Friday, February 16, 2018

A Painting

Even before I start writing this piece I feel that it might be a long and very personal one. As it concerns the way I work at present, it could be of no interest to anyone but myself. So be warned should you wish to continue.
I favour working on a series theme. The present one is on “Events”. These may take minutes to complete – or months. All are done from happenings large or small (stories) that I set myself the task of turning thoughts of objects of interest and pleasure into a flat painting of two dimensions to hang on a wall (very old fashioned nowadays, I suppose).
For instance: one was done having witnessed a fight on the ground between a wood pigeon and a carrion crow. The pastel took minutes to do – quite a different matter to the present one that I describe here, which took four months, though interrupted by a bout of acute bronchitis that turned into whooping cough when a fight for life took precedence over artistic output.
My modus operandi is, after deciding on the event(s), or story, is to make drawings of the proposed ideas on scraps of used paper, then to progress to acid-free A4 paper for the application of line and then pastel colour. There may be several of these to retain or discard. Then, if thought to be satisfactory, I will progress to a work on a large, A1 edition (33” x 23 ¼”) (79.5 cm x 59 cm) on card. 
Small works are done usually at my desk in a little room (my studio) at the top of the house. This suits me as I have always favoured working in a small space. For the much larger A1s I kneel beside a bed where the card lies on brown paper pulled from a large roll of it at one end.
Also on the bed are several boxes of large pastels that contain roughly colours of the same kind.
I might at some time in the future abandon “Events” and strike out on another theme. Nature seems to dictate when these changes might happen. But for now it’s events.
At least I am my own master, with no-one asking or demanding what I might do, no galleries to provide for and no corporate artistic bodies to influence my work.
What my eyes have seen is the usual motivation for an event painting. After that everything comes from the brain – the imagination.
This imagination is mine alone, and although each process is very real to me, other people are sometimes mystified by the result. To my mind, that is the way of art. It may be self-indulgent, but it represents the special art world in which I live. What I produce is, I hope, grist to the imagination of others.
The just-finished painting, an A1 size Event, number 48, developed thus.
When our cleaner comes once a week to smarten up the house in her robust and rather forceful Polish way, we leave the house to her and have breakfast in our local, insalubrious café, called The Ritz (where our dustmen take their morning break). We have tried much of the breakfast fare on offer and have settled on a toasted brown bacon sandwich for Margreet and a plain white bacon sandwich for me. We drink builders’ tea.
After one such early breakfast, where we look out over busy, cosmopolitan  King Street, Hammersmith, we attended an evening birthday party, given by a retired banker cousin, at Brooks’s, the height of gentlemen’s clubs in St. James’s Street, off Piccadilly, London. The latter is a club where, in the 18th century men gambled away their fortunes, estates and even wives.
So this painting (actually pastel), entitled From the Ritz to Brooks’s, was about a day’s event, starting at society’s lowest order and finishing at its highest. Such a contrast not only made a splendid event but an extreme contrast of pleasures that we experienced in one day – an event.
But how to present this as a painting of composition and colour? That was the problem (as it is with all works of art that flow from the mind).
I decided to start with The Ritz, which has its name engraved on the street window, and is seen in reverse from the inside. Across the road, in contrast, is a Sainsbury’s sign, seen as normal. Then there were cars on the street, people on the move, and us in the foreground with our bacon sandwiches and builders’ tea in mugs.
Drawings (compositions) were made, with avenues of thought in the form of lines. Then, on acid-free A4 sheets of paper, further developments, simplifications and colour added.
After those, I felt like combining them with my thoughts on the extremes, working directly on to a large A1 sheet of card.
As I think about the painting in operation night and day, I may suddenly alter and evolve it. Mostly this takes place very early in the morning when the mind and air are fresh and all is still, but can take place at any time.
The Brooks’s part of the painting had to include a grand, red-carpeted staircase, a crowd of people meeting and talking, large portraits of past worthies, long, black limousines and a factotum on watch.
Then, when the piece was finished, it had to be fixed, as pastel chalk would smudge, fall from the board and get everywhere. This I do on dry flagstones in the garden with special spray. As it had rained for a few weeks I had to wait for the weather to change before sealing it.
Then, after the pastel was fixed, the piece had to be signed, dated and studio stamped with the reference code.
From this account the painting sounds like a very complicated one. But it is, in fact, rather simple and stark.
Is it a good, bad, or indifferent work? An artist never knows as we think that each one is good – otherwise we wouldn’t be artists doing what we do as part of our being.
So what is considered to be one’s success (or failure) as an artist? Does it depend on demand and high prices at auction or the number of solo exhibitions achieved? Is it the close connection with a well-known gallery or the number of private buyers interested in their work? Might it be satisfied owners, public purchases, or good reviews? Or could it be income from sales, notoriety, or demand from foreign buyers? Yet again it could be membership of an artistic corporation or consistency of style. It could be any or all of the above that go to form an individual’s or critic’s opinion of success or failure.
As for the artists, they carry on doing their best and, hopefully, enjoying what they do. They can do no more.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018


