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Busy shopping and making preparations towards Monday’s funeral feast etc.
I had been distressed about the fact that my Mum hadn’t been able to go back home so have arranged with Alexander Burn the funeral directors to bring her home on Sunday afternoon so that she could spend the last night before the funeral in her little house. Richard goes to unlock and is moved by the fact that the hearse proceeds very gradually down the road behind the director who is slowly walking in front in a very dignified way wearing a top hat, tails etc.
Henrietta and Kev arrive late afternoon.
I had planned to go round and do some drawing of my Mum in her coffin rather as I had done with my father - my way of saying a final goodbye. Henrietta walks round with me to the house but doesn’t think she could cope with seeing my Mum who is lying at rest in the front room. So we go upstairs to her bedroom to look for more photos for a big college were putting together and also for a piece of her jewellery for us each to wear tomorrow. Its actually a very moving and enjoyable experience for us to share the memories as we look through the photographs and old Christmas and birthday cards. We take much longer that we expect so Kev sits in the garden waiting for her. When they have gone I go in to see my Mum and place a little wooden cross that Richard has cut out for me and I have painted her name on and a little prayer, then make a series of four or five drawings. I wonder why her expression looks different to that when I had left her - it is of course because they have closed her mouth and I know her spirit has evaporated. I also put a watch that my sister had given her onto her wrist and cards with messages from Henrietta and the boys, Nathan, Richard and me. I say a prayer and kiss her goodbye for the last time. Richard comes round to meet me before going off to collect Nathan, who had set out in good time but his car broke down. The AA were going to take too long to get to him so he limped it home and luckily bumped into Clem who gave him a lift to Paddington in time to catch the train which gets into Cheltenham at 10 past 10, in time for us all to have a late dinner, prepared by R. whilst Kev, Henrietta and I are arranging the photographs.
Lots of activity from early on including the laying out of the food prepared by Richard and Henrietta cold chicken curry, a whole large salmon risotto and salad and added to when Gill and Ian arrive with 2 large trifles and 36 individual cheese cakes!
My cousin Niel, Meryl and their son Harry arrives from London bringing with them my uncle Les and Vera. Followed shortly by Howells daughter Karen and husband Ken
The hearst arrives and we all walk slowly behind it down the Lane to St Michael. As we process into the Church (to Albinoni’s Adagio played by the organist Greg) behind the coffin borne so carefully by its bearers, I am delighted to see how full the Church is and spot many of my dear friends and my cousin Doug and his four sons, one with his wife are sat in the row behind us. Father John is very warm with his welcome and sensitive in his opening prayer ( and in conducting the service). We then sing the hymn “All Things Bright and Beautiful” which we had also sung at my Father’s funeral, its simplicity of vision somehow sums up their appreciation of life. This is followed My sister Gill’s reading of Christina Rossetti’s poem ‘Remember’ after which Richard reads the Tribute and I read from Corinthians 1 - 13. Whilst reflecting we play the last two minutes of Vaughn Williams’ ‘Lark Ascending’ violin solo. More prayers and then we all say the Lord’s Prayer before the Commendation and final hymn ‘Praise my soul the King of heaven’. As we process out I spot more friends and familiar faces and make a beeline back to say hello and thank you to Sheila who is going straight off to visit her sister in Cheltenham General. I then spot Joyce, Janet, David, Gordon and Maureen who like the true friends they are have come to support and say goodbye to my Mum who was so very fond of them all. I also meet Doug Shopland who is the son of Aunty who was a foster mother to Gill and I as small children, for two years when we had to be away from my Mum whist she was recovering from TB. Wallace and George were there, so were Sheila, dear Minnie’s daughter, son in law and granddaughter, as were the lovely Chathams, Richard and Lesley who came to open the house and welcome people in, including several from Mummy’s Club, whilst we were attending the burial service in Kayte Lane. The weather was fine and sunny and the cemetery looked beautiful, now full of trees and planting which have matured over the twenty three years since my father was buried there. My Mum now lies between him and dear Henry. Father John says prayers as the coffin is lowered and Gill throws a bunch of roses in and I pass round sprigs of rosemary for remembrance and day lilies from her garden, to Henrietta, Nathan, Kev, Uncle Les, Rita, my cousins Rita and Lyn and Richard takes the sprig from his button hole to do the same. The funeral director and Ian take the hydrangeas from my father and Henry’s graves to water before we all return to the house where I am delighted to also see Thomas Lee, the man who has always cut my mother’s grass and did the repairs to her house etc and his lovely wife Myvanwy, who like my Mum’s gardener Michelle had also been at the funeral. Our good friends Jane and David had come to support too - it must be two or three years now since we were at her Mum’s funeral. There are several of my Mum’s friends from the club including Jan who had only got my note that morning as she had been away. My cousin Doug was here though not his sons who impressed everyone by their stature and full beards, looking like a chapter of Hells Angels - they lost their Mum Alison, two years ago just after Howell died. It is actually a joyful occasion with lots of smiles, chatting and reminiscing. Karen sat and talked to dear George, Wallace’s friend, who is 99, enthralled for the whole afternoon by his prodigious activities and output of creativity. Meryl was also very at going around speaking to people in a warm, wise and caring way as was Wallace. It was so good and cmforting having my special friends Janet and David, Maureen and Gordon, Joyce, Jane and David all here as they have known my Mum since we were students. I am so fortunate to have so many caring friends and relations. My dear sister Gill, Ian, Karen and Ken were the last to leave at about 10 pm.
