Season of the Quince

Quinces on a Plate (A5 ink and coloured pencil on Stillman & Birn Gamma paper sample 2018)

This year I didn’t have to drive around the country lanes of Suffolk looking for unwanted quinces, left at garden gates with a sign saying “Help yourself.” This year my own tree – encouraged by the hot summer – had its own bumper crop.

I’ve no idea what it is about them that I find so alluring. Perhaps it’s their irregular shape: sometimes bulbous and knobbly, sometimes like tight yellow apples, sometimes golden pears. It could be their range of colour, from orangey-gold to clear, bright cadmium yellow through pale greens, their bruises turning from a rich reddish-brown to the darkness of old varnished oak.

There is also a certain mystery about the noble quince. Is it ripe yet? Wait for the distinctive scent and the pure yellow colour, my neighbours said. But they rot from the inside out: cut open a fruit that looks perfect on the outside and the flesh is already turning brown.

And that scent: so long absent, then suddenly there. The downy skin and the gentle perfume, like the touch and scent of a baby’s head. It smells, too, of the sun and the south, of shady gardens in places where you’d like to be – far away from your computer and your workload and your deadlines. The scent, in short, of contentment, of joy, of delight.

This year I decided not to risk making my own jelly or marmalade, which always results in several jars of quince syrup. Instead a much more competent friend agreed to make it on my behalf. The first results of this arrangement have been jars of golden jelly, fragrant as the fruit itself, looking like a fairy tale gift when held up to the light.

Do I exaggerate the wonders of quince? I think not. It’s very possible I was put under some spell that holds me in thrall to their beauty, that I’ll admit. I never tire of drawing and painting them, as long-standing readers of this blog will know. I bet that breakfast in Heaven is quince marmalade on Pump Street Bakery sourdough bread, lightly toasted.

Lunch will be Rebecca Charles’ lobster roll.

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Quince, essential

Rotting Quince (A5 ink and coloured pencils) 2017

When an apple is past its best it becomes a weirdly wrinkled thing. A pear ages particularly badly, appearing to be whole but beneath that perfect skin lurks a mushy interior. Grapes shrivel, pomegranates go brown and foul-smelling when cut open, mangoes turn into ochre bruises.

Quinces, however, are altogether different. They rot dramatically, their agony written across their flesh like a medieval martyr. Sometimes they split and the edges turn inwards as they discolour, producing a dark blue chasm that reaches down to the heart of the fruit. There is a faint smell of early morning in Spain around your fruit bowl as the dying quince starts to decompose. That beautiful yellow skin acquires brown spots, the base seems to turn inwards and produce bulbous curves like babies’ fists.

Those of you who have followed this blog for a while will know of my adoration of the quince. This fine example – the only fruit from a tree in my ex-wife’s garden – was irresistable. Wearing its fatal wound nobly it nevertheless tried to last the season, ripening in the south German sunshine. I wanted to commemorate its will to survive.

I’m still out there trying to move my art practice on to a different path: my heart wants to explore but my hand wants to draw and paint like it has for the past few years. This drawing is a good example: I had intended it to be a semi-abstract acrylic, it came out as an ink and coloured pencil illustration.

Then again, any representation of this wonderful fruit is worth your time. At least, that’s my view.

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Listening to Felix Scheinberger

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Cherries I (Grazalema) (A5 sketchbook page, ink and watercolour, 2016)

In painting terms, it didn’t go as smoothly as planned on our Andalusian holiday. Although I have Felix Scheinberger’s book on watercolour to hand where he warns specifically against it, I was too focussed on the ‘finished’ picture instead of what he eloquently calls enjoying the 100 small steps on the way.

Then one day the owner of the cottage where we were staying (near Grazalema) left us a plate of fresh cherries. Their various shades of red – from deepest blood to an almost yellowy orange – begged to be painted, not in any mimsy, nineteenth century Sunday afternoon sort of way, but boldly and loosely, enjoying some of the 100 small steps.

So here are two, painted in the shade of an Andalusian summer’s day, noting once again that it just needs some small inspiration – a gift of cherries – and hearing what the masters have to say.

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Cherries II (Grazalema) (A5 sketchbook page, ink and watercolour, 2016)

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Martha and me

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Martha’s Peppermint Fudge (17 x 24 cms ink and watercolour on Hahnemuehle “Burgund” watercolour board 2015)

I used to have a soft spot for Martha Stewart. Her flagship magazine, Living, featured those clean-lined American homes which you don’t see elsewhere, recipes for food you’d actually like to eat, and beautiful photography that made works of art out of the simplest things. Martha even showed us how to cook a Thanksgiving meal for twenty and still have enough time and energy left to fashion place-names out of origami swans.

Then I made the mistake of following her on Facebook. Suddenly I was bombarded with Martha five or six times a day: urged to buy Martha’s Christmas tree decorations, Martha’s baking essentials, Martha’s home office supplies; Martha wanted us to choose which profile picture to use (good grief, Martha, it’s your page, you decide); Martha wanted us to ‘show our laundry room a little love’ (we don’t have one, Martha, could we just be mildly affectionate towards the shed?).

Suddenly it was over. My admiration was suffocated under a deluge of consumerism. I ‘un-liked’ her Facebook page and listened to the silence.

For old times’ sake I still pick up a copy of Living when I’m at an American airport. The photography is still impressive. These triple-chocolate peppermint fudge squares were painted from a photograph in the latest issue: they look almost abstract, or like pieces in some contemplative Zen board game. It’s a homage to an old flame.