A New Experience

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.

Programme for The Magic Flute not from ‘The Gods’ visit of April 1980, but from another occasion in July 1989.

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.

Advertising for new members. 1989

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.

Information boards in the foyer provided performance details for the dress rehearsal. 2023

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.

Left, the view from The Gods, opera glasses would have been useful. Right, zoomed in on the orchestra pit.

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.

Ten years with a favourite colour

It is almost 10 years since I opened my online shop selling hand painted silk scarves. And, it is nearly 30 years since I first learnt to paint silk. You might think that when somebody spends hours designing and painting creative pieces they would remember them all, but that isn’t so. Even the creative process when practiced routinely over many years does not see every design endeavour being slotted into the memory bank.

Three scarves; one predominately turquoise, one with turquoise accents and the third with a wide turquoise border.

I realised this the other day when sorting and clearing packets of old photographs. I spotted a long-forgotten colleague wearing . . . , and I looked again closely, yes, wearing one of my scarves. I had utterly forgotten I’d ever painted it. It was definitely made before my move to Germany and the subsequent purchase of my large stainless steel steamer on a visit to Cologne. I have no recall of painting the silk, let alone steaming it although that must have been done in mother’s old pressure cooker.

Another couple of scarves; one from nearly ten years ago and the other from about seven years ago.

So much happens to humans on a daily basis, that much trivia is automatically dumped, but it has genuinely surprised me that I have painted and entirely forgotten some of my early work. Mind you that’s all changed. Since the invention of and the easy access to digital photography, together with the requirement for my shop to have images of my scarves, there now exists a visual record of every scarf and other pieces of silk I’ve painted over the last decade.

And, as you may have noticed from these photos, that although the expression has changed, there has been a favourite colour which has often featured over the years. Interestingly, despite it being an awkward colour to accurately photograph, I have found myself returning to a palette featuring turquoise over and over again. And, I expect there will be more to come in the future.

Thank you for your patience.

You may be here as a regular reader of my wittering, but on the other hand you may be here as you’ve recently tried to access my online shop AgnesAshe.co.uk and found nothing. Or, perhaps you’ve seen some version of ‘sorry, can’t find this site’ that your web browser displays when a website has gone MISSING.

And gone missing is exactly what happened for over 10 days. It’s not only my shop that went missing from the Internet, but the ‘support’ people at the hosting platform went AWOL and the domain registration company were initially less than helpful too.

The very good news is that now it’s all back and running as normal. And, incidentally, within a few hours I received an order.

Painting a scarf in the afternoons after each morning’s computer skirmish.

It has been a strange experience as this was the first major, significant problem I’ve had in nearly 10 years of selling my scarves on the Internet through my own designated shop. And, finding the shop, a daily part of my life, to be absent, offline, disappeared, has been a strange, stressful and somewhat unnerving experience.

Obviously, as soon as I realised there was a serious problem I checked my settings, the stuff I had access to and the stuff I understood. At one point I even found my site had been blocked and may even have been squatted! Reading this made me feel queasy, although fortunately it turns out that was not the case. However, worst of all was the realisation I did not have the skills or knowledge to fix the problem myself.

I hadn’t meant there to be so much blue, but guess that was the mood. Surprised I didn’t cover the whole design in red!

In the end, ten days after having eventually received both the wrong guidance and the wrong solution and feeling completely at a loss, my site was fixed last Saturday, and not by me. It turns out I could have managed if the support instructions had not been out of date or if the domain company hadn’t assumed I was a total idiot. I am not a computer person and certainly have no idea what’s going on ‘under the bonnet’ as they say, but I can follow clearly set out instructions.

I will never know what happened to trigger the disappearance of my shop, but the resetting/configurationing were not in themselves complicated, but you did need to know the ‘new’ information. Anyway, with fingers crossed, let’s hope the matter is now closed. Reflecting on the episode as a whole, I think it has been the issue of autonomy that has been most unnerving, but I will just have to get used to that.

