A quintessentially English weather drama

Clouds-bringing-rain

Suffolk is well-known for big, open skies. These skies of cool blue with puffs of white cloud were made famous in the paintings of Suffolk-born, John Constable, from Dedham Vale on the Suffolk/Essex border.

Flatford-Mill-John-Constable
Flatford Mill (Scene on a Navigable River) by John Constable   1816
Oil on canvas. 52.4 in × 6.4 in × 62.3
Tate Britain, London

However, it’s not always sunny in Suffolk and recently there have been spells of speedily arriving storm clouds and heavy summer showers.

rainbow over sea
Dark skies, heavy showers and bright rainbows over the North Sea at Aldeburgh.

These conditions, combined with the evening sunlight, have resulted in some spectacular, brilliant rainbows. Sadly, I didn’t get the best shot as it was gone by the time I’d run back indoors to get my camera, but one rainbow looked like it was dipping into a pot of gold in the depths of the sea. It was the brightest, most vibrant rainbow I’ve ever seen.

The next morning following the stormy showers it was the return of blue skies and white clouds complementing the painted houses bright along the seafront – a very English view.

Next-morning-sunny

Still, what’s to do on a stony, shingle beach with a very calm sea, ah yes, skim stones.

Pebble-Beach-Aldeburgh

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Negotiating change is frequently challenging

Scots-pine-and-arableIt is unwise to make sweeping statements and generalisations, but speaking from this little patch of the planet it would appear that negotiating change is frequently challenging. Of course, in any one situation there are multiple factors to be considered, but we must remind ourselves that constant flux is the nature of our existence.

The Suffolk-Norfolk  boundary a gentle, undulating landscape.
The Suffolk-Norfolk boundary a gentle, undulating landscape.

Norfolk is an English county that has no motorways running through it. For a long time the main route from London to Norwich once over the county boundary from Suffolk had multiple stretches of single carriageway. The very last section to be made into a dual carriageway, at a cost of £102 million, is almost completed and is due to be fully open next month. The work has involved widening an old road and cutting through farmland, heath and woodland.

Woodland pushed back.
Woodland pushed back.

It all looks bleak and churned up at the moment and in its newness it is quite a striking form carving through the countryside. There was a familiar landscape, but now we’ve changed it. There used to be a sweep of pine forest and now part of it is a major road. But this stretch of trees (part of Thetford forest) was only planted in the 1920s and 1930s.

Modern farming alongside 20th-century forestry plantings.
Modern farming alongside 20th-century forestry plantings.

The Scots Pine was extensively used as it could tolerate the poor soil and dry climate of this region. Before that the land had been used for centuries for arable farming and grazing animals. And, 4500 years ago this area was primeval woodland consisting of lime, elm, hazel and oak. The first deforestation of this area occurred during the Bronze Age when humans extensively mined the area for flint using deer antler mattocks. Humans and the environment – plus ça change!

Beats digging with deer antlers. Lancaster Earthmoving excavator.
Beats digging with deer antlers.
Lancaster Earthmoving excavator.

A creative process – medieval art, craft and artisans (part 1)

Ranworth-ceiling-decorationRecently I have been working on my ‘Ranworth Collection’, a series of painted scarves that have been inspired by the medieval rood screen of St Helen’s church, Ranworth in Norfolk. The painted rood screens of East Anglia make a stunning contribution to the region’s heritage. Also as they can still be found at their original sites they provide a very tangible connection to the past lives of medieval East Anglians within some physical context.

Nowadays, these painted screens are appreciated as exquisite examples of medieval art, yet at the time of their construction and painting they were created by artisans and craftsmen and were objects of religious piety. Of course, in the late-fifteenth century the very notion of ‘an artist’ as we understand it today was a developing concept that was only just becoming established.

I don’t call myself an artist, but an artisan as my current creations do not have an overt, considered content other than their visual design. Not even if my collection of one-off pieces was to be presented as a whole in an exhibition could I name it an ‘art installation’. I have made art in the past when I set out to produce a visual representation of a sequence of experiences that were personally significant to me. However, I arrive at the creation of a painted scarf in a very different way although I employ the same techniques.