This is the Eulogy that Richard read
When someone of such a venerable age passes away we know that they cannot help but have had lives beyond the experience of we who are younger. And so it is with Jessie. The loss of loved ones through War and Time and Tragedy; the birth of new generations to bring joy; the general untidiness of a long life. The thing that really stands out in Jessie’s life and what I think makes her quite exceptional, is that she never felt sorry for herself, was never critical of other people -always positive, she counted her blessings.
In 1922, in Hornsey north London, Jessie Edith Birch was born into a happy family. She’d had four older brothers (one of whom Stanley, died of meningitis before she was born) and the boys doted on her. She had memories of the older two taking her to the market, one either side holding her hands - here they would buy her presents. They bought her dolls and toys and she remembered them making her a desk. The house was often full of music when her brothers and their friends played what she called the jazz set - percussion and piano.
Her maternal grandparents lived locally and owned a grocers shop for which they would cook hams in the boiler and she remembered a white china swan full of eggs which the cat would gently knock off to eat on the floor. They took her to the hop fields in Kent where they set up their shop in the summer. At Christmas the whole family stayed at their grandparents’ house her granddad sitting beside a large barrel of beer.
Her father Percy had been injured at Passchendaele incurring a shell wound to the skull, his life only saved by te helmet and the balaclava he pulled down to stem the heamoraging as he had to walk to the dressing station. Jessie used to sit on his lap and feel where the skin had grown over the half crown sized hole. Her mother Edith ran a Christmas chocolate club and also a business selling aprons. The little house they owned in Hornsey was quite crowded as one of her elder brothers lived upstairs with his wife, so Jessie slept in a little bed in her parents room but was moved out shortly before her brother Doug came in and said “they’ve got a surprise for you” “what is it?” she asked “well” he said, “its got two legs and two arms” “A chicken!” she exclaimed. But it wasn’t a chicken, it was their new little brother Les - who is here today with his son Neil, wife Meryl and their son Harry
Sadly only three years later everything changed when their mother died.
So at the age of 11 Jessie became almost a mother with the help of aunts, to Les and a housekeeper to her father. If things had been different she said she would like to have been a primary school teacher.
It was only with the outbreak of War that she was first able to work - an engineering job of war importance at Standard Telephone & Wireless and she spent the Blitz in London. Her childhood sweetheart, by now a Marine, had just asked her to marry him when his ship was torpedoed.
Then Jessie met Jack who had been seconded to Cable & Wireless out of the RAF to which he returned shortly after they married. He was a Warrant Officer Flight Engineer in Coastal Command and his little crew used to fly out over the Atlantic collecting information on weather conditions. He was stationed on the remote Hebridean island of Tiree, only two miles wide and twelve miles long and flat. Jessie went to visit him there and he so wanted her not to go back that he asked the medical officer to say it would be detrimental to his health if she did. So she spent what was the most idilic year of her life on the island lodging with a crofter called Hector, whose dog Moreland stayed steadfastly by her bedside when Jack was flying. There was no transport on the island so Jack bought her a bicycle that they named Daisy which she learned to ride with proficiency apart from not being able to stop, so Jack had to stand in the middle of the road to catch her and the bike with all the young airmen looking out of the mess window enjoying the sight. It was here that her first child Pam was conceived. The RAF doctor wanted her to be born on the island but Jessie and Jack worried in case anything went wrong so she flew to the mainland then onto Cheltenham where Jacks half brother & family lived, for the latter part of her confinement. Jessie had to go into Cheltenham General for a small surgical procedure and whilst there she told the nurse that her baby was coming only to be told “No dear, the baby’s not coming yet” She repeated it again since she could now feel the head. By the time the nurse returned with the doctor, mother and child had done it on their own. Six weeks later she returned to London with Pam to be met by her father and brother Doug. Four years later their second beloved daughter, Gill, was born in Hitchin.
