Here’s a quick sketch I did on a lunchtime from work (in the at-home office) on Covell Boulevard, north Davis. It’s Calvary Chapel on the corner of Oak Street, and I have drawn this building before, quite a long time ago now, back in 2012 when I first moved to north Davis (after six and a half years in south Davis). Back then, there was a funny looking periscope thing on the roof, one of those architectural details that bring light down into the building. That has gone now. Not gone entirely though, it’s been moved next to the building (on the other side of this, unseen; I should go and draw it really). The 2012 sketch is below. As you can see it’s a different colour now. Those trees behind the building didn’t just sprout up in that time, at least I don’t think they did, I probably just left them out. Not the Cypress trees in front, they were there. Of course what you are probably wondering about is the foreground object, a wonky electrical box on my side of Covell. It really was quite wonky, not much exaggeration there. It looks like a drunken robot, on the walk of shame in the early morning when the sun’s coming up. Come on, we’ve all been there. It looks like it’s just stumbled off the night bus having gone halfway across London in the wrong direction because it missed its stop. Several times. Like, London is massive and the night buses at Trafalgar Square when it’s freezing cold, sometimes you jsut jump on the first one that looks about right, just to get warm, and suddenly you’re in like Enfield or Chingford. Yeah I know this is really specific now, but we’ve all been there, we’ve all done it. One time it was like Queens Park or Harlesden, or somewhere pretty scary looking at 3am and you just jump on the next bus outta there, wherever it was going, and back to sleep. The 90s was an age of exploration, and sleep.
A few weeks ago we went to the town of Sonoma for the afternoon, to have an outdoors lunch with my wife’s mother. It was nice to get out of Davis and I took the opportunity to go and do a sketch of the Mission, above. If you don’t know about the Missions of California, here is a good site for you to find out about them: https://californiamissionsfoundation.org/the-california-missions. The one in Sonoma, called San Francisco Solano, is the most northerly one, the end of a trail that leads all the way down to San Diego. This little adobe building dates back to 1823 as the culmination of three hundred years of Spanish-Mexican settlement in California, going back to 1523. It was actually badly destroyed in the 1906 earthquake but was rebuilt and restored. I have drawn it twice before, but it turns out it was a really long time ago: 2007 and 2006!
The very first time I came to California, in 2002, we spent a couple of days in Sonoma housesitting at my (future) wife’s friend’s place. I really liked Sonoma best out of all the places I went to on that trip, and I remember the delicious wine and the great cheeses from that cheese shop. Now during the pandemic there are still people out and about but the cheese shop was closed, and seating at restaurants and cafes was all outside. We had an early dinner in one of our favourite spots, Hopmonk Tavern, and I sketched my son on his device while the ladies talked. This is one of only a few occasions we have eaten out since the whole pandemic started. This was a brief respite form the terrible smoky air in California, but that soon came back. That very night there were enormous fires that erupted near here in Napa Valley, destroying some historic wineries and lots of homes, raining large flakes of ash down on all the towns around. I hate this awful year, and I really hate fire season. It’s never been so bad, and it’s terrible on all the industries around this way.
Oxbridge. The Brangelina of cities. What those of you outside of academic circles may not know though is that they are in fact two completely separate towns with very little in common. Sure they have world class universities that are hard to get into. Well, it was hard for me anyway, so I didn’t even try. You needed a lot more “As” to get in there, and my single “A” in English wouldn’t have been enough. Also I don’t know if I’d have been able to choose between the two. So I ended up staying in London and going to Queen Mary, and I liked it there. Just going to University itself was to open a different world to me than the one I knew from Burnt Oak, it was completely uncommon among most people I grew up with, so the idea of Oxbridge would have been like the idea of going to work at Buckingham Palace or something. Still, I wonder what it would have been like if I had set Oxbridge as a goal earlier in my school career. Probably no different. Even at sixth form college, I knew nobody who went there, or had applied there, it was just seen as effectively off-limits. I’ve met so many people since, great academics of course, who either went there or teach there now, and it seems strange to think of it as something so distant, but I still wouldn’t get in, unless they have a degree in drawing fire hydrants or making bad puns.