In conclusion, and more broadly speaking, the overwhelming prevalence of and dependance on information technology in our lives is not an entirely benign situation when even simple faults are difficult to locate and awkward to rectify. And, that is all a minor concern compared to the threat of cybercriminals when you consider the Royal Mail has very recently been unable to send packages abroad due to an extortionate ransomware cyber-attack.

The Delight of Winter Blooms

It’s nearly the middle of January and when I was out and about do you think I spotted these beautiful, pale, creamy yellow narcissus in a sheltered front garden?

Or, perhaps I spied them the tucked away in the warmth of a south-facing porch.

But, no these wonderfully fragrant narcissus are indoor plants. They are narcissus ‘Erlicheer’ and are excellent bulbs for forcing. They were a Christmas gift from my sister and arrived in an elegant tin container as bulbs in compost topped with a dried moss layer.

Then over about a month they have grown, a bit Jack’s magic beans, to full leaf and flowers. And, what beautiful scent they have perfuming not just my sitting room, but the hallway and my study too.

Something to cheer everybody during these gloomy times.

To go for traditional or not?

No Boxing Day visit to a traditional pantomime for my daughter and I, but a trip to a play at the theatre. Opera and ballet sadly out of our price range, West End musicals not my thing, but a good, wordy, political drama ‘Best of Enemies’ – perfect. And, for my daughter? Well, as an avid watcher of ‘Homeland’ seeing David Harewood on stage together with Zachary Quinto (Spock!!!!) it was almost too much.

‘Best of Enemies’ at the Noel Coward Theatre, London.

‘Best of Enemies’ is a play by James Graham that focusses on a pivotal moment for the relationship between TV news and political discourse. In 1968 the American TV company ABC was trailing its competitors, NBC and CBS, with its audience numbers, particularly during the coverage of the political parties’ national conventions. A fall in audiences meant less advertising revenue and the TV executives needed a new offer to compete. The men at ABC came up with the idea for a series of debates between two people, one from either side of the political divide.

During the first part of the play we see how both William F. Buckley (David Harewood), from the Republican side of US politics and Gore Vidal (Zachary Quinto), from the Democratic side were approached and engaged to discuss the political issues of the day in a series of live debates. The play truly gets into its stride as it presents how, over the course of these live debates, the tone of the discussions descended and as the debates became shouting matches so the TV audience numbers rose. And, we, in the theatre, witness the beginnings of the sensationalised political discourse we have today.

Two protagonists on stage before the play commences.

The performances by the main characters were both electric and engaging. The production was slick and energetic weaving original news footage from significant events of 1968 with realtime video close-ups of Harewood and Quinto as they verbally sparred on stage.

I am just about old enough to remember 1968. I remember the news of the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr and Bobby Kennedy that so shocked my parents. However, although later as an adult I knew of Gore Vidal, I’d never heard of William F. Buckley or the 1968 debates. And, as for my daughter, she had even less knowledge of the historical period aside from the music and the fashions of the era.

The ABC TV studio control room in the background.

Did we need to know much about the protagonists of the play, or about the American politics of the era, or even about the wider political climate of 1968? Probably not. The play gripped its present-day diverse audience and there were even moments of amusement and laughter despite the serious subject matter. And, at the end of the evening, as the audience left the theatre, I caught snippets of sober conversations recognising the significance of the 1968 debates and our current, ‘politics as spectacle’ so beloved by the likes of Trump, Johnson and others.

‘Best of Enemies’ is well worth a ticket and is playing at the Noel Coward Theatre, St Martin’s Lane, London until 18 February 2023. 

A Favourite Painting

This picture that hangs as part of the permanent collection of Christchurch Mansion, Ipswich, is one of my favourite oil paintings. It is called ‘Interior with Mrs Charles Burnand’ and was painted by Anna Airy (1882-1964) in 1919. The photograph was taken with my phone and I think something of the soft and welcoming warmth that is so enchanting in the real-life painting is lost with the sharp automatic focussing and exposure of the phone camera.

