Friday, 2 December 2016

December: the Somerset Levels

I have been dipping into Wild Hares and Humming Birds for more than a year now,  a city flat-dweller marking the beginning of each month with a glimpse of life in the countryside. My images of the  county now are mostly memories of our holiday journeys, as the M5 traffic crawled across the Somerset Levels, and the thoughts the landscape evoked of fugitives after Monmouth's disastrous defeat at Sedgemoor in 1685.
So Stephen Moss's monthly record of the seasons in one village have been both thought-provoking and reassuring.

"A couple of miles beyond the River Brue,  the southern boundary of the parish, another winter dawn  breaks over Catcott Lows.  As the mist rises from the the cold ground, revealing the silhouette of Glastonbury Tor, I begin to lose any sense of feeling in my fingertips.  All around me a shrill chorus of whistles pierces the chill air.  It is the unmistakable sound of hundreds of wigeon, the most striking and handsome of all our dabbling ducks.  ….."

Photo © Peter Moore

"Of all the birds here before me, the wigeon have travelled the furthest.  Although a few hundred pairs breed in northern Britain, their numbers are massively swelled each autumn, when close to half a million birds arrive here from their breeding grounds in Iceland, Scandinavia and northern Russia.  Because these areas freeze up during the winter, the wigeon must travel southwards and westwards, seeking out the more benevolent, maritime climate of Britain and Ireland.

Here on the Somerset Levels we have our fair share of these engaging ducks, but another winter visitor from Siberia, Bewick's swan, has all but disappeared. Named after the nineteenth-century engraver, publisher and political radical, Thomas Bewick, small flocks of these wild swans have always spent the winter here, filling the air with their yelping cries,  But in the past decade numbers have fallen away, and nowadays only a handful overwinter on the levels.  Most are well to the south, in the vast waterlogged fields around the villages of Muchelney, Stoke St Gregory and Curry Rivel, whose very names reflect the long and fascinating history of this landscape.

Even without Bewick's swans though, the sight and sound of more than a thousand dabbling ducks lifts the spirits. My encounter with them reinforces the continuity of this place and its wildlife over time, much in the same way as the distant backdrop of Glastonbury Tor reminds me of our human presence here across the centuries. "

Wild Hares and Hummingbirds  Stephen Moss



A boy birdnesting - tailpiece in The History of Birds Vol.II 1804  Thomas Bewick

Tuesday, 29 November 2016

A bird in the hand, at the Fitzwilliam Museum

Was it a wet, wintry day in 1828 when Isabella, Lady Hertford reached for her scissors and began cutting out some colourful pictures with which to liven up her blue wallpaper?  That wallpaper  had been imported from China, a gift from George the Prince of Wales many years before, and can still be seen in situ, duly embellished with exotic birds pasted amongst its flowering branches, at Temple Newsam House, near Leeds.


Embellished 18th century Chinese wallpaper in the Blue Drawing Room
© Temple Newsam House, Leeds

Far greater 'vandalism' was done to the newly published portfolio Lady Hertford cut all those exotic hand-coloured pictures from :  the first part of  John James Audubon's The Birds of America, with its 435 astonishing life-size images,  now regarded as one of the finest natural history publications held in any great library collection.

Plate from The Birds of America, from Original Drawings, made during a Residence of  Twenty-five Years in the United States  John James Audubon  (for images see www.audubon.org) 

Creating this labour of love over twenty-five years, Audubon was supported during his travels by his wife Lucy working as a governess.  "Every moment I had to spare I drew birds for my ornithology in which my Lucy and myself alone have faith.  My best friends solemnly regarded me as a madman, and my wife and family alone gave me encouragement,  My wife determined that my genius should prevail, and that my final success as an ornithologist should be triumphant."


Roseate Spoonbill








"Light as a sylph, the Arctic Tern dances through the air above and around you."  J. J. Audubon

















Visitors to Cambridge this December can find out more about John Audubon, his years of perseverance  (at one stage his paintings were all eaten by rats)  and his remarkable creation,  at the Fitzwilliam Museum.    On selected dates the Founder's Library, named after Richard, the 7th Viscount Fitzwilliam, will be open to the general public in small groups at lunchtimes.


