Tuesday, 11 March 2014

The Grand Surprise

I read, from my favourite butterfly book by Jeremy Thomas and Richard Lewington, that the 'The Camberwell Beauty' was once known as 'The Grand Surprise' and that it was prized by early dealers and collectors who suffered no qualms in pursuing, killing and pinning specimens in situ within their collections.

I have one such sad specimen, loaned to me for reference. As I gaze at it now my vision becomes more and more blurred with tears. This 'specimen' was once a vibrant living thing. How an individual could have pursued it, killed it and stabbed a pin through it's body is beyond me. I am, I must admit growing weary of the justification that some such specimens were collected for the advancement of science, particularly as I become more aware of the ruthlessness and greed of this era. I have referenced collections which have within their number dozens of any given species, many collected to the point of extinction, then arranged casually like postage stamps. It's deeply sad.

Of course these early collections did in part celebrate the beauty of butterflies. Their beauty is undoubtably what brought about their collection in the first instance. Many saw early butterfly collections as nothing more harmful than aesthetic arrays of such beauty. Beauty which beguiled so much so as to deny any consideration of the sacrifice which they also represented.

 We should continue to celebrate butterflies today with equal appreciation and enthusiasm but we must find new ways to capture and gaze upon their beauty that don't make our eyes well with tears. We have splendid books to reference. We have societies to join, which celebrate butterflies and pioneer their conservation. We have exciting new networks of enthusiasts growing through Facebook and Twitter and contemporary artists and poets continue to illustrate and describe their beauty, as they have since time immemorial.

Of course I hope that my artistic celebration of the beauty of butterflies delights the senses. But moreover I hope that unlike the collections of a bygone era, it contributes towards inspiring  realisation of the imperative to preserve our beautiful British butterflies on the wing before they pay the ultimate sacrifice; extinction. It is surely the shared hope of all who delight in butterflies today.

As I lift my tatty faded specimen back into its collectors case, I reaffirm the conviction that I feel towards this,'case for conservation', an artists celebration of the collective beauty of all 72 species of British butterfly. There will be no pins through the silken bodies of my hand embroidered specimens, no butterflies will be harmed in the making of this piece! But I do hope to underpin the prescient need for their conservation.

Whilst working on my Camberwell Beauty I had to look at the collectors specimen pragmatically, with a keenness of observation not clouded by tears. It was helpful in understanding it's exquisite form and shape. Though faded and bruised its wings still retain a velvety lustre...a delicate downy texture. It's bright blue eye spots still shimmer. It's deep cream fringes, giving rise to its namesakes; 'white petticoat' and 'mourning cloak', seem exquisitely pleated. Such mesmerising, miraculous qualities, I approached my rendition with genuine humility, and a profound sense of the beauty I aspired to honour, acutely aware of my limitations and being merely mortal, my inability to recreate a miracle!

It is only now, as I sit here quietly with my thoughts, having honoured the beauty to the best of my ability, that I feel challenged by an emotional, some would argue overly sentimental, impulse to bury the collectors specimen in the willow woods. A ghostly, once splendid thing somehow imbued with the spirit of butterflies long lost to us.

However, I have decided not to waste another minute feeling mournful, gazing wistfully and dead butterflies! I must to focus all my energy on resurrecting species through the collaborative energy that that artistic initiative hopes to engender. Introspection 'arty' or otherwise or poor substitute for action!

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

It's twenty past five in the evening, I have been stitching butterfly scales across the hind wing of a Camberwell Beauty butterfly all afternoon, now the tiny stitches have merged into shadow; receded into the shade of tired eyes no longer bright enough to focus attention.

As day light fades my energy inevitably ebbs; like a songbird I feel compelled to abandon my studio perch and seek a more homey nesting place. This evening however, though darkness has fallen, I can still hear songbirds; beautiful, bright, lyrical notes striking the heartstrings of Spring. Rain is pattering hypnotically on my studio roof... roosting calls echo from the rookery in the ancient woods in a reassuringly ancient way.

There is perhaps nothing more beautiful than the meditation of peace and quiet, unlike silence it holds gentle phrases and whispered promises. I think I'll rest here a while before I go in, my eyes may be tired but my ears are wide awake!

Friday, 7 February 2014

A stitch in time

Time, I've felt a bit short of it lately. Most of us feel frustrated 'from time to time' that we don't seem to have enough of the stuff. Truth of it is, we all have the same quota every day; twenty four hours, divided up into minutes, then seconds. Why is it then that 'sometime' flies and 'sometime' drags...that time 'sometimes' seem to have different measurement values.