Fortunately, I had my DSLR camera in my rucksack, but, not so fortunately, I had the single focus lens attached, the one I normally use for scarf portraits. All wasn’t lost as, although I couldn’t physically get far enough away to capture the whole painting in one shot (it’s situated in a narrowing part of the room just before a doorway), the lens easily coped with the gallery low lighting.

And, the resultant photographs are interesting as the daubs and brushwork are clearer and the mellowness of the painting is more noticeable.

Detail from ‘Interior with Mrs Charles Burnand’ by Anna Airy. Oil on canvas. 1919.

Paintings of interiors, and particularly domestic interiors, are less common than views of landscapes and portraits of people. Could it be that the themes and subjects of Art when commissioned for the private and not public sphere are often as much to do with fashion and status as with any other aspects of human societies? Landscapes of my estate/lands/view yes, portraits of me/my family/my connections yes, but interiors of my personal private space not so much. Or, could it be simply pragmatic as before the arrival of gas and then electric lighting it was difficult to paint interiors from life? Or, could it even be that the subject matter was too domestic for many male artists? This painting is an example of a woman’s visual creativity. It is interesting to consider that aside from the 18th-century Conversation pieces it isn’t until the Victorian era that painting of interiors become more popular as subject matter.

If you haven’t come across Anna Airy before here is the biographical detail provided by the curators at the gallery.

Airy was born in London in 1882. In 1899 she entered the Slade School of Art. She had a great artistic talent. During her five years at the Slade she won all the first prizes awarded, including the Slade Scholarship and the Melville Nettleship prize for three consecutive years. From 1905 she regularly exhibited at the Royal Academy. In the following years, she became a member of many important artistic groups and societies.

During the First World War she was employed as a war artist, producing some of her most outstanding work of munitions factories and women working in a gas retort house. After the war she concentrated on figure painting, landscapes, flower compositions and still life. She was a highly skilled and gifted artist who was able to work well in all mediums, including oils, watercolours, pastels, etching and crayon. Airy and her husband moved to Playford, a village five miles from Ipswich in 1933. In 1945 she was elected the President of the Ipswich Art Club, a position which she held until her death in 1964.

Early this year in August, Alison Thomas posted on ArtUK, ‘Anna Airy: a remarkable forgotten artist’, a piece which includes further details of her life and a selection of images of Airy’s wide-ranging work.

Winter at the Bar

Earlier this month I was in Felixstowe and took a few minutes to walk down to the beach and brave the howling, bitterly cold wind to take one or two photos of the seaside in winter.

Beach huts all locked up.

Not surprisingly, the colourful beach huts were securely locked up for the season. Although, whilst I was taking pictures at least three people together with their pooches battled past. Hardy folk indeed, but I guess dogs need their walks come rain or shine, or winter gales.

Once I’d watched the container ship disappear out of sight into the Orwell Estuary on its way to the Felixstowe docks, I turned about to see, amazingly, a small, beach hut café was open.

The cafe is open serving coffee, tea and cake.

However, the view I came to see was not the café, but the bar, the long, ever-shifting shingle bar forming and re-forming as the River Deben meets the North Sea. There’s a short aerial video filmed by John Ranson showing the extent of the bar here.

The Bar at Old Felixstowe.

Now, obviously this stretch of coastline is in flux, but how incredible it must have been for the Anglo-Saxon longboats, around 625 AD, to make their way across the bar and head up the river to Woodbridge. And, we know they did this because they buried their king in his longboat with his treasure to rest for eternity at Sutton Hoo. Rather puts moaning about the current cold snap in perspective.

No-one tough enough to sit outside the café with Anglo-Saxon heritage or not.

A Turner for East Anglia

In 2018, Sotheby’s in London sold the painting ‘Walton Bridges’ by J M W Turner to an overseas private buyer. According to the Arts Council, once certain cultural goods reach or exceed specific age and monetary value thresholds, the goods require an individual licence for export out of the UK.

