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Milan the Magnificent – from da Vinci to Armani – a virtual guide by Dr Nick Gordon

Milan’s Piazza del Duomo with its iconic buildings

Years ago, when visiting Milan with a friend, on our train journey across the top of Italy to Bergamo, Lake Garda, Sirmione and Venice, we only set aside a brief time to explore Milan’s historic centre visiting its statue-spired, gothic duomo and its chic, 19th-century, double-barrelled-glass-arcaded Galleria Vittorio Emanuele 11, joining Piazza del Duomo and Piazza della Scala. We later sat high in the gods at La Scala, one of the world’s greatest opera houses, to watch Gustavo Dudamel conduct Mozart’s, Don Giovanni.

We sat in the gods of La Scala

We also naively sidled up to the Dominican convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie to see Leonardo da Vinci’s, The Last Supper, only to be admonished for not booking six months prior. No amount of Aussie pleading gave way to a viewing.

But I have recently viewed and have come to understand this revolutionary renaissance artwork through the artistic and academic eyes of Dr Nick Gordon, during his recent limelight-arts-travel online lecture, Magnificent Milan.

Nick detailed the revolutionary aspect of The Last Supper in its ‘treatment of space and communication, the treatment of psychology through gesture amongst the apostles, the treatment of light and reflection, grouping and balance.’  I saw the parts of Leonardo’s masterpiece that created the whole. Adding to the importance of this work, we zoomers to this lecture, saw how close the world had come to losing this masterpiece when the area was bombed during WW11 (the nearby railway yard being the target).

From the screen of Dr Nick Gordon (Robert M. Edsel’s Saving Italy)

There may be Roman columns in the middle of Milan exclaiming its importance as the 4th century capital of the Roman Empire, but as Nick showed, the concentric circles of medieval Milan have rippled outwards leading to innovative art, architecture and the creative reimagining and repurposing of its industrial fringe. It’s a visual timeline where antiquity meets medieval meets renaissance meets baroque meets … it’s where ‘artists, architects and town planners try and create a coherent set of structures.’

Leonardo … painter, scientist, sculptor, musician, engineer and architect was sent as a ‘gift’ to Milan by Lorenzo ‘the Magnificent’ Medici

With the advent of the industrial era, by way of water-driven electricity and iron sources from the Alps, Pirelli soon emerges on the scene, as do Alfa Romeo and the textile company, Prada. Milan became the capital of manufacturing along with the art movement – Futurism, which was to be quashed during WW1.

Among the 20th-century artworks housed in Milan’s Museo del Novecento in Piazza del Duomo, some of its focus is on the anti-Fascist group of artists called Corrente. In 1948 they became the basis of Nuova Fronte (the New Front); its members defending ‘modern’ art when the Nazi campaign against degenerate art was spreading to Italy.

Museo del Novecento – Museum of 20th-century art

Milan hailed in the Swinging Sixties by edging out the fashion capitals of Rome and Florence as Versace and Armani set up their textile companies and fashion houses. In 2009, Milan garnered the title, Fashion Capital of the World.

Now, on Milan’s rippling outskirts, a new CBD is emerging. The early 20th-century locomotive factory with its giant hangars has been repurposed as an art museum called Pirelli HangarBicocca. MUDEC (the Museum of Culture) is a sleek museum also borne from an industrial plant. Armani has its Armani Silos – as Giorgio Armani says, ‘I decided to call it Silos because this building used to store food, which is, of course, essential for life. For me, just as much as food, clothes are also a part of life.’

From the screen of Dr Nick Gordon – the concentric circles of Milan and its artistically-repurposed industrial fringes

Porto Nuova – the old railyard and industrial area has been transformed into Milan’s most futuristic district which, along with other sleek towers, showcases Bosco Verticale (Vertical Forest), two residential towers vertically planted with 800 trees, 5000 shrubs and 1500 perennial plants. How’s that for attracting bird and insects to the city, along with moderating temperatures, stifling noise and dust pollution, let alone creating an aesthetic balm for the soul.

The Bosco Verticale towers with the Library of Trees Park creating a web of paths, fields & forests for the people of Milan

Whether it’s travel of the mind or travel of the being, you may wish to check out limelight-arts-travel for its newsletter, its upcoming lecture series or expert-led cultural trips.