Waiting in a memory clinic earlier this week to discuss my Mum in law's sufferance of Alzheimer's, time all but stopped. Minutes felt like hours, forty minutes like an eternity. Our perception of time was undoubtably further skewed by the outdated tatty mags, headlining last years trends and news. Why maybe we'd been trapped there since 2012, according to 'The Telegraph Sunday supplement - April 2012', it was possible we'd been waiting years! Visiting the loo presented with the only thing to do, so to alleviate the boredom and pass the time, I fantasised it may be a Tardis! Alas, predictably and disappointingly, the door opened back into the waiting room. Patients and conscience of course dictated that we continue to wait quietly, we were after all seeking help and understanding for a loved one for whom the parameters of time now hold nothing but confusion.

Conversely, back in my studio this afternoon, true to the adage: 'time flies when your enjoying yourself', it's flown! I'm sat out here in the glow of tungsten light, the darkest of winters nights pressing up against the windows, wandering what happened. A whole afternoon, all that scope I had to get things done now shallower than the beam from my angle poise lamp.

I have finished working the miniature silk stitches across a Camberwell Beauty's wing though. Perhaps I should count time, not in seconds but in stitches...silk 'butterfly scale' stitches, each one worked gently and contentedly. Anyhow, tomorrow is a brand new day, with lots of scope. Actually, on reflection, I hope it flies like the best of them!

Thursday, 30 January 2014

The master plan

I moved the Swallowtail butterfly from his resting place on my desk today. I've been sat at my floor standing embroidery frame for a day or two, so no need to disturb him. Having succeeded in my aspiration to create his likeness, it's brightened my day to see him resting there amongst my sketch books, paintbrushes and paraphernalia and imagine him real.

Glancing up from my work I've caught sight of him; a daydream later I've found myself in France, where I most vividly recall first seeing Swallowtails.

In my dream state, the sound of the radio receded to a feint whisper, the warmth of the radiator became the warmth of summer and I'd find myself standing at the foot of a towering buddliea bush gazing up through its fairytale spires of purple flowers. Squinting against the brilliant sun, I'd watch as the butterflies fanned their magnificent wings and unfurled their delicate long proboscis. Daintily dipping them into the flowers, as if sipping cocktails through a straw, measuredly spiralling them back into perfect miniature coils having sipped their fill of nectar before drifting away to join the sun. Backwards and forwards to France in the twinkling of an eye...without a soul noticing!

Daydreams should be encouraged, they are the wellspring of sanity in my estimation but every now and then one needs to wake up! Often it's the shrill call of the telephone ringing; a coffee break will equally break the spell... sometimes it's the tug of conscience that brings the daydreamer around. The latter awoke me from my Swallowtail daydream: 'You need to focus jane!' -  my conscious declared. Duly, I stood up from my workstation and delicately lifted my embroidered butterfly off my desk and onto 'the master plan!'

The master plan really is going to take some focus. At this stage it is simply a large pencil sketch identifying all seventy two of our British butterfly species. The plan is that I should bring it alive in art form. The plan will indeed be my master! Artistically speaking, it is perhaps the most exciting plan that I have ever committed to. The excitement is borne of its initiative; to raise awareness of our butterflies' beauty and vulnerability and of their conservation needs, raising valuable conservation funding through sponsorship of its achievement and its ultimate auction. I am thrilled to share that it is endorsed by some of our greatest conservation bodies, including 'The Royal Entomological Society' and 'Butterfly Conservation', and has garnered the support of pre-eminent conservationists including Professor's Jeremy Thomas and David Bellamy. A number of species have already been sponsored... some sponsors names will be familiar to many. As the project evolves I'll share all the thrills here with you; together of course with the occasional daydream and a little random musing! Hoping it will capture your imagination and get you day dreaming too. Butterflies surely are the most day dreamy, bright and beautiful things to drift off with.  

Saturday, 25 January 2014


I'm settled into 2014 now, evidentially!

One: I've spent more days of the week in my studio than on holiday or recuperating from winter bugs. 

Two: I've left a healthy domestic muddle indoors, avoiding the compulsion to fuss. Too much pride over housework equals diminishing returns in my studio. I hereby name it and shame it as 'evasive, compulsive, displacement disorder!' I know the condition is out of control when I get around to such nonsense as polishing spoons and making them 'spoon' together like little lovers in the draw...for goodness sake Jane, they're only cutlery! - who said that? 

Three: I've listened to 'Gardeners Question Time' twice this week. Meaning that I've been in my studio; the only place I listen to the radio, for sufficient consecutive days; to shout out 'snap'...and believe me I do when it happens, with an empowered sense of victory over distraction!

