Monday, 18 September 2017

Come Back to Sorrento

Come Back To Sorrento

We landed in Rome and travelled down Italy to just north of Naples where there is the birth place mozzarella cheese, pizza and the little town of Caserta with its palace built by the king of Naples.  The king's instructions to Vanvittali, his Dutch Architect, were to build a palace that would be bigger and more beautiful that Versailles.  The building has over 1,200 rooms and is a lesson in Italian good taste and style. I have never seen ceiling paintings so full of vibrancy.  I chose to copy this gilded Angel because it has so much to teach me.

From the front of the palace a pond runs for over two kilometres up into a craggy slope, along the way there are interludes for fountains and sculpted fish from whose mouths the water gushes into pools where sleepy carp swim.

Alas our half day visit was much too short to really see everything let alone give me time to make many drawings.

Later in the day we arrived at our villa in Sorrento which was the Ground floor apartment in conspicuously aristocratic house perched on a rock overlooking town.  It was built in 1889. This is a view of the driveway to the back entrance

In the garden we could drink wine in the cool September air whilst looking across the bay of Naples towards Vesuvius and Capri.

Sometimes we were visited by a feral cat with stripes on its legs that asked us for food and slept on Michael's bed.

The first days in Sorrento were cold, wet and windy, but it did not matter because we went on drives along the cliff hugging coast roads to Almalfi.  The rain and mist made the views very beautiful but gave me little opportunity to make many drawings other than this one small sketch of a grotto in a rock crevice high above the mountain clinging town of Positano.

One of the best excursions was to Paestum which is an important archaeological site that boasts three of the best preserved Greek temples in the world, lizards scamper over the ancient stones and there is a scattering of lovely trees across the hundreds of acres of ruin.  There is also an excellent museum that needs hours of attention and an ancient church.  

Towards the end of our stay the days were long and warm and I could walk the streets of Sorrento with my drawing pad.  Tasso Square is the small main square, on one side is a view that looks down the cliffs to the port below (I made this drawing on my last visit in 2015).

On the other side of the square is a statue of Torquaot Tasso

and in the area there are traps with elegant ponies waiting for tourists.

Around the square are several restaurants, Caf├ęs and narrow alleyways full of boutiques selling lemoncello and hand made gifts.

Because the space is so limited the narrow roads get jammed with gridlocked cars through which scooters scuttle too and fro.  Scooter culture is a lot of fun to watch.  I only had time for one drawing

Unsurprisingly I spent more time making sketches of the lovely young women that sit with their boyfriends serenely sipping coffee and eating lemon cakes in the shade of palm trees and umbrella pines, 

and there was the added distraction of so many skimpily dressed teenagers,

which means one hardly notices the old men

For me the town is paradise because I can spend a lot of time in the churches where I can draw carved sculptures of Angels and Madonna's.  The theme of Madonna has always been a favourite subject for me, it has every challenge an artist wants; there are the problems of constructing the dynamic relationship of two bodies in space, expressing their relationship and the ephemeral  beauty of the moment.  Then there is the likeness.

In one church I found a black Madonna adorata  holding a handkerchief because she is weeping after the death of her son

When you start looking you find the Madonnas of Sorrento are very busy, every church have her doing different things.  Here she is blessing a little girl who has a sash with Sorrento written on it.

People come from all over the world to be married in Sorrento.  This Madonna is Julie Burge who came from Liverpool to attend her friends wedding.


It is a common site to find brides doing a tour of Sorrento posing with their new husbands in the doorways of Churches. This is how I met Terry and Emma Harkin who were also from Liverpool, I wondered if perhaps they were Julie Burge's friends.


When the Madonna is standing there is the extra problem of distribution of weight and balance 

This is a sitting German Madonna

The male Madonna is a theme rarely seen in Christian iconography.  This is a pity because the way fathers bond with their children is particularly subtle and beautiful subject, such as Georgia sleeping on her father's shoulders.

Another artistic test are children's faces.  Over the last two years I have put a lot of effort into understanding how they are different from adults faces, this is another drawing of Georgia

and these are studies Adele, a Russian child whose family now live in Milano

On the last day, as I was making my way to draw a Madonna in a church Mami had told me about, I met Angarina a Romanian Gypsy I had given money to the day before, she smiled at me and I could not resist to stop to make some drawings of her. 

