Van Gogh and Britain Exhibition

Tate Britain has a new exhibition with the largest collection of Van Gogh paintings in the country in nearly a decade. It’s in two part; the first looks at Van Gogh Experience in London, the art and literature and its role in his journey as an artist. The second explores the impact of his art and life in British artists up to the 1950s.

Van Gogh’s letter and sketchbooks

Van Gogh came to England at the age of 20 and lived in the country for nearly three years between 1873 and 1876. He worked in Covent Garden as an art dealer and at the time the city was so much larger than the size of any place that he had lived or known.

Some of Van Gogh’s personal collection, these prints were probably what he sold at the gallery and were popular in Victorian England

London presented him with a striking new reality; the city’s advanced technology, the transport, and it was already powered by electricity and the industrial revolution was at its zenith. England has a young Queen and a young royal family, the city was quite impressive, it was like the superpower and the center of the world. And for Van Gogh it was indeed the place to be. He admired Charles Dickens and was greatly influenced by the social reform agenda he promoted in all his writings. He wrote his family and friends, “My whole life is aimed at making the things from everyday life that Dickens described.” He truly immersed himself in English culture, enjoyed walking its streets, rowing at River Thames, strolling around Kensington Gardens, and enjoyed other English pastimes. He wrote his sister in 1875 and said, “How I love London!”

Wheatfield, 1888

The traditions of Victorian England also inspired Van Gogh. He enjoyed the modern ideas of Christmas — Christmas trees, gifts, and dinners — all of these came into trend during the Victorian period. (Few years ago I blogged about this tradition that Prince Albert and Queen Victoria started and now part of the British culture – here’s the link .) There was a novelty to it all that truly appealed to Van Gogh. 

Yellow Landscape, 1892

It is a pretty fascinating exhibit of more than fifty of his most famous works that were brought together from around the world including ShoesStarry Night over the RhôneL’Arlésienne, and two works he made while a patient at the Saint-Paul Asylum, At Eternity’s Gate and Prisoners Exercising.

Starry Night over the RhôneL’Arlésienne

The very rarely lent Sunflowers from London’s National Gallery is also included in the exhibition. Of all his works I’ve seen, this photo below is my favourite and it’s part of the collection presented at Tate Britain

Entrance to Voyer d’Argenson Park at Asnieres, Paris 1887
Entrance to Voyer d’Argenson Park at Asnieres, Paris 1887

Van Gogh gained inspiration from the surroundings, the art and culture of Victorian England, and his time in Britain was a life-changing experience for him that it greatly influenced the art he would begin making four years later.

Sunflowers, 1888

Many British artists have been influenced by Van Gogh and he remains popular even to this very day. A number of British artists like Harold Gilman ensured Van Gogh left a legacy in Britain. His use of bold colours and expressive brushwork were copied; the most popular was the sunflower painting and has been interpreted in various forms by British artists of every generation and fills the museums and galleries throughout the country.

A Pair of Shoes, 1886
Self portrait, 1888

As brilliant as Van Gogh was as an artist, sadly, he lived a very unhappy life and was in turmoil for years. He clearly tried to find something to satisfy himself — art, religion, whatever it was that he thought would fill the void in his heart. Sadly, he didn’t find an answer. He took it upon himself to end his life at age 37.

Worn Out, 1881

A question was asked in one of Tate Britain’s podcast as advertised when I visited the gallery, “Is there a link between mental health and creativity? Do artists have to suffer for their art’?” I haven’t listened to it because I know it’s full of atheistic and Cultural Marxist agenda. People would say something like, “Oh, he had mental health issues that’s why he killed himself!” That’s true he clearly had mental health issues but that’s just a manifestation of a much deeper problem. Many historians claim Van Gogh was a Christian based on his two year tenure as a preacher from age 25-27. Personally, I don’t believe he was a Christian. Even if he preached and became a pastor in a small Congregationalist church in Borinageto, a poor mining village in southwestern Belgium, it didn’t mean he was a Christian in a true sense of the word. In fact, he left the church after a couple of years and never got himself involved in any church activity until his death. His artworks in the later years of his life depicts a grim reality of how he felt inside — a dark manifestation of his spiritual condition. Indeed a true child of God even if he’s afflicted with mental or other type of illness, still look to God, and put his trust and hope in God. As for Van Gogh, he was obviously hopeless — an evidence, a true manifestation of someone who is not a true Christian, or a child of God.

