Saturday, 17 March 2018

The Bicentenary of Saint John's, Parts 1 and 2


             


                          The Bicentenary of St John’s

The Church of Saint John the Evangelist, Princes Street, Edinburgh was consecrated in March 1818

          
                                      CANTO ONE
                Think 1818. George III was king
                And Europe was awash with creativity.
                “Heart of Midlothian” was Scott’s new thing;
                The Marx couple celebrated Karl’s nativity;
                Gruber wrote “Stille Nacht for us to sing.
                The list o’erwhelms a heart of sensitivity.
                                It's far too long! In fact it might be speedier
                                To look the whole lot up in Wikipedia.

                And, don’t forget, this year did Mary Shelley
                Conceive her famous Doctor Frankenstein.
                (I say “conceive”. He was not in her belly,
                Rather her fecund fantasy divine.)
    I guess the Shelley household was a melée
    Of quill, ink, paper – all the author’s line.
                And this, in fact, was rather handy as
                Her Percy Bysshe was writing “Ozymandias”.

    But what about the Athens of the North,
    Then slithering from off its lofty perch,
    Street by new street towards the Firth of Forth?
    The old crown jewels were found after a search
                (That Scott again) and many a man of worth
                Thought the New Town should have another church.
                                So, just as Byron started on “Don Juan”
                                Why, Daniel Sandford thought he’d build a new one.


                These lines may make a nest for some church mice,
                Or act on my friend Dorp like an emetic,
                But “Cornerstone” is free, so there’s no price;
                I trust my readers to be sympathetic.
                A bicentenary doesn’t happen twice
                So it seems right to pen some sort of epic.
                                And what could better suit a bold romancer
                                Than write his verse in a Byronic stanza?



                                                CANTO TWO

                This Sandford – Bishop Daniel, I should say –
                Dreamed of a new church for a new season.
                His diocese perhaps would point the way
                From the Enlightenment and Age of Reason
                To post-Napoleonic piety. A day
                For Godly worship to confound the heathen.
                                He wanted most (and bless his cotton socks)
                                A Gothic temple, not a preaching box.

                Let’s have, he thought, stained glass; a solemn file
                Of lofty pillars, drifting ever higher
                Towards the vaulted ceiling in the style
                Called “Perpendicular”. Let’s have a choir
                Engendering pious musings. All the while
                He planned two churches piskies to inspire.
                                And first of these two New Town Gothic halls
                                Was Ps and Gs – in those days just St Pauls.

                But churches aren’t just castles in the air,
                Whether for Kirk Established or some sect.
                They must stand up; put up with wear and tear.
                They’re stone and mortar, lead and glass, bedecked
                With ornament. And they must have a care;
                “Authentic Gothic detail” would be checked.
                                You need an architect. They chose to turn
                                To the young, up-and-coming William Burn.

                An architect is not the only thing.
                By no means! There are plans to make. A lot
                Of funds to raise and give, donors to bring
                And many legal tangles to unknot.
                We had the man! Wealth, energy and “zing”,
                Needed the Ts to cross and Is to dot.
                                So if on May the Sixth your spirits fly, go
                                Drink a toast to Forbes of Pitsligo.





Saturday, 10 March 2018

Art Exhibition - "New Landscapes"

During the last week of February I had an art exhibition in the Dundas Street Gallery, in Edinburgh. I showed 40 paintings, and lots of hand-made cards. I meant to write this in time to encourage folks to come to the show; that did not happen, but anyhow, here it is now. You can enjoy the views without worrying about the weather.

The Beast from the East arrives in Dundas Street

I paint places I love. As a result the method of painting is usually adapted to the subject, rather than the other way round. Sometimes I revisit a subject I have tried to paint many times before; but I like to think I have got a bit better with practice.

Wetherlam from Crowberry Hause

I do like painting in the open air, on the spot, but the weather is not always supportive of this approach. In August last year, when I walked about 2 miles up a roughish path to get the view I wanted of the Scafells, the ridge disappeared in cloud.

Plein Air

 Fortunately I had a drawing of the ridge made about 4 years before. so the picture was finished at home - keeping, I hope the on-the-spot feel.

The Scafells from the top of Mosedale

Sometimes I use rags instead of brushes. Nice people say I sometimes capture the mood of a place. This one was all rags. I hope it is recognisable. The skyline was altered after a second visit to the site.

The Langdale Pikes



On the other hand this one of Feshie Bridge was painted entirely with a palette knife, expect for the stonework round the arch. Like the Langdale Pikes it was done from sketches made on the spot. For some reason I cannot explain I do not find any pleasure in working from photographs, with only three exceptions I can think of - none in this exhibition.

