Sloane Square. As a native Burnt Oaker, I feel out of place down here. Oh it’s just a place, like any other, and I’ve been around the world, but part of me thinks ‘Sloane Square’ and thinks ‘the 80s’, fil-o-faxes, champagne, upper classes, butlers, top hats, I don’t know, the rich. My part of North London was the opposite, so this was ‘how the other side lives’. Which is all a bit nonsense in the scheme of things, but it does explain why I don’t go down there very often. Also I live in California and have no reason to make special trips to go to Sloane Square in West London and look at exclusive boutiques or whatever they have down there. However, what they do have is the Royal Court Theatre, and I’ve been there a good few times, and I love it. This is one of the most important theatres in London, it is not one of your big commercial Andrew Lloyd Webber nonsense theatres that you get all over the West End; no, this venue fosters proper writing and has birthed many importnat modern playwrights such as Mark Ravenhill and the late Sarah Kane. They also house the Young Writers Program to develop young theatrical talent. This is a place for new and exciting work. I once saw a play there – I cannot recall the name now – with three actors on a bare sloping stage which utilized rudimentary puppetry and long, long mid-sentence pauses, and I absolutely loved it. It’s a great building also, modern and renovated inside but with a classic Sloane Square exterior. My friend Tamara spent a good few years working there too, so I’ll always think of her when I think of the Royal Court. I stood here for the best part of an hour sketching away, having to stop each time a huge bus hulked into view (I stood by a bus stop so this was often), drawing in the newly opened watercolour Moleskine. I had thought about sketching around Kings Road and all the little Chelsea boutiques, with all the butlers and yuppies and stockbrokers and Dukes with their massive mobile phones and their fil-o-faxes and barbour jackets, but I didn’t want to stand out too much as an oik from the estate, and headed off to Westminster to draw a panorama of Parliament Square.
I got on the tube on my second morning in London and went to work – another day of sketching my old city – but without a real plan as to where I would sketch. When I am at a restaurant sometimes I spend ages looking at a menu just to whittle it down to three or four items that I will ultimately decide upon only when asked, on a whim usually (yet I always end up eating the same thing, it’s weird), well sometimes I am like that with the sketching. I had no idea what I wanted to sketch. So I just went where the wind took me. I ended up outside Westminster Abbey, that great spiritual epicentre, the Royal Peculiar, both crowning and final resting place of kings and queens for a millennium. I’ve never ever sketched it, but some recent Spanish sketching visitors to London (that would be Inma Serrano and Miguel Herranz) had sketched it from this very angle and so I was inspired. I love to sketch a cathedral (of course it’s not technically a cathedral, nor is it an abbey, but as I’ve mentioned it’s a Royal Peculiar, direct responsibility of the monarch). I haven’t actually been inside since I was a kid, going to see Poet’s Corner and all that, but I sat across the street amid a crowd of Japanese tourists snapping away with their massive cameras and sketched upwards. It’s a spectacular building. It actually brings me a lot of joy to look at it, knowing its place in English history. This was Edward the Confessor’s church. Admittedly not this particular heap of architecture but it’s been going since his day. Or before, if legends are to be believed, for it was here on what was the Island of Thorney that a simple fisherman had a vision of St. Peter near here, and so in the seventh century an abbey was founded, and apparently the tradition of salmon being given to the Abbey years later was a reference to this incident where a local angler claims he saw a long-dead Pope splashing about in the Thames. William the Conqueror was crowned here, the Norman upstart who fancied himself a king and bloody well became one. And most recently, our latest royal William married Kate Middleton here, at an ungodly hour that meant certain American family members getting up ridiculously early to watch it all on TV. Ah, it’s all spectacle and nonsense, really, but it’s all good fun. This was the last page of my landscape Stillman and Birn ‘Alpha’ sketchbook and what a book it has been. It’s a little larger than my usual size but the paper and the format have been superior, really nice quality, smooth but not too smooth, and takes watercolour very nicely, but really allows for detailed penwork without feeling like I’m chipping away at granite. Of course that is also the uni-ball signo pen I’m using, the old micron pigma was a bit harder work but that’s because I’m tired of nibs that wear down in general. I did originally plan to colour this in, but I liked the pen version so much when I’d finished that I decided against it.
I moved onto the first page of my new sketchbook for the next building. After a year off, I went back to the old favourite, the watercolour Moleskine. This was to be #13 in that particular series. However, as has been pointed out in reviews by fellow urban sketcher and watercolour-Moley fan Liz Steel, the paper in these newer “Art-Plus” Moleys is…different. It isn’t quite the same. Grainier, yes a little, but also different sides of the paper have different textures, like a front and a back, a common feature in lots of watercolour paper but not in the older watercolour Moleskines. Still, I haven’t had too many problems with them and I still love the format and pocket at the back…but somehow it’s not quite the same. By the end of the book I’m sure I’ll be totally used to it and ready for Moley 14…we’ll see!
