The UK is now in lockdown, more or less. Everybody who can works from home and all non essential trips out of your house are prohibited, although, as yet, we don’t have the military on the streets enforcing these restrictions. With the ensuing quiet I have found myself more reflective than usual.
Now here’s a flitting stream of consciousness: . . . how did we get here . . . who is marshalling the NHS response . . . oh yes, that bloke who looks like a rabbit in the headlights, what’s his name . . . Hancock, yes, Matt Hancock . . . isn’t he the MP for West Suffolk, yes he is . . . other side of Bury St Edmunds . . . mmm, Bury . . . I wonder whether Blackthorpe Barn will run its Christmas Craft Fair later this year . . . that part of Suffolk is beautiful in winter . . . melancholy Suffolk . . . melancholy pines . . . ah the lonely Lady Drury and the Hawstead Panels.
Now there was a woman who knew about reflection and meditation and solitude. Her solo endeavours, her painted closet, installed in the now temporarily closed Christchurch Mansion, is a visual expression of living a contemplative life.
I have not been spending this disconcerting time on too much introspection, although I have been slowly working my way through my thousands of photographs, a process which turns out is intermittently thought-provoking. During this task I have come across pictures of earlier work I had completely forgotten as well as old rather poor quality photographs that I took when I first launched my online shop back in July 2013.
One or two of the old photos had captured a look, an expression that was worth saving. Six or seven years ago, and particularly before my week’s photography course, I hadn’t realised how much tidying up, enhancing and, well to put it bluntly, cheating could be achieved with Photoshop.
Nowadays, with a solid five years’ plus of amateur experience under my belt, I am so much better at getting the photograph I want (eventually), but sometimes the circumstances defeat my grand intentions. This was the case on a visit last month to the ‘Handel & Hendrix in London’ Museum. Not quite the tightly focussed, intriguing image I was hoping for, but I can always blame the delicate distortions of the fine, antique eighteenth-century mirror.
I will start by saying that I am not normally a fan of chopping down trees, but one totally overgrown Leyland Cypress, partially overhanging my backyard, is not a tree I will be sad to see chopped down.
Earlier this week, whilst finding it very, very hard to concentrate on working (I guess like most folk at the moment) I was completely distracted by an extremely loud chainsaw. My office is at the top of the house with a second floor window overlooking my backyard. Peering up and down the backyards I couldn’t see where the noise was coming from. Then suddenly I noticed movement in the ugly fir tree at the back of my yard.
Hooray, hooray. That horrible tree that shades ALL the late afternoon sun from my yard and drops mountains of acidic debris all over my flowers is going.
After an hour of chainsaw activity it all went quiet. The tree surgeon, Acorn Trees, a local business, climbed down for what I assumed was a tea-break. Incidentally, he’s the same guy who removed the overgrown tree that was growing against my house when I first moved in.
An hour later I thought that’s a long tea-break and looked out the window to see everything all cleared up, packed up and gone. The tree was still standing just four metres now instead of the original 12 metres, but nevertheless still alive! That’s why it’s a kinda pleasant surprise. No shading of my yard and far less acidic sprinkles, but nevertheless still a huge, living root system sucking out all the nutrients from under my pear tree, climbing rose and herbaceous perennials. I think I am definitely a ‘glass half empty person’. Naturally, I have piled on the garden compost last autumn and again the other weekend to boost the soil, but if only that tree had been entirely grubbed up and replaced with an ornamental deciduous native such as a crab apple tree.
So, this is it. Not a very elegant solution, but I suppose that’s what my neighbour’s asked for, a two-thirds reduction. I am secretly hoping my vigorous climbing rose will take off in that direction and sneakily scramble up and cover the stumps with a cascade of summer rose blooms.
Last month I went to see an exhibition of artwork on display at my local library. It was work created by art students studying for the UAL Foundation Diploma in Art & Design at Suffolk New College in Ipswich.
The brief for the students was to creatively tackle the issue of sustainability and their explorations were displayed around the Ipswich County Library.
This interesting exhibition was a collaboration between Suffolk Libraries and Suffolk New College with BLOC hosting the event. What or who are BLOC you’re thinking. Actually BLOC is an acronym that stands for Building Libraries on Creativity. It is Suffolk Libraries’ creative youth arts programme which has the aim to use creativity as a catalyst to improve young people’s resilience and wellbeing, and to change perceptions of libraries and how they serve the community, with a focus on young people. It was certainly great to see the thoughtful and compelling work created by the students. However, it was a little chilling that there was a definite grim edge to their assessment of where they think we currently are with the issue of sustainability.