Regardless of his tragic life, he’s unarguably one of the most talented artists the world ever had. I’d highly recommend this exhibition to any art enthusiasts. These art collection may never be brought together in England again. Exhibition ends on the 11th of August; don’t forget to book your tickets online to avoid the long queue, or simply get a friend who’s a member of Tate Britain to get you in. 🙂

The Gift of Friendship

Have you ever meet someone and you found out from the very first time of chatting with the person that you have so much in common? The Bible talks not just about God and His relationship with His people but also about relationships among God’s people. The most famous friendship recorded in the scriptures has to be that of David and Jonathan. Only God can orchestrate a friendship between a shepherd boy, who later became a king of Israel, and a prince, the reigning king’s son, and for that relationship to develop into what’s best described as “their souls are knit together” (knit can simply be explained as two or more pieces of thread woven together to form one piece of fabric, or garment).  And the most remarkable about their friendship is that Jonathan not only showed genuine affection and generosity to David, but he did it all before the Lord. And this is exactly how I feel about Arlene, a new friend that the Lord has recently brought into my life. She gives so much of herself, her time and other resources to me, and I know to so many others, and she does it all, not just for the recipients themselves, but ultimately for the Lord. Interestingly, God has used Instagram to bring it all to pass.

Let me share with you a beautiful story . . . three months ago I opened an Instagram public account for the sole purpose of joining the calligraphy community. Since then my Copperplate skills have greatly improved, and that was my goal.  And to top it off, I’ve meet some incredible people but if there’s one person that truly left an indelible impression on me from the first time we met and started chatting, it’s Arlene Custock. Our conversation from the beginning isn’t just about calligraphy but it’s more personal — family, job, and spiritual things. Indeed, we just hit it off from the time we started chatting on Instagram private messaging (we moved to WhatsApp shortly after). On the same week, that is, barely a couple of weeks after I opened my account, I received a card and a handwritten letter from Arlene, to my great surprise.

Arlene’s handmade card and letter are now on a frame sitting on my desk. Reading this letter for the first time brought tears to my eyes, and every time I see this, I am reminded of God’s goodness.

I was flabbergasted, to say the least! And what deeply touched me was the realisation that I am a total stranger, Arlene didn’t know me from Adam, and she’s a very busy lady (she manages her family business, and has a husband, kids and grandkids to take care of), yet she went through all of the trouble taking the time in putting pen to paper, running to the post office, and all of that, just for me, a poor girl across the atlantic. For the last three months since I’ve known her, she genuinely showed me how much her words mean, and that first letter was a great proof — an incredibly meaningful gesture.

And that was just the beginning of several letters and cards sent (I’ve only sent her a card/letter twice, I know I can’t keep up with her haha), and of course, of several parcels/gifts she sent my way!

Arlene is such a very sweet and generous lady. I am deeply humbled and truly honoured to be a recipient of God’s blessings through her.

These books, ‘An Elegant Hand’ and ‘The Art of Cursive Penmanship’, from Arlene (direct from Amazon US, no less!) along with her beautifully penned letters greatly influence me in my desire to learn Spencerian. And yes, for four weeks now I’ve been taking Spencerian online class from Nina Tran, thanks to my kind benefactor — no other than Arlene herself!

Every time I get a mail from Arlene, I feel almost giddy like a little child and Jared always say to me, “My dear, you’re so cute like a nine year old girl who is excited to open her gifts on Christmas morning! Just your reaction getting mails from Arlene makes me very happy!”

I don’t take it for granted that God has gifted me with a new friend. He has given me Arlene — a sister in Christ and a true friend, much like a big sister who is wiser than I am. Arlene took me under her wings; she sends me books, emails me exemplars of Copperplate and Spencerian old masters, gives me advice on how I can make some progress in my calligraphy journey, and she gives so much more. It’s not just the physical/material things but it’s the intangible, the spiritual things that she shares. Indeed, she has been a great source of encouragement and inspiration.

