“The Romans? I’m all forum!”

Colosseum and Arch of Constantine sm
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.

IMG_3172.JPG

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.
Colosseum Marbles sm
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).
Roman Forum sm
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.
Trajan's Forum sm

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sketchcrawl in trafalgar square

Trafalgar Square

On Saturday July 23 I went along to the “Let’s Draw Trafalgar Square” sketchcrawl organized by members of Urban Sketchers London. It was a hot, sweaty day, and the Square was filled with people: tourists, buskers, and people playing Pokemon Go. By the way I love how Pokemon Go is the latest Thing-To-Be-Annoyed-At among the moaning classes, just the mention of the words ‘Pokemon’ and ‘Go’ automatically bring forth  well-rehearsed stories of people walking in front of buses or just not looking up from their phones in the street, neither of which were things that ever happened before people started catching Porygons and Spearows just a few weeks ago. I bet if you had a referendum to ban people playing Pokemon Go you’d get more than half the population saying “Gotta ban em all!” Just let them be, grandad. Anyway, as I sat and sketched the National Gallery and the church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, a man on an unusual bike in front of me beckoned tourists to have a go and try to win ten quid from him. I didn’t sketch him. I did speak to a few tourists, giving directions and talking about the sketchcrawl. The crowds really did start getting a bit much, but I look at this stretch of pedestrianized goodness and I still remember how much of a coughing traffic mess it used to be. That right there is where I would get my Night Bus back to Burnt Oak in the wee hours of a Sunday morning, twenty years ago. It’s so much better now.

Charles I statue, Charing Cross

We met up at half-time by the column of the Grand Old Duke Of York, and the sketchcrawl’s numbers had swelled to include many more of the international sketchers who would soon go up to Manchester, including a large contingent from Singapore. So great to see so many familiar faces, such as Tia Boom Sim (Singapore), Omar Jaramillo (Berlin) and James Oses (London), and also meet many new ones I had only ever known from following online, such as Stephanie Bower (Seattle), Patrick Ng (Singapore) and Emma-Jane Rosenberg (Ely), and many others. Above though is not the Duke of York, rather this is King Charles I. He is holding a European flag, which is either a pro-Europe protest or the opposite, depending on your views of Charles, I guess. Look at all those Boris Buses milling about in the background there. The interior temperature of those buses was on that particular day hot enough to fry an egg (but to do that you needs to brexit first). No, I didn’t get it either. This statue by the way is the middle of London – all distances from London are measured from this spot. Charles was the shortest English king (well, the shortest adult English king). After his head was chopped off, just down the street from here, he was considerably shorter. Ok that is your history lesson done now. I sketched this while squashed against a wall next to Tesco Metro, itself a highly squashed experience, stood with paints balanced on elbow, while a large number of anti-Mugabe protesters from Zimbabwe paraded past, while tourists waved selfie-sticks in front of them, and absolutely nobody was playing Pokemon Go. Samuel Johnson said a couple of centuries ago that the full tide of human existence is at Charing Cross, and he wasn’t wrong. I bet he would have hated Pokemon Go though. Imagine his face when you asked whether Jigglypuff, Blastoise, and Lickitung are in his dictionary! It would have caused him terrible pericombobulations.

palace theatre London

I had to leave the Trafalgar-Squarea (tourists! This is a real term used by actual Londoners by the way so you should definitely say it next time you are there) and escape to the slightly less busy area of Cambridge Circus. Still a busy bustling Bedlam, but I was able to find a spot next to a pub and sketch the Palace Theatre, where currently they are showing the play about Harry Potter, call “The Cursed Child”. I just read the expensive hard-bound script, and I can reveal it is pretty good, and probably makes more a hell of a lot sense watching it on stage. Tickets are sold out for the next century and a half, and it’s in two parts, for some reason (I think the reason rhymes with the words “bunny bunny bunny”). I have wanted to sketch this theatre for ages, so the Potter connection gave me a good reason too (for example if I sell this sketch, then the reason may well rhyme with “honey honey honey”). I remember when Les Mis ran here for about six hundred years, or something. I sketched for an hour and added the colour at home, as I had to run down to St. Martin’s for the final meeting of the sketchcrawl, where everyone puts their books on the ground and looks down at them. It was a fun event and I am glad I went, a good sketching first day back in London, and I spent a good bit of time catching up and chatting with my fellow sketchers afterwards in the cafe in the crypt beneath St. Martin’s. By the way that cafe is the place to go when it is hot outside and you want a lukewarm fizzy drink. I did some sketching of the sketchers…

Sketchcrawl Sketchers sm

And afterwards I met my friend Roshan, and we went for dinner, then out for a nice relaxed beer in Covent Garden, being joined by other friends Lee and Jamie. I sketched them too. A couple siting next to us kooed over eagerly at my book while sketching, it seemed like they thought they might be next in the book, but alas my sketching energy needed conserving for the next day, when I would be sketching Wren’s London. Nice segue there into the next post, huh!

