Celia Hart's blog about what's going on in and around her studio.
Art, printmaking, inspirations, gardening, vegetables, hens, landscapes, wild flowers, East Anglia, adventure, travel.

Friday, 30 June 2017

Meadow appreciation

Did you know that July 1st is National Meadows Day? so this blog post is aptly timed.

For the past 2 years I have designed Christmas cards for the wildflower charity Plantlife, and as a thank you I was offered a tour of one of their nature reserves. The nearest (70 miles away) is Seaton Meadows, and today I went there to meet Plantlife's Nature Reserves Manager Joe Costley.

Seaton Meadows nature reserve is in the small county of Rutland in the East Midlands, the 28 acres of meadows are in the Welland Valley and lie under the longest brick built viaduct in Britain. Architectural and plant heritage in one place. The reserve is dedicated to the memory of Geoff Hamilton who presented Gardeners' World on BBC TV and was on Plantlife's Advisory Council.

Joe explained that just over half the meadow land is flood-meadow and this is where those plants special to the now rare water-meadow habitat can be found ... such as Greater Burnet, Pepper Saxifrage and Meadow Rue.

As we walked round the meadows Joe pointed out that the moisture levels, the areas that have silt deposits from flooding, the hummocks and the dips, each support a slightly different mix of plants. So the meadow isn't a uniform colour and texture, it is a blending of areas different grasses and herbs.

Looking across the meadow at low level you can see the different heights of the plants, the dots of purple Common Knapweed and yellow Meadow Vetchling among the green grass; pale grass seed heads sway above; and even taller, the branching stems of the Greater Burnet with their burgundy bobble-like flower-heads.

As we walked through the dense thatch of grasses and herbs, we could hear the now dry seed-pods of Yellow Rattle. This is the plant that is included in 'meadow' seed mixtures because it is a partial parasite ... its roots attach to the grasses roots and weaken them, so other meadow herbs can flourish.

After my guided tour I decided to stay a while, I'd brought with me a packed lunch, a folding chair and my sketchbook and paints. I selected a pitch on one of the hummocks in the water meadow and settled down to look, listen and sketch.
I began to hear birds singing, a Skylark rose up out of the grasses nearby and started its song directly above me, so loud! then gradually fading as it climbed into the sky.

Sitting on my low seat I could see the movement of dozens of butterflies ... Meadow Browns, Ringlets and Small Tortoiseshells. I spotted a Burnet Moth, its red and iridescent indigo wings were like jewels. The sound of bees buzzing was all around me. Mainly Red-tailed Bumblebees and some Carder Bees.

Drawing the scene meant looking even closer at the colours and textures; the swaying mix of plant shapes; and at the vast man-made viaduct striding across the valley.

So, find a meadow ... it needn't be a special nature reserve or large. Just a wild patch of grasses and flowers. Sit still and let the meadow tell you its story.


Saturday, 13 May 2017

Dancing on the ceiling

Yesterday we had a change of scene ... a day out to Greenwich just south of the Thames in East London. To my surprise driving to there was a shorter distance than going to our closest sea-sides in Suffolk or Essex and was a much quicker journey.

We headed for a car park just south of in Greenwich Park near the Observatory and arrived at about mid-day, it was cloudy and drizzly but the views over the Maritime Greenwich Word Heritage Site were still splendid.

Turning to our left ... looking West to the City of London ... we could see the Shard, the dome of St Paul's Cathedral, the cluster of high-rise around The City, the River Thames's curving meanders and the history clipper sailing ship Cutty Sark. (click on the photos to enlarge them)

And over to our right ... looking East ... the chimneys of Greenwich Power Station which generates electricity for London, including the London Underground system; and to its right is the space-ship shape of The O2 arena, originally called the Millennium Dome.

We'd booked a tour ... I'll come to that shortly ... but we had time for a quick lunch in a restaurant overlooking the Thames Clipper boat jetty and then we went for brisk stroll under the river ... through the Greenwich Foot Tunnel.

Out the other side on the North bank of the Thames we had a great view of the Royal Hospital buildings and the Queen's House which make up the iconic Greenwich architectural scene.

Swiftly back through the tunnel and the reason for our trip ... we had booked places on The Painted Hall Ceiling Tour in the great Painted Hall of the Old Royal Naval College.

The hall was designed by Sir Christopher Wren to be used as the refectory of the 'hospital' ... a home for retired and needy naval pensioners. It was basically their canteen, where they ate breakfast, lunch and dinner. Wren envisaged an elegant, unadorned space. But by the time the building was completed Nicholas Hawksmoor had taken over from Wren and fashions in architecture had moved on to ornate Baroque, as was fashionable in Europe, with complex allegorical scenes painted on every surface.

