Wednesday, 16 December 2015

in the Company of Wolves

A mystical version of Santa Claus
from Arthur Rackham's Book of Pictures published in 1913.
This painting was done in 1907, pen, ink & watercolour on paper, and is in a Private Collection.
Photo © Chris Beetles Ltd, London / The Bridgeman Art Library

I've long been fascinated by the symbolism of the colour red in folklore and how this permeates into our daily life, often without us realising.  At this time of year if we think of red, it will be Santa Claus whose red costume springs to the mind of a lot of people.

Stag hook with red stone and red + blue wool blanket.
From Plumo.
There is something comforting about red in the dark winter months. The glow of a fiery hearth warming our homes and soft wool blankets and throws. And who does not love a red winter coat? Bright red ribbons tied around lovingly given Christmas presents. Shiny red glass ornaments hung on a tree, and the lush red berries of holy in wreaths, and dropped in the snow. If we are lucky enough to live where they do we may even see the Red Cardinal. Here in England we are charmed by the tiny but fierce Robin with it's red breast and he adorns many a Christmas card as well as being England's national bird.

Robin and holly
Red is a complex colour and has another, more dangerous side and many associations with myth and magic. As Autumn turns to Winter and the trees shake their colourful leaf cloaks to the ground my thoughts always turn to the woods. I love the architectural shape of bare trees and the idea that you may just glimpse something magical there in the woods which at other times of the year would be hidden to your view. We may dream of Unicorns, but If we are very lucky we might really see a White Hart. I often see the Deer who live in our local woods and I have seen the White Hart in the New Forest and in the royal hunting park near Hampton Court, Bushy Park. 

The Mystic Wood by John William Waterhouse
 But it is the Wolves which I secretly long for. Or at least a ribbon of red cloth, caught on a tree as if someone who had strayed from the path hurried past.

All colours have meanings and the power to change our moods. Red is not a colour for wall flowers, it is primal, capable of elicting extreme reactions. How we feel about red today began in the distant past when red was known as the color of fire and blood, associated with Mars the God of war,  and confusingly, both mahesty and liberty, therefore revolutions. It also symbolised passion as the colour of love, and of sin.

Tudor Rose, Elizabethan lady in red velvet,
Robert Dudley Earl of Leicester.
Both majesty and revolutions
Immortal passion. Gary Oldman in the red cloak of Dracula. Terrifying.

Even when used in small amounts it has a potent effect and a deep poignancy. Few colours can evoke such emotion.

This is a celebration of the colour red in a few of it's guises. The history and folklore of red has been academically covered by many and for those who wish to read more serious considerations I have included some links at the bottom of the page and am happy to add more should you know of good sources which I have left out.

I've collected lore about the colour red all of my life and am always delighted when another story appears where red is used. I do love them all.

Alas we have no snow this winter, it is just grey and very wet here in the English countryside. I long for that burst of red against a blanket of white, and this greyness inspired me to share some of my favourite reds.

Little Red Riding Hood
Sir John Everett Millais P.R.A.
The model is his daughter
oil on panel, 1864
35.5 by 25cm., 14 by 9¾in.
see bottom of page for details about this painting

Sarah Moon's rendition.
An urban black and white tale of dread.
The model is her daughter
Superb in it's simplicity.

Tribute to Red
from Surface View

The Red Hat, Charles A Buchel, 1910
Imagine winter nights in this

The lore of Apples.

Bette Davis wears a red ball gown in 1938 and ruins her reputation
as ladies should wear white

Scarlett O'Hara on the red stairs
Gone With The Wind 1939

Modern Folklore. David Hemmings drives past the red buildings in Blow Up, 1967.
Sammy Hagar pays tribute with his 'Red' album of the same street scene in 1977.

Angela Carter. The Bloody Chamber, 1979
 new stories from the base of old ones
including In the Company of Wolves which became the Neil Jorden 1984 film

Red Shoes  & Ruby Slippers
The Red Shoes (film 1948), The Wizard Of Oz (film 1939)
Vianne from Chocolat (2000) & The Lollipop Shoes (2007) by Joanne Harris

For sheer poignancy, a real life story
The girl in the red coat
Schindler's List 1993

For some it may be difficult to chose a favourite tale which has red at it's heart, but not for me. Thankfully the legacy lives on as new storytellers weave tales of dread and delight around bright red tendrils.

