Sunday, December 31, 2017

Awaiting the New Year, part two

The ten days between the Winter Solstice begins and ends with the revelry of Christmas and the New Year, but the days in-between are the Janus days, looking both backward and forward. The slippery slope where dreams of ambitious plans compete with the memory of past abandoned, or derailed, plans. Approaching 70 in the New Year, I am most familiar with derailed plans after the past two years of unwelcome moments, the untuned instruments and the static on the radio, the we are not prepared to hear. The heavy weather of fortune has turned and abated for us at the moment, but storms, personal, national and international, are always on the horizon in these tricky times. We always enter into the unknown.

The grey skies and the occasional "oblique light" of the northern latitudes is very depressing as winter moves into the early months of the year. I am writing at 3 o'clock in the afternoon in a dark room. The light is beginning to come back, but that is hard to remember. By the end of this week, we will have added one minute of light in the morning and six minutes in the afternoon. If you are a photosensitive sleeper like I am, and have no need to rise early for work or family, the darkness until after 8 am is a seasonal luxury. The miraculous side of winter is how life goes on for plants and animals who have adapted in ways to be ready for the arrival of spring. The bulbs and plants and shrubs and trees have set their flower and leaf buds, ready for the proper hours of sun to return. Very soon the British daffodil season will be on us as a precursor to real spring when the crops are harvested on the Channel Islands still warmed, for now, by the North Atlantic Drift of the Gulf Stream. Last evening, I heard "the heart-chilling scream of the courted vixen" as we ate supper. Hampstead has an abundance of foxes, and unlike the first year we lived here, I am used to their noisy mating season, and familiar with their charming kits in the spring.

I read Julian Beach's poem Lux Brumalis two days ago in Winter, part of a four volume seasonal anthology of prose and poetry edited by Melissa Harrison for England's Wildlife Trust. I began with Spring late last winter and tried to read a selection every morning through Summer and Autumn as the year unfolded. In two months, I will start all over again, as commanded by the closing lines of Lux. I am embarrassed to admit this: I am not a poetry person, in fact I have sometimes wondered what is the point of poetry when a full sentence with subject and verb would communicate ideas much more clearly. When I read Lux, I knew this was special; when I went back and reread it several times, I discovered that I finally understood the point of poetry. Perhaps this is a one-off, and I will only ever truly appreciate Julian Beach. His website  is packed with many beautiful poems.

Melissa Harrison's anthologies are available here in the UK everywhere, and in the US according to, but they are very much geared to English nature and landscapes. The beautiful covers are enough to justify having them on the coffee table.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Awaiting the New Year

Lux Brumalis


I am the trumpet muted
the bow unrosined
and the fiddle unstrung.

I am oblique sunlight
pale illumination of
a world undernourished.

I am the broadcast interrupted
dead air, station leeching
anaemic, into station.


I am the garnet shock
of rosehip on frost
the robin's titian flare.

I am the icebound babble
observed, not heard
under brittle silver.

I am the creeping metabolism
of the trout, wintering
deep below the current.

I am the heart-chilling scream
of the courted vixen
the crowing pheasant's boast

the snipe's 'peep-peep'
defying, folding distance
across the whispering marsh.

I am the withered husk
on the naked briar
the sap retreating.

I am the fiery Saturnalia
the blacksmith spark, rising
then extinguished, spent.

I am the otherworld
beyond the black perimeter
of the sheltering blaze.

I am the chiselled gravestone
of the old year in repose
and the muttered obsequies.

I am Janus, churlish sentry
clinging to yesterday
wary of tomorrow.


I am the child yet unfathered
the page from a book
you read once, forgot

but must surely read again.

Julian Beach, 2016

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Christmas 2017

Jonas discovers the wonder of Christmas

2017 was a year of ups and downs and saves. Not very many ups, but the downs and saves were enough to let us crawl into 2018 later this week.

A down was not seeing our grandchildren in Hingham, Massachusetts at all in 2017. Trips were called off or cancelled for a variety of health reasons. The save is that those health issues seem to be resolved.

An unreserved up is spending time with our grandchildren in the Kent seaside town of Margate. We spent Christmas and Boxing Day with them. I made Bob get out of bed at 6:30 a.m. in our bed-and-breakfast hotel to travel the few blocks to see Jonas's 2 year old face when he first discovered what it is Santa Claus does overnight whilst children are asleep in their beds dreaming of sugarplums. I think this photo was worth the early rise. His sister Dervla is only 1 year old, so she slept in this year. Next year will be her moment of wonder.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

England's Greatest Painter?

