Monday, December 26, 2011

Mehmet the Conqueror

What was seen by Mehmet the Conqueror as he entered the smouldering city of Constantinople in 1453? We know by which gate he came through and by all accounts the walls were still standing at the end of the seige in May 1453 despite the pounding that the Ottomans had given them. I like to think that this is something like the direction he would have looked in, across the the city, over the sea of Marmara to the distant mountains.

Ok, so he wouldn't have seen the mosque that stands there now, neither would it have been so built up, in fact the areas near the walls would have probably been fields... etc... and he wouldn't have been on the walls either and no doubt he would have had a few things on his mind then. 

There is, despite all that, something stirring about going to the city walls that bizarrely remain long tall and strong flanking the northern edge of the city next to freeways and and the usual traffic.

Using ink, oil pastel, acrylic as well as watercolour made this picture just about work, it might need doing a few more times but the atmosphere is good.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The ten least painted scenes of Istanbul...

The above is a scene of the wonderful skyline of Eminönü, the New Mosque is in the foreground.

This scene to the left, on the other hand, is surely one of the least painted but bizarre scenes of the city, in fact even I haven't painted it yet!

The Valens Aqueduct (4th Century) with four lanes of freeway traffic running through it. There's something almost poetic in this. It feels like a piece of installation art at it's most powerful. The message is so clear that I'm struggling to put it into writing. In fact there are so many facets of this piece of.... er...sculpture  shall we say,  that even the fact that it seems relatively unscathed despite the minute by minute assault of the fearsome Istanbul traffic seems riven with meaning. I think that perhaps the best way of understanding this would be to place a video link of it to the 'Istanbul Modern' art gallery and market this scene as the latest work of some up and coming experimental film maker.

As I write this I'm thinking of the many great cities of Europe that happily build freeways around ancient monuments but the breathtaking audacity of running a bus route through a relatively narrow Roman arch is pretty original, congratulations to the town planners, the Byzantines would be proud to see their engineering genius enduring this long.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

More Food....

Turkish cooking really is excellent and by that I don't mean kebabs and bar-b-que'd meat. Traditional Turkish cooking relies heavily on pulses and vegetables. Meat is used mainly as something to add flavour. 

Now is the time when 'ashure' (a dessert with nuts, dried fruit, grains syrup and beans) is handed out from house to house, it's the food of the Prophet Noah and is served in the first month of the Islamic year (we've got a lot of it building up in the fridge!).

This is a 'little ditty' to go with the last picture of peppers....

Monday, December 5, 2011

The Mundane

Istanbul has a most intriguing version of post industrial urban decay. Despite the booming economy and growing affluence amongst some here, there is a real mixture of the old and new. The 'old' is not necessarily 'preserved' and sanitised in the way more ordered European cities might be, it still harbours many Gormenghast-like corners.

In the old city most of the buildings are the usual reinforced concrete apartments that grace most cities in most of the world these days. But there are thankfully a lot of exceptions to this. There are many old wooden Ottoman style houses, their flexible structure enabled them to stand throughout numerous earthquakes, the downside being that destruction by earth quake is probably a lot quicker than slow death by exhorbitant insurance premiums due to their easily catching fire.

Amidst some of these one can find the odd crumbling Byzantine pile and it's an interesting excercise (well for me, maybe not for my kids, or my wife, nor anyone else I know for that matter!) to ferret out the old Byzantine churches that were converted to become mosques in the years after 1453.

So what has all that to do with a fence post? Nothing except my eyes have been awakened recently to form and beauty in the mundane and even in this grand old city there is plenty of that. What is special about this place is that there is 'antique' mundane mixed in with the reinforced concrete. Take a look at this municipal spring, it's too commonplace to restore but was pre-1920s Ottoman chic with beautiful Ottoman Arabic script along the top complete with an anarchy sign that would grace any European urban scene. Such is the smorgasboard of culture that is the modern Turkey.

One last thing.... This doorway stands a stone's throw from the Arab Camiisi (Mosque) on the Galata side of the Golden Horn. The building was apparently built in the eighth century when invading Muslim armies attempted to take Constantinople. The mosque was converted to a church after that by the Venetians and then was once again changed back to a mosque after 1453. It's recently been restored uncovering Byzantine frescoes under the plaster put there by the Ottoman invaders.