The mantel clock in the Founder's Library at the Fitzwilliam Museum

 The Library curators will introduce you to Audubon's giant masterpiece and reveal the fascinating stories about this rare hand-coloured volume and other historic printed books from the collection across the centuries.  Prepare to be amazed!*


Carolina Parrot or Parakeet

Great Blue Heron

* Or see the marvellous illuminated manuscripts in the Fitzwilliam exhibition "Colour" (www.fitzmuseum.cam.ac.uk).

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Sagittarius: the Archer


The Fair Toxophilites   William Powell Frith 1872
© Royal Albert Memorial Museum, Exeter

It was Roger Ascham, tutor and later secretary to Queen Elizabeth I,  who coined the word "toxophily".  In 1545 he published his treatise on archery -- "Toxophilus", -- from toxon, the Greek word for bow, rather than the Latin arcus. His book takes the form of a debate between Philologus, the scholar, and Toxophilus the archer, on the respective virtues of learning versus shooting.  Toxophilus is clearly no mean scholar himself, drawing on as many classical writers - Plato, Aristotle, Hesiod and more - as the book-loving Philologus.  This was the first handbook on archery written in English, and Ascham's dialogue format was soon copied by other writers, including Izaak Walton in his Compleat Angler in 1653.

the Moon goddess, late 17th century engraving

The constellation of Sagittarius takes its name from the Latin for arrow, sagitta, and is often portrayed (as above) as a centaur, that half-man, half-horse beast from Greek mythology;   although it is perhaps that other archer,  Cupid, who is the more popular figure in western art and literature.

"With what sad steps, O Moon! thou climb'st the skies!
How silently! and with how wan a face!
What! may it be that even in heavenly place
That busy archer his sharp arrows tries?"

Sonnet 31, Astrophel and Stella  Sir Philip Sidney


Sunday, 20 November 2016

Diverse dishes - and wartime celebrations 20th November



Saloon Bar 1940  Edward Le Bas
© Tate Britain

"For those who eat out in the West End, getting a meal is becoming more and more of a race to the swiftest, in which latecomers are greeted with nothing but polite headshakes and overflowing tables.  The five-shilling limit on bills has no real effect on the cost of dining out - the addition of various 'house charges' and sundry items see to that  - but it does have certain comic results,  Oyster fanciers, for instance, can start their dinner with six oysters if they can afford such luxuries, but if they have nine oysters they cannot have another course, for that would send the bill above the legal total.  A major in Driver's the other evening, affectionally regarding the last oyster on his plate, saw it snatched from under his nose by the barman, who had suddenly realised that he had given the guest ten by mistake. The unhappy major said that they were the first oysters he had had after three years in the desert, all of which time he had apparently spent dreaming about Whitstable Natives.  It didn't make any difference to the bartender, though."

Mollie Panter-Downes, in The New Yorker, November 1943

This wartime austerity continued through 1947:

"Potato rationing is not an unexpected blow, but after two years of peace, this continuous taking in of the belt is becoming very discouraging.  … It was surprising however, to hear that the sweet ration was to be reduced and this at a time when the sugar supply is so ample that some think it might be taken off the ration altogether.  When will austerity cease?"       Mass-Observation Archive, 9th November 1947

But all was not doom and gloom that month: on the 20th November 1947 the country celebrated the wedding of HRH Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip:


"…I turned on the wireless.  A moving occasion….the feeling is genuine enough -- a delightful sort of family feeling. .. We do love our little ceremonies.  And why not? All of us are hungry for colour, romance and adventure.  Today's ceremony symbolised some dormant dream of perfection alive in the breast of every, well, woman at least. …I wept copiously into the washing-up bowl as I listened."
© Mass-Observation Archive, as above, both quoted in Our Hidden Lives  © Simon Garfield

The royal wedding banquet of Anglo-French dishes concluded with an ice-cream bombe, named after the Princess.  Maybe some people even celebrated with oysters, if not so prolifically as Lewis Carroll's pair:

 

The Walrus and the Carpenter  illus. John Tenniel 1871


"…Oh Oysters come and walk with us!
The Walrus did beseech.
A pleasant walk, a pleasant talk,
Along the briny beach:
We cannot do with more than four,
To give a hand to each. ….