For the past year or so, we have been very remiss in keeping up with the exhibitions in London's museums. In my head, I tally up a remorse list of exhibitions I have missed over the years, and I'm afraid I have added quite a few entries to the list recently.  I can't even come up with a reasonable excuse other than the lame one that time seemed to fly by so quickly I could hardly keep up with anything, even exhibitions that were on display for months, but were gone before I remembered they were happening. There are so many exhibitions to see at the moment, we decided to attack them with gusto today. No excuses for being tired, it might rain, or it's a bit chilly today.

Two weekends ago we saw the film Mr Turner, relying on the 100% assurance of every film critic in London this was the film of the year to see. Bob hated the film; I found its pretentious arty-ness insufferable. (Both Timothy Spall, as Mr Turner,  and the cinematography are great.) The film is a bio-pic of Turner's last years. He lived a very long time —75 years— and painted until the very end. Audience critics (who are no where near 100% in their appreciation) complain there is no plot, just a series of vignettes haphazardly thrown together. There is truth in the no plot critique, but after a day or so I decided the plot is hidden in the vignettes, which can each be seen as an evidence of loss as Mr Turner ages, the loss of family, friends, reputation, mobility, memory, ability, one by one, and finally loss of life. When I explained this insight to Bob, he said, a plot that needs 24 hours of work to understand and then needs to be explained, is not a plot. I couldn't entirely disagree.

Since we had seen the film I felt we should go the Tate Britain to see the accompanying exhibition of Turner's Last Works. Bob likes Turner's work more than I like them. And Turner did so many . . . and he willed them to the nation, so they are easy to find in order to fill rooms and rooms. Jonathan Jones, art critic of The Guardian, fast becoming the worst newspaper in the world, says Turner is England's greatest artist, as the film's trailer declares, but I will add that last month, Jonathan Jones also called the Tower of London's poppy display "fake, trite and inward-looking" along with "deeply aestheticised, prettified, and toothless." So what does he know. His written response the following week to the outcry of commenters who were aghast was even dimmer with an explanation that he was not speaking from "trendy cynicism," but from his preference for Otto Dix's skull paintings. Jones offers the suggestion the Tower's moat should have been filled with blood, bones, and barbed wire for a real memorial. Perhaps people will keep that in mind for the display needed in 2018 to top this year's poppies.

As we toured the rooms of the exhibition, all I could think of was Henning Mankell's police detective Kurt Wallander, whose father spent his life painting the same painting . . . some with a grouse, some without. I guess it's not fair to blame the artist when his style has been appropriated to decorate motel rooms and dentist's offices a century later. Turner is a brilliant painter, and his watercolours are even better, but is the sky always the same colour every day?  Jonathan Jones will be happy to know the Tate's galleries were nearly as crowded today as the walkways around the Tower were last week. So perhaps some of those he lambasted for enjoying "popular art" are also prepared to enjoy "fine art."

After we finished at the Tate, we headed to the V&A for the chance to compare and contrast Turner with England's other great painter of the first half of the 19th century, John Constable. Poor Mr Constable was always the loser in his rivalry with Mr Turner. Born only a year apart, Turner began his art training at the Royal Academy when he was 14 years old, and became an R.A. less than 10 years later. Meanwhile, Constable's father kept John at home to help run the family's prosperous grain milling and coal supply business, and would not let him begin his studies at the Academy until he was nearly 25 years old. His rivalry with Turner and his innovative painting techniques kept Constable from becoming an R.A. until he was in his mid-50s. As a final insult, Constable died at 60, depriving him of  the last decade and a half of painting enjoyed so effusively by Turner which filled the walls of the Tate's exhibition space.

Over the past few years, the V&A has had some poorly curated shows, but happily Constable, the Making of a Master is not one of them. He was a meticulous painter who wanted to bring back landscape painting to the standards of the French painters Poussin and Claude Lorrain, especially Claude Lorrain. The exhibition takes you through the steps Constable employed to meet his own exacting standards. The plein air pencil sketching and oil sketches were blocked into larger paintings in the studio. Detailed studies of landscape elements — the flora and especially the clouds in the sky — were done to depict them accurately in the final work. This was an era when science was burgeoning, and Constable believed artists needed to be accurate because landscape painting could be seen as a facet of the scientific study of the natural world. He used measured grids and glass overlays to get the correct proportions of landscape features within a scene. When preparing his large paintings for the Royal Academy's Annual Show, he did full size sketches of the 6-foot paintings.