Monday, November 28, 2011


Every Tuesday it happens. There is a feeling of anticipation in the air, the local shops appear to hold their breath awaiting the onset of the weekly fruit and vegetable market that descends on the neighbourhood. 

The traffic is diverted for a day, the market's streets are packed with purposeful women and elderly men hunting for the bargains. One can instantly tell where the deals are by the presence of a crowd of women usually in headscarves with  pull along shopping trolleys (the type my mother used in the 70s) haggling over a pile of peppers or onions.

There is a feeling of plenty, of bounty even. The beautiful rows of purples, reds, oranges, greens of every hue. The fish stall shows off its tantalisingly fresh cheap harvest of the sea. The stall holders yell out their undecipherable calls. 

In all this I sense something deeply and profoundly whole. 
A vegetable bazaar in Istanbul.


Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Forest Scenes

I've enjoyed looking at John Salmon's work in the last few weeks watercolourclub.blogspot his pictures of Epping Forest remind me how challenging painting trees can be for me. Trees remain a very attractive subject for me but they cause me to pause and think. The above is another Istanbul scene, not what people would think of a city of 18 million plus people.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Fish II and Ottoman Calligraphy

The more I look at these creatures the more fascinating they become. I'm sure you can sense a growing obsession beginning to take a hold. The colours in fish really are amazing, constantly changing and quite hard to capture. Actually one can feel quite stared at looking at this piece, lots of eyes looking at the viewer. Enough said...

Now onto something completely different: I recently attended an exhibition of the art of Islamic Calligraphy and it's specifically Ottoman manifestation. I was treated to some profoundly beautiful pieces. The works do not end with beautiful calligraphy but rather include the most intricate decoration and illustrations set in a layout with variations on traditional geometric patterns. What's really most stunning is the Ottoman love of flowers and how they portrayed tulips and roses amidst the set patterns of Islamic calligraphy. Take a look for yourself.

Thursday, November 10, 2011


Yes, this indeed is another departure. From the misty (wannabe) orientalist horizons of Istanbul to a plate of fish. Natural pattern, texture and colour are what I'm intrigued by at the moment.

Fish are important here. The anchovies of the Black Sea or 'Hamsi' as they are called here are a seasonal harvest from the ocean. They swarm down into the Marmara Sea and are for sale in the bazaars of the city for just a coupe of dollars a kilo. The Barbun are the cute little pink fish and the other one in the picture is a herring I think?

All the same, one feels a wonderful sense of abundance and 'rightness' about such a protein rich food source, no additives etc.. dip 'em in flour, fry 'em for a few minutes and eat them whole (you do need to gut them though...)

It's a pity my kids don't feel the same way.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Quiet Death

This is a bit of a departure. Maybe getting my car through what we'd call an MOT in the UK and here a 'muayene' has gone to my head. I don't really like cars, buying one was a tortuous decision, I haven't owned one for twelve years and I've enjoyed every minute of it. 

In the end the decision to buy one was a difficult one. I was swung by the thought of some mobile freedom after too many Saturday afternoons spent inside after none of us could face more hours on an Istanbul bus going nowhere fast. 

This sad example was pointed out to me by a friend with a Land Rover fantasy. Despite my attempt being a little rugged and raw I feel the whole area of automobiles could have some potential, no really it could. Next week I'll be back to the hum drum of painting Ottoman graves.....

Friday, October 21, 2011

From Beauty to the Balrog

The word 'expat' has associated with it a feeling of semi-colonial ease. For Brits this may have been true in what my imagination pictures as the sepia toned days of the Raj and maybe pre-1997 Hong Kong. I wince when I'm referred to as an ex-pat here as I have neither the material means nor the inclination to conform to that particular stereotype. No,  the journey I enjoy is the one where we seek out the heart of a culture and my suspicion is that this can only be done through knowing the language and living alongside people.