Women Composers and Performers in Renaissance and Baroque Italy – a virtual guide by Kate Bolton-Porciatti

This time in the limelight-arts-travel series I take the sliding door into the world of female musicians. So much of the limelight has gone to male composers over the eons that it’s a delight to slip into the feminine realm. Guided by Kate Bolton-Porciatti, live from Florence, we Zoomers stepped into the medieval cities of Ferrara, Florence and Venice.

Ferrara, in Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region of northern Italy, was a European capital of culture. The female singing group, Concerto delle Donne (consort of women), was founded there. These ultra-talented musicians and singers were given annual salaries, board and lodging. One virtuoso, Laura Peverara, was paid a salary of 300 scudi – as a comparison, a young (not-yet-famous) Caravaggio was paid 1 1/2 scudi for his painting ‘Boy Bitten by a Lizard’ and 8 scudi for his painting, ‘Fortune Teller’.

Tarquinia Molza, the Concerto delle Donne’s coach was a singer, poet, conductor, composer, philosopher, astronomer and mathematician. This extraordinary woman was perhaps the first singer (male or female) to have a published biography of her life. But, after being widowed, a clandestine love affair saw her banished to Modena until the whole business had blown over. So much like Romeo being banished to Mantua after killing Juliet’s cousin Tybalt in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

This virtuosic group came to an end when soprano and lutenist Anna Guarini was murdered by her husband on his suspicion of her adultery.

While on my travels I collect postcards. This is from the Basilica dei Frari in Venice

Beyond the courts were chapels, convents and nun musicians. A musical ensemble of 23 nuns played cornets, trombones, lutes, double harps, violins, viols, bagpipes, recorders and harpsichords. One can only imagine the extraordinary performances, adding in the nun-singers – female tenors and a singular astonishing female bass.

This reminded me of the renaissance novel, Sacred Hearts, by Sarah Dunant. Quote: By the second half of the sixteenth century, the price of wedding dowries had risen so sharply that most noble families could not afford to marry off more than one daughter. The remaining young women were dispatched – for a much lesser price – into convents. It is estimated that in the great towns and city states of Italy, up to half of all noble women became nuns. Not all of them went willingly … the story takes place in the northern Italian city of Ferrara, in 1570 in the Convent of Santa Caterina …

Florence, in the mid 1500s, was home to Maddalena Casulana: composer, lutenist and singer. She was the first female composer to have a whole book of secular music (madrigals) published in the history of western music. This quote below, on one of Kate Bolton-Porciatti’s slides, shows the strength and fortitude of Maddalena.

Meanwhile, Francesca Caccini, wrote some or all of the music for at least 16 staged works. She is widely regarded as the first female to write an opera (although that term wasn’t used at the time). She even wrote music for Michelangelo Buonarroti the Younger (grand nephew of the famous sculptor). She went on to write 16 works for the Medici court.

Venice, la Serenissima, along with its significant trade & cultural attributes, it was also a city of 20,000 voluptuous courtesans who seduced men with their voices like sirens along with their ‘other’ charms. Many became famous for their literary and musical endeavours … Venus turned into a woman of letters.

Women played stringed instruments as wind instruments were regarded as erotic. Having said that, while I was in Lithgow at Ironfest, the largest historical & cultural arts festival to take place yearly in NSW’s Central West, in the Renaissance area of the festival, one damsel was hand-cranking a hurdy-gurdy, a medieval stringed instrument with a similar sound to that of bagpipes. As she played it on her lap she told me it was popular during the Renaissance as it protected women’s modesty. ‘Raising your arms while playing another stringed instrument sent men into a state of lustful frenzy’.

I shall leave you with that thought.

If you are interested in a complimentary lecture in December to shepherd you towards Christmas, book a zoom spot here. 13th December: The Chapel of the Magi in Florence given by Dr Kathleen Olive.



A Resonating Journey through Ancient Theatre – Dr Craig Barker

What does the Sydney Opera House and ancient Roman theatre have in common? Apart from raised seats, a stage … it’s the acoustics.

As part of its recent refurbishment, Sydney Opera House also enhanced the acoustics in the concert hall. Now, the curvature behind the orchestra and stalls is covered by rippled wave-walls of brush box. Hovering above the orchestra are magenta fiberglass sound petals, or reflectors, replacing the floating amber rings or donuts (or toilet seats) that many patrons affectionately called them.

