the collector’s eye

We’ve just enjoyed the company of our friends Dave and Philippa Roberts, here at Ty Isaf for a weekend of walks with Jack, reading in front of the blazing wood-burning stove, good conversation and meals prepared while chatting and quaffing wine in the cosy warmth of our kitchen.

Philippa took the above shot of the small china store-room at the back of our hall, where we keep a collection of ceramics, tin toys, fossils and various curiosities. Among them there’s an alabaster cosmetics jar from a tomb of the Ptolemaic dynasty, a clutch of Meri Wells porcelain beasts, a curious seedpod picked up in a Barcelona park and a tiny, obelisk-shaped throne made for the set model of a stage production of ‘Robin Hood’ I designed decades ago. (You can see it silhouetted against the light plate on the left of the top shelf.) Later Philippa sent me photographs taken on a trip she and Dave had made to Mexico, and I post them here to illustrate the collecting/curatorial aesthetic that fuels mankind’s need to put similar objects together.

Attack of the Cyclops


My friend Jac Hicks has sent me a beautiful, miniature set of French building-blocks that I’ve erected on the bookcase in the upstairs sitting-room. (I’ve been working at the table in there over the summer months on my various illustration projects, as it’s a corner room with a dual aspect and lots of light.) The blocks are keeping company with the Mexican nativity set from Marly Youmans that’s much too handsome to come out only at Christmas, and a rather dog-eared, over-twenty-five-year-old pop-up Christmas card I made of a Punch & Judy booth. The wooden christmas tree was another unexpected gift, one of four toy trees sent to me by Chloe Redfern.

Opposite the building-block archway is the model of the stage-set I designed for last year’s The Mare’s Tale chamber-work, now populated with a very early group of painted lead figures of Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, a christmas gift of many years ago from Peter, who wrapped the figures separately and stuffed them alongside satsumas and foil-covered chocolate coins down the toe of one of his knitted walking-socks! Note that Grumpy has gone off to survey the new building!


Our house is full of such tableaux. I suspect they rearrange themselves after dark!

‘glimmerglass’ framed

Marly Youmans’ novel Glimmerglass will be published in September by Mercer University Press. The books have been printed and are currently stashed in a USA warehouse. Soon they will begin to move out into the world. Meanwhile, and on the the other side of the world, from today anyone visiting us will be greeted by the framed original collage/drawing that is the cover of Glimmerglass, the first artwork to be seen on entering Ty Isaf, hanging at the half-landing of the stairs next to shelves packed with treasured books, including all my collaborations with Marly.

Whether going up or down at Ty Isaf, the cover of the book is there to greet and remind me of all the pleasures of friendship with Marly. I love her work, and I love her.

Marly, right, with Montserrat Prat at Ty Isaf, 2011. Both had contributed chapters to my monograph, published by Lund Humphries.

jack and the red ball with teeth

I’ve been fortunate at the Artlog, as in five years of blogging I’ve never had to field a complaint here. But yesterday I had two from fans of Jack, both saying that my last garden post was lacking without the presence of the little hairy one to complete the picture. (As it happens he was up in the house, canoodling with Peter who was laid out on the sofa in the throes of a cold!) And so here, to make up for the omission, is a ‘Jack’ post!

Philippa in Penarth sent Jack a parcel in the post. Inside was a ball. The idea with the ball is that if a dog catches it in its mouth like so…

… said dog is immediately transformed into a glove-puppet! (Google image)

Philippa requested that we take a photograph of Jack with his new toy and e-mail it to her. Now while Jack was ecstatic over his present, getting a photograph of it in his mouth proved more difficult than we imagined.

He simply couldn’t be persuaded to hold it long enough for us to snap away. His mode of playing is to drop the toy at your feet in order to get you to throw it for him. He couldn’t grasp at all the idea that we wanted him to pose with it. I’d put it in his mouth and he’d spit it right out again so that I could throw it, which for him is the purpose of a ball. So we took him outside to play, and I threw it…

and threw it…

and threw it…

and threw it…

and not once did Peter manage a photograph of Jack with the ball in his mouth the right way round, before he’d drop it at our feet to throw again.


Sigh! I’m afraid this must suffice. Sorry, Philippa!

This post is for Philippa (of course) and for Steven and Marly, who wanted more of Jack.

june garden

Everything this year seems a week or so ahead. The Spring was glorious, and Summer came early. The grass is already waist high in the orchards and in the parts of the garden where we allow it to romp away.

I love it when the paths are freshly mown through the long grass.

Above: the walnut tree in the middle of this photograph was a gift from our friends Catriona and Ian. It was a tiddler, rescued by Catriona and passed on to us. (She was an inveterate rescuer of trees, buying up the waifs and strays from failing nurseries and passing them on to where she thought they’d be appreciated.) For ten years it languished in a pot because our city garden was pocket-handkerchief sized. When we came to Ty Isaf we discovered that the tap-root had rotted away, and we feared for its survival. But nine years after planting in open ground, it’s six feet high and thriving. I love this tree with a passion. To the right in the foreground are branches of one of two mulberries we acquired and planted when we arrived, both now doing well and fruiting.

