Friday, 16 March 2012

Flowers in the House
and Signs of Spring

Every year I have this dream that this will be the one where I manage to keep flowers in the house all year around. Invariably I fail, but this year I seem to be doing better than previous ones and particularly at the moment. Cut flowers, often wild, will come in season, but for now the time belongs to pots of spring bulbs and other early flowering plants. Of course the well organised would plan ahead, potting up bulbs the previous autumn in preparation for the coming spring; always thinking a few months in advance. These are skills that I am trying to foster (last year I even got so far as buying the bulbs), but still this year I find myself resorting to pots of things I find at the nurseries.

So far we have had daffodils that for a few weeks gave us a much needed lift, before becoming rather pale and leggy in the low light of the living room in late winter. The best of these, and still in situ spreading its wonderful scent, was Bridal Crown. A tall variety with white double flowers and short leaves that, simply potted in a white bowl, had an almost Japanese arrangement feel about it.

Narcissus Tête à Tête' is a lovely daffodil,
although there is huge variation between
plants - the more compact the better.
Another pot of Tête à Tête, more compact that the one before, has just been given to us and has replaced the leggy ones. You see so many creative ways of potting daffodils and next year, when I really will be planting my own bulbs, I will try different bowls and tins, but for now everything goes into the wonderful old worn terracotta pots that we found.

Another treat were the stocks that were on sale at the nursery at the weekend. Traditionally of course they are bedding plants, but a group of three - each in its own pot - make a wonderful display and the scent is gorgeous; rich and sweet, like candy floss, which of course is exactly what they look like. Not bad for 30p each.

Although scentless the crown at the moment belongs to the ranuncula, again a bedding plant but one that is just so stunning that it can easily stand up to being used as table centre piece. It is related to the buttercup, which is one of those facts that makes you go 'oh yes, of course', when you first hear it. The sculpted curved petals open out from the middle in a way that makes you think it will never end. And for us it all started this morning; at 8am the plant was just showing signs of releasing its tight grip on the flower bud and by 9, a crown of petals had broken away. But come tea time it had almost opened fully, the dark edges giving way to pink petals - but still with the darker ball centre. It is just so beautiful.

Signs of spring

For mid-morning tea I wonder up onto the balcony, where the sun is warming on the back and could easily lul me into thinking about reading or writing up there. Luckily every few seconds a slight breeze drifts past and whispers 'it's only mid-march', causing me a slight shiver as though acknowledging her maternal warning. But its warm enough for half and hour or so.

I potter, just looking for the early signs of spring. There are no jobs to be done. Well, there are, but I don't intend doing them. The batch of tulip and daffodil bulbs, that I bought last autumn and left in a cupboard and which I only found and planted a few weeks ago, seem to be making up for lost time. They are behind those in the ground of course, but they'll come good. I planted them up in medium terracotta pots so that I can decide where to put them when they come into flower. If the weather is nice on the balcony they can be moved to a suitable spot, or else we'll bring them into the house. 

Matthiola incana 'Stocks Legacy Mixed' with their
amazing scent and candy floss flowers

Where as the ranuncula's unfurling can be measured in hours, almost minutes, the fig and grape vine are taking a more leisurely approach, although progress can been seen every day now. The rosemary is coming into flower, a spectacle so small that at almost any other time of year it would be missed, but in these very early days of spring even such a small flower is a treat. For a few years I have been meaning to collect some seed and sow up some fresh bushes, but invariably I forget and so just take a few cuttings of the new growth.

A few weeks ago I sorted out some of the old cuttings that had been lying around and threw out any that looked as though they hadn't taken, discaring them and the old soil in the main bed. But looking down now I see a thin twig poking out from under one of the lavenders, I would never had noticed it, except that a fresh bright green leaf is breaking out from the top. It is a current of some kind or a gooseberry, we'll find out in due course. Such dogged defiance is one of natures finest qualities and should be an inspiriation to us all.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

The Watering Girl Brooch

A couple of days ago I was browsing on Flickr and came across this lovely Bird Pendant, created by pratriciaolazo. We bought dad a Hobbies treadle saw last Christmas and, despite spending a long time restoring it, I have never actually got to grips with using it. Seeing this bird pendant inspired me to have a go at creating something similar, as I needed a present.

I had a couple of pieces of thin (2mm) oak that I had cut off a recent project that seemed ideal, even if oak is perhaps not the easiest wood to start out with. For my first attempt I used an image of a dove that I downloaded and cut out. However, looking at it afterwards I realised that some of the lines that were lost as a result of it being a silhouette meant that it was not very clear what it was (plus I split it in half trying to put the eye in!).

For my second go I rather fell in love with a Watering Girl image, but was very concerned about the level of details and tight corners. I decided that if I was going to give it a go I would just have to accept that my version in wood would be very different and just to be happy with that.

