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diaphania - Page 8

  • From style moderne to Modernism: the rise and fall of the remarkable process of M. Jean Berté


    Nan Ridehalgh's talk to the Imprint Society of Reading about her original research into the Jean Berté watercolour printing process prompted this.


    Before photographs could be reproduced in print, there were the Dalziel Brothers. So when the Illustrated London News wanted to put images of the Crimean War before its readers in 1855, it sent five artists to the battlefields to draw what they saw.

    The Dalziel Brothers were then instructed to cut their versions of the drawings out of hard boxwood. These hand-engraved blocks were printed by letterpress, transmitting the drawn images of war to a mass readership. But by around 1906, when the last member of the Dalziel dynasty died, commercial wood engraving had virtually disappeared, replaced by 'photomechanical engraving' which made it possible to acid etch a photograph on to a copper printing block.

    But hand-cut image making for the masses was not dead yet. There was still the remarkable reprographic process developed by Jean Berté. He used hand-cut rubber-faced letterpress printing blocks printed using his own luminous water-based inks.

    Berté seems to have begun work in his native France before the end of the nineteenth century. Overprinting six or more of the purest, most translucent colours, he was able to mass produce images of such freshness and startling impact that they looked hand painted. Perhaps the resemblance was intended, since Berté seems to have been forced to leave France for the US, accused of 'passing off' his work as the real thing.

    98f82adc4de9ead4bc38ce244483b026.jpg6189c71d9c969238425593e4dbba32b9.jpg He introduced his process to American printers in 1927. After obtaining  patents he licensed it to more than a hundred firms across the nation. Stunning images featuring large areas of flat, bright colour often bounded by a conventionally printed black keyline were eagerly taken up the glamorous new 'advertising men', busy riding the wave of the pre-depression boom. Berté's copywriting had impact, too. He promised to make the 'velvet softness of a sun-kissed cheek' 'live again'.

    Printing trade journals featured gorgeous images of tropical seas and exotic birds in vivid reds, oranges and yellows (reminiscent of Clarice Cliff's pottery), promoting the glorious impact of Berté's colours. The style was frequently Art Deco (or style moderne), since that look favoured large areas of flat, bold colour and complemented Berté's inventive new printing process. Soon a few of Berté's images even began to appear in Britain.

    But with a few notable exceptions, British printers were largely unmoved by the brilliance of M. Jean Berté's wonderful new images. These bright colours were all very well for the Americans, but perhaps they didn't fit with the printed aesthetic of the day, driven as it was by Stanley Morison's revivals of historic printing types for the Monotype Corporation.

    540f5042426f6db97d4102020d0c5a8b.png3a8ddd6891cd5503b0650e77b99c906e.pngOne exception was the printing house of Herbert Reiach on the south bank in London. The company produced a range of book jackets for Batsford designer Brian Cook using the Berté process. With their bold designs and bright (even garish) colours the titles fairly leapt from the shelves. Given the modernity of their jackets, it seems odd that the subject of many of the Batsford books was nostalgic. In wartime, Batsford's 'Face of Britain', 'English Life' and 'British Heritage' series comfortingly described the landscape, traditional pubs and old villages.

    In his 90th year, Arthur Spence, a former Berté craftsman, described to Nan Ridehalgh how he had worked at Lund Humphries with a sharp scalpel, cutting images from pieces of vulcanised rubber, locked into an adjustable turntable which was mounted on a sloped drawing board. At first the process was 'pretty crude' but then became more refined.

    bda6d2bca33506f9685f8a082758499f.jpg72d03c55c31972073779593c588772a6.jpgIn London after the war, much that had not already been destroyed by bombs was swept away. New cityscapes of concrete and glass rose in the square mile and on the south bank a new people's playground was going up for the 1951 Festival of Britain. Moderne gave way to Modernism - the aesthetic of Abram Games' logo for the Festival was machine-made, the colours cool blues, red and black. To my eyes at least, the Festival Hall seems grey and not at all celebratory.

    Jean Berté's bright American colours, printed from hand-cut blocks, must have seemed at odds with the spirit of the time. At Batsford in the early fifties, Brian Cook designed his last few jackets, applying the process to a more muted palette. But time was up for the hand-cut Berté blocks and for the riverside premises of Herbert Reiach. They were bulldozed to make way for the new south bank. The company relocated to Faringdon Street but soon after all traces of it are lost.