In 1951 they returned to the area, living in Stoke Orchard where less than a year laterJessie was taken to a sanitorium having unknowingly contracted TB from her father whilst he was living with them. A life threatening illness which with characteristic determination she overcame, with the thought always in her mind that she didn’t want anyone else to bring up her two little girls and after a two year separation for her recovery, they were reunited.
In the same year that they moved into Bishop’s Cleeve Gill started at Tewkesbury High School and Pam at the Gloucestershire College of Art.
Jessie and Jack, always took great pleasure in sharing in the lives of Pam who became an artist and Gill who went into education, eventually heading the department for schools and families in her county.
Family was very important to Jessie and she took great delight and pride in the achievements of Henrietta and Nathan her two grandchildren, now joined in adulation by Isaac and Samuel her great grandchildren. But her elder brothers’ families still lived in London so she had not seen much of them. It was an enormous pleasure when some years ago her neice Rita looked her up and rekindled the relationship with her and her sister Lyn and their families.
In 1992 Jessie sadly lost Jack. Having always been the quieter half of the pair she had to learn to function on her own and encouraged by her daughters she joined the Senior Residents Club at Denley Hall where she made many wonderful friends, including Henry Hill. Having always been a little flirtatious, a romance blossomed particularly as the result of a coach trip to Paris where they got split up from each other and hopelessly lost. It is symptomatic of her enduring optimism that despite wandering the streets and hotel lobbies of Paris till dawn she wasn’t overly concerned, knowing everything would turn out all right in the end.
During this adventure when Pam spoke to Howell, Gill’s husband, he said “this will either make or break that relationship” It developed into a most beautiful match full of fun, delighting all the family. Sadly, five years later, Henry died suddenly and although she had other would be suitors, lived independently for the last ten years of her life going to the Club three times a week for skittles and bowls and also getting up early on a Monday morning for aerobics till she was almost 90.
Jessie always loved holidaying with Henrietta, Kev and the little boys, relishing the outings to shops and cafes with Henrietta and playing cards with them in the evening - something she was remarkably good at especially if there was a gamble involved
She also loved going to stay with Gill and had been very sad when she lost her husband Howell. But only a few weeks ago spent three lovely weeks with Gill and her new partner Ian who she thought was charming.
For her 90th birthday we made a return trip to Tiree - the photograph on the front of the order of service was taken there. For years she had said that if we were ever going up there she would like to come! accompanied now also with great grandchildren Jessie found the croft she had lived in with Jack. The door was open and she had no compunction about going in to have a look around. Luckily there was no-one in but then who could have refused to welcome such a sunny and smiling presence into their home.
Jessie continued to live independently and would walk round the corner to our house for me to give her a ride in the car to the shops or down to the Club and back again. One evening we were about to have supper when PJ asked if I’d collected her Mum from the Club and for once I hadn’t ! It was dark and a bit chilly but there she was sitting in the bus shelter patiently waiting for me for over an hour. There was no complaint, not even a question of what had been so important she’d had to wait all that time - nothing. Jessie just knew things would turn out alright in the end. And she never mentioned it again either. This is just how she was: patient; kind; forgiving and tolerant of our weaknesses she saw the best in everything and always counted her blessings. Truly she was one of the meek who shall inherit the earth.
Perhaps its a good thing that my exhibition at Panter & Hall in London is now so imminent as I have to work consistently each day and night to complete the paintings for the catalogue. Working in silence its quite theraputic, giving me time to ruminate on my beloved Mother and her life. I’d somehow thought I’d have her for ever and count my blessings that she lasted so long, being fit enough to live independently and still attending her Club until very recently. So her quality of life was never compromised to a large degree, although Richard did of course run her to and from the Club and take her shopping.
Now the battle to get two or three works finished each day for Richard to take to the photographers. Working until almost dawn..
E mail from Jess asking for images for their stand at Art 20/21 at the RCA in September.
Whilst working in the studio, catch part of Radio 4 play John Hurt in Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell. I never met Jeffrey but I did meet his very nice brother Bruce who was the first picture editor of the Sunday Times colour supplement although by the time I met him he was picture editor of The Independent colour magazine when he spotted my painting The Magician in the window of London’s Portal Gallery. The painting was based on Henrietta, her then boyfriend David and Nathan (sitting reading The Independent) they wanted to use it in the magazine to celebrate its fourth birthday and gave it a two page spread. The painting has been living in Paris for many years as its owned by the film maker Olivier Gerard who has also written a novel for which he commissioned me to do the cover. Bruce Bernard wrote and compiled a beautiful book, Queen of Heaven, looking at paintings of the Madonna. Sadly, like his brother Jeffrey he is no longer with us.
