Tuesday, 17 March 2015


The First Buds of Spring
watercolour, 25 x 16 inches, signed and dated 1885
Lionel Percy Smythe 

It is still very cold here but the first buds of Spring are opening bringing us hope that soon winter really will pass. It has been a mild Winter overall, with snow only coming in small amounts in January and February.

Countryside Info website
I've been in the Cotswolds for a week with friends. Driving through the villages and up Cleeve Hill the hedgerows were dotted underneath with the pale creamy blooms of wild primroses. I love seeing this wild flower and much prefer them to the more vibrantly coloured hybrids which people put in baskets. According to the excellent website, 'Countryside Info', "The Primrose (Primula vulgaris) is native to Britain and Europe. It  is a small plant, typically no more than 10 cm (4") high. It produces flowers which generally vary in colour from pale cream to deep yellow." There is also a pale pink variation which is rarer than the yellow. 

Blackbirds are everywhere gathering food for their young, when we drove at dusk we slowed right down for them because they fly very low from hedge to hedge across the road.

Before our holiday I visited one of my favourite art galleries and came across a catalogue from 2000 which caught my eye. The cover had the most exquisite watercolour on it, of a young girl in a wood with a blackbird in the bush beside her. The composition is soft and luminous and somehow conveys an air of melancholy. I found it quite poignant, the young girl perched on the brink of womanhood, and the Spring, both poised to bloom.

I'd been shopping all day and my bags and baskets were full but I had to have this. It was only a few pounds. I set off weighted down with my captures of the day towards the car.

Royal Albert Primrose Hill teacup

Once home and fortified by a cup of tea in a pretty cup I looked more closely at the catalogue and read the entry about this watercolour. The painting is called, 'The First Buds of Spring' and is by Lionel Percy Smythe (1839-1918). Lionel was the son of the 6th Viscount Stratford. He spent his early years in France before his family returned to settle in London in 1843. He trained in London and some of his paintings were exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1863. Smythe and his wife made their home in Normandy, first at Wimereux (where the artist had spent his summer holidays as a child) and, from 1882 onwards, at the Château d’Honvault, between Wimereux and Boulogne. 
Lionel was a student of nature and he often portrayed the woods and fields of the countryside where he lived. His work was popular with a small following of collectors in England and became associated with 'The Idyllists',  a group of Victorian artists and illustrators which included Frederick Walker and John William North.  His work is represented in the collections of the Tate and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
This piece is one of a series which Smythe painted using the woodlands around his home as a backdrop to a young girl pushing through a thicket in Spring time. The model was his daughter Norah, known as Noe. One of the compositions, 'A Wood Nymph' was exhibited in 1884. I have been unable to find an image of that painting, with that name, but the catalogues states that it is, 'surely close in composition to the present picture with its 'silver velvety bud of the willow palm' and 'a blackbird preening itself'. I wondered if this could have also been named 'Springtime', as this painting is so similar to the description and Noe is also the model here.
Lionel Percy Smythe
possibly also known as 'A Wood Nymph'
And there is one other painting which I located, entitled 'Bramble' which has the same composition but the girl is dark haired.
Lionel Percy Smyth
His paintings of farm and seashore workers and children picking flowers and playing have magic about them although they often portray quite common circumstance. Stephen Ogden Fine Art sums this up in their bio entry of the artist when they say that, writing in 1910, one scholar noted of the artist that ‘Mr. Smythe proves plainly that a man may be as realist and still retain his poetic sense; that he may record the life about him faithfully and convincingly and yet miss none of its poetry, none of its imaginative suggestion, and none, certainly, of the beauty it may happen to possess.’
The Chris Beetles catalogue entry ends thus, "Its suggestion of melancholy is given poignant emphasis by the knowledge that Noe developed pleurisy in 1897, and died of tuberculosis a year later, before her 13th birthday'.

I have fallen in love with his work, and with this beautiful girl who lit up his paintings.  I hope to see some of his pieces in galleries when I am feeling better and can travel again.

Lionel Percy Smythe
(love the flower collar on the dog)

Credits :

Stephen Ongpin Fine Art HERE:

Chris Beetles Art Gallery

Royal Albert China

Monday, 2 March 2015


BBC production of Wolf Hall
Claire Foy as Anne Boleyn, Damien Lewis as Henry VIII

Life often does not go according to dreams - or plans, no matter who that we are.

Losing friends and loved ones, or having a serious illness serves to remind us how precious that each moment is and how, whatever our own personal circumstances we need to make the most of what we have and enjoy the good times.