Modern Red, in the Cotswolds
Have you guessed which tale of red might be my favourite? Yes, it is Little Red Riding Hood. I think the reasons that I like it so much are tied to the Arthur Rackham illustrations which I have had since I was a child. And I love the dual nature of red. I always wonder if this is one of the reasons that the French version with it's sad ending, and the Grimm's version with it's happy ending. both work.

Arthur Rackham
detail from She Met a Wolf
And, in a twist and colour deviation from the red hood there is another lesser known tale which insists that in fact the hood or cape was golden, and enchanted. Andrew Lang included it in his Red Fairy Book, 1890, and called it 'The True History of Little Goldenhood'. His tale was derived from the earlier work of Charles Marelles. This version claims that before now the story has been incorrectly told. Goldenhood is the girl's name as well as her cloak and she is saved not by the huntsman but by the hood which burns the mouth o the wolf as he tries to eat her. You can read this tale in full, follow the links below.

One version of Andrew Lang's Red Fairy Book
bought from Abe's Books Here:

The only known illustration from Golden Hood
you can see clearly she is wearing a hood
and not cloak with a hood.

I tried to photograph a few of my Red Riding Hood pieces which I have collected for years, but Puff the half kitten rather got in the way. She likes to lay amongst them and because she is a magic cat the camera always focusses correctly upon her and not other subjects.

Puff with my Red Riding Hood figures.

This is a detail of the small Staffordshire figure. The Wolf seems rather shy as he is hiding under Red's skirt. This figurine is quite old and has a crack running through the bottom. 

Small Staffordshire 'Red' detail
I like to display a Parrish Relic on the large Parian figure of Red. Jen Parrish uses antique images in her beautiful creations. This one has nothing to do with the tale of Red Riding Hood but I like to combine pieces of Wolf lore with that of Red Riding Hood. Parian is a soft clay and delicate. This piece is missing a paw and a handle of Red's basket. I still love her.

Parian Ware 'Red' adorned by a Parrish Relic of Wolves

My little Red
And a favourite of mine. Tortoiseshell and Calico cats are brave and fierce and like to play in the  woods, real or metaphoric. This little painting was a tribute of the artist to her own Calico who she lost, and to mine. It is very precious to me.

Further reading and sources:

Obviously any self respecting fan of Red, and of Wolves needs to read the tale as recorded firstly Charles Perrault, and later told and retold in different versions by the Brothers Grimm.  The earliest known printed version was called Le Petit Chaperon Rouge, by Charles Perrault and may have had its origins in 17th-century French folklore.  It is believed that it was he who introduced the red hood or cap, but it is not known whether this idea was his own, or came from folklore.

For the alternative tale, The True History of Little Golden Hood from The Red Fairy Book, read more on Tales Of Faerie  Here:and the complete tale on Sur La lune Fairytales Here:

I love the writing of author Joanne Harris and have read, and re-read all of her work. She weaves an intoxicating tale with subtle under and overtures. Her own website is Here:

Being a city girl originally I was immediately struck dumb (and captivated and frightened in equal parts) by the urban depiction of Sarah Moon's Red, Here:

Terri Windling who does not just write about the land of Faerie but embodies it has written so many informative and wondrous pieces on her blog, her article about Red, Here:

Kristin's wonderful site Tales of Faerie and her piece about Red. Here:

Article about Sammy Hagar's Red album and the Blow Up connection,

The Girl in the red coat, the real story, Here:

Parrish Relics own website, Here:

Surface View who offer wonderful art for your walls and home in all kinds of mediums,

Red Riding Hood by Sir John Everett Millais P.R.A.

This was sold at Sotheby's in a sale of British and Irish Art, 19 November 2013,for the amount of 98,500 GBP  including the hammer price with the buyer's premium.  
This note is from their catalogue of that sale.

