Cultural Norms

Who would have thought a year ago we’d walk down our local High Street and into any shop to find customers and staff alike wearing face masks, and, not find that strange. It appears that for the time being this state of affairs is going to be the norm. Whichever ‘tier’ you find yourself living in, there is going to be the requirement to wear a mask sometime, somewhere, at some point.

Since May there have been articles in the press about masks becoming fashionable and one early adopter of the ‘colourful’ mask has been the American politician and House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi. However, putting aside the medical and the ultra cheap disposable options, have you noticed, more often than not, chaps where plain masks and most commonly, black ones, especially in public life. Or, is this just a phenomenon of those we see in the spotlight? Does anyone know?

Travelling on the Tube a face covering is mandatory.

Now, I am not sure about you, but I find there is something slightly menacing about black face masks. They bring to mind highwaymen or special forces and it’s already bad enough simply not being able to see faces fully. In these gloomy times wouldn’t it be more interesting and more fun and, just more cheerful if guys wore coloured ones. There is so much choice out there; every type of fabric, every colour, every type of pattern. There’s bees or trees or animal prints and ones with text, or symbols or musical notes or just plain colour. If it has been a cultural norm for men to wear coloured ties what’s the problem with a coloured mask?

Plenty of Fresh Air

Oh dear, what is there to say today? There has been so much bad news and less and less consensus. Is there any light at the end of the tunnel? It appears that all hope is being pinned on the production of an effective vaccine.

Let’s leave the Covid Crisis behind and head off for an exhilarating, bracing walk along the North Sea at Sizewell. There is plenty of cool, fresh air and not many people on this stretch of the Suffolk coast in mid October.

Sizewell Beach with Dunwich Heath in the distance.

After Shingle Street, Sizewell, is my next favourite Suffolk beach. I have been coming here since I was a child. Over the years the small fishing village has been put on the country’s map as a site for nuclear power stations. Initially, supplying electricity for the National Grid from the big old Magnox nuclear power station commissioned in 1966, and then the more elegant (?), pressurised water reactor version, commissioned in 1995.

Nuclear power stations. Magnox to the left and pressurised water to the right.

I have always thought it a slightly, eerie place and you would never guess that its next door neighbour is the glorious RSPB’s Minsmere Nature Reserve. The walk from Sizewell along to Dunwich Heath passes along the edge of the Reserve’s wetlands and is a short section of the 60 mile Felixstowe to Lowestoft Suffolk Coast Path.

Working up the Saz

Last week I posted about an inspirational visit to my local museum in Ipswich where I discovered the ‘saz’ motif of Persian ceramics.

Ceramic tiles decorated with the saz motif. ‘Saz’ is a rush or reed. This is an example decorating 16th-century Iznik Pottery

As I am always on the lookout for any interesting shapes, designs, motifs that I can adapt and use in my work, this turned out to be a particularly rewarding visit.

The ‘Saz’ motif is a design derived from the natural world. It is a stylised reed and as such I liked the idea of working it up with a stylised fish or two.

The Saz motif with fish.

Once I have finished painting a block of mask designs, usually about 10 at a time, it is time for the fixing process. That’s two hours in the steamer wrapped in paper.

The Saz motif used in a more simple design.

When the steaming time is up, the silk is washed and cut up into mask-sized rectangles. Then it’s all change in my studio. The dyes and frame are put aside and the sewing machine takes centre stage as I sew up the next batch of masks.

Inspirational display at the local museum

Sometimes you visit a local museum and you find a small, interesting display that appears to have nothing to do with the locality of the museum at all. Ipswich Museum has several sections which at first glance have no obvious connection with Suffolk let alone Ipswich. Then you stoop to read the appended information and find that a small collection or special item was donated by an Ipswich or Suffolk resident.

Display of Islamic calligraphy at Ipswich Museum.

These types of display sprung to mind when last month I was reading about Ipswich Museum and saw a comment querying the relevance of non-local content. I know it is usual for a town’s local museum to focus on exhibits that have local connections especially any that can be spun for a local audience.