Who knows when I’ll have the opportunity to meet Arlene face to face. It occurred to me, when Arlene mentioned that we’re like David and Jonathan, or ‘two peas in the Jesus pod’, and that we might not meet in person this side of heaven. But as Christians, Arlene and I both have the assurance that one day, we’ll meet in paradise, and we’ll be walking together while chatting away in a street of pure gold, as clear as transparent glass . . . in a place that God has prepared for us where there’ll be no more pain or suffering, and we’ll be rejoicing and worshipping Our Creator. We sometimes talk about our physical frailties, and we’ll no longer talk about any of it in the presence of the Lord. But I wonder if we’ll remember about calligraphy and continue to talk about learning Spencerian, Copperplate and all of that . . . who knows? But regardless of what it will be like, the prospect of meeting up in the New Jerusalem is with ever-greater delight and the most joyous realisation of all.  

I do pray and hope though that someday the Lord will allow us to meet up in person; sit down together for tea and chat for hours on end. 🙂 In the meantime, Arlene and I can enjoy chatting over WhatsApp, and revel in the opportunity of sharing a special friendship the way He has planned for us at this time.

Let me share two scripture verses that comes to mind whenever I think of Arlene.

 “That is, that I may be comforted together with you by the mutual faith both of you and me.” (Romans 1:12, KJV)

A man that hath friends must shew himself friendly: and there is a friend that sticketh closer than a brother.” (Proverbs 18:24, KJV)

Victoria: the queen who gave her name to an era

Today marks the bicentenary of the birth of Queen Victoria.  She was born at Kensington Palace and lived there until her accession, on that historic morning, the 20th of June 1837, when she was informed of the death of her uncle, King William IV.  Up until that day, aged 18, she shared a bedroom with her extremely protective mother and was never out of her mother’s, or her nanny’s sight. But something significant happened on that fateful morning, she went to see the Prime Minister and her privy council on her own without her mother. Then she  moved out of her mother’s bedroom into another room at Kensington Palace and only her governess was given access to her bedroom, a privilege denied to her mother. Even after she married Prince Albert and moved to Buckingham Palace, Lehzen became her private secretary and had access to her bedroom. Again, it was a privilege she never gave to her mother. In fact, she never allowed her mother to live at Buckingham Palace but had bought her a house in London where she lived until her death.

The young Victoria with her mother, Victoria, The Duchess of Kent

It’s safe to say that if there’s one person that had the greatest influence on Victoria’s life, it was her governess, Baroness Louise Lehzen. She was born in Hanover; her father was a Lutheran pastor and her mother was also a daughter of a pastor.  No doubt Lehzen’s Christian upbringing made a strong impact on Victoria.  She came to England as governess to Princess Féodore, Victoria’s half-sister. In 1824 Lehzen was appointed governess to the young princess Victoria, and remained as Victoria’s friend, ally and constant companion. Lehzen was strongly protective of Victoria and encouraged Victoria to become knowledgeable, strong, and independent from her mother’s and her mother’s private secretary, John Conroy’s influence. Her mother, the Duchess of Kent, and Conroy tried to control Victoria and even tried to forced her to sign a document that would make Conroy a regent in case Victoria inherits the throne before she turns 18.  Lehzen advised Victoria against it and she dedicated her life to ensure that if Victoria became Queen, she would be intelligent and strong-minded.  After the queen married Prince Albert, Lehzen became her secretary in private matters. Lehzen was often criticised by many historians for her influence over Victoria but I believe that if there’s one person who truly had only Victoria’s interests at heart, that would be Baroness Lehzen.  Victoria wrote in her diary about Lehzen, “she’s the most affectionate, devoted, attached and disinterested friend I have.”