Zooming in on the latest lecture in the limelight-arts-travel series Archaeology of The Ancient Theatre given by classical archaeologist Dr Craig Barker, it was an ‘ah ha’ moment when Dr Barker spoke of the ancient Roman technology of using bronze rings to enhance the acoustics in their vast, open-air, tiered theatres.

Acoustic rings in the Sydney Opera House pre-refurbishment
Post refurbishment – the new sound reflectors
The rippled wall of brush box in the Concert Hall of Sydney Opera House

Whether you’ve been to Pompei, Rome, Athens et al, you’re bound to have been overwhelmed by the archaeology of ancient theatre. During my own travels around the Mediterranean, ancient theatres have always fascinated. To stand on their stages, to climb their vertiginous rows of limestone seating, now often cracked with weeds, and to imagine a time BC when plays were starting up, when whole populations would come to the outer edges of the city to be entertained … it’s pretty special.

While in southern Sicily on the outskirts of Syracuse and while spending hours trawling the Archaeological Park in the ancient suburb of Neapolis it was a sense of time-travel to find, not only the crescent ruins of a Greek theatre cut into the hill, but nearby on the same slope of rocky outcrop, a Roman amphitheatre, albeit weed-wracked, with its rectangular central pit still visible.

Greek Theatre at Syracuse
Roman Amphitheatre at Syracuse

Dr Barker shed light on the differences of the odeon, theatre and amphitheatre. As a child I remember going to the Odeon in Eastwood and rolling my Jaffas down the aisle; little did I understand the name’s connection to the odeons of ancient times.

Another fascinating aspect of ancient Greek theatre was the concept of the Choregia­ – wealthy Athenian citizens who assumed the public duty of financing much of the production not covered by the government. These ‘patrons’ paid for the musicians, costumes, rehearsals, props including the elaborate masks, special effects, scenery, as well as the expenses of the chorus (training, salaries, board and lodging during the lengthy rehearsal periods). Notable figures serving as choregoi included Pericles and Plato. Monuments were built in their honour.

You can see a carved sandstone replica of the Choragic Monument of Lysikrates (Athens 334BC) today in the Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney close to the Farm Cove seawall. It was commissioned in 1870, by the then Premier of NSW – Sir James Martin, whose own statue to celebrate his astonishing life has recently appeared in Martin Place in the city’s CBD.

Choragic Monument of Lysikrates in Athens
Statue of Sir James Martin as a schoolboy (Martin Place, Sydney)

Tragedy. Comedy. Satyr (not Satire). The role of Dionysos. Vases. Terracotta figurines. Wall paintings. Mosaics. It is commendable how much knowledge was shared during Dr Barker’s one-hour lecture that layered the intriguing story of ancient drama. But be warned. Too much wine may take you to the happy place of ecstasy, but it can also be a dangerous place that you may never come back from. And once you don that mask for the stage, your character becomes a hypocrite in its Dionysian spirit of transference.

A slide from Dr Barker’s presentation
Dr Craig Barker explaining the images on the vase
Part of my own collection of Venetian masks including Comedy and Tragedy

Thanks to Dr Craig Barker, Director of the Paphos Theatre Archaeological Project in Cyprus and lecturer and head of public engagement at the University of Sydney’s Chau Chak Wing Museum.

For remaining lectures in the series see: https://www.limelight-arts-travel.com.au/lectures

There’s also a complimentary lecture on Monday 31st October on The Sistine Chapel given by Dr Nick Gordon. You have to register to access it.

A Performer’s Guide to Renaissance Florence as enlightened by Professor Emerita Nerida Newbigin

The second lecture in the limelight-arts-travel series is a time-travel through Nerida Newbigin’s expertise into the Renaissance world of Florence where mystery and miracle plays, and processions, were de rigueur.

One of my first acquaintances with Florence came so many years ago when reading one of my now favourite books, E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View.

Set in England’s Edwardian era in the wake of The Grand Tour, Miss Lucy Honeychurch travels to Florence for cultural enlightenment where she meets the gorgeous, but lower-class George Emerson, who is searching for life’s hope and meaning.

At one point George says, ‘… you are NOT to look at your Baedeker. Give it to me … we shall simply drift.’ And further into their drifting exploration, ‘The well-known world had broken up, and there emerged Florence, a magic city where people thought and did the most extraordinary things.’

Founded in 59BC as a settlement for Julius Caesar’s former soldiers, the city name was Colonia Florentia, meaning flowering colony. How apt was that to become when during the Renaissance creative experimentation was flourishing.