‘Walton Bridges’ was painted by Turner in 1806 and as such is considered a significant early Turner work. It is now also worth £3.4 million thus meeting the requirements for an Export Stop, a pause in the granting of an export licence. This became the point at which the process of fundraising to save the painting for the nation began. In 2019, with considerable funding from the National Lottery Heritage Fund, the Art Fund and a private donor, the painting was purchased for the country. And, as none of the public museum collections of Essex, Suffolk or Norfolk held a Turner for public display, it was decided that ‘Walton Bridges’ would have a new home at the Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery. East Anglia would at last have a Turner.

‘Walton Bridges’ by J M W Turner (23 April 1775 – 19 December 1851). Oil on canvas. H 92.7 x W 123.8 cm. 1806.

As is the way these days, there are loans and sharing between museums across a region and as part of this practice ‘Walton Bridges’ has so far been shown at Colchester Castle Museum and Lynn Museum. It is currently at Christchurch Mansion, Ipswich, as part of the ‘Landscape Rebels’ exhibition and will eventually return to Norwich in 2023.

Close up detail showing activity on the River Thames from Turner’s ‘Walton Bridges’.

The exhibition ‘Landscape Rebels’ explores how human activity impacts landscapes and has split the exhibition into different categories of rebels. These include Nature Rebels, Art Rebels, Coastal Rebels, Global Rebels, Local Rebels and Material Rebels. Naturally, ‘Walton Bridges’ is part of the Art Rebels section as Turner’s works are known for challenging how landscapes and seascapes were traditionally depicted particularly with his painterly expression of light. His painting of this particular Thames crossing is complemented in the exhibition with a loan from the National Gallery, London, of Claude Monet’s ‘The Thames Below Westminster’, painted in 1871.

‘The Thames Below Westminster’ Claude Monet (14 November 1840- 5 December 1926). Oil on canvas. H 47 x W 73 cm. 1871

It isn’t just that both these paintings feature the River Thames, but Monet too was an artist who offered a new, different way of seeing and can also be considered an Art Rebel. I thought it was fascinating to see these two paintings side by side and up close as well. To stand before the work of two artists, a couple of generations apart, but both 31 years old at the time they painted these pictures, was fascinating. They both challenged the received conventions of their time and rebelled.

Closer photo showing the silhouetted people on the jetty stark against the soft light of the misty background.

And, finally if you were wondering about the header photo, it’s another river, not the Thames, but the River Orwell shrouded in mist. I wonder what Turner and Monet would have made of the digital revolution and today’s pictures taken on mobile phones? Detail, colour, mood all achieved instantly, momentarily assessed, perhaps saved and shared, but just as likely to be instantly deleted.

An Online Pop-Up for Christmas 2022

This coming weekend, the first weekend in December, the folk at Make It British have organised an online Pop-Up event.

Working with the platform ‘Tresstle’, this event will be similar to a virtual market featuring goods made in the UK with many of those products handmade too.

Yes, I shall be showing at this Christmas Virtual Market.

The Pop-Up opens on Friday, 2nd December and closes on Sunday, 4th December 2022. Some of the business ‘stalls’ will have special offers whilst others are offering free postage or a percentage discount.

Message from the organisers at Make It British.

To access the virtual market shoppers need to register (simply enter your email via the link below) to receive further information and the event’s Discount Code.

Here’s the link for the Pop-up details.

24 November – My Great-Grandfather’s Birthday

Today, 24th November, marks a couple of birthdays in our family. My great-grandfather, Harry Whatmore was born on 24 November 1879 in Limehouse, London. He was probably born in the family home, 32, West India Dock Road. According to the 1891 Census he was still living there 12 years later along with his parents, William and Ann, and his four sisters and three brothers.

Harry Whatmore 1879 – 1965

In this photograph of Harry, I gather he was over 80 years old at the time, you can see a small statue in the background on the windowsill. A strange oriental piece that shows a Chinese man growing out of a lump of knobbly wood.

