Thursday, 1 December 2022

Betty Swanwick RA

Her name may not be familiar but - if you're of a certain age - you'll probably know at least one of her paintings. And the song that goes with it.

'It's one o'clock and time for lunch hum-dee-dum-dee-dum ...'

The cover to Genesis' fifth (and, in my opinion, best) studio album is a watercolour painting called The Dream. Peter Gabriel was so taken with it that he asked the artist, Betty Swanwick, to paint a cover for the band's next LP. Sadly, Swanwick didn't have time but, as a compromise, she agreed to paint a lawnmower, which was added to The Dream as an allusion to the lyrics on the album's first single, I Know What I Like (in your wardrobe).

I've always liked her work - from her early primitive style to her later dream-like paintings. Clearly influenced by Stanley Spencer, and no doubt also by Blake and the pre-Raphaelites, Swanwick claimed that her non-commissioned paintings and drawings always had Biblical associations. However, you sometimes have to really work to find the connection. Most of her images seem to represent English pastoral scenes. And many of her works seem to have no obvious narrative at all.

She's a definite one off and her style is pretty unmistakeable.

Ada Elizabeth (Betty) Edith Swanwick was born in Forest Hill in London in 1915. Her father, Henry Gerard Swanwick, who was in the naval reserve, painted marine watercolours. She was inspired by her father, and her mother who gave her pencils which she had retrieved from shipwrecks on the Scilly Isles. 

Swanwick enrolled at Goldsmiths College at the age of fifteen and by 1934 she was simultaneously attending classes at Goldsmith's, the Royal College of Art and the Central School of Arts and Crafts. She was a student of Edward Bawden. This academic activity continued until 1936 when she began to create work for London Transport. She continued to paint posters for them until 1954.

In 1945 she published the first of her several novels, The Cross Purposes. Then, in 1951, she and Ben Nicholson were asked to create murals for the Regatta and Rocket restaurants at the Festival of Britain. She would later create another mural for Evelina Children's Hospital in 1960. 

Her paintings post 1965 start to take on the curious dream-like quality for which she is now best known. She died in 1989 but her life and her intriguing paintings are wonderfully recorded in this excellent book by her friend Paddy Rossmore. 

It's a book I treasure and recommend.

Cabinet of Curiosities - Day 1

Cards on the table here. I sort-of nicked this idea from my good chum and former colleague at QI - historian Justin Pollard. Every year for the past few years, Justin has curated an unusual online advent calendar in which he's shown some of the extraordinary items in his vast collection of interesting objects. And another QI 'elf' chum, Dan Schreiber, does an occasional live show on Instagram called Show us your Sh*t in which he gets people to show off their treasures. I've appeared on the show twice.

So I thought I'd do the same thing on my blog throughout December this year - not so much as an advent calendar, but more like opening my own personal Cabinet of Curiosities to visitors. 

Cabinets of Curiosities (also known as Wunderkammer, Cabinets of Wonder, or Wonder-Rooms) were once very popular. They were collections of interesting objects - sometimes very large collections. The term 'cabinet' originally described a room rather than a piece of furniture. The classic Cabinet of Curiosities emerged in the sixteenth century, although more rudimentary collections had existed earlier. The most famous and best documented cabinets - usually belonging to royalty, aristocrats or rich business owners - became the bases for the creation of museums and galleries.

One of the most remarkable Wunderkkammers still on public view in the UK is the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford (see here). The whole room is kept in low light to preserve the exhibits - which is why these photos I took have a strange sepia cast to them.  

Most commonly these collections contained specimens of animals and plants, archaeological finds, rocks and minerals, objects from other cultures - such as costumes, masks, musical instruments and weapons -  and 'curios' such as animals born with extra limbs or even fakes like the mummified remains of so-called 'Feegee Mermaids'. If an object was an interesting talking point, it went into the cabinet regardless of monetary value.

And so, just as I curated a 'Leaf of the Day' during November, this month you'll see 31 interesting objects that I've collected during my 61 years on this planet. Some of them are from the natural world but you'll also see some from the world of folk art and traditional crafts. And maybe a few treasures and curios too.

