The South Bank Show

South Bank Feb2019
Every time I go back to London, my family members have grown older, a little bit. With the adults it’s slower, less noticeable, while with the children it’s a much more visible change. I am now the classic “look how tall you are!” uncle. My uncle jokes are also the best uncle jokes in the world. I too have grown; not taller, rather I have encroached into traditional green belt lands. See, uncle jokes. London on the other hand changes faster than I can think. When I left in 2005, the Gherkin (aka ‘the Erotic Gherkin’) was still the new shocking addition to the City’s skyline, pointing like a stubby fishnet bullet at the sky. The older NatWest building still dominated the Square Mile, sufficiently far from the unchanging dome of St. Paul’s (though that too has changed since I left, having been scrubbed of its layer of grey pollution-particles, so much it now gleams as Wren intended). One by one newer buildings started to be approved, all with their pre-approved nicknames: the Heron, the Walkie-Talkie, the Cheesegrater, the Shard, the Dodger’s Kerchief, the Ocelot Spleen, the Snood, and of course the Wizard’s Winkle. I might have made some of those up but you would be hard pressed to figure out which. London’s skyline is starting to resemble less a city and more a manual of Yoga positions. I don’t even know what some of the new ones being built are called (if only there was some way of finding out, some kind of instant source of all global information right at my fingertips!), but change is a good thing, I suppose. I never wanted London to stand still and miss me after I moved away, I wanted London to enjoy its life, meet other buildings, move on.
View from Tate Modern Feb2019

It was a lovely day when I went out sketching on the banks of the Thames. I miss the Thames more than I miss any part of London. I don’t have a Thames here in Davis. I used to come down to the Thames to have a look at it, and contemplate, and be pensive. Sounds stupid now I say it like that. You know like in films and TV shows when the main character has a lot on their mind and they go and look at the Hudson River or stand on the pier at Coney Island (all films and TV shows are set in New York), that was me, coming to the Thames, standing on the South Bank near Waterloo, looking at the Thames. I think I just like watching water move from left to right. Maybe it reminds me of the old Thames Television screen, which would come on just before Rainbow, and I always liked Rainbow. Geoffrey out of rainbow died recently. I met him when I was a kid, at Brentford’s football ground, he drew me a picture of Zippy. It wasn’t a super detailed picture of Zippy but I could tell it was meant to be Zippy. Unless it was meant to be a picture of himself and I misinterpreted it, or a picture of me. Either way, I always wondered what Zippy would be like as a modern-day politician. Yes, it is extremely easy to imagine that isn’t it (it’s even easier to imagine Bungle). When Boris Johnson became Mayor of London years ago I drew a picture of Zippy with Boris Johnson’s hair. A few years later, Johnson and his friend Joanna ‘George’ Lumley, had this crazy idea of building a new bridge across the Thames, right at the spot where I drew the sketch above. It was to be a ‘Garden Bridge’, covered in trees and plants and closed at night and on special corporate events such as when Rod Jane and Freddy would need to perform their Greatest Hits. If I recall, the plan was to build it “up above the streets and houses, everyone can see it smiling over the sky”. Being pedestrian only, it would not alleviate traffic, It would require cutting down scores of trees on the South Bank as well as blocking the view of the city with all its Yoga-position skyscrapers from much of the South Bank and Waterloo Bridge. Change is a good thing I suppose, but this was a change that really didn’t need to happen, at least not right here. When the pedestrian Millennium Bridge was built, it was visually unobtrusive and also in a place that had needed a crossing connecting St Paul’s with the new Tate Modern and Shakespeare’s Globe (I well remember the circuitous routes before). Also, it wobbled, meaning those crafty Cockneys could re-christen it the ‘Wobbly Bridge’, calling it that for many years even after the Wobble had been fixed and the joke had really lost its steam. The Garden Bridge was an expensive vanity project that probably wouldn’t even wobble. In the end, after millions being spent and many Bungles, the Garden Bridge was finally scrapped. I’m glad, and I think Geoffrey would have been glad too.

I sat on a bench by the Thames and drew in the sunshine. It’s one of my favourite spots in the whole world, even with the growing metropolis sprouting up across the river. A man stopped to have a look at my sketch, enthusiastically asking me what I do with them. “I colour them in,” I said, and he laughed. People often ask what my sketches are for, which is a fair question, since they could be for sale or to make into postcards or maybe I am out looking for views to dismantle with expensive vanity projects, but the answer is always the same – it’s because I love to draw. I just love drawing, so I have to just keep drawing. This city is worth drawing and drawing and drawing, and then drawing more. This city changes so quickly. After this sketch, I went to the Tate Modern and up to the tenth floor of that new building next door, to sketch the City from above. That is one of my favourite new viewing spots in London, although the crowded elevator means you need to book some additional vacation time if you want to go up there. I decided to colour in only the sky and the river, leaving the city itself uncoloured like in the opening credits of a certain TV show I used to watch as a kid, the large tower of Tate Modern in the foreground. Tate Modern used to be Bankside Power Station, designed by the same guy who made the phone box (I’ve talked about him before). I love listening to tourists talking to each other when visiting London, hearing their enthusiasm for the city. As I looked out over the skycrapers I though about the previous times I had sketched it, and as I sketched I thought that this would be a very good point to include some of those older sketches in this part of the blog post. I hope you have enjoyed this little trip to the South Bank with me. Next time I go back, it will look different again.