Baroness Louise Lehzen (Image: Historic Royal Palaces)

Lehzen not only imparted to the princess Christian values but also a love of history. She also provided the love and affection which Victoria never received from her own mother.  The princess was taught to control her temper and to admit her mistakes to all she had wronged, regardless of rank.  Though she encouraged the princess from a young age to keep a journal, she never kept one herself, thinking it inappropriate to her position as a royal servant.  “She was very strict.”, Victoria later wrote in her diary.  The queen had great respect and seemed in awe of Lehzen, but with that the greatest affection as her diary revealed. Even in old age, Queen Victoria often talked about her governess and made mentioned of her in her diary.  The queen provided Lehzen a handsome pension, visited her in Hanover several times, sent her a wheelchair when she was infirmed, and after Lehzen’s death, the queen even erected a memorial in her honour. No doubt, Baroness Lehzen was indeed the greatest single influence in the formative period of the character of the princess.  Lehzen was her confidant, best friend and ally. God has providentially worked it out that Lehzen became an instrument in imparting Christian virtues to the princess, and it must be to her credit, and ultimately to God, for handing over to the nation a queen that embraced Christian values.  God has indeed accomplished His purpose in the life of Queen Victoria. 

The young princess Victoria (Image: HRP)
Queen Victoria captured smiling during her Diamond Jubilee celebration. (Image: Pinterest)

She lived a truly unique life. Under her rule, Britain doubled its size making it the largest imperial power in the world. It controlled more than 14 million square miles of territory (23% of the world’s surface) and approximately 460 million people at its peak. It has an international trade that dwarfed all others, and produced thirty percent of the world’s total industrial output. Its navy dominated the oceans and its empire expanded on a simple principle that trade follows the flag. It was described as being the “Empire on which the sun never sets.”  

There are innumerable books written about Queen Victoria and I’ve read more than a dozen biographies written by both British and foreign historians.  I’ve also read a lot of social history books on the Victorian era simply because it truly is my favourite period in British history. What’s remarkable about this age is the fact that religion pervaded the social as well as the political life to an extent that’s unimaginable today.  The British people embraced Christian values; that’s not to say that majority of the people were Christians but rather, people were extremely religious; were thirsting for faith and are continually seeking it. The Russian theologian Alexis Khomiakov was amazed at how silent the streets of London were on a Sunday. He wrote in his book, Russia and the English Church, (London, 1895): “Germany has in reality no religion at all but the idolatry of science; France has no serious longings for truth, and little sincerity; England with its modest science and its serious love of religious truth might [seem] to give some hopes…” Remarkably, it was also an age of major scientific discovery and progress, and the rise of Darwin’s Origin of Species to Karl Marx’s Das Kapital and other new ideologies that undermined faith in the truth of the Bible.

Taken yesterday during my morning walk at Kensington Gardens

Kensington Palace has a permanent exhibit on Queen Victoria’s life, and to celebrate the bicentenary of her birth there’s a special exhibit called Discover the Real Victoria. It opens today and I can’t wait to visit. I’m sure the exhibit will yield more fascinating and fresh insights into the life of Queen Victoria.

Five years ago I made a comparison of the current queen and her great-great-grandmother in this post.

Roman Bath

Lying in the heart of the city the Bath are remnants of ancient luxurious villas, baths and other important amenities of the ancient world that were constructed by the Romans around 70 AD. The remains of the now so-called ‘Roman Bath’ tells the story of seven thousand years of human activity in England.

Bathing was indeed a central part of the Roman society. It was the peak of ancient sophisticated leisure, and more importantly, of cleanliness. Long after the collapse of the Roman Empire, we know from historical records that even the most noble and high ranking people in the British society, or Europe for that matter, were distinctly grubby looking and smelly (why do you think the French created perfumes? LOL! The technological know-how of fragrance making grew out of that need to cover up the stench). Yes, the Romans were highly sophisticated, at least back at the pinnacle of the empire.

Roman baths and bathing culture influenced not just the spas and baths we know today. Where significant structures remain today, as in parts of England like Leicester (where the bones of Richard II were dug up and reburied at the Cathedral in 2012), and especially in Bath, they have become great visitor attractions. Bath, with its bathhouses restored almost close to its former glory, is probably the most famous of all ancient Roman baths. It also boasts of having the most intact Roman underground water system remaining in Europe today. The Romans did put importance on water and the engineering behind them, of bathing and cleanliness. The role of the baths in Roman life is significantly visible for anyone who visited this ancient Roman City of Bath in England.