We start with a Naughty Boy Stick that I was given in Sri Lanka in 2002.

I was given to me by a local guide who told me that, when he was a boy, the teachers would rap children over the knuckles or administer a sharp 'bop' to the head with the lumpy end to ensure discipline and concentration. I've tried it - and I can vouch for the fact that a child would want to avoid getting hit.

I stayed in contact with the guide - who was called Linton - for a couple of years after my visit and often sent him things like children's books and pens and pencils for his children. Sadly, however, all contact was lost after the tsunami of 2004. The hotel I'd stayed at was destroyed and the area around where Linton lived was devastated. I can only hope that he and his family escaped and are all safe and well. 

As for what the stick is made from, I'm not sure. I've found nothing online about 'Naughty Boy Sticks'. My best guess is that it's part of the Rattan Palm, which grows everywhere in Sri Lanka.

But I'm happy to be corrected.

As long as it doesn't involve being bopped with a stick.

Wednesday, 30 November 2022

Leaf of the Day - Day 30

On the final day of November, and with Christmas rapidly approaching, the Holly, the Ivy and the Mistletoe are bursting with berries. It seemed appropriate to give them a platform today. 

And I thought I'd include this little oddity too - a variegated Holly leaf with only one spike, bless it.

I wrote a lot more about Holly here, Ivy here and Mistletoe here.

The Eton Wall Game vs Guyball (which is odder?)

It's St Andrew's Day today which, with him being patron saint of Scotland, probably means very little to most people here on the Chiltern Hills. But not so to those at Eton College where the famous private school holds its most important sporting event of the year.

We're talking about the Eton Wall Game.

If you didn't know, Windsor and Eton are almost one large town, separated by the River Thames. And, confusingly, the college gives its address as Windsor when it's in Eton.

But if you think that's confusing ...

The Eton Wall Game was supposedly invented in 1841 by errant Kings Scholars (pupils who live in College) who were bored and wanted a new way to spend their limited free time. The rules were first written down in 1849 and have subsequently been revised several times - the most recent 6th revision was made in 2001. The Wall Game has elements that resemble both football and rugby but mostly looks like nothing else. It is also a notoriously physical game. 

The game is played on a strip of ground 5 metres wide and 110 metres long ('The Furrow') next to a slightly curved brick wall ('The Wall'). The Wall was built in 1717 and traces the B3022 road between Slough and Eton. 

Here's how the game is described on the Eton College website:  

'The game revolves around the Bully, which could be described as a clump of players pressed against the Wall. This mass of boys is supported, on each side, by three positions: a Fly, Long and Lines, who become particularly crucial if the ball ever breaks out of the Bully. Whilst the ball can be moved up and down the Wall by kicking it, in truth most movement occurs due to penalties.' 

'To score a point, the ball needs to be moved into Calx (a location situated at the very edge of each end of the Wall), raised up against the Wall and then touched by a member of the attacking team. The player then shouts ‘Got it!’ and, if the umpire agrees, he responds ‘Given’ and a point is awarded. This point is known as a Shy, and allows the attacking team a chance at a Goal (which is far rarer).'

Goals are as rare as hen's teeth apparently and there was once a run of over a hundred years where none were scored.  

The wall game is also played on Ascension Day, immediately after a 6am service on the roof of College Chapel. Various scratch matches are also played throughout the Michaelmas and Lent Halves (terms), where boys from different year groups, as well as masters, take part. 

If you'd like to read the full rules of the Wall Game, you can do so here.

The complexity and jargon associated with the game instantly reminded me of Guyball (pronounced 'Ghee ball') - a wholly fictitious sport played (and probably invented) by anaesthetist Guy Secretan (Stephen Mangan) in the TV hospital comedy Green Wing

The rules of Guyball - though never fully explained - are just as joyously bonkers as the Eton Wall Game. The object of the game, according to Guy, is simply 'to put the ball into the basket'. The basket in question is part of the Toppmeiler, a special helmet worn by the players. This consists of a wicker basket fastened to the player's head by a leather strap with an attached pair of flying goggles to protect the eyes. 