Of course most evidentially of all; professionally speaking, 'settled' means art in tangible form. I'm not counting musing, doodling or 'studying in the field' as I euphemistically call chasing butterflies; fun but technically playing. I'm talking stepping into my studio space and seeing something accomplished resting on my desk. This morning that 'something' was a Swallowtail butterfly, poised beside the tweezers which, with finishing touch I had bent the crook of its legs. Yesterday, as the pips of five 'o' clock chimed on 'PM at five PM'  (I don't count that as a 'snap' victory by the way, it would be too easy), I had left him where he rested like a held breath. 

I never really know if I can breath a sigh of satisfaction over what I have achieved until I've stepped away from it for a while. Only when I catch sight of it anew, almost by surprise, do I know if it has transcended that sense of my having fashioned it and assumed its own energy. Instead becoming something born of its inspiration, nature...something with a natural energy not a crafted sense. The test is simple, a butterfly that fails to make me smile is simply not a butterfly. It made me smile. I hope it makes you smile too.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

A light touch

During the winter I scurry out to my studio first thing in the morning to turn my heater on. There is very little 'limbering up' associated with my exacting working methodology. Necessarily, I sit for hours employing just small muscle groups; painting with miniature brushes, modelling with pins, stitching with tiny needles...nothing brisk to stave off the cold. I categorically cannot work if chills are pinching at my fingers and toes or I can't feel my nose! Occasionally I'll brave the distance in my fluffy dressing gown, pyjama legs tucked into my wellie boots in order to steal a march on the day. In the time it takes me to polish off my porridge and brew some coffee, it's generally quite cosy out there.

This morning I made the dressing gown dash, scampering about as the day dawned not unlike any other creature we spy crossing our field... I even have an authentic furry coat!  I do however lack the tenacity of our furry friends living full time in the open air. Beatrix Potter should have been given a medal for compassion for fashioning them little coats and booties to see them safely through the winter!  Of course I have grown to understand that we cannot cosset or clothe the creatures with which we share our land, there's not a badger out there that would thank you for a velvet coat and breeches, but their struggle to survive does distress me. A struggle not only presented by harsh winter weather, against which one may argue they are more or less fairly matched having adapted and evolved defences against the elements. It is moreover the man made adaptations of our land that nature cannot survive. Our demand for housing, crops, road networks, shopping centres and car parks ..tennis courts, swimming pools, sports arenas. It is pointless continuing to list. I do not have the 'weight to debate'.  There are much stronger environmentalists, academics, and people politic out there than me. But what I do have is my miniature paintbrush, fine filament threads and the sensibility to share how much I care through the art work that I evolve. Mine is a light touch. My 'muscle' exercised in delicately pinching hold of embroidery needles and fine sable brushes. In triggering the small motor neurones of hand to eye coordination, and the gentle perception of what is beautiful in nature and in need of preserving.

Monday, 20 January 2014

Frivolous pink Monday

A frivolous pink miniature cyclamen flowers beneath our silver birch tree every winter. Every year it gains a little more ground in it's battle with the lawn. Simple grass is ill matched against the sophisticated verdant green leaves of this cyclamen which push through the earth like the most exquisite heart shaped spades, establishing the plant well in advance of its dainty blooms. In bud the flowers look like little lipsticks, perfectly proportioned for fairy kind, thus I've somewhat whimsically come to know it as 'the fairy lipstick plant'. True, not as sophisticated as knowing it by its Latin name, but far more descriptive and surely therefore more apt. Little girls; both young in years and young at heart, that I introduce it too often instantly declare it their favourite plant! What girl isn't grateful of a little lippy on a wintry day!

I paused determinedly to enjoy these little lipstick flowers today, having just been assaulted by the declaration on BBC breakfast that this is 'Blue Monday'; the most miserable day of the year. I'm pleased to say that in doing so I successfully perished the the thought! Statisticians, chocolate marketeers and moody blue cure purveyors may indulge such nonsense but according to my patch on this earth it is in fact 'Frivolous Pink Monday'...and who needs an excuse to enjoy another square of chocolate any way! Surely declaring a day miserable can result in nothing good.

Friday, 17 January 2014

Wrong footed Wellies!

