’s laissez faire approach. Since, 19th July 2021, the so-called English freedom day, one has been encouraged to make a personal choice to wear a mask or not based on one’s own assessment of the Covid risk. And, naturally, following the example set by the Prime Minister as well as seeing the government benches stuffed with maskless Tories, many people simply assumed Covid was done and dusted and had stopped wearing face coverings.

Mmmm, I could embark now on an intense rant about the rinse and repeat poor leadership together with the sporadic wishy-washy messaging from our government, but instead it’s time for me to calm down and get out the silk and the dyes . . .

Find the last few rectangles of backing silk

Dig out the black elastic from the bottom of my sewing box

And sew up a few more silk masks.

Maybe or maybe not the last masks to be added to my online shop.

Another flower-inspired bandana

Well, it’s the 25th November and it’s four weeks to Christmas and that’s it for my backyard for this year. There are a few pink cosmos plants limping on and the hydrangea blooms will be slowly fading, or rotting away for the rest of the winter, but until next spring they’ll be no flowers from my yard to cut and bring into the house.

Drawing out and painting the first corner design.

Just as well I took the time to photograph some of my favourite combinations from the summer and early autumn flower arrangements.

Finding another colour combination for opposing corner.

I keep a selection on my iPad which I use when looking for colour inspiration.

Beginning painting the centre panel featuring the full large vase arrangement.

And, every now and then I do sort of copy an arrangement and include the vase as well. You may even recall that I painted a picture of the tall vase arrangement before the design ended up on scarves.

The example below will probably be the last one of this series as the season and the light have moved on and I am feeling the arrival of winter and with that a change of palette.

November in an Urban Park

The full palette of golden yellows and hot oranges that makes for an autumnal scene has arrived late this year as we can see in this series of photographs from Sunday, 14th November.

As my sister and I walked around Christchurch Park in Ipswich we noticed the varied selection of deciduous trees were at different stages of their end of season show.

Some trees had already lost all their leaves,

some were at the height of their high autumn colour

War Memorial on Remembrance Sunday, Christchurch Park, Ipswich.

and some trees still had leaves of green.

All things considered it has been a reasonable, if not a vintage year for colour here in East Anglia.

The Round Pond, Christchurch Park, Ipswich.

We are now in mid-November and in this sheltered park not that far from the town centre there’s only been two or three frosts. And, as the experts suggest, it is frosts and cool nights that are two contributing ingredients for good leaf colour.

Needless to say, in an urban park like Christchurch Park, there’s a diverse range of specimen and non-native trees, but as we wandered away from the more formal area of Ipswich’s War Memorial, the planting became more natural, with a wilder feel. You could even believe you were in the heart of the Suffolk countryside and not sandwiched between the town centre and the busy ring road.

Sometimes what glitters is gold

In these times when curators of large, famous Western museums are grappling with the contentious issue of repatriation of cultural artefacts, it is interesting that even smaller, regional museums also have collections of objects from ancient times and very, far-flung places. This situation has partly arisen from the Victorian obsession for collecting combined with their civic movement that saw the building of museums in many county towns across the country.

Ipswich Museum is like many regional museums in this respect and has a section devoted to the Ancient Egyptians. The outstanding core of this collection is a small, dark room with at its centre a decorated Egyptian mummy that contains the remains of Lady Tahathor. She was a wealthy woman who lived and died in Luxor 2,500 years ago. She was brought to England in 1856 by George H Errington, then in 1871 she was donated to Colchester Museum and since 2010 has been the centre piece in Ipswich Museum’s Ancient Egyptian gallery.

This coffin contains the mummy of Lady Tahathor. 2,500 years old. A CT scan was performed at The Oaks Hospital, Colchester and suggested she died of natural causes in her mid-twenties.

At the head of this display and spotlit to catch the drama is a gold death mask. This is not from Ancient Egypt per se, but was in fact made between AD80-120 for a Roman citizen who lived in Egypt and wished to be buried in the style of an Ancient Egyptian god as opposed to the usual Roman manner.

Golden mummy mask for Roman Titus Flavius Demetrius. Ad80 -120.

The Roman citizen’s name was Titus Flavius Demetrius and his golden mummy mask was excavated by pioneering Victorian archaeologist Flinders Petrie at Hawara in Egypt in 1880. Only a death mask for Titus is on display and there doesn’t seem to be any record of what happened to the mummy. However, the early 20th-century curator, Gay Maynard, is credited with the masks acquisition for Ipswich Museum.

Titus’s death mask is not the only golden death mask on display at Ipswich Museum. There is another also from the time of the Roman occupation of Egypt made for a man known as Syros. It is nearly 2000 years old and is made of layers of linen or papyrus paper with plaster. It bears a gilded face of inlaid limestone with glass eyes and painted brows and has a border with painted vignettes and Greek text on top of the head.

This mask was placed on the mummy Syros who lived and died in Roman occupied Egypt. (On loan from the British Museum)

This golden mask is a longterm loan to Ipswich Museum from the British Museum who bought it in 1889 from the Rev. Walter L Lawson. Apparently, the Rev. Lawson collected Ancient Egyptian objects from excavations at Hawara in Egypt in 1889-90, but it is unclear whether he actively took part in the digs. However, there are records of him purchasing pieces from the antiquarian market in Luxor in 1889.

Nut, goddess of the sky. Ancient Egyptian goddess.

It is intriguing how the Ancient Egyptians still hold such fascination for many of us and it is encouraging that a local museum can share an interesting display of fine, original objects. The provenance and ownership of some pieces may be tricky, not least the mummy of Lady Tahathor, but maybe sharing human histories and practices can partially eclipse any ‘generating society’s’ privileges.

The two Romans, Titus and Syros, rejected their society’s death practices and in a way appropriated those of the Ancient Egyptians, maybe they were simply converts. However, for whatever reasons they had, the result for us 21st-century visitors to Ipswich Museum is to witness their choices made 2000 years ago in the form of these two gilded masks. Both are indeed finished with real gold even if technically they were not made for ‘real’ Ancient Egyptians. Oh, the delicious complexity of being human.

It’s that time of year again

I know, I know it’s only the beginning of November, but Halloween is behind us and the world of retail is already in full swing decking out the bricks and mortar High Street stores and the online shops with their Christmas offerings.

Banner for Agnes Ashe shop landing page.

It is awkward for me as I haven’t been a November Christmas shopper since I lived abroad and had to organise Christmas gifts to meet the International posting dates. Mentioning Christmas this early never feels quite right to me.

Banner for one of the ‘collection’ subcategories.

Of course, as we all know, the Christmas television adverts and magazine spreads for this year were probably shot back in August. How ghastly is that? But even for me I have to make banners for my shop to remind people that we are arriving at the gift-giving season (as if everybody doesn’t already know).

Banner for the ‘Square Scarf Collection’.

And, for practical reasons I have to set out postal dates and details and let my customers know the last ordering day to ensure a Christmas delivery.

Banner with last ordering date for arrival for Christmas.

Last year, before the vaccine programme commenced, I mostly sold masks for Christmas gifts. It is hard to tell whether people will still buy them this year as our country’s leaders are not keen to advocate their use. You may have noticed that many, many people at COP26 on Monday were wearing masks, however our Prime Minister even when sitting next David Attenborough (95 years old), didn’t think it was necessary for him.

From the left Antonio Guterres, Boris Johnson and Sir David Attenborough. Picture from Sky News website.

And what’s more on that very same day, Monday, 1 November 21, the UK recorded 40,077 new Covid cases. The PM may think it’s all over, but the figures are giving a more worrying picture.