The Vikings That Come In On Little Cat Feet

Hi Dear Readers.

Go see this movie:

If you can leave the theater without wiping tears of wonder and awe from your eyes, well, then, you’re not me.

And so, speaking of awe, I am dedicating this post to Dear Reader Maryanne, who went to Iceland last November and, from there, sent me something to mark 2016 as a year that didn’t totally end on a bad note:

Still in Mint Condition.

I love this object. Today, I want to mosey from my personal infatuation with this runic talisman, called the Aegishjalmur, the Helm of Awe, to London, where I was this past August (and on which I ruminated at length in this very blog for most of September of last year). Because as long as we’re talking about helms, here’s a story that I haven’t told you about a London helm that thrills me to pieces:

The only thing that I wanted to look at in the British Museum was a collection of very ancient relics dug up in the 1930s in Edith’s Pretty’s garden in a place in eastern England called Sutton Hoo. This happens a lot in Britain: start digging up any old back yard and you can come up with shovels full of Roman coins, Viking jewelry, Celtic weapons, etc. The stuff of this Sutton Hoo hoard dates from a half-mythical Anglo-Saxon kingdom from the early 7th c. (So little is known about 7th-c. England that most of what has been passed down feels more like myth than history.) This helmet was an extraordinarily rare find — only four such helmets are known from this period. It was also found in more than 500 pieces, which accounted for less than half of the original surface area.

The first assemblage of the 500 helmet pieces was completed by 1947, but continuing research showed it to be inaccurate and it was dismantled in 1968. The new restoration relied entirely on the evidence of the fragments themselves and not on preconceived ideas — that’s called intellectual honesty, Dear Readers. It took the conservator 18 months of painstaking study and experimentation to re-configure it to its current iteration, which has held steady since 1977.

Of particular interest to me, because I like winged things, is the almost entirely preserved Dragon that forms the face covering of this helmet:

The conservators now theorize that the complete helmet would have looked like this:

OMG, the power of this thing rattles my marrow.

It also happens that there are other hoards, in addition to the Sutton Hoo  hoard, on display at the British Museum. The one called the Cuerdale Hoard is the one that I thought was hilarious:

It’s the “interpretation” of this hoard that I find so awfully funny. To quote: Like many Viking silver hoards, the Cuerdale Hoard housed . . . blah blah blah.

Wait. Like many Viking silver hoards? There’s that “many” Viking silver hoards??? Like, so many that this one is just your average, every day Viking silver hoard? Like, the kind of Viking silver hoard that shows up on the Saturday when you start digging out the foundation for that patio you’ve always wanted off the kitchen, the one that you think is going to take you a day, maybe a weekend at most to do, only this damn Viking silver hoard shows up and you have to stop everything and call in the National Trust to come catalog and haul away yet another load of ingots, bracelets, brooches, rings, and other ornaments? That usual, predictable, ordinary Viking silver hoard?

Only when you live in a place with so much real history as Ye Olde England, and I mean long-ago/far-away deep, real, authentic history, can you even think of writing such a thing as “Like many Viking silver hoards“.

I, reading this as a person who comes from a land where people get all excited if they find a 50-year old penny slotted in the baseboard during a kitchen floor reno, found this bit of text to be hilariously casual about, well, Vikings. And their silver hoards. I, again as a person who comes from a land with a mere skin-deep sense of history, am in awe of the cultural authenticity of a people who have Viking silver hoards strewn about them like so many, well, Viking silver hoards. [Or like runes in Iceland. See? There was a reason I started with the Aegishjalmur.]

And that is why I reject the Statue of Liberty. Because I won’t settle for fake history! I  won’t be roped in by phony symbolism! And neither should you! Don’t mistake sentimentalism for altruism, side-show hucksterism for heritage. I know that we Americans are anxious for a home-grown culture, and that we wish we had tons of Viking silver hoards laying around, but we don’t, and history takes a lot of time and generations — and short-cutting it by buying into pre-fabbed patriotism only makes us corny, shallow, and incapable of telling the difference between the truth of what is real, and really “us”, and the intellectual dishonesty of a flattering myth. And as for the idea that the millions of people who have projected values of righteousness onto the Statue of Liberty have redeemed it from its ignoble origins, I say NO it doesn’t! Because America is not a cargo cult! (I hope not.)

I doubt that I have changed anyone’s mind, because we all know what happens to people who change their minds about opinions they hold dear: They die.  But I had to give it a shot.

So let’s do some painting.

I took this picture on a cloudy day in 2013, in Monet’s garden in Giverny (that’s Giverny in France, not a Viking nation but still pretty historical) . I love the color scheme of this flower bed, which I hope to do right by, in my own little non-Viking way.

