Archives for category: painting

I’m looking forward to seeing an opera based on Macbeth next month, written by Giuseppe Verdi. And much like Proust’s famous madeleine biscuit, the thought of Verdi (whose handsome portrait you see above) brought memories of my youth flooding back!

When I finished university I moved to Montreal and rented a flat on the top floor of a small apartment block. The flat was small and bright with white walls and a skylight, and basically had three rooms: a bedroom in front, a long narrow living space, and a kitchen in the back. It was the first place I’d ever lived on my own, and I took great pleasure in furnishing it to my taste.

That striking portrait of Verdi (by Giovanni Boldini) hung on my kitchen wall (in poster form, not the original!) I have always admired the skill of the artist in capturing every whisker, those sparkling blue eyes, the velvety blackness of the coat and the sheen of that top hat. Even more impressive to me is the fact that Boldini worked in pastels, which I have never mastered. I just love this portrait and wish I still had that poster!

Another beautiful thing I miss from my Montreal flat is the bamboo bird cage that stood in my living room, under the skylight. I would never keep birds in a cage, but it was perfect for holding a trailing ivy plant which was very happy there. I have tried to find a similar cage online and was taken aback to find they are now called “vintage” (making me feel rather old!)

I lived on Rue Messier, which was typical of the area in Montreal known as the Plateau Mont-Royal. You can see the three-storey buildings with six flats in each, and the distinctive curvy metal staircases to reach the upper floors. I remember having to brush eight inches of snow off each step every morning in the winter!

I studied French and Quebec Literature in Toronto, and then moved to Montreal to live in a French-speaking environment. I had read the novels and plays of Quebec author Michel Tremblay and was a huge fan, so it was quite a thrill to move into the neighbourhood where he had grown up! Much of his work is set in those same streets around the Parc La Fontaine, and in one novel he mentions Rue Fabre, just a few streets away from my place on Messier.

The first novel in Tremblay’s chronicles of the Plateau Mont-Royal was called La grosse femme d’a coté est enceinte (The Fat Lady Next Door is Pregnant). You can see from the image above that my copy is well worn and well loved!

Photo ©Alchetron

Michel Tremblay is most famous for an early play called Les Belles-soeurs (The Sisters-in-Law). I have seen it performed in French, which is quite a challenge for a native English speaker since it is written in a working-class Montreal dialect called joual. The play has had such success that it has been translated into many languages, including Scots! It was a great pleasure for me to see a production of The Guid Sisters in Glasgow a few years ago. It took me right back to my youth in Montreal. And now an opera of Macbeth has done it again!

GlendaruelA little while back I received a wonderful package of letters from Kilmodan Primary School, a two-classroom schoolhouse in a tiny rural community in Argyll, Scotland. There are only thirteen pupils in the school, and the surrounding countryside is very beautiful. The river above winds through Glendaruel quite close to the school, and the harbour below is Colintraive where some of the pupils live.

Photo ©www.dive-firth-of-clyde.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk

Photo ©www.dive-firth-of-clyde.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk

The eight P1-4 pupils and their teacher Ms Hawkins had been reading my two puffin books, Lewis Clowns Around and Harris the Hero in class, and they each wrote a lovely invitation to Lewis the puffin to come and visit their school tearoom in September. Along with the letters, they enclosed photos of their impressive classroom display of puffin drawings and a fantastic seabird scene. Sadly, Lewis was on tour with the circus in Canada in September, so he couldn’t manage a visit. Instead, he sent each of the children a postcard from Toronto and told them all about his adventures. Since then, Ms Hawkins has been tweeting about Lewis and Harris on her school Twitter account, and she gave me an idea…

puffin holiday planLewis and Harris are back together now, as the circus is taking a little break. On Sunday the two brothers decided to fly off to Ayrshire to visit Blairquhan Castle, as it was a lovely sunny autumn day. They found a picture of the castle in a book and thought it would be great fun to go exploring there.

