Sunday, June 24, 2018

What's in a Name

I was born a Page-Roberts, for better or worse, and given the forenames of James Frederick Clare. For calling me the James part is anyone’s guess, Frederick because my father was one, and a knighted grandfather the other. Clare was because my grandmother may or may not have been born one, or perhaps lived in County Clare. We don’t know much about her past as she kept it secret.
Having started out with a hyphen to my name I kept it for my ordinary self and for my art and writing. After the 1950s I dropped the hyphen for my artwork signatures as it looked a little poncey, or might have made me out to be a dilettante, even though I was a fairly well-known artist at the time. All well and good.
After those early days I signed my work PR, or in capitals without the hyphen.
In the early part of the 1800s, my great grandfather, a Master Confectioner called William Roberts, married a Prudence Page who, because of her contributing wealth, had all her children christened with Page as their last given name.
Then, when one son, a Reverend, became The Very Reverend Dean of Salisbury and married a baroness around the very early 1900s, he paid to have a hyphen added between the Page and the Roberts, and a coat of arms created. That was a start to the hyphen business.
His brother (my grandfather) was also a Reverend. He was the chairman of The National Rose Society and had a famous rose named after him. He was clearly reluctant to add the hyphen to his name at the same time as his brother, because in my research into his printed writings he does not use the hyphen until later. (For the horticulturally inclined, there was also a Dorothy Page-Roberts rose – a simple, wild-looking one, now lost, and last seen in the mid west of the USA at a sort of garden centre in 1943 and correctly named, with hyphen.)
When it comes to how we name ourselves, my ex-wife later married a Mr Jones but kept to her previous married name of Page-Roberts.
The family name gets increased with marriages and retained through partnerships and liaisons by those who are happy with it.
But there are losses, too. My youngest son, a musician and postman by calling, discarded the family name in favour of Pete Page, as he considered his longer name to be a drawback in his work. And I notice that the other son, a prop master in Hollywood, has discarded the hyphen. Perhaps the younger one was also influenced by all the new double barrelled names appearing in the poorer areas of his postal distribution. Sportspeople, too, now seem to favour the two barrels.
Margreet, my wife, is Dutch, coming from a country where it is customary to conjoin your given and married names. So really she should have a triple barrelled name, which is clearly far too cumbersome. (When women divorce in Holland, their married name is usually abandoned.)
A double name has its difficulties, especially when such as records and prescriptions and the like are concerned.
Other than a change of name at the time of marriage, some change their name to that of their partner for convenience or the happiness of their children. But if changing one’s name for other reasons, do you go for a long, cumbersome and grander one, or a simple and speedily-written shorter one. Most just keep to the ones they were born with and get on with it.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Garden Update - early 2018

