Sunday, October 16, 2016

Gerbera Daisies - Petals Galore....

As I haven't been out to the countryside for a while, I thought I would get a flower 'fix' via the local garden centre.

A large part of the premises was closed off, in preparation for the Christmas display, meanwhile another area was being set aside for a tsunami of customary potted Chrysanthemums for the Toussaint. Nevertheless, there was a great array of Gerbera daisies.

From a distance these were very pretty as a mass of jaunty colour, and up close their intricate details were also quite fascinating.

The flower disk at the centre is composed of the pollen-bearing anthers which are on the top of the stamen stalks. These looked rather like birthday-cake candles...

This flower originated in South Africa, and some of the more vibrant colours add a real brightness to these muted autumn days.

As with the Chrysanthemum, the petals of the Gerbera resemble delicate, waxy feathers and you just want to touch them!

In fact, some of the colours were just so intense that my camera had difficulty reproducing them! The golden pollen powdered on the petals seemed all the more striking when set against some of these. I'm looking forward to returning to admire the Chrysanthemums in a few weeks' time...

Friday, September 30, 2016

The Regal Hand or a Bloodied Fist? The Tudors...

Henry VIII - Hans Holbein the Younger - 1540-50
Last year I went along to see the exhibition on the Tudors at the Palais du Luxembourg in Paris. This was largely out of frustration because I hadn't been able to watch all the episodes of Wolf Hall and wanted to get a little more insight into this period of history.

The exhibition was interesting, but in hindsight, I wish that I had known then as much as I do now. Since the visit, I've been having a bit of a Tudor-fest!

Henry VIII - as above...
I also regretted not knowing how to use my camera correctly; most photos were spoilt by milky light reflections blotting out expanses of the image. As a result, I decided to concentrate on details of the paintings exhibited... This turned out to be quite revealing, I thought.

Predictably, Henry VIII is presented with sizeable regal paws, gripping onto all and any of the glorious trappings to which he believed he had a divine right as God's representative as King of England. Of grand stature, Henry struck an imposing figure and would use all the means at hand to strike anything or anyone who stood in his way. His regard is unflinching as head of the Tudor dynasty, having succeeded from his father, Henry VII. Sure of his position and power, he stares out at us, some 500 years on, with a certain air of defiance and belligerence. The same could not be said of Henry VII...

Henry VII - 1505
Having 'picked up' the crown in the Battle of Bosworth (1485), from his predecessor Richard III, Henry Tudor became monarch. In so doing, he ended the War of the Roses between the Houses of York and Lancaster. However, Henry knew that his legitimacy would be questioned and his reign threatened by pretendants. Here, his tenuous grip on the English throne seems to be reflected in his very hands, which nervously 'worry' at the inscription below his portrait as he holds the Tudor rose - with the red of the Lancasters and the white of the Yorks. By the time his son, Henry VIII, came to power, the Tudor stronghold was manifest everywhere. When Edward succeeded Henry VIII in 1547, his youth is apparent in his pale, boyish hands -  after all, he was only 9 years old when crowned! However, he has already adopted the swagger and self-assurance of his father.

Edward VI - Master John - 1547
The Tudor reign saw five successive monarchs at the head of the country over 100 years, ending with the demise of Elizabeth 1, in 1603, without a legitimate heir. The Tudor years not only marked a sea change in England's religious, political, economic and social structures and systems, they also heralded a new era in culture.

Anne Boleyn 
Under Henry VII, the first signs of the influence of the Renaissance began to show. Gradually, the Gothic forms of the Middle Ages gave way to Classical elements. Portraiture developed as new social classes became wealthy and wished to reflect their status, prestige and power in pictoral form. Over the Tudor years, the portrait lost its identity as being the preserve of royalty and nobility. Until this 'democratisation' of the medium, the portrait miniature largely played an important role in marking and maintaining dipomatic relations in Europe. Acting as a form of business card, the portrait generally offered a rather idealized form of the sitter. Physical likeness was deemed less important and perhaps less advantageous to the cause than the opulent display of wealth and authority. Typical early Tudor portraiture offered a means to mask the imperfections of a graceless face, but not without its own perils...