I once worked in the theatre painting scenery at The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, designing sets for repertory, touring shows, and even pantomime and ice shows.
At some time in this life of illusion I had to deliver a manuscript to Alec Guinness.
He then lived in a late Georgian square in Hammersmith. I was surprised and delighted to discover an area of London that seemed to be an ideal place in which to live. At that time I was in residence and rebuilding a bombed-out house in Fulham, right beside the Chelsea football ground. In time, noise, regular isolation on match days, and then the over-abundance of home games all became drawbacks to life there.
Time passed in many interesting ways until I needed to return to London from life in the Hampshire countryside. But where to look for a home? Why, near to that square in Hammersmith, of course.
A small house in the district suited me. Depending on the approval of my youngest son, I bought it – at a time when property prices were in a trough and, by present standards, low.
There was little to do structurally as the owners had done it up for sale – installing gold taps in the bathrooms, for instance.
But they had employed a lousy electrician. Although one could switch on the lights to climb the stairs, there was no way of turning them off having reached either the first or second floors.
Our street’s cars were possibly a couple of beat-up Fords. My soft-top VW not only looked rather out of place, but was vulnerable at that time to having its roof slashed by vandals.
I then knew most of the residents who lived in our street, many of whom were renting from a property landlord on a long term, sitting tenant basis.
What has prompted this blog is that Margreet and I have just returned from friends in a neighbouring road who were celebrating having lived there for fifty years.
We were almost newcomers among our fellow guests, having been residents nearby for only 29 years.
I wonder if there are many enclaves in London where residents are as happy as we and they are, and would not think of leaving voluntarily to live in another district.
But there have been naturally many changes over our years of occupancy.
Neighbouring houses have been bought to let. So their temporary occupants move on and have never had time to become part of our community. They are transient. Even those renters who we get to know move on and are lost, except possibly for a welcome Christmas card.
And there have always been at least one, two, or even three complete misfits around (I’m sure every street has them) who, for one reason or another, dislike the neighbours or the close community and continue to live among us, but apart.
One hopes that community bonds of friendship are not formed by class, breeding, nationality, birth, history, fortune, ancestry, accent, race, religion, origins, upbringing, occupation, schooling, or any other such mark of identity.
When I was a child in the country, it was thought that you became part of our village only after living there for at least 25 years.
So perhaps, even today, close communities are still formed mainly by the seemingly outdated idea of long residency.

Friday, January 05, 2018


With this first blog of the year, I would like to wish all my readers a very Happy and Healthy New Year.


The daughter of a couple that met at one of our tennis parties in the country when I was a child, died.
Her memorial service was to take place in Salisbury Cathedral, around which is a lovely Close, where she had lived.
We were asked to say if we were going to attend – in view of the catering arrangements.
The “catering arrangements” part sounded good. But beside our attendance to remember this very nice person, we wanted to visit the Cathedral for Margreet to see the Page-Roberts stained glass window there.
So down we go by rail, have lunch at an inn, and take seats in the body of that wondrous, Early English Gothic, medieval cathedral. Conducting the service were two clerics (not in full drag I’m glad to say).
The choir sang beautifully. The setting was magnificent.
In an address from a pulpit by a son of the deceased, he mentioned that on her death she wanted no fuss. And here we were at about the grandest memorial service one could imagine, in defiance of her wishes. So having been told that we might meet in the afterlife, those who arranged this grand farewell might well approach her in Heaven with caution.
After the service we repaired to a medieval hall to enjoy the catering – of tea and egg or tomato sandwiches. It was nice to meet some old friends.
We retreated, and returned to the cathedral to find the P-R window.
Walk the length on the right hand side until you must turn left, and the window faces you across the nave.
It has the merit of containing much clear glass, so admitting plenty of light. Its pictorial element is of biblical scenes executed in the Pre-Raphaelite manner.
At the bottom of the window it says: To the Glory of God and Remembrance of the Very Reverend Page-Roberts, Dean of the Cathedral from 1908 – 1919, and of his wife Margaret Grace.