Some write about art, on writing, of children, work, philosophy … and on it goes. I want to write, in simple terms, about my garden – difficult to visualise if not actually there, but I try.
Like many, those of us who have grown up close to nature and have learned to love almost everything that grows in a garden under our care, we like to share our experiences with others.
I’ll try to be brief, but even in my 5 ½ by 15 paces, walled London garden, I could talk or write about it for hours. That is the way when one knows almost every flower or weed that grows or should not grow in it – all mainly in pots, the configuration of which is changed quite often.
I’ll go around the garden from left to right, starting from a hidden compost bin and our glazed, octagonal “shed” at the end of the mainly flagstoned, walled plot, and below a theatrically perspective arbour of grapevines that span an area from wall to wall.
So, on the north-facing wall, first comes a sad looking mahonia in a pot. It may be ending its life. I hope not, as our Mrs Blackbird dearly loves its autumnal fruit, despite having to be somewhat of an acrobat to reach them and suffering from its prickly leaves.
Then comes a more than life-size sculpture of a pair of lovers. Originally of elm wood, and still as such, but hollowed out by rot and mice over the years and is now held together by its thin, wooden skin, coated in a black mastic waterproofing substance used generally for waterproofing roofs. Between the lovers’ legs at ground level is a plastic box with holes at either end for mice to eat the poisoned bait inside. My seeds and seedlings are now safe from their predations.
Then comes a hibiscus in a green pot, next to where a paving stone has been lifted in the past to accommodate firstly a morello cherry tree and then a damson – neither of which has been a success – nor has the attempt to grow snowdrops in its earth. On the soil, and around the existing damson trunk, is a section of the cast iron, Victorian water main, recovered when the original was replaced in our street by a larger one of yellow plastic.
Then there is a fern that softens the lines of a pear tree’s blue pot, some chervil, and then an apple in a pot, with its trunk sprouting three branches of mistletoe of my planting. Another fern grows in a pot, and lying beyond it, alongside the garden wall, stands an earthenware trough, holding early spring mini-daffodils.
Lastly, on that north-facing wall is a large thermometer, canted away from the wall. This is large enough to be seen easily from inside the house and is constantly referred to, summer and winter.
Beside a back door leading from a utility passage is a rainwater butt. I use this water when giving my plants their weekly tonic. Touching it is an old bay tree that has lived in its almost bonzai pot for possibly 40 years. The roots get a thorough drip-water soaking once in a while, and the weekly tonic.
On the house wall that faces east is a home-made bird box that is used successfully each year by a pair of great tits. Their constant comings and goings become our garden mobile, and when the young have fledged the place seems quite still.
Where the south-facing wall meets the house there is a small bricked-in bed where potting soil lies fallow, then to have peat added, sieved, and used again. In the corner of it is that wonderful rose called Typhoon. Difficult to find, I cannot think of a better one – disease-free, vigorous, early orangey buds, perfect open flowers and a blowsy finish in early winter. And it smells nice, too. Two examples supply us from early spring to late autumn with a constant stream of long-stemmed flowers for the house.
At the back of that bed are Triomphe d’Alsace vine cuttings for anyone who might want one in the winter.
This “fallow” bed narrows to about a foot wide beneath the wall and holds either runner or broad beans on alternate years, the other ground for this rotation is three large plastic bags of soil.
Above where the beans grow is a framework of bamboo that looks a bit like the inside of a grand piano. The beans are either tied to or clamber over this construction. And birds love to perch on it.
From the wall, and sticking out over the flagstone garden is a peninsular of pots, arranged at various heights and in changeable configurations. The pots rest on old bricks or pottery occulonae (like Roman hypocaust bricks). In the middle of it is a large, raised, strawberry pot, but instead of strawberries, geraniums grow out of the holes, I have had to block the unused holes at the rear to prevent water from escaping with soil. Resting on top of this pot is a large, and very rustic earthenware bird bath. 
The peninsular pots consist of those for rosemary, agapanthus, hosta, flox, lemon, pieris (what a wonderful garden plant that is), geranium, pelargonium, chive, parsley, coriander, thyme, petunia, impatiens, New Guinea, asparagus, Christmas rose, mint, ivy, buddleia, daisy, fuchsia, lily, fig, lavender, Bolivian begonia, pots of daffodils and a dahlia.  
After the peninsular is a hardwood garden bench, behind which grow the vines for the vine arbour and, in front, a marble-topped table.
Finally, almost back to the shed, come buckets of potatoes, rose cuttings in a pot, Peruvian lily, primrose, masses of self-sown morning glory, another bay tree in a pot and a camellia.
Hanging from the vine arbour are various dispensers of food for wild birds.
There is a narrow allyway at the end of the garden behind our shed where once night soil was taken away and coal delivered, It now holds garden stuff.
We spend a lot of time in the shed, eating, drinking and looking at the garden as it changes throughout the seasons.
Paradise? I think so, and so does Margreet.

Friday, April 27, 2018


We were having breakfast at the Ritz. We usually do when our daily comes to clean the house once a week.
I should add that it was not at The Ritz, but our local greasy-spoon café, The Ritz.
We finished our breakfasts of brown, toasted bacon sandwich for Margreet and two poached eggs on fried bread for me. When our mugs of workman’s tea were empty we parted company on the pavement outside for Margreet to tend to her sister in Chiswick and for me to return home to continue the tedious work of dealing with my income tax. Actually, the task seemed less taxing this year as I had been selling rather well to private collectors i.e. no gallery or auction house commission to pay.
At home, I had barely started on my calculations when the cleaner rushed in to where I was working, shouting “emergency, emergency, emergency”. I followed her down to the floor below to see a cascade of water flowing from a join in the plasterboard ceiling above and out from overhead electric light fittings.
Connecting in my mind that house floods usually come from storm water penetrating the roof, I rushed to the garden to collect half a dozen black plastic buckets that are normally for garden and grape harvest use. En route, I discovered that water had passed through the floor and ceiling above the ground floor as well and flooded the kitchen.
With buckets in place I did what I should have done in the first place, namely, isolate upper house water from the main water supply. This I did. Even then, the water that was still held between the space above plasterboard ceilings and floors continued to fall.
The next move was to locate our plumber to mend the broken pipe. I had made a guess as to its position and the fact that it was not connected to the central heating, which was still under pressure. Also, being warm, it must be connected to a hot water supply. But we had no reply from our plumber.
In the house there was now no heat, hot or cold water above ground floor level, and with only bucket water to flush lavatories. We mopped up the kitchen floor.
Before 6 o’clock the following morning I contacted the insurance company’s emergency number (John Lewis), which, in retrospect, I should have done immediately after turning off the water. Almost right away they sent their in-house plumber to solve the problem.
To locate the break, this excellent Portuguese plumber asked me to turn on the water once more (to cause another mini flood) so that he could put his ear to the floor to locate the noise of water flowing from the break. It did not take long but it was an unpleasant experience to see water once more flowing from plasterboard ceiling joints. Having located almost the exact area, it was then a case of lifting the carpet, cutting out a section of floorboard and finding that a right-angled, brass, compression joint fitting had come apart from a hot water pipe.
With the pipe mended, we could return to partial normality, but in a very wet house. As I write we await assessors to estimate the damage as wet carpets start to give out a mouldy smell.
What immense good fortune it was that someone was “at home” when the flow began, as without an immediate response, with doors and windows sealed against winter draughts, the house might well have just filled up with water.
And although pictures almost completely cover our walls, not one was damaged. And the electric lights, despite being soaked, continue to function normally.
Before leaving homes on a visit or holiday, people might think of turning off the mains water supply. Yet all of the above flooding happened when Margreet and I had just been out for a quick breakfast. It was sheer luck that someone was able to deal with it.
A pipe breaking like that must be a rare happening. But it did.