The masters of such work were Italian, French or Spanish but politics dictated the artist must not be a Roman Catholic or foreign. So a young British artist, James Thornhill, won the commission to design and carry out the work. He was paid £1 per square yard to paint the walls and £3 per square yard for the ceiling. Out of that fee he had to pay for his materials and pay his assistants.

The 300 year old paintings are now undergoing a major restoration ... at a cost of over £10 million. 

The end wall of the Upper Hall and its ceiling have already been cleaned and stabilised, so we could see how bright the vast ceiling of the Lower Hall would be when it is eventually transformed.

So the work can be carried out, the whole of the Lower Hall has been filled with scaffolding supporting a temporary floor just below the ceiling.

And that's what we had to ascend! Now, I'm not that comfortable about open mesh staircases ... so this was going to be a challenge for me. 

But I managed the 70 steps to the top and onto the solid floor. Up close to the painted ceiling you realise what a massive project James Thornhill had taken on. To create the design of two arches and an oval balcony full of hundreds figures depicting King William and Queen Mary presiding over the 'Triumph of Peace and Liberty over Tyranny', he had to make hundreds of sketches and plans, then somehow (and exactly how isn't known) transfer this design onto the 15 x 30 metre ceiling, while working on wooden scaffolding.

When viewed from the ground the composition creates an illusion of a dramatic architectural space. Up close you can see the vitality of the painting and the immense scale of the figures.

At the centre of the composition are Queen Mary and King William. Their faces and those of the other figures were painted by a portrait artist who was one of Thornhill's team. You can see the grey patches on the oil paint, apparently this is deterioration of later layers of varnish and this is what the restorers will remove  to reveal the original colours.

Another artist was employed to paint the renditions of fruit, foliage and flowers, these are particularly beautiful.

Seamlessly blending with the trompe l'oeil architecture, is a huge carved royal coat of arms ... it's not clear which parts are carved wood and which are modelled from plaster (?), however the gliding is the original 300 year old gold and even through the dust it's still very shiny.

It's an exhilarating experience ... do go along if you can. I'd like to return next year to see the partly cleaned and restored ceiling before the scaffolding comes down. I'd never heard of James Thornhill, his career was meteoric ... 25 years as a celebrated decorative artist who went on to paint the interior of the dome of St Paul's Cathedral and the interiors of many stately homes including Chatsworth, and was the first British artist to be knighted. He became an MP and a member of the Royal Society. He was 58 when he died at his country house in Devon. His last major painted interior was the chapel at Wimpole Hall ... I've visited but not taken close look, so I plan to go along there soon. His work may not be seen as the greatest 'art' and allegorical Baroque history paintings are a forgotten genre, but I can appreciate the hard work and skill. In fact it seems closer to illustration than fine art, and the architectural illusions that Thornhill painted can be compared to those created by CGI artists for film and video games today, so maybe he will now step out from obscurity.

By the time we had walked back up the steep hill through Greenwich Park, the weather had changed and the sun was out. We turned around to see this grand view! Do you think James Thornhill would have admired this panorama of architecture under those billowing clouds ... I think so.


Wednesday, 26 April 2017

April flowers ... but no showers

I've been spending as much time as I can in the garden, determined to have a productive vegetable plot and colourful flower border this year. And when Cliff and I both have time off we go out for walks, visiting some of our favourite local places. Here are three

This is Ickworth, the estate surrounding the National Trust property. We visited at Easter when the car park, overflow car park and over-flow over-flow car park were heaving . . . families visiting to hunt for Easter Eggs. But beyond the formal gardens we had the views to ourselves.
The magnificent oak trees are just coming into leaf. 

Ash before Oak
we're in for a soak
Oak before Ash
we're in for splash

At the end of March it seemed as if the Ash tree buds were about to break before the Oak. Now the Ash trees are still in bud, so if the old rhyme is true we're heading for a drought.
There were others along our route . . . little lambs skipping in the sunshine.

Another weather related rhyme . . .

Ne'er cast a clout
'til May be out

but is that the month of May or the May (or Hawthorn) blossom?
or this year it might be the PM? I think I'll hedge my bets and keep a warm sweater handy all year.

It was while walking in Lower Wood, just over the border in Cambridgeshire, that I noticed a Hawthorn in flower . . . but looking closer the flowers were large with red stems and the leaves had shallow rounded lobes. 
This is the Midland Hawthorn, Crataegus laevigata, you'll find it in ancient woodland. In medieval times this was the most abundant Hawthorn of the English countryside.
The Common Hawthorn, Crataegus monogyna, is the usual Hawthorn hedging. Along the hedgerows near the wood the Common Hawthorn buds are about to bloom, you can see the leaves are divided into pointed lobes and the flower stems are green.

