Sunday, 13 April 2014

The Flower Book

I've taken an unexpected and rather prolonged blogging break! Things got rather busy all of a sudden - some of it planned but most of it unexpected. I thought I ought to pop by with a post, albeit a small one, just to keep things ticking over here...

A couple of weeks ago, I finished reading a biography of Edward Burne-Jones called The Last Pre-Raphaelite by Fiona McCarthy. As you may know from one of my posts a while ago, Burne-Jones is one of my favourite artists and so I thought it was worth sitting down and finding up a bit more about him.

The book mentioned this series of small paintings he did for The Flower Book, begun in 1882. He did the watercolours for his own enjoyment, rather than as a commission, using the common names of flowers as the inspiration for each scene. This concept definitely spoke to my imagination and, thanks to the wonders of the internet, I was able to find all the images when I got home from reading in the park.

So I thought I would share just a few of them here in a post. It seemed appropriate with spring having arrived, with flowers and trees all coming back to life, and with Easter just around the corner. As well, it's a harbinger of next weekend, when I'm off to see Burne-Jones' Briar Rose series at Buscot Park in Oxfordshire with a couple of my best friends. I've wanted to see those paintings for quite some time so I'm very excited! Expect to read about it all soon...

Monday, 24 March 2014

Gentleman Provider-of-Ruins

My third monthly trip out of London for 2014 took place three long weeks ago, on the very first weekend of March, but I'm just getting around to writing about it now. I spent the weekend with a friend in Cambridge - the first day was spent in Cambridge itself and the immediate surrounds, while the second day entailed a trip out to Wimpole Hall.

This is the same friend who accompanied me to Sutton Hoo and we both took out National Trust membership there so we figured we'd make the most of it with another property. This one, however, entailed a short train trip from Cambridge and then a cycle ride. Fortunately Cambridgeshire is a flat county as we'd also done a lot of cycling the day before and I'm only an occasional weekend cyclist...

We were delighted to find our bikes matched the train

Upon arriving at Wimpole we got our energy back up with a cup of tea and a scone and then went exploring. We started out at the house but were both slightly underwhelmed by that experience. Yes, the grand country pile just wasn't right for us, darling.

But, in all seriousness, the period and style isn't the favourite of either of us and we found the experience a bit stuffy compared with our recent Sutton Hoo adventure. There were some wonderful spaces but it was a classic National Trust house with roped off rooms and a sense of moving rigidly through the set route. In fairness, this is somewhat fitting for a house of its type, as the eighteenth century saw the rise of country house tourism, where one would travel around to different manors, being met at each with a grand house designed with a definite sequence of rooms, through which one would move, admiring the collection of art and objects. And there was undoubtedly some fine architecture, art and objects at Wimpole:

The ceiling and lantern in the Soane room

I have a peculiar fondness for pineapples appearing in historic house settings

A stunning clock in the Soane room

Okay, it all looks wonderfully charming when I select out a few key photographs, and it was undeniably splendid in parts, but it just somewhat lacked atmosphere. (There was even a lady playing piano, like at Sutton Hoo, but it had a completely different vibe.) So, if that style of operating doesn't really do it for you then you want to at least learn something about the people who lived there, where their wealth came from, the trajectory of their fortune, and all that jazz. That's what gives these places a unique quality when they all have a similar look. Unfortunately, there wasn't much written interpretation, and sometimes you don't necessarily feel like having to ask the volunteers (as lovely as they are). So, I learnt a bit about the last inhabitants of the house but not much more about the generations before that, which was a shame.

Who is this lady? I'll never know...

Once out of the house, we went for a wander around the immediate grounds and the walled gardens. I do so love a walled garden, even when it isn't in bloom. It appeals to my longing to have a secret garden of my own one day.

The walled kitchen garden

The parterre

We then broke out from the genteel surrounds of the house and out into the wider estate to march our way up through the mud and the wintery landscape on a particular mission...

... The Gothick folly! For those who don't know, a folly is basically an architectural feature put in the landscape to look fabulous, but with no actual use. The quintessential folly is the ruinous folly - not actually the traces of a medieval building, as the wealthy estate owner would have us believe, but a structure deliberately built as a ready-made ruin. Unfortunately this fake ruin must now be in actual fact a true ruin, as it was fenced off with 'danger: do not enter' signs.

One of the things that I actually did learn when I was in the manor house was that the folly was built by Sanderson Miller, who was a 'gentleman architect' (that is, he wasn't formally trained as an architect, didn't need to work for money but he just kind of fancied giving it a go). It took something ridiculous like 25 years to complete due to stops and starts. By the time it was complete, fashions had moved on - not from follies entirely but from landmark follies such as this. Instead of being set up as a prominent feature in the landscape, the trend had changed to secret follies that one would stumble upon in one's exploration of the extensive estate. Oh well, it's still good, despite being unfashionable.

Upon later looking up Wimpole Hall in the relevant Pevsner guide (otherwise known as the architectural historian's bible), I came across the description of Sanderson Miller as 'the celebrated gentleman provider-of-ruins'. Don't you just love that? I can totally see him as this charming dandy who not only designs follies for the gentry but also ruins the virtue of the young daughters of his clients when he comes to visit... And just let me clarify that is my concept for a bodice-ripper and if I come across anyone using my idea, I will sue.

Monday, 17 March 2014

Of Night and Light and the Half Light

The natural well at Ballyshannon, Co. Donegal

Had I the heavens' embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams; 
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

(W.B. Yeats)

Tying a votive to the tree at the well

My family is from Ireland a few generations back on my father's side and I carry an Irish surname. I love it when a couple of my friends call me Mac (it's fun to be one of the boys sometimes) but I never felt too much affinity with my Irish roots, even after a visit to Dublin many years ago. However, my trip to my actual ancestral home of County Donegal last year brought me more in tune with that heritage and the romance of the Irish countryside...

And then there's Yeats. I've always struggled with poetry, I must confess, but Yeats was one of the few poets that I actually got, that actually grabbed me, even back in high school English classes. 

So, with a far greater sense of connection and with far less cynicism about it just being an excuse for a piss up, this year I wholeheartedly wish you a happy St Patrick's Day. And I'll leave you with a traditional Irish blessing:

May the road rise up to meet you.
May the wind be always at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face,
And rains fall soft upon your fields. 
And until we meet again,
May God hold you in the palm of His hand.