"Painted in 1864, Red Riding Hood depicts the artist's eldest daughter Effie (later Mrs James), aged six, carrying a basket of vegetables and wild flowers, at the door of Grannie's house. It is one of a series of charming portraits of Effie, dressed in various costumes, including My First Sermon and My Second Sermon painted in 1863 and The Minuet of 1866 (private collection). He often used his daughters as models and Effie's sisters Mary and Carrie appear in Waking (Perth Art Gallery) and Sleeping (private collection) of 1865. As has been pointed out, 'With child models readily available Millais was able to give free expression to feelings of parental pride and joy, as well as offer comment on the growth of his offspring, with an eye on the market for endearing images of children.' (Jason Rosenfeld and Alison Smith, Millais, 2007, p.172) Millais was probably inspired to paint Red Riding Hood following the success of James Sant's Little Red Riding Hood of 1860 which had been printed in 1863 in the Illustrated London News as a large chromotype which resulted in the sale of vast numbers of the magazine. The subject was also painted by Watts and Landseer. The moment depicted by Millais captures the tension as Red Riding Hood is about to enter the house to find the wolf dressed in her grand-mother's clothes. However the horror and danger of the story that had been first told by Charles Perrault and retold by the Brothers Grimm, is only implied."

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

And Then There Were Three

Minerva and Morpheus Black

Mrs Black and her naughty kitten Isabella

We have been a family of two cats since November two years ago when Mrs Black, missing both her late husband Morpheus, and their much loved kitten Isabella,  decided to take in a lodger. He turned out to have quite a tale to tell. He was a distant relative of her late husband who had fallen on hard times when his elderly owner died and his old house was sold from under him. He had lived by various names but he explained in his letter to Mrs Black that his true name was Monsieur Munchkin Lestrange.


He very much regretted that the reputation of his ancient family had been tarnished by the behavior of cousin Bellatrix made famous when J.K Rowling collected the lore and wrote those Harry Potter books.

Mssr Lestrange potrait
by celebrated Dutch artist Marie Cecile Thijs
website HERE:

Munchkin had endured being cat napped from his home whie his mistress was gravely ill and bustled off to a new home 10 miles away. Desperate to return to his beloved mistress he escaped and wandered the miles between until some 6 months later he came home. Sadly his mistress had died. Cast out of his home by the new cruel owner who sent the dogs out to kill him, he took up residence in the gardens and solicited the assistance of a neighbour who had long admired the handsome half Maine Coon. Despite her family being allergic to cats, she fed him and helped him find Mrs Black. Nearly three years after the death of his mistress Munchkin finally came indoors to a life of total comfort.

Mssr. Munchkin Lestrange
Mrs Black adores him and is ever hopeful of some tale of his travel adventures, but he dislikes other cats preferring to spend his time in my studio at the bottom of the garden writing his memoirs, or overseeing the maintenance of the 13th century Norman church behind our cottage. Obviously after such tragic times he can be a little tetchy and cuddles must be kept to a minumum. He has been known to bite the hand that feeds! Two winters living outside in snow took their toll and he suffers arthritis but takes his medicine well, as long as there are treats to hand. He has a fierce hiss and growl (cat swearing) but thankfully there has been no sign of the dark spells which cousin Bellatrix was famous for.

Mssr Lestrange in the graveyard

Not being as companionable as Mrs Black had hoped she continued to long for a kitten to brighten her old age. One day, out of the blue, she said that if Munchkin were to pass on before her she would like, more than anything, to have a completely black kitten named Puff. I pondered this confession, and thought how typically considerate of her, knowing Munchkin hated other cats, she would wait until he had passed on. I mentally made a note to warn the husband that a black kitten may be in our future somewhere.

At the end of August while admiring the blood moon from a field at the bottom of our lane the husband and I noticed a young black cat catching a mouse. A bit startled by us she nevertheless carried the struggling mouse out of the field but she lost it in the lane. As I looked over towards her she meowed piteously and ran towards some old sheds which were once field shelters.

We then saw her about the village and in particular underneath our bird feeders at the front of our cottage. She was timid and would always run away. In mid-October things came to a head. Leaving the house to go out I saw the black cat jump onto the bird table to eat the fat balls which I had put out for the birds.

