Friday, 24 December 2010

Snow is for the Birds

The first unexpected snowfall in November was magical. A white fluffy blanket covered the landscape, trees were dusted with icing sugar and everything was beautiful. Pure and unsullied. A still and serene scene. Progress of the odd car was muffled, the sky was on mute and only the very occasional murmur of a snowplough or tractor was heard. Bliss. For a while.

To start with I couldn't get out. What to do about it? Nothing. Make the most of it. I loved the peace and quiet. I was even glad of the chance to catch up on all those things I should have done long ago but had not because I was too busy rushing about. I wrote, I filed, I sorted. My telephone and internet access meant I was able to contact whomever I chose. Realising that I may not get out in time to buy presents I ordered them on the internet and managed to write all my Christmas cards. Wrapping up warm I could still walk Freddie.

Nevertheless, I managed to waste the precious time available to put my house in order. And I lay the blame fairly and squarely on the birds. Right outside my kitchen (where I sit up close to my beloved aged AGA) I have set up the bird feeders so that from any window I can watch them. The lesser spotted woodpeckers came regularly and, although they can polish off a whole bag of nuts in a day, they are still a welcome visitor.

At one time there were two on separate feeders and a green woodpecker (who usually is usually seen eating beetles and worms from the lawn) creeping up the nearby oak tree. More insects populate an oak than any other tree and in this weather they are a rich source of food. The blackbirds polished off all the pyracantha berries and the Tits pecked the mahonia flowers to shreds.

On the feeders there are mostly Great Tits, Robins and a whole busy little band of Blue Tits. Dunnocks - also known as Tree Sparrows - are also regulars, picking up whatever falls fro the feeders. But only one Sparrow to date. And where is the Nuthatch? The snow finally forced more than the usual visitors to take advantage of what was on offer: thrushes, jays, collared doves. But the undoubted star was a Coal Tit. At first I was not sure. But soon I was able to distinguish it quite quickly by its distinctive white Mohican haircut.

This tiny bird with his highwayman's mask is as nervous as the woodpecker. I was so excited. Pathetic, but it’s the simplest things. I wasted hours, like a groupie at the stage door, waiting to catch a glimpse of it. Set up my camera and hovered. I can only take photos through the glass and cannot work out the setting to use. It's not a professional camera but still, I manage to get some surprising shots.

Then, one day at dusk (is that a non-sequitur?) I noticed an odd shaped thing on the feeder. Peering out into the gloom I saw it was a mouse, big ears listening, small feet gripping, munching greedily. He had found a ready supply of rich fatty nuts to boost his diet. The camera was there, waiting on its tripod, and I took a shot or two. They are not very good but a record nevertheless. What terrific entertainment these visitors have been, the highlight of a snow bound week.

But of course this whole 'stay indoors warm and safe – don't go out unless strictly necessary, why put yourself and others at risk', sort of thing palled. We had finally eaten all those tins dated 1999 from the back of the cupboard, and the boxes of home-made mystery main courses from the freezer. I couldn't get to an appointment in London, failed to make a party in our market town and missed my Pilates classes. Driving was hazardous.

Finally, our rural roads became more manageable. At last, 'Life' would be back to normal. A trip to the supermarket was an event – sad, I know – and we even managed to get to a department store to buy a present or two. Then, on the way home, it started to snow. Again. Snow on snow. At this rate neither the Prodigal nor the Princess will be able to get to us, we won't be able to get to them, and Christmas will be just Best Beloved, me and Freddie. And the birds of course!


Wednesday, 8 December 2010

The Glasgow Boys & Treasures From Budapest

The Royal Academy have had some good shows: Treasures from Budapest was a stunning exhibition, big, bold, far-reaching, impressive but I enjoyed the current smaller exhibition, The Glasgow Boys, more.

The Glasgow Boys – a loose group of talented young painters in the late 1800's not all of whom were Scottish - wanted to change the usual sombre style prevalent of the time in Scottish painting. The sort that was either heroic or sublime. They chose more realistic subject matter such as farm workers or animals.

Their style was not the highly finished and honed painting. It was more impressionistic and they copied Whistler's style (one of their heroes). The paintings showed the subject in-focus whilst allowing the distance to be out of focus. They did not necessarily paint au plein aire as the Impressionists did but they did sketch outdoors and the feel of the finished paintings is very naturalistic and not at all laboured.

I love their work, it's as simple as that. It is so accessible and easy on the eye. In fact there were times I must have looked a love-struck idiot, so bowled over was I by some of the paintings. The light in the paintings is appealing without the viewer realising. And these artists were so accomplished that no matter how impressionistic the subjects are, yet, with only the merest (it seemed) of detail a whole look or personality can come through.

George Henry's work is particularly appealing as is Lavery's, The Tennis Party (very Manet), and Guthries's goose girl in Pastures New, a painting that manages to give a sense of movement with the trick of severing the leading goose. Not something traditionalists would ever have done. And in some paintings the subject nearly fills the frame which was not a traditional way of painting a subject either.

The group's early paintings are of rural landscapes and those that people them. Fields and farm animals had not been the stuff of popular paintings. But, as the artists progressed, their subject matter changed and they moved into suburbian landscapes and eventually many settled on portraits. Even artists must live and the middle classes wanted paintings they could identify with and admire.

Those artists that travelled to Japan embraced that culture although not the stark and spare style of Japanese painting. Some became more flamboyant and took to rich colours such as can be seen in Henry's painting of cattle, A Galloway Landscape, and the one he did with Hornel called The Druids – Bringing in the Mistletoe (on the poster for the show). You could be forgiven for thinking it was North American.

However, on the whole, animals remained a popular subject with them. The Burrell in Glasgow is a great gallery and that is where I first saw Crawhall's work. I was taken with it then, and this exhibition has reminded me what a good artist he was. He was one of the early 'Glasgow Boys', and painted marvellous water birds and working animals. These are fully worked up paintings but, like many brilliant cartoonists, he can also embody a whole subject in a quick sketch of a line or two. What a talented lot they were.