take me down to the riverover the thames to cannon street
by the banks of the thamesSt Pauls from Tate Modern
Waterloo panorama
The River Thames

a farewell to dippy

Dippy NHM London

Well the New Year is here and I am still posting sketches from November. I know you just can’t get enough of 2016. These are the sketches I did on our brief sojourn back to London over Thanksgiving. It was a week of family fun more than sketching outings (I did most of my UK sketching in the summer) but I managed a few. Above is a sketch from the Natural History Museum. My son really wanted to go there to see the geology exhibits (he loves rocks and minerals) and we wanted to see our beloved Dippy one last time before he is removed from the main hall and replaced with a whale skeleton. Dippy, for those who don’t know, is the giant Diplodocus skeleton in the Hintze Hall. Dippy’s been in the NHM for over a century and has been in that hall since I was a little kid, when I would go there all the time with school or my big sister; I do love the Natural History Museum. Well Dippy is leaving! This very week in fact. They are replacing Dippy with a large blue whale skeleton that will hang from the ceiling. Dippy will go on a tour of the UK (see here for details). My son and I found a seat in an alcove to sketch, but we couldn’t see the whole Dippy so sketched what we could see.

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We also visited the Harry Potter tour at the Warner Bros Studios, at Leavesden, just outside London. We are big Harry Potter fans, and my son read the books and saw the movies this year for the first time so it was an exciting visit to go and see the real sets where they were filmed. We only had time for one sketch (so much to see! We could have been there all day) so I sketched the entrance to Dumbledore’s office while he drew the big pendulum thing. I got a Gryffindor scarf. According to the Pottermore website, my son and I would both be in Gryffindor (my wife got sorted into Slytherin!). We went there with my mum, sister and nephew, and it was a really fun family day, I do recommend it.

Hogwarts Griffin Stairwell, WB Studios, England

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One other place I was eager to visit was the new Switch House at the Tate Modern, the new tall extension to the gallery on the South Bank. It only opened last summer. My son kinda enjoyed the gallery (we saw both my books in the shop! But he was more excited about the tiny Slinky he bought) but was nervous about going to the tenth floor observation deck. When we were up there though he loved it, and again we sat and sketched the view. This is now my favourite spot in London and I will definitely come back with a few hours on hand to do a big detailed panorama. It was amazing there. Here is what I did sketch, of the view across the Thames to St. Paul’s Cathedral:

St Pauls from Tate Modern

The scene below is of drinkers at the very intimate pub off Trafalgar Square, The Harp. I came here with my friend Roshan, as they do good beer; one day I’d like to sketch the whole bar. As it was, I sketched these happydrikers while Roshan popped to the loo. Less-than-five-minute people sketching!

People at Harp pub, London

And here is Burnt Oak tube station, in the area my family live (and I am from. Looking as it has ever done. I was going to finish this, but I wanted to get back and have a cup of tea, and never finished it at home.

Burnt Oak Station

One last sketch, which is of course the in-flight drawing on the Virgin flight coming home. It was one of the newer planes, and unlike in the summer, this time I didn’t get completely squashed up and have a bad back for several weeks afterwards. Which was handy. Farewell again then my London, until next time!

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sketching wrens’ city…part two

St Mary Le Bow sm

The Wren sketchcrawl continued… we had a lot of sketchers from all over on this sketchcrawl, and after finishing St. Stephen Walbrook I bumped into international-travelling urban sketcher Sue Pownall, and we walked over to St. Mary-le-Bow on Cheapside. The approach to this old church up the narrow Bow Lane is lovely, although the buildings are now modern you can just use a bit of imagination to fly back through the centuries and picture the narrow timber-framed houses leaning into each other over dirty streets, the sound of the Bow Bells echoing through the dark, bustling lanes. Yes, this is the church of the Bow Bells; the tradition is that a Cockney, a true Cockney, was born within the sound of the Bow Bells (and not Bow in East London as many wrongly believe), that is, within London. Cockney is synonymous with all Londoners now, London being much bigger than in Dick Whittington’s day, though of course he famously heard them from up on Highgate Hill, calling him back to his destiny as London’s Lord Mayor. You know the story. There’s a statue of his cat on Highgate Hill, near Whittington Hospital, but that’s far from here. The Bow Bells were important to London not because of fanciful stories and cockney categorization, but because in the middle ages these were the bells that rung to sound the curfew, and the closing of the city gates. If they rang and you were outside the city, you spent a night sleeping in the filthy gutters of Southwark or Finsbury. These days you can just get a Night Bus, and it’s a similar experience.

Those bells and the old church of St.Mary-le-Bow were burnt to the ground in the Great Fire of 1666, so Sir Christopher of course got to work building a new church, this one above. Well, kind of – it was destroyed again by the Nazis in the Blitz, but rebuilt after the War. I just drew the spire, time being of the essence, but it was a nice little courtyard to be sat in.

