About Robin

Occasional painter. Golfer. Fascinated by humanity. Passionate about beautiful stuff, the people who create it and its narrative.

Manuka tie decay… hanging by a thread!

Remember the story of the decaying ties in New Zealand? I left three specimens of executive neckwear exposed in a Manuka stand by a little known creek in 2009. This is how they started.

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It was fun visiting them over the years. A friend (thanks, Anna) sent me a photo of them now. They’re just about hanging’ in there; they seem about to merge completely with the natural world. Take a look at them now.

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Children in Swiss art

The Musée d’Art et d’Histoire is, as usual, majestic, tranquil and imposing. The difference since my last visit is that my course through the great halls and up the marble stairways is directed by coloured tape, arrows stuck on the floor and helpful staff wearing face masks. I meet Philppa Kundig, the scenographer of the current MAH exhibition “L’infant dans l’art suisse: de Agasse à Hodler.” She has, with curator Brigitte Monti, put together an exquisite exhibition of pictures and sculptures from the MAH collection of works by Swiss artists that feature children and maternity. It is at once informative, coherent and accessible; I am drawn into it to the point that I review the works and texts over and again. However, Philippa and I agree on one thing: there is a single painting that stands out from so much beautiful stuff. 

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Daniel Ihly “L’enterrement de mon enfant” 1884, Oil on canvas.

Daniel Ihly’s large canvas “L’enterrement de mon enfant” is stunning. Note: it is entitled “The burial of MY child.” Ihly has portrayed a tragic moment in his own life. However, the funeral procession is set far back in and just entering the scene. The priest and alter boys are followed by the undertaker who carries the be-coffined infant under his left arm. The family – presumably including Ihly and his wife – follow in turn. The most moving element of the whole piece is that he has chosen to place centre-stage not a scene of his own grief but the sincere show of respect by peasants pausing in their work (the closest of whom doubles as a kindly grim reaper.) This allows Ihly to show that the loss of an infant was, in the day, a common and therefore shared bitter experience. I would bet that the girl in the foreground who has brought her father lunch represents for Ihly what the dead infant might have become. The image is perfectly conceived, perfectly composed and technically faultless. Under the circumstances, it is extraordinary in its selflessness. This is one of those rare paintings that grabs your attention from the moment you set eyes on it and leaves an image in the mind that reappears unbidden for days.  

The section of the exhibition entitled “The Suffering of Children” makes clear that not so long ago in human existence, a child dying before the age of five was all too common. In June 2020, amid the daily clamour of COVID-19, this section underscores humans’ inevitable susceptibility to infectious disease whether measles, dypyheria, typhoid, pertussis or a novel coronavirus. 

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Alexandre Perrier “Jeune convalescente” 1889, Oil on canvas.

These guys could paint! Alexandre Perrier’s image of a seated child convalescing is work of high accomplishment. How can someone put paint on a canvas with the smallest of brush strokes and yet transmit that this kid has been really, really sick; that this is the first time she has been taken out into the garden; that the blanket and cushion had to be carefully placed by a carer’s hands; that she did not do up those buttons; that the daisies were placed into her left hand but failed to glean a flicker of interest; that the grip of her delicate (and superbly rendered) right hand on the wicker chair is as weak as her grip on her young life? Remarkable!

Two other equally well-conceived sections of this exhibition are “Children within family” and “Children in Society;” As a result, the MAH has conjured up a fascinating insight into people’s lives in this part of the world in late 19th and early 20th century; furthermore it serves as a chronicle of how children and parenthood were portrayed according to the rapidly changing outlook of both society and artists at the time. Inevitably, the fourth section comprises that most heavily worked subject in the history of art – “Maternity.”

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Wilhelm Balmer “Le Soir. Mère et enfant.” 1904 Oil on board.

Wilhelm Balmer’s tribute to the mother and child theme is a small oil-on-board portrait and is of course masterfully composed and executed. Why it catches my eye is that the new mother is not glowing with joy. She is exhausted. Here is a reminder that medical science has not only saved millions of children from the clutches of a variety of microbes but also has made giving birth an experience for the mother that is far less dangerous and traumatic than it was throughout human history.

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Ferdinand Hodler “Portrait of Sophie and Louis Weber” 1893 Oil on canvas.

There is no shying away from the fact that portraits of children of wealthy families were commonly commissioned – and sumptuously framed – at the time. Then what better place than at the entrance to the exhibition to be confronted by the instantly recognisable and impeccable fist of the great Swiss master, Ferdinand Hodler?  

I hope the MAH will forgive me showing here only a detail from a huge painting by Edouard Ravel. A priest tries to inject into a group of children the smallest measure of enthusiasm for their choir practice. Each child shows his or her own degree of diligence, boredom or indifference. Each is portrayed as a character. The scene amuses me enormously. I return to it time and again. My memory banks are jogged…. Surely not? It can’t be!