For a textile design my creative process begins with a visit to a place that has caught my attention. Sometimes it is the exterior architectural details of a medieval structure or a small carved detail found inside a church that offer potential to be translated into a two dimensional design. But with the ornate detail of the painted screens it is not just the intricate patterns that are so carefully rendered, but also the delicate, fading colours of the images that I find inspirational.

On a visit I take between 50 to 100 photographs of the various panels that make up the rood screen. I check the website for the parish church before I visit to ensure I won’t be intruding on a service and I try to start early before the tourists and visitors arrive at the more popular places. It takes at least an hour to shoot an interesting screen and, of course, there is absolutely NO FLASH when photographing 500 year old paintings.

Back at the coal face, sorry computer screen, I then start the process of selection and elimination. This procedure clarifies my visual impressions from standing in front of the originals and my own designs for pattern and colour combinations gradually crystallize as I select images from which to work.

Painted-image-medieval-carving

Autumn Bliss

The-last-of-the-harvestNow the Victoria plums have finished with the last wasp-damaged remains rotting into the soil and the blackbirds have feasted on the grapes, there’s just the autumn raspberries left to harvest. This year I haven’t netted the raspberries, the bees have had easier access and the pollination rate has been better than usual. The weather has been gentle and I’ve had the best crop of Autumn Bliss in years. And, the strangest thing is despite the unprotected canes the birds have left them alone!

Victoria plums, Muscat bleu grapes and Autumn Bliss raspberries.
Victoria plums, Muscat bleu grapes and Autumn Bliss raspberries.

It’s dahlia time

Dark-red-dahlia-Arabian-NightNot everybody’s favourite, but dahlias have seen a huge resurgence of interest in the last couple of decades here (in England) since the late Christopher Lloyd grubbed up his rose garden at Great Dixter and planted an exotic garden featuring amongst others dahlias. Here’s his forthright views on the matter from ‘The Well-tempered Garden’ (revised edition):

Dahlias are now available in such a varied assortment of flower forms and plant habits that there is not justification for sweeping them aside with a dismissive gesture as vulgar or clumsy.

Hear, hear – and what visual inspiration they make too!

Dahlia-white-sq

A matter of delicacy

Surrey-tombThis is the fine painted alabaster tomb of ‘The Poet Earl’. Erected in 1614 it is the funereal monument for Henry Howard, the Earl of Surrey and his wife, Frances, the Countess of Surrey. This monument is one of several Howard tombs at St Michael’s, Framlingham in Suffolk.

poet earl, earl of surrey
Detail of the Earl of Surrey tomb showing his sons Thomas, 4th Duke of Norfolk (front) and Henry, 1st Earl of Northampton (behind).
Painted alabaster, 1614.
St Michael’s, Framlingham.
(Thomas like his father also lost his head on Tower Hill.)
Detail from the tomb of the Duke of Richmond.
Detail from the tomb of the Duke of Richmond.
The Earl (1517-47) was the eldest son of Thomas Howard, the 3rd Duke of Norfolk, and great friend and brother-in-law to Henry VIII’s illegitimate son, the Duke of Richmond. Although, widely acknowledged as the King’s son, Richmond was illegitimate and as such when he died of consumption at just 17 years old he was buried with the Howards at Thetford Priory. The dissolution of the monasteries brought about the closure of Thetford Priory in 1540 and the tombs and their contents were moved to St Michael’s Framlingham.

The tomb of the Duke of Richmond, the illegitimate son of King Henry VIII.
The tomb of the Duke of Richmond, the illegitimate son of King Henry VIII.

More interestingly Henry Howard, the Poet Earl, was also friends with another Tudor poet, Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503-42). Together with Wyatt, the Earl is credited with introducing the sonnet form of poetry into English.

Detail of heraldic sculpture on Earl of Surrey tomb. After centuries of neglect the tomb was restored in 1976.
Detail of heraldic sculpture on Earl of Surrey tomb. After centuries of neglect the tomb was restored in 1976.

During the reign of Henry VIII the ‘Norfolks’ were in and out of favour with the King and towards the end of his reign both Thomas (father) and Henry (son) ended up in the Tower of London. Following much court intrigue the pair were found guilty of treason and in January 1547 Henry Howard, the Poet Earl, was beheaded at the Tower. His father’s execution date was set for 29 January 1547 but King Henry died the day before. Following the death of Henry VIII the old Duke of Norfolk was not executed, but instead spent the next six years in the Tower. As a Catholic he was finally released on the accession to the throne of Queen Mary. He died a year later aged 80 years old at his Kenninghall residence – a Norfolk Howard that was not executed.