Four  other Oysters followed them,
And yet another four; 
And thick and fast they came at last,
And more and more, and more --
All hopping through the frothy waves,
And scrambling to the shore….

A loaf of bread, the Walrus said,
Is what we chiefly need:
Pepper and vinegar besides
Are very good indeed --
Now if you're ready, Oysters dear,
We can begin to feed……

Oh Oysters, said the Carpenter,
You've had a pleasant run!
Shall we be trotting home again?
But answer came there none --
And this was scarcely odd, because
They'd eaten every one!"

Through the Looking Glass  Lewis Carroll
(see Poemhunter.com for the full text)


Saturday, 12 November 2016

"She's a dish" ?

Shakespeare's Measure for Measure is a play full of moral ambiguity and vice, in which two virtuous women are threatened by hypocrisy and male power.  Isabella, a novice nun, must trade her virginity to save her brother's life,  while Mariana has been jilted for lack of her dowry, both at the mercy of Angelo, the outwardly upright Ducal deputy.
Elsewhere, Pompey the bawd, trying to make Mistress Overdone's brothel appear respectable to the officers,  describes how

 "..she came in…longing for stewed prunes.  Sir we had but two in the house, which at that very distant time stood, as it were, in a fruit-dish, a dish of some threepence; your honours have seen such dishes; they are not China dishes, but very good dishes."  Measure for Measure Act 2, sc, 1.



Small 'Kraak' porcelain dish,  imitated in blue and white Dutch delft   
© V&A Museum

The first recorded performance of  Measure for Measure was for the Christmas Revels of 1604.  Ever up to date, Shakespeare's "China dishes" would surely be recognised by his elite audience as a reference to the spectacular sale of Chinese porcelain in Holland from captured Portuguese carracks in 1602 and 1603. One cargo alone contained 50 tons or 100,000 pieces of Chinese export porcelain. Before this, Chinese porcelains were exotic rarities, owned only by royalty and the very wealthiest of courtiers and Levant merchants.

Pompey's "very good (threepenny) dishes" might have been pewter, but more likely Dutch 'delft' - imitations of the imported 'Kraak' i.e. carrack porcelains, made of tin-glazed earthenware - liquid resistant, shiny and colourful but prone to chip and crack.  Some immigrant Dutch potters were making basic tin-glazed earthenwares in London from 1570s (especially smooth tiles and jars for apothecaries). The Museum of London has a large collection, many found in pieces in old cesspits.  


                     3 rare survivals:  Tin-glazed drug pots, English or Dutch, c.1600-1650.  
                                                 © British Museum, London 

It was Italian potters who introduced the technique into Holland, for tin-glazing in Italy had reached a high art form in the early 1500s, with master potters decorating wares with scenes from history and classical myth in vivid colours (known as 'maiolica').  Popular display pieces were the coppe amatorie, stock  images of idealised beautiful women, inscribed with a name and flattering titles such as bella, diva, gracioza, galante.  

'Laura bella', shallow maiolica bowl on foot, Urbino or Casteldurante, Italy, c. 1525-35
© Fitzwilliam Museum


'Silvia diva mia bella' , Urbino or Casteldurante, Italy, c. 1540
© V&A Museum

A modern feminist take on these idealised  "fair women" has been created by the Boston-born book artist, Angela Lorenz in 1993,  in her set of 6 collagraphed paper plates, framed and stored in a slatted crate.  She now lives and works mainly in Bologna, and this piece was inspired by these 'Belle Donne' images.


She's a Dish: paper plates  © Angela Lorenz, National Art Library, V&A

The six paper plates are variously labelled:  
 "She is round. She is idealised. She hangs on the wall.
  She is not to be used. She is not disposable. She's a dish."