That done, we returned to London, parched but not hungry, for a generous and very welcome memorial glass. 

Monday, December 11, 2017

Chance meetings

Meeting new people, however briefly, is one of the pleasures of life.
You may never see them again, but in a short time you are transported to another life, new thoughts, other modes of existence, ideas foreign to your own and so on. Sometimes a longer friendship is formed from a chance meeting or encounter, and they are often the strongest.
It is generally at parties that these meetings take place, but often by absolute chance, on the street, in a queue, at an accident, a waiting room, or just with a congenial-looking stranger.
One such meeting has happened recently.
At a smart auction house’s private view we paused at one of those typical Elizabeth Frink bronze heads, near to a man who was staring at it and smiling.
This person did not seem to be quite the normal posh purchaser of expensive art. So we talked.
He came from the West Country and, as a rugby football enthusiast, had found this sculpted head to be not unlike that of a fellow member in his club’s scrum. He, too, reminded me a bit of a front row scummager.
In asking him about his life he said that he was in London to sell a Churchill. This was information that hardly registered with us in the course of our conversation. 
Anyhow, we got on splendidly. I gave him my card in case he would like a 6 o’clock drink when next he visited the big city. We thought of it no more.
Then an email arrived from our rugby-following acquaintance to say that it was so nice to talk with us at the private view and that he would, one day, take us up on our offer. He had spent several hours reading my blogs and, as he was a countryman, especially enjoyed one when I had, in an open car, been showered with cow’s urine when passing a cattle truck on the road.
A short time afterwards I read a short piece in our newspaper saying that a Sir Winston Churchill painting, with an estimate of eighty thousand pounds had been sold at auction for over three hundred and fifty thousand pounds.
Could our newly-made friend have been the very seller of the last painting done by Sir Winston Churchill, which, before the great man’s death, been given to his personal bodyguard of many years?
We looked at the surname on his email. And, sure enough, he was in all probability the seller of the painting given to his father by Sir Winston.

Yes, meeting new people, however briefly, is one of the pleasures of life.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Mumbo Jumbo?

Other people’s ill health is of great interest to them, but in offering sympathy one is inwardly only too glad not to be suffering the same ailment. And too much detail proffered can become a bore.
So, I am about to bore you with my own case – but with a very good reason. I will be as brief as possible.
I get bronchitis every winter. In 2017 it came early, in late autumn, and was exceptionally bad, with a lot of coughing accompanied by noisy and involuntary gasps – not to mention a profusion of expectoration – horrible.
I awoke early one morning at about 3.30 o’clock unable to either breathe or speak. Margreet woke to find me unable to communicate and thought I had gone mad. I really thought it was my end. When it cleared, after quite a few seconds that felt like minutes, we rushed to A&E to discover the position and the chance of further blockage re-appearing. I was told to take an anti-biotic and sent home.
The same thing happened three more times over the next few days, the last after I had eaten some halva.
Nights were miserable and sleepless. I walked wrote, read, drew – all to keep as clear as possible from the expectoration that was non-stop when lying down.
Now, Margreet is a qualified reflexologist among other attributes. She had given me this foot massage in the past and afterwards it produced a lovely feeling of floating on air when I walked. She suggested that she give me treatment directed at lungs and throat.
I regret to say that however nice the treatment had been in the past, I had rather thought it to be a bit mumbo jumbo. But I welcomed a try.
After the first evening session I was able to sleep a bit. After the next I could sleep more. After the third I could sleep through the full night. And the expectoration was greatly reduced.
If I was sceptical before about the benefits of reflexology, I am no longer. That’s what I wanted to say. 

As for the related blockages – well, that, as I wrote initially, is someone else’s boring health problem.