Robert Dudley -  Elizabeth's  faithful friend and supposed suitor - cerca 1564
Above is a detail of a portrait of Queen Elizabeth's life-long friend - Robert Dudley 1st Earl of Leicester. The adoring dog by his side is surely a symbol of its owner's devotion to the Queen, and you can ony wonder what object or message Dudley is trying to conceal in the black purse... This is in contrast to the striking portrait of Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth's much-maligned mother, executed under Henry's orders. Here, the gaze is fixed and direct, but the message is difficult to read and conveys little.

Anne of Cleves - Hans Holbein - 
Sometimes, the flattering aesthetic of a portrait could lead to disastrous consequences; the beauty painted sometimes bore little or no ressemblance to reality. Such was the case with the image of Henry VIII's unfortunate fourth wife, Anne of Cleves, by Hans Holbein the Younger. When confronted with his flesh-and-blood bride, Henry balked and sought to annul the marriage immediately. And yet, on the portrait, her hands seem to portray the person; honest, modest and unassuming.

Anne of Cleves - Hans Holbein the Younger - 1539
Fortunately, the artist was not punished for the misrepresentation of the Queen Consort, unlike Thomas Cromwell, the chief royal minister, who paid heavily for having orchestrated the mismatch. It was, after all, Hans Holbein who did so much to trigger the transformation in English portraiture in the 16th century. Leaving his home town of Basel, Holbein became King's Painter in 1536 where the exactitude of the linework and economy of detail led to work of curious intricacy and depth. Furthermore, the interpretation of the individual went beyond being a mere presentation of physical appearance; the character shines through, across the centuries, in a strangely familiar manner. This curious, enigmatic proximity is nowhere more apparent than in Holbein's drawings. One of his most famous paintings The Ambassadors (1533) shows Holbein's reliance on cryptic objects to convey a message.

The Ambassadors - 1533
The two men both stare out with an oblique regard, their overall stance seems nonchalant. Between them is a meticulously painted still life, composed of an array of symbols for the celestial, the terrestial and death itself with an anamorph skull in the foreground. The richly-dressed French ambassador rests his arm with self-assurance, his left hand is limp and relaxed, whilst the other loosely holds a spyglass. The meaning is not clear, but the growing importance attached to observation, inquiry and calculation over the Renaissance years is reflected.

Wife number six: Catherine Parr - 1545
Henry's sixth and final wife, Catherine Parr, does not seem to radiate assurance and ease in the full-length painting by Master John (1545). The symbolic objects acting as memento mori ("Remember that you have to die") have been stripped away, but Catherine's spider-like hands seem to be the nervous focus of the work - framed by the brocade and fur that you almost want to touch. Perhaps she knew that her position as Queen was tenuous, and her grasp on life itself was threatened by Henry's growing suspicions that Catherine's interest in Evangelical Protestantism smelt of heresy. She certainly had full knowledge of the fate reserved to anyone who seemed to question the king's ideas, test the extent of his power or mock his manhood. His frivolous, flighty fifth wife, Catherine Howard, had been sent to the Tower of London for treason and was beheaded for her presumed adulterous acts. Catherine Parrs theological interests seemed to flout Henry's position as Supreme Head of the Church of England and it required her clever mind to outwit Henry's paranoid one and to enable her to keep her head when interrogated - quite literally!

Henry had instigated the tumultous break with the Roman Catholic Church in order to override papal authority and thus enforce the supremacy of the English Crown; himself. All of this was a means to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon that had borne no male heir to the throne and to free him to marry his mistress, Anne Boleyn. In order to get his 'hands on the girl' in holy matrimony, Henry had created the Ecclesia Anglicana - The Church of England - and in so doing had set in motion a set of events that would have wide-spread and long-lasting repercussions, and not just for England. In the wake of this turmoil came the supposedly legitimate dissolution of the monasteries and the seizure of their assets, entailing extensive land-grabs under the jurisdiction of the Crown, and the mass destruction of ecclesiastic art and architecture of great beauty. Henry's hands shaped England on every level, and were certainly dirty and bloodied. His increasingly irascible, tyrannical nature led to the death and torture of many of those nearest to him, along with anyone guilty of treason or heresy, interchangeble crimes of lèse-majesté. Suspicion, secrecy, fear and furtiveness were rife and the attendant blood-letting found little respite over the Tudor years as each successive monarch left their mark, and sought to impose their interpretation of English faith. Bloody Mary duly merited her name, yet even the subsequent decades after her demise seemed to be seeped in blood, in spite of the finery and flamboyance of the Golden Age.

