Thursday, 30 January 2014

Peace and quiet in Lee Valley Park

The view from Bittern Lookout bird hide in Lee Valley Park
16 February 2008 ©Heather James
Parts of England have had their wettest January for more than 100 years and more flood warnings have been issued. There have been reports of snow blanketing much of the United States but California is suffering from a drought and could do with the rain England has too much of. While in parts of Australia they've recently been enduring temperatures in the mid 40s C.

The sky outside my living room window is, for the first time today, a lovely soft grey with a hint of graduating tones. This is the most interesting it has looked for ages. This dreary weather has reminded me of the time we stayed at Lee Valley YHA for a weekend.

It's not that far north of where we live in London but, being set in 10,000 acres of country park and surrounded by waterways, it felt as though we were in the middle of the countryside. In addition to this there was some snow on the ground which enhanced the atmosphere and made everything very quiet. After breakfast we took ourselves off on a walk and I don't remember many other people being around.

I can remember frost on the branches of the trees and a small bird sliding on the ice covering a pond that looked very comical. At some point we arrived at the Bittern Lookout bird hide which is where I very quickly sketched the view above. I don't remember a lot else about this visit but I am glad to have this visual reminder of our visit to the bird hide.

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

In praise of sheds

Shed Men by Gareth Jones is available on Amazon
One of the things I love about our house is that it has a shed. When I was a child my dad built a shed in our back garden out of bits of old wardrobe and other stuff he found. Not surprisingly it wasn't a very robust shed. It was full of almost empty paint tins, brushes and bits of old wood – enough stuff for me, as a 10-year-old, to spend a happy afternoon building a doll's bed and then painting it pale blue (that being the only colour we had).

Our shed sort of leant against the garage that dad had also built himself and that used to leak quite badly. My brother chalked the winning score of England 4 – West Germany 2, 1966 on one of the lintels that supported the garage roof. Since England has never won the World Cup again my brother has been denied the opportunity to chalk up another winning score in his own garage.

When I moved into my flat in Brixton the thing I was probably most excited about was that it had an airing cupboard in the kitchen. I think an airing cupboard can also serve as a shed in the sense you can store stuff in it you seldom use. Obviously it's no good for skulking in and watching test cricket on the tv as they are generally too small.

As Gareth Jones says in his introduction to Shed Men: "A shed in its most typical form is a simple, outdoor structure comprising roof, walls and an entrance of some sort." He continues: "Sheddism is a movement which has adopted the shed as a construct or metaphor for the personal, creative space it contains – that is, everything from a scientist's robot to a bloke's model railway."

Our author very sensibly tips his hat to us ladies acknowledging the fact that we are also getting in on the shed action ourselves. We have a friend who invested time and money into a nice looking shed/office that looked like it had been borrowed from the Sound of Music and included a wood burning stove. My mother-in-law used to have a summer house that was big enough to live in and had double glazing. Last year I enjoyed a conversation with an artist who told me she has a studio/shed in her garden that's about 5 x 3 metres in size  where she practices her craft. That caused my mind to boggle a bit because that is roughly the size of our wee garden.

I am happy with the shed we have which is really a large cupboard that joins onto the side of the house and has its own outside door with its own key. It houses the boiler, the garden parasol, the umbrella shaped washing line, our walking boots and general clutter. It's not big enough for a chair and a tv. For that we have to go indoors.

Inside our shed

Thursday, 23 January 2014

Urban sketching

My coffee at Timberyard Café
Urban sketching has developed into a worldwide movement with active groups in more than 30 countries since starting life as a group on flickr in 2007. Urban Sketchers later became a non-profit organisation and are planning their fifth international symposium from 27-30 August 2014 in Paraty, Brazil where artists can draw together and learn together.

This is a grassroots organisation 'dedicated to fostering the art of on-location drawing' and has a manifesto which includes: "we draw on location, indoors or out, capturing what we see from direct observation; our drawings tell the story of our surroundings, the places we live and where we travel; our drawings are a record of time and place", you can find the entire manifesto here.