arrival castleWhen they arrived, it looked just as impressive as the picture! The enormous wooden door stood open in welcome, so Lewis and Harris hopped up the steps and went inside. They were very impressed by the big, beautiful rooms and all the paintings on the walls. One painting showed a rather large family playing out in the countryside:

big paintingAnother painting was of a little girl holding a pet rabbit. Lewis and Harris got up near the painting to get a closer look. They thought the rabbit looked a bit worried.

puffins and rabbitNext they visited the library. They had never seen so many books in one place! The little spaces in between felt just like a puffin’s burrow in the cliff.

libraryNext they wandered into the dining room, where they found a strange bird. It was a pheasant, but for some reason it refused to talk to them. Eventually they gave up and left him alone. What a rude fellow, they thought.

puffins and grouseLewis and Harris ventured up some very grand stairs and found a big four-poster bed with tartan drapery. Next to the bed was a lamp with another animal – this time a handsome stag made of metal. The puffins flew up to the bedside table to take a closer look.

stag lampIt was clear this one was not going to talk, but they thought he made a lovely lamp. Blairquhan Castle was a great place to visit, but it was getting late and Lewis and Harris needed to get home. On their way out they stopped in the grand ballroom and spotted a very special ice cream cart. What a funny thing to find in a castle!

ice cream cartThey asked the man what he was doing there, and he explained that this was an open day for people who wanted to have their wedding at the castle. He offered a free taste of his special wedding ice cream, and Lewis and Harris couldn’t say no!

ice cream choicesLewis liked the look of Rhubarb and Ginger, and Harris went for Yummy Watermelon. They were delicious! Ice cream was a perfect end to a great day out, and it gave them lots of energy for the long flight home. I wonder where Lewis and Harris will go next?

A few weeks ago I got an email from a publishing company in India called Grapevine. They had seen my portrait of Anne Frank (published on this blog) and wondered if I would allow them to use it on the cover of their edition of The Diary of a Young Girl. I was happy to accept!

The Grapevine India edition of Anne Frank's diary.

The Grapevine India edition of Anne Frank’s diary.

It was very exciting to receive a package some time later with five copies of the book. This is the first time my artwork has been used as a cover illustration, and it got me thinking about cover art more generally. What makes you pick up a book? Can you buy a book with a hideous cover? (I find that tough.) Have you ever bought a book just for its cover? In spite of the famous saying, it’s very hard not to judge a book by its cover!

A retelling of Helen Bannerman's classic tiger story, illustrated by Fred Marcellino.

A retelling of Helen Bannerman’s classic tiger story, illustrated by Fred Marcellino.

Here’s an example of an irresistible cover illustration, done by the talented illustrator and cover designer Fred Marcellino. Little Babaji is such an intriguing character, sitting proudly on that tiger, you just have to open the book and read!

Clearly that is the objective of every book cover. Some are more successful than others. With children’s books, we all have our favourite illustrators, but books for adults also have to grab the reader’s attention and have visual appeal. Designing a book cover is a very special talent!

One hundred classic Penguin book covers in a box shaped like a book!

One hundred classic Penguin book covers in a box shaped like a book!

Now it’s possible to own 100 book covers from a variety of classic publishers, just to appreciate the designs. They are printed on postcards and fill a box that looks like a big book. The first of these was Postcards from Penguin, with classic book covers from the 1940s through to the 1990s.

Ladybird boxOther collections have appeared in the same format since, including Postcards from Puffin (children’s books) and Postcards from Ladybird (1950s learning-to-read books). Faber and Pelican book covers can also be found in 100 postcard boxes, as well as Beatrix Potter illustrations and photos of famous authors. Clearly, cover art is very much appreciated these days!

This summer my daughter Anna found an unusual job illustrating a story about a mermaid, so her work will soon grace the cover of a book too! The mermaid and her friends are fed up with all the rubbish people are leaving on the beach, and the book is designed to teach children to keep the environment clean. Here’s a little sneak preview of the mermaid and her friends (otter, seagull, crab, seal and sandhopper among others):

Illustration ©Anna Rickards 2015.

Illustration ©Anna Rickards 2015.