One of my own hand-painted cards bought while in Florence

Even after my own explorations of Florence and the nearby hill town of Fiesole, where during the Renaissance, Leonardo da Vinci used its slopes as a launching pad for his flying machines, I was enriched by the layering of Nerida Newbigin’s lecture.

Florence at the time was the city of creatives: the Medici family, Petrarch, Giotto, Dante, da Vinci, Brunelleschi and Machiavelli et al. It was the centre of drama where performance spaces included barges on the river Arno, churches, piazzas and cloisters.

Nerida Newbigin enlightening us about Machiavelli

Public and private performances were everywhere. Many of the paintings and frescoes seen today reflect these experiences.

Florence was the epicentre of the Renaissance: the blossoming of the arts, humanism, technology and scientific discoveries. All of which melded into the performance space.

Weddings were celebrated with liveried musicians where trumpeters were hired or poached from visiting princes. Professional poets – canterini – accompanying themselves on violas would sing of saints and battles.

Feast days (like today in Italy) were scenes of great entertainment for the people. Churches had extensive ‘stage’ equipment built into their domes where Christ or the Virgin Mary would ascend into the heavens. Children from the orphanages dressed as angels and boy sopranos were given red stockings as payment for singing.  They can be seen in many of the church’s paintings.

From Nerida Newbigin’s slide show showing the hoist used for the Feast of the Annunciation

Haloes on the performers were packed with gunpowder – a dove was attached to a line with a light that would fly along the row of halos igniting them to represent the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit. What a spectacle! That is until a fire in Santo Spirito burnt it to the ground.

It was a time of processions and horse racing and betting as part of the celebrations, as were processions of drummers and flag throwers – much like I saw recently in Siena.

Flag throwers and drummers in Siena

Art and pageantry evolved into performing troupes travelling from city to city in the form of the Commedia dell’arte.

My own collected postcards of Commedia dell’arte performers

This and so much more was gleaned through Nerida Newbigin’s extensive and richly-sourced lecture; a renaissance of its own in offering an awakening to those on the other side of the zoom screen.

And to once again look at Florence through the eyes of George Emerson in A Room with a View … ‘Italy … it gave her light, and – which he held more precious – it gave her shadow.’

  • This was the 2nd in the visual and performing arts lecture series with Limelight Arts Travel. You can subscribe to any within the series. Look out for archaeology; women composers and utopias.
  • https://www.limelight-arts-travel.com.au/lectures

Japan’s Renaissance: the Heian Period, as enlightened by Dr Kathleen Olive

What a cultural gift to have been given the opportunity to take part in limelight-arts-travel‘s online lecture series. The first of my chosen chats is one that delves into the cultural renaissance of Japan; a world away from the western-imagined Dark Ages that shadowed Europe at the time.

Cleansing ritual before entering the Sacred Forest of Kashima Jingu
Cleansing ritual before entering the Sacred Forest of Kashima Jingu

Haiku began in 13th century Japan reaching its peak in the 17th century. When I visited Japan, I found myself in the sacred forest of Kashima Jingu: 70 hectares of forests, ponds, shrines and a deer park with the deer’s lineage dating back to the ancient divine messengers of Nara.

While immersing myself in the balm of the forest (forest bathing), I wandered along a path studded with wooden posts engraved with haiku. Matsuo Basho, the master of Haiku, the (generally) 17-syllable poems that evoke the imagery of nature, was born into a samurai family. He visited this area in 1687. His poetry punctuates the forest.

My guide, Maeno, interprets the haiku for me: on the withered branch; crow crouching there; dusk in autumn
My guide, Maeno, interprets the haiku for me: on the withered branch; crow crouching there; dusk in autumn

As I discovered more of cultural Japan; the distinctive architecture of temples, pagodas and shrines, the function of writing, poetry, painting, fans and screens, Shintoism and Buddhism, all these concepts fell into place as I was immersed in Dr Kathleen Olive’s lecture on Japan’s Heian period of the 8th-12th centuries. While much of Europe was cast under our western idea of The Dark Ages, Japan was in its Renaissance where ideas in art, architecture, literature and ritual led to a new and unique Japanese culture.

The Heian Period of refinement did not include 80% of the population who were subsistence farmers. It was a movement that specifically indulged the elite – the bureaucrats and aristocrats. At the time, much cultural knowledge came from trading with China and the kingdoms of Korea.