The best part of the exhibition is the large number of oil sketches that are on display. The V&A has so many Constables because in 1888 his surviving daughter Isabel donated the contents of his studio to the Museum. The collection included notebooks, and sketchbooks, and the supremely beautiful little oil sketches Constable did in the open air. Some are always on display, but this exhibition has many more on the walls. My very favourite, of a elm tree trunk (that I initially thought was a photograph when I saw it years ago, and then realised the camera had not yet been invented) turns out to have been Lucian Freud's favourite too. For an homage to Constable exhibition mounted in Paris about 10 years ago, Freud produced an etching of a tree trunk because as an art student he tried to copy Constable's sketch and gave up. The French have always appreciated Constable, much more than the English did during his life time, and despite the fact he never crossed the Channel. The French bought his work and awarded him honorary medals. His plein air painting influenced the mid-century French landscapes of Courbet and Corot, the forerunners of Impressionism and other modern movements in France that followed.

I am not a fan of calculating who is great, who is greater, who is the greatest. Clearly I am biased toward Constable in this match. But what a great afternoon . . . and it didn't rain and it wasn't very cold and we had good reason to be tired when we got home.

October Autumn to Finish

After the reunion, we headed up the river to Poughkeepsie to visit my high school classmate Charlotte and her husband John on another perfect autumn weather day. 

Poughkeepsie is the centre of a burgeoning arts centre amidst the small towns along the mid-Hudson River region. We had a superb dinner here at the Ice House set in a park overlooking the river. A special treat was sharing dinner with another high school classmate Vinessa who was visiting from Virginia. 

Picking up reams of tourist information leaflets, as we always do, we realised there was much too much to do with only a day and a half in Poughkeepsie. The most popular local sight is probably the extensive Hyde Park estate of Franklin D. Roosevelt and his wife Eleanor. Ken Burn's TV series on the Roosevelts had just aired so we thought Hyde Park would be much too crowded on a holiday weekend. And we had spent a day at Hyde Park many years ago when we looked at Bard College with Megan. The alternative Bob chose was Locust Grove, because it was the home of Samuel F.B. Morse and because it was very close to our Holiday Inn Express. And what an inspired choice he made. The 1851 Italianate style house, all the rage in mid-century America, . . .

. . . with its elegant porte cochere . . .

. . . and wrap-around porches . . .

. . . was designed by Alexander Jackson Davis, the top-drawer architect of the moment, whose illustrations and designs popularised the Picturesque styles that still characterise the new suburbs and exurbs that began to spring up on the edges of America's booming cities. Morse knew who to turn to for his country house in Poughkeepsie because he was straight out of a contemporary preppie handbook, if one had existed. Dad was Jedediah Morse, a conservative Boston preacher and author of the first American Geography textbook. Samuel was educated at Andover and Yale, and despite his father's disapproval of art as a career path, Morse went to London to study at the Royal Academy with Benjamin West. Returning to the States he supported himself as a painter, doing portraits of Presidents and honored figures such as the Lafayette. He was a founder of the National Academy of Design, modeled on the English Royal Academy, and when New York University was opened in the early 1830s, Morse was appointed professor of painting and sculpture, the first Fine Arts appointment in the United States. Unfortunately, his political views included support of slavery, opposition to foreign immigration, and virulent anti-Catholicism. 

Locust Grove is surrounded by 200 acres of beautifully landscaped land on the bluff overlooking the river from the house. The estate was saved from any intrusive development after the Morse family left. The property was rented to the Young family who eventually bought the estate, and their daughter Annette, who never married, lived in the house until her death in 1975. She set up a trust and a foundation to maintain the house and protect the property after her death.

The gardens are extensive . . .

. . . and beautiful even in the autumn season of dying.

The kitchen garden is especially lovely . . .

 . . . and still filled with seasonal crops.

Even with all that family history and drama . . . I didn't even mention Jedediah's losing battle to protect  Harvard's seminary from a Unitarian takeover or his brush with promoting the Illuminati conspiracy as a threat to the nation . . . and success as a (xenophobic, racist) professional fine artist, it was the telegraph that got the results. In an age when polymathism was still possible, Morse is said to have had an interest in electromagnetism dating back to his years as a Yale student. The 1830s was the decade of electromagnetic breakthroughs, and in 1832, on a ship returning to America from Europe, Morse had discussions with another passenger that gave him the idea for a single wire telegraph. Others were also experimenting with similar ideas and submitting patent applications at that time, and Morse did not receive a secure patent until 1847. Just in time to buy his Poughkeepsie land and hire A.J. Davis to create a magical design reminiscent of the Italian countryside on the bluffs of the Hudson River. 

Apparently the internet and social media are not the first new communication technology to worry about privacy issues. The adoption of the "Morse" code which is an adaption of the code designed by Morse, and easily read by any trained clerk, gave rise to coded messaging if this book on display at Locust Grove is evidence. 

Next we come to Poughkeepsie's number one must-do  . . .

. . . a rehabbed railroad bridge . . .

. . .  that lets you walk in the air over the city, looking downstream  . . .