  • Touching the past (2)


    Columbia Grafonola sold at auction7ed3c89b8295fae68f5b2998c9edffb3.jpgWhen I was a little boy my mother used to visit auctions. With good taste, little cash and a canny eye for a bargain she furnished our cottage with lots from the salerooms of Martin & Pole and Vanderpump & Wellbelove and from the charity auctions she helped organise in our village.

    One day around 1970 a van turned up with her latest acquistion - a wind-up gramophone. Not the portable sort favoured by picnickers in 'Three men in a boat' style expeditions, but a proper piece of dark oak furniture with the sounding horn concealed behind double doors. Choose a 78 from the stack of classical recordings (I especially remember a set of Swan Lake excerpts); make sure the steel needle is nice and sharp; wind the handle and for a good two minutes the sound of the orchestra fills the room.

    I was entranced by the beautiful mechanism - the shiny tone arm, the heavy disks in their seductive brown sleeves in the cupboard below and the way it just worked, for just a few quick turns of the clockwork handle. The tin horn that sprouted so mysteriously inside its wooden case intrigued me above all. Three louvres behind the double doors directed the sound. I discovered that if I called inside my voice echoed back, changed by the horn within. I slipped my small boy's hand between the narrow gap between the louvres, curious to find the source of the sound.

    I remember reaching in, my knuckles knocking on the tin sides. I followed the horn's shape deep inside to where it narrowed to a small square compartment. Unexpectedly my fingers touched something soft. A cord-tied black cloth bag full of the most gorgeous glass marbles I had ever seen: spiralling meshes of twisting colour: reds, blues, oranges and yellows. Several large marbles (tolleys) the throwing of which would start a game. Suddenly I thought I saw another small boy, perhaps 50 years before, reaching inside the gramophone, just as I had done, and finding the perfect place to hide his precious set of marbles. Almost four decades have passed, the gramophone was sold long ago and I am still intrigued. Why did he leave them there, and what became of him?

    Phonograph ephmera site 



  • The Temple veil torn

    fe2ca5100806c5094d1384f1c1d9522a.jpgLondon's most ancient Inns of Court, the Inner and Middle Temples, are celebrating their 400th birthday. They are doing it by letting the hoi polloi in their hundreds tramp through their exclusive acres. One highlight was a talk by Lady Butler-Sloss, former President of the Family Division and some time Coroner to the Princess Diana Inquest. She dismissed the Home Office as hopelessly inefficient and the new Justice Ministry as a thoroughly bad idea which she hopes will be dismantled as soon as possible.

    Between the Embankment and Fleet Street lies a complex of buildings and gardens that together form a self-governing liberty, independent of the City of London. Oldest is the 12th century Round Church, built by the crusading knights templar to recall the circular church of the holy sepulchre in Jerusalem. Master of the Church Robin Griffith-Jones was fairly spell-binding in a 30 minute talk on the church's history. The Da Vinci Code got almost as short shrift as the knights templar, once King Philip IV of France decided to find them guilty of urinating on the cross and ritualised sodomy. Griffith-Jones conceded some sections of the order may have been guilty of these crimes, but the sin of the majority was to be part of a highly powerful organisation that acted as royal bankers - and refused Philip IV a loan.

    The buildings passed to the Knights Hospitalier and then in 1608 James granted them to the Inns of Court, on condition they maintain the church equally and that they educate and house legal students. The south side of the church is in the care of the Inner Temple, and the other is maintained by the Middle Temple - so that when rival organs were being tried out in 1682 an armed guard had to be maintained to prevent the Inner Temple sabotaging the victorious Middle Temple's instrument, and vice versa.

    Sir Walter Raleigh, Dickens, Attlee, Ghandhi and Nehru were all once members here. We visited the chambers of John Cherry QC and were shown the clerk's room and their impressive rolls of red tape (which are in fact pink). I expected Rumpole at any moment.

