Saturday 26 November 2011

Jet (lignite)

courtesy Detlef thomas via wikipedia
Jet jewellery

courtesy Graham Proud via wikipedia
Whitby Harbour
Queen Victoria took mourning to a whole new level with the death of her beloved Albert. Social occasions were cancelled at court and hushed voices became the norm. Laughter was banned and the nation became very black and gloomy. Black cloth was the order of the day, something that won the Queen few friends in the textile industry. However, one little fishing village, Whitby, in north Yorkshire, rich in jet flourished. It is found in Whitby estuary and for several miles along the coast. It became a rare beneficiary of the court mourning, where no coloured jewels were permitted. Queen Victoria, however, was known to wear a glistening jet tiara from time to time.
Queen Victoria with 5 of her children in mourning
Jet is a geological material and considered to be a minor gemstone. It comes from the fossilised trunk of the Monkey Puzzle tree formed during the Jurassic age. Many people imagine that it is a derivative of coal, which too is fossilised wood. However, coal was formed during the Carboniferous age. The jet found in Whitby is approximately 182 million years old. Why is it that there is Jet in Whitby?
During the mid-Jurassic period the British Isles was located further south in the latitude of Northern Spain and Portugal. It was, therefore, nearer the equator and had a climate to match. The dominant species of tree was the Araucaria (Monkey Puzzle tree), and very similar to the ones we see today.
Monkey Puzzle tree - Araucaria under snow in Kew Garden via wikipedia
A few more gems from Whitby; Wonderful fish; Captain Cook learnt his sailing craft in Whitby and set off on many of his famed voyages of discovery in Endeavour, his Whitby flat bottomed  ship; Whitby Abbey founded in 656 by Oswy, the Christian King of Northumbria; Bram Stoker set part of his book, Dracula, in Whitby, describing Dracula's arrival on the Russian ship, Demeter,  which was shipwrecked, and washed ashore in the harbour.
courtesy J3Mrs via wikipedia
You can see the Abbey ruins behind the church, and if you click on the photo it is possible to see the famous 199 steps where Dracula ran up to the graveyard, in the shape of a black dog.

Tuesday 22 November 2011

Bulgarian Cubbyholes

Insect Cubbyholes
When we travelled to Bulgaria in the 1970s, J had just started working at a Government Research Laboratory. When his colleagues knew where we were going, they suggested that we contact a Bulgarian, called Peter, who had spent several weeks working at the laboratory the previous year. They wanted us to visit him and take him a bottle of whiskey, a rare commodity in Communist Bulgaria at the time.
We telephoned the family on our arrival, and they arranged to pick us up from our hotel so that we could have a meal with them at their home. We were really excited at the prospect of  being entertained by locals. 
When they arrived, Peter's wife was driving a very old, enormous car. On the journey she seemed to have trouble climbing the hills, and the gear lever on the steering column was also giving difficulties.  As the journey continued we understood that the car hardly ever came out except to visit their vineyard in the countryside. 
The leafy streets where they lived in Varna were incredibly quiet, the roads were empty and nobody was around. We were told that it was because the British production of The Forsyte Saga was on TV, and everybody who could get access to a television was indoors watching it. It was then that Peter's wife turned to J and said she had been expecting him to be dressed and looking like Jolyon!!!  He must have been a disappointment wearing his smart but casual attire.
As we pulled up outside their home we were confronted with a large turn of the century double fronted house.  It had been in Peter's family for years. On entering the hall with its central stairway, it suddenly became clear that the house had been split up into many parts. We went up the stairs to their section, where under Communist rules they were allowed only 17 sq. meters each.  The rest of their home had been confiscated and given to other families to live in. This was a shock for us to discover, all they had was a living kitchen, and two small annex bedrooms for themselves and their  son.
In the kitchen one wall was given over completely to little cubbyholes. They must have had about a dozen each in which to keep all of their possessions and belongings.
The two dolls in national costume were very kindly given to our sons when we left after our visit. A happy reminder of our special time spent with them.
Further post on Bulgaria here

