Valley Forge – where America was made?

I hadn’t picked up my camera for over a month, but yesterday I had the opportunity to visit Valley Forge National Historical Park with my daughter and her friend. We hired bicycles for two hours and cycled around 9 miles through this beautiful area. It was hard work on some of the unpaved trails but well worth the effort.

There were no battles fought at Valley Forge, but lack of supplies was so severe that starvation and disease saw 2,500 men and over 700 horses dead during the six months the Continental Army was encamped there from December 1777 to June 1778.

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Yet, despite the appalling living conditions, the Continental Army was transformed from a rebellious force into a fully fledged army that was eventually able to fend off the British Army and allow the colonies to establish themselves as an independent nation.

How?

The weather in February 1778 eased and became milder, alleviating some misery and Washington’s appointment of the resourceful General Nathaniel Greene as Quartermaster enabled better supply lines to be established. Successful petitioning of the Continental Congress finally allowed funding for the army and then, in March 1778, the mercenary ex-Prussian Army drill-master “Baron” Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben arrived at camp. Though he spoke no English, von Steuben, with the help of translators, and due to his peculiar style of actually interacting directly with the men, was able boost morale and to train the American soldiers. His work became “The Blue Book” (Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States) and would remain as the official training manual for over 30 years.

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With the Treaty of Alliance with France signed in February 1778, ensuring supplies and support, and a well trained army behind him, Washington was able to leave Valley Forge after six months and face the British.

The rest, as they say, history…

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~Richard

Lest We Forget: Passchendaele one hundred years on.

A century ago today, on 31st July, 1917 the Third Battle of Ypres was begun, later to be known as Passchendaele, after the Belgian village some five miles away. It was to be a long, hard, miserable battle.

This push towards the German lines was mounted at the command of General Haig who was feeling confident following the success of the Messines Ridge attack some 6 weeks earlier.

Shelling by both armies over the previous days had turned the ground to mud and this was soon followed by the worst rain in over 30 years, causing conditions to become so horrendous that many men and horses drowned in the ensuing quagmire.

The battle was to rage for 3 months and casualty toll ran to 325,000 Allied troops and 260,000 German soldiers, or 22 men for every foot of ground traveled before reaching Passchendaele.

The churning up of so much land caused disturbed seeds to bloom in vast numbers following the end of World War I. This was especially true for field poppies, whose seeds can remain dormant for many, many years. Every time I see a field of poppies I think of the poor, brave soldiers from both sides of the war, whose lives were made miserable for a long period and then cut short, usually in terrifying and horrible ways.

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Lest We Forget…
~Richard

Beautiful Britain – Clacton-on-Sea

Nestled on the Tendring peninsula on the east coast of England, and providing seaside entertainment for the masses for over 150 years, the town of Clacton may seem like any other  British seaside town. Clacton came to prominence in 1871 when it was founded by Peter Bruff as a seaside resort, largely for Londoners to escape the city. He built the pier, which still stands today, and steamer was the main method of reaching the town until the road and rail system caught up.

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The heyday of the town was really the middle decades of the twentieth century when there was a Butlins Holiday Camp and many hotels and guest houses to entertain the day trippers and summer holiday makers. Then along came cheap flights to more exotic locations and, like so many British resorts, there was a significant downturn in the economy.

Even in the 21st century the town still has a significant number of visitors and people enjoying the sandy beaches, and going on the rides and other amusements on Peter Bruff’s original pier. When we were kids there were dolphins and orcas kept in the swimming pool on the pier, but thankfully that’s gone now.

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The landscape has also changed a bit with the offshore wind farm on Gunfleet Sands but all in all a pretty standard town that has had its ups and downs…  

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… Or is it?  

Well, there are two things that are also uniquely interesting about this town, so let me explain.

Firstly, Clacton was the site of the first civilian casualties in World War II when Frederick and Dorothy Gill were killed by a Heinkel bomber that crashed into their house on May 1st, 1940. Little is made of this fact, although I clearly recall a plaque on a bench on nearby Skelmersdale Road detailing this tragedy when I was a teenager.

