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The Nonna and the art gallery – a story

When the Midget and I took the Nonna to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park and showed her one of the galleries, she was amazed. She told us that she’d never before been to such a place. I laughed and didn’t understand. How could anyone get so old but never walk inside an art gallery.

The exhibition was of the artist Joan Miró, whose art is a childlike scribble, colouring between the lines with bold reds and blues. It’s fun art and demands a sense of humour. At first the Nonna, who I believe saw the world as if though a pinhole*, had no idea what she was looking at. There were paintings that people seemed to be staring at quite intently, and sculptures that people congregated around for a moment or two to exchange a gently spoken opinion, but to her that was it.

First, in true Nonna fashion she stated that she was missing whatever skill or knowledge one should possess when looking at art. I smiled and held her arm tight in mine. Then I guided her gently though questions I go through when I look at a piece of art.

When she started suggesting opinions she was hesitant, as if expecting it to be a test in which there was a right and a wrong.

But soon the Nonna’s eyes sparkled. Verbose by nature, the Nonna quickly got the hang of sharing what she thought might be going on in the picture. She was leading the conversation about the art she was seeing. Although a lot of the time the Nonna had a tendency towards the pessimistic, in Miro’s paintings, the Nonna saw sunsets and gardens. A yellow circle here or a green shape there might represent the sun or a tree. She was interpreting the picture in her own way, drawing out her own unique meaning from the art.

And she loved it.


*The Nonna’s many years of diabetes resulted in eyesight that lacked periphery vision. What she saw, she seemed to see well. Most things however, she didn’t see. To compensate she used her walking stick as a method of attack to clear the way of puppies and small children alike.

The Nonna died in the Spring of 2014.



Two days more of painting walls (trees and leopard spots)

I have an arrangement with the Mother. I don’t have to do any washing-up, or drying-up. I don’t have to do any cooking. Instead, what I must do is paint the bathroom in the style of an Ancient Egyptian tomb.

ancient egypt wall paintingThis just goes to show how amazing the Mother is. Of course, most people don’t have the desire to paint walls with ancient tomb designs. Oddly I do, but I wouldn’t have come to that conclusion if it wasn’t that the Mother gave me the space to play.

However, all those trees that you now see on the wall, I didn’t paint them. The Mother did, along with the cooking and the cleaning etc.. I sketched the trees, I’ve sketched all the figures, I’ve worked out how to draw a man chopping down a tree in the same style as a scribe 3500 years ago. I’ve done a lot of work with a ruler and a pencil, but little with an actual paint brush. However, if you look carefully at the edge below the pond you’ll see some narrow black lines. The black paint work – that’s mine.


Between life drawing class on Tuesday, my Zebraphant and the bathroom walls it feels like I’ve barely been without a pencil or paintbrush in my hand. This is definitely an improvement. There’s something magical about being absorbed by a painting. It’s like all the rest of the world is a game and the only things that matter are the lines you’re manipulating there in front of you.

At this point in my writing, the mother ran into the living-room screeching “strawberries”. To set the scene, I’m wearing a tatty old pair of ripped jeans and my faded Credit Suisse t-shirt that I was once given as a freebie as I passed through a corridor on the university campus. I’m sitting on the floor. The sun has suddenly appeared.

Within a minute or two we’re all sitting in the garden sipping champagne and nibbling strawberries.

I do love my family, and all their eccentricities.



A bunny in the bathroom (or should that be a hare?)

We paused to open presents and eat dinner, but work in the bathroom progressed despite Jesus’s birthday or the family visit. I sketched out some of the people who will occupy the walls, whilst the Mother painted in the borders.

The Midget keeps trying to learn to do a French plait, but gives up when her arms start aching. The Short Aunty thought it would be a good idea for the Little Mermaid to also had her hair out of her face (and the paint pots), so I did hers too. The three of us cousins, all with matching hair styles, reminded me of when the Mother used to dress the Midget and I in matching clothes. We must have looked quite amusing.

The Little Mermaid clearly has a share of the creative genes. She quickly got to work painting James the rabbit at the end of the bath.


I drew the outline but all the paintwork is all hers.

I admit, the rabbit isn’t exactly very ancient Egyptian, but for James exceptions can be made. The Egyptians did have hares, at least the art suggests they did.


I took this photo last month in the British museum. The painting is originally from the tomb of Nebamun, an official in the 18th dynasty.

What’s the most random thing you’ve found yourself doing over Christmas and Boxing day?




More tiling, more trauma with mirrors but finally some painting

Day Three (23rd December)

  • The bathroom was occupied by the man doing the tiling. He’s very polite and neat. Unfortunately, since the second toilet isn’t yet plumbed in, I have to ask him to move out every time I need a wee.
  • The mirrors, ordered yesterday, arrived. The Father doesn’t like them, so they’re going back and we’re still mirrorless.
  • The Midget started painting the new walls, and the Father did some plastering.
  • I kept out the way and did some sketching.

