Monday, April 14, 2014

Man about town - interview with George Cazenove of An Officer and a Gentleman

When did you last wear a well-tailored jacket with a fascinating history in its pocket? Man-about-town GEORGE CAZENOVE has relocated from London to Hungerford to open vintage clothier An Officer and a Gentleman. “Vintage clothes look good, and tell a hell of a story,” he explains to CATRIONA REEVES.

I FULLY expected An Officer and a Gentleman to be a treasure trove of vintage delights, but on visiting the shop in Charnham Street, Hungerford, it was a pleasure to discover that its proprietor George Cazenove is brimming with old-school charm and bursting with fabulous stories, both about the clothes he sells, and his own adventurous life.

Descended from a family of “rakes, boozers and fornicators” who lost most of their fortune through death duties, Cazenove turned his back on the traditional family profession of stockbroking to set up a clothier called Bertie Wooster - named after PG Wodehouse’s most famous character -  in late 1980s London.

Feted by the Chelsea set, Bertie Wooster’s vintage finds and bespoke tailoring graced the bodies of the bold and the beautiful across the pages of society magazines, and the business expanded to seven branches across London and beyond, before Cazenove closed up shop in 2005. “I’d moved to Africa two years before, and it was too difficult to run the business from over there.”

Cazenove’s Africa move came about rather by accident - bet by an SAS soldier that he couldn’t drive round the whole of Africa, he did just that, down the east coast and up the west; and rather liking it over there, he set up a property company in Angola. He spent the next nine years dividing his time between there and Cape Town, where he made rather a name for himself as a campaigner against the hangover of Apartheid.

Back in the UK and “having lost a lot of money” during a divorce, Cazenove was “in limbo and seriously considering going back to Africa”, when one day, driving through Hungerford, he spotted a for sale sign outside a near-derelict Victorian building, the town’s former gasworks, and made the decision to set up shop once more. “I’d sold the Bertie Wooster name, so had to decide on a new one - I heard the theme song for the film An Officer and a Gentlemen on the radio, and thought that would be perfect.”

Opening his doors in July, Cazenove has felt fully welcomed with open arms, both by his old contacts in the trade - “They always said that I had a nobby background, but a barrow boy mentality” - and by the community of Hungerford. “The mayor’s been fab; I’ve made so many friends in a very short time, and James Podger at Great Grooms has sent me lots of clients - it’s almost like a marriage; he sells them a dining table, then passes them on to me for dinner jackets so that they can sit down at their table in the proper style.”

The shop’s stock is entirely men’s clothing: Savile Row tailoring, accessories, military uniforms and sporting memorabilia, but fashionable women often pop in to snap up military tunics, hunt tail coats, velvet smoking jackets, Barbours and tweed. “If I had a motto, it would be ‘You must be seen in vintage tweed’, says Cazenove. “It‘s so much better than the new stuff; it doesn’t have that shiny look to it, and it can be worn smart or casual - a tweed jacket looks great with jeans.

“The coat I’m wearing in the Out & About photographs is from the 1930s. To build it now would cost £5,000, but we’re selling it for £150, and it’s got that fabulous vintage look.”

So, how can he identify the pedigree of the clothes he sells so specifically? “Easy,” he says, rushing out of the kitchen and returning with a tweed jacket. “This is a rabbiting coat, made for the British Army General Adrian Carton de Wiart in the 1940s. Look - when something is made by a tailor, there will always be a label in the inner pocket, with the date and who it was made for.”

The Chelsea set have started flocking back to Cazenove’s door, following in the footsteps of Pippa Middleton, who visited in August and left with an on-trend mid-century military tunic. Another recent visitor was an unnamed “horsey lady” who bought a jacket made by Savile Row tailor Bernard Weatherill, and wore it on television the next week. I think we can all guess who that was...

Cazenove is also welcoming a new generation of customers, many of them the children of those who used to shop at Bertie Wooster. He is delighted that they, like his assistant, local farmer’s son Freddie Walker, are learning to appreciate the delights of vintage clothing - “why pay £100 to hire a dinner jacket when you can buy a beautifully-made vintage one for the same price?” Everything is cleaned before being put on sale by Best Western Dry Cleaners in Newbury, although Cazenove advises against the use of mothballs to store clothes, “because you can never get rid of the smell. The modern solution is vacuum bags - the moths can’t get in there. But really, clothes are made to be worn”.