Architectural details – entwined, floral pattern.

However, we don’t simply visit museums for ‘home’ histories, but also to find how our town connects to the wider world. And, Ipswich has been a port since the 8th century and a trading site for nearly 1,500 years.

Despite neither being produced nor discovered in Ipswich this cabinet of Islamic calligraphy and decorative ceramics is both interesting and beautiful, and provides the visitor with a display of another culture’s creative expression.

The exhibits may well have come to the museum as part of a donation from a local Victorian ethnographer, or, a passionate 20th-century collector obsessed with the history of ceramics and that in itself is of interest.

Ceramic tiles decorated with the saz motif. ‘Saz’ is a rush or reed. Example of 16th-century Iznik Pottery.

Nevertheless, however these pieces came to be in Ipswich I have found them an excellent source of inspiration. I have particularly admired this fine twisted serrated leaf entwined with flowers, known as the ‘saz’ motif, which I have used for a face mask or two.

Saved from the rain

On Tuesday I saw that the weather forecasters were telling us to expect the arrival of autumn proper. This was code for prepare for a noticeable drop in temperatures accompanied by wind and rain.

Dahlia ‘Blue Bayou’ – Mother Nature (with a helping hand from the plant breeders) offering a fuchsia pink with strong yellow softened with dark red.

Just as the light was fading, I grabbed my secateurs and nipped out into the backyard to cut any blooms that still looked half decent.

Sunflowers in their full glory as the paler pink cosmos is already shrivelled.

I cut dahlias, cosmos and sunflowers. It was more in error than by design I had planted three sunflower seedlings six weeks later than the main sowing and they only started blooming last week.

And, the dark pink cosmos has been very late this year getting into its stride. With the bright yellow sunflowers and the deep fuchsia pink of the cosmos I didn’t think I’d be able to make a tolerable arrangement, but it turned out that the dark red dahlias saved the day.

What a difference a backdrop makes? I prefer the black to the more contemporary choice for floral images which, I have recently noticed, is grey.

Leiston Abbey Ruins

After living here in Suffolk at various times of my life and frequently visiting the county for over fifty years, I finally got round to making a trip to see Leiston Abbey. And, it was well worth the effort.

An arch, part of the South Transept of the Abbey Church, with the Lady Chapel in the background.

Most of what we see today is the remains of the 14th-century abbey of Premonstratensian canons. Premonstratensian canons, also known as the White Canons, was an order founded in 1120 by St Norbert of Xanten at Premontre in Picardy, France.

Main window arch of the North Transept.

According to English Heritage, Leiston Abbey is among Suffolk’s most impressive monastic ruins retaining some spectacular architectural features.

The remains of the Chancel of the Abbey Church.

The abbey church was built in the form of the cross with two chapels on either side of the chancel. The small, roofed chapel we today is the Lady Chapel and is occasionally used for services.

Looking across to the walls of the church’s tower.

As you can see from the photographs it is mostly constructed of flint with fine examples of knapped flint, which is known as flint flushwork. Naturally occurring stone in Suffolk is in short supply and it appears that some of the stonework of this church, for example the arches, was constructed from re-used stone from the Order’s earlier abbey buildings at Minsmere. The original abbey was founded in 1182 by Ranulf de Glanville (Lord Chief Justice to King Henry II), and was built on an island in the Minsmere marshes nearer the coast. In 1363, the monastery was relocated two miles further from the coast to the higher ground of the Leiston site.

Area of another chapel on the south side of the chancel looking across to the cloisters and refectory.

With the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 1530s, as one of the smaller houses in the country, Leiston was among the first wave surrendered to the king, then gifted to the dukes of Suffolk. But, even for a small house the commissioners inventory showed there were silver and copper candlesticks and an altar of carved alabaster.

Across the cloisters to Georgian farmhouse with renovations and additions made in the 1920s.

Dissolution might have been the beginning of the end of the abbey as a monastery, but part of the site became a farmhouse and eventually in 1928 the abbey ruins and farm were bought by Ellen Wrightson and used as a religious retreat until her death in 1946.