Before starting a match, players are encouraged to Splice the Matterhorn by insulting their opponents – though this might have been invented by Guy on the spur of the moment so that he could get away with shouting abuse at a group of children during his community service. 

The game then begins when the umpire shouts Commence. In a French accent.

The rules of Guyball appear to depend on the variation being played. A 'classic three-person variation', in which two people chase the wearer of the Toppmeiler, is described by Guy to his colleague Dr Martin Dear as follows: 

'Don't leave the Parish. If you reach the Maison, put your left arm in the air and shout 'Maison!'. There are no Burrow Tactics and there are no Hedgehogs. I won the toss so Stickles are random and it's a two-bounce Ubique.'

You might also choose to play with Orthodox or Alternate Stickles and a Four-Bounce Ubique though this tends to be in matches in which the two sides have an equal number of players, all of whom wear Toppmeilers. Positions in which Guyball players may find themselves include: 
  • The Emmental Loop, in which you have a Cleft Mitten showing whilst you crouch to attack an opponent. 
  • The Classical Heist, an attack in which you stand with your foot on the opponent's jaw and your Toppmeiler is empty. 
  • The Fat Chalet, similar to the Classical Heist but your Toppmeiler is 'geometrically loaded'; that is, contains a large six-sided die
According to Green Wing: The Complete First Series Scripts, a player can also be sent off for 'Illegal use of the Hefty Fondue.' This happened between Guy Secretan and Markus Geissler, during a match at the Secretanstadt, Lausanne. 

Guy won 12:3. 

The game certainly delighted Green Wing fans and groups of them now meet regularly to play the game. Stephen Mangan has even turned up to  few matches to Splice the Matterhorn and to check people's Toppmeilers.

All of which must have upset the players of a genuine sport called Guyball. You can read about that here.

But at least Guyball - in whatever form - is accessible to all.

Whereas the Eton Wall Game must be pretty much the most elitist sport in the world.

Tuesday, 29 November 2022

Leaf of the Day - Day 29

Another ghost of a sycamore.

A Folk Sampler #3

Having mentioned the Lakeman dynasty a little while ago (here), today we feature another - Folk's 'royal family' - the Waterson-Carthys.

The Watersons were one of the main drivers of the British folk revival of the 1960s and 70s. The band consisted of siblings Norma, Mike, and Elaine (known as Lal) and their cousin John Harrison. Harrison was later replaced by Bernie Vickers and then by Martin Carthy, Norma's husaband. 

Martin was already considered an influential artist and major player on the folk scene even then and was, at one time, a member of Steeleye Span and the Albion Band. His arrangement of the traditional ballad Scarborough Fair was adapted, without acknowledgement, by Paul Simon on the Simon and Garfunkel album recording Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme in 1966. This caused a rift between the pair which was not resolved until Simon invited Carthy to sing the song with him on-stage at the Hammersmith Apollo in 2000. With Carthy now part of The Watersons the group became greater than the sum of their parts. 

In time the band also included Mike's daughter Rachel Waterson and Norma and Martin's daughter - now a big folk star in her own right - Eliza Carthy. Other members have included Anne Waterson, Jill Pidd and Maria Gilhooley (who often records as Marry Waterson) - the daughter of Lal Waterson. 

At one time, Marry, Norma, Eliza and Lal recorded as The Waterdaughters. Meanwhile, Marry's brother, Oliver Knight, is also a singer-songwriter and sound engineer (I told you this was a dynasty). 

After Lal died, the band reformed as Waterson Carthy, consisting of Norma, Martin, Eliza and Saul Rose.

However, in whatever combination they record, the sound of their voices together is mesmerising. It may be something to do with what's known as 'Blood Harmony' whereby siblings or close relatives have voices that compliment each other - think of The Corrs, The Unthanks, The Staves ... and even non folk bands like The Proclaimers, The Carpenters, The Osmonds, The Jacksons etc.

We'll end with a fascinating film about The Watersons in their heyday called Travelling for a Living.