The sheepdog trial

The August sheepdog trials are an annual event in the valley so it was perhaps a tad disingenuous of me to include 'Watch a sheepdog trial' on my summer bucket list. This year the sun shone almost continuously, something far from guaranteed in North Wales, and I'm tired and a little sunburnt, but not unhappily so. We had a really good day.

The majority of the competitors are local but some come from much further afield, even overseas. Points awarded in open trials count when qualifying for national trials and there can be a sizeable entry. The dogs generally spend the larger part of the day waiting.

And so do the sheep, first in the letting out pen - from where they are released, in threes or fives, at the beginning of a run - and then in the exhaust pen - the enclosure into which they are driven after the run ends.

The 'outrun', from handler to sheep, culminates in the 'lift', with the dog now behind the released sheep and beginning to move them forwards. The 'fetch' brings the sheep toward the handler through the fetch gates, and the 'drive' moves them on behind the handler, away through the drive gates, and then back towards the pen. The handler holds the rope to the open pen gate and must continue to hold it until the sheep are penned and the gate is closed. He must never touch the sheep. Or so go the heats, it can all get a bit more complicated after that.

What I didn't capture - purely because I didn't think to - was the sound of it all, the whistles and the commands - 'Come bye', 'Get back', 'Walk up', 'That'll do' - and the bleating, and the cries of the buzzards circling overhead. And I also missed the female handlers, of whom there were quite a few ... what can I say, when a cream tea calls I generally answer promptly.

There's a beer tent too, and bacon sarnies in the morning because there's rarely time for breakfast before the early start. And village ladies selling raffle tickets, and fund raising for Wales Air Ambulance, a lifeline locally, often literally. And local veg to buy, and homemade cakes and jams. And fat lambs to guess the weight of, with prizes for the nearest to the mark. A proper country day out.

A green Welsh valley, narrow but lush, complete with babbling brooks and burbling river, in the sunshine, in the summer. I really can't think of a better place to bide. But of course come mid-winter I might be thinking differently!

How was your weekend?


The Colour Collaborative: Dress

Should my companions ever lose me on a visit to the National Gallery in London they may well find me again in a corner of room 56, contemplating a painting - oil on oak panel, barely 2 ft by 3 ft - of a girl in a green dress, standing hand in hand with her husband ... the Arnolfini portrait*, by Jan van Eyck, dated 1434.

Art historians have long debated the significance of every detail of the work, and today even the identity of the subjects is no longer certain. The girl, initially thought to be Jeanne Cenami, wife of Bruges cloth merchant Giovanni di Arrigo Arnolfini, may in fact be Costanza Trenta, wife of Bruges cloth merchant Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini, represented posthumously. Or she could be an undocumented wife of either of the two men.

And she's probably not pregnant, as has so often been claimed. Instead she's now understood to be dressed in the fashion of the day, a woollen gown so full that its folds of excess fabric must be clutched in the wearer's hand.
... a protruding stomach ... is a desirable feature, both socially and visually, and is enhanced by the stance that artists give women. Fertility is a vital quality in a wife and many are in a recurrent state of pregnancy. Those who are not are failures. So a posture which emphasises the stomach, stressed by a high waistline and the folds of a voluminous gown, is the height of elegance.
Carola Hicks, Girl in a Green Gown

But what of its colour?

Carola Hicks claims the green is 'outmoded' ...
While Arnolfini boasted the new black, his wife seemed to be locked in the previous century when bright colours like red, blue and green were the preferred options ... green dye was made from a combination of woad and the herb weld and was easier to brew than fashionable dark shades.
... although an historian of natural dyeing might beg to differ.

A smooth, saturated green is a fairly simple prospect for a painter employing ground malachite, as van Eyck did, but for a dyer it's another story. Where silk fabrics were invariably dyed in the yarn, i.e. before weaving, wool was generally dyed in the piece ... that's a 50 ell (or 38 yard) piece** in the case of the girl's green dress! Surely only an immensely skilled master dyer could have achieved such even, vibrant colour twice - first in a blue dye bath and then in a yellow - on so large a cloth.
... in my view, this portrait of the Arnolfinis, where each of the main textiles featured is a single solid colour, celebrates the art of the [Flanders] dyer.