The sculpture has been in our family since one of Harry’s older brothers, Bill, a seaman, brought it back from a stint in the Far East. It is carved out of a single piece of irregularly, lumpy wood. I think it might be cedar root and possibly an example of the Chinese traditional folk art of cedar-root carving.

The uncarved reverse of the Oriental Man.

As I look at the old family photo, below, I wonder what happened to the sisters and the other brothers of Harry and Bill. I don’t remember my grandmother every talking about them although she did once mention the Limehouse Whatmores had been involved with running some kind of Christian Seamen’s Mission on the West India Dock Road.

From the left, my father in the pushchair, my grandmother, my grandfather, great-great uncle Bill and finally, my great grandfather Harry Whatmore. Circa 1935.

I expect Bill brought other gifts back from overseas, but my grandmother was a great one for selling off stuff as and when required. She was certainly not sentimental by nature. This is the only known ‘art’ survivor from her family and it was not appreciated by my mother at all (she thought it rather creepy), but it was a favourite with my father.

Making Space Memorable

The exhibition ‘Soheila Sokhanvari: Rebel Rebel’ at the Barbican opened on 7th October 2022 and runs through to 26th February 2023. I thought it brilliant and extremely memorable, and, the ‘space’ has everything do with the shows impact. Sokhanvari has created an environment that envelops, almost strangely cosseting the visitor, and hung within this world of engulfing geometric pattern, are miniature portraits of 28 Iranian women from pre-Revolutionary Iran.

The Curve transformed by Sokhanvari. Hand painted, geometric design applied to wall and floor. Red structure shows hologram ‘Cosmic Dance I’.

Last month, it felt timely to visit ‘Rebel, Rebel’, as this exhibition shows portraits of Iranian women who were working in the creative arts before the 1979 Iranian Revolution.

LEFT. ‘Bang’ – portrait of Faranak Mirghahari (actor) 2019, egg tempera on calf vellum, collection of Elizabeth and Jeff Louis. RIGHT. ‘She Walks in Beauty’ – portrait of Shohreh Aghdashloo (actor) 2022, egg tempera on calf vellum, collection of Aarti Lohi.

As we have recently seen on the news there are ongoing protests in Iran challenging some of the laws of the clerical regime. This period of protest began following the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman who apparently did not have her head appropriately covered. She was arrested by the morality police in Tehran on 13 September for apparently violating Iran’s strict rules requiring women to cover their hair with a hijab or headscarf. These laws are part of the theocratic society of Iran that came into existence in 1979.

Within the hand-painted geometric wall decoration hang the 28 portrait paintings.

The women featured in this exhibition were active in Iran before its Islamic Revolution during the Pahlavi era between 1925 and 1979. Their stories from this time have rarely been told.

‘The Woman in the Mirror’, – portrait of Fereshteh Jenabi (actor), 2021, egg tempera on calf vellum, collection of the Hundle family.

Nowadays we might call these women feminist icons of the period. Despite the conservative, male-dominated society of their times they successfully worked in the realms of literature, theatre, film and music.

LEFT. ‘The Love Addict’ – portraits of Faegheh Atashin known professionally as Googoosh (singer), 2019, egg tempera on calf vellum, private collection. RIGHT. ‘Wild at Heart’ – portrait of Pouran Shapoori (singer), 2019, egg tempera on calf vellum, collection of Maria R. Al Khalifa.

Soheila Sokhanvari has painted a series of portraits using egg tempera painted on calf vellum. The finished paintings have a soft lustre and are bright with colour bringing a vivacious quality to her subjects. Short biographies of all 28 creative women can be read here.

‘A Persian Requiem’ – portrait of Simin Daneshvar (writer), 2020, egg tempera on calf vellum.

Also as part of the exhibition, there are a couple of hologram installations showing ‘Cosmic Dance I’ and ‘Cosmic Dance II’. And, at the very end of the gallery space there is a suspended star, made of two-way mirrors and perspex.

A large star suspended at the end of The Curve.

Once settled on a large comfy cushion you can watch clips of Iranian films shining out from the centre of the star showing some of the women whose portraits hang in the exhibition.