Deep in the late winter freeze, it's hard to believe that last Friday I and friend Cal were sitting outside warmed by the sun at the Chelsea Physic Garden, where in snowdrop week the excellent, if chaotically run, Tangerine Dream cafe serves up some of the best cakes in London. An hour later, the sun vanished for the weekend.
The lure for galanthophiles is the pretext for the 'psychic garden' opening to the public for a week in February - though of course members can come and go as they please. I hadn't renewed my subscription owing to high dudgeon at what they'd done to the south-eastern corner of the garden: once a glade with winding paths in marked contrast to the formal, educational beds elsewhere, and now a bleak suburban patio to show off medicinal plants. Still, the trees remain and the magnolias are in bud.
As for the snowdrops, there were more clumps in Brompton Cemetery as I cycled through on my way
but you do get a chance at the CPG to see their subtle differences up close in the 'theatre' by the statue of Sir Hans Sloane. This is galanthus plicatus 'Dionysus'
and this 'Trym'.
There's also one unpoetically called 'Grumpy' because it's down at the mouth. On the humorous front, I was taken in at first by this cactus in the little greenhouse abutting the house, though a little suspicious of anything of the sort flourishing in Wales and the Shetland Islands.
Cal laughingly put me right and touch confirmed this was indeed Notacactus.
Our lovely friend Pia Östlund, brilliant graphic designer for the CPG and elsewhere, was offering an all-day workshop on 'the lost art of nature printing'. Simple: you take your leaf or flower, ink it up with a roller between a folded piece of baking paper and then press in on to a folded card so that you get both sides of the leaf/flower in symmetry.
The subtlety of the leaf design comes through in all its glory, and of course it can be very different on each side. Geranium leaves work very well, I thought. Sadly I've lost both my specimens; either I threw them out with the bag in which Pia returned a Bergman DVD with a tiny snowdrop, or they're buried somewhere in this room. But I think it would be a good thing to take up for greeting cards at home.
Pia was inspired by Victorian books which had made use of nature printing, sometimes via more complicated techniques. Here's Pteridium aquilinum in Thomas Moore's 1857 tome on tree ferns, nature-printed by Henry Bradbury.
Back to the time of year. Pancakes were consumed last night, and now Lent begins - as I'm very well aware with my Sunday Bach cantata ritual coming to a temporary halt until Easter*. Last Sunday was Estomihi or Quinquagesima. Its New Testament reading from Luke 18 verses 31-43 finds Christ not only healing the persistent blind beggar in Jericho - represented here by Duccio and an exquisite Rembrandt drawing - but also making the first announcement of his impending passion to the disciples.
'Herr Jesu Christ, wahr' Mensch und Gott', BWV 127 followed directly on the heels of the earth-shaker I chose last week in the Leipzig 1725 calendar. Recorders (I like flauti dolci) soften the floridity around the opening chorale setting, very sensitive to 'endlich starbst' and 'bittre Leidung'. The tenor's fluid recit sets the scene for a total charmer - and a big soprano solo at last (on the Suzuki recording I heard, the estimable Carolyn Sampson). The vocal line of 'Die Seele ruht in Jesu Händen' is complemented by a glorious oboe obbligato and supported by staccato chords from the recorders and pizzicato continuo. In a wonderful moment, the word 'Sterbeglocken' ('bells of death') brings in pizz. strings.
More typical contrast in Bach follows: the bass solo is another of those half-recits which break into arioso. It's the Last Judgment, so sound the trumpet, but only in sporadic animated bursts. It tumbles to earth and signals destruction, but Christ offers comfort. So, of course, does the closing chorale which ends with a sleep of sweet dreams. Here's Herreweghe on YouTube.
*not because I'm observing Lent by not listening to/playing music, but because Leipzig did.