Feshie Bridge


One of my most useful bits of kit is a pochade box I bought fairly recently. It fits in a rucksack, so I can take it up the fells or to the beach. All these pictures, by the way, are done in acrylic. I know this medium has its detractors, but it suits me very well.

The pochade box in use, painting the Bass Rock

Old Copper Level at Paddy End (painted with the pochade box)


The hand-made cards went unexpectedly well. Over 100 were sold. They are fun to do, and a lot less stressful than making a painting. Often I am trying to catch a mood and working from memory - or imagination.

Hand-painted Card in Acrylic

One very pleasing feature of the pochade box is that I can paint using it in the front passenger seat of the car, without making too much mess. This one, for example, was painted on a poor day, sitting where the road goes close to the shore, north of Ullapool.

The shore at Ardmair

That is quite enough for one blog-post. I may not be able to resist putting more paintings up in future.

Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Scotland from 1707-1815: A Support Pack

My main work last autumn as a history teacher and examiner was to write a support pack for Field 4 of Advanced Higher History. It studies Scotland from 1707-1815.

The SQA hold the copyright for the document, but they are happy for me to publish the link. Here it is:

https://www.sqa.org.uk/sqa/48466.html

If you go to this page you will find what I have written by clicking on "Additional Course Support".

This is one of the minority options in Advanced Higher History, chosen by many fewer candidates than some of the self-evidently exciting and interesting fields from the Twentieth Century. One likes to think that as the candidates grow older they will read about all of them; but in their final year at school they have to chose one. Unlike some of the more popular options there is not one clearly suitable text-book for candidates; nor would any publisher commission one, for the numbers are too low. The popular options, to their advantage, also have A-level equivalents, so excellent text-books do exist.

This support pack tries to fill the gap. It is not a text-book, and it will not replace  candidate's own work.  The intention of this support pack is to give candidates the guidance they need to get the best out of a fascinating and rewarding course.

We do feel that this option deserves to be more popular. It includes serious politics, such as the results of the Treaty of Union and the impact of the French Revolution and radicalism. It covers momentous economic changes, both in agriculture and in industry. It also deals with the results of these changes, notably urbanisation, and the changing life of the Highlands. For those who like romance and military adventure (one should say the bitter hardship of civil war) the Jacobite rebellions provide plenty. The Kirk during this period was grappling with old certainties and new doubts. Above all this was the period of the Scottish Enlightenment, when Adam Smith, David Hume, Thomas Reid, James Hutton and many others transformed the way we think of ourselves and our world. There are compulsory elements in the course, and also many options. For example, those who wish to find out more about Robert Burns, Alan Ramsay or Walter Scott will not be wasting their time.

I do hope that in a year or two I will be marking your work, or your pupils' work.

Sunday, 14 January 2018

The Bicentenary of St John's Part 1

               
In 2018 the church I attend, St John the Evangelist, Princes Street, Edinburgh, is enjoying its 200th anniversary. I am using my satirical column in the church magazine, "Cornerstone", to celebrate the fact in verse. I hope this will be the first canto of half a dozen. 
                

"What is the matter with telling the truth with a smile?" Desiderius Eramus to Martin Dorp, 1515 (Dorp had been complaining that the "Praise of Folly" was too frivolous)


                Think 1818. George III was king
                And Europe was awash with creativity.
                “Heart of Midlothian” was Scott’s new thing;
                The Marx couple celebrated Karl’s nativity;
                Gruber wrote “Stille Nacht for us to sing.
                The list o'erwhelms a heart of sensitivity.
                     It's far too long! In fact it might be speedier
                     To look the whole lot up in Wikipedia.

                And, don’t forget, this year did Mary Shelley
                Conceive her famous Doctor Frankenstein.
                (I say “conceive”. He was not in her belly,
                Rather her fecund fantasy divine.)
    I guess the Shelley household was a melée
    Of quill, ink, paper – all the author’s line.
         And this, in fact, was rather handy as
         Her Percy Bysshe was writing “Ozymandias”.

    But what about the Athens of the North,
    Then slithering from off its lofty perch,
    Street by new street towards the Firth of Forth?
    The old crown jewels were found after a search
                (That Scott again) and many a man of worth
                Thought the New Town should have another church.
                      So, just as Byron started on “Don Juan”
                     Why, Daniel Sandford thought he’d build a new one.

                These lines may make a nest for some church mice,
                Or act on my friend Dorp like an emetic,
                But “Cornerstone” is free, so there’s no price;
                I trust my readers to be sympathetic.
                A bicentenary doesn’t happen twice
                So it seems right to pen some sort of epic.
                      And what could better suit a bold romancer
                     Than write his verse in a Byronic stanza?

Sunday, 26 November 2017

Water. A few thoughts.