Thursday, April 05, 2018

One's own books

To clarify the reason for writing this piece I have to start by repeating some already related items of my past. 
In the late 1970s I felt that I was becoming more of a sculptor of large wooden blocks than a painter, when a car accident and a broken wrist forced a change of direction for my creative processes.
  As I had, for years, been importing wine in cask, and bottling it for my own domestic use, and at the same time writing down what I had learned about vines and vinification, and had started two small vineyards of my own, it seemed natural that I might fill the void of journalism at that time concerning supermarket wines. They were then retailing at around £2 a bottle, and no one, to my knowledge, was informing the public about which ones were good to drink and good value to buy.
Starting first with a column in a free newspaper, then a weekly one in a proper, paid-for newspaper, then writing a small book on starting a vineyard in England, then other wine guide books and columns, membership of The Circle of Wine Writers… and on it went. I was enjoying the life of authorship. And it was going well.
The transition process from painting to sculpting and then on to writing had been minimal. They were, after all, much to do with ideas.
I wrote many books and articles over the next 25 years. They were mainly on wine, vines and docks, but other subjects as well.
For the last five books I established my own publishing company as “real” publishers found my target buyers in London’s dockland to be too localised to justify publication. But those five books, with 2,000 initial print runs, each made a profit within three months – somewhat of a record I imagine.
Having said what I wanted to say about wine and the London docks, it was time to return to painting once more.
Preamble over, what I want to say now is the surprising pleasure that I/we have found in getting rid of all the mainly dockland books that were not sold and, being out of print were piled up against a wall in our kitchen.
There have been days when authors gave away their books to the public to encourage reading. This made a wonderful outlet for many of the unsold paperbacks. Some recipients were suspicious, thinking that it was some sort of con or other. But mainly most books were received with pleasure both on our own and their behalf.
Our local Underground station now has a few shelves where books are placed to be read and returned. We have been supplying these shelves with my dockland paperbacks (three different ones at a time), and by the end of each delivery day, all have gone – none to be returned as far as we can see.
Then, whenever we visit such as hospital or dentist, the receptionist, doctor or assistant may be given a copy. Or perhaps a helpful girl on a supermarket check-out counter might be the recipient. They are well received.
Last evening, on returning from St Pancras Station, a far-eastern-looking young man got up in a crowded compartment to give me his seat. He was just finishing a very serious, religious-looking tome, and obviously relishing every gospel word. As a gesture of thanks, I managed to give him a copy of one of my own books. It had the very inappropriate title of “Cooking in Docklands” as he probably ate mostly curries, whereas my book dealt with the suet pudding kind of fare made by the wives of inter-war dockers. The three of us, he, Margreet and I, discussed religion as we progressed. He then gave us the book he had been reading (late 16th century, heaven above and the devil below stuff), which must have been a treasure to him as the more important parts had been marked with a yellow dye pen. We parted as friends at our joint destination.
It is little incidents like this that have given us quite unexpected pleasures – gained from a pile of unwanted books that are still in pristine condition, but rather in the way.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Secret and Confidential

When throwing away old bank statements have you ever wondered if someone with a criminal mind might find them and use them for untoward activities?
My sister did, giving me a handful once in a while to shred in our domestic-size electric shredder.
This machine would accept three sheets at a time to produce a fluffy mix of finely shredded paper that we would share to add to our respective compost bins.
Not long after I married Margreet, who was working for a foreign embassy, she asked if I would like to shred some secret and confidential documents for, I think, a small remuneration. This I did willingly.
I was an ideal person to do the job of shredding secret government missives as I was quite ignorant of the language in which they were written.
I was able to feed their shredder with more documents at a time than the smaller one at home. Even then it was a slow, painstaking and dull job.
As I progressed, I suddenly saw a document in English. 
I am afraid that curiosity overtook my natural inclinations of confidentiality and probity to take a quick glance at its contents,
Surprisingly, the date on this secret document was somewhere in the 1930s.
My quick and surreptitious look might, I thought, reveal information on which the fate of nations had depended.
Its headline was “The Price of Irish Potatoes”.