    The Middle Temple hall has a stunning hammer beam roof begun in 1562 which is 'perhaps the finest example of an Elizabethan Hall in the country'. This is where Twelfth Night was first performed in 1602. Unlike the Temple Church and Inner Temple Hall, the blitz left it relatively unscathed, thanks to fire watchers on constant duty with buckets of sand and brushes to push incendiaries off the roof.

    Though it is modern, the hall of the Inner Temple matches the style of the 18th century structures around it. In the Parliament Chamber, one of the country's most senior former judges spoke about the judiciary and the Inns of Court. There was something surreal about the ease with which we took our seats in this establishment holy of holies. Lady Butler-Sloss must be legal royalty, since she has the clipped accent of the Windsors - but she was far from standoffish. She praised the collegiate structure of the Inns of Court and the tradition of dining and partying together which means judiciary mix equally with barristers and their pupils.

    Perhaps because she had noticed that, unusually, she knew few members of her audience, she became mildly indiscreet at question time. The European Courts were championed for their ability to 'trump' the Government and the new Justice Ministry, which attempts to administer courts, prisons and the probation service, was trashed along with the 'hopeless' Home Office. We were told the Mohamed Al Fayed had employed a total of 60 lawyers to work on the Princess Diana Inquest.

    For the fascinating surroundings and the warmth of our welcome, an entirely satisfying visit. 

  • Getting into a lather with Millais


    You have until 13 January to see the Tate's latest blockbuster: a seven room survey of the entire career of Sir John Everett Millais (1829-96), perhaps best known for his Ophelia and 'Bubbles' the Pears soap boy.

    The greatest painter of his day produced what was then regarded as his greatest painting in 1854-6. The blind girl is a colossally garish exercise in high Victorian sentimentality. Patronisingly, we are asked to sympathise with the poor blind girl, who is unable to appreciate the sudden brilliant sunshine and rainbow that decorates a lead-grey Winchelsea sky. The two girls are awkwardly plonked down on a stream bank and (like several other of his paintings of the time) seem about to separate from the background. The 'pathetic' scene is completed with an improbably applied butterfly on the blind girl's right arm (delicate beauty she will never appreciate) and a toybox collection of country creatures which is randomly strewn across the irridescent meadow behind them.

    e6b37d7adcda9c46522cc798a0122096.png Isabella (1848-9) was Millais first painting as a member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. It is both unsettling and unsatisfying. On the right a pink tunic wearing Lorenzo offers fruit to his Isabella, whilst a disapproving servant looks on. Lorenzo's face looks cut out and is curiously lit. On the left Millais casts some of his own friends, the affectionate reality of their portraits at odds with the fantasy scene across the table from them.

    But it's not all bad. Millais was indisputedly an incredibly talented and highly precocious artist and draftsman. That we find his themed works not to our taste is perhaps because they were the soap operas of their day. We get these kicks from Eastenders and Corrie.

    6684e361000c62fc6d639b4b8dda15f8.png The Black Brunswicker (1859-60) is another exercise in popullist melodrama, only this time Millais has resoundingly pulled it off. On the eve of Waterloo a soldier departs to his death. Agonised, his wife tries to prevent his departure, her hand pushing the door closed as he opens it. As she gazes sadly at her imploring lapdog, an etching of Napoleon hangs behind them. The painting is quite sumptuous, the composition perfectly suited to its remorseless narrative. The work sold for 1,000 guineas and made Millais' reputation.

    cfa255385731083e696f4423104b3aa1.jpg By 1864 Millais' style had evolved considerably. In 'Leisure Hours' (the quotation marks are the painter's) he has painted the Pender sisters as perfect ornaments, trapped in enforced idleness just as much as the goldfish in the bowl in front of them. The paintwork is a little looser and without distractions. The blank stares and suffocating stillness of the composition all add to the narrative, unlike some of his later portraits of women and children, which contrive to be either sickly sentimental or alienatingly haughty.

    12b7d53ed05d3e9c3172b8978090b434.png Painted at the same time, Esther (1863-5) shows brilliant mastery of the decorative use of colour coupled with an understated and elegant composition. Esther releases her hair as a gesture of defiance to entice a king. Compared with Whistler's full length female portraits and admired for its 'flashing whites' by Rossetti, this is a very satisfying work.

    fdcc7857b6fd09dfff1a81e76e815fa9.pngIn his later period Millias painted some fine political portraits, inspired partly by Velasquez and Rembrandt. I was particularly taken with The Rt Hon. WE Gladstone, MP, (1878-9). Isolated of all props, Gladstone is austere, almost a visionary. With even looser brushwork and dramatic lighting, this is Millais at his most compelling.