Japan’s first official capital was Nara (southwest of Tokyo) with its Imperial Court. When the emperor gave permission to his court to experiment with Buddhism (a diplomatic gift from the ancient kingdoms of Korea), it wasn’t long before the emperor felt his power being challenged. Nara was deemed to be cursed and a new capital was sought.

The aristocratic architecture of Byōdō-in designed with its upturned eaves to look like a phoenix landing on water
The aristocratic architecture of Byōdō-in designed with its upturned eaves to look like a phoenix landing on water

Using Four Gods Topography – Geomancy – the site needed a river on the east, a highway on the west, dragon mountains to the north (as the physical threat of war would come from here) and lowlands to the south. A poetry competition was held to decide the name of the new city. Peace and Tranquillity won = Heian-kyō (Kyoto). This gave its name to the entire Heian Period of cultural renaissance in Japan, where the movement was not to look to China or the kingdoms of Korea, but to look within.

Dr Kathleen Olive explains the makings of the lacquer & gilded cosmetic box
Dr Kathleen Olive describes the makings of this maki-e lacquered, gilded and mother-of-pearl cosmetic box used by men and women

And so began the great development of new ideas in art, architecture, literature and ritual (including the multilayered & seasonally coloured kimono) that led to a new and ultimately unique Japanese culture – before the rise of the samurai class and before the settlement of Edo – Tokyo.

A kimono representing the 72 micro seasons

Dr Kathleen Olive in her talk along with her visuals, draws you in to this enigmatic era of change with her extensive love and knowledge of classical Japan.

  • This is the first in the visual and performing arts lecture series with Limelight Arts Travel. You can subscribe to any within the series.
  • https://www.limelight-arts-travel.com.au/lectures

Enchanting Samarkand … Uzbekistan

I was recently given the opportunity by Renaissance Tours to take part in their Armchair Travel series in conjunction with the Art Gallery of NSW. There were many enchanting cities from which I could choose to armchair travel: Marrakesh, Chicago, Varanasi, Venice. I chose a city that has long fascinated me – Samarkand in Uzbekistan.

By the screen of my computer and the comfort of my armchair, I was taken on a one-hour exploration & expedition to Samarkand by archaeologist, Iain Shearer, who has led numerous lecture tours to enchanting places. Since Covid has called time on physical tours for the near future, the virtual tour offers much to whet the appetite for future adventures.

Samarkand, on the Silk Road, the ancient trade route linking China to the Mediterranean, dominated Central Asia for millennia with its mosques and mausoleums.

Run your finger across a map from Central Asia’s Black Sea, Caspian Sea and Aral Sea and move slightly south. Samarkand lies a touch north of the Hindu Kush and is landlocked in the foothills of the geologically-striking Fann Mountains.

Timur was the last, great nomadic conqueror of the Eurasian Steppe conquering more than anyone else except for Alexander the Great.

This was the domain of the brutal & ingenious warlord, Timur, the 14th century Turco-Mongol military leader who conquered most of the Muslim world, central Asia and parts of India. His armies murdered tens of thousands during their campaigns. Timur was a man of many appetites with his 43 legitimate wives and concubines. His empire rivalled the size and power of the Mongolian domain forged by Genghis Khan a century earlier.

As Iain Shearer spoke of the Timurid Dynasty and Genghis Khan and showed us murals of Timur feasting in his pleasure garden, I thought of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem, Kubla Khan, said to be written after waking from an opium-influenced dream. The speaker envisions the landscape surrounding the Mongol ruler’s summer palace called Xanadu, describing its beauty, pleasure and violence. Samarkand’s landscape runs similarly:

” … through wood and dale the sacred river ran, then reached the caverns measureless to man, and sank to a lifeless ocean; It was a miracle of rare device, a sunny pleasure dome with caves of ice! That sunny dome! Those caves of ice! And all who heard should see them there and all should cry, Beware! Beware! His flashing eyes, his floating hair! Weave a circle round him thrice, and close your eyes with holy dread for he on honey-dew hath fed, and drunk the milk of Paradise.” Extract from Kubla Khan

Timur feasting in the garden at Samarkand

The earthquake-prone Samarkand is a city of coups, concubines, magnificent mausoleums, mulberry tree-lined streets, the semi-precious gemstone, Lapis Lazuli (the prized cobalt metamorphic rock meaning sky stone) and balloon-domed mosques with their papier-mâché inner domes of blue and gold.

