Young ambitions of Albrecht Dürer

What would you do if you were young, ambitious and wished to convince the world of your talent? You may

–  try to find an influential mentor,

–  travel to find the best sources of inspiration and training expertise,

–  choose a line of work that would give you a wide exposure and earning potential.

This was exactly what a young Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528), a highly talented painter, draughtsman and engraver, decided to do – in the final decade of the 15th century.


The latest exhibition in The Courtauld Gallery gives us a fascinating glance at the early work and ambitions of Dürer, shaping the direction of his work and life, before he became the leading Renaissance artist in Germany. It features the early figure drawings of a young man who intended to challenge the established artistic traditions of his country with a new approach to depicting the natural world, and perfected his skills through studies of his own body. Rebelling against his family wishes, Dürer abandoned his apprenticeship as a goldsmith with his father to train as an artist in the workshop of the Nuremberg painter, woodcut designer and entrepreneur, Michael Wolgemut. His workshop designed the woodcut illustrations for some of the most significant publications of the time. Here Dürer gained the first hand experience of this technique and the understanding that prints were much more financially lucrative than time and labour consuming paintings. In 1490, already confident in his abilities, nineteen year old Dürer set out on a journey that would last four years and would help him to establish professional contacts, undertake work and explore the latest artistic trends. This period is called Wanderjahre, or ‘journeyman years’, during which the artist travelled widely in the region of Frankfurt and Strasbourg.  The drawings from that period, presented at the exhibition, are a reflection of his artistic development. The predominant theme is the desire to accurately depict the human body and its proportions, which became Dürer’s lifetime preoccupation. This was a similar passion to that of Leonardo da Vinci’s which guided Leonardo’s studies of anatomy. Dürer would later write: “For in truth, art lies hidden within nature; he who can wrest it from her, has it”.


This desire is evident in the studies of his left hand – adopting various gestures – and of his leg, which, in fact, were executed at the back of another drawing – that of a subtle study of a figure from the parable of the Wise and the Foolish Virgins. The exhibition features numerous other studies – some humorous – of that (popular at the time) biblical theme of the Wise and the Foolish Virgins. However one of the most charming examples of Durer’s talent and his fast developing skills is the sketch of his wife Agnes Frey whom he married on returning from his ‘gap journey’. The portrait of the young woman, who for a moment rested her elbows on the table to gather her thoughts, is so intimate and informal that it might have been executed today.


Wałęsa, Man of Hope – A difficult hero

It’s impossible not to be swept away by the power of Wajda’s Wałęsa: Man of Hope which has just appeared on cinema screens in Britain.

It is the final part of the great film maker’s trilogy which begins from portraying the hypocrisy of 1950s Polish communism in Man of Marble (1971) and proceeds to interpret the roots of the bloody confrontations with the system in Gdansk in 1970 in Man of Iron (1981). The latest Wajda film shows the last twenty years of communism in Poland through the actions of Lech Wałęsa whose life wasn’t far removed from that of the fictional Man of Marble and Man of Iron of the previous films. The two decades on which the film focuses are opened by original footage of police slaughtering the strikers of December 1970 and conclude with Wałęsa’s rousing address to the US Congress in November 1989.


The Solidarity leader is the main focus of the film but it isn’t definitely a hagiography. It is a ‘warts and all’ story which portrays a cocky and opinionated man, nevertheless very brave,  whose intuition helps him to correctly judge the political situation. He inspires others – workers and intellectuals – who elect him as the leader of Poland’s first independent trade union. He caused the first crack in the system that progressively widened until it reached the Berlin Wall. His fight for democracy coincided with the election of the Polish pope, John Paul II, whom Wałęsa viewed as the Solidarity spiritual leader and whose influence on the birth of Polish democracy is indisputable.

Throughout the film Wajda stresses that Wałęsa is an electrician, not a political visionary, a man with basic education (and such tastes – who never read a book beyond page five), but with an above average intelligence, who with ox-like obstinacy presses ahead believing that the oppressed man in the street thinks like him. The world is fascinated with him and the visit of Oriana Fallaci, one of Italy’s most controversial political journalists, who interviewing him alternatively flatters and mocks him, is the proof of this.