 Coronation of Elizabeth I -  Copy of lost original cerca 1559
When Henry's second daughter, Elizabeth I, ascended to the throne, England was already entering an era of unparalleled power and began to occupy a unique position in Europe. Just as the newly-founded Protestant country turned away from the Catholic Continent, it also shunned the broad Classical lines of the Renaissance in favour of its own ecclectic English take on the movement. Leading Renaissance minds, such as Holbein had come across from Europe, leaving their influence on a portrait style that had developed from the illuminated manuscript tradition. Whilst striking realism would be used to portray certain aspects of the painting, the overall effect meant that the viewer would read the abstract image like a book rather than a realistic view of the sitter. Whereas the representation of the individual's face could appear rather vague or flat, this was in stark contrast to the sumptious clothing, jewellery and material props that were all lavishly painted in rich detail. The English Renaissance portraitist par excellence was Nicholas Hilliard (1547-1619), a goldsmith and limner who painted many portraits of Elizabeth, in a style that appeared conservative compared to European norms, but fully catered to the Tudor taste for concealment and the symbolic.

Elizabeth, the Virgin Queen, was betrothed to her country alone, mother to her subjects, and as holy matriarch led England into new, unchartered, virgin terrirory. The regal image reflects this, with symbols of virginal purity and power - gold, pearls and moons.

Rubies and pearls...
Yet Elizabeth was also to be Empress of the Seas, head of a growing empire that believed its reach was as boundless as the horizon. Exploration of the New World and the defeat of the Spanish Armada ensured that Elizabeth would be remembered as Gloriana. It is hardly surprising that images abound of Empire. crowns, globes, swords and the like.

Elizabeth's orb and ermine...
Nicholas Hilliard painted some of the most famous portraits of Elizabeth and his Phoenix Portrait shows his unique style with its symbols and rich detail contrasting that strange mask-like face, accentuated by its pallor that comes from the deterioration of pigment.

The Phoenix Portrait - Nicholas Hilliard - 1575
The colouration of Elizabeth's face may have faded over the years, but she herself seems ageless. Already in her forties, she is shown by Hilliard as majestic and flawless, even if rather haughty. The queen wears a pendant of a phoenix, emblematic figure of Christ, and symbol of resurrection. Like the creature rising out of the ashes, royalty never dies and the rose which Elizabeth gently holds between her elegantly tapered fingers refers back to her lineage. Unbeknownst to Elizabeth, of course, was the fact that her death in 1603, would mark the end of the Tudor dynasty; neither would be eternal.

Phoenix pendant....
The Darnley Portrait (1575), thought to have been painted by the Italian Federico Zuccari, presents Elizabeth in a similar, age-defying manner. Unlike the Hilliard work, however, a certain investment in depth and perspective is apparent. In the background, the symbols of sovereignty are visible with the crown and scepter, but our attention is drawn to the sovereign herself.

The Darnley Portrait - 1575 - Zuccari 
The Queen stares directly at us, with her dark eyes and steely gaze set in a rather more rounded face, framed by frizzy hair that appears more life-like than Hilliard's 'fleece'. Despite the greater realism of flesh and bodily form, Zuccari's portrayal of the royal hands let the show down - these puppet hands half-heartedly hold onto the beautiful feathered fan! There was nothing half-hearted in Elizabeth's reign over England but had she acknowledged her powerlessness over her human mortality, and been less time-defiant she might have been more willing to chose a successor in her final years.

With Elizabeth, died an era punctuated by plots, political intrigue, personality cults, paranoia, persecution, adultery, blind allegiance, illicit alliances, lust, liaisons dangereuses, marital disarray, murder, megalomania, mass destruction, treason, tyranny, treachery, cheating and torture - most of which arose around one man's supposed religious convictions and his need to have the upper hand.