Roshan Jamie Lee

and said goodbye to the circus

Piccadilly Circus

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. 

down at the bottom of the garden

fisherboy statue

Here are the last ones from the Garden Tour last week. Just to clarify I didn’t do any actual touring, I was in the one garden all day. The first thing I was attracted to was the row of birdhouses, and below was a little statue of a fisherboy. He didn’t mind me drawing him, and stayed still the entire time. This was a very peaceful part of the garden, though at one point I was distracted by a massive bee the size of a small bird who had no interest in me, but I kept my distance all the same. I’m very pro-bee (but rather anti-wasp) and wish they weren’t disappearing at the rate that they are, because they basically help keep us in existence. This thing was like the Mountain that Buzzes. I spent a bit more time looking around at the various yard ornaments and garden furniture, sketching them below on one page. Along the lawn where metal silhouettes of fairies, reminding me of the Cottingley fairies. Sketching that garden was fun.

garden objects

they’re changing the guard at buckingham palace

buckingham palace

Perhaps it was the hangover of royal wedding fever that got me wanting to go to and sketch at Buckingham Palace. Maybe it was just that I decided, on this sketching day in London, to get out at Green Park, where I’d not been in such a long time, and walk over to the Mall rather than head down to the River or the City. Either way, I had forgotten about the Changing of the Guard, and arrived at the Palace about half an hour before it started, just as the crowds were gathering. The Queen was home, as the sovereign’s flag was flying, and amazingly the sun was shining. It had rained every day, heavily, since I’d been in London and so perhaps this was to be my lucky day! (Fat chance, it bucketed down later on.) ‘The Mall’ by the way is pronounced as in ‘pal’ not as in ‘small’, a note to American tourists. There are no Sears stores or Gaps or food courts (though I’m sure Victoria has a few secrets). The Queen’s guards know their audience though. Sticking to tradition, as they performed their historic ceremony at the gates of the royal residence, the Scots guards in their bright red jackets and tall bearskin hats belted out the theme tune to ‘Superman’. Or perhaps it was ‘Superma’am’?

st james park

I made hay while the sun shone. That’s St.James’s Park above, one of the smaller but more decorated Royal Parks, looking off towards Big Ben and the London Eye. Below, a statue of the Queen Mum, and behind her a statue of Colin Firth.

queen mum and king george vi

hey paper champion!

philadelphia museum of art

Five hours to kill in Philadelphia, so what do I do? Do I go down to the historic centre, visit where United States of America was made, see the Liberty Bell, see where Ben Franklin lived, eat a Philly cheesesteak? Well I wouldn’t do the last one as I don’t eat that sort of meat. No, for me it’s all about Rocky. I took the train to 30th St Station (an impressively grand station, in what I must say is an impressively grand city), checked out a map with my ipod on the free wifi (gotta love technology), and walked over to the famous Museum of Art, where Rocky Balboa famously ran up the famous steps, humming the famous tune under his breath, jumped up and down a few times, then ran down and got back into his tourist bus with the scores of other people doing the same. I for one walked up the steps. The view is very nice. At the bottom of the steps and to the side is the famous (and impressively grand) statue of Rocky, a prop from the movies which has become a pilgrimage spot for folks like, well, me. Well I wish they had a statue of Clubber Lang, he’s my favourite. Him and Mickey. “This guy’ll kill ya to death! He’ll knock ya to tomorrow!” Anyway after a sketch and a few photos of the Italian Stallion, I sauntered back to the train station, having only enough time to stop and sketch one Philly fire hydrant. I liked the yellow traffic lights here too. And then I flew to England, to tell everyone I saw Rocky. They were suitably impressed.

rocky statuephilly hydrant

and don’t dilly-dally on the way

st james church, piccadillypiccadilly postbox

Londonistas, fear not. I still haven’t finished posting all of my London sketches from December. There are still more to come. I’ve been spreading them out over a period of a couple of months to keep you coming back. Or rather, because I’ve just not gotten around to scanning and cropping and blah blah. Still, it mixes it up a bit – San Francisco here, Islington there, Sacramento here, little bit of Davis. This is Piccadilly, in central London. It’s a thoroughfare named after those ruff collars that people used to wear years ago (think Shakespeare, Raleigh, Blackadder…) and full of fine shops and elegances. St. James’s church (above left) is a great old Wren church, free of stained glass (as was the fashion in Protestant England) and a building I’ve wanted to sketch for quite a while. Light was fading though (the sun goes down at about midday in England in December) so I had to be quick. A few people asked if I sold my sketches while I was sat there. One even asked me in Italian. Another said he’d give me a fiver for it. Sorry, I said, this is part of my sketchbook and I don’t cut out pages. A tenner then, he said. Hmmm, five hundred quid, I said. Bargaining ended there, and I got back to sketching.

I sketched a post box on St. James Street. It has two slots for letters, which is handy if you’re in a hurry. It reminded me of that line in Little Britain, “if you put a second class stamp on a letter in Britain, it’s guaranteed to arrive somewhere at some point in the future, maybe.” Ah, Britain. When I used to be a tourguide I would tell my American tourists that the “ER” meant ‘Emergency Room’. I also used to tell people that, where an ‘L’ plate on a car means ‘Learner’, the ‘GB’ sticker means ‘Getting Better’.   

the angel commonly called erosgielgud theatre, shaftesbury avenue

I also used to tell them that Piccadilly Circus was the Times Square of London (which is what we’re supposed to say), and that the statue of ‘Eros’ isn’t Eros at all. It’s called the Angel of Christian Charity, and was erected for the Earl of Shaftesbury. It is supposed to point up Shaftesbury Avenue, but now i fact points the other way, due to a mistake when re-erecting it. Now it’s used as the emblem of that paragon of virtue and unbiased truth, the Evening “we can’t even justify being paid for so now we’re free” Standard. It was, as always, very busy. McDonalds was jam packed; it was like Piccadilly Circus.

And there on the right, the Gielgud Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue, in the Theatreland of Soho. I remember when this used to be the Globe Theatre, but it got changed and now we have a different theatre called the Globe (something to do with that Shakespeare guy again, they’re still going on about him). As I sketched, a group of small oiks gathered around me to watch. I sped up and moved to a different spot. I don’t trust small oiks, out in feral packs on the streets of London. I do like it round here though; a mate of mine lived about a block north of this spot years ago, up in Berwick Street, and those were great times. I can even remember some of them.