On a journey to Damascus, Timur was lowered down the city walls in a basket – he did a deal there and then sacked the city, taking all the treasures and craftsmen back to Samarkand. He then built a small village called Damascus in the parklands surrounding the city.

Gur-e Amir: Timur’s resting place – ‘minaret’ comes from the Arabian ‘manara’ – a place of fire, lighthouse. Many minarets were crowned by wooden lanterns.

Ulugh Beg (the astronomer king) was the grandson of the great Timur. As well as his interest in the Arts, he was an astronomer and mathematician. Taken by his grandfather to an observatory in Iran, he was taught by the great astronomers of the age. Later he built a magnificent observatory in Samarkand between 1424 and 1429. Ulugh Beg dedicated much of his private life to expanding the work of Ptolemy in creating a star map of the sky. His observatory was considered one of the world’s finest. Inside were 50 rooms and four lecture halls. He gave scholarships to children and offered free education for girls. He transformed Samarkand into a cultural centre of learning. His free thinking as well as his lack of governance skills saw him murdered by his own son. His head was sent back to the city and his observatory was destroyed by fanatics, but his star map was secreted to Constantinople where it was published in Latin and hence published across the Islamic world.

Part of Ulugh Beg’s observatory
Ulugh Beg Medressah on Registan Square – notice the unusual tiled constellations on the facade (pishtaq)

Bibi Khanum is another fascinating figure of the time. As one of Timur’s wives (and a maternal and paternal descendant of Genghis Khan), she was a skilled politician. She dined with men and provided excellent advice. Timur built a magnificent mosque in her honour. He brought in architects from Iran and India (he sacked Delhi in 1398) and used 95 elephants to haul construction material. As had become typical of Timur’s buildings, there was the abundant use of tile work on the exterior surfaces. Ravaged by earthquakes and time, it was restored by the Soviets in the mid 20th century.

Fluted dome of the restored Bibi Khanum Mosque

This is only the essence of Iain Shearer’s commentary and virtual tour of Samarkand, but it has primed my interest in the hope that one day I will be able to wander the streets of Samarkand and experience its historical wonder and enchantment.

Art * Opera * Music * Gardens * Gourmet. Cultural and Special Interest Tours visit: renaissancetours.com.au

Through the Wardrobe: CS Lewis (1898 – 1963)

C. S. Lewis Biography - Childhood, Life Achievements & Timeline

I first met C. S. Lewis in primary school. I wasn’t in the habit of stealing, but I kept forgetting to return my blue-clothed copy of The Silver Chair. The librarian must have given up ever seeing it again, perhaps thinking there was magic happening when a child loved a book so much to spirit it away. 

Born in Belfast, Ireland, on the 29th November 1898, and christened Clive Staples Lewis, it didn’t take long for the toddler to announce that his name was Jack. Growing up with his older brother, Warren, their view of the Belfast Lough and its ringing green hills and blue ridges formed Lewis’ passion for landscape, played out in his famous series, The Chronicles of Narnia. With Belfast overcrowded and sewerage-challenged, and with outbreaks of disease, the boys were often kept indoors. “This recurring imprisonment,” according to Warren, “gave us occasion and stimulus to develop the habit of creative imagination.”

Their mother, Flora, did not read them bedtime stories, but their nurserymaid did, and they were filled with the magic of Irish mythology. Flora died when Lewis was 10. He was sent to boarding school: it was here that he lost his childhood Christian faith.

During WW1, on his 19th birthday, Lewis was sent to the Somme. He was wounded in the Battle of Arras and sent home. He graduated from Oxford University and was elected a Fellow of Magdalen College where he served as an English Literature tutor for 29 years. 

Within the arcaded porticos of Oxford University, and within the room labelled MR. C.S. LEWIS, his best friend Tollers, a lecturer in Old English, joined him for pipe- smoking and conversation. Tollers (J. R. R. Tolkien) and Lewis formed The Inklings: a literary discussion group. Although Christian values were reflected in their writing, there were atheists and occultists among the members. They met weekly, much like our writers’ groups today, drinking tea and generating a creative energy that resulted in some of the greatest literary works written.

Lewis re-embraced Christianity and became a popular broadcaster sustaining morale during WW2. Publication of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, came in 1950. Ironically, Tolkien found Lewis’ series intolerable with its random mix of mythologies.