I had a few false starts with the background, but on my third try I got this far and remembered to get out the camera. Notice how I have left the back half of this flower bed as just blobs of paint color. That’s because I have figured out that stuff in the distance is blurry (to the eye, not the camera — and I don’t want to re-paint what the camera has already documented). You can see here the I have already applied little dabs of masking fluid for reasons that I well reveal later in the painting of this scene:

I realize that I will have to show you, in another post, how I make those woozy swirls of color to stand for flowers and greenery. I just love taking advantage of the watery aspects of watercolor to do the work of “painting”. But I make these little pools one by one, letting them dry thoroughly before I make the next one, so they don’t run together and make sludge.

Here’s how I make the little flower stems, by whisking a paint brush through small puddles of paint that are at the right stage of half-dry:

Don’t over-do the wet-in-wet stem work, tho.

Time to go bold with the blobs of darker color, to give some oomph to this pic. I do it little by little, same as I did with the blue and purple bits

Dabbing some dark blue paint into the wet green paint makes a very nice effect: (next to the bits that are already dry)


Remove the masking fluid:

OK, let’s paint in some tulips:

I think I used about 4 or 5 different shades of purple and red to do these tulips:

And now let’s dab in some Forget-Me-Nots:


I think this pic captures the way the garden feels when you are there, the way the flowers wash over your senses like pools of color.

I have learned a lot by painting this scene: how much detail to leave out, which aspects of color and garden design to emphasize, how to avoid my usual mistakes of composition, and how to paint around my limitations. And, for me, this painting is BIG — about the size of 12 Triscuits. I think I have a lot more confidence now to look at other views that I have considered too difficult to paint and have a go at them. I’m talking 24-Triscuit scenes. HUGE, for me.

Why? Why bother? That’s a good question that I ask myself about every five minutes.

My best answer is: Because if I don’t try to become the best I can be at this, I’ll have to go vacuum the living room and I really hate housework.

Which I think is a good enough answer.

So next week we’re painting the most difficult thing I’ve ever painted, which I have already made seven or eight really ugly attempts at. And of course you’ll see those too.

Taffy and the crocuses.

Although it is sunny and mild as I type this on Thursday afternoon, by the time you read this, my Wonder Ones, the Isle of Long might be under 5 inches of snow — 12 hours of bitter Winter weather are in the forecast.

I hope you all, even in Summery Australia, have a nice half-frozen bottle of champagne handy and have a great weekend!

And, oh yeah, der Drumpf is still an ass hole.


13 Comments, RSS

  1. Beth March 10, 2017 @ 1:07 am

    Oh, Sutton Hoo! I once went to the British Museum with a woman who thought we should spend the bulk of the day looking at mummies. MUMMIES. Why, when there are the treasures from Sutton Hoo (and the leatherized corpse of the Lindow Man), would you want to look at a bunch of wrapped up mummies? Sure, the paintings on the sarcophagi can be interesting, but they don’t make my heart thunder like Viking treasure from someone’s yard.

    You still haven’t convinced me on the Statue of Liberty, but Mom reminded me that probably the reason I have affection for her is because I grew up in the shadow of one of the 12 Madonna of the Trail statues along the National Road, meant to commemorate the spirit of the pioneer woman. The Statue of Liberty and the Madonna of the Trail in Richmond have similar looks of determination, and, as I said before, I was a girl who was always thrilled if I saw a girl represented anywhere because it was such a rare thing.

    That said, a statue–no matter how magnificent nor how lame–is never as good as a bit of real history, particularly if it’s from a casual, garden variety Viking horde. Loved this post!

  2. Anonymous March 10, 2017 @ 8:47 am

    I wiah I had painted this..enjoy the last indoor snowfall day..

  3. Monique March 10, 2017 @ 8:49 am

    Hahaha ok let’s start over..I am not anonymous and sometimes my middle finger types the adjacent it is I WISH..

    from the 2 finger typist.

  4. Carey March 10, 2017 @ 9:27 am

    I agree with your dear reader Mary, that I never know where you will take us when I sit down with you every week but it’s always somewhere surprising and interesting. Today we’re off to Sutton Hoo. I even looked up Sutton Hoo and it’s a real place. Where do they come up with those wonderful names?

    I know where you come up with your beautiful paintings, from your heart and soul. I want to dive into those little pools of color that bring me the perfume of spring and flowers and secret gardens all the way through the internet. I’ll be watching next week to see you do it again.

    Thanks for being here to make my snowy Friday so happy.