The Georgian farmhouse clearly incorporating walls of the original nave.

In 1977 the Pro Corda Trust, the National School for Young Chamber Music Players, a charity running chamber music courses for children, bought Leiston Abbey. It is pleasing that there is an arrangement with English Heritage for the care of the ruins and that free, public access is allowed.

Painting Another Six

This is a short sequence showing the process of painting silk for masks. And, I will just say right here and now, at the beginning of this post, that I have since steamed this silk, made it up into masks and sold all six. Since the UK government introduced for England, the rule to wear a face covering in shops and on public transport, I have not been able to paint and make masks fast enough.

Painting the silk is not a speedy process and even though I have now made over 100 masks, I don’t seem to be getting any faster at sewing the silk into masks.

Drawing out different designs for the six masks.
The painting begins – piecemeal.
Over half completed.
Including a red design to offer a rather zingy mask.
Finally painting is finished and the silk is ready for steaming.

Growing towards the light

It might be August, just, but it looks as if the weather has decided that that’s it for this summer. I suppose we can still hope for a few bright and balmy days in early autumn.

As a child when we used to come to Suffolk for our family holidays the neighbouring back garden was full of one type of flower – hollyhocks. The entirety of their little plot was hollyhocks. I suspect now that they were mostly self-seeded as it was an open area of free-draining soil and hollyhocks seem to do well in our part of the country. Ever since then hollyhocks have been in my top ten of favourite flowers. Wherever I have been gardening I have tried to squeeze in a few of these essential, cottage garden beauties.

This year I have had pink, white and a very dark, dark red and they have all managed to flower. It is just as well that I took a moment to get some photos of these naturally tall plants before Storm Francis blew in.

Hollyhocks aren’t the only tall flowering plants I’ve grown in my backyard this year. As usual I have grown some cosmos from seed. The packet for this pink variety definitely said ‘dwarf’, but they have grown to over five feet tall, searching for the light. I do think they would have started blooming much earlier and remained dwarf if they had full sunlight all day. As you can see from the almost ‘ethereal’ photo above, the plants only get full sunlight in intermittent bursts. Obviously, this has not been enough and the plants have become etiolated.

At least most of the pink cosmos eventually flowered, but then Storm Francis decided to take down a few plants pulling over the pots at the same time. Luckily, and surprisingly no pots were broken and who doesn’t appreciate having plenty of cut flowers to bring indoors.

A Double Delight

Back in February, just before the full extent of the Covid Crisis became obvious to all, I was in London and managed to visit the ‘Handel & Hendrix in London’ museum. It had been on my wish list for some while.

Portrait of George Frederick Handel (1685-1759) circa 1756-60.
After Thomas Hudson. Oil on canvas. 80.6 x 72.1 cm. On loan from the The Royal Collection.

It was truly a double delight for me. To be in the space, to walk the rooms and to experience the ambience of an 18th-century London house (annual rent in 1742 was £50) with such music credentials was very special. I am a fan both of the grand, ornate choral works of Handel and the explosive and intricate guitar solos of Hendrix. And, I prefer to visit the past homes of the exceptionally talented and able rather than residences simply gifted down to generation after generation of the same family.

Royal Music – Zadok the Priest. ‘Handel Coronation Anthems’, Arnold Edition published around 1760, part of the Gerard Byrne Collection.

We were lucky with the timing of our visit as in one room a volunteer was sat at the Kirckman harpsichord playing Handel’s ‘Air and Variations’ (The Harmonious Blacksmith). To hear Handel’s music played in his house was a breathtaking treat, sublime.

Kirckman Harpsichord made in 1745 being played by a volunteer. (Sadly I didn’t get his name.)

After experiencing the elegant Georgian rooms, it was, as you would guess, an utter change of gear as you step across from 25 Brook Street to the upper floors of 23 Brook Street and the Swinging Sixties of Jimi Hendrix.

The bedroom decoration has been reconstructed from surviving photographs of Hendrix when he lived at 23, Brook Street.
Original 1960s pieces have been sourced and some surviving originals such as this mirror recreate the classic 60s vibe.

