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.

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?


Monday, 6 March 2017

Madonnas & Miracles at the Fitzwilliam

The major exhibition this Spring at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, is Madonnas & Miracles, The Holy Home in Renaissance Italy.

Last week I went along to a preview event, below are my thoughts along with some hints and tips which may add to your appreciation of the exhibition. But first here is the official trailer ...

You can also see more photos of some of the exhibits in a local news report, here. And the Fitzwilliam Museum as lots of useful information here. I'll add more links to press reviews, as and when I stumble across them.

This exhibition is the culmination of over 4 years cross-disciplinary research by Cambridge University's departments of Italian, History, Architecture and History or Art. It was funded by a grant from the EU, which has covered the cost of the research, the exhibition and the transportation as well as the cleaning and conservation of many of the exhibits. I've often wondered how long it takes to put on a large scale exhibition, and hearing the curators/organisers talk about the research in hundreds of libraries, archives and museums mainly in Italy but worldwide, certainly underlined the massive task that was undertaken.

So, what did I think of the exhibition? 
The title 'Madonnas & Miracles' led me to expect lots of gold painted altar pieces, but it's really about how families and women in particular, made prayer and their faith in God and the Saints, part of their day to day life and coping strategy in times of adversity. Of course there are lots of Madonnas among the exhibits, including a beautiful painting by Botticelli which is featured on the poster, but the focus is on objects which would be treasured by ordinary working folk - ceramics, beads, bowls and cutlery which would be handled while a prayer was murmered or painted plaques offering to a church as thanks for a miracle. Afterwards I thought that 'Domestic Devotions' would be a more accurate title . . . and to my surprise I've now found the research team's web site and blog is called just that! I wonder how and why they decided on the different title for the exhibition?

To transport you to Renaissance Italy, the exhibition space has been divided into rooms with dark green or blue walls, there's even a fire place and a bed. Stone effect archways frame the openings between - rugged semi-circular arches symbolise the masculine world around the piazzas and square topped doorways frame the domestic feminine world inside the home. A fact I would not have noticed if I hadn't read the Fitz's Instagram feed!

The theme of the exhibition is, I think, a bit obscure and academic - although the curators stressed how relevant the themes are to today. If you visit I'd be interested to know what you think. But many of the exhibits are intriguing, charming and have a link to ordinary people rather than the rich an famous. So it's well worth a visit (its' free to go in) and there is some wonderful imagery which you can enjoy without even reading the labels (though the labels are very clear and informative).

Here are my highlights:

- the pottery nativity table centre-piece, this is just fabulous and it's worth popping into the exhibition just to see this alone. I can imagine how this would illustrate the Christmas story told to children. And there is another ceramic nativity which incorporates inkwells ... which would be useful for Christmas cards and thank you letters!
- the Camerino wooden doll of baby Jesus, this life-like painted wooden baby is nearly 600 years old. It is from the nunnery in Camerino which was devastated by an earthquake last October, amazingly the doll survived unscathed. Apparently life-like baby dolls were popular with the nuns, who would cuddle and kiss them as part of there devotional rituals. Maybe they needed something to cuddle.

- the 'singing knives', which are engraved with music for the Benediction at the beginning of a meal and the Grace afterwards. Recordings of the prayers being sung (very beautifully) by members of St John's College choir, can be heard on the headphones next to the exhibit.

- look out for the rabbits munching their lunch in one of the large photo panels showing a scene from a painted interior. Just one of many sensitively observed scenes in the backgrounds of the pictures in the exhibition.

- I loved the jaunty horses on a ceramic plaque of St Sebastian and St Roch, who were both poplar saints for protecting a household from the plague. Notice how St Roch seems to be pointing to a rip in his tights ... actually he's drawing attention to a scar from a nasty plague boil, to give YOU hope that HE DID so YOU CAN survive. The ceramics and the illustrated woodcut pamphlets are probably my favourite things in the exhibition and the reason I'll go back for another look.

- And don't miss the wooden model of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, like beautiful Renaissance lego! Imagine a family telling stories as they put the building together, perhaps tales of the pilgrimage grandfather went on years ago.

To sum up ...

Well worth a visit if you're in Cambridge. I learnt a lot. Take time to look and find the unexpected and think about how the objects on display were once part of someone's daily life.

