Thursday, 20 October 2016

Painted Christmas

Now then. I know it's ridiculously early, and I'm usually the first to be shouting at decorations appearing in John Lewis in September, but I wanted to share a pertinent thought with you all. A few of you will remember the Christmas cards I painted between 1998 and 2006, generally featuring buildings around Oundle in Northamptonshire, but always featuring a Royal Mail van of one vintage or another. More of you will perhaps have seen them in the Christmas chapter in More From Unmitigated England. Later, in discussion with the Royal Mail over a book on post boxes, I accidentally found myself showing them off. They were leapt upon, and I found three of them being proposed as Christmas stamps to the august body that is the Stamp Advisory Committee.They were the RM's stamps of choice, but the Committee decided on photographs of leaves floating on water by Andy Goldsworthy.
So, to get to the point (yes please, Ed.) I have decided to sell the original paintings.They are all a uniform size, 155mm x 155mm, and are executed in Designers Gouache. If you are seriously interested, then contact me through this blog and I'll send a pdf poster of all nine to you. The usual copyright stuff applies, but we'll talk about all that off piste as it were. The three paintings here feature, from the top, Oundle Post Office, the bridge over the River Nene at Fotheringhay and one of the two gate lodges to Lilford Hall. Obviously much artistic licence has been liberally applied along with the paint.

"...very impressive" Chris Beetles

Monday, 17 October 2016

Electric Hedge

This little building is obscure even by Unmitigated England standards. It's halfway down the very bucolic Commissioners Lane (which tells of it being an enclosure road) that leads only to a farm just outside Slawston in Leicestershire. You won't find it in a Pevsner or a Shell Guide; this is a prime example of a utility building built, I would think, between the wars. Despite all the warnings of death by electric shock, I somehow think that there is no sub station equipment therein. There's no sinister sounding hum emitting out into the lane, and I would guess it's now currently (no pun intended) a store for Western Power Distribution's excess tree-loppers and hedge cutters that are being put to increasing use locally to cut back foliage from electricity wires, and any other bits of tree pruning they can be persuaded to do. ("While you're up there...")
    But my main reason for sharing this riveting discovery is that it's worthwhile spending half-a-minute to look at how much care actually went into its simple design. Built in neat brickwork, a concrete lintel extends over both door and windows, the roof parapet is in different coloured brick with an intermediate course of tiles and care was taken with the iron gate. The tree loppers haven't been snipped into action on the surroundings, and the whole thing is gradually disappearing from view. Soon WPD's white Land Rovers will come down here and the abseiling woodcutters will scratch their heads saying "Well it was around here somewhere". 

Tuesday, 11 October 2016

On The Brink

With its back to the tidal River Nene, this was the South Brink Farm Shop on the A47 just to the west of Wisbech. In 1999 I'd been out on the Fens and on my way home I pulled in here."Do you mind if I take a photograph?" I asked politely. "You might as well" the proprietor said from his easy chair "Every other f----r does". I loved it. The handwritten signs shouting out like a market trader, the impromptu temporary feel to everything. Just look at that wheel-less Allinson Wholemeal Bread van sitting there. I had to buy big onions at £1.50 a stone, and think I said as a parting shot "As the French onion seller said as he sold his last onion: that's shallot". I can't be absolutely sure but I think he said "F--k off."

I drove by last April with the redoubtable Ron Combo, and noticed that it was not only closed but very substantially burnt to the ground. Anyway, if you'd like a signed A4 glossy print I'll knock one out (as they say) for twenty quid. Just drop me a line. 

Wednesday, 21 September 2016

Estuary English

Two power stations on the Thames Estuary. At the top is the one on the Isle of Grain in Kent, which I believe is no more. Or that might be just the chimney. The second is at Tilbury in Essex, taken in an equally wintry afternoon light from a gun emplacement at the fort. They come to mind because of three things: 1) There's a celebration of the estuary starting about now, 2) Rachel Lichtenstein's book Estuary is out tomorrow, and 3) I shall grab a copy as I make my way to a meeting on the Thames at Blackfriars.
    I lived close to both these shores once, and have found that over the years they have seeped deep into my bones. First it was helping to race a Thames barge on the wide stretches of water around Southend and Brightlingsea, later lonely walks out on the Isle of Grain and the Hoo Peninsula on bitterly cold days, then the discovery of the Cooling Marshes and Cooling church with its little gravestones that inspired the opening scene of Dickens' Great Expectations.
    Later still there were commissions that took me to the Essex shore to photograph both the Tilbury and Coalhouse Forts and the wonderful Bata shoe factory. All to the soundtrack of my re-discovery of Canvey Island's Doctor Feelgood. (I'm often asked what period of history I'd like to go back to and inevitably hear myself saying "the Kursaal in Southend in 1973 with Doctor Feelgood doing Route 66". When I should be saying "on the deck of the Victory" or something.)
    So much to see, so much to feel, so much to hear. Mournful ships' hooters in the fog, the clanking of iron doors on empty forts way off shore, the cries of marsh birds, rotting hulks, the orange flares of refineries. As John Piper said of the Romney Marsh "it's all 90% atmosphere really".

