What do you think Tobias?

Earlier this week, the Prime Minister announced further changes as part of the loosening of the lockdown in England. Amongst other cultural venues, museums and galleries will once again be able to open their doors and admit the general public from the 4th July .

Tobias Blosse (1565/6-1630/1) 17th century English School 1627-8. Oil on Canvas. Christchurch Mansion, Ipswich. Tobias Blosse was Portman and Bailiff of Ipswich and Captain of the Ipswich Train Band. In this portrait he was aged 62.

I can’t help but consider when looking at this portrait of Tobias Blosse (photo from a pre Covid visit) that his expression and pose suggests he might just be thinking ‘yes, yes I have seen this all before and humans will, as usual, forget surprisingly quickly all the horror of this plague’.

On a personal level, I am not sure how I feel about going to the cinema, which necessitates sitting inside with little ventilation for two or three hours. However, walking through the galleries of my local museum or visiting Christchurch Mansion to find inspiration for my work will be much welcomed. It will be interesting to see if wearing a mask is suggested – I think it might be necessary in some of the smaller venues. Following the advice given at the final daily Downing Street Briefing, Patrick Vallance and Chris Whitty called for individuals to mitigate risk. They said wearing face coverings was one way to fulfil that requirement!

Earlier this morning I received an email from ‘The Wallace Collection’ announcing their reopening on 25th July and informing everybody of the ‘new normal’ procedures for visiting the Collection. Strikingly, the opening hours have been reduced to 11 am to 3 pm and you have to pre-book your visit. I am waiting to see if this version of the new normal at a busy London gallery will be replicated at local museums and galleries across the regions.

Here’s a summary of the instructions for visitors from the Wallace Collection website.

I expect with local museum’s often occupying much smaller premises there may have to be even more restrictions. The days of spontaneously popping in for a 15 minute break to look at a favourite painting, or wander randomly through a display of Roman finds to divert oneself from the present, would appear to now also belong to the past.

Inspirational pattern detail so delicately painted on the portrait.

During the lockdown I have found books and the Internet have been useful along with strolling through the park and cemetery, but I am most definitely in need of being up close and personal with treasured objects from our past, even portraits of grumpy looking gents like Bailiff Blosse. In Tobias’s defence, I would just say that when standing in front of the canvas he does not appear quite so grumpy (apologies for the lens distortion Tobias).

As the gradual loosening of the lockdown continues and we find a new normal we will be reminded that as with much of human life, that some things are simply better experienced directly in person even if it now means more planning and less spontaneity.

Parched in May, Sodden in June

We’ve had some strange ol’ weather adding to our already strange times. As if we weren’t all living in an upside down world, the weather is all over the place. According to the Met Office we have, in England, just experienced the driest May on record.

And, now it’s June and we have these monsoon-like downpours. My roses bloomed so early that the first flush had near enough finished before the arrival of June and despite the rain, there’s no sign of ‘balling’ of the next flush as they are still tight buds. For once, I feel the roses have outwitted the capricious English weather.

However, it has been another story in the local park as by the end of May the lawns were turning brown,

and the ornamental grass display looked so parched it could have been mid-August in a heatwave.

A few white alliums in bloom are the only clue it isn’t high summer.

It was also a shame to see some of the frilly poppies (papaver somniferum) failing as they are normally so resilient. Their heavy heads drooped and their leaves withered. Following the past month without rain even a good watering would probably not save them now. I think perhaps it’s more the fact that the soil is baked so dry that the roots have become entombed.

Papaver somniferum – only about one in ten were successfully blooming.

Hopefully, there will be other poppies germinating from a later sowing that will fare better now June has brought us plenty of rain.

Of course, there are other features of Holywells Park where the heavy rain has been most welcome. It has topped up the ponds, re-greened the grass and provided moisture to the sheltered areas beneath the trees. This amazing palm (Trachycarpus fortunei) grows well in its sheltered position. It stands tall as the monsoon-like deluge penetrates the overhead canopy and gives this little corner of an urban park in Ipswich a tropical atmosphere.