So, Oxford then. There are so many places to draw here, but I had to draw one of the big grand college entrances. This is the front of Brasenose College, right in the heart of the city. The University’s colleges are located throughout Oxford (as are Cambridge’s). The University of Oxford itself was founded in 1096 (possibly), although it was really around 1167 that it grew after King Henry II forbade students from going to the Sorbonne in Paris (in case the Sorbonne stole their data, good job we don’t have leaders like that now). Brasenose dates from 1509, its name coming from an old brass door knocker on the old Brasenose Hall. Famous alumni of Brasenose include David Cameron, who had some brass himself; Michael Palin, whose travel shows and books made me want to be a travel writer when I was a kid (yeah, working on that); William Webb Ellis, who invented rugby; and Field Marshal Haig, who was played by Geoffrey Palmer in Blackadder Goes Forth. I’ve been to Oxford a few times, always thought it a place I could live if we were ever to go back to England. I suppose I’m drawn to university towns, I like being close to big libraries.
I decided to skip past all of the places in between “Ox” and “Bridge”, such as Milton Keynes, and Luton, which I’ll be sure to include in a future virtual sketchbook, honestly, and proceeded to the other great university city of Cambridge. The University of Cambridge was founded in 1209 after there were big punch-ups between the locals of Oxford (“town”) and the scholars of the University (“gown”). Actually it was pretty serious – three Oxford scholars were hanged by authorities following the death of a local woman, kicking off a load of violence. Many fled to Cambridge and decided to start a new University right there. Just like in Oxford the colleges are scattered among the town; just like in Oxford there is a “Bridge of Sighs”; just like in Oxford there is a river that winds around town between the colleges, which just like in Oxford is full of “punts”, those long flat boats where people will punt along by pushing a long wooden stick against the riverbed. I’ve done it myself, not easy to navigate at first, but I managed not to fall in. I really like Cambridge, a bit smaller than Oxford, although last time I was there it was pretty crowded with tourists. I first went to Cambridge when I was 19, to visit a friend who I had met on a college exchange trip to France. I remember that day, getting the train up from King’s Cross, walking about town, going to the shopping centre (I bought a Boo Radleys CD there, I remember clearly), reading the Cambridge Evening News and laughing at the hilarious headline “Rising Bollards Claim Another Victim”. I liked being 19, it was a simple time. I’ve been back to Cambridge a number of times and I always like it there, and though it’s somewhere I could definitely sketch I decided on the virtual trip that I would not draw another college building, just creating a mirror on the spread with Oxford, so I chose to draw the Round Church, which as you can see is just that.
Now these being 34 and 35 you’ll notice that we are now over the halfway point in our journey around Great Britain. We will zigzag around the country missing out many a great town and including some which you might think, wow you skipped Ipswich for this place? But the obvious next stop in this virtual journey is just up the train track from Cambridge in the Fens city of Ely…
Ok, since I’m posting month by month to play catch-up, here are a bunch more sketches all from February, from Davis (downtown and campus this time). I’m still not going out and sketching at the moment, even though I can, I’m just not for some reason. This week I have been drawing Northern Line tube stations with a limited palette of three colours, one of which I can’t pronounce, one I can’t remember, and the other one I just like having fun with the name. You’ve got to have fun with language in a pandemic, although in my case it’s more like a pun-demic. I have to wear a mask indoors so nobody can hear the dad jokes.
Right, back to the drawings. Above is Davis Community Church. I like drawing this building, especially when the trees are a bit leafless. I drew this building first back in 2006, and I remember not being super happy with the outcome but thinking, you know one day I’ll think this will look good. I never did, to be honest, but I’ve drawn it a few times more when I have been much happier with it, and I really like this one. I drew it again, below, uncoloured and from the front, more quickly over a lunchtime, but I was not super bothered with that one so just left it.
I do like drawing churches though. I’m probably one of the most unreligious of people I know, but I love a good church building, in fact most interesting looking religious buildings. I’m kind of specifically obsessed with cathedrals, and want to do a sketchbook tour (a real one, not a virtual one) drawing loads of them, inside and outside, and I don’t know that I’d ever get bored of them. I remember the very first time I went to Notre Dame, in Paris, and feeling the ancient cold stone, looking up in wonder at the massive rose window, sensing the years of stories. I mean I don’t get that feeling obviously from the Davis Community Church building but it’s interesting in its own way, and I like to stop and draw it every now and then.