Downstairs in the café
I am allowed to have the Urban Sketchers badge on my blog because a lot of my sketches comply with their manifesto but until this past Sunday I had never been out sketching with them. The group in London began 2014 at a café called Timberyard in Covent Garden. The plan was to meet there at around 11am and work their way down to the Espresso Bar in the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square sketching en route and finishing around 2;30pm. This is no great distance to cover on foot but my contribution to this event ended while everyone was still in the café.

Looking up Monmouth Street to Seven Dials
I very much liked the idea of working with a group of other artists but I felt very uncomfortable doing it. I was reminded of being back at school waiting for everyone else to move off to a new location. I found it difficult to become immersed in what I was doing so ended up flitting from one thing to another. I lost my confidence to draw anything interesting and was reluctant to show anyone what I had done so I left everyone to it and got the bus home. Now I am away from the location I quite like the end result so am happy to publish them on this blog.

I did remember that I have been able to get carried away while sketching and that was on our last morning in Berlin two years ago while we were having a leisurely breakfast before returning to the airport. I'll have to try and recall that concentration if I ever join the London Urban Sketchers again on another sketching outing later in the year.

Breakfast in Berlin January 2012

Monday, 20 January 2014

The Surrey Hills

The Weir by the Bridge, Tilford, Surrey – acrylic on paper
©2001 Heather James
I regard London, the capital of the United Kingdom, as my home. I have lived here since my 23rd birthday so that is a lot more than half my life. I find it a vibrant and interesting city where there is always something going on and there are also quiet, serene places too, for instance in my living room right at this moment.

I have to admit though that in one respect it is a bit dull. The terrain is mainly flat until you get up to Hampstead in the north and it is largely built on clay that has a lot of underground springs in it which makes it difficult to dig if you have a garden. There is, however, some interesting common land left to explore on foot that can't be built on. The Surrey Hills on the other hand are quite different. Just south of London there exists this fascinating area largely made from chalk which is designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty including some areas which are of Special Scientific Interest.

House in Tilford ©Heather James
I can remember my father telling me that when he was a boy scout in the 1930s he would leave his home in south London and go camping and cycling in Surrey at weekends. It was close enough to home to get to easily and far enough away for you to feel transported to another place. You could journey by tube train and bus -  you can see an example of a poster advertising this type of jaunt here - or travel all the way by train from either Waterloo or Victoria stations. Box Hill is a popular destination for cyclists and walkers and is very close to the highest point in southern England, Leith Hill.

Waverley Abbey
I spent a couple of days this week visiting friends who live in Tilford near Farnham. I've often visited this village over the last 20 years and occasionally done some drawing and painting. One place I would like to return to is the ruins of Waverley Abbey. This site is walking distance from Tilford so long as you don't mind risking being run over by drivers of Land Rovers or BMWs - pedestrians are an unknown species in this part of the world. The monastery at Waverley was the first Cistercian house to be established in Britain and it was founded in 1128 and like many sites of historical interest it deserves more than one visit to really appreciate it.

While I can never imagine wanting to live in the Surrey Hills many people do and I had a friend who, for a while, rented a converted barn here and the drawing below is the view from there.

Thursday, 16 January 2014

Sébastien de Vauban's models

Detail of model of Lille ©Graham White
Last Saturday we enjoyed a family day out to Lille in France. We met at St Pancras station in London early in the morning and caught the Eurostar train. We arrived in Lille around 11:30am and then strolled through the town in search of the restaurant where we were going to have lunch.

After consuming an enormous meal in a very popular restaurant we staggered off towards the Palais des Beaux Arts to indulge in some visual culture. As we were a group of seven we decided to split up and go our own ways during our visit and meet up in the café later. My husband and I headed for the exhibits on show in the basement and after we'd had a look at the illuminated manuscripts for a bit we felt a pull to go and see our favourite part of the museum which are Vauban's models.

Sébastien de Vauban (1633-1707) was considered the greatest military engineer of his age. He lived during a period when France was constantly at war and he fortified over 160 towns in France during his lifetime. There are 19 of his detailed models of towns housed in the museum including Lille and Calais – they are in a dimly lit room and protected behind glass. There is nothing to stop you from banging your nose on the glass as I did more than once while I was trying to get a closer look.