I think any endeavour to get youngsters into libraries is welcome and holding exhibitions and other events helps to highlight the presence of libraries and also broaden their appeal for the wider community.
Just recently I have been reviewing all my stock and looking to see what ‘colour’ gaps I should fill. As I have posted previously I have been very taken with the Iceni horse motif found on the coins of the Wickham Market Hoard and, as yet, don’t feel I have exhausted working with such a beautiful subject.
So, after working with this horse motif to paint five neckerchiefs and three smaller square scarves, I decided that it was time to work it up for a standard, full 90 x 90 cm crepe de chine scarf.
As you can see I have created quite a measured and calculated design.
There are a few small areas of flowing and blended colour such as the dusky turquoise roundels, but this design consists mostly of outlined shapes of unshaded, flat colour.
The overall look when viewing the whole scarf laid out is quite a busy piece, but when scrunched up and tied around your neck, or draped across your shoulders, the effect is simply rich and ornate.
On Monday I went with my daughter to see James McAvoy play Cyrano de Bergerac. We booked the tickets last autumn as soon as they went on sale. We have already been lucky enough to see Mr McAvoy in ‘Three Days of Rain’, ‘Macbeth’ and ‘The Ruling Class‘. And, as with all those three previous plays, Cyrano is also a Jamie Lloyd/McAvoy collaboration. As it happens I have seen a traditional ‘Cyrano de Bergerac’, back in 1992 at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, with Robert Lindsay as Cyrano and also a film adaptation, ‘Roxanne’ starring Steve Martin, but my daughter came to the play completely fresh.
Neither my daughter nor I had read any reviews of this latest production although we had seen five star indications flying past whilst scrolling through social media. We tried to ignore them as we didn’t want to have any preconceived ideas or expectations. As it turned out, rather unusually for us, we both had the same response to this version of the play.
This is a play about poetry, about words, and about the beauty and power of words, but this was not a radio play, or a masked affair, it was a fully cast and staged production. As is usual choices were made: about costume, street-style; about props, contemporary plastic; about lighting, harsh and unforgiving and, of course, about the sound with the use of amplification. Although it was a minimal staging in modern dress, parts of this production were also very physical. All the actors wore discrete head mics and there was additional switching between these head mics and other cordless and wired stage microphones throughout the play. This had the effect of subtly adjusting tonal quality and volume adding extra contrast and intensity to the spoken words at different points of the drama. I assume this was a most considered choice to emphasise the importance of the text.
Interestingly and importantly the script is a new translation by the playwright Martin Crimp. There’s no stipulation in the 21st century to provide an equivalent, literal translation of a late-19th-century French text telling a 17th-century tale. To this end Crimp composes rhyming lines of contemporary language in a rap style enhanced in part with beatboxing. The pace and the punch of the first half of the play was thrilling and the delivery was augmented by the contrasting regional accents from the diverse ensemble. The intense, vigorous Glaswegian tones of James McAvoy seemed to add an almost physical layer to the sound. (Mind you I am a lover of Celtic accents and I could listen to Mr McAvoy read the phone book.)
I don’t think we consider contemporary versions of classic, well-known plays as revivals as such, especially with a new translation, but more as ‘a newly reworked production’ of said classic. Employing and amplifying a 21st-century linguist style to make a play more relevant for modern times was very successful. And, on the night we saw the play there was an immediate standing ovation for the cast and the performances. But . . . . and here it comes, yes, there was plenty of energy to showcase the words as I have mentioned above, but . . . . what about the nose? That very famous nose. It was a decision to have Cyrano with an implied, with an ‘acted’ enormous nose and not a theatrical prosthetic. However, I admit at one point l felt like Hans Christian Anderson’s small child viewing the Emperor as I watched a stunningly, physically attractive, charismatic, A-list Hollywood star giving without doubt an intensely, passionate and poignant performance as an afflicted Cyrano yet looking like a god had landed amongst mortals.
We humans are visual creatures. Sight is our dominant sense. A play is a combination of experiences and a staged production is usually more or less dependent on words and their delivery by actors, but we, the audience, are also reading all those non-verbal communications too. Non-verbal aspects of characters including physical appearance are surely central to an actor’s performance as well. To draw on physicality in this production and deliberately choose an uplifting diverse cast and yet require the audience to be blind to McAvoy’s undoubted physical charm and charisma and not mar his face with ‘the nose’ seemed perverse to me. It didn’t have to be a pantomime nose or even be particularly unrealistic, but just big enough for the powerfully, visually-dependent brain’s response to momentarily be interrupted and diverted to think physical disfigurement and not charismatic film star.