Wow! I made that sound quite idealistic and almost heroic! In reality this means that one has to do the dreary, dull, routine things that every normal person in most countries around the world have to do just to get by. The difference is that  as an 'ex-pat' without the domestic staff one has to stumble through with an only slowly improving grasp of the language.

Take today for example. This morning I crossed the Bosphorus in the glorious sunshine of a cloudless October day to talk with the owner of a gallery in an exclusive part of the city. We drank tea in a sun soaked room talking of the days when Istanbul was a much smaller city and when there were Greeks, Armenians, Turks and Jews all living alongside one another.

An hour and half later I'm in a considerably less salubrious part of town trying to get my vehicle's (we call it the Balrog) exhaust tested ready for it's yearly check. We're dealing with dirt, money, grim, hordes of cars and grease stained hands. 

Despite all that I have another suspicion that the essence of a culture can be detected as much in the latter situation as the former. 

The above picture is Üsküdar at sunset, oil pastels and watercolours wrestling for space on the page.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Headscarves, Beer and Bob Dylan....

This is a painting of a park in Istanbul, Küçük Çamlıca Korosu to be precise. Parks in this city are an interesting measure of the socio-religious make-up of an area. If you visit this park you will see the usual elaborate picnics and tea making apparatus that Turks use outdoors. You will see the usual hammocks strung up between conveniently spaced tree trunks. In this park however, fitting with the area, one will notice that most of the women wear a head scarf and are well covered up, so what you might ask, it's an Islamic country! 

However, if you were to go to another park down by the edge of the Marmara you'd see a different picture, in fact you might think you're in Europe. The bar-b-ques are the same, the tea making facilities also the same, but the clothing and entertainment? There will be more alcohol, a lot less head scarves and a more causal atmosphere. The people here would be more likely to be singing Bob Dylan songs sitting in circles smoking with a person playing a guitar with the odd can of beer.

These kinds of differences manifest the diverse mosaic which makes up this country, the city is ethnically fairly homogenous (if you count being a Turk as being of one ethnic group), but the socio-religious  differences are striking. What an interesting place....!

Anyway, enough anthropology.....

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Steve Jobs, Brunelleschi and getting older...

I was teaching a lesson on the Renaissance today. We talked about Filippo Brunelleschi and his use of perspective. We discussed how he noticed something..... I suppose you could say 'discovered' or 'invented', but probably it's fair to say that he conceptualised something, something that everyone (once it had been pointed out) realised they already knew.

I find the notion that there are things we all know, but have yet to have had conceptualised or spoken, to be a fascinating one. I tried to draw comparisons between what was happening in the Renaissance with the kind of creativity of  Steve Jobs, my students liked that (not sure it's accurate!). We then had the conversation 'Life before the Internet' and marvelled how the ancient world of the early 1990s ever turned, bit of a rabbit trail to tell the truth. Growing older has its advantages I'm beginning to realise.

The picture above is an attempt to express something of what I see when I look at a forest glade. Check it out

Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Top Ten LEAST painted scenes of Istanbul....

One point six million cars in a city of 18 million people. I'm not sure where that places Istanbul in the world in terms of car ownership per head of population, maybe not that high I suppose. However, when one drives in Istanbul it certainly feels like car ownership is something like 14 cars per head of population, I guess you could call it the traffic equivalent of 'wind chill factor'.

So what has that to do with the picture? The scene above is a picnic area right on the edge of the city, surrounded by freeways, you wouldn't make it without a car. 
I'm glad we've got one.

The limited palette I used worked well with this one, wet on dry with a little wet on wet.

I'd like to be able to say this is our car but it's not...

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Back to Turner....

Over the Black Sea one really does see some great 'Prussian Blue' moments sometimes with a little Payne's Grey thrown in for good measure. The sky was made for Prussian Blue.

Snow storm, Steam boat off a harbour's mouth
Turner could create a broiling vortex of doom-laden cloud from what must have in actual fact been a less dramatic experience. Despite this his works manage to make it all seem very believable. The story goes that he lashed himself to the mast of a ship for four hours in a snow storm. Critics suggest that this was a myth and I'll take their word for it, but the resulting painting (above) is still spectacularly alive, one can still feel the heave of the swell and the blast of the wind.


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