The other month my daughter and I went to visit the William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow, London. It has been a place on my ‘to visit list’ since 2003 when I attended a Victorian Society talk about William Morris given by the then Keeper of the Gallery, Peter Cormack. It has only taken me 20 years to find myself in London with time to spare for a trip to the end of the Victoria Line and make the visit.
Of course, 20 years ago my daughter would have endured the visit as one of mummy’s art trips, but now she is an adult she is genuinely interested in the Arts and Crafts movement, and not just for the beautiful designs.
One of the galleries is called ‘Fighting for a Cause’ with an informative accompanying video presentation. We both found that rather interesting.
For me the highlights of the visit were to see original drawings by Morris for his designs and, in particular, the watercolour of his very first wallpaper design.
Also on display were carpet designs in mixed media such as the Wreath Design below and book designs for his private press, Kelmscott Press.
It was good to finally make a visit to the William Morris Gallery, but it wasn’t well-timed. One display room was closed for the preparation of a temporary exhibition, another gallery was shut for refurbishment and a third was off-limits due to some technical issue.
However, the visit was worthwhile and has provided the ideal subject matter for my final blog post. After all, it was the words of William Morris with which I chose to begin this whole blogging affair when I introduced myself on ‘About Agnes’ quoting – ‘Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.’.
Thank you for visiting, reading and commenting. Wishing my fellow bloggers all the best and take care of yourselves, Agnes. x
For the second part of my review looking at a decade of selling my work online I thought I would take a look at a few favourites that are currently available.
To begin with let’s look at two of the first five scarves I painted for my online boutique. I painted the same design in five different colours. One sold within the first month of my shop going live. That was the yellow version. Then during the next six months the green one sold. And, at some point, and I can’t remember when, the pale honey coloured version went, but the pink and lilac versions are still on the shop some ten years later.
As is the case with the early pink and lilac long scarves above, you can’t tell what’s going to be popular and what isn’t. Below, in this selection of five 90 x90 cm squares, the three on the left are recent pieces, but the two on the right are a couple of my personal all time favourites and they too have been on the shop for nearly nine years.
It has surprised me how many of the sold scarves along the way that I have entirely forgotten, but I do remember those that were favourites as I painted them.
When I think about the body of my work and what has sold quickly and what hasn’t I have come to the conclusion that it is probably the photographs that make the difference, especially if they are interesting good pictures and particularly if they feature a model.
Anybody who knows me in real life knows that I am not big on marking so-called milestone events or celebrating significant dates, birthdays, Christmas, etc, but I am going to make an exception for once.
I am not having a party or anything like that, but I thought I’d just blog a couple of posts remembering some of my favourite scarves to mark my business being in existence for a * * * DECADE * * *.
If anybody had told when I launched ‘Agnes Ashe Silks’ I would still be in business 10 years down the road I would have fallen about laughing.
Back at the beginning I attended a week’s course ‘Starting a business and being self-employed’. One attendee, a helpful chap, told me and I quote “Nobody will fork out 95 quid for a scarf”.
Well, I have sold scarves for £95 and sold others too ranging from £45 to £125.
But back to my favourites. During the process of remembering and choosing my personal standouts I was pleased that I had kept each scarf’s product photo file in my ‘Sold’ folder. It turns out I had completely forgotten some. Perhaps not such standouts after all then, but on re-acquaintance I have been pleasantly surprised and included some of the forgotten.
Of course, much of my work is memorable to me particularly when the original inspiration is associated with specific places or specific works. For example there have been scarves inspired by medieval rood screens (Ranworth and Southwold), painted panels (Lady Drury’s Hawstead Panels) stained glass windows (Long Melford and Bury St Edmunds) and even golden coins (The Wickham Market Hoard at Ipswich Museum).
I have even taken inspiration from 20th century artists. This scarf, below, was inspired by an oil and pigmented wax picture painted by Paul Klee in 1940.
But I mustn’t neglect the floral scarves. There have been quite a few to choose from featuring my go-to motifs for flowers, leaves, curls and bows in various colour combinations using pinks, blues, turquoise, black and old gold.
Naturally, as a Brit, I have been to this place before.