Let’s take a stroll back over to campus. This is the Plant Sciences Building at UC Davis. They are really good at what they do there, and what they do is plants. Specifically, the science of plants, or Plant Sciences. Ok I am not a plants person, I don’t know my onions. I studied medieval English, and before that Drama and French. We have established in the previous post that I love science, but only in a kind of “cousin you only see every now and then” kind of way, I don’t remember science’s birthday until I see people on facebook saying happy birthday to it. Biology was not my interest, despite me getting ok grades in it (for my class anyway). I do remember one homework set by my biology teacher in which we had to describe to aliens who had just landed on earth what the difference was between an animal and a car, why one was alive and the other was a machine. My answer was short. “It’s a bit like your spaceship.” I said. My teacher didn’t give me a good grade for that. But the thing is, this was clearly a vastly more advanced civilization, being able to get across space like that when we couldn’t even get the high-speed rail link to the channel tunnel right at this point. If anything they could tell us what the difference is, and a whole lot more. I don’t know, I’d be a bit suspicious of these space aliens asking suspicious questions, I don’t think I’d want to tell them all that much. This homework was from like, 1990, and I’m still thinking about elaborating on my obviously wrong answer. I think that’s where my science career ended, and also my sci-fi writing career.
And then there’s these buildings. I don’t know what they do, but there is some construction going on opposite. One of the things that happened to me in February, I went to the emergency room on my birthday, as I had picked up some sort of infection in my nose, which looked terrible and was very painful, but thankfully got better with lots of medicine. I keep forgetting about that now with all the global pandemic we’ve had since, but that was my first trip to the doctors in a decade so it felt like a big deal, and made for an exciting birthday.
This one, on the corner of 3rd and University, might be my favourite sketch of this whole period. Very springlike. I was getting over that whole nasal infection thing, and I had a spring in my step (people kept bouncing into my door) (sorry, dad joke alert). This is another corner I have returned to many times over the years. It used to have a telegraph pole with shoes hung over the lines. Now (out of shot) there is an obelisk made of bike arts.
And finally here is another spring-like sketch, this is a house near campus I have always thought was one of the prettiest in town. I only drew a bit of this one on site though because I was in a hurry, so I did all the colour and half the drawing later on. There was a “Bernie” sign on the tree, presumably for Sanders, I don’t think it was for Bernie Winters. Remember Bernie Winters? He had that massive dog, a St.Bernie-Winters I think it was, I think it was called Orbitz. Anyway this is a beautiful little house, there are some lovely little houses in this town, and as I’ve been exploring more on my walks and my runs in Davis I’m seeing just how many lovely houses there are.
February was a long time ago. Today is Born on the Fourth of July here in the US, and so Happy Independence Day to everyone. We are watching Hamilton tonight! And tomorrow morning, I’m also watching Lewis Hamilton, because my beloved Formula 1 is back…
First workshop day of the Urban Sketching Symposium! We got a big bag of goodies this year, loads of paints and pens and sketchbooks. I still have goodies from the first symposium in my art cupboard. This year symposium attendees all got bright red bags to carry our gear, which also made it easy to spot the other symposium people. The first thing I drew in the morning was the castle-like building called ‘Waag’, in the Niewmaarkt. I think everyone sketched this. It sits there nice and sketchable. I drew it from the most obvious angle. Perhaps I should have sat closer and made more of an effort, but I was in a hurry, I needed to get to my first workshop: “Amsterdam Rooftops” with the very nice Hugo Costa. I met Hugo in Porto, so was eager to take one of his workshops, and he really had an advantage over the other workshops, in that we were going to be looking out over the top of the city, but also sketching in a cool air-conditioned rooftop restaurant, “Blue”. I drew him introducing the workshop below.
For the class we had to bring large sketchpads, like A3 size, which of course is not my usual thing but I wanted to give it a go. Definitely enjoy attacking something so big and detailed on a large piece of paper. I decided against adding colour, but just added a bit of shade. I took this photo of it. I submitted this into the end-of-symposium auction, and it sold! Most of all, I enjoyed observing Amsterdam from above. There is something so peaceful about sitting above a city, counting the spires, watching it stretch to the horizon. The Netherlands is a very flat country. When I was a kid I had a map of Amsterdam on my wall, and I loved how the canal rings curved around the city centre. It’s amazing I have not spent that much time in Amsterdam in my life, but I have never really spent much time in many of the places I used to read all about when I was a kid (I had a map of Sydney too, never been to Australia, as well as those little Berlitz books about Hong Kong, New Zealand, Norway and the Rhine Valley, none of which I’ve been to. YET.).
This is one of my favourite photos from the symposium, the various workshop attendees from all over the world all huddled together in an elevator going up to Blue, all ready to sketch. I made some silly joke about “watch out for pickpockets!”. This was a really nice workshop experience, we had some nice conversations.
Here is Hugo taking a look at some of the sketches.
After the workshop many of us stayed for lunch. I caught up with Daniel Green, always nice to chat with him, and sketched the view looking down what I think is Regulierbreestraat. This is a city I would love to explore so much of, maybe in a slightly less busy time of year (whenever that is!).