Thursday, 1 September 2016

Oven Ready

Sometime in the hedonistic eighties we were meandering our way home from Hastings and came across a derelict house next to a railway station in East Sussex. The front door was open, honest, and we shuffled about on broken glass from room to room. In the kitchen I noticed a slightly different surface to part of the wall, and a tell-tale gas pipe told me an iron plate had been placed to absorb heat from an oven. It was streaked with yellow paint and I immediately knew what it was. As I'm sure you've guessed too. Our car had a toolkit and it was but seconds for the plate to be levered away to reveal this very bright enamel sign, still exhorting us to find the station master and take out Railway Passengers Assurance. And still demonstrating the artist's optical trick of giving the perfectly rectangular sign a permanent lean.
    It's subsequently been in a succession of garages and garden sheds with just spiders for company, until the other day I was putting the lawnmower away and had the urge to take it down and give it a good clean. The enamel, which appropriately would have seen the inside of an oven in its manufacture, came up as bright as the day it left Hancor Signs in Mitcham in, I imagine, the 1920s. One thing I like that you can't really see in the photograph is that there is residue of the green kitchen wall paint on the edges. Probably the only reminder of the house, now demolished to make way for a car park extension. So now I'm wondering where to put the sign. Looking around I think it will have to be the ceiling.

Monday, 25 July 2016

Very Badmin

Fellow travellers in Unmitigated England will know of my passion for the work of S.R.Badmin. And indeed will doubtless share it with equal fervour. So finding an image I hadn't seen before is always a singular joy. Badmin produced many book covers, and indeed also illustrated books of the calibre of the Ladybird Book of Trees and Puffin Picture Books on trees and architecture (Village and Town). So I got very excited by discovering in Chipping Norton The Rolling Road by L.A.G.Strong, and its Badmin cover of which the above is a detail. It's 'The story of Travel on the roads of Britain and the Development of Public Passenger Transport' and this Swift coach sums it all up for me. Was there a Swift Coaches Company around in 1956, and if there was did they paint their vehicles in this sympathetic livery of pale lemon and deep pink? I do hope so. I bet the number plate is SRB something; Badmin often included his name or initials somewhere in the picture other than in the obligatory bottom right hand corner. One book on churches even has his name very prematurely on a tombstone in the foreground.
   I had the enormous privilege of taking tea at Mr.Badmin's home in Bignor, West Sussex, with a dear friend in the autumn of 1987. His large living room window looked out at the slopes of the South Downs and my friend said "It must be wonderful for you to have that view of the Downs just outside of your window" and he replied "Too close for me m'dear" and proceeded into the kitchen to put the kettle on. And it's true, so much of his work informs us with loving detail in the foregrounds, but quickly take us off to far horizons.
    These days we still always say when confronted by a stand of chestnuts around a farm or a line of willows by a slow-moving stream "Very Badmin" as if nature had decided to copy his work. Nobody 'does' trees like S.R.Badmin, but there's always much more in his paintings. If you can get hold of a copy of Highways & Byways in Essex (the last in the series in 1939, he completed it on the death of F.L.Griggs, the original illustrator) you will see his outstanding line drawings of buildings, such as Bures Mill above. But trees really were the thing. As we left Mr.Badmin's home I noticed that leaves from the trees in his garden had dropped with the rain onto my car. I carefully peeled them off and put them in a church leaflet I found in the glovebox. 'Leaves from Mr.Badmin's Garden' I wrote on the front. I still have it, the leaves now dry and brittle, but still embued with enchanting and very agreeable memories.

Thursday, 21 July 2016

Over The Wall

And so to Northumberland with Youngest Son. I'd always wanted to see the painting above, which is one of eight at Wallington Hall (west of Morpeth) and the start of a series commissioned by Pauline and Walter Trevelyan in 1856 to illustrate salient points in Northumberland's history. This one is of a group of workers on Hadrian's Wall being roundly chastised by a Roman commander. The artist's model for this soldier was John Clayton, Town Clerk of Newcastle, who was instrumental in saving stone from Hadrian's Wall being nicked by local farmers for buildings. It is, I think, my favourite Victorian narrative painting.
Thence to Bamburgh, where after a frightening experience in our hotel with what we thought were possibly onions in a steak sandwich, we fled to the beach where YS went fully-clothed into the sea whilst I waited for the sun to appear from behind a static mackerelly cloud to light the castle. One of the most impressive sights in England, this colossus is a quarter of a mile long and covers eight acres or so. I've always loved it since seeing it used as seventeenth century Loudun in an establishing shot in Ken Russell's The Devils (1971), complete with a foreground of a skeletal corpse tied to a cartwheel on top of a pole. Dear Ken, I do miss him.

After these disturbing thoughts we moved swiftly on to Holy Island the next morning. What a romantic place to spend time in, providing you've read the tide timetables coherently. The beaches with sea-washed bricks and tiles (always an Unmitigated Pleasure), the fishermen's huts made from upturned boats, (are they really, or did they just use boatbuilding skills?), a gaunt ruined abbey and of course the showstopper of Lindisfarne Castle. Built by Edwin Lutyens for his mate Edward Hudson (the founder of Country Life magazine) in 1902, this is the ultimate holiday home. Shades of Enid Blyton's Five on a Treasure Island perhaps, or Tintin's Black Island, this was a sixteenth century castle on an outstanding plug of rock, abandoned in the mid nineteenth century until Hudson discovered it.
This is a painting by John Moore, showing the original castle in 1877, complete with the nearby limekilns in action and the abbey in the distance. I too needed a memorable image, so got very excited in the tiny scullery when for only about two minutes the top of a tap was highlighted. As this was the hottest day of the year thus far it seemed somehow very refreshing. Although when I pointed this photo opportunity out to other castle gazers they quickly turned and went sniggering outside to look at seals through a telescope on the Upper Battery. Oh well.

Not wanting to find we were stuck out here until six o'clock we walked with long purposeful strides to the distant car park, our heads whirring with thoughts and stuck into big ice creams. We will return, next time maybe in the depths of winter with an easterly gale blowing, the threat of Northumberland snow in the bitter air and firelight in Lutyens' hearths lighting the herringboned-patterned brick floors.

Both Wallington Hall and Lindisfarne Castle are National Trust properties, and Moore's painting can be seen at the latter. Thank you NT.