For someone who has such a love of items with historic value, Cazenove is surprisingly unmaterialistic. He is adamant that he has no plans to build another clothing empire - “there will only ever be the one shop” - and says that his own wardrobe (he lives above and behind the shop) is simply an extension of the stockroom.

“I have between one and 50 coats that I wear at any given time, but I always end up selling them. I’ve just sold my own dinner jacket to a young man for the Feathers Ball (a major event in young London’s society calendar). His mother was desperate, and I knew it would fit him. I’ll find another one for myself before too long”.

Unsaleable - but wearable clothes - are given to homeless shelters for ex-servicemen, and Cazenove has donated particularly special items to museums in the past. “Back in the ’90s, I got a phone call from a man living up a tower block in Tower Hamlets, saying that he had a load of stuff in suitcases with fleur-de-lis on them.

“I was a bit nervous - it wasn’t a nice area back then - but when I got there, it turned out that he was a descendent of Tsar Nicholas’ surgeon, and he had all this amazing Russian gear - suits, minks and Vuitton luggage, as well as letters of correspondence from the Tsar. I valued it fairly and took the whole lot.

“Of course I sold a lot of it, but some, I gave to the Victoria & Albert Museum. It only seemed right, as I’d got such a good deal. There’s leopardskin-lined coat from that collection still on display there to this day.”

Cazenove is always happy to meet potential sellers, citing An Officer and a Gentlemen’s first “big break” as the day that someone brought in their late father’s “lovely old clothes”, and to provide advice - being particularly pleased that he recently assisted someone in selling sashes from the Crimean War for £18,000 for which the seller had originally been offered £60 by a generic antique dealer.

He is also happy to be consulted on potential purchases from elsewhere, particularly if it helps people avoid fakes: “There’s a lot of Edwardian military coats around which are actually copies from China. Swords as well. People are pleased that they’re getting a bargain, but it may not be what they think.”

Up since 2am on the day I interviewed him for a flying visit up to London, Cazenove had already had a successful morning, selling a fur-lined coat, made for the British ambassador to Russia before the Second World War but never worn, to fashion house Ralph Lauren, who will be copying it for a future collection, and displaying the original in its New York flagship store. So, there’s plenty of highs to be had in the vintage clothing game - but how about the lows?

“It’s heartbreaking when you go into the attic of a stately home and see clothes which could have been worth a fortune, and they’re threadbare or moth-eaten. I once visited the Dashwood family, whose ancestor had been a pageboy at the wedding of Queen Victoria to Prince Albert in 1840. Sadly, his outfit was shot through - totally destroyed by moths. All I could rescue were the silver buttons.”

At this Cazenove jumps up and pulls a plastic tub full of the buttons out of a drawer, insisting that I take away with me a small but amazing part of history. I don’t need much persuading, recognising the intrinsic beauty in the small, but weighty nub of tarnished silver, stamped with Queen Victoria’s crown, and immediately deciding that I will get a chain to hang it on.

“Vintage clothes are a talking point; they look good, and they’ve got an artistic and conceptual value; a history, and a hell of a story,” says Cazenove. “Just think about it - the violin from the Titanic’s band has just sold for nearly £1m, and it’s totally unplayable; but clothes you can wear. It’s not about the money for me; it’s about the passion. I would rather spend £100 on a story I can wear on my back than buy a new BMW.”

  • First published in Out & About, 2013

Sunday, April 13, 2014

The art of the garden - feature on botanical artist Katharine Amies

SOMEWHERE deep in the woods of Snelsmore Common is a haven of tranquility: a light and airy kitchen where hours pass like minutes and creations of breathtaking beauty can be inspired by from something as apparently mundane as a root vegetable.

But these vegetables aren’t for eating, they are for celebrating in their raw state, to be captured on paper, frozen in time - and no; I’m not talking about potato printing: for this is the home of botanical artist Katharine Amies. Botanical art dates back hundreds of years, flourishing in the 17th century when it became a way of portraying and disseminating the beauty and novelty of plants brought back from Britain’s new colonies. It continued to be popular for the next two centuries, with detailed drawings and paintings of flowers, fruit, vegetables and other plants being used to illustrate flora field guides, catalogues and magazines.