After lunch I headed back to the hotel and then went out to see something I just had to see – the Ajax Arena. Well it’s called the Johan Cruijff arena now after the most famous footballing son of Holland. I wanted to go there because I love Dutch football (well, I like it) and have always admired Ajax, but maybe the real reason is that my team Tottenham knocked Ajax out of the Champions League semi-final in a most dramatic last-minute way in 2019, and I wanted to wear my emerald-green Spurs top there, just for a laugh. I got a few comments in the club shop, “oh you can’t wear that here.”
I didn’t get to go inside the stadium but that is ok, I just sketched outside. I did meet one Ajax fan though who was not a fan of Tottenham, let’s say. I was standing outside a restaurant next to the stadium which was called “Burger Bitch” (one of the burgers was called “That’s a huge bitch”) and he came dashing out to tell me, no you cannot wear that Tottenham shirt here. Not so much for us beating them, which he blamed completely on Ajax, more for how he and other Ajax fans were treated by the police when they visited our new stadium in the first leg (he never got to see the game because some English hooligans attacked them, and so the police just took them away and sent them to Leicester Square, no game for them). I felt bad for the guy, we had a good chat about footy, but yeah at first I thought he might chase me away. He told me of his other stories about traveling with the Ajax, such as when they were in Turin and the Italian ultras of Juventus would attack them with knives, and a guy he knows got one of those infamous knives in the buttock that are popular with Italian calcio hooligans. I had heard of this being a thing. He told me that was the worst thing because they cannot sit. Actually he might have said “cannot shit”, it was hard to tell the way the Dutch sometimes say their “s”, but either way not a nice injury to have. I didn’t tell him about when my brother in law fought against Ajax fans in the early 80s on a canal boat in Amsterdam and he was attacked by a guy with a samurai sword and had to jump ship. I’ve always wondered about that story. Anyway after all this fun chat I went back into central Amsterdam, and decided I might not wear my Tottenham shirt out to the pub that evening.
A couple of photos. I was particularly proud of my quip when I saw the picture of Danny Blind holding hands with a young Daley Blind, two generations of Ajax player, when I said “D. Blind leading D. Blind”. But nobody was there to hear or care. And there it is, Burger Bitch, to prove it’s a real actual place.
I had to wait ages for the metro. The station at the Arena was absolutely packed, largely with people traveling home from work, but the heatwave was causing more delays I think. I sketched a little. When I got back, I rested for a while at the hotel before getting back to the sketching job. I drew the Zuiderkirk from the banks of the Zuiderkerk from Kloveniersburgwal canal…
…before drawing the sunset at the Amstelhoeck. I then spent the rest of the evening drinking beer and hanging out with sketching buddies, another very fun evening. A very hot but very productive day. The next day was even hotter…
I took the train across the linguistic divide that cuts Belgium in two and landed in Liège, a city I had last visited in the final months of the twentieth century. I was going there for exactly 24 hours, to visit my long-time urban sketching friend and art hero, Gerard Michel, and also sketch with some other Belgian sketching friends. Liège is a fairly big city, larger than I remember, and the architecture is very Walloon, lots of brick houses and steep hills. Gerard and I went for a morning walk around his neighbourhood, up steep paths and down long stairs, overlooking rooftops and spires and trees and the great river Meuse. Liège is a lively city, with a lot of atmosphere, a university city, and a very sketchable one, but in a different way to Ghent. We met up with Fabien Denoel, who I’ve known and followed since Barcelona 2013, and Chris Damaskis, as well as Danni Hoedamkers whom I had sketched with in Ghent, and Martine Kervagoret, visiting from Paris on the way to the Symposium, whom I first met back in Lisbon 2011 I think. We sketched up at the Terrasses des Minimes, overlooking the city, and it was very peaceful. I have seen many of gerard’s skethces from up there, as well as Fabiens, but also Lapin’s Florian Afflerbach’s, Nina Johansson’s, all the great sketchers who have visited there before, so I knew this scene well already, and I’m glad to have sketched it myself.
I liked this picture of an apple that I took too.
We walked into town for lunch, going to an old Liègeois cafe called Chez Stockis / Cafe Lequet, near the banks of the Meuse. We sat and chatted in French (I am very rusty), looked through sketchbooks, had cold beer and ate very local food. Most people had these things called ‘boulots’, which are these large meatballs (I don’t eat the meat so I didn’t have those), but I had Tomates Crevettes, which were these little shrimp sat on a big tomato, with frites. The cafe is old and a local favourite, but I heard that it would be closing. In fact I think by now, M. Stockis has closed up for the last time, though the cafe may still be going on (there’s a FB page). The patron, Guillaume Stockis, is there in the background of the sketch below (which is of Fabien Denoel). On the ceiling is hanging the marionette of Tchantchès, a local Walloons character dating back to the 19th century, dressed in his traditional miners’ clothes. You can learn about him here, if you can speak Walloons. This here is the heart of Liège.