    In 1878 Millias was grief stricken at the death of his second son George Grey. He painted 'The tower of strength which stood Four-square to all the winds that blew'. – Tennyson as expiation and it makes an interesting comparison with Constable's Hadleigh Castle, on view at the RA and painted in similar circumstances. Urqhart Castle on Loch Ness is a Romantically ruin, dissolving in uncertain, smudgy paintwork. The overpowering sea and sky are thick with expressive paint, against which the heroic lone oarsman battles.

    Millais' last works are an elegy to the Scots landscape. In them the painter achieves a kind of apotheosis.

  • Touching the past (1)


    They say that the sense of smell is the most evocative: the brain is so wired that the connection between memory and odour is the most direct. The smell of a certain floor polish instantly takes me back to school days, when a big polishing machine with soft spinning disks was always swung over the wooden floors at the end of the day.

    This Christmas it was the sense of touch that connected me to the past. Reading The Cottage Smallholder's post about making your own butter I decided to try to make some for the brandy butter. Soured cream 'churned' in a food processor suddenly 'breaks' into little pieces of butter. Wash it in iced water, place on a cold marble slab. Pat into shape. A rhythm soon develops, the pat slapped this way and that, residual buttermilk flowing out - the movements reassuring, not learned, but somehow bred in the bone - instinctive and natural. My mother helped for a while and remembered that the last time she had made butter pats was 70 years before, at her grandmother's at Fengate, long since bulldozed for the Peterborough ringroad.

    The mill house at Fengate was already rubble the first time I saw my Great Uncle Joe Hinkins. We children glimpsed the demolition site by peering through a high fence. We were told how Joe and his 12 siblings had been brought up in a beautiful, ancient, rambling house there. The old windmill had burnt down in a notorious fire in 1919. Joe now lived in Chestnut House next door, where we were fascinated by the gorgeous peacocks wandering round the yard. His father dealt in horses, and famously once filled his bowler hat with gold sovereigns after a particularly successful day's trading on Peterborough market. Young Joe kept the horse and cart outside the pub while his father drank the profits. When he grew up Joe was a sworn tee-totaller.

    When it was his turn to continue the family business, Joe kept on a few cows and the dairy where a rat infected with Weil's disease killed another great uncle. As Peterborough spread closer, Joe sold some of the fields to the football club but leased them back for grazing. He still went to horse fairs, and kept an interest in several race horses. Several times he took us racing. But given that progress could not be denied, Joe dealt in secondhand cars, building up a successful business on the site of the old farmyard.

    Everyone knew him as the kindest of men, given to spontaneous acts of generosity. Once, quite without warning, a harmonium turned up at our house. Joe thought we might like it. The story goes that when he became ill, one relative called a lawyer, not a doctor and talked the old man into changing his will solely in his favour. Aged just 66, Joe died soon after, in June 1977. The local gypsies, to whom he had been so generous, turned out in their finest clothes, standing silently all along the way from Chestnut House to the funeral. 

    Buy Windmills of Northamptonshire at Amazon 


  • Will a crash take the rise out of the shard?

    20f3af879592059032b302166511e102.jpgGiven John Prescott MP's unlikely reputation as a lothario, it seems right that he be remembered for giving permision for London's most thrusting new erection - Renzo Piano's 'shard of glass' at London Bridge. Piano describes it as "a vertical town for about 7,000 people" based on "London's heritage of masts and towers".

    And since economic ruin is aparently just around the corner what are the chances that financially it doesn't quite rise to the occasion? If it doesn't all go quite according to plan it's apparently the Qatari governement that will get their fingers burnt.

    Building a tower taller than everyone else's is not an especially female obsession. Skyscrapers are the phallocratic bullies on the block: they shout down their neighbours, and as Piano says, have a reputation for "arrogance and mysteriousness". He hopes the shard and a matching 'baby shard' nearby will be lively, open spaces, available for the public's pleasure 24 hours a day.

