Milan, 12 April 2020, Easter Sunday

Well, I’m on a roll here! Having plumped for internal beauty rather than – the currently forbidden – external beauty, I’m ready for another post.

Today being Easter Sunday, my previous post on egg cups would have been a good topic. But since I have already done that, I will turn to my other little collection, on couples.  It is a celebration of my wife and me, of our coupledom (if that is a word), so I suppose it is a good topic for today, a day when – at least in this part of the world – families would normally get together and celebrate.

I started the collection with this piece, which I picked up in Singapore. I was there to lead an environmental audit of a microelectronics factory.

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It’s carved in wood. Apart from its flowing lines, I rather liked his hand (perhaps this is patriarchal of me, but I feel that He is looking down at Her) cradling her head.

I got this next piece, also carved in wood, in one of the Alpine valleys behind Milan. I and a couple of colleagues were doing a job up there on a factory that had been closed down; we were doing an evaluation of what residual environmental problems there might be.

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A hint of sadness, perhaps, in this couple? Or just quietness together? I’ve never been able to make up my mind.

I’m not quite sure where I got the next piece, made of ceramic and painted. Since it’s a knock-off of Botero and he’s Colombian, I rather suspect it was in Colombia’s capital Bogotá where I went once for a conference (for the life of me, I cannot remember what the conference was about; the only thing I do remember about the trip – etched into my memory for ever more – was having my travel bag stolen just hours before I was meant to leave: the joys of business travel…).

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I know a lot of people like Botero, but to be honest I find him rather dull. He stumbled on this idea of painting fat people decades ago and that’s all he’s done ever since. It really gets a little tedious after a bit. But what’s there not to like about this happy couple?

I must have picked up this next piece, also painted ceramic, somewhere else in Latin America. I rather suspect it was in Central America. There was a moment when I was going there quite frequently since I was managing projects to establish Cleaner Production Centres in Costa Rica, El Salvador and Guatemala.

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Judging from the couple’s ethnicity, I suspect it was El Salvador or Guatemala. A little-known fact about Costa Rica is the thorough ethnic cleansing that country undertook in the 19th Century.

I know exactly where I bought this next piece. It was in Cambridge (the English Cambridge, not the American one). I had taken my son there for an interview, and while he was interviewing I was wandering around the town centre. When I saw this piece, my brain said “it must be mine!” The craze that comes over collectors …

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The piece, by the artist Lynn Muir, is made of wood and painted. It celebrates a song that came out in the 1930s or ’40s (I haven’t been able to pin this down). The tune was derived from one of Tchaikovsky’s piano concertos. I throw in the song’s lyrics since they explain the piece.

And when we meet, music starts
Upon the strings of our hearts,
And we don’t speak through the song,
For words are weak when love is strong.
And when we kiss there’s a sound of violins all around
And then the moment when we kiss again
Our song becomes a thrilling concerto for two,
For me and you.
And when we kiss,
There’s a sound like violins all around,
And then the moment when we kiss again
Our song becomes a thrilling concerto for two,
For me and you.

I just love the way her hair flows out behind her as she listens to his song! Formally, the piece is a box, but we’ve never used it to contain anything. All I have in there is a sheet of paper, giving a quick bio of Lynn Muir.

I’m not sure where the next piece comes from, or even if I bought it – I rather suspect our daughter did.

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Its design harks back to the first piece – one head holding up another. It’s carved in stone, soapstone I think. Unfortunately, the stone is quite soft and the piece has got chipped over the years. But that doesn’t take away from the piece’s intimacy.

The final piece in this modest collection definitely comes from our daughter. There was a moment when she was charmed by this little collection and wanted to add to it. I hope she is still charmed by expressions of a couple’s love.

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Like the previous piece, it is carved in stone. Unlike all the other pieces, it is she who supports him – he grows out of her, as it were, the opposite of the old Biblical story that Eve was created out of a rib in Adam’s side. A sign of the times perhaps?

With that, I wish all of my readers a happy Easter – or to  put it in slightly less religious terms, a happy start to Spring!


Milan, 10 April 2020

I cannot believe it! We’ve been condemned to another three weeks of lockdown!! We are now scheduled to creep out of this apartment – pale from lack of sun, low on muscle mass, masked, jittery around other people – on 3 May. What a misery … I feel that I have been robbed of my Spring this year.