Anyway what I sketched next was the big domed building across the street from Westminster Abbey, known as Methodist Central Hall (or Central Hall Westminster). This took under an hour, paint included, stood in the shade of a tree while local workers lunched. For my next sketch, I jumped on a tube and went down to Sloane Square… to be continued…
My first two-page street panorama in London! Click on the image to see it in closer detail. This is the intersection of Berwick Street and Broadwick Street, looking down towards Wardour Street in Soho, the heart of London. I have loved Soho since I was a teenager, all its narrow, slightly grimy streets, alleys and shortcuts. I love sketching down there, in this neighbourhood between the Big Streets. Do you know why it’s called Soho? I used to tell people it’s because it is “South of Hoxford Street”, and some people even believed it, but in fact the name comes from an old hunting cry (“So-ho!”, like “Tally-Ho!”). This area in fact used to be a hunting ground in years gone by (yes, yes in some ways it still is, ha ha, very funny). Now, the hunting ground would be bordered by posts which were painted blue, and that is why there are two pubs in Soho called the Blue Posts, one of which is in the middle of the panorama above. Here’s a close-up, below.
Ok, there’s some history for you. This is on the edge of the Berwick Street Market, which has its origins in the 18th century. Down the end of Broadwick Street on the corner of Wardour Street used to stand a famous old pub, the Intrepid Fox, which for more than 200 years was one of Soho’s best loved drinkers. I knew it as the rocker’s pub, the best in town (along with the more trad-pub but still rocker-heavy Ship across the road) and used to go there many years ago with friends before heading to the Hellfire Club, but alas it eventually closed down, and is now a gourmet burger restaurant. What a shame. The Ship’s still there, unchanged. I think I’ve only been into the Blue Posts once, but this is the second or third time I have drawn the building. I spent two and a half hours standing there on the corner opposite, sketchbook in hand (Stillman and Birn Alpha landscape). Occasionally tourists and passers-by would stop and look, or ask me for directions (“Excuse me,” one Italian guy asked, “where is Soho?” Right here, my friend, right here.)
Here I am sketching, in a photo taken by Random Passing Chinese Tourist. And below, the sketchbook-selfie (really? That’s what it’s called?) showing what I was able to do on site. Two and a half hours of penwork. I added all the watercolour when I got home.
Around the corner, the Soho staple art store Cowling and Wilcox now stands empty, closed after fifty years, though they are still open in other locations. A representative from Cass Arts around the corner was stood outside handing leaflets to people directing them there instead, but I told him I didn’t need one (I had just been to Cass). He didn’t take that for an answer and told me to take the leaflet. No thanks mate, I don’t need one. “Take it anyway,” he insisted. No, I don’t need one. “Take it and throw it away then,” he kept on. I don’t want a leaflet, mate, will you leave me alone. He wouldn’t. “You’d be doing me a favour by taking the leaflet.” He was quite pushy. No mate, please leave me alone. He glared for a while incredulous at the idea that I wouldn’t take a leaflet telling me where a store is that I have just been to but then left it and started bothering other people. That’s Soho for you, but there are sometimes pushier sales-folk on these streets, if you know what I mean. By the way, there is another sketch I did in Soho that afternoon, around the corner on Brewer Street. It’s a cool looking shop called Lina Stores Ltd on the corner of Green’s Court, and I just had to sketch it.
And that was the end of my first day back in London! Here’s a map of Soho showing where these two were sketched. IT doesn’t show the previous two from earlier in the day but well, you can figure them out.
One of the missions I set myself was to draw old pubs in Soho. Pubs…they are a dying breed these days. Remember pubs? they’ll say one day. Pubs were great. So many are closing down, old ones like the Nellie Dean, an old favourite of mine, and those that remain are often modernising, sterilising, losing their uniqueness. I say that, but still I managed to find many great old pubs in London, and people still drink a lot, despite the massive hikes in the price of a pint. Wow, beer is dear now. But for me its the existence of the pub, and the old architecture of the British public house, that I’m drawn to (I actually don’t like a lot of beer in London these days, I prefer the brews of the west coast of America). While back, I did stop by an old favourite, the Ship in Wardour Street, for a great evening. This pub, The Lyric in Great Windmill Street (http://www.lyricsoho.co.uk/), sits on the cusp of Theatreland, and while I’ve never actually been in I have walked by many times wanting to sketch it. So on my first day back I made sure I drew it. I stood opposite on an extremely narrow pavement while delivery vans stopped and started and a local workman, presumably some sort of security guard, I wasn’t sure, stood chatting away on the phone the entire time, joking with his colleague about something called a “jelly cab” whatever that is. He was friendly, and asked if I was an architect, I said no, they work longer hours than me. I did most of the inkwork and some of the paint, but finished off the paintwork later. It is nice taking sketches home to colour in, it gives me more time to sketch other things! Which I promptly did. Anyway I am very pleased with the result and here is another London pub added to my collection. I love Soho.