Angarina was the most beautiful looking mother I saw in Sorrento

Her child was delighted that I had stopped and together they subjected me to the full force of Gypsy charm and cunning.  Whilst I made my drawings Angarina extracted money out of me with stories of her four starving children, meanwhile her happy child raided my bags for pencils and paper, pole danced round my legs and helped her mother beg of money from passing tourists.    As it was the last day I gave her one of our smart hessian Two Bad Mice bags, her child seemed to adore my gift and I helped them transfer their things from a battered carrier bag but as soon as my back was turned my gift was put in the bin and the plastic carrier bag was retrieved.  I ended up giving them a bone china mug which seemed to be an ideal replacement for the broken plastic cup they had been using to collect money and we parted friends.

Mami's church was preparing for a big society wedding, inside the church a small orchestra were playing music and a opera singer practising Ave Maria.  Instead of drawing the "dead" Madonna Mami had told me about I found myself sitting on the steps drawing the guests as they arrived.

The bride arrived in a black car and slipped into the church to sounds of Vivaldi, I had no time to draw her dress in detail, all I can say is that it was perhaps the most lavishly beautiful I have ever seen.

As I lingered  listening outside to the ethereal music coming from within a guest emerged with his child.

Danilo told me the bride's family came from near Naples, the bride was called Roberta.

My last moments in Sorrento were spent looking through the great church doors and down the nave to where Roberta and her husband were being blessed in front of  a huge cross flanked with six foot high Altar candles, and above it all and gazing down and blessing their future was one of their glorious carved and crowned Madonnas, it seemed a fitting end to my short stay. 

You will probably have noticed from my account that I get to know the people I draw, this is intentional.  On the one hand I always avoid people who pose or ask me to make drawings of them, on the other hand even when my subjects are across a crowded space they always pick up that I am sketching them.  It is very rare that they seem to mind and they mostly come to see what I have done.  I have learnt that it is good to conceal my scruffy disposition and dress up a little, my pink jacket and white hat did not look out of place at Roberta's wedding and the official photographers made me an object of extra interest in their photographs.   I expect one day Roberta will wonder to herself who this strange uninvited guest was, fortunately I have Danilo's email address and I rely on him to explain my unexpected occurrence. 


Caserta :
Paestum :

Villa Castenello

The villa we stayed in has four double bedrooms and costs about £200 per night.  There is so much I still want to do on the Almalfi coast and I am already planning my next trip!

Monday, 28 August 2017

100 Moths and Butterflies in my garden

At the beginning of August I bought a Robinson Moth Trap and re-engaged with a childhood passion for moths.  The traps are the same design as they were in the 1960s; a circular box under powerful 150 watt Mercury vapour light. 

The moths slip down a funnel and settle on egg trays inside the trap. It is estimated that the average British Garden has about 500 species of moths and butterflies, in less than a month I have already built up a list of over 100 species.

On the first night of operation, 2nd August, I caught an Elephant hawk moth.  These huge moths are the colour of Willow-herb flowers

Elephant Hawk-moth

and have caterpillars that look like elephants.


The Hawkmoths are Britain's biggest and most spectacular family of moths, they were made famous by the film Silence of the Lambs which used an image of a Deaths Head Hawk-moth.

The Deaths Head Hawk-moth image : twitter

I have heard that the Death Head moths squeak when handled however they are very rare visitors to Pembrokeshire and you would be very lucky to find one in your garden.  Your garden probably hosts some other spectacular hawkmoths, about a week ago I caught this newly emerged Poplar hawkmoth.  My picture does not show the beautiful red ochre on its underwings that it flashes when disturbed.  Many moths have colourful underwings.

Poplar Hawk-moth
Some indigenous hawkmoth species are not found in the autumn but it is not too late to see the Convolulus Hawk-moths that have been flying in from Europe and North Africa.  Last week specimens were caught in moth traps on Skomer island and at St Ishmaels.  

Convolulus Hawk-moth image: Norfolk Moths
At this time of year it is common to see another immigrant species, the little Hummingbird hawkmoths which are day flying and behave like hummingbirds, hovering from flower to flower sipping nectar as they go.  They love lavender and might almost be mistaken for bumblebees.

Hummingbird hawk-moth (photo Wikipedia)
In Britain we have about 60 species of butterflies and 2,500 species of moths. I have always thought our moths are more beautiful and more interesting than our butterflies, perhaps it is simply that there is a wider choice.    The Ruby Tiger was another moth I caught on my first night, they are as charming as their name suggests

Ruby Tiger; pic UK moths

Tiger moths have furry caterpillars called Woolly Bears, the large flamboyant Garden Tiger Moth is one of our most common tiger moth.  I have not caught one in my trap yet but I know they are here because I have seen their caterpillars.

