Paul Klee's famously described his work as "taking a line for a walk", this was the favourite phrase of one one of my art school teachers and although we sighed because we'd heard it time and time again it is a pretty accurate way to describe drawing.
Yesterday evening I went along to a meeting of the West Suffolk Embroiderers' Guild – I'd been asked to teach them to draw (in an hour and a half!!!!). I came up with a list of quick taster exercises intended to make you think and look rather than worry about the actual drawing . . . • drawing everyday objects from memory • drawing without taking the pen off the paper • dividing a photo into simple shapes • analysing the colours in a picture • using a frame to select a composition.
Henri Matisse said "Creation is the artist's true function. But it would be a mistake to ascribe creative power to an inborn talent. Creation begins with vision. The artist has to look at everything as though seeing it for the first time, like a child. "
Over the past week the nights have been extremely cold (-5 and colder) but the days have been gloriously sunny. In our greenhouse which has a little frost-free fan heater, the max-min thermometer registers a range from +35C to +3, that's pretty challenging if you're a plant!
Here is a round-up of garden highlights during our 'extreme-February' . . .
'Bunyard's Exhibition' Broad Beans sown direct outdoors on 21st November last year, are now growing strongly.
These Tuscan Kale seedlings germintated in a large heated propogator, they are now on the greenhouse shelf where they get lots of light. I'll prick out some to grow on in the vegetable garden and use the rest as micro-greens.
I am recording all the vegetables I am growing this year and their progress here.
Last year's un-naturally wet summer resulted in the 'Timperly Early' rhubarb plant rotting away completely. So I have bought a new rhubarb, 'Victoria', and it's planted in a new corner bed next to the greenhouse door. The under-gardeners enjoyed helping to dig out the new rhubarb bed and mix in the well rotted compost. I'm looking forward to picking home-grown rhubarb again (maybe not until next year) and I'll definitely be trying some of the delicious rhubarb recipes tested by Freddie on the Great Big Vegetable Challenge.
And here are some of my favourite things . . .
A tiny red flower on the 'Kentish Cob' equals a promise of nuts in autumn.
Cornelian Cherry flowers (cornus mas), perfect spring sun-bursts.
A rosette of beautiful green and red finely cut leaves of geranium rubescens, this is a well behaved biennial geranium from Madiera. It's like a giant Herb Robert and self seeds in dry sheltered corners, the bright pink flowers held on giant branching red stems will mingle perfectly with other plants. I love this plant!
Wild-thing Chloe (studio and garden assistant) loves bouncing over and around the box hedging!
I've been reading the catalogue of The First Emperor exhibition which we visited last weekend. While at the exhibition I was fascinated by the beautifully detailed sculpted hairstyles of the terracotta warriors and wanted to know more about how they were made. It seems that the heads were made in moulds (a bit like chocolate Easter eggs) and then customised with hair styles and hats. The whole terracotta warrior making process was a well organised production line, with teams of workers specialising in just one stage – the person who 'did' braided hair must have been a real perfectionist! I would have loved to spend a few days in the exhibition with my sketch book and a comfy seat, but sadly that wasn't possible, I had to be content with the photos in the catalogue as reference for my sketchbook studies of the warriors' braided hairstyles.
A Chinese pottery production line was the subject of a recent Radio 4 programme in which the artist and 'Spitting Image' satirist and now potter,Roger Law spent time working in Jingdezhen – the porcelain capital of China. He explained that each stage of the process of making a beautiful pot was carried out by a family run workshop who had specialised in that stage of the production process for generations – so if one of the links in the chain were to disappear, the skills learnt over generations would be lost forever.
Last year we read about some of the Chinese terracotta warriors coming to London for an exhibition in the British Museum. We watched a TV programme about the British Museum's historic circular Reading Room being transformed into an exhibition space, "We must go to see it!" we said. At Christmas we looked at the British Museum web site to book our tickets, online, "Which day shall I book for?" I said, then I looked at the calendar on the screen, colour coded for when tickets were still available – there was one ticket left for a Thursday afternoon in March!!!! . . . but (the web site helpfully explains) some tickets are available on the day if you queue up outside before opening time.
Yesterday morning we set the alarm for 5am and set off to catch the 6am train into London, it was icy cold and the sky was crystal clear with twinkling stars – did we really want to see The First Emperor so much? At 7.45am we joined a queue of about 40 people at the back of the British Museum and at 9am we had our tickets for entry into the exhibition at 10am.