Angela Lorenz, from artist's book, 1993 


Angela Lorenz, from artist's book, 1993

Each 'She' is in fact a dish of collaged spaghetti, sealed with glue and inked in typical maiolica colours, making a relief print in the style of those Renaissance fair women, now captured in their 16th century ceramics in museums across the globe.

See Angela Lorenz's website: angelalorenzartistsbooks.com

Saturday, 5 November 2016

Music of the Thames

Symphony in Yellow

"An omnibus across the bridge
Crawls like a yellow butterfly,
And, here and there, a passer-by
Shows like a little restless midge.
Big barges full of yellow hay
Are moored against the shadowy wharf,
And like a yellow silken scarf,
The thick fog hangs along the quay.
The yellow leaves begin to fade
And flutter from the Temple elms,
And at my feet the pale green Thames
Lies like a rod of rippled jade."

Poems, 1881  Oscar Wilde

Claude Monet must have seen similar views across the Thames when he was staying at the Savoy Hotel in the autumn of 1899 and the winters of 1900 and 1901, but this view upriver towards the Houses of Parliament was seen from his fifth floor balcony, not from the Embankment.

"… the evening mist clothes the riverside with poetry…" J.M. Whistler

 Charing Cross Bridge  Claude Monet, 1899, completed 1902
© National Museum of Cardiff, Wales

Monet and Whistler had met in Paris, where both exhibited impressionist paintings in the Salon des Refuses of 1863.  The much younger Wilde, just down from Oxford, met Whistler in London in 1881,  and fell under the influence of this artistic circle.  It was fashionable to give paintings musical names, hence his poem title "Symphony". 

Wilde's 'yellow butterfly' too is a reminder of Whistler's monogram on his Thames "Nocturne" series,   painted further upstream at Chelsea between 1866 and 1877.  Whistler called them his 'moonlights', until his patron Frederick Leyland suggested the poetical name 'Nocturne'.


Thames Nocturne, James McNeill Whistler, c. 1875
© Indianapolis Museum of Art

Tuesday, 1 November 2016

November 1st: " Some are weather-wise, some are other-wise."*

"All Saints' Day, at the beginning of November, often marks a dramatic change in the weather, as the last traces of summer finally fade, and the true character of autumn is revealed.  Some years this is marked by hard frosts, but our unpredictable climate means that dank, wet weather is equally likely.

Channel  Neil Murison   Royal West of England Academy  © the artist

When the Atlantic weather systems dominate, wave after wave of depressions sweep across that vast ocean, and funnel up the Bristol Channel, bringing more rain to an already sodden landscape.  The ground soaks up the extra water for a while, but as the weeks go by the roads are awash with muddy puddles, while little pools begin to form on the fields.  Day after day, the west wind whips across this flat, open land, battering the stunted trees and hedges into submission."

Black Wing  Peter Lanyon   British Council collection  © Sheila Lanyon

And later in the month:    "….a crow sounds a high-pitched cry of alarm.  A small taut shape shoots out of the hawthorn hedgerow: a male sparrow hawk, twisting and turning in pursuit of a bird not much smaller than he is; his T-shaped silhouette shooting low across the landscape as clouds of birds panic in the skies above.
A few minutes later, the sparrow hawk has moved on, and the fieldfares settled back into the topmost twigs of the hawthorns,  A constant, soft chattering sound fills the air, as if they are discussing the event I have just witnessed.  Fanciful, I know, but this murmur of sound is clearly a response to the passing of the predator.

The more time I spend in the parish, the more I become sensitive to these subtle changes in sight and sound.  This is a skill all naturalists pick up over the years, but it is heightened on my journey through time and seasons in the same, small, enclosed space.  It goes much deeper than mere knowledge; and almost feels as if I am becoming part of the landscape and its wildlife.  I find it comforting to know that as I get older, and my physical horizons begin to diminish, I shall never get bored with what I see, hear and find in this country parish."

Wild Hares and Hummingbirds  Stephen Moss

* from Benjamin Franklin's Poor Richard's Almanac