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Detail from: Edouard Ravel “Repetition de chant dans la Sacristie” 1883, Oil on canvas.

Yes, I can’t help seeing Ravel’s nineteenth century oil-on-canvas masterpiece as a forerunner of the cartoon. I hope that the MAH will also forgive me for leaving the reader with the work of Giles; another legendary observer of people – and children singing – a century later. 

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Lockdown Beautiful Stuff – Part 15

COVID-19 set it up. An invisible silent enemy. Fear. Government incompetence. The discontent made us all tinder-dry and fire-ready. George Floyd’s death was the spark. Now we have an enemy upon which we can vent our anger. Racism. The flames are global and serious like COVID-19. Protests may yet cause a resurgence of the pandemic. I sit in Geneva, Switzerland. Comfortable. Liberal. Quiet. I’m angry. Someone wiser than me once said that the biggest mistake you can make is to do nothing because you think you can only do a little. So my angry anti-racist little is called “Black Lives Shattered.”

#BlackLivesMatter #BlackLivesShattered

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Be angry. Download an outline of the shattered heart. Colour it in or get your kids to colour it in. Tell them why. Share it widely.

Lockdown Beautiful Stuff! Have you done a painting, taken a photo or made any other beautiful stuff as a result of having to self-isolate at home? Please send us a photo and two lines of text indicating the why of it and what it means to you. We guarantee to publish it on Talking Beautiful Stuff in the weeks to come. Thank you!

The Lockdown Diary – Day 57

Geneva, Monday 11 May 2020

As we plan to play golf tomorrow, today will be the last post of my Lockdown Diary… at least for the time being! Thank you all for reading my thoughts and observations about this strangest of times. I’d greatly appreciate any comments you might have about what you’ve read.

I’ll leave y’all with the usual rattle bag of stuff.

South Korea, China and Germany are three countries which have loosened lockdown measures to see a small resurgence of cases in the last days. It’s clear: trading social liberties against measures to slow this virus’s capacity to spread is going to be an extremely difficult balancing act. As a result, I can’t help being concerned about Boris Johnson’s not entirely coherent plans for similarly relaxing the isolation and distancing rules in the UK. There must be a statistical basis for this. But on this one, that great British talent for arrogance in the face of mediocrity comes blundering onto the stage. And what’s more, it relates now to the biggest issue of the day: officially noted death rates from COVID-19. Take a look!

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Reported COVID-19 related deaths per day have fallen for the last four weeks. (Note – “reported.”) I’m no statistician but I think this graph shows an important and uniquely British reporting bias; namely, a weekly cycle on which the two days with fewest reports are Sunday and Monday regularly followed by a near-doubling of the figures for Tuesday. It is unlikely that the coronavirus actually kills people in different numbers by day of the week. It is equally unlikely that this pattern comes about by pure chance. Therefore, the cause must be something in the reporting system. But here’s the kicker, this reporting bias existed two weeks before the “peak” and has become more pronounced since. You’d think the reporting system would have eliminated such a bias, not exaggerated it. So, given the political expediency of reporting a decline in COVID-19 related deaths, what is the connection between the reported overall decline in deaths per day and this extraordinarily inept reporting bias? I don’t have an answer but it’s a question that has to be asked especially as reported cases – not only deaths – bafflingly show a very similar weekly cycle but without the decline. 

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There are many reasons for the unreserved admiration I hold for my wife. One is her determination. At the beginning of the lockdown, she decided she was going to surmount the many obstacles inherent in making the ideal sourdough loaf. Let me tell you, she has passed every stage with flying colours.

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So good is her sourdough bread now, that any left uneaten is sliced, frozen and consumed later as delicious toast! Lockdown has had its positive outcomes.

A rabbit hops into a butcher’s shop. “Got any carrots?” he asks. “Sorry, Buddy,” says the friendly butcher. “We’re butchers. We do meat. The grocer down the road does carrots.” The rabbit leaves. The following day, the rabbit hops into the butcher’s shop again. “Got any carrots?” he asks. Slightly irritated, the butcher replies “I told you yesterday, we’re butchers. We do meat. The grocer down the road does carrots.” The rabbit leaves. The following day, the rabbit hops into the butcher’s shop again. “Got any carrots?” he asks. Agitated, the butcher says “Listen, Bugs, I told you yesterday and the day before, we’re butchers. We do meat. If you come in here again tomorrow asking for carrots, I’m going to nail those two big stupid floppy ears to this counter. Got it?” The rabbit leaves in short order. The following day, the rabbit hops into the butcher’s shop again. “Got any nails?” Furious now, the butcher yells “No!” The rabbit smiles. “Got any carrots, then?” The butcher is a nice man at heart and can’t help but be amused; he decides to take the rabbit down to the grocer’s himself. “Hi there!” says the grocer. “How may I help you?” The rabbit thinks for a while “Got any sausages?”