The advent and advancement of photography has not made the skill of the botanical artist redundant, as the careful observation and detailed capturing of each subject brings it to life with a vibrancy and realism that somehow a camera could never capture. Amies has on display in her kitchen a line drawing of a pineapple which bristles with an micro-authentic hyper-reality that can only come from careful observation and the most delicate of pencil strokes building up layer upon layer of carbon to create three-dimensional depth and shadow.

As passionate about teaching the skill of botanical art to others as practising it herself, Amies has started holding workshops at her home, with the mantra that anyone can learn how to draw and paint, as long as they are taught well.

Attending a day’s session on painting summer flowers, I was worried that my extremely rusty pre-GCSE standard painting skills and frankly embarrassing drawing ability wouldn’t stand up to such a meticulous and detailed art form, but Amies’ explanation that botanical painting is as much a science as an art soon put me at my ease.

“Basically, if you follow the rules, concentrate, and don’t rush, there’s no reason why you can’t do it. It’s so prescriptive that if you do what I tell you, you will get a result that you can take home and be proud of. Most people who come on my courses are like you - they haven’t painted since school, and they are really pleasantly surprised by what they can achieve in a few hours.”

Amies herself discovered botanical painting after a few false starts at finding her creative forte almost put her off art for good. “I always loved drawing beetles, bugs and detailed things, but I didn’t really get on with art at school - it all seemed to be a bit vague, about ‘expressing yourself’, and that wasn’t up my street. Later on I went on a watercolour landscape weekend, but that didn't suit me either - again, I wasn’t given enough direction for my liking. I studied languages at university, and got a job in fashion retail marketing, so art didn’t feature in my life for a long time after that. 

“Then, in 2001, a friend invited me to see her mother’s botanical painting exhibition, after she’d completed a year’s course with the Florilegium Society at Chelsea Physic Garden. I was absolutely stunned - I remember her painting of a sweet pea which I found particularly amazing. I left my job, signed up for the course, and spent a year of Mondays being talked through how to create three-dimensional shapes through shading, how to make cherries and plums shine, and how to tackle petals and leaves.

“I loved it - I discovered that I like being told how to get a result rather than be told to ‘find it yourself’. I suppose the fact that I studied languages at university shows that I like being told what to do, and that if I work hard enough at something, I can get good at it.

Of course, a few generations ago, lots of people painted or drew - it was a common hobby among our grandparents when there were less alternatives, and their work can look surprisingly good, but it was because they kept at it. I believe that anyone can be taught to draw and paint if they really want to, and spend time on it.

I was taught in a way that I can pass on to others quite easily, even if they can only attend one of my workshops - all it takes from me is encouragement and patience.”

In 2003, Amies submitted her first artwork into an exhibition in Chelsea, selling eight pictures, and realised that she could make a living out of her talent. She booked a space at Shepherd Market Gallery in Mayfair for the following year, by which point she had produced 48 paintings, of which she sold 44. Her productivity has been slowed down in recently years by the arrival of her children, but she has held a third exhibition, and mainly undertakes commissions.

“Customers normally commission flowers, such as roses or peonies, but will buy the unexpected when they see them: beetroot, borlotti beans and courgettes for example. I do like to do things that wouldn’t be considered classical botanical images. Vegetables can be quite beautiful. The cardoon (also known as the artichoke thistle) is a good example of that.

Amies enjoys a challenge - “the passion flower was pretty tough, because it’s so detailed” - but there are still a couple yet to be conquered. “I started to paint a cantaloupe melon; the outside was difficult because of the spiderweb pattern, but then I cut it open, and thought “no way, I can’t do it.” Working with fresh plants also provides a challenge - flowers have to be painted before their petals droop, and the leaves of root vegetables tend to droop as soon as they are picked. The solution is to grow them in pots, only uprooting them at the last minute, so that the leaves can be painted in situ.