After lunch we walked across the Meuse to the Outremeuse neighbourhood and sketched at the roundabout of the Rue Pont St Nicolas. It was getting hot, the heatwave was coming in, and regular cold drinks were necessary. I sat next to a Friterie – the Friterie Tchantches of course – and drew as best I could. I also wandered about a little, as I had learned (from one of Gerard’s sketches) that the best waffles in Liège were at a place just across the street. Sadly it was closed, so I had one from a chain nearby, which was not as good. The waffles of Liège are a bit different from the waffles of Brussels, usually smaller and rounder, and they remind me of that Belgian film Rosetta, which I saw back in 1999 when I was in Charleroi, a story about a young woman in Liège who at one point works in a waffle truck.
Going back a few hours, the sketch below was the view from the guest room at Gerard’s house, I had woken up early (jetlag), and needed to practice the sketching. The bells at the local church were playing Bob Dylan, Blowin’ in the Wind, which always reminds me of when I lived in Belgium, when I listened to Bob Dylan a lot, and that was the first song on the CD I had bought. I would listen to that when looking out over the rooftops from my 13th floor room, so perhaps this was the universe welcoming me back to Wallonia.
And as you know, I like to draw fire hydrants, so I drew three of them in Liège. And here also is Gerard, on the steep Montagne de Beuren, showing me the spot where he had once drawn a spectacular 360 degree picture of the whole scene – he gave me a print of it a decade ago, I do love it. It was funny seeing the real place in real life.
Here is Gerard’s sketchbook, and as you can see I show up in it twice! A huge honour. I’m wearing my 1984 classic Belgium shirt, crouching over my book as always.
After sketching the roundabout, I walked down to the shade beneath the bridges crossing the Meuse. There was a smell of wee. The footbridge is the Passarelle Saucy, and I think I remember this bridge from that one time I came here twenty years ago, but I don’t remember it being called Saucy. What a brilliant name for a bridge. And no, I won’t be doing any sauce or saucy based jokes here.
We crossed back over the river, walked about the city-centre a bit, before stopping off at the Place St Denis to draw the side of the church there. The weather was really getting hot by now. Gerard’s son Antoine joined us, I’ve met him a number of times. It was nice having dinner with Gerard’s family at his home the evening before, he made a really delicious chicken meal. I was delighted to take a look at his sketchbook room, his inventions, and we looked through a large map book of 17th or 18th century Belgium with Fabien, scouring it for every village; a small country with a big and detailed history. Belgium has only been the country of Belgium since 1830, but every area has a long hisroty, often of being ruled by some foreign power like the Habsburgs, or the French, or the Dutch, or the Spanish; Liège for many years was ruled by the Prince-Bishops of Liège, the princes-évêques, and the next time I am here I will draw the magnificent palace that still dominates the skyline. This is also, possibly, the city of Charlemagne’s birth, though nobody knows for sure. It might be Aachen, which isn’t far away, and was his capital. The city I was in the day before, Ghent, was the birthplace of another great Holy Roman Emperor called Charles, whose name lives on in one of my favourite beers, Charles Quint (Kaizer Karel).
The Church of St.Denis dates back to the late 900s AD, founded by someone called Notker of Liège. I added the colour later on the train out of town. I spent exactly 24 hours in Liège. We all went for a cold beer in the city square, before Gerard took me to the station, the phenonemally futuristic cathedral of Guillemins, and I just made it onto a train to go back in time to Charleroi. A la prochaine fois, Liège!