Friday, November 03, 2017


In a magazine section of a current newspaper there is a piece about people and the cars they have owned. And although I have taken a rough interest in the mechanics of the cars that I have owned, it is the happenings connected with those cars that are of more interest.
After the war, in the late 1940s, my brother, an engineer, was working in a town where a mechanic was assembling cars from more or less whatever automotive parts that came to hand. I asked if he could make a sort of sports car for me. Which he did, and I bought it.
This car was constructed mainly from Austin 7 parts – triangular chassis, engine, steering and brakes. It could seat two, had a rudimentary canvas roof, and an outside exhaust that ducted the gasses close to the ear of my passenger. Girls would climb in at the peril of being burnt. The car represented freedom, fun, sometimes envy, and often incredulity. I added a sign on the radiator “Austin of England” and replaced the radiator-filling cap with an antique temperature gauge, visible from the driver’s seat. It went like a bomb (or rather felt like it) but was the very devil to stop – so a bit dangerous. Brakes were not too good in those days, and in an Austin 7 particularly so.
I had been invited to stay in Norfolk, and was passing an open truck where cows had been packed athwartships, when one of them decided to relieve herself. I was soaked in herbivore urine. It was not an ideal way for a guest to arrive for the weekend.
Still owning the same car, I had entertained fellow ushers at a London wedding, and was leading them on the road to the evening’s festivities, when a lamp post jumped out in front of me. I left the car where it stood and now cannot remember how it was returned to me. The car was never the same again, becoming unstable at speed.
I then belonged to the 750 Formula Motor Club and, at a meeting of enthusiasts, asked Colin Chapman, of Lotus, if he could diagnose the trouble. But he was unable to do so.
I sold the car to someone in the City, being rather fearful that there would be recriminations. The buyer contacted me on a small matter, so I asked him how he was getting along with the car and how fast he had taken it. “I don’t go over 30 miles an hour”, he replied.  
My next car was a very early MG, given to me by a cousin. It was a real sports car, but unreliable. I was rather proud of myself in substituting a tin disk instead of an open universal joint, to stop oil from leaking from an overhead camshaft into its magneto. This was an effective cure, but made rather an oily mess inside the bonnet. I got tired of having to stop and tinker with it with girls aboard, and gave it away in the spirit with which I had received it. The car went to a Norfolk family and disappeared.
I was working on painting scenery for theatrical touring shows, The Royal Opera House, television (in black and white then), children’s theatre and repertory, which gave me a chance in between jobs to create an all-purpose vehicle to take on a grand tour of Europe.
The basis for this rather unique vehicle was a well-used Ford 8, builder’s flat-back van. On it I attached a moulded covering of ply and, on the roof above the most comfortably designed of two seats, I attached ships’ ventilation air scoops made of copper. They faced forward to duct in air (if uncorked) and backward when it rained.
The car, unused to the post-war rough roads of Europe, needed fairly regular mechanical help from local peasantry – countrymen who exhibited a wonderful range of basic skills. Which was a fine way of meeting people.
After France and Spain, I was driving across northern Italy on a hot day, when a bee was scooped up by an overhead air duct and ended up in my shorts. A quick look in the rear-view mirror revealed several distressed cyclists.
The car was fitted out with sleeping and cooking facilities, food, wine and all the rest. But, after a while, starting the engine was a problem. This meant that nights had to be endured at an angle on steep slopes – to get the car moving in order to start the engine in the morning.
An emergency pot of money, left with a friend in Paris, went with her on holiday. So I had to sell things to be able to re-cross the Channel on my way home.
I had been painting scenery for a pantomime in York and was in a rush to get back to London. Now it so happened that I painted in an all-covering garment that I had cut from theatre canvas and stuck together with rubber adhesive. It was my paint-spattered, scenery-painting costume, and had the air of religion about it. Also, when painting scenery I used colour from old china chamber pots, as they were designed not to spill. Dressed in this painting kit and with pots of liquid paint aboard, I set off for home directly after work on a cold and snowy day. A moronic lorry driver decided to turn his truck around on a main road and right in front of me. Jamming on the brakes on an icy surface hardly slowed me down. So there was a bang, and paint shot everywhere from those pots, including over me. I imagine that the sight surprised the helpful witnesses.
The car took the fancy of a Scottish laird, who bought it for his estate.
A Citroën 2CV came next as it coped beautifully with the rough and overgrown lane leading to my studio house in the Berkshire Downs (and it whistled to the south of France and back, loving its own native country).
Then later, as I was working toward an exhibition of large sculptures in elm wood, a Citroën Ami 8 was able to do the same as the 2CV but with much more room for works of art. So I swapped it for its sister car, a station wagon type that had all the imaginative, idiosyncratic and innovative ideas of its predecessor, but without the centrifugal clutch. This did me well until a lorry driver, entering my main road from a side road, failed to see me behind his rear-view mirror. He was most apologetic and took full responsibility for the accident. But it left me with a broken wrist, which was the jumping-off point for a change of career. I then wrote articles and books for the next 25 years.
My last car was a splendid VW cabriolet that somehow retained the pleasant scent of its previous owner. The car’s only fault was its dislike of dealing with deep puddles – when the engine became flooded and cut out. It impressed a Russian eye specialist with its speed on our smooth roads. And when viewing the thatched houses of the rich from its open top, thought that the owners of these abodes must be peasants who could only afford to cover their houses with straw.
In London, some 30 years ago, in a street of perhaps a battered Ford or two, the VW’s soft-top was susceptible to vandalism. So, with excellent public transport nearby, and with Margreet’s Embassy number-plates on her own car, I gave the VW to my elder son. Of its demise I heard nothing.
Since Margreet’s retirement we also did away with the RAV4 after many years of smooth driving. 