Apart from the decorated bedroom there is a room of Hendrix memorabilia. The first guitar Jimi Hendrix ever played on British soil was Zoot Money’s Wandre ‘Blue Jean’ Model Guitar. It is still strung with the same strings that Jimi played on the day he made London his home in 1966.

Jimi arrived in London for the very first time when he stepped off a plane at Heathrow Airport with Chas Chandler on the morning of 24 September 1966. Jimi was taken straight from the airport to the West London Home of bandleader and keyboardist George Bruno ‘Zoot’ Money, a major figure on the Soho scene at the time. While looking for a guitar to play that evening, Jimi picked this instrument up and started playing it (apparently remarking it had a “nice easy action”), before Chas and Zoot managed to track down something more suitable for Jimi’s first public performance in London.

From the ‘Handel & Hendrix in London’ display.
The Wandre ‘Blue Jean’ Model Guitar

It is sad to note that it will be 50 years next month since Jimi Hendrix died at his Notting Hill home at the young age of 27. What a terrible loss to the world of music.

There is a little good news though, the ‘Handel & Hendrix in London’ museum is re-opening this Saturday, 22nd August 2020 – but, of course, now you have to book timed-tickets in advance.

Adaptation

It has been both an interesting experience of adapting and a steep learning curve switching from painting silk scarves to painting and making silk face masks.

I am hoping it is a brief interlude as we wait for an effective vaccine – fingers crossed.

Naturally, the painting of the silk is the same, but painting for masks is generally on a much smaller scale. I have found that marking out rectangles is the most efficient and economic way to work. I have just finished a blue series of six different designs.

The sewing of the silk into face coverings has been the adapting and learning part. Making face masks isn’t difficult, just fiddly. Again it’s that scale issue. I have made clothing and curtains before, but nothing on this smaller size. I am not a natural machinist nor a gifted seamstress by any stretch of the imagination, but having now made over 70 masks, I am at least consistent. My early prototypes were ‘interesting’, but wearable, and I gave them to my daughter and my father and I kept a couple for myself.

Two of the above six have been sold.

Now, I am used to the making part it is a case of getting organised with the stock, the processing of orders and getting my books up-to-date.

Two of the six are available on the shop.

And, I have just checked- two of the silk rectangles from the above six blue are still waiting to be made into masks. Mmm not quite as organised as I thought I was!

Concrete yard or garden?

It’s one of those everyday, standard gardening problems – how to deal with the backyard of the classic Victorian terraced house. Famously, these yards are long (or longish), narrow, rectangular spaces, frequently shaded by taller urban buildings or inappropriately planted, large overgrown trees.

Daylilies, cosmos and ammi visnaga in pots.

My problematic space has been made worse as over three-quarters of the ground has been covered with concrete in one form or another by previous owners. Luckily, when I moved into this house as I was able to bring with me all of my pots from my previous gardens, but sadly none of the old plants that they had contained.

Bronze leaf dahlia and courgettes in pots.

This is now my third summer here and my second where I have been able to get to grips with the ‘garden’ and plant up the pots. They are all now in use and I even have a couple of courgette plants cropping in containers.

I have tried to take a full garden photo in the garden, but without success. However, I have managed to show nearly all the yard from an upstairs window. I would just say that if I had unlimited funds this would not be my solution to the long, narrow backyard problem. To begin with there would definitely be no concrete, however there would be water, a brick path, tall trellises across the narrow space and flowerbeds where plants could be planted directly into the soil.

View from the first floor back bedroom window. Hydrangea and a couple of clematis in pots.

You have probably noticed on the right of the above picture a corner of a slate roof that looks very much the worse for wear. It is the roof of the partially derelict outhouse. The surveyor who produced an extensive (Dickens’ length) report on this house before I bought it, assured me, much to his surprise, that the brickwork was sound. Although he did add that the roof slates were perished and the woodwork was decayed and rotting. I call it the Urban Folly!

The Urban Folly.