Wrong footed Wellies, now there's silly! Like a clown (actually, more like a demented duck!) I trounced along the muddy, puddled path to my studio earlier this week with my boots on the wrong feet. It made me smile out loud', to quote my niece when she was four or five and something silly (probably me) made her laugh. A great visual gag, but by the time your in you reach forty seven, best not shared with an audience. Daft isn't so cute when you reach middle age (did I just admit to being middle aged). Thankfully my only audience was my husband Neil who was out and about in the mud as well. He didn't exercise himself much beyond rolling his eyes in comment, simply smiling back at me. Well, perhaps I should have seen the Wellie boot incident as an omen...or, less portentously, more of a silly sign. 

Once or twice I have been asked abruptly; 'Did something drop on your head from a great height!' Well Neil and his family do hone from 'Gods country'...Yorkshire as those 'less blessed' know it. Being 'arty', often actively choosing to be 'off with the Fairies', I've always taken it as fair comment when proffered. But this week, it did, it really did! 

An empty olive oil tin, boasting a pretty picture of a Spanish lady sat underneath an olive tree launched itself off the top of the fridge freezer where it was decoratively balanced, touching down briefly, smack between my eyes before clattering to the floor. Now the merits of keeping empty tins is doubtful (especially if your from Yorkshire!), but really! I stood there dazed, and not in a fun 'off with the fairies' kind of way, with one ear tuned to Neil's well intentioned, entirely obvious advice, which, if followed (and I can't promise to) would result in such an incident 'never happening again'.

Well, there's more, but this time 'the boot is on the other foot!'. This afternoon; Neil, still out and about in the mud, about important business fixing things, elected to take a tea break. Calling by my studio, smiling up at me, looking like 'Stig of the Dump' he elected that I should make the tea! Cheeky, and it told him so! Reluctantly he trundled off in the general direction of the kettle. 

Moments later, calamity! He'd toppled down the garden steps, recovering himself he hobbled theatrically into view. I looked out to see him, more mud than man limping about like a troll, cursing the air and intermittently calling out for me in a sweeter key. Off course I went running, helping him to the safety of our comfy sofa, providing tea (I know, perhaps I should have made it in the first instance), sympathy...a foot stool and ice! Ice is an excellent treatment for such calamities...I should know, having sat dazed beneath a packet of frozen peas after my incident with the olive oil tin. I do have a 'Harry Potter' style flash between my eyes and an unattractively bruised nose but I've  got away without black eyes. I'm told this is a bonus, apparently you nearly always get black eyes with a punch to the nose...kind of 'buy it' (biff!) and you get these free!

Neil's now quite recovered. He can't think how it happened; you know the score, one minute he was walking down the garden...the next! Generally these things are explained away as 'accidents'. I've proffered sympathy rather than 'advice' offering up no 'why's or where-fore's'. More likely than not it was 'natural slippage', though I strongly suspect fairy mischief. They get bored in January you know...beyond all the sparkle of Christmas, impatiently waiting for Spring. The clue that this week was likely to be a little haphazard was 'in my Wellies', oh if only I'd heeded it, all along.

PS: the olive oil tin is in the recycling bin!

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

A colourful grey day

Monday morning dawned magnificently across the Menai Straits where I woke to see the sky ablaze; magenta, amber and lapis blue, ember bright in the furnace of the rising sun.

Tuesday mornings light transcribed this magic; back home, walking the country lanes with Neil I glanced up from conversation to see it kissing the tree tops softly. The birches blushed pale mauve, colouring a perception of Spring, albeit shyly, in tight bud.

Today it's raining, the sky is like the cover of my sketch book, smudged with graphite finger marks, tattered, used. Recent weather has flourished with changeable artistic temperament, daubing brilliant blue and mercurial grey, harshly spattering hail and sleet, carelessly throwing down washes of rain across its canvas, the sky.  From day to day, it's energy, seemingly all but spent, it leaves vast patches un-inspiringly empty, canvas white. From time to time it's demeanour softens altogether, relenting it apologises in rainbows and invites the sun to shine.

However miserably the weather may express itself today, I sit here gazing out from my studio having 'seen the light'. I know that the magic of a beautiful dawn, the soft light of early spring, is,in essence, inherent in this day too, however dilute and imperceptible it may be. Knowing this colours my mood.

...on a more lighthearted note, and waxing less lyrical; I always have my waxed hat and Wellies and we have some 'awesome' puddles in the field! - though their depth should not be trusted! I've jumped in one or two that I could swear I heard laugh out loud as they drenched me, breaching my wellie tops...how old am I!

Monday, 6 January 2014


Well, I'm still 'love struck'; everything reminds me of our extraordinary recent adventure....thousands of sea leagues from here in Hawaii, an island chain in the South Pacific.

