Westminster Cathedral, stripes and domes

Westminster cathedral , London
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.
View from Westminster cathedral's 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.

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go west, young man

westminster abbey sm
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.

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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!
westminster central hall sm
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…
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two cities, two views from the bridge

Westminster skyline
I love Hungerford Bridge. I can’t express this enough. Not so much to draw, but to draw from. The old Hungerford Bridge was a nightmare, rattling and rusty, a walkway tacked onto the side of the real bridge itself (a railway bridge, stretching south from Charing Cross station). My memory recalls it as like an urban version of one of those rope bridges from Indiana Jones or something, with the deadly brown Thames rolling beneath the cracks. The most annoying thing was that it was on the wrong side of Hungerford Bridge, for those who want a nice view of Parliament and the City of Westminster. While the railway bridge is still there, a decade ago they finally built two modern and spectacular new pedestrian bridges on either side of it, thereby giving us access to the amazing view above. I am still in awe that this bridge exists (technically it is now a trilogy of bridges, the two pedestrian ones being more properly called the Golden Jubilee Bridges, nice shiny name but a bit of a mouthful). One day I may draw it, but the novelty of drawing from it has not gone away just yet. I had promised my son I would include the London Eye in one of my sketches – I do like the wheel, but really don’t like drawing it! The bridge is Westminster Bridge, and the clocktower, commonly called Big Ben after the large bell inside, is siply called the Clock Tower – for now. The powers that be decided recently that they would like to rename it Elizabeth Tower, in honour of the Queen on her Diamond Jubilee (the tower on the other side of parliament is called Victoria Tower, renamed from the previous King’s Tower for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. The Thames will always be the Thames, however (unless Britain gets totally broke and sells the naming rights, the JP Morgan River or something; I am surprised they haven’t considered such things already).

After completing the first sketch, I then decided that I needed to do a full two-spread panorama from the eastern span, looking out towards the City of London. It was an incredibly windy, sunny day, and lots of people passed by as I sketched. It took me nearly two hours to draw the view below, the skyline of London, ever evolving. In the right hand side, the tall glass 1984-ish Shard building pokes into view. St.Paul’s of course is in the middle, the dome being the symbol of London, and on the right is Cleopatra’s Needle, which of course pre-dates Cleopatra by centuries. Spanning the Thames is Waterloo Bridge, designed by the same fellow that gave us the classic red phone box and the old Bankside power station (now Tate Modern). Click on the sketch below for a larger image.
Waterloo panorama

if the sun don’t come you get a tan from standing in the english rain

name your saucesbig ben

The smart thing to do would be to check the weather forecast and then decide what to do, but of course as anyone who is familiar with London summers (or winters, autumns and springs) knows, the weather forecast cannot be relied upon anyway. We’d planned to do a walking tour around Westminster (one of the London Walks; I illustrated their book a couple of years ago, including the chapter on Secret Westminster) and wasn’t going to be put off by a few drops of rain. Indeed it looked like it would be just another breezy, grey Saturday, maybe the odd drop here and there but nothing to worry us. We met the group outside a tourist-packed Westminster station, giving me enough time to grab a ten minute sketch of Big Ben (above) before learning about Westminster’s secrets. As we stood behind Westminster Abbey looking at Oliver Cromwell across the road, the rain suddenly turned into a torrent, and pretty much stayed that way for the next few hours.

rainy walk in westminster

It was an interesting tour, to be sure, despite the massive downpour. We went down backstreets of Westminster I never even knew about, and took a stroll through the old Westminster school. Of course I attempted to sketch as we went along, which was a challenge I’ll admit. Once it was all over (a little earlier than planned, I suspect), we went to a pub in Whitehall, the Old Shades, to dry off and have something to eat.  
the shades, whitehall

Not that the rain deterred us too much. We still spent a day around central London, popping into the National Gallery, squeezing through the crowds at Hamley’s, looking through the football shirt shops (hey, it’s me).

shoe in pall mall window

And then in the evening, a night out in Camden Town with friends (one of whom, Ralph, I hadn’t seen in over twenty years). Before meeting up, I grabbed another very quick sketch standing on Camden High street. So despite all the rain, that was a fun day, and it was a fun night as well.

camden sketch