Saturday 19 November 2011


It was the Romans who gave us one of the great architectural features of our city landscapes today. Can you imagine Florence, Washington, London or Paris without a dome enhancing the skyline?
The  dome first arrived on the scene with the extraordinary building of the Pantheon in Rome, by Marcus Agrippa, as a temple to all the gods in Ancient Rome. It was rebuilt by Emperor Hadrian in 126 AD. Almost two thousand years after it was built, the Pantheon's dome is still the world's largest unreinforced concrete dome. It has been in continuous use throughout its history, and since the 7th C it has been used as a Roman Catholic church. Seeing it today, you cannot help but be impressed and marvel at such a remarkable feat executed by the Romans.
 painted by Rudolf Ritter von Alt image via wikipedia 
painted by Giovanni Paolo Panini via wikipedia
 courtesy Dadam3zk via wikipedia

courtesy MatthiasKabel via wikipedia
The oculus at the dome's apex is the only source of interior light, apart from when the doors are open. Throughout the day, the light from the oculus moves around the space in a reverse sundial effect. It also serves as a cooling and ventilation system. It is open to the elements and during storms, a drainage system below the floor handles the rain that falls through.
The second great dome built was that of Hagia Sophia - St. Sophia in Constantinople (now Istanbul) - dedicated in 360. It is famous for its massive dome, and considered the epitome of Byzantine architecture. It was designed by the Greek scientists Isidore of Miletus, a physicist, and Anthemius of Tralles, a mathematician.
image courtesy Robster1983 via wikipedia
image courtesy Christophe Meneboeuf via wikipedia
After the dedication and until 1453 St. Sophia served as the Greek Patriarchal Cathedral except during 1204-1261 when it was converted to a Roman Catholic Cathedral. In 1453 the building became a mosque, hence the islamic features now seen in the interior.  In 1953 it was secularised and opened as a museum. 
I think that it is worth pondering at this stage, and considering the fact that it took nearly a thousand more years before the third great dome would appear on the European skyline. 
The main building of the dumo in  Florence was structurally completed in 1436. But by the beginning of the 15th C following a 100 years of construction, it was still missing it's dome. The great dome on the Florence dumo was designed by Filippo Brunelleschi who looked to the Pantheon for solutions. However, he chose to employ a double-shell design approach to the construction of the dome, using bricks due to their light weight compared to stone. Today we have modern understanding of physical laws and the mathematical tools for calculating stresses. Brunelleschi had to rely on intuition and whatever lessons he could learn from the many large scale models he built.
image courtesy MarcusOba via wikipedia
image courtesy enne via italian wikipedia
image via wikipedia
image courtesy Jps3 via wikipedia
Vasari's great fresco of the Last Judgement under the dome. He began it in 1572 and it was completed by Federico Zuccaro.
Having seen many of the great monuments of antiquity achieved by the Romans, I am always posing this question to myself - how skilled and great were the Romans? 
I shall reveal more in future posts.
An insight into Filippo Brunelleschi - polymath
Silver altar in the Duomo, Pistoia.
A substantial amount of the silver work on this altar was done by Filippo Brunelleschi.  He began his working life training as a gold and silversmith. It is amazing how these Renaissance artists were so versatile, and could turn their hand from painting to sculpture to architecture.
The pivotal event for Brunelleschi happened when he entered the competition to design the bronze north doors to the Baptistery in Florence. Lorenzo Ghiberti and Brunelleschi were joint winners but the prize was to use Ghiberti's design. Brunelleschi refused to share the work and quit. He took himself off to Rome for several years where he studied the architecture of antiquity, and in particular the Pantheon. In competition again, he designed the dome for Florence, but refused to reveal the secrets of his plan knowing his ideas would be stolen. He suggested that the commission go to whoever could stand an egg on a flat marble surface. This odd challenge was accepted. Everyone failed except Brunelleschi who, to the outrage of his competitors, simply cracked the egg on its base and it stood upright. Anyone could do that, they said. To this he replied, With my plans anyone could raise the cupola. Impressed by his confidence, the wardens gave him the commission. However, the wardens were persuaded that the work was too important to be entrusted to one man, and once again his old rival Ghiberti was made his partner. Brunelleschi still refused to reveal his plans; work started, but stopped at a height of 24 feet. He retired to his bed feigning an illness. Ask Lorenzo, he croaked to the masons when they came for their intructions. Being ignorant of what should be done, Lorenzo countered by saying, I will do nothing without Filippo. He was miraculously restored to health when the wardens agreed to his plan for Ghiberti to design and build some stone ties. These were demonstrably unsuitable and Gilberti was dismissed. Brunelleschi was then made superintendent for life; he finally revealed his model and his genius became apparent.