Peter despairs of this bed, shaking his head at the ferns, nettles and grasses that we’ve never been able to eradicate from it. But I like it, with its pink punctuations of knotweed, the various euphorbia, the profligate campion and the shy cranesbills that romp happily together with anything else that chances survival in such mixed company. There’s a headily scented wild lilac, a splendidly towering cardoon, and yet to come, a flood of yellow loosestrife. I like the surprises that crop up, the myriad greens and varied shapes of leaves. I’m a lazy gardener in terms of what I’ll tolerate. I like a touch of wildness in my borders. Victorian-style formal mixed-bedding and hard-edges are not for me. The bed is also home to a thriving Katsura tree (Cercidiphyllum japonicum ‘Pendula’- see below), the so-called ‘toffee tree’ named because of the fantastic scent of burnt sugar it gives up when its leaves turn a glorious buttery yellow in the autumn. The sweet scent is caused by the molecule maltol, released as the leaf breaks down, which is the same molecule present when sugar is burnt to make caramel.

Above: rock roses are good value in the herbaceous border. The papery flowers only last a day, but they keep coming throughout the summer.

Below: By this stage, order gives way to chaos as nature turns up the volume and the party really gets rocking. My best intentions to organise colour get swept away by the sheer profligacy of what goes on in the beds. The shy flowers of spring… the grape hyacinths and primroses… give way to the hedonists of summer. Oriental poppies are snakily rearing, late-comers ready to explode on the scene. Uninvited foxgloves and Welsh poppies… our native yellow variety… are everywhere, and soon the majestic mulleins will gatecrash, their great spires of felted silver leaves and dense pale yellow flowers punctuating the rowdy masses of multi-hued Columbine, the pale, roseate froth of London Pride and the rampant, pleated leaves of Lady’s Mantle. It’s a carnival down there, or as close as we get such things in the relative sobriety of a Welsh country garden!

Over it all presides ‘Meri’s Beast’, the ‘garden-warming’ gift made by Meri Wells for Ty Isaf when we moved here nearly a decade ago. For a few years, until we made a pedestal for him above the lawn, Meri’s Beast watched the Ystwyth Valley from a window of my studio. But he was always meant for the garden, and it was a pleasure to finally situate him where he keeps an eye on all the comings and goings. I’ve noticed that one of his horns has become the favoured perching-spot of a robin, who comes to watch when I play ‘fetch’ with Jack on the grass. I must remember to carry the camera in my pocket to see if I can get a picture of him. He leaves his calling-cards down the beast’s back, evidence of his regular use of the horn as a look-out tower! And only ever the beast’s left horn. Evidently the right one is not to his liking.

Footnote: the following has been added due to demand from my dog’s fans. (You know who you are!)

Bas, Welly and the the flowery meadow


It’s been a while since I posted anything at the Artlog other than about the ‘Puppet Challenge’, or my forthcoming exhibition. But this morning Basil-the-Shetland left to join stable-mate Llewellyn (who travelled yesterday) for their spring/summer vacation with their friend Del, and so I was prompted to go on a search for images to post here.

Winter rain has left the paddock in a pretty poor grazing state, and so it must now rest until the autumn. You wouldn’t think it very promising in the above image, but as it gets no fertilising apart from what Basil and Llewellyn produce naturally, when they’re away in the summer months it’s full of flowers.

Luckily we have a healthy spread of the semi-parastic Rhinanthus minor…the yellow rattle… which can reduce yields of agricultural grasses by up to 50%, making it possible for native wildflowers to proliferate. (Hybridised grasses for cropping are the enemies of flowering meadows, as they’re too robust for the native flower species and crowd them out.)

Above: yellow rattle in our paddock

Above: the paddock in high summer, when the horses are away

These days, Basil, who came here as an impossibly forlorn-looking rescue pony in the winter of 2010 (see above)…

… is a very handsome and confident chap. (That’s Welly and Stephanie with him.)

Below: Basil and Stephanie, and Basil’s friend, Del, paying a visit.

the giants fall

The winds at Ty Isaf have been howling all day. I’ve shuttered and barred the downstairs windows against flying debris that may head this way. An hour ago the storm got to such a pitch that I felt compelled to go out, and while I watched at close quarters from our upper orchard, two 60 ft conifers with a linked root system at the boundary of our property, bowed to a point where I thought they must snap, and with a roar uprooted themselves and subsided, intact, onto the woodland bank behind the house. It was both horrifying and rather magnificent.

When the storm has blown we must begin the task of clearing up. Jack is fascinated by the labyrinth of rabbit-runs exposed by the upheaval, and so we must get them filled in before he takes it into his head to go exploring underground.

Oddly, my stomach had felt like a sackful of ferrets all day. I’d woken at 5 am with head aching, heart pounding and my jaw sore from clenching my teeth. Sleep had been interrupted as the winds battered the house and keened around the eaves. I just knew something was going to happen, and in the afternoon, when the feeling became unendurable, I booted up, called Jack to heel and walked straight to the bank where the conifers were thrashing, their canopies flailing in all directions. I have no idea what drew me there, as there were other trees in the garden I thought more at risk. As I watched, they went, and I was amazed by the slow-motion. It was almost graceful, the two trees felled as one, their branches entwined. Jack watched with me. Unlike the trees, we were both rooted to the spot. Afterwards, though the storm continued to rage… and it rages still, out there in the dark… all the tension left me. It was as though I’d known something bad was going to happen, and once it had, I was OK.

Above: the conifers as they looked in the summer of 2010, rearing up to the left of the chimneys. Given that the taller part of Ty Isaf is four storeys, you can see how big they were. Luckily they weren’t as close to the house as they look in this photograph. Nevertheless, it was good that they fell uphill, where they did less damage.