Armada Portrait - George Gower - 1588
I just wish that Henry VIII had not marked his territory and time like some rabid, mad dog, destroying so much art in his rage. Perhaps the dramatic jousting accidents of his younger years had indeed resulted in some form of lasting damage to the frontal cortex of his brain. His whole personality and behaviour were affected, and his state of mind and general health were worsened by the sores and ulcers that plagued him to the very end of his life. His mood swings and unpredictable acts grew in size and frequency, just as his stature and girth took on gargantuan proportions. Henry's friend, the humanist Thomas More, remarked that living in proximity with the king was "like having fun with tamed lions. Often he roars for no reason, and suddenly the fun becomes fatal". How true those words proved to be - Henry had More executed in 1535.

Ditchley Portrait - Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger - 1592
Nevertheless, the Tudor era was far more than that. For the first time, women actively came to the fore in sovereignty, and whilst Catherine Parr carefully admitted to Henry that "Women by their first creation were made subject to men", she knew this state of submission would not last. It was the Henry's own daughters who would prove this, and no one more than Elizabeth I.

Robert Devereux (?) and my not-very-regal hands!

Saturday, September 24, 2016


A while ago, I had the chance to visit the Stork Conservation Centre of NaturOparc at Hunawihr, in the Alsace region. Prior to this trip, I had already come across these incredible birds in various locations, but as their typical roosting spots are generally well above eye-level, I had never been able to get up-close-and-personal, so to speak.

At the centre, adults, fledgings and young chicks are visible, as are a range of other natural inhabitants of water courses and marsh land - otters, coypus and the endangered golden hamster of Alsace, no less. The centre actively works on programmes of reproduction and reintroduction of the various species, and in so doing educates and entertains the general public.

My first sighting of wild storks was around an old palace in Marrakech, Morocco. This was a wonderful image – the terracotta-red of the ancient buildings, streaked white from droppings from the vast stick-and-frond nests perched precariously along walls and rooftops. And then, of course, the storks themselves, like creatures from another age, their huge wing span, the gangly yet strangely elegant legs and that curious clacking noise as they clatter their impressive bills as a means of communication.

Then, closer to home, I saw the storks that inhabit the north-east area of France. Although I had been aware that storks took up residence in the towns and villages, I hadn’t realized to what extent. I was so excited to notice the first specimen, looking down from one the chocolate-box-pretty buildings that are so typical of Alsace, that I didn’t notice that there were many others, peering down or just indifferent to us humans far below. It really was a Hitchcock kind of moment -  we were encircled by large birds from way above! 

When I last returned to this part of France, I was rather more prepared for the sight, yet not to the point of becoming blasé. The sheer size of these birds strikes you during their bold flight, legs and neck outstretched, or as they preen and pose, perched on their dramatic nests, silhouetted against the sky line. These storks are as much part of the fabric of landscape in Alsace, as they are key to the folklore of the region. It is said that the Alsatians revere the cigogne as much as the Egyptians did the ibis, however this has not necessarily always been the case over the last decades; hence the need for conservation centres to build up declining stork populations. 

Indeed, changing agricultural practices, the wide-spread use of herbicides and pesticides, electrocution from criss-crossing powerlines and the canalisation of the Rhine has meant that stork numbers diminished considerably from the Second World War. Efficient land management and industrialisation resulted in the loss of traditional habitats as marshy terrain was drained, grassy meadows converted to new crop use, or was overrun by taller vegetation incompatible with stork foraging patterns. Pollution rendered land toxic to these birds and also harboured other hazards. The final outcome served as a wake-up call, not just to the people of Alsace, but also to those of the Netherlands, Belgium, Poland, Switzerland and Sweden who were at risk of losing their emblematic bird. 

Acting as symbol of fidelity, fertility and good fortune, this migratory creature is integral to cultural heritage around Europe and Africa. Commonly associated with life, rebirth and regeneration, the popular image of the stork is that of Nature's purveyor of bundled offspring. Birthmarks on the head of a newborn were referred to as the stork ‘bites’, the sign of a novice carrier bird!

Committed to the family, it was said that no self-respecting stork would nest on a house marked by marital breakdown. In the north-east of France, the image of the stork was tied to the very land itself, following the annexation of Alsace-Lorraine by the Germans, after the French defeat in the Franco-Prussian war of 1871.