Seshat, Ma’at and a bunny

Ma'at and Seshat

Seshat (Goddess of writing and measuring fields) alongside Ma’at (Goddess of truth and justice). The rabbit isn’t very Egyptian, but James can’t be left out. Seshat wears a panther skin, whereas Ma’at has a feather sticking out of her head.

It’s Ma’at’s feather that your heart will be weighed against when you die to determine what will happen to you next.

The winged goddess Isis

Winged Isis

There will be a picture of the goddess Isis over the doorway. Her wings are enormous.

The multicoloured border (drawn by the Mother)

bathroom border in ancient Egyptian style

Around the top of the room is gong to be a border. The ancient Egyptians believed that demons would get into empty space on the walls so they crammed every section full of pictures, often simple repeating patterns. This border style is copied from a number of photos of Egyptian tombs but I’ve no idea whether it has any particular meaning.

P.S. Merry Christmas.



Measuring grids, shopping for mirrors and much waiting

Day 2 (22nd December)

Measuring up the grid

The painters of the original Egyptian tombs used grids to make sure that the figures were correctly proportioned. They stuck to this method so rigidly that it barely changed in thousands of years. The paintings in the pyramid complexes of the Old Kingdom kings was much the same as in the reign of Ramesses fourteen or so dynasties later.

This means, that to make my walls look ‘ancient Egyptian’ I have to follow the same rules. The first step was making sure that I could interpret the hazy guide in Egyptian Painting and Relief by Gay Robins, and draw my own figures on a small-scale.

Egyptian Painting and Relief by Gay Robins

Stood up, an ancient Egyptian is eighteen squares from the ground to their forehead. Working out the size of the grid for the bathroom project has made me long for my calculator.

It’s not as simple as splitting the available space into 18. The father, as Amun-Re, has enormous feathers coming out of his crown. From the ground to the top of his crown is actually 26 blocks. We also need a border, and the border has to fit over the top of the door leaving room for the image of a winged Isis, the wingspan has to be the width of the door…

After some waving of a ruler and the tape measure, I’ve defined the border as 11cm. This means that with a little fudging of the measurements I can have each block as a 5cm by 5cm square. I like 5s. I can do my 5 times table in my head.

Festival goer 18th dynasty ancient egypt

So my largest figures (not including crowns), are going to by just under a metre in height.

Mirrors and paint

To cut a rather tedious story short, we spent 4 hours wandering the dales searching for mirrors to come home and the Father order them online.

On a more positive note, we have paint. The chap at the paint place was a tad perplexed to have to mix nine very different colours. Each needed shaking by hand because the paint shaker only dealt with the bigger pots and we only need a little of each.

paint colours and the goddess Hathor

Now I’m just waiting for the final tiles to be placed and the Midget, as Overseer of Wall Preparation, to get the base coat done.

Clearly, I’m going to spend my Christmas day stood in the bath.


The eradication of the pink flowers

Day one

A Christmas project

Most people look to Christmas as a time to relax. Whilst we’re reunited as a family, the idea of lazing around is far from our minds.

The Mother has the wallpaper steamer in her hands and she’s attacking the bathroom walls with vigour. The ghastly pink flowers are wilting away into a sticky white goo.

pink flowery wallpaper

The Midget is helping too. I’ve designated her the Overseer of Wall Preparation. She wrote down wall measurements as I danced around with the tape measure first thing this morning, and now she’s the Mother’s sidekick with the steamer.

The Father is floating around the house doing some very important work (i.e. the sort he’s paid for).

Meanwhile, I’ve surrounded myself with squared paper, book, computers and pencils. I have a huge roll of lining paper and I’m sketching out plans for grids.

lining paper

Grids, because this is no normal bathroom painting. The theme is ancient Egypt.

And I don’t mean that we’re going to have a small piece of touristy papyrus printed with Tutankhamun or Akhenaten hanging on the wall, I mean the bathroom walls will be completely covered as if they were an ancient Egyptian tomb—early 18th dynasty to be precise.

I don’t know anyone with a mural on their bathroom walls.

It’s not a common choice, in fact I’d say it’s just a little crazy. Wonderful crazy, like painting red polka dot knickers on the kitchen wall, but even more so.

What’s more, it’s wasn’t even my idea. It came straight from the parents.

Designing the walls

I know more than the average person about ancient Egypt, and I know even more about my family. The struggle is how do I draw something that conveys what I love about ancient Egypt, in a way that is meaningful to the family, yet still amuses visitors.

First challenge came with choosing a goddess to represent the Mother.

“But I don’t want a bird on my head!”

“I don’t want to be a cow!”

I went through the list of the better known goddesses of Egypt. The Mother also wanted to be someone who’s partner could represent the Father, so the pairing of Isis and Osiris was straight out the window.

“I don’t want your father to be green!”

Similarly, the Midget had some opinion on exactly which goddess she was going to be.

“I’m not the goddess of death!”

My family are stubborn and fussy, but you would probably be so if you were going to see this painting every time you went in the bath.

If you were to depict yourself as a god or goddess who would you choose?