Visitors to the city will find out what the Roman traditions and constructions have left, also about their way of life and the unique and fascinating history of baths and bathing.  Of course, the fate of these baths and the decline of the Roman Empire is a totally different story, and it’s something I won’t discuss here. 🙂 

I first visited Bath when my mother came for a visit in the summer of 2003. It is a fascinating place and has become one of my favourites cities in England. Anyone interested in ancient history and what the Romans have left for the British society today, I’d highly recommend they visit this ancient city. The Roman traditions and constructions, their way of life and the unique and fascinating history of baths and bathing are indeed remarkable. It’s such a beautiful place, the historical sites are all within a walking distance from one another, and you can visit them in one day. Also, the nearby towns and villages are very charming, so picturesque that they’re all ‘Instagram-worthy.’ I wanna share some photos of our last visit to Roman Bath, and I’d let the photos speak for themselves. 

The hotel we stayed in (Francis Hotel, part of Sofitel chain) has their bathrooms decorated with a massive Roman Bath photo as if they’re trying to make the guest imagine while they’re in the bathtub that they’re doing exactly what the Romans loved to do. LOL!

*Here’s another post about Bath, it’s history and architecture.

ONE OF MY FAVOURITE JAPANESE FOODS

Despite my love for Japanese food, and I am particularly fond of Okinawan food, I have not dabbled much in cooking Ryukyu dishes. I have some recipe books and guidebooks about the unparalleled longevity of native Okinawans and I recently unearthed them from a huge pile of books needing to be sorted out in our library, and started reading them again.

The Japanese people are renowned for their food, eating habits, and relatively healthy lifestyle. Evidently, results of numerous health studies show that the Japanese are more likely to reach 100 years old than anyone else. In the Ryukyus, the southernmost islands of Japan, there are more centenarians than anywhere else in the country, or the world for that matter. There were so many doctors, nutritionists, and other health professionals who did extensive research on life expectancy of the Okinawans. I have a copy of The Okinawa Diet Plan and the author highlights that the regular inclusion of animal protein can be an advantage over vegetarian diets when it comes to longevity. However the authors also note that in the Ryukyu Islands meat was traditionally a small part of a diet rich in whole foods. The importance of pork — both a delicacy and everyday food with the entire pig eaten, from ears to feet — in the Ryukyu diet is also mentioned as very traditional.

Then last week Jared and I were talking about the work out that we’ve been doing recently, our diet, lifestyle, etc., and our conversation drifted into shallow waters — food and being indulgent with all things edible. I ended up rather waxing nostalgic about a pork dish I love and haven’t cooked in over six months. It’s called Rafute, a traditional pork dish slowly simmered in soy sauce and a generous amount of awamori, or Okinawan rice wine. I had visions of biting into the fatty pork slices melting in my mouth and being transported back to the Ryukyu Islands. So the next day I went to our local butcher and purchased a kilo of pork belly.

Rafute
Rafute1

Always made with belly pork sliced in a two-inch piece to show its even layers of skin and fat is a simple dish, Rafute is similar to a Filipino dish called ‘Adobo’. But I guess it’s the copious amount of awamori, or Japanese rice wine that makes this more tasty, and truly one of Ryukyu’s traditional food.

I always boil the pork in water for 30 minutes to remove the excess fat and start the tenderising process. Sometimes I remove the skin but leave the thick layer of fat on. Then after cooling, I gently simmer them in a mixture of soy sauce, awamori, brown sugar, cloves of fresh garlic and a piece of fresh ginger, for an hour. I then add the mirin during the last 15 minutes.

Rafute3

RAFUTE

1 kilo belly pork
1/2 cup awamori or sake
1/2 cup soy sauce
1-inch piece ginger and a few cloves of garlic, crushed
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup mirin

Cover pork with water in a large pot. Bring to a rolling boil, then simmer for 30 minutes to remove excess fat. Drain and rinse pork, cut into bite-size pieces. Combine rice wine, soy sauce and ginger in a pot and bring to boil. Add pork slices in a single layer. Cover and simmer for at least an 1 hour, turning occasionally so both sides are evenly glazed with sauce. Combine sugar and mirin; stir into pot. Cook, uncovered, 45 minutes or more, until pork is glazed and soft.

Best served with steamed rice, steamed vegetables and a Japanese salad on the side — shredded daikon, carrots, lettuce and other greens. Also great served with noodles and green vegetables.