It is a famous historical place nowadays dwarfed beneath the glass and steel of the City. Yes, you’ve probably guessed it is The Tower of London – those Ravens are a bit of a giveaway.
Many of us visit the Tower of London as part of a school trip or, as in my case, are taken by the parents.
And the four things I remember from my childhood visit are; it was a big, proper castle, the ravens were big too, the Crown Jewels were, well, crowns with big jewels and I was utterly bored by the seemingly endless display of armour in the White Tower.
This time, as an ageing adult, I went to the Tower with a purpose. I wanted to walk through the space that Thomas Cromwell had known. I really should have done my research BEFORE this overpriced visit. The Royal Apartments, including the Great Hall, that were the backdrop to the ‘Tudor’ events at the Tower were originally rebuilt by Henry III in the 1220s and 1230s, but are now all long gone.
Most of the Tudor palace of the 16th century was demolished during an extensive remodelling in the 1660s and any remaining parts that had been incorporated into other buildings were lost during the 18th and 19th centuries when more rebuilding was carried out. However, there are still random sections of old wall extant. These would have formed part of the rooms where Katharine of Aragon stayed on the night before her coronation procession with Henry VIII in 1509.
These would be the same rooms where later in 1535 Thomas Cromwell would interrogate Thomas More, and where a year later Anne Boleyn would be held before her execution on 19th May 1536. And then later still, those same rooms would be where Thomas Cromwell would spend his last hours before he was beheaded on Tower Hill (outside the boundary of the Tower) on 28th July 1540.
Interestingly, the bodies of Thomas More, Anne Boleyn and Thomas Cromwell were all buried in the Chapel Royal of St Peter ad Vincula, the parish church of the Tower. Their graves had no markers until the Victorians, undertaking renovations in 1876, found human remains. These remains were re-buried and marked with marble slabs (no photography is permitted in the church).
Both Anne Boleyn and Thomas Cromwell were imprisoned during the time of Henry VIII and endured relatively short stays in the Tower unlike those incarcerated during the reign of Elizabeth I. The leading Catholic peer, Philip Howard, Earl of Arundel was imprisoned in the Beauchamp Tower for 10 years. Many of the ‘long stay’ prisoners left their mark as graffiti carving signs and symbols into the stone walls.
On the day of my visit I arrived just after the Tower had opened and their were no queues. I stayed over two hours and by the time I left it was very busy despite the pouring rain. I didn’t bother to queue to see the crown jewels again, but I did walk up (all 247 steps) and through the White Tower and traipsed past all the armour again (still boring). However, there were one or two gems like the first official guidebook to the Tower by John Hewitt printed in 1854.
And, down in the basement there was a rather delightful video installation featuring significant historical events with ravens flying through and across the centuries.
The ravens in the video are luckier than the Tower’s resident living ones as they have their wings clipped to stop them flying away and spend most of their days caged.
We are all waiting for the wintry weather of storms with high winds, snow, rain and dark skies briefly punctured with sunshine to finally blow away and allow the arrival of spring.
Earlier this week when it looked like the blue sky might last longer than 15 minutes I nipped down to the Town Centre to do some chores. It’s only a 12 minute walk from where I live and by the time I was heading back home it still didn’t look like rain and I decided to walk back through Christchurch Park.
The Wolsey Garden is a small semi-formal space within the larger parkland. It has neatly clipped box and yew which gives structure that sustains interest in the space even in very early spring, or is that late winter, before the first flowers bloom.
It is these fine evergreens that also punctuate the full garden of early autumn giving a dark background for the wispy sprays of seedheads and colourful dots of the seasonal flowers.
It’s March and whatever the weather outside, it’s spring (well meteorological spring at least). There are daffodils and eventually there will be sun. I am wistfully thinking that I do not live in a version of a 1950’s Hollywood musical starring Doris Day, but am definitely in Suffolk . . . in 2023 . . . although I do believe I spy a few green shoots of creativity pushing through the layers of murk accumulated over winter.
For me these lengthening days bring an optimistic outlook and I find myself instinctively reaching for pots of dye containing brighter and stronger shades.
And, fuchsia pink is back in the mix. There’s also orange, splashes of lime green and even highlights of yellow.
Once I’ve selected the hot colours it is a case of working from one end of the scarf to the other transforming a muted background into a scarf with plenty of zing.