Monday, March 05, 2018

The Weather

I have always been keen on the weather – sometimes out of curiosity, sometimes of necessity.
I suppose that I started this interest (which goes with that of aviation) when I was a boy. My father, being a farmer, kept a close eye on the weather for such as rain quantity, sowing, harvesting, planting and the rest.
Our family was keen on aviation, which was then in its infancy, though I believe my father only saw one aeroplane in the sky during WW1 when fighting the Turks in Mesopotamia.
He took us children to fly with Allen Cobham’s Flying Circus, which would take place in a local farmer’s field. On offer were flips in an Avro Tutor for 2/6 and with a loop-the-loop thrown in for 5/-. We also went to the Solent to see Supermarine seaplanes break airspeed records. My flying bible and most treasured book then was The Pictorial Flying Course, written by F/O W.E. Johns, the author of Biggles books. Copiously illustrated with line drawings, it told you almost everything you wanted to know about flying a biplane. As for the weather, avoid clouds. And should you see either snow or fog forming, get home as quickly as you can.
In good weather The King’s Cup Air Race’s flight path went almost over our house at Silchester, near Reading. Its mixture of private, fast and slow aircraft flew so low that one could usually see the pilots in their cockpits.
Kingsford Smith, that famous Australian aviator, was due to fly in to our large chicken field for a visit. So we laid out a landing T with sheets held down with stones, but, being unreliable, he never turned up, even though the weather was fine – a great disappointment.
All grass fields for aeroplanes in those days, had a landing T that ground crew pointed toward the direction from which the wind was blowing (windsocks, too, were also used). I imagine that it is the same now although I have not flown an aeroplane for many a day. Aircraft, even today, always take off or land into wind. This gives them maximum lift for their speed through the air.
In WW2 we used landing Ts and windsocks to determine wind direction when flying from grass fields in England and America. Having joined the RAF in 1942, after signing on, I had to wait for a vacancy for pilot training and took a job as a prop-swinger starting up Tiger Moth engines on an RAF training airfield by swinging their propellers.
We had no meteorological service then, so an instructor would fly upwind to see if the approaching weather was suitable for novice pilots (which meant no clouds). I often went along in the spare cockpit, and it was there that I learned the basic rudiments of flying an aeroplane. 
With those, and more sophisticated machines later, one’s life might well depend on understanding weather patterns and dangerous cloud formations.
That interest in meteorology has continued throughout my life.
Lying in bed early each morning I listen to noises outdoors. Chimes from the church clock may tell me of wind direction, its intensity and thickness of the air. In very cold or hot weather the resonant brittleness of the sound from footsteps on the pavement below gives me a good indication of what the day’s weather will be. Snow produces silence. The sounds of weather are very important.
On rising at around 6 o’clock in winter and much earlier in summer, I look out of my studio window over a London landscape of streets, pavements, roofs and trees. I see the direction in which aircraft are landing or taking off from Heathrow airport. This will only indicate if the prevailing wind is roughly from the east or west as the runways there run almost directly east-west. If it is a cross-wind, then the aircraft have to crab in to counteract drift. I look at the bending of twigs or leaves on trees to judge wind speed. Birds land into wind. I can see rime frost on house and car roofs. When aircraft are landing toward the west, if they are below cloud and visible when passing the line of our street, their altitude is 1,800’. Or if in cloud they may appear in sight just before landing at London airport. Then the cloud base is about 800’. If I never see them at all on their approach, then the cloud base is lower still. Gulls leave their feeding grounds on rubbish tips and head for the sea. But if the weather is stormy they fly inland.
As for weather forecasts, experience tells me that weather can change very quickly, fooling the pundits – however sophisticated their equipment. So I dismiss forecasts beyond a day or so, preferring to predict it myself. I rely on wind direction, cloud formation and type (high cirrus clouds, for instance, usually precede a warm front, culminating in low, rain-filled nimbostratus cloud). And with my back to the wind I know that the low pressure area is on my left hand side.
With so much interest to be had from the sky and what inhabits it, I think how lucky I am to live in England where our climate is so splendidly variable and unpredictable.

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.