Had Facebook communication from one of my collectors, Richard, saying he and Donna have just bought a painting on the secondary market and enquiring about Artist resale rights. I can remember having a big debate with Brian about droite de suite as he is not keen on it where as I think its a really good albeit a very small percentage - about 2.7% - to the artist.
Most of the works for the exhibition catalogue have now been photographed but still working on one that won’t have achieved this but will still be in the show.
Go to Star Bistro to meet Maeve and Ian for a delicious lunch in the beautiful setting. We then all drive into Cheltenham to The Wilson (Cheltenham Art Gallery & Museum) where Hilary, chair of the Friends committee has organised a small informal unveiling of the little Rodin dancer that I gave as a gift to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Friends. Its a lovely event and I’m able to tell them all how Gary, my American dealer, particularly wanted one of the paintings which was in my last exhibition - the last in Cork Street as it was just before it was demolished for redevelopment - a battle he fought hard to defeat but unfortunately the power of the developers’ purse was stronger. So as a nice finale, he wanted to present me with one of Rodin’s little bronze dancers and I gave him the painting he was so keen on.
Wake up feeling rather guilty that I haven’t yet put the finishing touches to the little painting for the Holst Planets Suite Centenary. I’d got it within spitting distance three or four months ago so decide to have an intensive spell working on it today so that Richard can deliver and hang it before they close which luckily is at 5 rather than 4 as I wouldn’t have made it. Strangely this gives me a huge sense of achievement along with a thank you card for making me yet another exquisite frame to John, they are tasks that would have hung over me while we were away. I always like to feel that I go leaving things in order.
Preparing wooden panels and frames to take with me to work on if opportunity permits in Catalonia - and packing !
Up early and on the road. Driving through London a bit tricky as lanes are closed so worry about time but Richard seems to manage to arrive in Blackheath not long after the time he had estimated. Henrietta had already been into school for a meeting with the artist architects, head and buildings team re the big commission she and her colleague Vicky have been directing. We are all packed in and on the road to the airport an hour or so later, arriving at Gatwick in good time for our flight. As we step onto the tarmac there s a wonderful warm breeze. The flight delayed by twenty minutes, arrive in Barcelona at about 10pm where we are met by the big taxi we had pre ordered, and driven to our hotel. Samuel is very excited to see so much graffiti everywhere en route. We are shown all the facilities and they love their room which has four beds - but then so does ours and a little balcony.
When we come down in the morning the sun is streaming onto the terrace and breakfast room where Kev and Samuel are playing chess with a set that belongs to the hotel - beautiful big pieces - Henrietta and Isaac are sitting there too enjoying their breakfast after which we walk in the hot Catalan sunshine to the Picasso Museum passing en route a very beautiful theatre designed by Gaudi, which we stop and admire. Beautiful coloured glass balustrades. Richard had pre booked our tickets so we were able to go straight in. Its a very interesting collection which includes much of Picasso’s early works as a child and as a student, many of which are representations of his father who was an art teacher. It is housed in a very beautiful old palace. Kev and the boys have finished their tour slightly sooner than us so we meet them in the park where the boys are in the playground. We then decide to catch the Metro to near La Sagrada Familia where again Richard has pre booked tickets for 6pm. Samuel wants to play in the park area around it with Kev so Henrietta Isaac, Richard and I walk round to the other side of this most exquisite basilica. Its enchanting towers and richly decorated surface are breathtaking from every angle. Even the huge doors are covered in leaf formations painted with tiny insects like ladybirds amongst the foliage. Immediately upon entering one is struck by the vibrance of the pure coloured light flooding through the windows - areas of reds and orange, greens and blues and higher up, ethereal shafts of white light, illuminating this most sublime interior. The slender tree-like pillars branching out to support the structure both internally and externally. Glorious and awe inspiring. All built in the first instance with moneys that Gaudi himself raised for the purpose, including his inheritance. A humble man he lived in a shed inside the building for the last seventeen years of his life. So tragic that when he was knocked over and killed whilst crossing the road outside , he was thought to be a beggar but this wonderful monument to his life is still growing and his magnificent design is gradually bing completed with moneys from entrance fees and donations, none of it comes from the public purse. There are many who feel that Gaudi should be beatified and one cannot think of this wonderful and inspiring city without the name of Gaudi being synonymous. We were joined by Samuel and Kev inside later then they went off leaving us to linger in this fascinating and most lyrical ambiance. We sit in the silent stillness of the central nave contemplating the altar.