And, as we left the theatre my daughter (mid-twenties, infrequent theatre attendee, target audience?), turned to me and surprised me with her opinion questioning why he didn’t have a big nose.
I have now read the opinions of the professional critics who are not fazed by the ‘no nose’ issue. My daughter and I are aware that great theatre with great actors can be minimalist, just the performer and the words. It is after all about the suspension of disbelief. Theatre doesn’t need big sets and fancy costumes, but perhaps in this case a big nose is central to this play. Maybe it was our fault and we didn’t work hard enough to figure out the significance of the no prosthetic choice. We are just ordinary members of the theatre-going public, but neither of us could give this production fives stars. On this occasion my daughter and I go against the grain and venture where angels fear to tread and give it just three stars.
If you’d like to read another review which I think admirably sums up more about the production and performances and is also an alternative to the mainstream reviews, have a look at meandrichard – another wordpress blogger.
Last week in between Ciara and Dennis (that’s the storms) I ventured out into my backyard to check for damage and collect up the debris from the neighbouring eucalyptus tree (still standing). And, to my enormous pleasure I found that the hellebores I planted last year are now blooming.
Now, I do not normally cut these flowers as with their drooping heads once cut they tend only to look at their very best as single blooms floating in a shallow bowl. A shallow bowl arrangement is fine as a table centrepiece, but in my studio I only have shelf space. The two tables I have are covered with frames, silk and all the associated bottles and jars of dyes with which I am currently working.
Nevertheless, even though I knew they wouldn’t last long, I did cut two stems. I then spent some time fiddling around propping up the blooms using some blossom-bearing twigs of an evergreen shrub (Viburnum tinus) finally making my first vase arrangement of homegrown flowers for 2020. Incidentally, it wasn’t just the first flowers that were picked, but the first caterpillar was also sighted.
Although I don’t have space to grow bulbs for cutting myself, there’s no reason not to buy a bunch of Cornish-grown daffodils. At this time of the year they last a good week and absolutely brighten up my basement kitchen.
And, of course also at this time of year a stroll through the Old Cemetery finds the crocuses in bloom . . .
. . . but what’s all this noise? I raised myself, camera in hand, after kneeling for a crocus close-up, to find myself amidst a startled murder of crows. Wrong exposure and not in focus, but, for once, I managed to capture a half-dozen of the birds as they wheeled away. All rather spooky!
Over the last century there has been an amusing notion in the West that the length of women’s skirts is seen as an indicator of the state of the wider economy – the Hemline Index. A quick perusal of a variety of contemporary news and blog commentaries discussing this idea would suggest that slightly more commentators concur with the original proposition that skirts get shorter in good times than the reverse. Although the counter view that skirts actually get shorter in challenging times also had its supporters with more than just economic explanations for the perceived phenomenon.
It is just as you would expect, for every set of data there is a different interpretation of the data with as many different explanations as people doing the interpreting.
But I like the old, traditional version. The roaring twenties gave us higher hemlines around knee-height, with women’s calves on display for the first time in millennia. This period of affluence (for some anyway) was followed by the Great Depression of the 1930s with hemlines sinking back to around the ankles. The decades past until the Swinging Sixties brought us Mary Quant and the mini skirt, a truly short skirt for a time of optimism and booming markets.
Naturally, within a decade the hemlines dived again along with the world’s economy as the 1973 Oil Crisis hit. It was the era of the maxi skirt, and the hems of the Laura Ashley dresses, for example, hit the ground at the same time as major world economies tanked.
This all brings me to my recent observations regarding the latest fashion shows for 2020. Just when you think the Climate Crisis is finally at the top of the world’s agenda and the fashion sector is surely facing a time of moderation and sustainability, the runways are bedecked with strangely voluminous, outré and frivolous frocks, but at least as predicted by the Hemline Index, the frocks are indeed floor-length.
It would appear we are heading for some seriously choppy waters. And, as if to confirm this gloomy outlook we have tough and resilient from Jean-Paul Gaultier. In Paris last month he gave us the final show of his 50 year fashion career ending with the closing pair walking down the runway dressed as if they had just arrived from a ‘Mad Max’ dystopian future of climate chaos.
It is always a pleasure to visit a thoughtfully curated exhibition.
And, this was particularly so when I went to see ‘Art Forms in Nature’ at the Ipswich Art Gallery. The exhibition was comprised of four collections of images showcasing nature. The main area had a display of 40 photogravures by Karl Blossfeldt, the main upper gallery showed botanical drawings by Guy William Eves, and two smaller side rooms were devoted to specialist classification imagery.