Second go, not so close to the lines this time...
First of all I printed out the picture twice; one to cut out and trace around and one to have as a reference during the later stages. Even at the cutting out stage I made some decisions about what detail to keep and what to loose and by the time I had then traced around this onto the wood the outline was much softer and rounder. Size wise she is 4.5cm (1½") tall and 3.5cm (1¼") wide.

On my first go at the lady I did what I had said I wouldn't do and that was try and cut it out accurately using the treadle saw. Invariably I wobbled and hit the line pretty early on – it is just too small. No matter, I simply traced another and this time stuck to my instinct that I should just cut the shape roughly and use files to refine it.

Starting to take the wood down to the line using files
Once I had the shape in rough I mounted the piece in the vice and started to bring the edges down to the line. Now I have inherited three sets of files; large, medium and small. I have never used any of them before and could not find the box of the small files, so had to make do with the medium sizes. These were way too big really, but I managed so must have learnt something along the way.

It goes without saying that the wood is very fragile, it is important to mount the figure as low down in the vice as possible, particularly for the arm and watering can. Touching the wood reduces the vibration, as does only cutting on the push stroke.

With the back shaped I started to work on the delicate arm.
You have to work slowly; either you have the time to make it, or you don’t. To rush it just wouldn’t produce a pleasing result. I was removing it from the vice regularly to check how it looked the right way up, before removing a little more. I also kept a copy of the original drawing to hand to reference it against. 

Then once I had got as close to the lines as could with the files I had I sanded the lines off and looked at it again, without worrying about the original drawing. What did my little girl look like? I did a few modifications to the face and then rounded the feet a little more, before finally rubbing it over with very fine wet & dry and mounting it on a pin. I thought about waxing or oiling it, but in the end left it as is - it will darken with age.

With the lines removed it is almost finished, just the face to refine.
I was really pleased with the result, it took me about 2hrs to make (including the failed one) – but it was definitely worth the effort. I am sure that practice would make the process quicker, as would the smaller files which I must find.

Anyway, my wife seemed pleased with her present and I might just have found another new favourite distraction...


Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Under an Elm Tree by William Morris

"Midsummer in the country — here you may walk between the fields and hedges that are as it were one huge nosegay for you, redolent of bean-flowers and clover and sweet hay and elder-blossom. The cottage gardens are bright with flowers, the cottages themselves mostly models of architecture in their way. Above them towers here and there the architecture proper of days bygone, when every craftsman was an artist and brought definite intelligence to bear upon his work. Man in the past, nature in the present, seem to be bent on pleasing you and making all things delightful to your senses; even the burning dusty road has a look of luxury as you lie on the strip of roadside green, and listen to the blackbirds singing, surely for your benefit, and, I was going to say as if they were paid to do it, but I was wrong, for as it is they seem to be doing their best.

And all, or let us say most things, are brilliantly alive. The shadowy bleak in the river down yonder, which is — ignorant of the fate that Barking Reach is preparing for its waters — sapphire blue under this ruffling wind and cloudless sky, and barred across here and there with the pearly white-flowered water-weeds, every yard of its banks a treasure of delicate design, meadowsweet and dewberry and comfrey and bed-straw — from the bleak in the river, amongst the labyrinth of grasses, to the starlings busy in the new shorn fields, or about the grey ridges of the hay, all is eager, and I think all is happy that is not anxious.

What is that thought that has come into one’s head as one turns round in the shadow of the roadside elm? A country-side worth fighting for if that were necessary, worth taking trouble to defend its peace. I raise my head, and betwixt the elm-boughs I see far off a grey buttressed down rising over the sea of green and blue-green meadows and fields, and dim on the flank of it over its buttresses can see a quaint figure made by cutting the short turf away from the chalk of the hill-side; a figure which represents a White Horse according to the heraldry of the period, eleven hundred years ago. Hard by that hill-side the country people of the day did verily fight for the peace and loveliness of this very country where I lie, and coming back from their victory scored the image of the White Horse as a token of their valour, and, who knows? perhaps as an example for their descendants to follow.

For a little time it makes the blood stir in me as I think of that, but as I watch the swallows flitting past me betwixt hedge and hedge, or mounting over the hedge in an easy sweep and hawking over the bean-field beyond, another thought comes over me. These live things I have been speaking of, bleak and swallows and starlings and blackbirds, are all after their kind beautiful and graceful, not one of them is lacking in its due grace and beauty; but yesterday as I was passing by a hay-field there was an old red-roan cart-horse looking seriously but good-humouredly at me from a gap in the hedge, and I stopped to make his acquaintance; and I am sorry to say that in spite of his obvious merits he was ugly, Roman-nosed, shambling, ungainly: yet how useful he had been — for others. Also the same day (but not in the same field) I saw some other animals, male and female, with whom also I made acquaintance, for the male ones at least were thirsty. And these animals, both male and female, were ungraceful, unbeautiful, as ungainly as the roan cart-horse; yet they were obviously useful, for they were making hay before my eyes. Then I bethought me that as I had seen starlings in Hertfordshire that were of the same race as the Thames side starlings, so I had seen or heard of featherless two-legged animals of the same race as the thirsty creatures in the hay-field; they had been sculptured in the frieze of the Parthenon, painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, imagined in literature as the heroes and heroines of romance; nay, when people had created in their minds a god of the universe, creator of all that was, is, or shall be, they were driven to represent him as one of that same race to which the thirsty haymakers belonged; as though supreme intelligence and the greatest measure of gracefulness and beauty and majesty were at their highest in the race of those ungainly animals.