Later we make our way to meet them for dinner sitting out on the pavement the boys now having both acquired skateboards which they are able to use on these wide pavements. A rather beautiful curly haired boy appears on the next table with a football which he is kicking about on his own, so I encourage the boys to go up and make friends which they do and spend the next hour or so playing football with him whilst we continue to enjoy our paellas and beer. So its quite dark when they bid their farewells and we make our way back to the hotel in the warm night air.
After breakfast Richard, Kev and Samuel go to pick up a 7 seater vehicle that we are renting. We drive through Barcelona and up the Parc de Montjuic to the Joan Miro Foundation which looks beautiful in the bright Barcelonian sunshine where its geometric shaped architecture that Miro had designed with his friend Josep Sert. As well as numerous works by Miro from various stages of his creative life, there are also lots of works given to the Foundation in homage to the artist including two large Calder sculptures. Its a brilliant experience - the Museum is laid out superbly with a roof top exhibition space for outdoor sculptures with fabulous views over Barcelona.
Henrietta, Richard and I who have stayed on longer, meet Kev and the boys in the beautiful park where they have had lunch. We then set out on the road to Figueres arriving at the house which is about 12 km past the village of Bascara down a bumpy track then there are the gates to Can Grau, the pool glistening in the late afternoon sunshine; within no time the boys are in swimming about whilst we await another Richard who handles letting the property. Its a very nice tall, old farmhouse with shuttered windows which has been carefully renovated. Part of it appeal had also been that it is a spacious accommodation with rooms for everyone, including Nathan and Clem who will arrive tomorrow and for the boys, outdoor table tennis, trampoline, basketball and football net. After Richard has shown us around and we have all found rooms that we like, Kev cooks supper on the barbecue. He and Henrietta had driven into Figueres to pick up some provisions.
After a nice day with them all in the pool, Richard and I set out for Barcelona to meet Nathan at the airport and his friend Clementine who often works with him. Both look happy but tired after working on a big project. We arrive back at Can Grau about midnight and enjoy a bottle of wine with bread, cheese and tomatoes.
The weather is glorious, everybody dipping in and out of the pool and eating al fresco. After Richard and I have gone into Figueres to do a big shop we visit the Dali/Gala foundation Theatre Museum which is extraordinary and truly fantastic. Dali had collaborated with an architect friend who designed this red building with huge eggs on the roofline and small turtle like motifs or perhaps loaves of bread patterning in lines over all the outer walls. This we are told is the second most visited site in Spain - how incredible that this amazing surrealist artist and showman has captured the imagination of generations. We enter to a circular courtyard with many niches higher up incorporating gold mannequins with arms stretched out in different directions as if communicating in semaphore. To the centre his beautiful black Buick car on which stood a sculpted female figure and behind the car a pillar of black rubber tyres topped with a boat. Some of the walls inside where the paintings drawings and prints are hung are covered in red velvet. the whole place is full of excitement with stairs to climb to view larger than life exhibits like the huge top half of a torso opening up to reveal a landscape. Less formal than any other Museum I’ve been to, I thought how well children like Isaac and Samuel would relate to it wonderfully bizarre exhibits.
Another gloriously hot day. When I awake all is quiet so I sit at the window in my room and work on the small painting for Venetia and Ben’s wedding present. Whilst I’m sitting there a tiny long-tailed little bird with blue, yellow, white and grey plumage landed on the window sill I’d glimpsed him before flying to and fro singing in the pomegranate and olive trees but this was my first close up encounter. His visit was rather fleeting so had to make the little watercolour sketch from memory after his departure. Lots of fun in the pool, Nathan and Clem seeing how many continuous lengths they can swim under water and Isaac and Samuel doing head over heels like little otters, Henrietta notching up the lengths for thirty five minutes non stop swimming as she does every day and Kev doing diving contests with the boys off the rock.
Richard and I pop to get more food from Figueres were the supermarket had a huge selection of beautiful silvery fish and a tank with live crabs and lobsters which I took some photos of on my phone so I could compare it with the lobster I had painted in Il Banchetto. We also managed to find footballs here for the boys. Nathan barbeques the large trouts after stuffing them with tarragon, olives, lemons and limes which seem to melt in the mouth they are so tender and succulent whilst the salad Clem has prepared is also moreish, based on the salads her mother, who comes from ………makes…
Its lovely sitting out in the warm evening air, the darkness lit by candles, to eat al fresco. And there is a wonderful paved area just behind us and in front of the house where the boys and Nathan then skateboard on the boards Kev had bought them in Barcelona.