At the end of the summer I was asked to write a short article for our church magazine about water. This is not, as I say in it, in any way an academic paper, and all the statistics in it can be easily found on-line, if you have time to look. But I do think that these points are worth sharing more widely, so here they are.

Water is one main theme for St John’s during 2017. Water is our principal focus during Creationtide. So the Editor has asked me to write an article on the subject. I am not going to attempt anything lyrical or passionate on the subject. This has often been done by others, much better than I could do. Instead here are various facts. This is not a scientific paper, nor am I an expert, but as far as I can find out, these facts are accurate. I hope they will provide a stimulus for thought, a stimulus for prayer, a stimulus for conversation, and a stimulus for action.

The human body is about 60% water. The bones lower the average, of course. The brain and the heart are well over 70% water.

The dreadful floods in Texas and neighbouring states, caused by Storm Harvey have been fully reported. At the time of writing (August 31st) 33 people have been killed and about 100,000 homes have been affected. Also during August there has been severe flooding in India, Bangladesh and Nepal. These floods have killed about 1,200 people and left millions homeless. Many have been killed in mudslides. Niger is affected by severe flooding every rainy season. This summer has been no exception. Between 40 and 50 people are reported killed and thousands have been made homeless.

Our planet is as likely to be affected by drought. That strange phenomenon El Nino has made drought conditions worse than usual in many parts of the world in the last couple of years. The countries of Southern and Eastern Africa have been worst affected. In an article for the “Guardian” in March Lucy Lamble reported: “More than 20 million people in four countries are at risk of starvation according to the UN, making this the biggest crisis facing the world since 1945.” Oxfam describes the drought in Eastern Kenya and Southern Somalia as the worst in living memory. USAID, the US Government’s agency in this field, reckons that food insecurity caused by El Nino will continue in Lesotho, Madagascar, Malawi, Mozambique, Swaziland and Zimbabwe till some time in 2018. Prosperous countries are, of course, better able to mitigate the effects of drought, but climate knows no frontiers. Parts of the state of Montana are experiencing exceptional drought as I write.

The relationship between drought and migration is extremely complex and is the subject right now of much academic study and debate. It would be inappropriate for me to pronounce definitively on the subject in an article such as this. Suffice it to say that there clearly is a connection. In September 2015 “Time” magazine carried an article headed: “How climate change is behind the surge of migrants to Europe.” According to the UNHCR there are some 65.6 million displaced people around the world. The number drowned trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea in the first half of this year was over 2,000.

The pollution of water is a vast subject on its own. According to the National Academy of Sciences 1.8 million people die every year from diarrheal diseases such as cholera. Tens of millions of others are seriously sickened by water-related ailments. Meanwhile at sea there is the problem of plastic pollution. Sir David Attenborough summed up the situation:
“There is no away- because plastic is so permanent and so indestructible. When you cast it into the ocean it does not go away.” An article in the July edition of “National Geographic” tells how the area of severe plastic pollution in the Pacific covers roughly one million square miles. This is not just the notorious “garbage patch” of highly visible plastic waste. Even more alarming are the microplastic particles that may be so small as to be unnoticed and do not necessarily float. The creatures that live in the sea inevitably eat them; we do not yet know what consequences will follow.



I am sorry that I cannot write a more cheerful article on this subject. But I guess if everyone who reads this article does a little, well it will add up to a little more. 

Sunday, 12 November 2017

The West Highland Line. Sketches.

On Friday I did something some of my friends regard as crazy - I took a day-return from Edinburgh to Mallaig.



I was lucky with the weather; it was more or less as I hoped all the way there. On the way back it was too dark to care, but I had three books with me.


On the way I was doing thumbnail sketches out of the window all the time. My art teacher said I ought to make a blog-post of them, so I have. Here they are.

The first section of the line from Glasgow Queen Street goes down the Clyde estuary, though Dumbarton and on to Helensburgh. It was near Helensburgh that I saw the first snow of the trip. Once the Cobbler came into view we were well into the Highlands. The snow line was around 750m, and there it stayed  for the rest of the way.


After Arrochar the line goes up Loch Lomond and over the watershed to Crianlarich. We frequently saw stretches of the West Highland Way. The foreground trees were as beautiful as the hills beyond, with rich autumn colours. But there was little hope of drawing them from a moving train.


Above Crianlarich the line takes a great curve round a corrie under Ben Dorain, whereas the main road goes straight on. After Bridge of Orchy it takes off across Rannoch Moor, where no road is. There is a station at Rannoch (just reached by road) and on at Corrour, reachable only on foot (or off-road equivalent).


Across the moor there kept being sights of magnificent snow-covered hills to the west. Although I have walked a lot of Glencoe and the Mamores in my time I could not be sure what was what; but that did not make the view any less. After Corrour we went down by Loch Treig. The hillside there is so steep one marvels at the engineers and navvies who built the railway.