An unexpectedly beautiful thread of the film shows Walesa’s relationship with his wife Danuta. It starts with an intimate scene of the young Wałęsa washing the feet of his very pregnant wife who is expecting the couple’s first child. The performance of both Robert Więckiewicz and Agnieszka Grochowska playing the Wałęsas gives credence to the belief that it was a strong and passionate union which not only produced seven children but also supported each other in the most difficult and dramatic moments of their lives.


Wajda’s efforts to make the film historically accurate and true at the personal level are evident in almost every scene. He seamlessly knits together historical footage – both black and white and also the orange-brown early ‘colour’ reels – with the scenes from his film. At the famous Round Table debate Robert Więckiewicz’s Wałęsa sits at the negotiating table with the real Tadeusz Mazowiecki, the last prime minister of the communist government and the first head of the new democratic one.

Like all other films in Wajda’s trilogy, Wałęsa, Man of Hope is a poignant history lesson, particularly important for the generations who never experienced the dread watching the tanks rolling into the streets of Warsaw on Sunday morning of 13 December 1981 or the desperation of facing shop  shelves that housed only bottles of vinegar.

Objects of seduction

Surrounded by mass-produced ‘personalised’ gadgets, we collect things to which we develop varying degrees of attachment. They rarely have anything to do with the latest technology and more with our personal history and our relationship with the world around us at the time. In fact, the objects we surround ourselves with tell more about us than perhaps we wish to reveal. The impulse which made us pick up a piece of clothing, music or applied art more often than not could be described as irrational, intuitive, spur of the moment.  We feel a sudden connection with them that reflects our mood, longing, a sudden and distant memory…

It is perhaps because the creators of these objects experienced similar feelings while making them and selected certain forms, colours or musical notes wishing to evoke a desired reaction.

I was recently musing about this while preparing reports for the Achica Living portal about Polish glass and pottery artists. My first subject was an artist who creates unique, often one-off pieces while the second was a pottery manufacturer producing hand-made and decorated collections for the mass market.

Dąbrowka Huk is an artist who expresses herself through glass. She is best known for her large glass plates, distinctive by their vibrant colours (created by fusing metal oxides with glass) and subtle drawings which resemble the work of Marc Chagall. Women are her favourite subject – solitary and dreaming or nestled in the arms of strong men, shyly covering their nudity.


She is also inspired by the beauty of everyday life and her surroundings. “I don’t seek strong and grand themes. I don’t try to answer difficult questions. In my work I try to stop the moment – a balmy afternoon and things beyond time and matter,  that are located in a different reality.”

She lives in a village near Opole, in south west Poland, with two small children and shares her house with three cats, a family of weasels and several nests of swallows. It’s perhaps not surprising that her glass works, which also include bowls, glass figures as well as chess and checkers sets, feature birds, cats, angels and devils (though “devils don’t sell very well”).


When she says: “The places I live and work shaped my perception of the world, and these experiences I processed through my personal filter,” you clearly see her world and begin to understand her work.

Pottery from Bolesławiec tells a different story. Its historical roots go back to the 19th century, to one of the largest ceramics manufacturing plants that belonged to Hugo Reinhold and was located in Lower Silesia, southwestern Poland. The successor of its tradition is now the Zaklady Ceramiczne Bolesławiec. Over the years Bolesławiec pottery has undergone numerous transformations in terms of form and design.  However it is still manufactured using the original technologies such as hand rolling and hand decorating with stamps and brush. The distinctive feature of its best known design is the cobalt blue colour of the glaze decorated which the so-called peacock’s eye.


Nowadays the hand-painted designs on the Bolesławiec pottery include geometrical and floral patterns, and the compositions are either monochromatic or multicolour utilizing a broad palette of blues, greens, yellows, browns and reds. These unique patterns together with the distinctive ‘feel’ and look of the natural material make the pottery very unique, but at the same time easily recognizable on the crowded ceramics market.

Each new collection is the result of a joint effort of a team of artists. New shapes of dishes and new designs originate in two different workshops headed by distinguished designers. Then every semi-finished product acquires its distinctive look in the hands of artists-decorators.


The offer of Zakłady Ceramiczne Bolesławiec now include over a thousand designs which decorate tea and coffee sets, serving and roasting dishes, even such items as candle sticks and Christmas decorations. Although traditionally made, they meet the requirements of modern living. All products are dishwasher safe and can be used in conventional and microwave ovens.