The final part of the silk-painting process is steaming and even with bright shades the fixing of the dye intensifies the colour.
With the beginning of spring comes Mother’s Day and there are daffodils aplenty to presented in bunches to lucky mums, but what of the so-called Mother’s Day traditional flower, the pink carnation?
If you have ever paused your busy life to consider the environmental impact of commercially grown cut flowers then you probably already know it’s not great. I decided to have a look at the growing of pink carnations that are coaxed into flower over two months early to be available for Mother’s Day.
Apparently, pink carnations were the choice of the wealthy Victorians with greenhouses and gardeners able to nurture carnations to bloom as early as March. That is they could afford a heated greenhouse that keeps the temperature at seven degrees celsius or above for the entire winter. I think you can see where I am going with this. The wealthy Victorian had access to both cheap labour and cheap fuel and was more concerned with ‘progress’ than social and environmental concerns. Fast-forward 150 years and the idea of heating greenhouses for out-of-season food let alone cut flowers has become contentious.
Naturally, research and new ideas and new technology are being busily discussed by the UK government and associated farming and horticulture key bodies with a target to reach zero carbon emissions by 2050. Whereas the Dutch horticultural industry aims to be CO2 neutral by 2040. Since 2020 they’ve had an experimental, emission-free greenhouse up and running. They have been researching all aspects of growing food and flowers under glass with greenhouses constructed from smart materials using heating from ground source heat pumps or air source heat pumps and drawing electricity from solar panels. The are also experimenting with the use and conservation of water, the cultivating of new varieties of plants to better suit ‘new’ conditions and finally to managing pests and diseases in a manner to minimise horticulture’s environmental impact.
But is isn’t all only talk here back in the UK as you can already buy British grown tulips in bloom during March from Smith and Munson who are a family run business producing premium quality flowers. They are well on the way down the road in reducing those negative environmental impacts associated with commercial horticulture. They grow their full range of tulips hydroponically, their glasshouses are heated with biomass boilers and their coldstores are powered by electricity from solar panels. Sadly, they do not grow the pink carnations that would have been the favourite for a Victorian mother as these days carnations are not the most fashionable choice for a mum’s bouquet.
Spring is most definitely on the horizon when you find yourself tidying up and decluttering in an attempt to let the increasing daylight hours suffuse your home with hope-laden brightness. One task on my decluttering list is to seriously, and I mean seriously, start deleting some of the 17,000 plus photographs clogging up my hard drive.
The process is time-consuming and mostly boring, but every now and then I discover a forgotten encounter. And, one such occasion was a presentation given by Bob Entwistle, Conservator at Christchurch Mansion, about this beautiful and intriguing black and gold japanned cabinet.
The talk was on a Saturday morning in March 2020 just as the world was learning about a formidable, novel virus and a global pandemic heading our way. At the time we weren’t required to wear masks, but we were given latex gloves to handle precious objects and we joked gently as someone stepped back turning away to cough. Whoa – how little we knew then and, strangely, how long ago it all feels now.
Anyway, I digress, back to this magnificent object. Overall, it is about 1.4 metres tall and 45 cm in width. The main cabinet was made in China sometime in the late-seventeenth century or perhaps in the early part of the eighteenth century and is decorated with gold flowers and birds on a black lacquer background. It has European additions possibly from the nineteenth century which I think you can tell from the photographs. The legs of the cabinet have a curved European style. These cabriole legs are also decorated with Western floral motifs.
There are a number of drawers which make up the main body of the piece. This main drawer arrangement can be extracted as a whole section from the carcass and put aside.
Then another ten ‘secret’ drawers can be accessed in the walls of the carcass. During a restoration that was undertaken in 2005 tiny seeds were found hidden in one of these draws.
The cabinet is now on display in the Green Room of Christchurch Mansion and it is a splendid example of chinoiserie that could have been collected by the Fonnereau family living in the mansion during the eighteenth century, but that is not the case. Following the donation in 1894 of an empty Christchurch Mansion by a property syndicate to Ipswich Borough Council the process of buying back furniture and art as well as buying similar pieces to decorate the mansion began. And the lot, ‘Queen Anne lacquer cabinet with black and gold decoration fitted with cabriole legs’, was listed in the country house sale of over 1,500 lots of the furniture and effects of the Brooke family of Ufford Place near Woodbridge, Suffolk. The cabinet was purchased for the Mansion from that 1930 sale for £110 and five shillings. That is about £8,300 in today’s money, but when I looked at recent values for similar antique chinoiserie cabinets they have sold from between £15,000 to £38,000. A good investment for Ipswich not that the Museum Service is going to be putting it up for sale anytime soon.