Wild-Boar-Surrey

Effigy of The Poet Earl atop his tomb in St Michael's, Framlingham, Suffolk.
Effigy of The Poet Earl atop his tomb in St Michael’s, Framlingham, Suffolk.

OF THE DEATH OF SIR THOMAS WYATT.

DIVERS thy death do diversely bemoan :
Some, that in presence of thy livelihed
Lurked, whose breasts envy with hate had swoln,
Yield Cæsar’s tears upon Pompeius’ head.
Some, that watched with the murd’rer’s knife,
With eager thirst to drink thy guiltless blood,
Whose practice brake by happy end of life,
With envious tears to hear thy fame so good.
But I, that knew what harbour’d in that head ;
What virtues rare were tempered in that breast ;
Honour the place that such a jewel bred,
And kiss the ground whereas the corpse doth rest ;
With vapour’d eyes : from whence such streams availe,
As Pyramus did on Thisbe’s breast bewail.

Further poems from the Poet Earl can be found at Luminarium.

Following their parents, at the back of the tomb are the Earl of Surrey's three daughters, Jane, Katherine and Margaret.
Following their parents, at the back of the tomb are the Earl of Surrey’s three daughters, Jane, Katherine and Margaret.

The Vikings – but I’m an Anglo-Saxon

Purse-lid-detailLiving in East Anglia we are well aware that over a 1000 years ago Scandinavian longboats could be sighted rowing up the marshy waterways to invade our islands.

Sutton Hoo
Introducing my daughter to our Anglo-Saxon heritage at Sutton Hoo,
Nr Woodbridge, Suffolk.
Ship mound in the background.

I grew up in a village called Danbury, and went to the local school in the nearby town of Maldon (Maeldune) on the River Blackwater. “Maeldune” is the Saxon spelling of Maldon and means “a cross on the hill”. At school we learnt about the local area’s Saxon heritage supported by archaeological finds and the ‘Battle of Maldon‘ as recounted in the ‘Anglo Saxon Chronicles’ and the Anglo Saxon poem ‘The Battle of Maldon’. The battle took place in AD991 between the Saxons living around the River Blackwater and the Vikings who raided in their famous longboats.

River Deben Sutton Hoo
View down to the River Deben from the Sutton Hoo ship burial site. Yes, that’s correct the Anglo-Saxons dragged the king’s longboat from the river and up the hill before burying it in a mound.

Last week I went to the British Museums’s Exhibition about the Vikings. Known as a ‘blockbuster’ exhibition with all the accompanying publicity we knew it would be busy even with the ‘timed’ entry (vigorously policed by the staff) – and it was. The first two rooms were dark and overcrowded with tiny pieces mounted in minimal, sparse arrangements. I know one of the agendas pursued by the curators was to dampen down the ‘Vikings as raiders’ legacy and present a more rounded version of Viking culture, but once you’ve seen a couple of oversized brooches they really aren’t that exciting. And, there wasn’t a single example of jewellery to compare with the Anglo-Saxon pieces found at the early 7th-century ship burial at Sutton Hoo. (Incidentally available to see for free in a new gallery display in the main part of the BM.)

Sutton Hoo shoulder clasps
Polychrome jewellery hinged shoulder-clasp from Mound 1, Sutton Hoo.
Gold decorated with garnets, millefiore glass and gold wire filigree. 48 mm

Nevertheless, I quickly glanced my way through these rooms until I opened the door into the main new exhibition hall. And, there it was, the boat, Roskilde 6 (archaeologists’ site nomenclature). Firstly, none of the press photos do it justice. The ship’s size (37 metres long) is the longest longboat discovered so far and the metal re-construction is beautiful encouraging you to mentally extend the few original surviving wooden planks of the Roskilde 6.

Press photograph © Rebecca Reid, The London Evening Standard.
Press photograph © Rebecca Reid, The London Evening Standard.

But most stunning and evocative was the way you could stand at one end and see the whole boat stretching away across the North Sea as the wave filled view gradually changed from dark and menacing into a gentle evening sunset. I was quite transfixed by the arrangement and the clever use of video. It wasn’t like a fairground trick, but a gentle prompt to your historical imagination. All of a sudden I was considerably impressed by the Vikings’ skill and energy for exploration.