She also has an expert helping hand with the growing side of things from her father, the renowned wildflower cultivator and countryside restoration champion, Charles Flower. “People suggested that I use my maiden name for my artwork as it’s rather appropriate, but I thought that would be too much!” she laughs.

As for my own experience on Amies’ painting day; I was genuinely delighted with the resulting line drawing and watercolour paintings that I produced. Following the formula of imagining the light source coming from top left and thinking about how it would create light and shade on the petals and leaves, I was able to create three pieces of art that I would be proud to put on my wall. “You’ve got the hang of taking it steady, building up the colour layer by layer, not overdoing it,” Amies explains.

“The main mistake people make is to overload the paintbrush, and put on too much colour to begin with. It’s heartbreaking when that happens, because there’s often nothing I can do to help them correct it. It’s always possible to add more, but you can’t take it away once there’s too much colour on the paper.”

And so, with the motto “less is more” ringing in my ears, I departed Amies’ welcoming kitchen, the day having flown by in the blink of an eye, three pieces of artwork ready to frame, and thoughts of buying a watercolour and pencil set in my mind; with the confidence that if I practice hard and long enough, I could actually become a lot better at painting and drawing than I ever believed possible.

  • First published in Out & About, 2013

A deeper shade of blue - review of The Blue Bishops and Invisible Vegas at Ace Space

Photo: Richard Markham

The Blue Bishops and Invisible Vegas, at ACE Space, Newbury on Friday, October 26, 2013

A BAND with true blue credentials (in the musical, not political sense) oozing out of their pores, The Blue Bishops cranked the sound up to 11, nearly “red lining” the sound system, and rocked to the rafters at ACE Space on Friday night.

Joined by local musician and regular band stand-in Chris Hook while usual bassist Jim Rodford was elsewhere doing his thing with The Zombies, the Bishops demonstrated what decades of individual professional musicianship and years playing as a four-piece should sound like.

Despite the slightly unatmospheric setting - ACE Space’s lighting rig  went kaput earlier in the week, meaning that the band performed their set under the hall’s harsh florescent strips - the Bishops created a sweaty ambience all of their own with two storming sets.  

The blues’ heaviest sounds, such as Fleetwood Mac’s Drifting (written by Peter Green) were juxtaposed with covers swiped from the less well-thumbed pages of the blues songbook, such as Elvis Presley’s That’s Alright Mama, which I wouldn’t have previously spotted as featuring a classic blues progression, but was actually written by blues singer Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup back in the ’40s.

However, it was with their own songs, mainly written by frontman Geoff Grange and guitarist Simon Burrett, that the Bishops came into their own, bringing a rocky - nay, poppy - and often fun edge to their sound, on more lighthearted songs such as Credit Card. A darker, Springsteen-esque seam ran through Black Diamond, written about a 1950s mining disaster at a Durham Colliery, near to Grange’s home town of Hartlepool.

Grange himself is all you want from a frontman; with a wiry charisma, he held the stage with each song, with plenty of opportunity to showcase his prodigious harmonica playing which has secured him long-standing collaborations with the likes of Bill Wyman and Nicky Hopkins. Overall, the band were truly excellent - a real treat for ACE Space, which is getting a name for itself as a small but welcoming venue, helping to put Newbury back on the musical map.

Support came from two of Invisible Vegas, a youthful Oxford band discovered by gig promoter Richard Markham, testing the water at ACE Space with a view to returning with their full membership in the New Year. Their polished indie rock sound and boyish charm went down well with the audience, so I’m pretty sure that they’d receive a warm welcome if they were to return. They’ll have to crank up the sound a fair bit to compete with The Blue Bishops, though.

* First published in the Newbury Weekly News in November 2013

Sunday, April 06, 2014

Tea towels and dogma - interview with James Studholme from Police Dog Hogan

“MIDDLE aged man band” Police Dog Hogan enjoyed their Arlington Arts gig so much last year that they’ve been persuaded back to Newbury for a more intimate date at ACE Space on April 26. Frontman JAMES STUDHOLME tells CATRIONA REEVES why 

CATRIONA REEVES: There’s quite a lot of musicians in Police Dog Hogan; I hope you realise that you’re going to be a bit crushed on the ACE Space stage!