But, there is no doubt about it – the plant that has benefitted the most from all those hours of Maytime sunshine is the banana plant in the park’s Victorian Conservatory – it’s been growing like Jack’s beanstalk.

The Unbearable Emptiness of Lockdown

I was going to write about my experience of walking from the Waterfront to the Town Centre on a ‘busy’ Friday lunchtime in Ipswich, but I think on this occasion the pictures speak for themselves.

The Hold – on hold
Shoppers’ car park
Busy Buttermarket
Tree parking
A delivery

April flowers now and then

What a difference a few weeks has made? Only four weeks ago it was Friday, 13th March and it was Gold Cup Day at the Cheltenham Festival. It strikes me now as mind-boggling to think that 60,000 people attended the famous National Hunt race meeting, but attend they did, visiting from far and wide. It already seems a long time ago as everybody comes to terms with living in a lockdown.

Today is Maundy Thursday and the weather is beautiful and sunny, but there will be no holiday stays at the seaside this Easter.

I photographed this gorgeous cherry tree last April in Aldeburgh when my sister came to stay. (She had taken a house for this Easter too and we had tickets for Bach’s St Matthew Passion at Snape Maltings, but it’s most definitely stay at home and stay safe.)

However, on a positive note it is always amazing at this time of year what a difference a couple of days of sunshine and warmer temperatures makes to the gardens. Overnight the aubretia is blooming . . .

The first aquilegia is flowering . . .

And, the pear I planted last year is covered in blossom.

Pear Concorde – late-season, self-fertile. A Conference and Doyenne du Comice cross chosen as it will be on it’s own as I couldn’t see any pear trees in nearby gardens for fertilisation.

I particularly value the pear blossom as, like many of us, I am looking for any signs of hopeful renewal during this Covid lockdown.

Honesty in my suburban garden Norfolk. (April 2015)

Compared to my old Norfolk garden I only have a small patch of outside space and it is mostly concrete slabs thanks to previous owners with their ‘low maintenance’ mindset. However, I really must not complain as I do have fresh spring greenery and some flowers too. I deeply appreciate my little backyard during these difficult Covid times when many families live in flats and don’t even have access to a balcony.

Daffodils in Christchurch Park, Ipswich. (A couple of weeks ago.)

Fortunately, we are lucky in Ipswich as, so far, the beautiful parks are still open for exercise and dog-walking.

A carpet of Lesser Celandine in Holywells Park, Ipswich. (last week)

And, you can even bicycle, run or maybe simply stroll along the Waterfront for your daily exercise.

Wishing you all well this Easter and keep safe.

A kinda pleasant surprise

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.

Man at work.

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.

Collaborations

The World Presents . . . by Megan Wright
“I created these posters because I wanted to put across the message that it doesn’t take much to save the planet that we live on. If everyone just did small things to help it would make a massive difference.” Megan Wright.

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.

One of the displays for the recent BLOC / Suffolk New College collaboration at the bottom of the stairs, Ipswich County Library.
Modern Goddess by William Board
“In a world where the fight never ends, we continue to contribute to a problem as we are fighting it. The textile industry generates more than 15 million tons of used textiles each year in the United States alone, and the amount has doubled over the last 20 years.” William Board.

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.

Tooth and Claw. Imogen Howe
“A piece that captures the struggle to maintain ‘ethical sustainability’. Depicting the fight between good and evil, in the form of the angel and the devil. Painted using fabric paint on calico fabric, and etched using a drypoint technique over the top.” Imogen Howe.

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.

The First Flowers of 2020

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.

The Lenten Rose. Helleborous orientalis

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.

A very green caterpillar

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.

Daffodils all the way from Cornwall.

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!

It’s January, but it’s almost balmy in the park

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.

Ornamental grasses are left for winter interest and cover for wildlife.

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.

Colourful evergreens

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).

The Orangery, the Victorian conservatory in Holywells Park.

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.

Tender plants protected in the Orangery.

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?

For a reflective view of living in a time of Climate Crisis here’s an article by Professor Jem Bendell exploring ideas of resilience, relinquishment, restoration and reconciliation.