The photogravures of natural forms by Karl Blossfeldt are fascinating. They are a Hayward Gallery Touring exhibition. Each image is beautifully and elegantly framed and mounted, and with discrete labelling (white on black), the main wall of 16 had both a classic and contemporary appeal. It invited closer inspection of each single photogravure.
It is hard to believe these enlarged close-ups capturing such detail are nearly 90 years old.
I was new to Blossfeldt’s work and am now a fan not least as I know I will be returning to his images for pattern and motif inspiration.
Whilst the downstairs gallery featured a German photographer’s work the upstairs space was filled with work by the local artist and botanical illustrator, Guy William Eves.
Now here is why I think this is a thoughtfully curated show – you walk up a staircase having just examined how the lens captures plant detail to come to a collection of detailed drawings showing how the eye and hand creates a record of botanical forms.
Botanical illustrations are about accurately recording the form of a plant, and yet at the same time a visual artist, such as Eves, offers us both the required accuracy and a personal interpretation. A myriad of choices are made as Eves develops each representation. His skilfully drawn studies suggest the presence of living material all created through line and shading.
I think you can see (even in these photos) there is something added by a fine artist when you compare Eves work with the purely accurately rendered scientific drawings and watercolours such as these of flies and fungi.
And, furthermore, if we compare Eve’s drawings with Blossfeldt’s dramatic, intense photogravures, you might agree that the drawings certainly differ having a more vital and radiant quality.
One final point, of course, you are currently looking at all these natural forms several times removed. The artists/photographer have created these works, I have then photographed them (with varying amounts of light and reflections issues, I apologise for the less than optimal quality) and uploaded them to a computer and you are now viewing these images on a screen. Somehow this has deadened their presence. If you don’t get the opportunity to visit this exhibition, I hope you might spare a moment to take a much, much closer look at the next gift from Mother Nature as it crosses your path.
Every now and then I paint a scarf that is predominately pastel colours. This colourway of pastel greens and pastel blues is one such example.
Now, I know that responding to my expressive impulse to switch from my more usual strong colour palette to pastels, will, eventually, lead to frustration.
In my usual way I have kept a photographic record of the creative process, but it has turned out to be more tricky this time. As I have blogged in the past, light is everything and some colours and some colour combinations are strangely difficult to photograph accurately.
This has been distinctly noticeable with this specific pastel blue background. The ambient light was different on every occasion I photographed the progression of my work. Sometimes I had to take pictures in electric light which significantly changed the pastel blue. Each time I adjusted the white balance on my camera scrolling through the additional 17 settings (yes, that’s 17 slightly different versions) trying to find the closest to the reality in front of my eyes. My nearest choice, though not a perfect match, was always miles off from the first shot the camera offered on the automatic white balance setting.
Even using my powerful daylight bulb capturing this pale blue has been . . . well, virtually impossible.
Now you can see, above, the blue varies from a greeny blue, to a grey blue to an almost actual, full grey. As I have been typing I decided to have another go. I retrieved the scarf from my stock and tried again, but no joy (image below). As it turns out the most accurate representation had already been taken and it was the photo ‘Adding some background blue’.
At the end of last month it didn’t feel very wintry and now, already halfway through January, it is still surprisingly mild with no sign of a true cold snap in the forecasts for East Anglia.
My local park, Holywells Park, even has a hint of spring about it. Between the dead and drying ornamental grasses I spied long, green blades of recent growth.
There was also the colourful mix of reliable evergreens; ivy, box, holly, euonymous and even the dramatic black ophiopogon planiscapus all looking ‘super’ vibrant and healthy (no signs or blemishes from frost damage as so far no heavy frosts).
Of course, even in this rather mild English winter there are still plants that need to be given full protection from the merest suggestion of frost or even a hint of a chilly breeze. One such specimen is the banana tree. There’s plenty of protected space and a pitched ceiling in the beautifully restored Victorian conservatory to allow this banana tree to thrive.
As I continued through the park, there was a surprise. I walked through this distinctly autumnal scene. There had been a late drop of fronds from an ornamental tree and the amber tones seemed to proclaim, “No winter here, move on, move on, it’s still autumn”.
It occurred to me if there’s a planting of winter evergreens, a flourishing summer banana tree, albeit in a conservatory, a springtime clump of green shoots and an autumnal carpet of brittle orange leaves, then at this moment Holywells Park was a park of all seasons!
We recognise the green shoots of spring or rich autumnal colour as seasonal, as normal for our part of the world, but by the end of this new Climate Crisis decade . . . . what will we witness, what will we be experiencing as seasonal?