    An article in Building Magazine describes the construction of this new 310m high, 88-storey skyscraper, with some excellent animations. The developers promise surgical operations in Guy's Hospital next door will not be disturbed by the £350m work, and that the trains will still run (almost) on time at London Bridge station. Piano's racy design includes a hotel, the inevitable offices and a viewing platform near the top. If you put the Gherkin on top of St Paul's, the shard will still be 21m taller.

    Outside Europe they do it bigger. In Dubai they are putting up a tower which will have a spire that will reach 818m, with the 164th floor 194m below. There's even a dam in Tajikstan which at 300m is almost as high as the shard will be.

    A pity that all the materials for Prescott's needle will travel by road, even with a major rail terminal next door. If it all goes to plan we should be enjoying the view by June 2011.

    See Skyscraper News for the latest on London's tallest buildings.

  • Those unfashionable British


    An acquaintance (whose accent locates him in the mid-atlantic, but whose prejudices are decidedly continental) once said to me that 'nothing of world class is ever produced by British artists'.

    We were on the steps of the Royal Academy at the time. One collector who would certainly have disagreed was Paul Mellon (1907-99) the pick of whose Yale Center for British Art is on tour to the RA until January 27, 2008.

    Mellon got his money from his father, the third richest man in America, and his taste for British art from spending his earliest days in England. Christened in St George's Chapel, Windsor and educated at Cambridge, he bought his first major painting, Stubbs' 'Zebra' in 1960 for £20,000. So unfashionable was painting of Stubbs' era that it was sold in a bric à brac sale by Harrods.

    This astonishing portrait of 'the queen's she-ass' pictures it in a pool of golden light in a lush imagined forest. The creature, newly arrived at Queen Charlotte's menagerie from South Africa, has the look of a miraculous mythical beast. St Eustace might appear at any moment.

    Mellon's collecting was intuitive. He mistrusted art historical analysis and bought because a picture appealed, not because its narrative impressed. In a decade or so he assembled (and subsequently gave away) a collection that is a roll call of the greats of British art: Hilliard, Hogarth, Reynolds, Gainsborough, Turner, Constable, Blake, Wright of Derby, Landseer, Palmer, Zoffany and Dadd. All are magnificently represented in the RA show. In addition there are superb topographical artists like Paul Sandby, caricaturists like Rowlandson and names new to me like John 'Warwick' Smith (1749-1831), John Robert Cozens (1752-97) and William Turner of Oxford (1789-1862) whose 'Donati's Comet' is a surreal night-time view almost reminiscent of Magritte.

    The star of the show is Turner's vast, dazzling 'Dort Packet Boat' (1818), described then as 'one of the most magnificent paintings ever exhibited'. Turner's mastery of light is triumphant.


    Two smaller Turners are almost as stunning. 'Staffa, Fingal's Cave' (1832) was completed the same year as Mendelssohn's work. A grubby little steamer pitches in a storm beneath the sunlit splendour of Staffa's cliffs.

    9255c8380c273896a9b87c0638d827f1.jpgIn his 'Eruption of Vesuvius', minute figures are panic-stricken on the shore, powerless against the great red fury of the volcano. 

    Constable's 'Hadleigh Castle' (1829) is another blockbuster. From not very close up at all the 6 foot wide painting disintegrates into fractured, glittering brushwork. Constable's angry grief at his wife's death is painfully visible.


    Mellon was not only a great collector of paintings – he was also one of the greatest book-collectors of the twentieth century. Works on show include Caxton's Canterbury Tales (perfect presswork, even at the very beginning of printing in England); the magnificent Kelmscott Press Works of Chaucer; and the only hand-coloured edition of Blake's gorgeous Jerusalem. In plate 99 an androgynous Jerusalem is clasped by Jehovah 'awaking into his bosom in the life of Immortality'.

    Save for Burne Jones' collaboration with Morris, Mellon avoided artists associated with high Victorian excess. There's no sickly sentimentality here. Mellon's intuition was razor sharp - they may be unfashionable, but these are works of superb quality and refinement, in huge contrast to the masochistic indulgence of the Baselitzes on show on the floor below.