I'm anxious not to weary who ever may be sharing my recollections through this blog. I guess it's inexperience on my part; after all, the word diary has not long been commonly prefixed by the words 'on line'. Calling a diary a blog doesn't deceive me; a diary is a diary is a diary (say I thrice!). I'm confident that my first ever diary had a little lock and key and 'Top Secret' writ large across it. It takes a real call of confidence to share in this 'modern way', denying the voice of insecurity that whispers: 'desist' or someone will catch you out for over sharing...over thinking...being boring!  In Hawaii they refer to sharing love and celebrating what is beautiful as living in the spirit of aloha. With reverence, I'll therefore continue in this spirit.

So, whole heartedly, in the true spirit of aloha, today I'll share every colour of the rainbow with you!  Hawaii; the land of sunshine and showers is perhaps where the colours of all rainbows are divined.   I believe we may have hovered above the mercurial centre of the world! - Mt Waialeale Crater, Kauai, the wettest and rainiest place on earth. Here majestic waterfalls cascade thousands of feet breaking beyond mans gaze, refracting brilliant colour into their spray as it meets the sun bright sky. If the universal colours of the rainbow are mixed anywhere surely it's here!

The climate across this paradise archipelago chain is fairly constant throughout the year, reliable bright sunshine, brilliant heat cooled by gentle (occasionally temperamental) trade winds and rain...plenty of rain of the showery kind. The daily weather forecast varied between 'sunshine and showers' and 'showers and sunshine'! This being the case, most days we admired rainbows; broad brushstrokes of luminous colour flourished with artistic aplomb against the canvas of the day. Some days we saw them high above the ocean forming perfect arches, others stretching out from the mountains, burying their tails, reputedly along with their treasure, where they met land, deep within the islands lush interior. Sometimes they fell fragmented across the landscape; where isolated rain clouds burst or irrigation fanned out across manicured lawns.We even glimpsed their magical colours caught up fleetingly in the sea spray along the islands costal fringes. But my most vibrant memory of all is of when their colours brushed our faces as we explored the mountainous terrain of Haleakala National Park, to the east of Maui.

We set off early that morning to drive 'The Road to Hana', reputed to be one of the most beautiful drives on earth. In my estimation, it's rather like the reputed treasure at the end of the rainbow, not everyone who seeks it finds it! Neil, being the driver actually found the constant twists and turns along the so called scenic drive a little tedious. According to historic record, once upon a time it proved a challenging journey. It was first constructed in 1926 from volcanic cinders by prison trustees; rain filled pot holes dimpling it's patchy surface, it presented with treacherous bends, narrow stretches and sheer drops to either side. Today; re paved and widened, winding ever onward with little opportunity, save stopping at limited points along the way, to admire what you are driving through, it is perhaps, dare I say it (it being famous and all!) a little boring! At least, as the passenger, I had the privilege of snatching glimpses of waterfalls, flourishes of tropical flora and views towards the rugged windward coast. Neil had to keep his eye on the seemingly endless road. To add insult to injury we'd left our picnic behind, so no snacks or drinks to boot!

We eventually found snacks... of sorts; vegetarianism is not the way of the road to Hana! Lunch consisted of some delicious banana bread and some rambutans (of all things; exotic but certainly not Hawaiian!). Water was even more difficult to source but bizarrely we found a roadside seller with a giant refrigerated unit...mostly full of coca cola, with a corner to spare for water; well, technically it is America!

I guess our day really picked up when we met a lady along the way at the foot of a spectacular waterfall selling shell leis, and sharing the spirit of Elvis. I know; quirky aside, but it's another days story! From there, Neil decided that he couldn't bare the boredom of the same journey in reverse. Boasting off road savvy; feeling intrepid at the wheel of our bright red jeep...with the blessing of the remarkable shell lei maker we therefore set off, off road to complete our journey.

The road became much more exciting, bumping, grinding, winding and eventually widening, opening out into the most amazing mountainous terrain. Majestic, cowboy territory, even boasting the occasional lone goat, adding to that remote Western movie vibe! We wound closer to the coast too...the awesome windward coast. We took every opportunity to stop the jeep, step out and gasp in sheer wonder at what our eyes surveyed. Surely it was impossible to be more awestruck, yet as   I marvelled at the sheer grandeur of the mountainsides we were flashing by I noticed them flush magenta...and cyan and turquoise blue, the colours of the rainbow were chasing us! We stopped and stepped out of the jeep yet again and found we were all but bathing in their light. It felt like a tangible blessing and still does. We were captured by the joy and luminosity of this spectacular rainbow light until it faded. For some forty minutes we gazed into it as it seemed to gaze into us and light up our hearts. Aloha, pure aloha.