Friday 18 November 2011

Happy Birthday

Today is H's birthday, and we have celebrated by having a few days away in the SW corner of England which has its own micro-climate - St Ives.
Agapanthus still in flower
Aeoniums - if I left mine outside at this time of year they would turn mushy.
The area was beloved of the St. Ives school of painters during the early and mid part of the 20th C because of the special light it affords.
The bay where we stayed was a pleasant walk along the cliff top to St. Ives.
In the late 19th C on the opposite side of the peninsula, the Newlyn School of painters settled.  Among the Newlyn group are two of my favourite painters.
Between the Tides by Walter Langley - oil on canvass owned by Warrington Museum & Art gallery.
Stanhope Forbes - Fish for Sale on a Cornish Beach - owned by Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery

Sunday 13 November 2011

November Garden

It is nearly the middle of November, and the garden still has some interest in it. 
The wonderful catkins on the Garrya Elliptica
Winter Violas in hanging basket
Leaves on the grape vine
Hydrangea flowers have taken on their autumn colours
Variegated Periwinkle
Hardy fern
Winter heather
Porch geraniums still surviving
California poppy eschscholzia californica
Box ball Buxus Sempervirens
Hardy cranesbill geranium
Time to put the artichokes to bed with a nice thick layer of straw

Tuesday 8 November 2011

Gregynog Hall, Mid-Wales

 via Wikipedia
via Wikipedia
We have stayed many times at Gregynog Hall, Tregynon, Mid-Wales over the past 20 years.  It was left by the art collector owners, Margaret and Gwendoline Davies, to the University of Wales.
At the start of the twentieth century the sisters were the two richest unwed women in the British Isles with a combined personal fortune of £1,000,000 and an annual income of £40,000 inherited from their grandfather, David Davies of Llandinam. He was a self-made man whose fortune was derived from coal-owning, railways and the docks.
The current hall was built in the 1840s by Charles Hanbury-Tracy, lst Baron Sudeley, and believe it or not is one of the earliest examples of a concrete clad building still in existence. Only when you are within touching distance of the building do you realise it is not a wooden tudor house.
Margaret and Gwendoline were avid collectors of paintings, sculpture, and books. They were also great lovers of music, and  the house has a large music room which now holds the Gregynog Music Festival founded by the sisters in 1933. The Courtyard is home to the internationally recognised Gwasg Gregynog, a private printing press founded by the sisters, and which is still producing limited edition and very collectable hand-bound books.
When we first began staying there, the house was full of treasures, which have now been removed to the National Gallery of Wales, Cardiff, for their own safety.
The sisters began buying art in 1907 and concentrated initially on pre-Impressionist paintings. They bought a number of Carot's exquisitely feathery landscapes. They purchased works by Millet, Daumier and Turner. They then turned their attention to Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art. They bought three of Monet's water-lily paintings, and also one of his most atmospheric depictions of Rouen cathedral, Rouen Cathedral: Setting Sun. The two most famous works they purchased were La Parisienne by Pierre-Auguste Renoir and a version of Rodin's Kiss cast in bronze, both of which were still in the house when we first visited.
La Parisienne by Renoir
 via Wikipedia
As you walk down the long dark tree lined drive towards the property, the vista suddenly opens up to reveal the black and white house, offset by the yellow castellated yew hedge in the ha-ha, and being mid-Wales, the emerald green lawns - the setting is pure magic.
courtesy tregynoncommunitycouncil
This linocut of Gregynog Hall was printed at Gwasg Gregynog (the private press).  It is from a linocut by Peter Allen, with a quote from William Morris around the edge. 
It is a poor reproduction as I had difficulty scanning it. I did not want to remove the frame.

If I were asked to say what is at once the most important production of Art and the thing most to be longed for,
I should answer A BEAUTIFUL HOUSE and if I were further asked to name the production next in importance and the next thing to be longed for, I should answer A BEAUTIFUL BOOK.  To enjoy good houses and good books in self respect and decent comfort seems to me to be the pleasurable end towards which all societies of human beings ought now to struggle - William Morris.

Sunday 6 November 2011

Anticipating the Spring

Spring is a very long journey away.  Christmas first, and then who knows what weather will be thrown at us this year. Today is really warm, the sun is shining, and I have started thinking about the garden next year. We have decided to have more lilies, but are especially drawn to these turkish cap varieties. The pink ones below - Martagon, actually grow in the wild quite near to where we live. I have also seen them growing in a valley deep in the Pyrenees where they have lingered in my memory. They have been on our garden list for a long time, but I always remember too late in the season. This year I am thinking ahead.
Martagon Pink
Martagon Album
Martagon Yellow Bunting
Davidii Bright Orange
Leichtlinii Yellow Speckled
Hiawaitha Red Tiger Lily
images courtesy Harts Nursery