Interestingly, back in 2015 the cabinet returned to China for six months to be part of the display for an exhibition ‘Georgian Life’ taking place at Nanjing Museum, Nanjing, Jiangsu province, China. Bob Entwistle accompanied the shipment of the museum pieces on loan from Suffolk to Nanjing.
When the cabinet was unpacked at the museum Bob showed his hosts the Chinese classical script found on the woodwork at the back of one of the drawers and he was finally able to learn its meaning. Apparently, somewhat disappointingly, it translates as left and right simply providing functional information for the correct fitting of the drawer into its slot.
Last month I carried out a colour check on my stock. I guess it was because it was the beginning of another year and seemed a natural time to review the colours situation.
Over the years I have found that my creative choices often result in some colours turning up more frequently than others. Blues, pinks, greens, purples, gold and turquoise make regular appearances, but less so yellows and red.
And, the result of my little survey was I noticed there was no predominately red or even a partially red silk scarf for sale on my shop.
That situation has now been rectified with not an entirely red scarf, but one featuring an array of beautiful tones of crimson and burgundy with a touch of scarlet. And, when I was painting it last week I wondered why I didn’t use these darker reds more often.
One evening a very long time ago, I climbed flight after flight of stairs to the very top of the auditorium, passed the entrance to the amphitheatre and then climbed on up to the balcony also known as ‘The Gods’. I and my two roommates were at the opera to see ‘The Magic Flute’ at Covent Garden. (Yes, you didn’t misread that, it was two roommates, as in those days, 1980, it was two or three to a room and only mature students were allocated a single room in the large, women-only student house where we lived.)
The two memories I have of that evening over 40 years ago were, firstly, the wonderful singing by Kiri Te Kanawa as Pamina and, secondly, the exhaustion of the sit/standing arrangement and straining to see the performers from the very, very back. So, why, oh why did I find myself at the Royal Opera House on Monday morning in ‘The Gods’ again? It was the triumph of considered, thought-out optimism over ever-fading, vague-ish memories.
In the past, when I lived in London, I used to belong to the Friends of Covent Garden and, interestingly, I notice from a 1989 programme, basic membership back then was £25 a year. Needless to say that has gone up over the intervening decades and it is now £115 for an annual membership, but if you are able to attend the daytime rehearsals I think it’s worth it.
Attending dress rehearsals is one of the benefits of belonging to the Friends along with priority booking. Now I am semi-retired I can finally attend a daytime rehearsal in London. It is something I’ve always wanted to do. However, when I bought my ticket for the dress rehearsal of ‘The Barber of Seville’ only restricted view seats in the upper slips were still available.
And, what of my new experience? I think I’d say it was a mixed bag. The dress rehearsal was musically and theatrically wonderful. The younger vocalists, Aigul Akhmetshina (Rosina) and Andrzej Filończyk (Figaro), gave it their all and sang all the flashy fireworks so beloved by Rossini with no marking to save their voices. The mighty-voiced Bryn Terfel offered the most charming and amusing performance of Don Basilio with the expected superb singing. The other more mature members of the cast gave good performances, but I felt they were perhaps holding back vocally just a little with their eye on this evening’s Opening Night.
And, the downside? If I found it physically draining as a young student to be up in ‘The Gods’, then as an oldie it was always going to be challenging. My knees, neck and back did not appreciate the two and three quarter hours running time despite stretching my legs with a walk down to the Paul Hamlyn Hall during the 25 minute interval.
The lessons I’ve learnt from this new experience are, firstly, it is definitely worth being a member of the Friends if you live in the London area or can make a day trip to the capital. Secondly, if you find it difficult sitting at awkward angles to watch productions, then it is essential to note the day and the time booking for rehearsals goes live and login before all the front-facing, comfortable seats are sold out.