    361b3ed3fe05be0a04bd0068f17c3721.jpg 3cdb1d9e5d86d05b34536d263aaba196.png

  • Shining in mid-winter

    6a1a040fe7a06fb91f6e8598d5b89e26.jpgThe unfashionable Cornish poet and playwright Charles Causley died in 2003. At an Advent service in Dorchester Abbey I heard what may be one of his greatest poems, 'I am the great sun':

    From a Normandy crucifix of 1632

    I am the great sun, but you do not see me,
    I am your husband, but you turn away.
    I am the captive, but you do not free me,
    I am the captain but you will not obey.
    I am the truth, but you will not believe me,
    I am the city where you will not stay.
    I am your wife, your child, but you will leave me,
    I am that God to whom you will not pray.
    I am your counsel, but you will not hear me,
    I am your lover whom you will betray.
    I am the victor, but you do not cheer me,
    I am the holy dove whom you will slay.
    I am your life, but if you will not name me,
    Seal up your soul with tears, and never blame me.

    In this wonderfully simple devotional sonnet, Christ speaks from the cross, full of compassion for human inadequacy.

    An essay by Dana Gioia analyses Causley's powerful work. You can also hear Causley himself reading 'At the British war cemetery, Bayeux'. Poets' own voices often seem inadequate, but Causley brings his rythmic and incantatory lines to life.

  • Overdeveloped giant

    photo Tristram Kenton Sir Anthony Sher's first play 'The Giant' is showing at the Hampstead Theatre until December 1st. Like an over-stuffed Christmas stocking, the play is much too full of goodies. Will Leonardo or Michelangelo win the competition to carve a David for the newly created Florentine Republic? Which of them will get the lissom young quarryman who is the statue's model? What is the nature of beauty and of genius and will a late cameo apperance by the Mona Lisa save the day?

    Almost three hours of relentlessly upbeat entertainment include many fulsome speeches crammed with historical insights, bouts of singing, a masque, much camp tomfoolery from Leonardo's fawning boyfriend (Simon Trinder) and an impressively elaborate set dominated by a recreation of  'il gigante' - the 6m high block of luminous marble on which Michelangelo worked frenetically for over two years.

    As Machiavelli, Stephen Noonan entertainingly spins the statue's importance as a proud symbol of Florence's defiance. Its nudity and lack of circumcision are given credible treatment as is Michelangelo's inspiration in depicting the boy hero with his sling just before the battle with Goliath. That he carved the model's initial on the statue's sling was news to me.

    Two lunatic followers of Savonarola and his 'bonfire of the vanities' caper idiotically across the set far more often than is necessary. There's much undress, most of it by the impressive Northern Irish actor Stephen Hagan who so ressembles the world's most famous statue that quarrymen in Carrera apparently cried out 'Davide!' as soon as they saw him.

    Unfortunately John Light’s passionately devout Michelangelo and Roger Allam’s pompous Leonardo lacked the kind of compelling intensity to be expected of such artistic titans. The play's heart is supposed to be the scene where the two of them debate the source of the model Vito's beauty - but it lacked real dramatic focus. There was far more drama in Light's medieval religious ravings which contrasted so neatly with Machiavelli's devilish pragmatism.

    Director Gregory Doran seems to have been much too loyal to his partner Sher to make the cuts and changes in pace the play so badly needs. The cast work more than their socks off, but it is sadly too easy to see why in its present form this RSC commission is unlikely to make it to one of their stages.

  • Being there

    Almost seven, my niece sits with me, reading. I hold her close. She holds a postcard sent from Australia: "We have arrived at a small town famed for its statue of a dog on a tucker box" Her eyes are so perfectly blue, they seem like crystal. Her concentration is absolute - she is unblinkingly in the moment. No worries about the cat or the milkman, death or taxes. Just 5x3 inches of card from halfway round the world, and a small child, at perfect ease in my arms, at the dawn of experience.

  • Trofie with smoked salmon

    03297bb7a087c4f27b725bd293147c91.jpgIncredibly quick to make, this simple recipe can be eaten as either a satisfying main course or as a lunchtime snack.