I’ve been away for a little while…but now I am back. Jetlagged, with lighter pockets. For just over three weeks I was back in my native city of London to see family and friends, and to feel like a tourist. I even organized a sketchcrawl. I did a LOT of sketching, so I will undoubtedly be scanning and posting for the next month or so, but it’s about time to get started already. On my first morning in London, I awoke bright and early (well it was not quite bright yet), did a panorama sketch of my old street from my old window (to scan and post later), and hopped on a train down to Piccadilly Circus, the crazy traffic and tourist filled pulse in the middle of London. I generally dislike Piccadilly Circus, especially now that there are no big record stores worth going there for, but they do have that big Waterstones bookstore a little further down Piccadilly, and of course they have Lillywhites. That is a huge sports store, to which I primarily go to look at the massive collection of football shirts (you may not know this, but I’m a football shirt nerd, oh you did know? Oh yeah, see all my previous posts this summer…). I got down there early, before it opened, and took a spot outside their big windows to sketch the Angel of Christian Charity, also known as the Shaftesbury Memorial Fountain, but known to Londoners and sign-posts as Eros. I usually avoid this spot due to overcrowding but at this time of the morning it was immeasurably more pleasant. I sketched in a large spiral-bound Stillman and Birn Alpha book, and stood looking towards Regent St and Shaftesbury Avenue. After a while, some police officers showed up, dressed in bright yellow overcoats. They were just hanging around, and then more came. Some photographers also started gathering, and then more police, and then two officers mounted on horseback, all in a jovial mood, all happy to pose with tourists. There must have been over forty police officers there, and they all stood together and said “cheese, guv” and had their photo taken in front of the statue (“Ello, ello, ello, what’s goin’ on Eros then?” I nearly quipped). I had alreayd drawn most of it by then but I did add a couple of coppers for good measure. A young woman from Germany, holidaying in London, stopped and watched me sketch for a while, even sitting down when I crouched over to add the paint. I was in a good mood for my first out-and-about sketch in London, and when I was done I said goodbye to the circus, popped into Lillywhites to look at all the new football shirts, and set off to sketch the narrow dusty streets of Soho.
One of the buildings in Davis I have sketched a few times is the Dairy Queen, on 5th St. The DQ was very popular here, with its iconic sign, a place to take grandkids for an ice cream, and I even sold a couple of my sketches of it. Finally of course, it closed down, and the site has been bought by a developer. However, the developer has not torn the whole thing down, as you might expect, but has kept the shell of the building, specifically its iconic curving roof. I can’t wait to see how this ends up. When I heard about this recently I took myself back up to this spot on 5th St, which I never pass as much any more now I live in north Davis, and sketched from across the road. Goodbye Dairy Queen. I’ll probably sketch this site again before they’re done redeveloping.
By the way, here’s how it used to look…
Sketchers of London! I would like to invite you to join me for another sketchcrawl on the streets of Britain’s capital on Saturday, August 2nd. I’ve organized a couple of sketchcrawl events in London over the past couple of summers, last years being themed upon the Whitechapel of Jack the Ripper, and this year I wanted to indulge my life-long love of the London of Sir Christopher Wren, the late seventeenth century architect and scientist and the genius behind St. Paul’s Cathedral.
We will start at 10:30am at the base of The Monument (nearby Monument tube), and from there we will sketch solo or in groups (as you prefer), taking in as many of the great Wren’s buildings as we can fit on our pages, before reconvening by the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral, Wren’s masterpiece, at 4pm, to look at each others’ sketchbooks. From there we may have a quick pint at the Old Bell on Fleet Street, the only pub built by Wren on our ‘crawl.
WHEN: Saturday August 2, 2014
START: 10:30am, The Monument
FINISH: 4:00pm, outside St. Paul’s Cathedral
As always this sketchcrawl is free and open to anybody with an interest in urban sketching, artists of all levels and ages are welcome. All you need is something to draw with and something to draw on (oh and maybe a snack). I will be providing hand-drawn maps for you to choose your own route. I hope to see you there!
Let’s draw London!
Urban Sketchers London