I went to Barnstaple with family to see family, an almost six hour drive to the West Country. I like Barnstaple, all of the shops are close together, and if you need a pair of socks urgently you can just walk to a shop a few minutes away and get some for a quid (unlike in Davis). Yes it was the same shop I bought four Topics for a quid. By the way Americans if you don’t know what a quid is, it’s a pound, the UK currency, not the unit of weight. I say ‘quid’ a lot. In America I say ‘bucks’ a lot. By the way it’s never ‘quids’, you don’t say “seven quids”. Oh except in the phrase “quids in”, which means…ok let’s get on with the drawings. I was up early, having beaten my brother at MarioKart the night before in the hotel room (just wanted to point that out), and I like to wander about having a little walk. The sketch above is Barnstaple Parish Church. The church dates back to Saxon times over a thousand years ago (England is well old, folks), though none of that building survives. The present church is much newer, having been built just recently, in 1318 (the spire is even newer, having only been put up in 1389, which was pretty much just the other day). Some more building was added in the 1600s such as the Dodderidge Library in 1667 (it’s hard for a Londoner to see a building dating from 1667 and not assume it is just replacing one destroyed in the Great Fire of London, but it didn’t quite reach this far, hundreds of miles west). The spire of the church has a twist – it was a ghost all along. No, not that sort of twist. It was struck by lightning in 1810, but the twist is that it wasn’t the lightning that twisted it at all, but centuries of sunlight on the lead and wooden frame. Apparently George Gilbert Scott (the grandfather of Giles who built Tate Modern, Waterloo Bridge and designed the red phonebox) was asked to renovate the church, but he refused to fix the twist, because he said that “if you know Bruce Willis is a ghost all along it ruins the tension of this otherwise unwatchable film”. By the way if you ever travel back in time to 1810 and get stuck, at least you know you can generate the 1.21 gigawatts of power to get home by hooking up a cable to the Barnstaple Parish Church spire.
When I first came to Barnstaple last year to visit my uncle Billy who lives here, I saw this really interesting looking butcher’s shop in Joy Street. I determined that I would sketch it when I came back, so I did. I could never be a butcher. I would just be doing ‘meat’ puns all the time, like “nice to meat you!” and “it’s bacon hot today!” and “gammon have a go if you think you’re hard enough”. See, I’d be really bad at it. Master Butchers are very skilled at what they do. They really know their meats. They know all the meats. Beef, Lamb, Pork Pies, all the meats. It would take me ages to learn all the meats. Across the street from here is an art shop called the Blue Gallery, so I popped in to have a look around. Lots of nice art supplies. They also had a copy of Matthew Brehm’s perspective drawing book, I have quite a few sketches in that one. These were the only sketches I did in Barnstaple this time, but my ones from last year are in this post: https://petescully.com/2018/05/19/barnstaple-devon/ . Devon’s nice. I came to Devon when I was in my teens a few times, and always thought I would come back more as I grew older, but never got around to it. It’s a big county, with lots of places to discover. Devon is old country. When you are out on the windswept moors time is almost irrelevant. Unless you are sentenced to Dartmoor prison, when time becomes a thing you do. I always liked the ghost stories from the moors, like the Hairy Hands of Dartmoor. Seriously, the Hairy Hands of Dartmoor. That is an actual ghost story, look it up. It sounds like a Dr. Strange incantation. “By the Hairy Hands of Dartmoor!”
The only rainy day on my visit back to England was the day I dedicated to doing the most sketching, but I don’t mind the rain, and I wanted to explore anyway. A slightly later start than I had wanted (due to waking up super early – jetlag – after a night out seeing an old friend in Borough – hangover – meaning I stayed in bed trying to get back to sleep a bit more, rather than dashing out at 8am to sketch every inch – or centimetre – of the city). I wanted to explore Victoria – the area not the person – and maybe draw a map of the neighbourhood showing people all the interesting things to sketch around there. I haven’t drawn the map yet, and in fact Victoria has changed a lot since I last spent time around there, which was almost 20 years ago when I was a tour guide based out of there. It’s really different there now. I don’t know what has happened to New Scotland Yard but it’s an empty building site now. Lots of modern buildings have risen up. One building I have always been interested in but never sketched nor been inside was Westminster Cathedral. My old tour bus used to swing past this building while I gave a courteous nod to the recent history of Catholicism in England, on the way to (or was it from?) the much more illustrious and ancient Westminster Abbey, further up the road (which is not technically a Cathedral but a Royal Peculiar, our highly knowledgeable tour guide instructor instructed us to say. Regardless, only one of these buildings gave the City of Westminster its name and it wasn’t stripey boy here). I stood opposite Westminster Cathedral, in the light rain, my London Underground umbrella firmly stashed inside my jacket hands-free, sketching in the Stillman and Birn Alpha book. The tower had to be squashed ever so slightly because it’s actually very tall, but you wouldn’t notice unless I tell you, so I’ll keep quiet. I like the stiripes; some of the older buildings around the back of it have similar horizontal stripes either in mimicry or as a survival instinct to blend in; it’s nature’s way. The long name of this building is the “Metropolitan Cathedral of the Precious Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ”. Or “No not Westminster Abbey, the stripey one around the corner”. It was built in 1903 out of brick with no steel reinforcements, none of your steel reinforcements, proper brick done properly. The flags waving above the entrance are that of the United Kingdom and that of the Vatican City. The domes and curves brought to mind the St Mark’s Basilica in Venice, but less glitzy. I had never been inside though, and so after a sandwich from Boots (Meal Deal of course – I love the Meal Deals in England) I went in and had a look around. I was very impressed, there was a lot to see and it had a fair bit of glitz itself (it’s the big Catholic church of the country, you need some glitz) such as golden neo-Byzantine mosaics, but most exciting was that for the tidy sum of six quid I could go up the tower.