©Graham White
The details of the models are fascinating to look at. Every tree has been planted, the fields are ploughed in different directions. Water channels are dug around farms and I found myself calculating how I would make my way from a farmhouse to an adjacent field on foot while avoiding the waterways. The congested and built-up parts of the towns tend to dominate the middle of the models and are surrounded by countryside whereas Calais looks quite small and is surrounded by a lot of water. They truly are maps brought to life and while most of the terrain is generally flat there is one town, whose name I have forgotten, that was really quite hilly. It's so much more interesting than anything Google has to offer and I kept expecting to see tiny people walking around tending fields, animals and children. I am so glad these models still exist for us to enjoy today 300 years later.

After a while our energy began to flag and we decided we needed to recharge our batteries with coffee and cake which we did in the café upstairs. While there I drew this sketch of a lady checking her mobile phone. Now that wouldn't have happened 300 years ago would it?

Monday, 13 January 2014

Book conservation at the British Library

My dictionary needs a new cover
I began my new year with a tour, that is open to the public, of the book conservation studio at the British Library. The British Library is the national library of the United Kingdom and is a major research library that scholars from all over the world visit to pursue their academic studies.

When the library was sited in the British Museum and centred on the Round Reading Room only scholars and post-graduate students were granted permission to study there. As an undergraduate I tried to get a reader's card so I could take a look at something relating to Piet Mondrian and I was sent away with a flea in my ear. The library has been in its present, purpose built site at St Pancras since 1998 and now they have so much space practically anyone is entitled to a reader's card, including me.

I've been studying making frames and cutting mounts to display artwork for a few years now and it is considered good practice to use conservation standard materials where possible in order to extend the life of the work involved. I thought it would be interesting to see this approach being used in a related field so hence my visit.

The reason the books are conserved is so they can be studied by future readers. Since there are more books that need repair than there are conservators to repair them decisions have to be made about which books will be selected. I asked if there was ever a time a book might be thrown out because it was in too poor a state of repair. No, was the reply, they would record the pages digitally and then store the book in a purpose made archival box for occasional future use.

We were visiting the main studio at the top of a three floor building which was bathed in a lovely north facing light entering through skylights in the ceiling. While the room was recognisably a studio with presses, large tables for spreading work out on and sharp tools and pots of glue it was also so clean and tidy it resembled an operating theatre. This impression was reinforced by the sight of conservators wheeling trolleys around carrying their new 'patients'.

We were shown a variety of work being conserved and this included a watercolour painting, a print plus a map made on one of Captain Cook's voyages. These items all had tears that needed repairing and for this they use different types of Japanese paper, which is made from Mulberry fibre and is very strong and flexible, and starch as the glue. One of the Japanese papers was so fine it looked like gossamer.

We also watched while another conservator prepared the spine of a book for repair by removing the old glue and another conservator as he built made-to-measure archive boxes to house specific books which made the archive box I have at home to store my prints in look very flimsy.

I, along with everyone else on the tour, found this a most interesting tour and it provided a fascinating insight into what goes on behind the scenes of the library. Sadly for me my poor old dictionary that needs a new cover won't be repaired by these experts because it is neither rare nor unique. I will have to take it to the bookbinder's in Theobald's Road instead.

Monday, 6 January 2014

Public art 6: Wall paintings

This wall painting conceals a Banksy image
which was in the bottom right hand corner

I received several very interesting books for Christmas. One of these is Banksy Wall and Piece and it covers examples of his work up until 2006. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed reading it since I've never been a particular fan of his. I must admit that he has raised the bar where graffiti is concerned — I've only ever thought of it as form of vandalism with no artistic merit.

He is variously described as a political activist, graffiti artist and film maker. Here's a quote from this book: "Despite what they say graffiti is not the lowest form of art. Although you might have to creep about at night and lie to your mum it's actually one of the more honest art forms available. There is no elitism or hype, it exhibits on the best walls a town has to offer and nobody is put off by the price of admission."