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe: Collector's Edition : C. S. Lewis :  9780064409421

In 1954, Lewis was elected to the Chair of Medieval and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge University. In 1956, he published the seventh and final novel in the Narnia series, The Last Battle (which received the Carnegie Medal). The same year he married poet, Joy Gresham. Jack lost his own battle in 1963. The poignant film, Shadowlands, depicts this last part of his life.

Having sold over 100 million copies in 47 languages, Lewis gave most of his royalties to the poor. Living simply, he detested displays of wealth.

And now, as I brush past the coats in my wardrobe, I yearn to feel the crunch of snow beneath my feet and find myself in Narnia. But if I can’t, I can heed Lewis’ wisdom: “You can make anything by writing.”

This post first appeared in the Book Creator section of Buzz Words, an e-zine for writers, illustrators & all interested in children’s and YA books. Compiled and edited by Di Bates.

Australia: Nutcote – gumnut babies, banksia men & the prodigious May Gibbs

gumnut babies galore

gumnut babies galore

As a child, I spent many hours with my friends having adventures in the bush behind our houses in Sydney’s north. I was fascinated by the perfectly formed gumnuts that were scattered amongst the leaf litter. Little wonder May Gibbs found them fascinating too. They were perfect for tiny fingers to collect and perfect for the fingers of an illustrator and writer who would, in the early part of the 20th century, create the fantasy lands of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie, and Bib and Bub.

a familiar collection for so many

a familiar collection for so many

My Day with May began with a group of like-minded writers, illustrators, librarians and teachers, from the Children’s Book Council (CBCA). We met in the gift shop that was once the garage of May’s home, Nutcote, on Neutral Bay’s foreshore, overlooking the magnificence of Sydney Harbour.

May's home from 1925 until her death in 1969 - designed by architect BJ Waterhouse

May’s home from 1925 until her death in 1969 – designed by architect BJ Waterhouse

CBCA Nutcoters

CBCA Nutcoters

May was born in England in 1877, and when she was four, she sailed with her family to Australia. May grew up in Perth where she attended Amy Best’s School for Young Ladies. It was here that she came under the spell of our magical landscape and bush. Her first illustration was published when she was 12 and May went on to become Australia’s first resident professional woman cartoonist and caricaturist. She also promoted the cause of Women’s Suffrage through feminist cartoons. When May was drawing her Bib and Bub comic strips (drawing one strip a week for over 40 years) she was paid 5 guineas a strip while Jimmy Bancks was getting 40 pounds for Ginger Meggs!

banksia trees; the larger one on the right is 150 years old

banksia trees in May’s garden; the larger one on the right is 150 years old

Who wasn’t terrified of the villainous Big Bad Banksia Men! I know I was every time I brushed by one of the whiskery bushes jiggling their prickly, shaggy banksias with their poddy, slitty eyes that appeared to follow you. May Gibbs had a brilliant mind and a wild imagination. She hooked the kids into her stories and made them squirm and delight, all at the same time.

such a bad, bad banksia man!

such a bad, bad banksia man!

May’s house is an exploration of enchantment. Each room was designed to capture the harbour view and her studio at the rear of the house is light-filled and filled with her loves: her original travelling easel, typewriter, portraits of her parents and of course the tools of an artist.

There are other artefacts such as the original ice chest (the ice was shipped from Canada), and in the tiny kitchen – the Early Kooka, Mrs Beeton’s Cookery Book and boxes of Reckitts Instant Starch and Velvet Soap. May was one of our earliest entrepreneurs – she designed tea towels, spoons, slippers, calendars, vases and even fabrics that were sold in London – all featuring her Australian flora and fauna designs. Several of these items are displayed in a glass cabinet. May was a lover of picnics and went on many adventures with her husband. Her beloved Scottie dogs travelled with them in a wicker basket attached to the side of her Dodge.

Next year we celebrate the centenary of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie. If you get the chance, take a visit to iconic Nutcote @ 5 Wallaringa Ave, Neutral Bay (Sydney) and walk in the steps of the gifted and amazingly diverse illustrator, artist and children’s book author – Celia May Gibbs.





Australia: Possum Circus

One night as I lay in bed trying to get to sleep, the possums on my roof were making such a din that I yelled at my ceiling … What’s going on up there? Are you in training for the circus? … and then the idea struck for a poem that I quickly scribbled into the notebook beside my bed.