“It’s very foggy today,” said the man in the gift shop who operated the elevator, “you won’t see much.” Oh I don’t mind that, I said, thinking it might make drawing a bit easier if I can’t see all the details. It was a really good view (for six quid it had to be, but it supports keeping the elevator open so I’m all for it), and the wind did blow some of the rain in towards me, I stood pretty sheltered and draw as much as I could. The growing pattern of skyscrapers in the distance was a ghostly silhouette, dominated by the Shard. The Palace of Westminster’s Victoria Tower stands tall in the middle, and just behind Westminster Abbey you can see Big Ben still covered in scaffolding. I enjoyed drawing this so much. There’s nothing like drawing a city from a high perch, and I did it again a couple of days later at the Tate. If you like perspective drawing this is like a dream job. When I was done, I wandered about the streets of Victoria for a bit more, before heading back over towards the shops of Covent Garden. It’s times like this when I feel such an affection for London, the unbeatable metropolis that can never be completely discovered. I’ve always liked this building but never been in, and now I have.
I wonder what my Venice ‘limit’ is? How long could I be in Venice before I got bored by the bridges, confounded by the canals, tired of the tourists, frustrated by the flooding, and hounded by the humidity? Maybe never, and maybe always? Maybe all of that is the charm of Venice, and maybe it is something I don’t notice when by myself but becomes more prominent when with others? It’s hard to tell. I’ll always love Venice, always be amazed by its very existence and history, that is is an eternally crumbling yet living and breathing beauty? I could spend a long time there wandering and sketching, but even Venice would end up feeling small and familiar. Other cities may not be as pound-for-pound beautiful, but may have a more lasting attraction – Paris, for example. Over the course of three days however Venice is magnificent and divine, and every scene is a potential watercolour. The morning light in Venice beats everywhere I have ever been. The sketch above was done on my second morning in Venice, while wandering about the narrow paths of the sestiere of Cannaregio, looking for a specific spot which I knew to be nearby the place we stayed in 2003. I found it – the shiny marble church known as Chiesa di Santa Maria dei Miracoli, which I remembered to be surrounded by cats the first time I saw it. There were no cats this time. I sat on the steps of a bridge on the Fondamenta del Piovan and sketched the above scene, painting the colourful reflection in the soft morning light, before wandering back to the apartment, Venetian breakfast pastries in hand.
Later that day, we had a morning and afternoon of slow wandering around the two sestieri on the other side of the Grand Canal, San Polo and Santa Croce. We took a traghetto over, looking for the natural history museum, but spent ages getting lost among the alleys and courtyards. This was a much more residential area than I had expected, and while we were lost (because we were a bit lost, we never found that museum) my son watched local kids playing football in the small squares (though he was a bit shy to join in). I did get one sketch done, looking for a route to the Grand Canal, sketching the magnificently domed Chiesa di San Geremia across the wide turquoise canal. Scenes like this make Venice feel like a made-up city, a pretend place, but it’s very real, and boatmen moored up bringing their goods onto the fondamenta. This was actually my last sketch in Venice and tired feet were not looking forward to the journey back to England, but we were all ready to come back by that point. Venice is beautiful and fun, as is Rome, but there is a lot of walking. Our next vacation will involve a little more beach and pool.
One last sketch though, a quick pencil sketch of the Rio de S. Fosca, in Cannaregio, drawn quickly the evening before, after dinner. I didn’t want to be out sketching after dark so drew this as the sun set and went back to settle into the apartment with thoughts of future Italian trips in my head. Next time, Florence, Tuscany, and maybe the Italian Lakes. I’d like to visit the Ligurian coast, all the way down to the Cinqueterre. Genoa has always sounded interesting to me, and Bologna. Naples scares me a bit, but I had a pen-pal from Naples when I was about 13 (we never met, but she would write to me all about the south of Italy, and I’d write back all about London). Similarly, Sicily always seemed wild and distant, but I would love to explore its villages and coastal towns. I don’t know; I want to go everywhere, I guess. At least we were able to go to Rome and Venice, and that was worth it. Arrivederci Italia. Ciao!