The Ark has Landed

Last year, on the 9th November, this large version of a Noah’s Ark arrived in Ipswich, with the aid of a tug, and docked at the Orwell Quay down on the Waterfront.

It is big, it is very dark and it is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a beautiful boat. The idea for this project came from the Dutch TV producer, Sir Aad Peters, and his boat, originally from the Netherlands, has visited Denmark, Norway and Germany, with this visit to Ipswich marking its first time in the UK.

It is a 70 metre wooden version of Noah’s Ark and also houses a floating exhibition of Bible stories. According to the local press, the boat features a 12ft tall Tree of Life that ‘grows’ up through the four floors of the vessel.

I haven’t been to see the exhibition as it isn’t my kind of thing being neither art nor a collection of historical, cultural artefacts. Plus, it is £16.50 for adults and £9.50 for children (4-13 years old) whereas Norwich Cathedral is free to visit despite its running costs of about £4,000 a day. And, even Canterbury Cathedral (running costs of approximately £18,000 a day) with its wealth of medieval culture of national and international significance, is only £12.50 for adults.

The online promotional information claims the vessel is a half-sized replica of Noah’s original vessel as described in the Book of Genesis.

14. Make thee an ark of gopher wood; rooms shalt thou make in the ark, and shalt pitch it within and without with pitch.

15. And this is the fashion which thou shalt make it of: The length of the ark shall be three hundred cubits, the breadth of it fifty cubits, and the height of it thirty cubits.

16. A window shalt thou make to the ark, and in a cubit shalt thou finish it above; and the door of the ark shalt thou set in the side thereof;  with lower, second and third stories shalt thou make it.

17. And, behold, I, even I, do bring a flood of waters upon the earth . . . . 

Genesis, Chapter 6, Verses 14-17. The Bible, Authorised King James Version.

That’s clear then, its 300 cubits long, 50 cubits wide, and 30 cubits high. Although, I do wonder quite how this is a ‘replica’ when there is no description in the text of the boat’s shape neither of its overall appearance.

Interestingly, twenty years ago the scientist and marine explorer Dr Robert Ballard found evidence of a great flood that occurred in the Black Sea area around 5,000 BC. There is also evidence of human occupation of that area and of a world subsequently drowned by a great flood. However, so far, no ark or ark remains, or ark preserved impressions have been found.

Noah, Gilgamesh and other flood myths are most likely explanations of actual geological episodes that occurred in times before evidence-based, scientific accounts became available. If you have a look around the Web, it appears that finding a real, original Noah’s Ark is of considerable importance to some folks. However, in the meantime people can visit ark interpretations such as the one on the Waterfront or watch Darren Aronofsky’s film, ‘Noah’, with its Biblical accurately-sized Ark that has a very different appearance and doesn’t really look like a boat at all. I suppose if you think about it, the Ark only had to float as it wasn’t built for sailing.

Just to finish, here’s a photograph of a fine, stylish craft also anchored in the Ipswich harbour which was decorated very attractively for the recent Festive season.

Civic Spaces at Christmas Time

Last year at Christmas time the Cornhill in Ipswich was a public space that, although newly refurbished, was a cluttered muddle.

The Cornhill, Ipswich – December 2018. The Christmas tree squeezed in next to the new sculptural installation – The Plinths.

The splendid Town Hall and Corn Exchange was dressed with lights and the traditional, tall Christmas tree was erected, but any civic grandeur was lost with an ill-considered large new sculptural artwork and an additional seasonal shopping marquee plonked in the middle of the concourse.

During the course of 2018 there had been an extensive remodelling and refurbishment of the Cornhill as part of £3.6 million revamping of the town centre. Previously in front of the Town Hall the old paved pedestrian area that hosted the market stalls had sloped down towards the Town Hall. These stalls have now been moved to a pedestrian street to the side of the Town Hall, whilst to the front the Town Hall most of the sloping concourse has gone to be replaced with steps and a level area with a pavement fountain arrangement. Surprisingly and pleasingly, the new steps provided a good vantage point to view the youngsters participating in the Global Strike that took place earlier this autumn.