Susan Kay-Williams, CE of the Royal School of Needlework

There is so much more that I could write about the girl's clothes - the maybe 2000 squirrel skins used to line the green gown and trim the blue underdress, the latter most probably minever, or white belly fur, deserve a post of their own - and about the painting as a whole, but I was wondering if instead you'd like to join me in a readalong of Girl in a Green Gown? A history book (it's far from just art history) about which Grayson Perry has said ...
Carola Hicks has reinvigorated my love for the Arnolfini portrait to the point where I want to make my own homage ... I now look at van Eyck's crystalline masterpiece with new wonder, not only at his illusionistic skill and formal rightness but also his social acuity.

Perhaps the most moving realisation has been how thin the thread is that has pulled this small glowing panel of wood through history. It has survived five and a half centuries of damp, parties, neglect, adulation and war, not to mention travel by sailing ship and baggage cart. Reading this book has turned every future visit to the National Gallery into a pilgrimage where I must each time if only for a few moments renew my acquaintance with ... the girl in the green gown.
What do you think?

* Click on the image and then click again for a much enlarged version.

** A replica made in 1997 by students at Wimbledon School of Art used 35 meters/38 yards of fabric.

Don't forget to visit the other Colour Collaborative blogs for more of this month's posts, just click on the links below ...

CJ at Above the River

Sandra at Cherry Heart

Sarah at Mitenska

Gillian at Tales from a Happy House

Jennifer at Thistlebear

What is The Colour Collaborative?
All creative bloggers make stuff, gather stuff, shape stuff, and share stuff. Mostly they work on their own, but what happens when a group of them work together? Is a creative collaboration greater than the sum of its parts? We think so and we hope you will too. We'll each be offering our own monthly take on a colour related theme, and hoping that in combination our ideas will encourage us, and perhaps you, to think about colour in new ways.


Girls, spinning

I had no idea who these spinning girls were when I saved this intriguing old photograph, and I forgot to record where I'd found it. Unable to attribute it I kept it filed away, until today, when I finally had time to track it down.

Captioned 'Spinning wool in Aleppo', it's dated 1920. The photographer was Silas Hertzler, an American Mennonite relief worker at an orphanage in Syria for "refugee children of the Armenian genocide", where the photograph was taken. The girls were among the orphans*, survivors of forced marches from Turkey into the Syrian desert.

The story of the Armenian genocide is complicated, and not to be enquired into too deeply unless you have a pretty strong stomach (which warning I attach to that link). Man's inhumanity to man, it's as old as time and ever present. But I wanted to believe this was a hopeful image, the girls in their patched aprons, employed usefully. And then I read the following ...
The children looked well groomed, hair combed, dressed in sweaters, tunics, jackets. It could have been a class photo of kids from an American school of the World War 1 period, until you looked more closely. Until you made contact with their eyes ... until you gazed longer, and the bewilderment, sadness, and pain in their eyes, face by face, stared back at you. Who knew what their stories were and what they had witnessed, to be in Aleppo in 1920.
Peter Balakian, from Black Dog of Fate**

Perhaps they found solace in spinning and knitting and crochet, as countless others have and do. I sincerely hope they did.

I was wondering if I should apologise for the downbeat nature of this vintage photo post. But they can't all be about woolly underwear or sweetshops so I'm declaring it a corrective to all the froth and bubble that can wash across the blogosphere in summer. Some stories simply can't be told too often.

* Wikimedia Commons has another (1922) photograph of the older girls in the Aleppo orphanage. And Flickr Commons has this image of some of the girls sewing.

** Balakian's Pen/Albrand Award winning memoir - reviewed here - which I'm now reading.

Clickable RSS feed subscription icon. Clickable Flickr icon. Clickable Instagram icon. Clickable Pinterest icon. Clickable Bloglovin icon.
about contact home