Probably my favourite Easter walk is along the Devil's Dyke, an Anglo-Saxon ditch and bank which was built 1300 years ago to defend the trackways along the narrow stretch of land lying between the Fens (before they were drained) and the uplands of West Suffolk (which were thickly wooded). Did a Saxon leader announce "I'm gonna build a big ditch" ?
Last year the ditch along this section was dense with brambles, over winter it has been cleared, so we ventured down from the path along the bank top. Walking along the bottom the the ditch you can appreciate how much chalky earth had been dug and piled up . . . how many people did it take to do this? How long did it take?
The reason for my annual 'pilgrimage' to this spot is to see the Pasqueflowers, Pulsatilla vulgaris. This is one of the few places to see them growing in the wild, the little clumps of soft down covered feathery leaves cling to the steep bank. Unexpectedly exotic purple petals with a boss of golden stamens in the centre, look like fragments of some richly embroidered gown.

The quintessential flower of Spring in England is the Bluebell, though the true English Bluebell is now increasingly rare as it hybridises with the Spanish Bluebell.
We drove down to Hertfordshire to revisit a Bluebell wood that Cliff had seen while on a Rambling Club walk. It was well worth the trip and walk to find it . . . alongside the Chiltern Way south of Hitchin.
The density of flowers seems to flood the woodland with a blue so intense and shimmering. 

On all our walks in April our boots remained mud-free. There's been no significant rain in most of the South-East of England for over 2 months. At times it has been unseasonably hot, 25C, and now a bitter Northerly wind is blowing an bringing night frosts. Today we had a hail shower!

The farmland is cracked and dry. We need rain.

Last Sunday I had a stall at Wyken Hall for the Plants & Crafts in the Garden event. I've attended for the past 2 years and it's one of my favourite markets.
This year the sun shone! It was a busy day with 700 people coming through the gates.
I sold lots of cards and chatted with some lovely customers and fellow stallholders. And I bought myself some treats, a polka-dotty canvas hat made in Suffolk by Sally Wilding of Hedkase; an exquisite  wire and beadwork bee brooch made by Susan North and a pair of blue and grey glass earrings by Clair Rice of HunnyBunny Glass.

I'm looking forward to getting out and about over the next Bank Holiday weekend and wearing my hat! Hope you all have a good May Day.


Tuesday, 14 March 2017

My blog is 10 years old!

I've never kept a traditional written diary (except for holiday journals) but somehow I've kept this blog going for 10 whole years!

My first blog post shows the amazing tidy and sunny vegetable garden 

the vegetable plot, March 2007

. . . and here's the same view today
Looks like I need to do some weeding! The main change has been the Pigeon Proof Pen which keeps the Purple Podded Peas and brassicas safe!

Inside the wall the garden is looking Spring-like and much neater, with lots of daffodils in flower and yesterday Cliff cut the lawn for the first time this year.
Our cockerel, Mr Cheep is now 5 and a half years old, here he is supervising Ivy pecking grass (Ivy, our youngest of the surviving 3 hens, needs no supervision ... she has one spur and occasionally tries to crow! she also lays beautiful brown eggs).

The other hens are Saffron, who is Mr Cheep's biological mum, seen here paddling in the pond ... of course, under supervision!

And finally Nutmeg, who is the same age as Saffron. She was in the nest box preparing to lay one of her lovely blue eggs ... yes, Mr Cheep popped up into the hen-house to supervise!

In the view of the walled garden above, you can also see the Ginger Studio Assistant strolling across the lawn. He and is Tabby sister were very young apprentice assistants when this blog started. She prefers to walk on the wild side!

This blog charts the past ten years of working in my studio, I've found it a useful way to record work in progress and the different things I've done and places I've visited.

I've decided to keep blogging from time to time, but electronic communication methods change rapidly these days, and I'm finding Instagram (which didn't exist when I started blogging, Instagram is only 6 years old) fits easier with busy times ... you can find me on Instagram here, where I'm posting my photos of my Lent sketchbook, Meditations on the Colour of Trees. You can also find me on Twitter.

Thank you for visiting, I know some of you have been following from the  start. And welcome to new visitors who have just stumbled into the Purple Podded Peas blog.

To celebrate, here's a discount code 
to get 10% off anything 
valid until midnight on 31 March 2017

A whole decade of my life, recorded in a blog! Who'd have thought?!

I wonder where we'll all be in 10 years form now?