Under the elm-tree these things puzzle me, and again my thoughts return to the bold men of that very country-side, who, coming back from Ashdown field, scored that White Horse to look down for ever on the valley of the Thames; and I thought it likely that they had this much in common with the starlings and the bleak, that there was more equality amongst them than we are used to now, and that there would have been more models available amongst them for Woden than one would be like to find in the Thames-side meadows.

Under the elm-tree I don’t ask myself whether that is owing to the greater average intelligence of men at the present day, and to the progress of humanity made since the time of the only decent official that England ever had, Alfred the Great, to wit; for indeed the place and time are not favourable to such questions, which seem sheer nonsense amidst of all that waste of superabundant beauty and pleasure held out to men who cannot take it or use it, unless some chance rich idler may happen to stray that way. My thoughts turn back to the haymakers and their hopes, and I remember that yesterday morning I said to a bystander, ‘Mr So-and-so (the farmer) is late in sending his men into the hay-field’.

Quoth he, ‘You see, sir, Mr So-and-so is short-handed’.

‘How’s that?’ said I, pricking up my Socialist ears.

‘Well, sir,’ said he, ‘these men are the old men and women bred in the village, and pretty much past work; and the young men with more work in them, they do think that they ought to have more wages than them, and Mr So-and-so, he won’t pay it. So you see, he be short-handed.’

As I turned away, thinking over all the untold, untellable details of misery that lay within this shabby, sordid story, another one met my ears. A labourer of the village comes to a farmer and says to him that he really can’t work for 9s. a week any more, but must have 10s. Says the farmer, ‘Get your 10s. somewhere else then’. The man turns away to two month’s lack of employment, and then comes back begging for his 9s. slavery.

Commonplace stories of unsupported strikes, you will say. Indeed they are, if not they would be easily remedied; the casual tragedy cut short; the casual wrongdoer branded as a person out of humanity. But since they are so commonplace -

What will happen, say my gloomy thoughts to me under the elm tree, with all this country beauty so tragically incongruous in its richness with the country misery which cannot feel its existence? Well, if we must still be slaves and slaveholders, it will not last long; the Battle of Ashdown will be forgotten for the last commercial crisis; Alfred’s heraldry will yield to the lions of the half crown. The architecture of the crafts-gildsmen will tumble down, or be ‘restored’ for the benefit of the hunters of picturesque, who, hopeless themselves, are incapable of understanding the hopes of past days, or the expression of them. The beauty of the landscape will be exploited and artificialized for the sake of the villa-dweller’s purses where it is striking enough to touch their jaded appetites; but in quiet places like this it will vanish year by year (as indeed it is now doing) under the attacks of the most grovelling commercialism.

Yet think I to myself under the elm-tree, whatever England, once so beautiful, may become, it will be good enough for us if we set no hope before us but the continuance of a population of slaves and slave-holders for the country which we pretend to love, while we use it and our sham love for it as a stalking-horse for robbery of the poor at home and abroad. The worst outward ugliness and vulgarity will be good enough for such sneaks and cowards.

Let me turn the leaf and find a new picture, or my holiday is spoilt; and don’t let some of my Socialist friends with whom I have wrangled about the horrors of London, say, ‘This is all that can come of your country life’. For as the round of the seasons under our system of landlord farmer and labourer produces in the country pinching parsimony and dullness, so does the ‘excitement of intellectual life’ in the cities produce the slum under the capitalist system of turning out and selling market wares not for use but for waste. Turn the page I say. The hayfield is a pretty sight this month seen under the elm, as the work goes forward on the other side of the way opposite to the bean-field, till you look at the haymakers closely. Suppose the haymakers were friends working for friends on land which was theirs, as many as were needed, with leisure and hope ahead of them instead of hopeless toil and anxiety, need their useful labour for themselves and their neighbours cripple and disfigure them and knock them out of the shape of men fit to represent the Gods and Heroes? And if under such conditions a new Ashdown had to be fought (against capitalist robbers this time), the new White Horse would look down on the home of men as wise as the starlings in their equality, and so perhaps as happy."

First published by William Morris in Commonweal on the 6th July 1889 .

Click here to download a pdf version of the above article.