The worst of it is that I have written so little on this blog. I have been cut off from the outside world, which has nearly always been the source of my inspiration. (It’s true that I’ve also been sick; we’ve been debating ever since what I got: Covid-19 or just an ordinary flu? I was very asymptomatic – no fever, no cough – so I plump for the latter, but we will have to wait for a confirmatory test some time in the future when there are enough tests to go around). For the last three weeks, we have been forced to turn inwards, wandering from room to room in the apartment. This photo, which was emailed to me by an old colleague and is no doubt doing the rounds on social media, captures the feeling well.
Well, I’ve finally decided to make the best of a bad job. If I can’t go outside, I shall look for inspiration for this blog in our apartment, and more specifically in all the knick-knacks which my wife and I have collected over our years together, as well as those which we inherited from my mother-in-law, a great collector of knick-knacks. I will start with our little collection of … egg cups.

I start with this trio of egg cups.

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These were bought by my mother-in-law, who had a great eye for the picturesque knick-knack. I find them really cute, especially the middle one, with its blue and white striped socks.  It’s my favourite egg cup for my boiled egg at breakfast. We didn’t really know much about them until that time we went to visit my friend Mark in the UK (who tragically died a few weeks ago). His wife Helen, who in retirement had gone into the antiques trade, had one exactly like them. She told us that they were collector’s items. I have since learned that they were made by Carlton Ware, a pottery manufacturer based in that bastion of English pottery, Stoke-on-Trent. The company was established in 1890, went into receivership in 1989, and was resurrected in 1997. My mother-in-law can’t possibly have bought them here in Italy. We have concluded that she must have come across them during a trip she did to the UK in the early 1980s with a busload of friends. They must have caught her eagle eye in some shop they visited.

My next trio of egg cups completes our egg-cup collection – as I said, a small collection.

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My mother-in-law picked up the two bald-headed newspaper readers. Where she picked them up we have no idea. The pieces carry no identification marks, so its designer and manufacturer must remain in the shadows (unless a kind reader could help identify them?). I love them, but I musty admit they are not very practical. As anyone who eats boiled eggs knows, you really need 360 degrees access to the top of the egg to be able to eat the insides of the egg with ease. The newspaper rather blocks that access. So I do use them for my boiled egg at breakfast, but only from time to time.

The middle piece is my one and only addition to my mother-in-law’s egg-cup collection, and I must confess that I bought it more out of a sense of desperation than anything else. I had promised myself a number of years earlier that I would add to my mother-in-law’s collection, but I had failed to come across any picturesque egg cups. This one sort-of fitted the bill. It’s a little too obvious in its picturesqueness, and its actual depiction of a face rather spoils the idea of using the egg to complete a human figure with a faceless head. But it was the only egg cup I had come across after years of looking around that came anywhere close to the central theme of my mother-in-law’s collection. As a result, I hardly ever use it.

There is one piece that waits to be added to the collection. Last year, during our annual visit to our daughter in LA, I had accompanied her to the ceramics classes she was taking at the time. I used the occasion to make myself an egg cup, basing myself on the design idea behind my mother-in-law’s collection (the egg is the faceless head of a human body). We had already left when the piece was finally fired, but the idea was that when we went to visit our daughter this year, I would pick it up and bring it back. But this damned Covid-19 virus put a spoke in the wheels of that plan! Our flights were cancelled and we had to give up the whole trip. Hopefully, I can pick it up next year when we go and visit her.

If any of my readers know of any picturesque egg cups which would fit into my mother-in-law’s collection, I would be glad to hear about them. When we finally get out of this bloody apartment, I might be able to track them down.


Beijing, 3 August 2013

I was in Vienna a few weeks ago – it is always good to show your face from time to time in Headquarters to remind your colleagues that you still exist – and my wife accompanied me because we had decided to go on vacation at the same time. Since we had a free morning, we decided to visit the Leopold Museum.

The museum is part of a very nice urban recovery scheme which the Austrian government undertook some ten-fifteen years ago. There being no imperial horses to house anymore, the old imperial stables had fallen on hard times. So the city decided to turn the stables into a Museums Quarter, made a deal to purchase the art collection of a certain Rudolf Leopold, and built two art museums on the premises, one for his modern art

Leopold Museum

and one for his contemporary art


(is there a deeper meaning to the colour scheme of the museums’ cladding?)

For those readers who plan to visit Vienna, the Quarter is just across the road from the Kunsthistorisches Museum, the country’s premier museum of fine arts, which houses the old imperial collection. This is a truly fantastic collection, which alone is worth a visit to Austria. One of my favourites there is Caravaggio’s “Madonna of the Rosary”.


