Saturday, 24 June 2017

Hokusai: beyond the Great Wave

A confession: I hadn’t really appreciated the extent of the influence of the Japanese artist, Hokusai, until I visited the current exhibition at the British Museum – Hokusai: beyond the Great Wave (until August 13).. So it was fascinating to discover through the background material the fame he achieved in his own lifetime and the impact his prints had when they were first exhibited in Paris in 1867, almost 20 years after his death. Van Gogh later wrote All my art is based to some extent on Japanese art. Monet himself acquired 250 Japanese prints, including 23 by Hokusai, so I was delighted when I spotted The Great Wave beside a dresser when I visited the painter's home in Giverny a few days after the show opened.
Hokusai created The Great Wave in 1831, when he was already seventy. It shows three fishing boats heading into a great storm wave. Just visible are the oarsmen who crouch forward, battling the water’s power. The wave encircles Mt Fuji, spray falling like snow on its sacred peak. It was part of an immensely popular series – as many as 8000 impressions were made. With its use of deep perspective and imported Prussian blue pigment, it reflects how Hokusai adapted and experimented with European artistic style, which was just starting to be seen in what had hitherto been a closed country. Mt Fuji remained a model for him in his quest for immortality during his later years. He styled himself Gakyō Rōjin (Old Man Crazy to Paint) and believed the older he got, the greater his art would become.
This exhibition is the story of Hokusai’s art in old age and many of the works have never been seen before in the UK. From iconic landscapes and wave pictures to deities and mythological beasts, from flora and fauna to beautiful women, they are amazingly varied.
The success of the Great Wave led to more print series, featuring waterfalls, bridges and flowers, such as these poppies.
He was supported by his daughter Eijo, herself an accomplished artist, who worked with and alongside him. There is one powerful painting by her in the exhibition, which shows in graphic detail a scene from a Chinese novel of the 1300s, in which a physician cuts into the arm of a general to remove an infected bone.The stoic general himself continues to play a board game, while others avert their eyes from the knife and blood.
China was a major source of cultural inspiration for Japan. Hokusai reinterpreted its traditions, making them accessible to ordinary people. This man checking for a break in the snowy weather may be a portrait of a heroic bandit from another Chinese novel of the 1300s, Outlaws of the Marsh.

Hokusai had many pupils and produced manuals for painters and craft artists. In 1848 he wrote in a postscript to one of them: ...from ninety years I will keep on improving my style of painting. After I reach one hundred, my only desire will be to revolutionise this vocation. He died in 1849, just short of his 90th birthday. He had already started to use a seal on his paintings with the character Hundred and was producing technically brilliant works to the end, often revisiting his favourite subjects, including waves.
These ceiling paintings were created for a festival cart and date from 1845.
A fellow artist executed this portrait of Hokusai in the 1840s. It was later inscribed with his deathbed poem:
Maybe I’ll unwind
by roaming the summer fields
as a will-o’-the-wisp.

Monday, 5 June 2017

Behind the garden wall at Lambeth Palace

The private garden of Lambeth Palace – the official London residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury –  is open to the public on the first Friday of the month until September. It’s been continuously cultivated since the 12th c, longer than any other in the country and various incumbents have put their own stamp on it.
The Palace is behind a high brick wall that runs along the Embankment. One of the first things you see on entering the courtyard is an enormous fig tree to the left of the entrance to the Great Hall. A White Marseilles variety, it was brought from Italy by Cardinal Pole when he arrived to become Queen Mary’s Archbishop in 1556. It still gives two crops of fruit a year, in July and October. The tree has also returned to Italy. In 2014, Archbishop Justin Welby visited Pope Francis in Rome and gave him a cutting from the tree as a symbol of the common heritage of the two religions.
The garden covers 10 acres and includes a terrace, Jewel Border, Rose Arbour, herb garden, bee hives, composting area and many mature trees. Among them is a Tulip Tree, a species introduced to England by Royal gardener John Tradescant the younger, and which was in flower in early June.
Fittingly, Tradescant is buried next door in the churchyard of St Mary-at-Lambeth, now the Garden Museum and recently reopened after a major refurbishment.
Open day visitors can go on a short guided walk around the Palace garden and learn more of  its  history and of future plans. These include a new purpose-built library and archive which will provide a climate-controlled home for the Palace’s collection of 200,000 precious books and 4,600 manuscripts, some of which go back to the 9th c. It will be at the far end of the garden, surrounded by a new garden designed by Dan Pearson.
Some of the historic books can be seen in the Great Hall, which was open at the same time as the garden. It’s been recently refurbished - a stunning new black and white marble floor has been laid and the lantern in the elaborate hammer beam roof  repaired. We were also able to look into the Crypt Chapel, described by the architectural hsitorian Nicholas Pevsner as one of the best preserved medieval stone vaults in London.
Allow at least two to three hours for this fascinating visit. Admission to the garden is £5, and refreshments are available in a marquee on the lawn.