The Lockdown Diary – Day 56

Geneva, Sunday 10 May 2020

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Fishing with my father in 1969

In 1979, I was a final year medical student. I went home for the Christmas break. My father had been in rural general practice for nearly thirty years. His hundreds of patients were spread over a wide country community. He knew them all by name and, often, by diagnosis as well. He asked me if I wanted to go with him on his round of home visits. I thought I would learn little about medicine but it would be fun to accompany him. Inevitably, as it turned out, he would give me a very important lesson in what medicine was really about.

The bitter north wind had frozen the puddles on the rutted track. Our old Renault 4 bumped and slid its way toward the farmhouse. Cows hung about with hoofs in mud, backs turned to the biting wind and heads hung low. It was milking time. My father explained that, two days before, he had been called to see the farmer’s six year-old son. The boy, the oldest of three children, had pneumonia and needed a course of antibiotics. As we arrived, the farmer came out of the back door and disappeared into the cow-shed. I asked my father why he had not sent the child to the paediatric ward in Norwich. “Think about it.” he said. “The child goes into hospital. The mother has to go with him. The father has 60 cows to milk twice a day. And by the way, he’s an angry man. What’s going to happen to the two younger children?” That stumped me. “But I might have to send the boy in if he’s not improved today. And we’ll somehow have to keep an eye on this farmhouse.” As we got out of the car, I noticed the mother at the kitchen window putting the kettle on. I also noticed that my father had already slipped his stethoscope inside his shirt front. “This is a very difficult child!” he said more to himself. I could see he was concerned.

The mother welcomed us in; they were clearly not well-off. The three children, bundled up in pullovers and scarves, sat around a single-bar electric heater watching TV. The older boy, looking a bit flushed, had a blanket wrapped tightly around him that he pulled tighter the moment he caught sight of us. My father took his coat off and washed his hands in a bowl that the mother had filled with hot water. He turned to me and whispered “You see old boy, with a child like this, if your hands or your stethoscope are cold, you’ve no chance.”  I realised that getting anywhere near to hearing air entry to this child’s lungs would be a mighty challenge. And a big decision hung on it.

My father sat down next to the boy who recoiled deeper into the grubby sofa. Instructions were given that the TV be switched off and the other kids be shooed from the room. Unnoticed, a thermometer made its way into the boy’s mouth. My father started to chat to the mother. Yes isn’t it a cold winter. Norwich City lost again at the weekend. A cup of tea would be very nice thank you. etc. etc. “And do you have a candle and some matches?” has asked. The mother rattled around in the kitchen for a while. I looked back at the boy. I couldn’t believe it. Taking advantage of the distraction brought by all the noise and chatter, my father had managed to slide his hand and stethoscope inside the blanket and up under the boy’s pyjama shirt. “Now, young man” he said removing the thermometer and glancing at it, “Take some deep breaths.” The boy looked at him with great suspicion and held his breath. He’d fallen for the thermometer trick; further complicity was out of the question.

The mother returned carrying a tray with cups of tea, a candle and matches. My father asked me to light the candle. “Now, old boy, would you be so kind as to hold the candle three feet from this young man’s nose.” Turning to the boy, he said “Go on, now, blow out the candle!” The boy took a big breath in and blew. The candle was still alight. “Go on, you can do better than that. Blow harder! Nearly there! Try again!” I could see that the stethoscope was being moved around the boys chest with each attempt to blow out the candle. We got about seven good breaths before he managed to extinguish the flame but by then he was onto our game and sullenly held his breath again. Nevertheless, the good doctor had got a real good listen to the boy’s lungs. It wasn’t necessary to send him to hospital.

In 1989, I was working as a surgeon in a hospital on the Afghan border of Pakistan for war-wounded run by the International Committee of the Red Cross. One of my patients was a ten year old boy who had been shot through the right side of his chest. (For those interested, an AK47 might shoot a high energy military bullet but if it’s stable in flight – for example, at longer range – it can pass clean through the body doing surprisingly little damage.) This boy arrived with us three days after his injury. He had a haemo-pneumothorax meaning that his lung had collapsed leaking both blood and air into the chest cavity. He was not too sick and all he needed was some anitiotics and a thick tube drain inserted between his ribs to allow the blood and extravasated air to escape and the lung to expand. After four days, he was doing fine and we thought maybe the tube could come out; he would then need a few days of physiotherapy. However, the boy’s father became very agitated saying he was going to take the boy out that morning. He had to get home far inside Afghanistan – a three day bus journey – because he was worried about his family. I explained via our Afghan nurses that if the boy’s injured lung was not inflating properly, it would be dangerous to take him on such a journey. The discussion became quite heated. I sat on the boy’s bed, took out my stethoscope, put it on his chest and told him to take some deep breaths. He did what all Afghans do when told to take deep breaths; he vigorously moved his shoulers up and down without actually moving any air. So I asked for a candle. The boy went home.

Hoping all readers of this Diary are well, safe and happy.