The ceramics from Bolesławiec have many fans in Poland and abroad (even as far as Japan and Korea) who love its designs and the ‘tactile’ feel of its pottery. They patiently ‘hunt’ new releases to add them to their collections in which every item is truly unique. My favourite coffee mug from Bolesławiec sports a stamp to certify this, together with the name of its decorator – like a true piece of art.

School of Wok

Chinese food has always been a favourite in our family. It wasn’t only because my husband started experimenting with Chinese cuisine a few years ago and in time became quite proficient not only in entertaining us with a variety of stir fries, but also impressing our guests – especially our friends from Poland – for whom chow mein was an exotic experience. It meant he was in charge of dinners on some Sundays and I always gladly surrendered my place at the hob together with my favourite apron.

For many years we also had Futana, a wonderful Chinese restaurant just at the bottom of our road, where the food (and the service) never disappointed us.

As they say you can’t have too much of a good thing. So the news that I had won two places in a cookery class at the AEG- sponsored School of Wok ( made my day.

At this point we didn’t know what fun lay ahead of us. The choice of instruction at this temple of oriental cooking is vast. This ‘culinary institute’ offers Chinese, Thai, Malaysian and Vietnamese cuisine – as the main strands of learning – and many more. They are also very understanding of modern lifestyles and their classes come in many formats. You can choose from one hour lessons, three hours and five hour sessions, weekend and five-day courses – after which the students are ready to enter Masterchef,  no doubt. The School is conveniently located at the western edge of London’s Soho from where most of its produce and seasoning come.


Hoping that this is not going to be our last experience of the school, we decided to start from getting the fundamentals right and opted for the ‘Understanding the Wok’ class. The teaching style of our chef, Neville Leaning was very relaxed, his instructions fun and tips – priceless. For example, don’t you find peeling garlic really fiddly? It was my experience too. Neville demonstrated that the easiest way to help a clove of garlic to shed its dry ‘shirt’ was to wet it and then whack it with a flat blade of a chef’s knife. Whoops – the clove almost undresses itself.

Early on in our three-hour class, we started working on our knife skills (I hope I am not getting myself into trouble with the web police) as 80% of Chinese cooking is prep work: cleaning the produce, dicing, chopping, stirring and marinating it – before the actual process of heat-assisted cooking begins.

We were to tackle three dishes with a moderate level of difficulty: stir fried Sichuan chicken (well seasoned chicken breast with cashew nuts; the name comes from Sichuan pepper corns), a flash fried morning glory – a beautifully theatrical in its colour and appearance Chinese vegetable reminiscent of kale leaves, egg fried rice and jiaozi – minuscule Chinese dumplings. We learnt to fold jiaozi – which can be fried or used in soups – which requires a lot of concentration (those with joga training had a head start) and very nimble fingers.


The results of our efforts were delicious but for me personally a real revelation was learning to fold fried egg (in the same format as for breakfast) into the cooked rice. Properly done and generously seasoned with light soya sauce and ‘enhanced’ with petit pois it tasted and looked like in our favourite restaurant. I was proud of myself.


Cooking at the School of Wok was also an opportunity to use AEG appliances – the induction hobs, teppan yaki and super-efficient extractor hoods (Chinese food has to be smoking hot). I feel that this is an often overlooked benefit of cookery schools. If you’re considering investing in new appliances you can test them there before you make a decision on a brand and a particular model, and part with cash.

Cooking at the School is fun. We came there with varying levels of culinary expertise, expectations, habits (together with stories to tell) and hang ups. Neville got us prepping and cooking – and gave us the confidence that it will all turn out OK in the end. And indeed, it did. We all agreed on this as we wolfed down the results of our efforts in the shared meal, washed down with a nice glass of wine. And we laughed a lot… It’s perhaps not surprising that cooking together does wonders for your relationship…with your partner but also with the world around you.


Tea secrets

Timeless or time consuming? A lasting attraction or a ritual belonging to the past? While keeping an open mind, I had mixed feelings booking a place at a Chinese tea ceremony recently.  A self-confessed tea addict, I wondered: will I learn something to take my habit to a new level?