Qin Shihuangdi was on a mission to crontrol all he surveyed, he inscribed his name on the mountains, he moved thousands of people into his new city, he sent out people to search for medicines to prolong his life . . . then in 210BC he suddenly died, he was 49. The elaborate recreation of his empire that was to be his home after death wasn't complete, but the ruler of the Qin was laid to rest in his tomb surrounded by his creation. The Emperor's burial mound was a well known landmark near the town of Xi'an but the Emperor's underworld was a long forgotten secret until 1974, when a farmer unearthed a terracotta head – the first of thousands of life-size statues of warriors, bureaucrats, acrobats, musicians, horses and birds that had been buried under the fields for over two thousand years.
Well, it was worth getting up before dawn to get our tickets – so many beautifully crafted things – the terracotta warriors with their intricately braided hairstyles and a poised bronze crane catching a fish were the highlights for me. And as for the enormous task of creating a world for the Emperor after his death, it defies the imagination – if these are just the guardians of the tomb, what about the tomb under the burial mound? Well that's being left alone until a method of "seeing" inside without the need to destroy the mound is developed.
Here are some rather smaller terracotta warriors made by school children who have visited the exhibition – aren't they brilliant!!
And these amazing patterns are reflections on the surface of a shiny steel statue by a Chinese sculptor (I forgot to note down the name) who apparently moulds metal around boulders to create the shapes. It stands in the covered court and is reflecting the blue sky through the glass roof.
It was just before midday when we emerged from the British Museum into the glorious sunshine. We sauntered down through Soho and had lunch at Ramen Seto, an unpretentious Japanese restaurant in Kingly Street just behind Liberty's - how convenient, we just had to go in to admire all the gorgeous things!
Happy Chinese New Year! It's 4706 and the start of the year of the rat, the first creature in the 12 year lunar cycle. When I first found out I was born in the year of the rat it was, to be frank, a big disappointment – a dragon, tiger or hare please, I don't want to be a scavenging rodent spreading fleas and living in sewers! I was obviously brain-washed at junior school by having to learn by heart long tracts of "The Pied Piper of Hamelin", I had nightmares about those rats! No, we're talking rats with a positive spin – the rat that got pole position in the zodiac hitched a lift on the ox's back and then, with the chequered flag in sight, jump down and skipped over the line whooping "I won!!!!" I suppose that's similar to the igenuity needed to work out how to gnaw through a wall to get to the under-gardeners' layers pellets. So in honour of the lateral thinking rodent I made six little origami rats using some beautiful Japanese washi paper.
The animals selected by the Buddha to represent the 12 lunar years are a popular subject for Japanese printmakers. A couple of years ago I bought a print at a local auction and discovered that it is one of a set 12 designs by Hirosada depicting each animal of the zodiac. I wondered what Hirosada's 'rat' picture was like. It seems that recently a complete set of Hirosada's 12 prints has been sold, and they are described in detail here. Hirosada's 'rat' is actually the actor Nakamura Utaemon IV playing Nikki Danjô – a character who has supernatural powers and can disguise himself as a giant rat. It's obviously an Oscar-winning interpretation of rattiness!
Sheltered against the garden wall is a patch of the greeniest green leaves - almost luminous in intensity, they glow green! They are the leaves of Alexanders, smyrnium olusatrum - if your botanical latin (greek?) is pretty hot then you will have already worked out that it's a culinary herb that smells of myrrh and has black seeds. The English name Alexanders gives us another clue - it originates from Alexandria, or thereabouts, and was brought to England by the Romans. Whether they actually brought along neat little packages of seed to sow in their newly built villa's vegetable plots, or the seeds just got stuck to the soles of the centurian's sandals isn't clear, but apparently until celery was introduced a couple of hundred years ago, Alexanders was the herb of choice to pep up your potage!
Alexanders grows in profusion along the country lanes of North Norfolk, a few years ago while walking along the coastal footpath I picked a few black seeds from the plants growing near the site of Branodunum and planted them on the edge of our vegetable garden. I've read that the Roman fort of Branodunum was manned by cavalry troups from Dalmatia (or as we know it, Croatia) – maybe Alexanders was a key ingredient in their favourite soup! Today the sight of the glowing fresh green leaves against the red brick wall persuaded me to pick a couple of tender, newly emerged leaves and use them to flavour an omelette for lunch. They smelt like a strong earthy celery with a pungency that's hard to pin down. Chopped and cooked in the omelette the flecks of bright green looked brighter than parsley – promising! I rolled the omelette, cut it in slices and put it in a warm pitta bread with lettuce and a smear of houmous, I couldn't taste the Alexanders while I was munching my lunch. Then I got the after-taste! A bitter, deep earthy undertone of herbiness, don't under-estimate the ancient great uncle of celery - go easy with Alexanders!
I understand the best part is the young flower stalk which is peeled and cooked like asparagus, maybe the stalks will be kinder on the tastebuds. They still deserve their place in the garden, not just for having the greeniest green leaves, but for their beautiful pale green honey fragrant flowers which will attract all kinds of beneficial insects to the garden.