Cars have their stories. 

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Residual sugar in wine

On the advice of a merchant I bought (for me) a fairly expensive red wine, made in Australia’s Barossa Valley.
Looking at the back label, with its customary descriptive blurb of “berry fruits”, “plum”, “blackberries”, “chocolate”, “vanilla” and all the rest that someone thought up, I saw that the alcohol content was a stonking 14.5%.
In my view that is too high, with the alcohol overpowering those “berry fruits”. It was dry on the palate.
I took its residual sugar content. This was 8%, which should have made it a normally balanced wine. It was the tannin content that made it taste like a dry red wine.
Unaware of the tannin content, I had bought a wine that was happier to be more of a laying-down wine than one for present-day drinking. They might have mentioned this with the “berry” fruits business. Its tannins would have softened in time and brought the wine into balance, making it a fine wine.
It must have been very hot in the Barossa Valley that vintage year, with the grapes producing a lot of sugar. Even if the winemakers had stopped the fermentation earlier to reduce alcohol content, the resultant wine would have been too sweet on the palate. So 14.5% it was.
In Europe, we seldom get the very hot weather that produces too much sugar in the grapes. Here it is often the opposite, demanding added sugar to produce enough alcohol for pleasurable drinking and preservation.
I usually add sugar to my own vintages in London, aiming for around 22% before vinification (Port is about 20%), and fermenting the wine out to contain about 6% residual sugar.
I could stop fermentation of the sweetened must for the wine to contain more sweetness and less alcohol by adding sulphur, or even fine filtering (to get rid of the yeast) if I had the equipment. But I rather like to leave the whole process to nature.
As for the adding of sugar at fermentation time, French authorities, when I wrote professionally on wine anyway, designated that those winemakers below a certain latitude, were not allowed to add it. At that time, a pied noir, kicked out of Algeria, bought a vineyard in Bas Médoc, well south of the designated latitude, and  wondered why his wines were not as good as those made by his neighbours. That was, until he was woken at night by sugar tankers passing by to help improve those neighbour’s wines. He then started to make good wine.
Wine is often blended at source. I do as well, as my own red gets down to around 6% sugar. That is a bit too dry for it, so I have no compunction about mixing it in a decanter with a sweeter red – to the benefit of both.
Commercial winemaking is just another business where the weather is a major element and fortunes can be made or lost. So a certain amount of manipulation by the professional and the amateur when making wine is commonplace.
Dry whites and rosé wines usually have around 7% residual sugar content, reds anything between 6% to 9% - the successful results depending on body, tannin, sweetness and acidity. As for the wine’s acidity, this can also be added to wine, especially in hot climates, in order to produce a successful product.

Out of all this, it seems extraordinary to me that, combined with other factors, the differences between dryness and sweetness in table wines should depend upon such small differences (about 6%) in the wines’ residual sugar content.V