The endpapers are also going to be beautiful, with a seaside theme:

Illustration ©Anna Rickards 2015.

Illustration ©Anna Rickards 2015.

The book will be published by An Lucht Lonrach in Scotland. You can visit their website for more information on the mermaid book.

Happy reading!

subway entranceOn our second day in Toronto, my son and I hopped on the Yonge Street subway line to head down to the Harbourfront area. The subway system has been expanded since I lived in Toronto, and now reaches further in all directions. A good deal simpler than the London Underground system, the Toronto subway has two main lines: the yellow one goes North-South in a big U, and the green one goes East-West along Bloor Street.

Toronto Subway map showing the three lines. Map ©TTC.

The Bloor/Danforth line has been extended north at the eastern end. It ended at Kennedy when I lived there. So I see a new blue line and also a little purple one that wasn’t there before! These go out into the suburbs. Downtown Toronto is the area served by that lower part of the U.

The subway trains have also changed a great deal since I was last in Toronto. Now they are sleek and open with no divisions between carriages. They were revamped in 2010 and now look similar to New York subway trains.

The new Toronto subway trains were launched in 2010. Photo ©TTC/Mike DeToma.

The new Toronto subway trains were launched in 2010. Photo ©TTC/Mike DeToma.

The platforms are clean and modern, and signposting is pretty clear. You can get a transfer to travel on a bus or streetcar once you come out of the subway, but remember to get it at the station where you start! Look for the red transfer machines.

Photo ©blogTO/Derek Flack.

Photo ©blogTO/Derek Flack.

Inside, the trains look great but the seats are a bit hard. Plenty of room for standing though, and you can walk down the full length of the train.

Photo ©blogTO/Derek Flack.

Photo ©blogTO/Derek Flack.

There are regular announcements at each station and a set of arrows on the overhead display shows which side to exit on. There is also a clever illuminated map of the subway network with a green light indicating the train’s current location. Red lights show the route you are on and where you will go next.

So, all this to say we took a subway train down to Union Station, where we took a short walkway south to the Harbourfront. I hardly recognised the place, as so many new hotels and highrise condominiums had been built in the past 20 years! We were meeting a friend at the Queen’s Quay building, but I had some trouble finding it in a forest of glass and concrete towers.

queens quay condoThe Queen’s Quay Terminal building was originally a warehouse on the waterfront, but was converted to luxury condominiums in 1983. Back then it was virtually the only one of its kind, with lovely terrace restaurants on the quayside and a landscaped walkway behind. A nearby powerhouse was converted into an art gallery in those early days of cultural transformation.

Now there are a huge number of attractions, including a dog and cat centre, the Purina PawsWay, where pets are welcome to take in exhibits (such as the Animal Hall of Fame) and events like obedience training and obstacle races. Not being pet owners, we didn’t venture in.

Giant bronze pets welcome you at the PawsWay at Harbourfront. Photo ©Purina PawsWay.

Giant bronze pets welcome you at the PawsWay at Harbourfront. Photo ©Purina PawsWay.

Instead we had a lovely walk along the waterfront and a great meal with our friend on a sunny terrace. The next stop was the CN Tower, but when we arrived it was so crowded that we would have had to wait two hours to go up, so we decided against it. My son had forgotten his glasses anyway, so Toronto from the air would have been a blur!

We decided to stroll up Yonge Street, the longest street in Canada at 58 km. We had only travelled a few blocks when we came past the Elgin and Winter Garden Theatre, a handsome Edwardian double theatre built in 1913 by Marcus Loew and designed by Thomas W. Lamb.

Photo ©Elgin Winter Garden Theatre.

Photo ©Elgin Winter Garden Theatre.

Originally designed for vaudeville, the lower Elgin Theatre was a sumptuous gilt and red velvet hall where silent films were introduced, and later it was adapted as a mainstream movie house.

The Elgin Theatre has been in continuous use since 1913. Photo ©Elgin and Winter Garden Theatres.

The Elgin Theatre has been in continuous use since 1913.
Photo ©Elgin and Winter Garden Theatres.