It is a new year and time has flown by once again, including Christmas, while I recovered from illness. I was born with an immune disorder which was not correctly diagnosed until adulthood by which time it had left me with permanent damage. It is why I took early retirement from my corporate employment, and began to turn my leisure activity of collecting and selling vintage items into my full time job. I often struggle to make plans for the future, near or far. Deadlines spin past while I rest and I worry about the inconvenience to others when I must cancel an event or meeting. I acutely feel the distress that not being quite well causes to those close to me. Even a slight cold can keep me from doing anything for several days.

our woodland themed Christmas tree 

I love celebrating the seasons and I managed to get the Christmas tree up and the cottage decorated before taking to my bed. We have three different size and shape faux trees which we alternate. I love the scent of real trees, which reminds me of the pine forests of my childhood but I have always felt a close bond to trees and feel guilty that they must die so we can decorate our homes for a few weeks. I fully understand why so many people chose to have a real tree at Christmas, it is an age old tradition to bring greenery into the home in winter. I have a live tree in the garden which we decorate with fairy lights, but indoors I use trees which have been made of wrapped paper, painted sticks or driftwood.  When we lived in the big house we had all three trees up on December 1st. Wherever that I live I always have one tree, even a tiny one,  with animal decorations only. Sometimes I use fantasy ornaments which I call 'The Bestiary Tree'. This year I did a woodland theme on a prelit berry tree with deer, owl and bear ornaments.

One of my collection of Tudor houses
The decorations did not come down until end of January because I was still so ill. I was sad to miss the celebrations of Christmas and New Year but the green baubles and fairy lights cheered the cottage.

Feverish, in my dreams I wandered in the woods and encountered all kinds of beasts.

Grimms Fairy Tales illustration by Vladimir Stankovic

It was a good excuse to catch up on books. I spent it re-reading books which seemed to compliment one another, Grimms Fairy Tales, and Wolf Hall / Bring Up The Bodies.

I have always felt as if I belonged in the past and none more so than in Tudor times and architecture. When I moved to England I relished visiting, and lingering, in Tudor and Elizabethan buildings and gardens.  My family were not close, scattered across America, and none of us had much knowledge of our family history. That is until my Aunt Grace began to write a book about it and she sent me a copy of some of the pages of her manuscript to ask if I would be able to visit locations in England where our ancestors had lived and take some photographs for her. It was an eerie moment when I read the paragraph that proclaimed that my Mother's family were descended from Henry VIII through Mary Boleyn, that other Boleyn girl, sister of ill fated Anne. That Mary's two children were borne of the King, and not her husband William Carey has never been proven, but the idea continues to intrigue historians and often surfaces in novels and films. The Carey's were a large dynasty, we have a very many relatives out there somewhere!

Mary Carey (nee Boleyn) played by Charity Wakefield
 in the BBC production of Wolf Hall

The Carey family had a long link to British royalty, over the years being in and out of favour, beheaded or bequested lavish properties only to have them snatched away in the following generation. One of the sons, probably fleeing further loss of fortunes and their head fled to America and any titles and lands which were once associated with them were lost from them forever.

It was with renewed interest that I read about and visited Tudor locations. In a final twist to the personal connections to me when I met my future husband his Mother ran a hotel in a property which had been built by members of the Carey family. Once upon a time they owned the fairytale like village of Cockington and Torre Abbey which were nearby.

Torre Abbey, Devon, once home to the Carey family.

When Hilary Mantel's book Wolf Hall came out I was living in a remotely located rambling Devon long house with several feral cats and one tame kitten for company.

 My husband worked near London during the week and travelled a lot abroad. Without distractions of set meal times or human company I was able to give my uninterrupted attention to reading Wolf Hall.

a Devon Long house
As anyone who has read it will know, it is a heavy book. I could not put it down once began and for three days and late nights I read on bewitched by it's astonishing power. Often repulsed but unable to look away. I awoke one morning after a particularly fitful night of phantoms to find that I had fallen asleep, open book and snarling cats playing by my side.

We often had power cuts, but this did not stop me reading - the candle light added to the atmosphere wrought by Hilary's vision and skill.

I had read enough real history not to have harboured any romantic pretensions of Tudor times but Wolf Hall plunged me directly into the dangerous and dark (but lustrously bejewelled) world, making the day to day risks of ordinary folk and Lords and Ladies very real. It was a scary time to live, extremely so for any common folk but also if you lived in the circle of the court.

BBC production of Wolf Hall
The Masque
And, it could be said that if you didn't then you did not really live at all. Like a moth to flame, such was (and still is) the power and attraction of Kings in general, and Henry and his court.