    INGREDIENTS, per portion
    100gm Ligurian trofie from Carluccio's or Camisa, Soho
    60gm smoked salmon
    tablespoon of crème fraîche
    quarter of a leek
    quarter of a red pepper
    tablespoon of frozen peas
    freshly ground black peppper


    Finely chop the vegetables, cut the salmon into strips.

    Cook the trofie for 15mins, adding the leeks after about 4mins, then the pepper, and finally the peas after about 12mins.

    Drain and toss in a little olive oil. Stir in the crème fraîche and the salmon; season with freshly ground black pepper.

  • So farewell then, Cuthbert…

    a14d5956dcf3bc2e156b9b97f9e3bedb.jpgThe Thames at night. Dark outlines of tall trees on the bank side. It is a magical summer evening. In the moonlight, the engine of the little boat putt-putts gently, its prow pushing through a layer of eerily beautiful river mist that rests on the water, but does not obscure our view ahead. We are on our way home after a good pub dinner. On the walk back to the boat we passed Shiplake church, where tiny glow-worms shone brightly in the darkness. We met a retired schoolmaster who was conducting a glow-worm census. He described the few weeks when the females "recline as if on a deck-chair" in the long grass, illuminating their tails in the hope of attracting a mate.

    For 12 years I've had a share in a wooden boat, chosen in the yard at Peter Freebody's where the consummate salesman told his daughter 'these two nice young men are deciding which of these two lovely boats they are going to buy'. We named him Cuthbert, not after the Lindisfarne saint called the "wonder-worker of England" but because the name jumped out of a list at random. Just 13' long, built by Freebody's in the fifties. An inboard 1.5hp Stuart Turner R3M engine, made in Henley like the thousands ordered by Butlins for their hire boats, with glamorous teak Riva decking and a dark blue hull set off with a line of fine gold.

    f09de5d7aaa5babf27b901379c11951f.pngCuthbert always turns heads, often in admiration, but sometimes in sympathy, since the Stuart Turner has a reputation for cantankerousness. Before shelling out for a professional re-build we even attempted an engine overhaul ourselves, hand-cutting seals, and cleaning out decades of gunk, referring to the original manual with its alarmingly complex diagrams and wonderfully mysterious line 'a spare jet is always a convenience'. From being a complete novice I have been initiated into the frequently infuriating idiosyncracies of Stuart Turner engines. We have uncovered a world of specialist experts, beavering away in their intriguing workshops: engine restorers, cover cutters, tiller turners and master boat-builders for whom 20 coats of varnish is the norm.

    b919c85cb28400a7f77a84efffe98300.jpgThe adventures we've had! Admittedly most because the engine failed, or we set out too late on a trip that took longer than expected, or because we simply forgot to put petrol in. The locks we've worked by hand late at night, the weirs we've drifted perilously close to and the money we've spent! Trips to the regatta, hanging on to the boom in mid-river as fireworks exploded all around us, the water a mass of dazzling reflections. The rudder we somehow lost in a lock. I was bereft. I even contemplated sending down a diver, but someone was found who could make a replacement, even better than the original. Twice vandals loosed Cuthbert from his mooring, scattering cushions (we found them being looked after by a bemused swan) and leaving him drifting. He (or was it she? - I could never decide, as boats are always female) was even in a car accident, after his trailer bearing failed.

    6ab56183932beb28722e4ef318343532.jpgA complete professional re-build of the entire engine, extensive work on the hull, much re-painting and re-fettling inside and out. Family picnics and late-night trystings, an epic journey to the tidal Thames, and even a wedding, when the newly married couple travelled to their reception beneath a flower-bedecked bower. A Sun-trained photographer bawled 'over here darling!' as the bride boarded. Toffs on gin-palaces toasted them in champagne and swimming boys spontaneously roared their approval.

    At least three relationships bloomed because of trips on Cuthbert. Two friends were introduced to each other and taken out for evening trips on Cuthbert several times before one of them shyly confessed 'we thought we might go out together - only without you, this time, I hope you don't mind!'.

    But now, after all the excitement, the traumas and the adventures, we are finally selling.

    On our last trip I caught sight of a sudden flash of brilliant blue. I watched as a kingfisher dipped and rose through the air just ahead of us, leading us back to the mooring and to four lives without one very special boat called Cuthbert.

    Offers anyone?