Sunday 30 January 2011

Other gardens 2. Sissinghurst

 Sissinghurst Castle Garden, Kent, England.

In 1930 the writers Harold Nicholson and his wife Vita Sackville-West bought dilapidated Sissinghurst Castle with its ruin of of an Elizabethan tower and set to work to restore it and create a garden.
Harold planned the garden and Vita Sackville-West devised the planting. She hated serried ranks of flowers and arranged her plants in groups and swathes of colour, giving consideration to texture and the differing seasons.

This is now one of the most popular gardens in the country.

Vita used the small room at the very top of the 16th century red brick tower as her writing room.

The white garden viewed from the top of the tower.

The central climbing rose in the white garden is famous for its display of flowers in early July. This area of the garden was very crowded with sightseers and it was frustratingly difficult to photograph in such an enclosed space. The planting was very beautiful but I was unable to capture exactly what I saw with my camera.

Beyond the white garden there were other  'rooms' with flower beds of brilliant colours.

From the tower you could see the pathways that had been mown through the orchard and the Kentish countryside beyond the garden.

The gardens are now run by the National Trust. (Sometimes referred to as the 'National Trussed')

watercolour of Sissinghurst garden by Rosemary Murphy.

Thursday 27 January 2011

Other Gardens 1. La Foce

 La Foce, Chianciano Terme, Siena, Italy.

My garden is not worth writing about at this time of year, there is nothing much to look at and it is far too cold to be outside doing the digging and pruning that should be occupying my time. Instead I would like to share with you some other gardens that I've visited and enjoyed in far better weather, although the day that we went to La Foce was quite dramatic, weather-wise, because the sky went bruise-blue and we had to shelter from large hailstones! As we waited for the gardens to open we were joined by visitors from Canada, America, Japan and another couple from England, less than twenty in all.
We visited this garden as a result of reading first of all a biography and then the books of the Anglo-American writer, Iris Origo. She was the daughter of William Bayard Cutting, the diplomat son of a wealthy New York family and Lady Sybil Cuffe, the daughter of the Lord Desart, an Irish peer. 
After the death of her father in 1910 from tuberculosis, Iris and her mother lived at the  Villa Medici in Fiesole, one of the most beautiful villas in Florence, where they became friends with Bernhard Berenson who lived not far away at I Tatti.

In 1924 Iris married Antonio, the son of Marchese Clemente Origo, a painter and sculptor. In the same year they bought the run-down estate of la Foce, an old osteria built on crossroads that link the towns of Montepulciano, Chianciano, Pienza and Sarteano. ("Foce" means 'opening' or 'meeting-place'.)

During the Second World War the Origos continued to live at La Foce. They led a complicated life, sheltering escaped Allied prisoners of war, Italian deserters and a variety of people hiding out or passing through the surrounding woods, whilst also dealing in the daytime with Italian and Germans officials. 
Iris' book, 'War in the Val D'Orcia' is a vivid description of that time. As we drove away from the garden it was easy to imagine the people who had passed through this wooded landscape, coming out of hiding at night to collect the food that Iris provided.

Antonio and Iris employed the English architect Cecil Pinset (1884 -19630) to enlarge the house and farm and create the garden with its wonderful views of the Orcia valley and the Amiata mountain. The garden follows the slope of the hill and is subdivided into several terraced rooms outlined in box.

La Foce.

Beneath a well shaped ilex tree some strangers stand.
 A black sky cracks and thunder rolls.
 Springtime in Italy and our guide is well prepared,
she wears two jackets.
Hailstones jump from her umbrella
drowning out words.
Into the loggia we retreat,
well-heeled tourists, middle aged
who've read about the subject, are alert.
And Benedetta serves us well,
was born to stories of this house.
The ground hail-white and crunchy underfoot,
ice drifts beside pink peonies blousy blooms,
a great wisteria droops its colour down
as hill and valley fight for light and shade.
Here every box edge is so crisply made
and well displayed against the whitened ground.

Now, having shared this drama
we are loathe to part,
so stand and say
perhaps we'll cross the world to meet again.
I'm sure , if there'd been sunshine,
we would not have felt the same.

A short woodland walk away from the garden there is a cemetery, designed in 1933 by Pinsent following the death of the Origos' seven year old son, Gianni.

After the war Iris divided her time between La Foce and Rome, where the Origos owned a flat. She was appointed a Dame Commander of the British Empire in 1977 and died in June 1988 at the age of 85.

Tuesday 25 January 2011

Burn's Supper

It is Burn's Night, so of course we are having haggis for supper. All over the world  there will be someone standing up in a kilt and spouting,

"Fair for your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftian o' the puddin-race!"

Robert Burn's poem goes on, and on, and on, reminding us that the haggis is made from sheep's stomach and intestine. If you were to concentrate on his words I don't think that you would feel like eating haggis!  My supermarket purchase didn't look very traditional in it's plastic wrapping , but it tasted delicious!