. . . and upstream . . .

. . . and across at the patchwork quilt of autumn leaves . . .

. . . standing over the water as it flows under you . . .

. . . whilst the wild wind blows over you.

A fire in 1974 damaged the bridge and led to its closure. For decades it was a rusting relic of the past until local citizens formed a group which successfully brought together private donors with state and federal aid to make the project. The Walkway opened in 2009. Ever since Charlotte began posting photos of the bridge, I have looked forward to the chance to see it and walk over it. Well this time we only walked half way because we had to be on our way back to Hingham. But we didn't have nearly enough time to explore other villages and to visit other historic houses associated with the Hudson River painters of the 19th century. So we'll be back.

We wound our way back to Hingham with some stops along the way. I hadn't thought about this until our friend Deborah in New Jersey said last week, "You are always stopping at places. When I go somewhere, I just want to get where I am going." after I had mentioned our stop at the Bush-Holley House in Greenwich, Connecticut on our way to New Jersey. Perhaps it comes with living in a small country. When places are not very far apart, there always seems like time can be found to stop on the way. Also, we have become delighted with the treasures to be found in small local museums. Reminders of American art with the Cos Cob School and the Hudson River School had piqued our interest, and Bob found two museums that offered American art collections of interest. The Mattatuck Museum in Waterbury is a beautiful museum with a collection of Connecticut art , along with much else, and where we also had a wonderful lunch. I just loved their decorative painting on the museum's back wall.

The real treasure trove was The New Britain Museum of American Art, a museum that no one has ever heard of that houses a wonderful collection of American art from the itinerants of the 18th century to today's artists in nicely laid out chronological galleries. And it has been there since 1903!

I knew it was a good collection because it has a Fairfield Porter on display.  We're still waiting for everyone else to realise he is the greatest American painter of the 20th century. There was also a special exhibition of quilts to see, but where photos were not permitted.

Back in Hingham, and Bob has flown back to London, so there is time to enjoy beautiful days with friends. Nantasket Beach with Anne . . .

. . . watching the surfers . . .

. . . take advantage of waves from Hurricane Gonzalo in Bermuda.

And a Walking Tour of Hingham's oldest burial ground behind the Old Ship Meeting House with Sunny and Charlotte on her lead.

Like any old cemetery, stones are moved around to accommodate changes. .
The site of the 17th century hill fort built to protect citizens from Indian attack during King Phillip's War. Five Hingham houses were burned by the Indians during the war, and there was at least one fatality in the fighting.

The Weeping Angel . . . a graveyard favourite.

Lavinia's home school curriculum allows trips into Boston on the
commuter boat from Hingham Shipyard.

Lavinia the builder  . . .

. . . at the Science Museum.

On Fridays, she is dropped off at the New England Aquarium on the waterfront for a marine science programme giving Megan and I the chance to do some exploring in downtown Boston. Looking for explanatory signs . . . 

. . . sometimes with odd  information . . . a shoe store?

And dropping in at the Boston Atheneum to see a wonderful exhibition of World War I posters from around the world. The Museum of Fine Arts is also having a poster display, but the Atheneum's is far better. We had a chat with the curator who happened to be there, and he is a big fan of Hampstead and the Parish Church burial ground.

And a visit to Boston's Holocaust Memorial which was built shortly before we left Hingham in 1998. I had the chance to visit it once back then, but haven't been since then. The designer is the brother-in-law of one of my London quilting group friends. 

. . . and a walk through the six towers . . .

. . . whose glass walls are incised with six million identification numbers.

And finally the day has arrived! Eloise is 4 years old!

Getting ready for the family party.

Beautiful decorations

Monkey Face cupcakes as requested and made by Mommy

A sea of presents

And since Halloween is nearly here, the second party of the day is the Old Colony Montessori Halloween Party. A pretty Kitty Witch . . .

A powerful X-Man  . . .

And a beautiful Elsa ready to roll.

I fly back to London tonight, so we spend our last lunch at Hingham's national hot spot: the Wahlburger corner at the Shipyard, site of the Wahlberger Family restaurant hub and location of the TV reality show . . . now in its second season . . . and available to watch in London on Sky digital! Megan said the traffic last summer was impossible as people queued in their cars to have their photos taken in front of Wahlburgers.

We ate our fantastic lobster rolls and chips across the way at Alma Nove, named for Mama Wahlberg. Megan informed me that celebrity chef Paul Wahlberg was sitting right behind me, and I could hear a bit of the conversation about the TV shooting schedule. Paul is a phenomenal chef having made Bridgeman's in Nantasket Beach the go-to restaurant before moving his operation to the new Hingham Shipyard development. 

Eloise is smiling because she is looking forward to getting her bed back when I leave!