  5. Maryanne in SC March 10, 2017 @ 10:24 am

    Thank you, dear Vivian!
    1. The Sutton Hoo helm surely does retain its power to awe the beholder.
    2. Sutton Hoo would be a cool name for a cat, wouldn’t it?
    3. Today’s painting was wizard!
    4. Come with me to Iceland: lots of cats, history, and colors to delight your eyes. No Champagne, true, but there *is* Brennivin.

    Bowing with appreciation in your snowy direction,

  6. Amy Marie March 11, 2017 @ 10:00 am

    I’m a new lurker to your blog and I can’t tell me how much your post made me chuckle this morning as well as your beautiful painting cheered me immensely. I was at the British Museum last year and saw these very things you are talking of and so I felt a bit of a kindred spirit well up in me. I’m always totally lamenting the lack of old treasure hordes and such in America. We are such babies in the history realm. England is the home of my heart, I think. 😉 Anyway, Happy Saturday. 🙂

  7. Amy Marie March 11, 2017 @ 10:01 am

    Oh and you had me at the Carl Sandburg inspired title! 🙂

  8. Patricia March 11, 2017 @ 1:59 pm

    I tried out the voice activated google search to find you. It mangled “Vivian Swift blog”into “vegan strip club”. To my surprise, there is such a thing in Portland, Oregon, home to Portlandia. Possible future blog post?

    I’m on Maui on a short research trip to see what sunshine looks like. On my walk each morning I see and visit three feral cats. They’ve lived here for years, each in his own section of the beach board walk, receiving food and snuggies from their admirers. They look well fed and healthy and I suspect, are neutered since the population doesn’t increase.

    I’m glad I found you despite Google’s inventive answer. I saw the Sutton Hoo hoard and was most impressed. The only things I’ve dug up in our garden are matchbox cars and marbles.

    • Patricia April 22, 2017 @ 4:57 pm

      A month or so later … found out that yes, all the cats have been spayed or neutered (pity we can’t do that retroactively to Trump’s parents) and have the tiny ear clip to prove it.
      I’m off in May to London (Sutton Hoo, I’m coming back!) and by boat from Honfleur to Paris, obviously passing Giverney (Giverney, I’m coming back to you too!).

  9. Becky March 11, 2017 @ 4:44 pm

    It is cold and snowy here and my daffodils are bent over by snow. I love the picture of Taffy and the crocuses. She looks like she is just sooo relaxed. The chipmunks ate all mine.
    The spring flower painting is absolutely gorgeous. Thank you for sharing these wonderful pictures.
    ……the groper in chief is still disgusting.

  10. Kirra March 13, 2017 @ 5:23 am

    Bravo on the fabulous painting! Good luck with these bigger sizes. Can’t wait for the cat painting next week.

    Thanks for sharing MORE of your London trip, which was great to read about last year. I feel like Australia is a bit like America in terms of the short history, though we do have amazingly old indigenous history, it’s not quite the same as the British casual hordes of Viking treasurers. I think I’m with you on the Statue of Liberty, though I’ve never seen it and am not American I don’t like pretend greatness or importance of things.

    I have been drinking beer and cider in the sunshine this weekend, though we did have one day of rain which was a bit annoying. Not quite the snow storm though.

    We see Mr Ass Hole on our news every night, and we’re far far away. I just try and laugh at his terrible hair and tan…….

  11. jeanie March 14, 2017 @ 4:32 pm

    You’re exactly right about the housework. As you might see from my “House Beautiful,” I’ve been doing a lot of creative work lately — and not of it is creative sweeping or dusting. (Apart from drawing in the dust — does that count?)

    What a fun-packed post! I love the hoards (I love hoards of everything and anything.) That helmet is stunning but I’d be thrilled just to find a bit of this or that. (I’ll be writing about that a bit in a soon-post as a friend has been renovating (if you can call it that) an 1830s farmhouse. Yikes. But the painting of course is my favorite. Loved the finished piece, the tips (I need to review on peeling off the masking fluid) and the fact that you worked outside your normal zone. All good — and look how lovely it is. Great subject matter, too.

    Hope Taffy is inside today with the rest of the gang. We came back from New England yesterday and missed your storm, although it got a little gnarly as we went west. I expect to see only the tip of the champagneometer! Stay cozy and I hope you have power and heat!

  12. Laura March 28, 2017 @ 11:01 am

    I wanted to let you know that after reading this, I researched the movie and found it playing at an arts cinema 90 minutes from where we live in Wichita (which is a culture hole in a lot of ways). It was spring break and so my husband and 2 daughters made plans and went to the movie. We met a lovely woman who treated us to popcorn to celebrate our journey all the way to Salina for a movie, and had a great time. We all loved it. Thanks for bringing it to our attention!

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