Note:

I learned to cook this from a very special Okinawan lady, Mrs Yafuso, back in the summer of 1992. She told me that Rafute is best enjoyed in small amounts. And indeed, any variation of pork belly is not a dish I want to consume in large quantities or regularity — it’s too fattening — but once in a blue moon I’d indulge myself to whet the appetite and satisfy the craving. 

Winston Churchill Exhibition and Memorial Garden at Blenheim Palace

Britain’s war-time Prime Minister Winston Churchill was born at Blenheim Palace, his family ancestral home, on the 30th of November 1874.  Churchill Exhibition is a dedicated exhibition to give visitors a real sense of the great war-time leader and most famous member of the Churchill family.  It was opened in 2015 to mark the 50th anniversary of Sir Winston Churchill’s death. Continue reading “Winston Churchill Exhibition and Memorial Garden at Blenheim Palace”

I’m Back!

I know I abandoned this space for almost a year simply because I ran out of space on WordPress. Marc, my brother-in-law, graciously worked (and spent a whole day) on transferring my blog from WordPress for which I am very grateful. Thank you, Marc!

My father would have turned 86 today, 17th of April 2019, and these are two of my favourite photos of him as a young man. I say ‘young’ yet I always say that he died ‘quite young’, only 51 years old. To this day it’s still hard to conjure fond memories of him, of the past when the grief still seems raw and the sense of loss profound. If he’s still around and I could buy him a gift today, I think it would be something that would express everything I have felt over the years as his daughter: love, thankfulness, respect, pride, and appreciation. And so I ask myself, “how does one find a gift that expresses these things?” I don’t think such a gift exists in the material realm. I do wish my father is still around, and wish him a ‘Happy Birthday’ and I could tell him everyday how much I love him. Such things can be done effortlessly and mean more than any amount of money. As I ponder on losing my father at such a young age (as the youngest in the family I don’t have as much memory of him compared to my siblings), these are the things that I believe linger in my mind and heart, making me smile in remembrance and love, more so on occasions like this.

Around the time of my father’s illness, I started asking some very deep questions about life, but never talked about it to anyone. After the doctors told my mother that they couldn’t do anything more for my father, he was brought home to make him more comfortable after several months of hospital confinement in Manila. Providentially my dad’s illness, and death prompted me to search for the true meaning of life. I first heard the gospel through a home bible study with both of my parents still around, but my dad was practically on his deathbed. Though he was weak, I clearly recall him being able to walk on his own, and quite lucid. He could sit down for an hour or two and join in the bible study. I was quite young to understand everything that went on, but my older brother who’s already a Christian at the time, is convinced that dad was saved, and went home to be with the Lord as one of His children.

In my case, the search for life’s meaning went on; while other young kids of my age resorted to drugs, or alcohol, or some other vices just to fulfil their deepest longing, I went into reading self-help books and studying the bible. And the Lord has graciously saved me one day, while on my knees praying at my dormitory. No one has asked me to repeat a prayer or do something to be saved. He providentially arranged it all; worked through my roommate, Jen, to bring me closer to the Saviour.

I always say to the young people at our church to seek the Lord; not to be too focused on their future career and whatever worldly pursuits they may have. And not to take things for granted and think they’re too young and have all the time in world to seek God later on. We never know what tomorrow brings. Seek God while he may be found. (Isaiah 55:6)

Here’s an old post, one of my best memories about my father.

Spring? More like Summer in London!

We have had the longest winter ever! And this is one of the coldest spring I can remember since I moved to London 18 years ago. April started out bitterly cold this year, and there was little sign the cold will be relenting until about a couple of weeks ago. Not that we didn’t get our spells of brilliant sunshine, we sure did. But even when the sun was out, it still was a bit chilly. Obviously it hasn’t fooled the trees. Wisterias were in full bloom this time last year; today the buds are just barely starting to bulge and it might take two to three weeks before they are in full bloom. Continue reading “Spring? More like Summer in London!”

Exotic Orchids from Across the Globe

I went to the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) Orchid Show & Plant Fair last week and it was a good antidote to a pang of homesickness. The past couple of weeks had been so gloomy and I was clearly pining for bright and sunny days.  Continue reading “Exotic Orchids from Across the Globe”