Garden Tiger Moth

The Victorians did a wonderful job differentiating the species that often look very similar, their task was made harder by the huge variations of wing patterns that often overlap with other species. The early lepidopterists made huge collections of butterflies and moths and some British species of butterflies were wiped out by over-enthusiastic butterfly collectors.  When I was a boy in the 1960s moth collecting was an unusual and solitary hobby, I taught myself to set my moths on boards and keep a collection of the different species, but I was not good at it and I had no contact with other lepidopterists who could have helped me.    It has been a big surprise to discover how the internet has made the hobby modern, social and easy.     Today's books have higher definition pictures and pictures of moths in resting positions as well as with their wings out, today's lepidopterists have a camera out by their traps and keep records of the unusual moths they catch.  If we still cannot identify a species we can ask advice by posting our often bad photographs on twitter and forums, it all happens very smoothly in real time.  A lot of the delight is in sharing our images and reading news of the most beautiful species around.  This mothly beauty comes in so many different forms; for instance take this Blood Vein that was settled on a leaf next to my trap

Blood Vein Timandra comae

The Blood Vein are about the size of a 10p piece and they look as if they are made of delicate translucent lustred paper.

One of my favourite groups are the Carpets, their wings are patterned with very subtle pallets of colours.  This moth, which is small than a Blood Vein, is a Flame Carpet.

Flame Carpet Xanthorhoe briviata

 Another common Carpet are the Small Phoenix

Small Phoenix Ecliptopera silaceata caught at Lampeter Velfrey
Last night I caught a Green Carpet, they are a very common.

Green Carpet pic: Badbury Rings | Dorset Butterflies
The moths just go on getting smaller and smaller.  At school I took no interest in "micros", I had no books and they were too small.  Modern cameras have changed all that, using super-macro auto focus it is possible to capture their extraordinary beauty and architecture in great detail.  This one was under a Centimetre long and looked like Concord.

Agriphila straminella
The Tortrix  are a big family, they usually mimic bird dropping, like this Garden Rose Tortrix

Garden Rose Tortrix Acleris variegana pic:

The micros are harder to identify and have difficult to remember Latin names, this adds an extra level to the challenge.  The lepidoptera blogs are full of conversations between fully committed enthusiasts about these tiny creatures.  The conversations turn on how they hold their wings, food plants, when they were last recorded in the area and their peculiar lifecycles, and there is humour.   This comment appeared on the  Pembrokeshire Moth New Forum: "Argyresthia geodartella....a tiny little beast which spends most of it's life trying to do a headstand."

Argyresthia geodartella

The plumes are amongst the most noticeable and prettiest micros, they have wings like tiny feathers.

White Plume Moth Pterophorus pentadactyla - pic UKmoths
The caterpillars of the White Plume feed on bindweed. My dyslexia and time restraints prevent me from getting too involved with micros.

As you will have noticed the Victorians were very good at naming the moths. The Thorns are orangey with scalloped wings that they hold up like a butterfly, there are Early Thorns, August Thorns, September Thorns, Large Thorns, Purple Thorns, and of course the Canary Shouldered Thorn.  This Thorn is exactly as described

Canary Shouldered Thorn Ennomos alnaria
Another aptly name moth is "the Snout"  

The Snout Hypena proboscidalis pic

Some moths are so soft that they look like pussy cats or kittens, so it is natural that we call them Puss moths and  Kittens.  I caught this Sallow Kitten a few nights ago

Sallow Kitten Furcula furcula Lampeter Velfrey Aug 2017
Colour is important, we call these moths Emeralds

and others get their names from characteristic markings, famously one moth is called "the Setacious Hebrew Character" and another is the Spectacle moth which looks back at us through glasses

Spectacle moth Abrostolata tripartita  pic:
and other moths have marking that remind us of flowers, yesterday I caught a Peach Blossom moth

Peach Blossom Moth Thyatira batis
there is the shape, like this majestic Oak Hook Tip

Oak Hook-tip, Watsonalla binaria
a common visitor is the Pale Prominent which look like a bit of old twig

Pale Prominent Pterostoma palpina pic David Fenwick

Taking an interest in moths is inexpensive and opens our eyes to a wonderful world of creatures that we almost do not notice living in our gardens. It is an interest that stimulates ever deeper interaction with nature, soon we find ourselves looking more closely at the other insects and find a variety of exotic species we hardly ever noticed before, like these harmless scorpion flies that are all over our gardens just now.  

Scorpion Fly  pic

An interest in moths is about science and beauty, it connects with our past and it helps us monitor our environment for future generations, but most of all it is all engrossing, rewarding and spiritually worthwhile.


Pembrokeshire Moth News :

Ceredigian Moths

Glamorgan Moth Group

Entomological Equipment