Global Strike, 20 September 2019

And, incidentally, whilst enjoying the passion and energy of the striking youngsters, I noticed the less than impressive sculpture ‘The Plinths’, often referred to by the locals as Cornhenge, was no more. It had not been well received (that’s a polite understatement) and despite costing in the region of £45,000 (according to the local paper), it has been removed. Its departure has left us with a clear view of the Town Hall and a more grand and impressive yet welcoming civic space.

Of course, with the sculpture gone it has also meant that the purely functional and expedient move to squeeze in more retail opportunities into the area (for example that seasonal Christmas marquee) have also been dropped.

However, we do not get off that lightly. In what looks like a last minute desperate decision the marquee has been squeezed into Lloyds Avenue.

Seasonal Christmas marquee crammed into Lloyds Avenue, Ipswich.
Bit of a tight fit.

One positive thought for this seasonal period is at least Ipswich doesn’t yet suffer from the faux Christmas Markets that have sprung up round the country in a pale imitation of the traditional community Weihnachtsmärkte of Germany.

That’s enough of the complaints, Scrooge has left the building, and instead let’s feast our eyes on a very attractive display of lights decorating the Town Hall.

Or, take an evening stroll down the Buttermarket with its eclectic architectural mix of buildings enhanced by an elegant display of Christmas lights.

Bones for Halloween

Well, other things might not be happening today, 31st October 2019, despite the premature minting of ‘Brexit’ coins, but Halloween is still on. And, this post, photographs of skeletons on display at the Ipswich Museum, is a little contribution to the general spookiness of the day.

Skull of a Woolly Mammoth trawled from the bed of the North Sea about 50 km east of Lowestoft. It is between 40,000 and 25,000 years old. The animal would have died during the last Ice Age before the existence of the North Sea.

Some skeletons are easily identifiable, but this massive bone arrangement for the Woolly Mammoth has an air of a rocky outcrop about it and I had to take a hard look to figure out what I was seeing.

The ribs and skull make for an interesting image with a little tweaking.

However, this dramatic looking skeleton caught my attention with the obvious rib cage and the recognisable skull. It was displayed in the post-glacial section of the exhibition, so I guessed it might have been a badger, but I was wrong. It was a beaver. Skeletal remains of beavers are quite common in the fens of East Anglia and this one was found in the peat in Burwell Fen, Cambridgeshire. Sadly, the beaver was hunted for fur and food and finally exterminated in England in the Saxon times. However, recently there have been successful re-introduction programmes in several parts of Great Britain (see Devon Wildlife Trust’s Beaver Project).

After being sidetracked by the Ice Age displays I went off to the Geology Room to find what I had actually come to see, a really, really big skull. The skull of a whale. It was from a whale that swam up the River Orwell in 1811 and died after becoming stranded on Denham Beach.

Skull of the stranded whale. River Orwell, 1811.

It is so large it is difficult to photograph and get a sense of its size, I guess its about 3 metres by 1.5 metres. It is also difficult to comprehend what you are seeing especially if marine mammal anatomy is not your field.

‘The Whale at Denham Beach, River Orwell’. George Frost (1745-1821) Pencil.

Beneath the whale skull were a range of cabinets with skeletons of creatures from modern times. Specimens of mammals, birds and fish are displayed and, although, a casual visitor may not be able to identify individual species, it was not hard to guess the animal from the bones. For example, you would know that this was a skeleton of a primate, but was it a chimpanzee, a gorilla or perhaps even an orangutan?

The skeleton of a female gorilla.

At first glance you might even briefly think it was an early human skeleton, but the main differences between a gorilla skeleton and a human skeleton are seen in the teeth, skull, pelvis and large toes. That looks quite a jaw and heavy brow on this lady.

Back in my studio and always interested in finding interesting shapes and patterns for my work I took another look at my photographs. The fish, the gorilla and the ostrich bone pictures had possibilities.

Fish bones and the bones as a glowing line image.

The fish skeleton makes for perhaps a better print-like image (top of this post) than a glowing line treatment, but the gorilla skull is transformed with glowing lines into an impressive Halloween portrait.

However, easily the most elegant of all the bones I saw at the Ipswich Museum was the ostrich skeleton and it’s made the best picture.