The separate Winter Garden Theatre is located seven stories above the Elgin, and is a whimsical creation with its hanging beech branches and twinkling lanterns.

The unique Winter Garden Theatre has tree-like columns and hanging leaves. Photo ©Elgin and Winter Garden Theatres.

The unique Winter Garden Theatre has tree-like columns and hanging leaves.
Photo ©Elgin and Winter Garden Theatres.

This theatre was aimed at a more discriminating audience but it also featured vaudeville shows. When these declined in popularity the Winter Garden Theatre closed, and lay unused for 65 years. In the 1980s both theatres were restored by the Ontario Heritage Foundation. In the upper theatre, volunteers spent many months rolling the painted walls and boxes with raw bread dough to remove the soot. This was the only way to clean them as they were painted with simple water-based paints.

The boxes and stage surround are painted with trellis and roses. Photo ©Elgin and Winter Garden Theatres.

The boxes and stage surround are painted with trellis and roses.
Photo ©Elgin and Winter Garden Theatres.

We had intended only to pop in and look at the lobby with its lovely stained glass doors, but we ended up going on a 90-minute tour! A very lucky discovery, and much more interesting than the CN Tower, as it turned out.

The entrance to the Elgin, with beautiful stained glass doors. Photo ©Elgin and Winter Garden Theatres.

There is so much more to see in Toronto that we must try to get back very soon. I’m going to make a list and be a bit more organised next time!

Verdi portrait

The other day my daughter mentioned the great Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi, and I was reminded of a fantastic portrait of him painted by Giovanni Boldini. When I was at art school I had a poster of this image on my wall, so the splendid gentleman with his top hat and jaunty scarf would greet me often in the course of my day. The poster is long gone, but just a mention of the name Verdi instantly brings this handsome portrait back to me.

Did you know that in the World Beard and Moustache Championships there is a category of beard called the “Verdi”? Of course there is. There are quite a few people around the world who take facial hair very seriously!

world beard champs

These guys have all been competitors in the World Beard and Moustache Championships over the years. A good number of them come from Germany and Switzerland, where beard cultivation is a well developed art form.

Over the centuries, beards and moustaches have gone in and out of fashion. Depending on the look you choose, the effect can vary enormously. A big white beard for example, as worn by Socrates and Santa Claus, is reassuring and conveys wisdom and kindness.

Painting by American artist Norman Rockwell.

 

A carefully manicured goatee, worn by Charles Dickens, gave him an air of distinction and individuality. Apparently he was also fond of fancy waistcoats and gold jewellery. Very dapper!

Dickens

Shakespeare is thought to have been bearded too. There is some doubt as to what he really looked like, but this painting makes him look very cultured and intelligent:

Shakespeare

His neatly trimmed beard comes to a point, and brings to mind another Elizabethan gentleman, Sir Walter Raleigh. In those days a beard was a sign of manliness, but in the next century (the 17th) it became fashionable for men to be clean-shaven with long, curly hair (often wigs).

17th century man

Fashions come and go (thank goodness) and not everyone follows the herd. In the 1960s it was in protest against social constraints and repressive government policies that young people grew their hair and beards long and called themselves “Hippies.” In the ’70s and ’80s beards became unfashionable again, as money and success were seen as what society should be striving for once more. For some men it came down to a choice between their beard and their job, as certain occupations (police, health care professionals, Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet) forbade facial hair.

Thankfully, today there is much more freedom in that department, and the beard is currently enjoying a resurgence of popularity.

beard comp poster

There are clubs and associations around the world celebrating a rich variety of facial decoration. Celebrities from George Clooney to Graham Norton are sporting beards these days, and for those who have been standing out in the crowd for the last few decades it comes as a bit of a shock.

Photo ©Nosy Crow

Photo ©Nosy Crow

Children’s author Philip Ardagh stands two metres tall and has always worn a prodigious beard to match his size 16 feet. Now that beards are all the rage, he may have to up his game! Maybe a little moustache wax will do the trick…