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

An interlude in Edinburgh

We've just got back from a long weekend in Edinburgh. We travelled by train, luckily missing Storm Doris and cancelled trains by a day. The mountains were still dusted with the previous day's snowfall.

Below you can see the roof of Waverley station with the grand monuments on the top of Calton Hill beyond. Our hotel was just around the far side of the hill.

A short bracing walk takes you to the top of the hill for a panoramic view of the city.

One of the first places we searched out (knowing it also had a nice café) was Dovecot Studios, here in a former Victorian bath house is a tapestry weaving studio. Our visit didn't coincide with being able to watch the weavers at work, but we were able to look at work in progress from the gallery.

The largest piece in progress was a massive tufted rug, the wool yarn is fired using a tufting gun, through a canvas fabric. This makes a dense pile on the other side. This rug designed by Victoria Morton is destined for a new performing arts centre at the Perse School in Cambridge.

Late on Friday afternoon there was just time to pop into the Scottish National Gallery before it closed, it deserved a longer visit as there are so many spectacular paintings. But the bell rang so we had to leave.

On Saturday morning we walked down to the Old Town for a tour of Gladstone's Land, a 17th century tenement house now owned by the National Trust for Scotland who have furnished it with original household furniture and accessories ... you have to imagine the grime, smells and noise.

Our lunch was at the excellent café at the grand Victorian Gothic Scottish National Portrait Gallery, before seeing the BP Portrait Award 2016 exhibition. I recommend a visit if you're in Edinburgh, although you can see some the paintings online they really don't show the variety of scale and media. 

As it wasn't raining, we decided to walk through the New Town to the Botanic Garden. I spotted a very smart mini-library with roof garden and then noticed we were in Scotland Street ... so maybe not surprising at all! (I don't think that No. 44 actually exits.)

Sunday morning and the sun was shining ... we set off on a bracing walk past Holyrood Palace and up the path towards Arthur's Seat, the rugged volcanic crag that stands over the city. But the weather soon deteriorated to rain and 40mph gusts (and I was wearing my leather knee boots rather than walking boots) so we took the 'easy' low level route. But it gave us a flavour of the 'mountain in the city' landscape.

The rain had definitely set in so we headed to the National Museum of Scotland which is in a fabulous building. We  joined lots of people who were appreciating a great indoor space that's free to visit. The huge galleried Victorian hall provides a wonderful area to promenade around. And the modern extension is a maze of intriguing spaces. There is also a roof garden, but we were content with viewing the rooftops of the city through the windows.

While at the Dovecot Studios we'd seen a reproduction of a painting of trees, and here it is again in the Museum, but this time it is a large tapestry that was woven at Dovecot. The design is based on a painting 'Large Tree Group' by Victoria Crowe, which features shepherd Jenny Armstrong. The colours of the yarn are all natural undyed wools from different breeds of sheep and were sourced from 70 different flocks across the UK as well as St Kilda and the Falklands. I've found an interesting programme which includes Victoria Crowe discussing her relationship to the landscape she depicts with Andrew Marr, well worth a listen. 

We were enjoying exploring the Museum and had found the Lewis chess pieces, but we didn't want to miss visiting Edinburgh Castle. So we braved the wind and rain. At times it was difficult to remain standing! Inside the castle the howling wind added to the atmosphere. 

And then the sun came out!

We found a quiet and cosy café at the top of Jenners department store, where tea and toasted tea cakes soon revived us. Then I treated myself to a pair of black suede ankle boots in the sale.

Our train home wasn't until 2pm, so we had time for a guided tour inside the new Scottish Parliament building. It was interesting to see behind the scenes and how the intriguingly shaped building contains practical work spaces ... it's well worth booking a tour.

Time to get the train, we'd paid a modest amount to upgrade our tickets to First Class so enjoyed being served lunch, tea and drinks as we sped through the countryside under dramatic storm clouds and 6 hours later we were back home.

Tomorrow is 1st March, in a couple of weeks this blog will be 10 years old! A whole decade of blogging. I've toyed with the idea of closing my blog, changing its name, or starting a different blog. But I think I'll leave things as they are and still blog whenever I feel like it. In recent weeks I've enjoyed posting on Instagram more than blogging, it's like a mini-blog post. Starting tomorrow, I'm planning a series of painterly Instagram posts through Lent, you can find me @celiahartartist