I put down a bowl of cat food. And so it began.

Cat shelter
made from old compost bin, newspaper 7 straw.

Two weeks later after building a cat shelter from an old bin and feeding twice a day, we enticed the cat into our cottage with a bowl of food and shut the door. Since then it has lived in our spare bedroom in order to determine it's state of health before introducing it to Mrs Black and Munchkin.

The black cat is a she, between 6-9 months and absolutely, completely, black. Everywhere.

Her name is, of course, Puff. It seems that Mrs Black has been doing some conjuring and the magic of the season helped her to guide this poor homeless waif to her.

Puff passed initial vet checks but we anxiously waited the blood test results to be certain that she was clear of Feline Leukemia (FeLV) and Feline Aids.  Both Mrs Black and Munchin have compromised immune systems and very heartbreakingly were Puff to have one of the fatal cat diseases she could not stay with us. It would be too much of a risk to them.

Introducing Puff.

There was much celebrating when our vet rang to give us the all clear. Puff is not micro chipped, and we have no history for her. She is timid and frightened of people and although she will cuddle and purr she hides under the chest of drawers when we are not in the room and shies away when you first extend a hand. She has probably been lost or abandoned since a small kitten, but must have at some point been handled and loved for she is not completely feral. We are quite sad that whoever may have owned her before will not know that she is safe and loved not just by us but by Mrs Black.

The vet is unable to be sure if she has been spayed so we must wait and watch to see if she comes into heat. She could even be already pregnant, if she is, it is too early to tell. She is underweight and infested with parasites from the birds and mice which she ate to survive. She must be a very brave and remarkable cat to be able to look after herself from such a young age. But she will be fine and soon introductions can take place between her and Mrs Black. Munchkin no doubt will be completely unimpressed and insist this young cat has no access to 'his' studio in his garden.

We will need to hone our photography skills in order to get good images of Puff, she is so dark.

We are very grateful for being able to help this beautiful homeless cat.

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Two Doors Down From The Witch

Two Doors Down

Once upon a time in the 1980s I lived in an ordinary looking house in a terrace, (especially on a bright sunny day as this), in East Twickenham, by the river Thames, two doors down from The Witch.

June was a good Witch. She lived in the biggest house on our street, on the corner of our terrace. A large Edwardian with leaded glass winking in the windows and a little attic dormer. Suitably distressed it had a lovely porch with gingerbread pillers and red clay roof tiles. The entry hall was so large that there was a fireplace on one wall. The room was painted violet.

In those days I did not own a camera so sadly the images used here are borrowed, or from much later after June had died.  Even then, looking sad without it's Witch it was still charming to me for I knew what enchanting times this house had known.

The Witch's house, taken by me much later

I know that many people believe that we do not hold to Halloween and Trick or Treat here in England - but that was not true of that road in Twickenham where The Witch had lived for those many years. I do not know just how many years that June lived in the house by the river, but each Halloween she opened her home to all the trick and treaters of the neighbourhood and she had thrilled (and scared) generations of local children.

She spent many days before All Hallows decorating the house, especially the old porch where there would be a skeleton and frightening music when you rang the bell. A specially prepared Halloween feast awaited those who dared to enter.

June had pointy toed lace up boots and always wore a long black dress with a cape or interesting cloak. And, of course, a pointy hat. She could cackle too, but usually just got a fit of giggles.

pointy toed Witch boots
I was young when I first celebrated Halloween at the Witch's house and I had to buy a black hat to be allowed inside. Many years later I would dress up my Godson and take him to meet June and play with her Grandchildren. It was inspiring to see that children who grew up returned with their children. Looking back I'm not sure that I knew then what June meant to all of us. She had a bit of Bell Book and Candle, Bewitched, The Aunts in Practical Magic, and Minerva McGonegal in her. But most of all she was pure June. She was The Witch, the local storyteller of many tales.

She was The Witch

I met June, and ended up living two doors down due to my then boyfriend having once lived in that very street with his parents. He had been one of June's charmed children and then officially a Godchild of hers. His Mother had died when he was young and returning there, two doors down, was like coming home for him.