Then we went down the Spean to Fort William, and a grey shower swept in, so I drew houses instead of hills. After Fort William the train does not turn; it sets off backwards. But that was no matter. There was so much room that I could dot from seat to seat as the view called. On the whole I preferred to be on the sea side. The sketch of Loch Eil, incidentally, was made of multiple views, as I was able to glimpse through the trees.


At Glenfinnan the voice of the ticket collector rang out, reminding us that we were crossing the Harry Potter Viaduct. The weather had cleared again. As we go down towards the sea at Loch Ailort there is one of my favourite sections, where the line goes the other side of Loch Eilt from the road. One feels in the heart of the hills.


Finally the line goes north up the Atlantic coast. There is Loch na Uamh, here Charles Edward Stuart landed in July 1745. Then there is a fine view of the extraordinary Sgurr of Eigg. So, with a glimpse of the white sands of Morar, we drew into Mallaig at about 1.30.


Next time you have a day off in Edinburgh or Glasgow, why not do likewise?

Tuesday, 3 October 2017

Painting birch woods

On a recent trip to the Rothiemurchus area we were surrounded by miles of superb woodland. Just across the road from our cottage was an area of magnificent birch wood, which I was determined to paint. After several days walking though it, and thinking about it, I decided to have a go. I also decided to take a photographic record of the process.


The first thing was to choose a site and get set up. My portable easel is over 40 years old now, but it still suits me very well. I can carry it long distances if necessary (not this time) and the adjustable legs allow me to get the board level even on a mountain slope. On this occasion it was just a case of finding a view I wanted, with trunks and undergrowth and bracken more or less spread as I liked. I used acrylic paints - as I usually do - so the equipment was simple.


The first step was to cover the whole board - a thin sheet of hardboard, coated with acrylic primer - with what I knew would be deep background. I used a rag for this. The nature and the direction of the smears was deliberately varied according to the subject. The sky was Prussian Blue Hue and Cerulean, with a lot of Titanium White. The dark patch on the right was Prussian Blue and Raw Siena. This was where there were some dark pines beyond the birches. The smears here were vertical. The foreground and middle ground were Yellow Ochre and Raw Sienna for the patches of bracken with a few bits of green made from Cadmium Yellow with Prussian Blue. Some of the same appears for birch trees in the canopy. I haven't used a tube green for years; I find they too easily take over the whole picture. As for the Cadmium Red Deep in the foreground - well great masters from Ruysdael to Constable have put patches of red in the foreground of landscapes and, unlike them, I don't have to invent a buoy or a jacket to justify it.





The next step was to use a round brush to put in tree trunks. The greys were made from mixtures of the colours already listed and also some Burnt Siena. The main point here was to think about composition. I was closely guided by what was in front of me but I thought just as much about the painting. For example, the largest tree was placed so that there was more or less a square to it's right, and the other large tree was placed so that the gaps between it, the edge, and the other tree were not equidistant. I wondered whether to have the tree just to the left of the big one leaning out of the painting. But I decided that I could use smaller branches to bring the eye back in, and I did not want to manipulate nature's composition too much and and risk making a stock illustration.

   
Three main steps are shown here. One was to use a small round to add some thinner branches. As before nature was my guide, but I was always also thinking about the finished painting. Another was to use the rags to dab more greens of the foliage. These to steps went on simultaneously, as branches and foliage overlap. Then there was the bracken.I have often found this a problem; I knew I did not want to get involved in detail of fronds. After a couple of strokes of a palette knife I realised that rags were my best weapon. By thinking about how you fold and bunch them you can make marks of different shapes. I mixed a colour for the bracken-in-shade, using more red and blue in proportion to the Raw Siena. Then for the fronds on top, catching more light I added a tiny amount of yellow to the Siena. When it came to the dark green patches - moss and bilberry mostly - and the paler grass, the great advantage of plein air painting is that you have it there in front of you to look at.


This is what my palette looked like at this point. You will observe the rags (old pyjama I think) and the two round brushes. Once this photo was taken I changed the water.


Of one traditional hazard - midges - I was mercifully free. There was enough breeze. But at this point the sun moved so it was straight in my eye; I could neither see the subject nor the board. Fortunately the painting had reached a stage where there was no problem shifting my stance; I was long past copying the scene in front. The main worry at this point, when a picture has gone all right so far, is to wreck all. But I worked away with the small round brush, adding detail to the bark of the biggest trees, and used the rag to add more foliage. By now the build-up of paint was such that there was a sense of looking through leaves to more leaves beyond. Finally I reverted to the small round to paint some more precise, and lighter, foreground leaves.


So the picture was finished after about two and a half hours. A pleasant memory of a lovely spot.