Known by its Latin form in the majority of the Romance languages (eg cigogne in French), the English word 'stork' finds its origins in old German. Although renowned as a creature of habit and instinct, the stork has proved itself able to adapt to circumstances, reinventing itself with surprisingly modern means. For centuries, it has always lived in relatively close proximity to Man, largely protected from the latter’s hunting instinct by its reputation as a beast of good omen. 

Spired churches and chimneys have always been nesting grounds of predilection for storks, often improved by special structures, such as old cartwheels, to help the building withstand the added load of such weighty nests and to help the bird gain stability. Despite this benevolent human intervention, the stork has chosen to lead its own independent, slightly aloof existence in these shared spaces. 

However, over the last decades, the stork, rather like the cool, crafty urban fox, has become more dependant on Man’s activities for its own mode of existence, thus changing ingrained patterns of behaviour that had, until quite recently, formed the basis of its life. 

With its powerful wings, tipped with black-fingered feathers, its distinctive flapping and soaring movement when in flight, the stork is perfectly equipped to carry out the migratory marathon from Europe to Africa, for which it is renowned. Leaving the northern territories as the temperatures drop, the stork sets off on a southward journey to wintering locations in the warmer climates, following inherited routes, migration corridors and stopover sites. It uses air thermals to soar and glide, thus economizing wing movement and hence body fat reserves for energy. In fact, the stork avoids crossing over the Mediterranean itself, since the required currents do not form over water... Since the 1980s, however, this migratory movement has been modified, and the stork now appears able to avoid such forms of long-haul travel.

During the programmes to breed storks in captivity in order to boost populations, migratation was suppressed. However, the gradual alteration or complete suppression of migratory movement witnessed over recent years has more diverse causes. The loss or impoverishment of traditional habitat and food sources due to agriculture and/or urbanisation has led the stork to seek other areas in which to forage.

By nature a carnivorous bird, the stork consumes a range of small creatures living around wet zones ;  fish, amphibians, reptiles, insects, birds and mammals. Whilst areas offering such prey are diminishing, vast expanding landfill sites are proposing a wider menu to our feathered friends. Indeed, the stork appears to have developed a taste for junk food that stems from our own and mirrors our appetite in an uncanny manner.

Just as many sun-deprived Brits opt for the sunny climes of Spain and Portugal to overwinter, growing numbers of storks are following suit, and are therefore ditching Africa in favour of closer destinations. These indeed offer a reliable fast-food supply and could even become permanent places of residence to the savvier stork. It should be supposed that there will be a price to pay for this low-cost lifestyle choice ; health issues will surely arise, perhaps even an avian form of obesity. Whilst mortality rates from the arduous trek to the African continent will be less dramatic, over-population and the trickle-down impact on many levels of the eco-system is likely to bring other consequences. The imminent closure of landfills, as requested by EU directives, will suddenly mean that binge-eating storks will be left with nowhere to go. In addition, they will have limited means to fly off to new horizons as their flight ability may well have been weakened by their unhealthy living model. As a gregarious creature, living in colonies, large numbers of storks will have to be relocated, away from these garbage communities.

When seeing the cigognes of Hunawihr, I was blissfully unaware of this particular set of man-made problems that has stuck itself onto this animal species. You can only be thankful that such conservation programmes exist today. So, the visitor gets to see the birds going about their business, as they always have, yet from a better vantage point. In this way, you can observe the adults feeding their young by the typical regurgitation process (think ‘fishy Exorcist’), roosting birds preening themselves and grooming fellow nest-dwellers (‘allopreening’), birds communicating by bill clattering and head nodding. 

The family unit is fairly close. The breeding adults are monagamous, but do not not necessarily stay paired for life; whilst together they share the parenting tasks. Both adults make the nest, incubate the typical clutch of four eggs for around a month, feed the young hatchlings until they reach fledging stage and leave the nest, approximately two months after emerging from their eggs. The male will return to the same nest for several years, rather like that other great migrant bird, the swallow. Here at the centre, visitors have the privilege of seeing the young birds, and noting their progress in terms of size and plumage development. Adult birds have the white body and ruff feathers, black wing coverts and those striking red legs and bills, whose colour largely derives from their diet, like the flamingo.

And the very young birds are truly very cute – all fluffy, with those unbelievably big feet!