The venue couldn’t have been more fitting. In the contemplative atmosphere of the Oriental Gardens of Kingston Lacy in Dorset, tea expert, Cai Wan Ling, set up accessories for a ceremony which, in more or less the same format, has been conducted since some two thousand years ago. It is hard to believe that in the age of the tea bag, companies in the Far East still have tea rooms where customers are invited to relax and participate in a ritual which is deemed to facilitate business.


While ancient-style ‘tea music’ was played in the background, Ms Ling, like a high priestess laid out the tea table (a wooden double deck tray) with the instruments of the ceremony: small bowl-like tea cups, a clay teapot, a glass jug and wooden utensils for measuring the tea and administering it to the participants.


The tea was spooned into the warmed up clay pot. It rested there for a short while. ‘Waking up’ the tea is essential for extracting its full aroma and flavour. The first brew was brief (the tea was probably still waking up!) and she used it only to warm up the cups and poured it out onto the tray. The second infusion was the ‘proper’ one, and after it brewed for a few minutes in the clay tea pot, she poured it first to the transparent glass jug to check whether it reached the desired colour and intensity.

The first tea we tasted was the semi-fermented Oolong variety which is widely cultivated in Southern China. It has the delicate fragrance of green tea and the sweetness of black tea. Oolong tea can be infused up to eight times, although the third or fourth infusions are considered the best.


The same procedure was applied to two other types of tea from the Wan Ling Tea House collection ( which we sampled. Tea can be purchased in larger quantities (as long as it’s stored in a cool and dry place – she advised), as its taste improves with time, like wine.

People around the world drink five or six basic types of tea – green, Oolong (semi-fermented), white, yellow and black tea, flavored and scented with a variety of oils and plants. Their taste, colour and different properties are due to the ways it is processed and fermented. The more the tea leaf is cut and torn, its colour darkens as the cells of the plant are exposed, and the process of oxidation begins.

Green tea has recently become very popular in the West because of its antioxidant properties. Yet, it should be remembered that the optimum water temperature to prepare green tea is between 70 and 90 degrees. Too hot water will spoil the tea, turning it quickly dark yellow and making it taste bitter.

Jasmine tea, popular in Chinese restaurants, is made by scenting tea leaves with fresh flower buds. It should be brewed in a covered porcelain cup – to retain its aroma.

The tea bush belongs to the camellia family, and it can grow up to 15 meters but at the plantations it is kept to a height of only 1.2 meters and harvested once every few days to ensure that only the most tender leaves are plucked. Cai Wan Ling explained that the optimum time for picking tea is between 9am and lunchtime – as soon as the dew dries out and before the leaves harden. The green tea produced in China is still manufactured using by the same techniques that were employed a thousand years ago. Most of the sorting and grading of the leaves is still done by hand.

In my journalistic capacity I have been invited to some of the best known London temples of afternoon tea, such as the Ritz, Savoy, Claridges and Liberty. Their tea and what came with it, delighted all my senses. Yet the tea ceremony in the gardens of Kingston Lacy had a special quality. It was perhaps the magic of sharing – the stories of tea, tea making and growing, and our own tea experiences, while travelling and at home. It occurred to me that the appeal of a tea ritual is that it brings people together, makes them stop, relax and reflect. After all the ancient name for tea was Tai which meant peace.

While the tea growing heritage comes from the Far East, Britain is known throughout the world as the tea-drinking nation. However it was Russia that first imported tea to the West. Tea compressed into bricks was carried on camels across the Gobi desert – a journey that lasted up to three years. The pleasure of tea drinking was introduced to Britain by the Portuguese princess Catherine of Braganza when she married Charles II. Today, the British drink nearly 11 million gallons of tea every day, with a quarter of us drinking five or more cups a day. For many Brits tea is a first aid remedy for any personal crisis. And, no one can deny that a good cup of tea makes one feel better.

So… now put the kettle on and reach for the tea pot. A mug alone – just won’t do. Warm the pot with boiling water and spoon your favourite tea in (if you’re doing it for the first time, a tea bag will have to suffice). Let it rest for a minute in the warm pot and let the leaves (or what’s left of them in the bag) wake up. Then pour the water and let the tea brew for at least three minutes. Take your favourite cup/mug (38% of us always use the same cup) and remind yourself why you got it/why it was given to you. Pour yourself a cuppa – topping it with milk if you like. Then inhale the aroma and think how lucky you are to be able to enjoy the drink that took a couple thousands years to perfect…