I would counter that by saying that we, the travelling public, don't have a choice about whether we want to see the graffiti we are exposed to on walls, bus shelters and pavements as we go about our daily lives whereas we do have a choice about which art galleries we might visit and many of them are free. I would also say to him, if I found myself chatting to him over a cup of tea in a café, that with the exception of a small number of graffiti artists who are making art that challenges our assumptions most graffiti is the lowest form of art and a colossal waste of spray paint.

Being a lily-livered liberal I enjoyed his anti-war stance with, for example, the Mona Lisa holding a rocket launcher in Soho 2001; making fun of the police with two gay policemen in an embrace and his habit of designating blank walls as official graffiti areas in Marylebone Road and Portobello Road, London and in random areas of San Francisco. This man makes his point with a sense of humour and I find that refreshing.

An important part of Banksy's reputation is his anonymity and, given that his art appears to pop up overnight, he also has the slightly glamorous allure of a highwayman who works to his own timetable. The work in this book has clearly been carefully photographed and well documented over the years. Since his work is by its very nature ephemeral and apt to be painted over, amended by other graffiti artists or simply removed these visual records must be made promptly. So I wonder, does Banksy lie in wait on his own with a high quality camera to record what happens next or does he have a team of willing workers following on behind him? Is this man whose reputation rests on being a one-man-band actually heading up some corporate entity? Is this the real, big joke he is playing on everyone?

I ask this because there is a section in the book which documents his work that has been sneaked into museums like the Natural History Museum, London; the British Museum; the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Natural History Museum in New York and the captions list how long the pieces were on display until they were spotted by curators. Then some of these items have found their legitimate way into the permanent collections. I find it implausible that this can happen without the tacit approval of the museums and art galleries concerned. And does it bother Banksy that far from being a fly-by-night graffiti artist he has now joined the establishment as a middle class installation artist?

Thursday, 2 January 2014

The Blue Pig, Grantham

The Blue Pig, Grantham ©Graham White
We've adopted the Blue Pig pub in Grantham as our home-away-from-home local. Oddly enough we don't have one specific local pub we visit at home but here, in Grantham, where we are strangers it provides us with the comforting illusion of belonging to the place when we visit my mother.

Similarly we previously adopted The Nutshell pub in Bury St Edmunds when my mother lived in Suffolk for many years. This pub's claim to fame was as the smallest pub in England and when mum relocated we mourned this tiny pub with all the US dollar bills stuck on the ceiling and the dried body of the cat hanging from a hook, along with the eccentric bar staff and the often rather odd customers (including, I suppose, us).

Taking my time sketching in the bar

So the Blue Pig proved to be a good Nutshell substitute. It dates back to Tudor times and the rough old beams are genuinely rough and old. When it is cold enough coal fires burn in grates in both the bars and the food is filling if unimaginative. All in all it is a cosy place to perch yourself for as long as you like and you won't be expected to make any conversation you don't want to. It is set in the small medieval road plan of Grantham, Lincolnshire close to St Wulfram's Anglican church. This is one of the largest medieval churches in the country, built around 1300 and it has a remarkably detailed, decorated wooden roof which is a wonderful distraction during a church service.

The name of the pub has its roots in 19th century political rivalry between the Manners family (the Duke of Rutland from Bevoir Castle) and the Brownlow family from Belton House. The Manners family were Whigs and chose Blue as their colour. They bought several pubs in the constituency and added blue to their names so there used to be, in addition to the Blue Pig, the Blue Lion, the Blue Horse and the Blue Dog where supporters could declare their political allegiance and drink blue ale. This was in the days when there was no secret ballot and aspiring politicians, who were invariably the local landowners, bought their votes. In time these corrupt practices became illegal and eventually one man, one vote became the rule.

In time the Tory party (the Conservatives) adopted blue as their colour and in the late 20th century they were led by Margaret Thatcher, to date our only woman Prime Minister. She was born and brought up in Grantham and after her death last year her blue silk, prime ministerial suit was part of a display about her life in the local museum.