St Vedast sm

Before going to sketch St.Paul’s (I had this huge panorama in mind…didn’t quite make it) I wandered about to find a less well-known Wren church. I headed to St.Vedast-alias-Foster, up in Foster Lane, mostly because I liked its unusual name. when I got there, the staff were bustling about, preparing for a wedding. Though it looks like Just Another Wren Church (â„¢) from the outside, the inside is quite spectacular, with a beautiful ceiling and a polished hall filled with light. The friendly suited man at the door welcomed me in to look around, and I asked him a bout the history of the church and its unusual name. Apparently in the middle ages this part of London was popular with Flemish immigrants from Arras in northern France, whose patron saint was St. Vedast (from the Latin name Vedastus; in Norman French and Flemish he was St. Vaast). This was corrupted into English as ‘Foster’, hence Foster Lane, and so the church is called ‘alias-Foster’ as a result. He showed me around the lovely courtyard, and said that a sketcher would love to sketch in there, and showed me the history of the parish churches associated with this one, many now combined (the ‘United Parishes’), including one church called St. Mary Aldermanbury which was badly damaged in World War II, and then closed down, with its remains being shipping across the Atlantic for rebuilding in Fulton, Missouri, significantly the place where Winston Churchill made his famous ‘Iron Curtain’ speech in 1946. All historied-up, I went out into the street and found a spot to sketch the tower. I kept it brief, because my next building was so much bigger than all of the others (probably put together).

St Pauls sm

The plan was for a panorama, but I couldn’t decide on a good view, at least not from up close. Besides, the day was pressing on and I wanted to be done before our final meet-up at 4pm. So I stood across the front entrance from St. Paul’s Cathedral, as traffic and tourists rumbled by, and sketched in traditional London grey. It was actually a very sunny day, one of the more pleasant London afternoons. I remember those sorts of afternoons from when I was a teenager, wandering central London’s streets on a late Saturday afternoon, falling in love with the city. In those days St. Paul’s was much greyer, dirtied with decades of pollution and urban grime, but in recent years the grand old cathedral has been cleaned up significantly, and now sparkles white as if new-born. This is Wren’s masterpiece, but its significance to London is much older. For many, St. Paul’s is London. There has been a cathedral dedicated to St. Paul’s on this site, the top of Ludgate Hill (King Lud being an old figure of pre-Roman British legend who may or may not be related to the name of London itself), since St. Augustine brought Christianity to the Angles and Saxons. Not much is known about the early cathedrals, until the fourth incarnation, a huge Gothic cathedral, was built in the twelfth century. That was one of the largest buildings in Europe, but alas, along came the Great Fire of 1666 and in a matter of days it was gone. Along came Wren. As I’ve mentioned before, he had plans to rebuild London including St. Paul’s on his drawing board  for several years before the convenient fire, and for London’s landmark cathedral he wanted not another towering spire but a large Romanesque dome, technologically advanced and rivaling the greatest buildings in Christendom. The wooden model of his first design is still on display, but it looks rather different from the final buiding. This was late seventeenth-century England, not a time to make your premier church look, well, too Catholic. It was shaped like a Greek cross, and the nave was not long enough; it just didn’t look English. Wren went back to the drawing board, and in the end built the Cathedral we have today. It’s hard to think of more ‘London’ building than this. During the darkest days of World War II, when bombs flattened everything around it, the dome of St. Paul’s stood untouched, a symbol of hope for a city devastated. The ‘people’s church’ this was, and probably because of that, it was here that Prince Charles married Lady Diana in 1981 rather than at the traditional Westminster Abbey.

Sketching Wren's City, Aug 2 2014

So it was here that we finished out sketchcrawl, and our journey through Wren’s City. Those of us who were left gathered by the steps of St. Paul’s to look at each others’ sketchbooks. I met some great sketchers for the first time, and reconnected with sketchers I have met with before. I can’t tell for certain (because I didn’t take photos of everyone’s books) but I’m pretty certain that as a group we covered most of the Wren churches from my map on this day. Here are some photos from the end meeting; you can see some more on my Flickr set Sketching Wren’s City.

Sketching Wren's City, Aug 2 2014Sketching Wren's City, Aug 2 2014
Sketching Wren's City, Aug 2 2014
Sketching Wren's City, Aug 2 2014Sketching Wren's City, Aug 2 2014
Sketching Wren's City, Aug 2 2014Sketching Wren's City, Aug 2 2014Sketching Wren's City, Aug 2 2014

And here is the final group shot…spot the sketchers you know!

Sketching Wren's City, Aug 2 2014

Everyone that came and made it to the end got a little sticker that said “I Sketched Wren’s City”. I like making stickers. If you’re interested in following our steps and sketching Sir Christopher’s City, click here to download the little guide and map I handed out on the day: Wren’s London booklet (pdf)

After this, we reconvened at a pub on Fleet Street called The Old Bell, which, by the way, was built by Christopher Wren. Who else! To those of you who came along, it was brilliant to meet you and see all of your lovely work. See you next year! (For…”Dickens’s London”? “Coren’s Cricklewood”? “Pete’s Burnt Oak?”)

Urban Sketchers London