JAMES STUDHOLME: We’ve recently pared down to a six piece because our guitarist has moved away - but anyone who plays with us is a Police Dog in perpetuity, just not currently on active service. Sometimes we bring a guest trumpeter along, but maybe we’ll leave him at home for this gig!

When my friend, the DJ Johnny Walker, heard that we were starting up as a seven-piece, he said “you’ll never make any money”. But the more people there are in the band, the more fun there is to be had.

CR: I’ve heard that the band runs to a set of rules known as “Police Dogma”: what do these involve?

JS: They were based on the rules of bluegrass - mainly that we don’t involve any instruments that you can’t carry to a microphone. The original idea was that we would play around one microphone, but we quickly realised that wasn’t practical. It’s different in America, where musicians grow up with that way of doing things and are highly skilled at it, but we soon converted to a more conventional set up.

We’re still basically trying to stick to the bluegrass soundscape - we still haven’t involved a piano in the band - but the pure bluegrass style is quite restrictive, and of course we’re English, so we haven’t applied the rules religiously.

I guess that we’ve broken our own rules to get to a more interesting place. We’re probably more in the folk than the rock world, but there’s no real road map. We’ve been called “urban bluegrass”, “townbilly” and “Anglicana”, but I think our banjo player Tim coined it best with “middle aged man band”.

Our pop heritage is Slade, T. Rex, punk and The Smiths, and that’s all in our music, along with the country music thread. But we don’t want to be singing about highways and truck stops - our songs are about the A39 and Knutsford Services. 

CR: You’ve all got successful day jobs [Studholme heads up film company Blink Productions, responsible for Cadbury’s drumming gorilla and two of John Lewis’ Christmas ads] - but do you harbour dreams of jacking it all in to be full-time rock stars?

JS: Rock and roll stardom is every schoolboy’s fantasy, and we were all musicians in a previous life before we made our livings. Where we are now is a really nice spot - It’s basically a supercharged hobby; I guess the term is “semi pro”. We are now being offered more gigs than we can do in a year, and it’s nice to be able to pick and choose.

The big thing that we’re in this for is the songwriting and recording, and the success of the live shows is an unexpected surprise. When we tour, we realise that people are coming to see us who don’t know us personally, which is great. 

Like all bands, we started with a few friends and family members coming along and shuffling a leg. I think it was a relief for them when we started to get a following of our own; it meant that they didn’t have to come along to every gig!

CR: Your big selling merchandise item is a tea towel featuring the faces of band members. I hope that you’re bringing a load to ACE Space; I think they’ll sell rather well to the regulars.

JS: The tea towels seem to have developed a following of their own. They are sensational quality - larger than most, and very absorbent. People buy one, then come back for more! We’re still fractionally ahead in record sales, but I can see a day coming when the tea towels take over.

Fortunately we’re recording a new album in May, so our Newbury gig is part of a little run of dates to give us a chance to play the new songs before we go into the studio. So, hopefully, we should be able to keep the music just ahead of the tea towels, in terms of popularity.

CR: Police Dog Hogan’s banjo player is The Guardian’s weekend columnist Tim Dowling. Do a lot of readers come along to check out the band?

JS: Tim’s column is predicated on everything in his life being awkward and going wrong, so when he mentions the band it tends to involve humiliating disasters. Certainly in the first 18 months I can’t imagine that anyone reading about us in his column would have been tempted to see us live!

Luckily we started to get quite favourable internet noise, and it seemed that last year quite a lot of people were coming to check out if Tim could play. He’s actually a very talented musician, and I like to think that we’ve converted a lot of his followers to our cause.

CR: Is being in Police Dog Hogan as much fun as it sounds?

JS: It certainly is. The band is built on longstanding friendships - some of them up to 35 years - and all the shared memories and feelings that come with that. It makes the songwriting process an absolute joy. We’re looking forward to the ACE Space gig. It should be a riotous evening.

* Police Dog Hogan play at ACE Space on Saturday, April 26, supported by The Pottingshed Band. Tickets cost £12 from Hogan Music [no relation to the band] or £14 on the door. Tea towels should be available on the night.

* First published in the Newbury Weekly News in March 2014