Sutton Hoo purse lid
Sutton Hoo – the purse lid. The gold frame is set with cloisonné garnets and millefiori glass and encloses a modern lid containing the original gold, garnet and millefiori plaques. Length 19.0 cm

Sorry – I did ask – but it was strictly no photography, but here’s the magnificent purse lid from the early 7th century, Anglo-Saxon ship burial at Sutton Hoo, Suffolk. (Smaller longboat than the Viking one, only 27 metres, but you can see it’s all part of the Northern European cultural continuum.)

Where’s the dragon?

St George and the dragon
Icon of St. George. Greece early 19th century
Oil on panel
33 X 23.5 cm
St George is celebrated as the patron saint of England, but being of a somewhat contrary nature, I find the Eastern Orthodox icons of St George more interesting than the sentimental, overwrought English versions.

The fight: St George kills the dragon
The fight: St George kills the dragon VI – 1864
Edward Burne-Jones
Oil on canvas 105 x 131 cm
The Art Gallery of New South Wales, Australia

Also, I always feel sorry for the messy end of the dragon. So, when I was harvesting images from a beautiful calendar featuring excellent prints of Russian icons, I didn’t choose St George. Instead I cut out ‘Saint Boris and Saint Gleb on horseback’ which shows two beautiful, stylized horses, a couple of saints and no dragons in sight.

Saints Boris and Gleb
Russian icon with Saints Boris and Gleb circa 1377
Original –
Egg tempera on lime wood 115 x 92 cm
Novgorod Museum, Russia.
My small copy from a calendar of Russian Icons.

Yarmouth – Could I have a time machine please?

royal hotelGreat Yarmouth on the east coast of Norfolk was once visited by Charles Dickens. Apparently he stayed for a couple of days at the Royal Hotel on Waterloo Road in 1849. If you’ve every read or seen film/TV versions of David Copperfield you will know that David goes to stay in Yarmouth. Here’s young David’s description of Yarmouth.

When we got into the street (which was strange enough to me), and smelt the fish, and pitch, and oakum, and tar, and saw the sailors walking about, and the carts jangling up and down over the stones, I felt I had done so busy a place an injustice; and said as much to Peggotty, who heard my expressions of delight with great complacency, and told me it was well known (I suppose to those who had the good fortune to be born Bloaters) that Yarmouth was, upon the whole, the finest place in the universe.’

Winter beach huts

The facade of the Royal Hotel is looking a bit tired these days, but facing the North Sea it probably needs repainting annually. Unlike the beautiful Victorian Winter Gardens which has been closed since 2008 and needs a lot more than paint. According to Darren Barker, senior conservation officer at Great Yarmouth Borough Council, the building requires extensive renovations as much of the glass is barely held in place by rotting wood. This elaborate glass palace was originally built for Torquay, but was bought and re-erected on the seafront at Yarmouth in 1903.

Winter Gardens

It looked very miserable and sad today. I wish I could have seen it in its heyday. These fish didn’t look to too cheery either!

Herring  Herring fishing was once the major industry of Gt. Yarmouth
A Barrel of Herring
Herring fishing was once the major industry of Gt. Yarmouth

UPDATE – sadly as of 2018 the Great Yarmouth Winter Gardens is now in the Victorian Society’s top 10 endangered Victorian and Edwardian buildings in the UK.

Rain, rain, rain

Oxford St London RainLast week I was in London. I was supposed to meet my sister in the evening, but as she lives in Devon she didn’t make it. It was a shame, but the railways had requested people only travel if their journey was essential. Some folks have been deep in snow, others are facing drought, but parts of the West Country in the UK has been flooded since before Christmas.

Hints of Blade Runner

After my meeting I took the opportunity to take some photos of London that looked more like Los Angeles, 2019, from the film ‘Blade Runner’.

Urban future

But then I found one shot that made me think of a very expensive painting ($87 million) by Rothko. It is the colours, yes, but also there is a hint of possible brush marks.

London rain photo
Photograph – Traffic lights in the rain.

Orange, Red, Yellow, 1961 by Mark Rothko
Orange, Red, Yellow, 1961 by Mark Rothko

Photo from Mark Rothko Org.