Here is the traditional dish of haggis with tatties and neeps, (potatoes and turnip.)

After I photographed this I added sprouts and peas to the plate for a bit of colour - I've obviously been living down south for far too long!

Thursday 20 January 2011

St Agnes' Eve

St Agnes' Eve - Ah, bitter chill it was!
The owl, for all his feathers, was a-cold;
The hare limp'd trembling through the frozen grass,
And silent was the flock in woolly fold:

'The Eve of St Agnes' by John Keats, written in Chichester in 1819.

medieval wood carving, one of a pair.
(Bought in a junk shop for £5!)

It is St Agnes' Eve , and after a clear night and a full moon, although the sun shines, there is an extremely heavy frost, just the same weather that Keats was writing about in 1819 in the opening lines of his poem.

I love the sound of owls, last night they were hooting from the woods beyond our garden. Sometimes in the summer I stand outside and call to them, although these days I never seem to get a reply. Perhaps I've lost the knack.

My brother reared a tawny owl, seen with me here in the process of growing out his fledgling down. He would fly lazily about the garden and nearby cricket pitch in the daytime. In the evenings, when we had both been banished, me to bed and he to his pen, I would lean out of my bedroom window and hoot to him and his beautiful, melodious reply would come floating across the orchard.

Himself sometimes puts an owl in his carvings, silently watching from a corner or gliding through the sky. 

Badger watch 1 

 The watcher watched!

Badger watch 2. Limewood bas-relief carving by Peter Murphy.

Hall's Dictionary of Subjects and Symbols in Art.

Owl. Associated with Athene (Minerva) in ancient Greece where it is found on the reverse of coins bearing her image. From this it became a symbol of wisdom, which Minerva personifies. It is a common attribute of the goddess, perhaps perched on a pile of books. As a nocturnal bird it is also the attribute of  night personified, and of sleep.

Tuesday 18 January 2011

Another place

While rootling in my workroom I came across some sketches that I had made for a mural commissioned by the Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines. My neighbours are going on a cruise tomorrow, how sensible of them!

I haven't been to Venice for ages, it's my favourite city. I have visited a number of times, both for work and on holiday and it is always a delight.
The commission was good fun as I was given a very open brief and a generous deadline. It meant that I could spend a week in Venice and collect all the reference material that I might need. It is a luxury for an illustrator to be given plenty of time and it made the whole experience very pleasurable.

I stayed in a nice little flat on the Fondamenta de la Pescaria - at least it was nice once I had climbed up all three flights of stairs to get there! These sketchbook studies are of the view from my window.

I took site photographs for reference

and drew from a display of period clothes at the Palazzo Mocenigo, San Sae.

I visited art galleries and museums and bought postcards that would be useful.

Museo Correr, 'Due Dame Venezia' by Vittore Carpaccio,
c. 1490-1495

Back at home my daughters were useful models.

Costume reference for my central figure, from the commedia del'arte character, Arlecchina.

Here I am on the lawn with the finished canvas. Just the ends are off camera.

"Ball in Venice" 1x7 metres. Commissioned for 'Splendour of the Seas.'

I'm hiding by the lion on the extreme right of the canvas.


I've been rummaging about in my workroom searching for some reference material. The room is such a tip that I couldn't find what I was looking for but I came up with lots of other things that I hadn't seen for a while, including these photographs of the garden at our previous house. I never planned to leave this space, where we had lived so happily and brought up our daughters, but bounderies were changed and the orchard and fields beyond our garden were sold for development. We moved house in the springtime with the garden looking beautiful. Just a couple of years later it had gone and four large houses now occupy the space that I loved so much.

One year Himself dug a pond as a present for my birthday.

It even had a jetty!

It was a luscious, undisciplined, cottage garden, very private and quite magical. A tree-covered copse to the north sheltered the whole area  

making it wonderful for growing fruit and veg.

The garden was the source for us both of  many prints, paintings and carvings and the space was a delight for all the family.

Today we are going to the funeral of the children's writer Dick King-Smith. He and Zona would look after our fox-terriers, Bella and then Maisie if we were flying off on holiday from Bristol airport and had to leave them behind. When I collected my dog on the first occasion she was somewhat plumper than when I had left her. Dick said very proudly that he had taught her to sit up and offer her paw. I was suitably impressed. How had he trained her so quickly?
"With digestive biscuits" he said.
Well, really! Had I been prepared to feed my dog sweet biscuits I think that I could have had her standing on her head and reciting poetry in no time!

A few years ago a new children's hospice was built for the terminally ill in the South-West and the fund-raising theme was 'Babe', the title of the film based on Dick's book, 'The sheep-Pig.' Dick commissioned Himself to make a carving of his story to give to the hospice.

Showing Dick the piece of wood chosen for his commission.

Himself polishing the coloured carving in his studio.

The finished carving was hung low down on  a wall in the hospice so that the children could touch it and search for all the little details from Dick's story.