June's middle initial was E and the names of her four children all began with 'E'. I never did find out why. She loved children and always said that had her 4th pregnancy not been a difficult one she would have carried on having them for who knows how long. The thing she wanted more than anything was Grandchildren, and she did get them. One of her children had given her a framed photograph of Margaret Hamilton as The Wicked Witch in Oz. I gave June my little felt mouse dressed in a Witch costume which was one of my most treaured possessions brought with me from San Francisco.

Visiting June's house felt like coming home.
The Practical Magic house.
June took me under her broom and she was the first person who made me think that perhaps I too was a Witch. One of my own first memories of Halloween, when I was about 5, was dressing as a Witch to trick or treat our small Californian neighbourhood. June did not have a cat as a familiar. She did have a Tortoise in the walled garden whose name escapes me but I recall them putting it away for winter to hibernate and one year when it broke out before anyone thought it was time to awake.  I had four cats who all used to walk along the top of the terrace and visit June's house. One cat, a ginger tabby named Macavity, climbed to the very top of the house which was the office of June's husband and we spent hours trying to talk it off the roof through the attic window.  

The house endlessly fascinated me. The top floor was known as the nursery and was mostly given over to the children who had a train set which covered a vast area, always set up ready to play. Who would not love a house with both a cellar and an attic? It had French oak floors and the staircase rail was beautifully carved and twisted.  Things were always being revealed to me there. One day we decided to enquire what was in the garage. It turned out to house a very old, very beautiful Alvis.

Along with Halloween and Margaret Hamilton, June also loved The Day of the Dead. On the top of a bookcase in the dining room sat a skeleton scene, arranged around a dining table at a meal. She loved Toucans and we marvelled at how she could drink Guinness even though she was a tiny Witch.

A good cook, as you would expect of a Witch, she liked collecting mushrooms and made the best mushroom soup I have ever tasted.

June was not the only magical being in the house at the end of the terrace. Her husband was a word wizard. He knew all sorts of things most people had forgotten. He could quote from Wilde, Shakespeare, Lewis Carrol and many obscure writings. He was an editor and a man well known for his charm and wit. During his working life he made magic for The Sunday Times, World of Interiors, and The Church Times. It was he who first introduced me to Edward Lear and to an antique/junk shop in St Margaret's called Cheney Galleries. I mostly kept a carved oak chair I bought there to remind me of him. On one visit there we found a small sketch which we believed was an Edward Lear. Alas, I do not know what became of that. He was a perfect host and loved having people over for drinks on New Years. On Halloween he stayed out of the way of all the Witches and Ghoulies. He could usually be found in a corner in an old chair, his glasses perched upon his nose behind a newspaper. When anyone was talking a bit of nonsense he had this way of raising one eyebrow and looking at them from over his glasses.

It was a wonderful community to live in and I miss those days. Sundays were spent at a local pub, a walk across the river over Richmond Bridge.

My boyfriend and I moved away from Twickenham and we parted ways. I did not see much of June but I kept in touch. I am very glad that June was still alive when Practical Magic, Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings were made into films. I hope that she was able to see them all, she would have loved knowing that the magic of storytelling was alive and had been handed to a new generation of children.  The last Halloween she sent me a note to tell me that she was grounded due to being unwell. I meant to but I am not good at saying goodbye and I never saw her again.

I noticed a few years ago that the house came up for sale once more. It had been 'developed' by someone and all of the charm hidden behind the persistent trend for black and white kitchens, knocked through rooms, endless white and parking spaces.  The photographs sadddened me.

all white and neat now

a reminder of the once leaded glass windows

One of the ornate fireplaces survived the modernisation

I often think of June when I see little enchanting things and know that she would like them. In our village I am The Witch. I dress our cottage with pumpkins, spiders, bats and lanterns for the small ones who make their way to our door. Each year there are more and I find June's pointy toed boots a hard act to follow, but I will try.
I suspect that every now and then I will go past the house where The Witch and The Word Wizard lived two doors down. Just to check on it. Maybe one day it will transform itself back to how it once was, how I remember it. Like this.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...