As for the Leopold Museum, it has a great collection of early 20th Century Austrian, German and Central European art. I particularly like its collection of Egon Schieles. The very first time my wife and I went to Vienna, back in the early 80s, we stumbled on Mr. Leopold’s collection, hung at that time in a cramped house somewhere in the outskirts of Vienna. His Schieles knocked my socks off as they say. I particularly remember this one.

Egon Schiele

With the art from these fantastic collections almost spilling out onto the pavements of Vienna (and I haven’t even mentioned the Belvedere or the Albertina or the smaller collections), it’s not surprising that it is here that I started my own – very, very modest – art collection. The spark that lit the fuse was the Dorotheum.


Wonderful, wonderful place, the Dorotheum. It’s an auction house, but the marvelous thing about it is that it has two whole floors where the price is fixed and you can buy the articles on the spot. Which is great, because auctions make me nervous; I only went to one auction at the Dorotheum – where Mr. Leopold was present, by the way – and the speed with which the prices levitated (on a particularly nice painting by a Hungarian artist) gave me palpitations. These two floors have more the feel of a jumble sale, full of horrible stuff, but where you feel – you know – that the piece of your dreams is just behind that dreadful cabinet in the corner. And in the spirit of a jumble sale the prices in these parts of the Dorotheum are – relatively speaking – affordable.

My first piece of art was hanging in a corner, in the dead end of a section dedicated to carpets.

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When I first spied it behind the carpets, it was woebegone, sagging in the middle, dust covering its frame. But it cried out to me: “Take me! Take me!” That riot of flowers and fruit against that cubist-type background of mountains! That river, with the small town on its bank! The happy people! It had to be mine!! But the price made me hesitate – it was 400 euros or thereabouts. And it would need fixing and cleaning. I dithered and dathered, I went back a few times, I was like one tormented. Eventually, my wife took over and gently pushed me towards the purchase.

They say that the first murder is the most difficult; after that, it gets easier and easier. I think it’s the same with the purchase of art. In relatively short order after that, I purchased, always at the Dorotheum, this gouache, a naïf view of the Seine in early 19th century Paris:

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(the apparent sun in the background is actually my camera’s flash)

This aquarelle, an 18th Century view of Kashmir:

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(same comment about my camera’s flash)

This oil painting, of a tramp ship ploughing its way through the waves:

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(I bought it because it reminded me powerfully of the poem “Cargoes” by John Masefield, whose last verse is:
“Dirty British coaster with a salt-caked smoke stack,
Butting through the Channel in the mad March days,
With a cargo of Tyne coal,
Road-rails, pig-lead,
Firewood, iron-ware, and cheap tin trays”)

This aquarelle, by the same artist, of fishing boats off the coast of Britain:

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This print, of a barn half buried in the snows of Upper Austria:

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It was just as well that we left for China. My wife was becoming anxious about how the art was slowly invading the walls of our apartment; she has always preferred bare white walls and generally uncluttered internal vistas. I could not bear to have these sitting in the dark of a warehouse in Vienna waiting for us to come back. We took them all down to Milan, where they hang in our apartment. I took the photos above a few weeks ago, when we passed through.

The wonderful thing about these pieces is that they have allowed me to also unfurl my passion for history, giving me an excuse to dig around into their past. For instance, the Dorotheum claimed that the first painting was a view of Dürnstein, north of Vienna on the Danube (and in whose Castle Richard I was kept prisoner for a while). But after revisiting the place, I am convinced that this is not so; the banks of the river are not that steep on both sides. The picture framer who cleaned and fixed the painting was also not convinced of the appellation. He thought it was the upper Moselle River; a visit there is on my to-do list. As for the gouache, it was sold to me by the Dorotheum as an urban landscape in northern Belgium. Not so! For reasons which I won’t go into here but have to do with research I did on that shop on the right hand side of the painting, I am convinced that it is a view of the Seine River in Paris, looking upstream from Pont Notre-Dame, one of the bridges linking the Île de la Cité with the Right Bank. For its part, the view of Kashmir was, according to the Dorotheum, a view from western China (which is why I bought it; I already knew then that I would be going to China). Research on my part quickly showed me that actually it is a well-known view of a rope bridge near Srinagar. Really, the Dorotheum is doing some very sloppy work here – but it’s more fun for me.

With the Dorotheum no longer just a few subway stops away, the collecting passion has slowed – the apartments are smaller too. We have bought a piece or two, which when we take them back will remind us of our stay in China, rather like those old English colonels who came back from the Empire with bits and bobs of native paraphernalia, which they would proudly display in their retirement home at Bournemouth.


Leopold Museum:
Egon Schiele:
the rest are my pictures