Its Henley Festival time again and, this year, we opted for Friday night as it was a toss-up between Jools Holland and His Rhythm and Blues Orchestra (that night) or Rumer on the Sunday but just as well we didn’t plump for the latter as she has since been forced to cry-off with a throat infection.
As ever, the festival didn’t disappoint. To be honest, a tiny part of me almost wishes it would so that we could justify taking a break one year and feel we weren’t missing anything but the one year in the past several that we didn’t go, I really missed it! Its become part of the fabric of high-summer and is such a good-atmosphere event – varied, cultured, high-brow to an extent but with such huge injections of humour and the light-hearted – that it is far beyond stuffy and never fails to lift the spirits, even when the rain threatens to come down in torrents (we were laden with waterproofs and umbrellas this year “just in case” as the forecast was terrible). As it happens, the evening was fairly golden, the ground was sodden from earlier but no actual rain fell at all and whilst it was initially a little chilly in our deck chairs, the fact that Jools got us all up and dancing (in spite of the glowering festival stewards who obviously deemed this to be a serious health and safety risk!) meant that we soon warmed up.
We’ve seen Jools a few times now but, much like the Henley Festival in general, he never fails to entertain – his grin just seems to get ever bigger and broader the more he manages to get the audience to join in; now there’s an inspirational man, who genuinely enjoys what he does for a living and who so obviously feeds off giving pleasure to others! His guests were Louise Marshall, Ruby Turner and Sandie Shaw, the latter self-confessedly coaxed out of 25 years of retirement by the persuasive Mr Holland and resplendent in Union Jack shorts and coat (and if I have legs that amazing – plus anywhere near that amount of energy – when I’m 64 I’ll be very happy indeed).
As ever, boats pulled in all around the floating stage and peeped their horns, the occupants waving champagne flutes and arms as we all waved back. Canoes strung together to support dining tables and chandeliers, wood-polished Edwardian chug-boats, plus grander ones with chefs on board preparing dinner for guests, alongside all manner of other water-craft bedecked in festival decorations – all these gathered together to listen to the same performance that we were enjoying from the prime-position of our HRR deck chairs just five rows away from centre stage and with the orange-tinged evening sky, complete with geese overhead, as our ceiling. It was as vibrant and all-inclusive a performance as I’ve come to expect from Jools and was the absolute highlight of a fantastic evening.
The thing that I enjoy most about Henley Festival is that the riverbank becomes a village of the Arts and a colourful palette of a whole host of things to titillate the senses.
As soon as we arrived, we were “greeted” by a selection of the ever-outlandish members of “The Roving Company of Eccentrica”; performing artists that wander around the venue throughout the evening raising laughs and eyebrows. The first was a convincing-looking dog (man in a suit) with comically-large “tackle” and with a tendency to roll-over and relieve himself in all sorts of places (and directions). A mini woman apparently sat on a moving desert island (her own dress with fake legs sprouting from the top – yes, that old trick!) was dressed in sailor costume beneath a palm tree playing a small guitar whilst an eccentric mop-haired musician was being chased and accosted by her own cello case – quite hilarious! (OK, perhaps you had to be there…) We began the evening eating tapas, including the most delicious Spanish omelette I’ve ever tasted, washed down by a jug of cocktail, on the top deck of a floating restaurant. That was followed by a stroll around to look at some of the art tents and to watch some of the comic acts that were taking place all over the river frontage until it was time for Jools on the floating stage.
Once the evening performance is over, everyone tends to make their way to where they can best appreciate the firework display across the river, usually accompanied by some other spectacle which generally comes as a complete surprise, not being listed in the programme. This year it was a trapeze artist suspended from a glowing, colour-changing balloon floating high above the crowds! Directly in front of us, during this spectacle, was the ice sculpture that we had watched being created by sculptor Asange Amerasinghe earlier in the evening and so all the colours and bursts of light going off all around us were amplified by the angles and curves of ice, to great effect.
After all that, another stroll around brought us to the Bedouin Lounge Bar which was, as you would expect, a richly decorated Bedouin tent with, this year, a handful of stalls selling vintage and hand-made clothes, pashminas, hats and so – no surprise to anyone who knows me – I came away with one or two shawls which, on trust, I assumed to be as gorgeous in true-light as they appeared in semi-darkness as the atmospheric lighting in the tent made it near-impossible to assess colours and I’m happy to report my gut-instinct was right. What a fantastic way to shop!
A Greek-fusion band (Max Pashm) and an incredible performance by an extremely lithe young woman with a handful of hula-hoops (Les Follies Rivieres) held our interest at some of the other venues as we continued our stroll around. We thoroughly enjoyed – bottoms- rather than hands-on – an Art installation that was a flower made up of a number of hammocks, in fact I could have stayed there swinging in the dark, gazing up at the night sky, for far longer than I did. Some of the sculptural pieces that we had seen earlier in the evening came to life and took on a whole new dimension as the night drew in and well-positioned lighting took effect.
The selection of galleries that occupy the marquees running along the central portion of the festival site are a big part of the whole experience and, as ever, there was a broad mix of work on display. A highlight for me was Michel Brousseau who is best known for painting marine subjects including close-ups of sails which capture the tactile quality of the fabric, the intense light and shadow of their implied maritime setting in the most compelling way; I was really taken with his work. I was also extremely taken with, in particular, the clouds painted by Simon Cattlin who specialises in aviation art, aerospace and skyscape art. You could tell, immediately, that here was a man painting from the experience of many hours spent up above the clouds looking downwards in a way that few of us have the opportunity to do on a regular basis and, sure enough, I learned (from the man himself) that he is an enthusiastic pilot and owner of several high-performance aircraft that afford him that opportunity – although he also draws upon the influences of Caravaggio, Leonardo Da Vinci, Rubens, Turner and Repin according to his website and you can appreciate that from his work.
Another artist that had me enthralled was Jeff Robb with his 3D images of the human form that seem to move as you do and look so incredibly tangible and life-like that you expect to be able to reach out and touch flesh and blood. Quite stunning and mesmerising!
Light-hearted pieces served to punctuate all of this
and a whole array of limited-edition prints by Rolf Harris were a joy to take in (seeing the originals would have been even better). Throw in a few of the promotional cocktail samples being handed out, an ice cream and an espresso – and an ecstatic chance encounter with a long-lost friend of more than a decade ago that I’ve often wondered about and assumed I had lost touch with forever – and I think I can safely say an excellent evening was had by all.
Henley Festival takes place annually over five days in July: http://www.henley-festival.co.uk
My Art-highlights of this year’s event:
Simon Cattlin http://www.aeronauts.com
Michel Brousseau http://mbrosseau.com
Jeff Robb http://www.jeffrobb.com/