BBC production Wolf Hall
Damien Lewis as Henry VIII
When we left Devon and our much loved ancient cottage I felt as if I was leaving Wolf Hall behind too. But then I found it again in the area in which we now live as the real Wulfhall was nearby as are several places which Henry visited.  “…we shall visit the Seymours.’  He writes it down.  Early September. Five days.  Wolf Hall.”

Often when historical novels are brought to film they are unable to capture the essence of the book and the better the book the worse the film. I was thrilled to hear that Wolf Hall would be filmed by the BBC. The production has not disappointed. The cast are superb, even though perhaps one or two of the ladies playing the parts are a little prettier than the real women were. It has fully imparted the spirit of the book, and that is the hardest thing to convey. It shows us the lavish clothes the court wore, the jewels and the splendid dwellings, while all the time a foreboding feeling lurks in the shadows. And many shadows there are. I think using period locations rather than studio sets has made all the difference. Some complained about how dark it has been shot, as Director Peter Kosminsky used candlelight in the night scenes, but it just takes me back to when I was reading it, in the beamed cottage by candlelight. The book was astonishing, and so is the film production.

The many stunning locations used for Wolf Hall are well worth a visit and most are open to the public. One of my favourites is the National Trust owned Lacock Abbey in Wiltshire which
stands in for Wolf Hall, home of the Seymour family and where Henry meets Jane while at a hunting party (the real Wolf Hall sadly fell into disrepair and the last of it was pulled down). Laycock Abbey itself has a long and interesting history, founded in the 13th century as an Augustinian nunnery. After Henry had dissolution the monasteries he sold Lacock Abbey to one of his courtiers, Sir William Sharington, who developed it as his family home.

The medieval cloisters of Lacock Abbey were used for the interiors of Wolf Hall. The Great Hall was also used to portray Henry VIII’s bedroom and a banquet room at his lodgings in Calais before he married Anne.

Lacock Abbey in Wiltshire

Cranford, Harry Potter and The Other Boleyn Girl were also shot at Lacock Abbey.

Why 'Wolf Hall'? The Seymour family seat was named with a nod to the Latin saying 'homo homini lupus est': ‘man is a wolf to man’. It is appropriate. Like the Boleyns the Seymours were a family bent on power and more than willing to sacrifice their own to get what they wanted. In part 6, chapter I of Wolf Hall Thomas Cromwell recalls the phrase whilst reflecting on the Duke of Norfolk's hounding of Cardinal Wolsey.

There is no surviving picture of Wolf Hall as King Henry saw it. Wulfhall was a medieval manor house, most likely timber framed with a double courtyard and a tower (which was demolished in 1569), a long gallery and a chapel. Wulfhall was "derelict and abandoned after 1571" as the family had moved out to nearby Tottenham Park. It was used as servant accommodation until seriously reduced in size in the 1660s and finally demolished in 1723.  Some ruins survived until the beginning of the 20th century, but nothing now remains of the once great house. The famous barn, where King Henry and Queen Jane supposedly celebrated their marriage, burnt down in the 1920s. After Queen Jane died, Henry visited the house again in 1539 – and on that occasion Wolf Hall’s great barn (with an inside space 172 feet long by 26 feet wide) was decorated for a banquet. You can pass the spot where Wulfhall was, and a farm of the same name lies near the road.

Hilary in an interview says this about the title and the writing of the book, "The title arrived before a word was written: Wolf Hall, besides being the home of the Seymour family, seemed an apt name for wherever Henry's court resided. But I had no idea what the book would be like, how it would sound. I could see it, rather than hear it: a slow swirling backdrop of jewelled black and gold, a dark glitter at the corner of my eye. I woke one morning with some words in my head: "So now get up." It took a while to work out that this was not an order to get the day under way. It was the first sentence of my novel."

I am not here to judge those times, or anyone who lived in them. There was not a lot of freedom whether you were Catholic or Protestant, and just one of the many shocking aspects of life then is that the common people could have no access to the Bible because it was written in Latin, and translation to English was punishable by death. It always saddens me that so many wondrous architectural treasures were destroyed when Henry dissolved the monasteries, but the church at that time was all powerful and a lot of ordinary people must have felt abandoned by them. 

The story of Anne Boleyn will forever fascinate people, and it is a sad tale to be sure. That these two people who created the greatest British monarch in Elizabeth I could not have known what their union had forged.

A Tudor Princess by L.M Mackenzie

The final scene of the BBC production of Wolf Hall is extremely moving. The often sharp, pouting and spoiled Anne reduced to shivering in the cold giving her death speech. Was she guilty of all accused? Very unlikely.

Credits: BBC/COMPANY PRODUCTIONS LTD throughout for images from their production of Wolf Hall.
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