Secondly, although Clacton is primarily known as a typical Victorian seaside town, the area slightly inland at Great Clacton was inhabited by the Celts and there is some evidence of Roman involvement too at the coast. The most amazing fact though is that during the paleolithic period, the area was used for flint mining and tool manufacture. And in 1911 there was uncovered the “Clacton Spear” a wooden yew spear which, at 420,000 years old is the oldest known wooden tool created by man.  It is, in fact, even older than Homo sapiens and was carved by our pre-ancestors Homo erectus.  An entire period of human development, Clactonian, was named after the town and describes the fascinating industry of flint working and tool making.

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By Chemical Engineer (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
I lived in Clacton during my teenage years and was totally unaware of this significant piece of our history. Sometimes it truly amazes me how understated the British people can be. In many other places in the world both these events would have been used to develop another aspect of the town, with museums and themed activities, but not in this corner of Essex.

How Quintessentially British!

~Richard

When does an artwork cease to be original?

I was at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA) yesterday for several hours and as I walked in I saw that three artists/restorers were at work retouching/restoring the huge canvas on the ground floor by Marc Chagall, “A Wheatfield on a Summer’s Afternoon.” Later, as I was looking at the works of Marcel Duchamp I noticed on the wall plaque that this famous “Fountain” was actually a 1950 replica of the 1917 original and that, similarly, his 1919 work “50cc of Paris Air” had been “broken and later restored.”

As I was contemplating these pieces the thought came to me – when does an artwork cease to be original? Using these three examples I can understand that artworks deteriorate and may need to be restored, and I fully see the requirement to “preserve” Chagall’s work by retouching, but at what point does it become the restorers work? The original brushstrokes are not preserved. Are the pigments used exactly the same composition and color as the original – in every stroke?

This concept becomes even more problematic in the case of the Duchamp examples.  

When “50cc of Paris Air” was repaired the glass vial may well look the same (well, sort of – it’s hardly an invisible mend), but was it repaired in Paris, in the same place that Duchamp created it? And even if so, it certainly would not contain the same air from 1919 which was no doubt differently polluted than more modern atmosphere. 

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Finally, in the case of making a replica piece, what are we to make of this? Is it original art or is it not? I assume that as long as Marcel Duchamp was involved in the process then it is still original, albeit derivative, but if not then is it simply a “worthless copy” created by someone else?

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And what of the digital world? Almost all my 2-D art is created electronically and exists in multiple backup copies as binary data stored on my laptop and other drives. Where is the original art in this case?

So, a lot of questions – does anyone have any thoughts on this?

~Richard

 

Vermeer Revisited

Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) was an astounding Dutch painter who specialized in fairly mundane scenes of 17th century domesticity around his home town of Delft.

I don’t know what possessed me really, but I have recently seen his famous painting from 1665, “Girl with a Pearl Earring” so many times that this image has lodged itself in my brain rather in a similar way to a musical earworm. As a result I spent several hours over the last couple of days revisiting this classic work and adding my own interpretations.

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Girl with No Earring
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Girl with a Razor Blade
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Girl in a Space Helmet

~Richard

Ducking and Weaving – a bit of WWII history made modern

After the end of World War II the allied forces were left with a significant number of pieces of equipment that were, thankfully, no longer needed. This “army surplus” established a system which still exists today, as far as I know, at least in the United Kingdom.

One of the more interesting items available was the DUKW amphibious vehicle (aka “Ducks”) that had been used so successfully in the beach landings in Europe. Several of these were purchased by locals in Hunstanton, Norfolk, where they were perfect for fishing and crabbing activities since this area of East Anglia has an extremely shallow shoreline (and correspondingly dangerous fast incoming tide) which extends for about a mile or so before the water gets deep at low tide.

My understanding is that by the early 1960s some locals were offering trips to tourists to go out on the sands and into the sea in a genuine WWII amphibious truck. These original Ducks were certainly running at least until the 1990s when I went on such a trip, although by then they really were starting to show signs of wear and tear due to their age and the corrosive nature of sea water on their hulls.

Now, fast forward a couple of decades to when we were living in San Francisco and I was quite surprised to see them operating as commercial tours. Over the last several years these vehicles seem to be popping up everywhere that has a coastline or riverfront, and indeed, I have been on them not only in California but also Philadelphia.