And here it is (after lots of fiddling for rhythm and rhyme), illustrated by Gabriel Evans, in The School Magazine, for you to commiserate with during those noisy, sleepless nights … Possum Circus.

Please click on the link.

I’d love to hear your possum stories.

And … the possums are still performing on my roof – I think they’re now training for the Possum Olympics!

Possum Circus

Australia: art through the eyes of children


an artful gallery

The members of the Northern Sydney sub-branch of the Children’s Book Council (CBCA) were in for a treat when they gathered on Saturday morning (19h March) in the imposing foyer of the Art Gallery of NSW.

Approaching its glowing sandstone exterior flanked by mock columns and scribed by the names of the greats of Western art, such as: Giotto, Rembrandt, Raphael and Leonardo da Vinci, and framed by the parklands of the Domain and Woolloomooloo Bay, this edifice to art commands your full attention.

And it was full attention and imagination needed when we started our Storytelling through Art tour with our vice-president and multi-hatted, multi-talented, Lindy Batchelor. Lindy is a volunteer children’s guide at the gallery, and as writers, librarians and illustrators, we were to become the children on the tour.

a sobering truth

a sobering truth

We started in the oldest wing delighting in the colours and images. At John Glover’s 1838 Natives on the Ouse River, Van Diemen’s Land, we looked at backgrounds, middle grounds and foregrounds; we reenacted the action – fishing, swimming and cooking. Then Lindy showed us a map and told us that many in the painting were the last Tasmanian aboriginals before they were rounded up and taken to Flinders Island.

so much to tell

so much to tell

As we gathered at our next painting, David Davies’ From a Distant Land (1889), Lindy handed out tokens: a letter, candle, a woman’s photo, shoe polish. We each had to tell the story of the painting. As the postman rode away, what was happening in the hut? ‘Look into the shadows; look at his shoes,’ Lindy urged. Relating to the kids on her regular tours, she said it was great, ‘because it teaches the kids to interact; to trust their eyes; to tell their own story.’

Lindy's bag of tricks that she carries

Lindy’s bag of interactive tricks

After looking around the 3-D of sculptures, and discovering unimagined treasures that the sculptor had hidden, we came to another interactive part of our children’s tour. We stood in front of Thomas Cooper Gotch’s 1891 My Crown and Sceptre. Lindy knows exactly how to capture the imagination of children as she seats one of our group, Alicia, on a seat in front of the painting. It is the story of Phyllis (Gotch’s daughter) celebrating the Queen of the May. As we decided what Alicia needed, Lindy dressed her until she transformed into Phyllis. Alicia declared, ‘I feel royal and want to be painted!’

Alicia or Phyllis?

Alicia or Phyllis?

We reenacted Sir Frederic Leighton’s white marble statue, An Athlete Wrestling with a Python, and listened to the sounds in paintings: ‘What can you hear?’ Lindy kept urging us on. We looked at shadows cast by reimagined eucalyptus poles and pondered over the spiritual metaphor of such.

At Grace Cossington Smith’s 1928, The curve of the bridge, Lindy brought out a handful of brushes for us to contemplate how the artist would have used them.

a brush with the bridge

a brush with the bridge

We looked at the traditional carvings and paintings on the Pukumani grave posts from the Tiwi Islands, and at John Olsen’s 1963 Five Bells, Lindy urged us to ‘take your line for a walk and see where it takes you,’ before she produced a swatch of blue colours for us to try and connect with the painting.

the Pukumani ceremony is unique to Tiwi - a final goodbye

the Pukumani ceremony is unique to Tiwi – a final goodbye

A final walk through the John Kaldor contemporary gallery found us wondering over reimaginings: the playful and dynamic ways modern artists have used colour. Lindy gave us each a coloured pipe cleaner and we had to twist and weave it to create one of the 87 tin sculptures in Robert Klippel’s display. ‘It makes you look more closely,’ says Lindy.


wire imaginings

At the end of our Storytelling through Art tour we were thinking how lucky children are today who can have this much interaction and fun with so many treasures in such a magnificent building and with such an expert. If you would like to see what’s on offer for your child or school group, see: http://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/discover-art/gallery-kids/

grown-up kids of the CBCA - Art through Storytelling - what a happy group

grown-up kids of the CBCA – Art through Storytelling – what a happy group