Sunday, 30 April 2017

Bluebells in Perivale’s secret wood

A short walk from Perivale underground station in west London is a wood so precious it’s open to the public just once a year, when the forest floor is carpeted with more than four million bluebells.
Perivale Wood covers 27 acres of ancient oak forest and meadow, a remnant of the forest that once covered all of southern England. It was one of the UK's first nature reserves and is owned and managed by the Selborne Society, founded in 1885 to commemorate the 18th c. naturalist Gilbert White. In 1957 it was registered as a site of Special Scientific Interest and the Society began an intensive management programme to restore its fragile habitat, which had suffered from neglect during and after World War II.
Today there are signs of coppicing on the larger trees, and a programme of planned felling is creating clearings where seedlings have a chance to develop and rejuvenate the forest. The first Open Day was held in 1970, initially in May, but now on the last Sunday in April as global warming means the bluebells are flowering earlier. (Even so, the carpet of blue was almost past its best this year, and some visitors were suggesting the Open Day should perhaps be brought further forward.)
On the Open Day, a nature trail takes visitors along a specific route past the wood’s highlights and special displays. I loved this Bug Hotel made from recycled materials that provides shelter for wasps, bees, spiders, ladybirds and woodlice.
As well as the bluebells, there are banks of wild flowers, three ponds, two streams and glimpses of the Grand Union Canal that runs along part of the wood’s border. The reserve is also home to 24 species of trees, some carefully marked on the trail map. More than 100 species of birds have also been seen there, but maybe the sudden influx of people on Open Day sent them into hiding - on our walk round the wood, we heard just one crow.

Monday, 24 April 2017

Classic cars and vintage buys

Some amazing sights at the Classic Car Boot Sale at Kings Cross in London at the weekend. Gleaming cars from yesteryear and so many household knickknacks that once might have been discarded, but are now collectors’ items.
Great to catch up with writer and craft expert Mary Jane Baxter, who was selling an assortment of goodies from her delightfully decorated Mobile Makery, including some vintage French posters she’d picked up on her travels through Europe. There was so much to tempt the crowds from the many stalls. But the stars of the show were the cars. No need to go to Cuba for a dose of motoring nostalgia!

Friday, 14 April 2017

Royal Greenwich Tall Ships Festival 2017

Spectacular sights on the Thames this weekend between Deptford and Woolwich Arsenal, with some 30 tall-masted ships from around the world taking part in this festival of sail. Many are moored at Woolwich, including the Nao Victoria (below, centre), an exact copy of the first ship to sail around the world in 1522 as part of Magellan's expedition.
Visitors can book on select vessels for a cruise from Woolwich that takes you under the Emirates Airline cable car....
.......and through the Thames Barrier.
There are also free visits to ships anchored in the river, and great views from the riverside walk as these reminders of yesteryear glide past, sails billowing.
Landlubbers have not been forgotten.
Family entertainment with plenty of food and drink has been laid on in the Festival Villages at Greenwich and the Royal Arsenal Dockyard. You may spot characters from the past.....
...or even a mermaid!
On Saturday evening a spectacular show of fireworks will light up the night sky at Woolwich. The festival culminates in a dramatic finale on Sunday - a Parade of Sail, with all the ships mustering on the river around Deptford/Greenwich before setting sail at 5pm, and heading off to Portugal.