We were in Boston recently, and alongside refurbished original DUKWs, there now seem to be newer, and probably safer, custom-designed amphibious vehicles available. The “superduck” is an example, and makes an interesting, if ungainly, sight when seen in the harbor.

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Although the links to WWII landing craft will obviously be lost in due time the various Ducks seem to be doing a roaring trade as we move on from this chapter in our history.

~Richard

Arjuna’s Penance – Mahabalipuram

Approximately 60km south of the large city of Chennai (Madras) in Tamil Nadu, is the historic town of Mahabalipuram (Mamallapuram). This was a bustling seaport since the first century and is best known now for the wonderful carved monuments from the 7th century which have earned the area the classification as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

One of the most spectacular carvings is the huge relief known as both Arjuna’s Penance and Descent of the Ganges. Carved over two rocks and occupying an area of 30m length by 15m high, this is a wonderful depiction of the journey of Arjuna in order to obtain Shiva’s weapon (Pasupata) and so allow him to challenge the gods. The detail on the 1400 year old figures is exquisite with many animals and figures, both human and godly, large and small. There is even humor in the carving, with a cat depicted as mimicking Arjuna’s one-legged fasting penance to a crowd of watching mice (look just in front of the elephant).

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Between the two rocks is a cleft filled with snake spirits (Nagas) and down which water was poured to represent the Ganges’ descent from the heavens. This is the second tale that is said to be depicted by this carving.

Whichever story you like, the rock is an amazing and enduring architectural testament to an ancient people. I wonder what will remain of our 21st century artifacts for our descendants to regard with similar awe in the 35th century?

~Richard

 

Lucy the Elephant

Billed variously as “the world’s largest elephant” and optimistically as “the largest zoomorphic architecture in the world” (hmm, if you’ve never heard of the Sphinx, or the Kakadu Crocodile Inn, perhaps?), Lucy the Elephant stands facing the Atlantic Ocean at Margate, New Jersey.

This wonderful old wooden structure, sheathed in tin sheeting, was built in 1881 by James V. Lafferty and used as a tourist novelty and to show the local real estate to prospective buyers for an ever-expanding Atlantic City in the late 19th century.  The six-storey building was originally called the Elephant Bazaar and was topped with a howdah to afford views of the area.  It formed part of a larger complex including Turkish baths as can be seen from this restored PD image, taken in the 1890s:

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The building picked up the name “Lucy the Elephant” in 1902 after it had been sold and was used for many purposes over the following decades.  By 1969 Lucy was in a poor state and was to be demolished, but a group of local enthusiasts banded together and saved the structure, moved her about 100 yards and repaired her  internally as well as providing a new  exterior “skin”.

She was subsequently designated a National Historic Landmark (amazing what difference a few years makes!) and is now maintained by the Save Lucy Committee who look after her every need!

I confess to never having heard of this wonderful piece of eccentric history until a few months ago, and I plan to visit her at some point in the near future and update this post with a few more contemporary images.  Stay tuned!

~Richard

 

Camera Obscura in San Francisco

Just under a decade ago we moved to the west coast of the US and lived near San Francisco. Being new to the area we wanted to see as much of the area as possible and one sunny day, when checking out the ruins of the Sutro Baths and nearby Cliff House, we stumbled across this wonderful camera obscura on the cliff edge:

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This camera obscura (literally “dark room”) uses a mirror in the pointed roof of the building to reflect light down through a lens onto a 6 ft (2m) diameter parabolic horizontal viewing table which gives a more even focus across the surface, magnifying the image 7-fold. What makes this one even more interesting is that the mirror rotates a full circle every 6 minutes giving a full 360° view of the area.

This wonderful building was built in the late 1940s as part of the Playland amusement park and was only placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2001 after several threats of demolition following the closure and redevelopment of Playland in the 1970s.

The images of Seal Rock and the surrounding area were amazing, especially when considering this is such relatively simple technology, first described in the writings of the Chinese philosopher Mozi in the 4th century BCE.

Even the children were impressed back then, and that takes a lot to achieve these days!

~Richard

 

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