A couple of days before our trip to Italy, we went to the Museum of London. London’s history was always a great interest to me, the story of one of the world’s greatest cities, from the chaos of the Blitz, the Restoration period of Plague, Fire and Rebirth, the medieval city of tightly packed lanes and Bow-Bells, the Anglo-Saxon settlement of Lundenwic, right back to its origins as the Roman city of Londinium Augusta (and even farther back, into the area’s British past). Outside the Museum of London we marvelled at a decent stretch of the old London Wall, built by the Romans to surround Londinium, a piece of the Ancient World that we can see and feel. It’s an impressive history. And then we went to Rome. Suddenly I felt like Americans often do when going from New York to London. Right, now this is old. Two days after looking in wonder and imagination at a segment of the Wall of Londinium we were standing inside THE COLOSSEUM. It is a surreal experience, stepping back into big history. Rome is not insignificant in any sense. What have the Romans ever done for us? Rome is the father of London. They built our first London Bridge. So as a Londoner, as with many cities with Roman origins, coming here to Ancient Rome I felt a connection, and a sense of coming from the provinces to the capital.
The most breathtaking site of all, of course, was the Colosseum. I first saw it from the plane, this huge oval amphitheatre, testament to the Roman love of spectacle, entertainment, power. Definitely power. There are species of animal that were brought to near-extinction by their use in the gladiatorial arena over the course of a millennium. It was a hot day when we went, but the crowds were not as impossible as we had imagined. Booking your tickets ahead of time makes a huge difference too. There is not a lot of shade in the main open area of the Colosseum, but in the passageways leading in, and in the areas with the history on display, it is much cooler around the old stones. I drew some old marbles (below). I didn’t sketch the inside of the Colosseum itself, due to time, sunlight, people, but I did draw it when we got outside. The sketch at the top of this post was done in the bare shade of a tree – there is not much shade in the grounds around the Colosseum either. That sketch includes the Arch of Constantine – oh, nice arch, wonder what it is, I said. This arch inspired the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, Marble Arch in London, and the Siegestor in Munich, so it’s kind of important. As I sketched I noticed a car nearby with a couple of people taking notes and making reports. Undercover police, for sure, keeping an eye out for anything out of the ordinary. There were a fair number of cops on patrol, and the road leading up to the Colosseum was blocked by a couple of armoured vehicles, positioned to prevent a random vehicle speeding towards it. There were a lot of those around the main sites and piazzas in Rome, which was reassuring. You always have to be watchful and mindful everywhere, always, but I felt quite safe in Rome.
After an exhausting and thirsty walk around the Colosseum, gladiatorial spectacles swimming through our imaginations, we had lunch and then walked over to the Forum. The grounds of the Forum are huge, filled with ruins and rubble and centuries of stories. We didn’t stay too long, for my son’s feet were starting to get Rome-fatigue, but I did a quick sketch of this structure that reminded me of cricket stumps. Owzat! This place bowled me over, hitting me for six, and I don’t know any other cricket terms so we’ll leave it at that. We wanted to visit the Palatine Hill, but the day was getting away from us, and we had an appointment to go to the Gladiator School, which was a short and expensive (yeah, we were ripped off) taxi ride from the Colosseum (and again, future Rome visitors, don’t bother with the Gladiator School, it was a waste of time and a waste of money). The Forum though, that is somewhere I want to return to, with a sketchbook (and a lot of sunscreen).
I did walk back down to this area the next day though, while la famiglia rested up at the apartment. I wanted to draw Trajan’s Column, standing above the ruins of the ancient Trajan’s Forum. Emperor Trajan was one of the greatest of all Roman leaders, being one of the Five Good Emperors (that would be a good name for a soul band). Under Trajan, the Roman Empire reached its greatest extent. It was his son Hadrian, also a Good Emperor, who decided to start building walls around it such as the one in the north of Britannia. Trajan’s Column dates from about 113 AD and is decorated in a spiraling relief of Trajan’s victories against the Dacians (I do not know how many times I said the crap joke “phew, that’s a relief” while in Rome but it was a lot, it was definitely a lot). The statue on top is of St. Peter; the statue of Trajan that used to be on top was lost in the Middle Ages (bloody Time Bandits). The large dome behind is of the church called “Chiesa Santissimo Nome di Maria al Foro Traiano”. This took the best part of two hours to sketch; I kept stopping and speaking to those people who come up and try to sell you little trinkets and stuff, or going to watch the marching army band outside the huge Il Vittoriano, which was opposite, across the Via dei Fori Imperiali.