If I were going to start a new novel, I think I would set it here in London, in the Brick Lane area, and it would center around the colorful history of this small building, and St. Matthew’s church and the other odd little buildings scattered around it. We have been privileged to stay with people who know so much about this place and who can just pop over to the book shelf and come up with a handful of history pamphlets about local denizens like Jack the Ripper, Dorothy L Sayers, the Elephant Man… the list goes on. The bricks in Brick Lane were awash not so long ago witih the horrors that Dickens touched upon and evidently only hinted at. Now on Sunday afternoons those same bricks are covered with the well-heeled feet of literally thousands of upscale young trendsetters intent on being seen and drinking outrageous amounts of alcohol… but behind the graffiti-sprayed metal shop doors, and above the scenic pubs, the same ethnic pots bubble and boil. What a fascinating chapter this has been for us!We now have just a few days left in London, so we are saying our thank yous to our new London friends: to Helen and Gary and Pat for a festive supper at “The Dog” in Dulwich last night, to Sebastian and Squeak and all of their friends and family for sharing their warmth and cheer, and to Fiona for stepping happily up to the plate at the last minute and even putting up new curtains for us in the sunny guest room! We may not have the traditional American Thanksgiving dinner this year, but we are truly Thankful for our Blessings!
Finally finished a piece from the Tower of London “Locked In” session… it’s really all about the outfit, obviously, but I was trying for a ghostly effect! If being in the Tower of London at night doesn’t confirm your belief in ghosts, seeing a fox glide around an ancient churchyard on a moonlit night will…
We are now staying in “The Watch House” in the Bethnal Green/ Shoreditch area of London. The Watchhouse on the corner of St Matthew’s Churchyard was built in 1754. With the growing trade in human corpses for dissection, in 1792 it was necessary to appoint a watchman who was paid ten shillings and sixpence a week to be on permanent guard against resurrectionists. A reward of two guineas was granted for the apprehension of any body-snatchers and the watchman was provided with a blunderbuss and permission to fire from an upper window, once a rattle had been sounded three times. The churchwardens still hold this right. Our understanding is that by being residents of that room, we hold the rights, and we take our responsibility seriously. Which is why I was looking out the upstairs window last night, secretly hoping to spot some kind of spiritual goings-on… when something actually floated between me and one of the park benches. I caught my breath, thinking, “Careful what you wish for, dearie!”.
Never mind that there are no longer any graves here. As our host Sebastion told us, “Hitler cleaned out the church and the graveyard with two direct bomb hits. The former residents were scattered to Kingdom Come…” Ironic, given the lengths to which the good people of the church had gone to keep them here. The church yard is now essentially a city park, with just one surviving grave marker, all pinkish-grey at night because of the nearby street lamps. But graves or not, something was out there. I leaned closer to the window, which of course fogged up because of my heavy breathing. I rubbed a circle in the fog with my sleeve, and there it was again. I called Griff to come see, but by the time he got up the winding, creaky, narrow stairs (it comes with the 250-year-old territory) it had vanished. No, wait! There! By the foundation of the church, a fox crept along in the shadow, its impossibly fluffy tail floating behind it. So graceful, so quick…then it vanished again.
This morning I checked on Google to be sure I hadn’t dreamed it. Nope – there are evidently as many foxes in London as there are coyotes in California urban areas. Sebastian confirmed that there are plenty in this neighborhood, he’s even found evidence that they have followed the cat through the open back window into the house! They are not a healthy population, lots of mange and other diseases, so they are considered pests, but you’ve got to admire their chutzpah. And my theory is that the foxes are probably one reason we haven’t seen a single rat here in London.
My sketch class met at Kew Gardens, (the royal botanical gardens) on Friday to sketch plants (duh). But what caught my attention was birds, not plants! A tiny peacock feather floated past me as I left the ticket booth, so I snagged it literally out of the air and took it to the coffee shop to sketch while the rest of the class straggled in:
Next up was a bright green and blue bird that went screeching past… wait, a parrot? Flying wild in London? No, a parakeet, the gardener said when I asked her. There are several flocks of them, especially at Kew and at Richmond, which used to be the King’s hunting grounds, and they suspect that is where they escaped into the wild from the aviary many years ago. Now they are considered invasives.
I did enjoy making a few sketches in the steamy “Temperate House”:
The botanical name is Dendrocalamus hamiltonii, but grassy leaves pretty much sums it up for me. Interesting that the structures of the two items are so similar – branching off a single stem.
When class ended I was greeted by four immense geese out on the lawn, who were oblivious to me as they calmly grazed on the manicured lawn. They sure looked like Canada Geese, I’ll have to look them up and see if they range this far. Carefully avoiding the goose poop, I wandered back to visit the Marian North gallery one more time (I had seen it several weeks ago when Griff and I visited Kew for the first time). I could swear I heard chickens. Turning the corner, sure enough – about a dozen hens and one rooster were wandering under the fading gold of the beeches and oaks. They were soon joined by what must have been some kind of jay, and a couple of magpies. Magpies look like they’re dressed for a wedding, all decked out in sparkling black and white with a touch of deep blue. If I can find some good photos, I think I’ll try skestching parakeets and magpies today!
Surrounded by students, I sat in the Library of the Royal Bourough of Kensington and Chelsea this afternoon and reveled in the very luxury of having an entire afternoon to be In the Presence of Books. It’s been years since I really had an opportunity to read more than the occasional chapter before bedtime, and even more years since I had time to study. The college age students around me seemed oblivious to their privilege, sighing, fidgeting. The young dipstick to my left had his earbud music up so loud that I could actually hear it echoing through the hollows in his skull – I pity his poor spouse in 40 years when he is for all intents and purposes deaf. But back to the library.
We have spent quite a few afternoons in libraries, Griff working on his laptop, me prowling the art and local history sections. Some neighborhood libraries here in London are simply pathetic shadows of what they used to be, shelves holding a smattering of worn paperbacks and DVDs. Others are wonders. Today’s was indeed a wonder, quiet and spacious and smelling of ink and paper. I spread out my colored pencils and papers, then for four hours I indulged in “The London Sketch Club”, a limited edition publication probably found only in London, followed by a huge glossy “oversize” book of Willam Morris designs, then a volume about Grotesques and Gargoyles on medieval Catholic buildings. I sketched as I read, making graphic notes about borders I especially liked.
After awhile I began to realize that everything I have seen and done on this trip is beginning to “gel”. The seemingly random sketches and events and lessons are all having an impact on my perception and style. For instance, I’m finally beginning to “get it” with the human body. Here is my latest sketch made from a sculpture in the Victoria and Albert museum:
Not perfect, but as close as I’ve ever come to saying, “By George, I think I’ve got it!” And for the first time, some random person walked up behind me as I sketched and said, “Brilliant!” But aside from that, there’s a feeling of beginning to grasp that art throughout human history flows like rivers, that there are certain themes and shapes that recur all over the planet , that it’s all intertwined. For awhile a couple of weeks ago I was overwhelmed by all the genius I was seeing, on the verge of feeling too humbled to make anything more… but the realization that every new thing is based at least in part on some old thing inspires me to keep going. Beyond the sheer in-the-moment joy of sketching, painting, and making, every inconsequential little sketch or cartoon has the potential to evolve into something worthwhile on a larger scale. Or not. Either way, it’s wonderful to be here.
For the next three weeks (can that be all?!) I will continue with my Life Drawing classes, my sketching classes, and my library pursuits about design, and whatever else presents itself. Then I will see how Africa fits into the universal patterns I’m finding. And in the meantime, the bonus is that most of London is stringing up billions of lights that will be illuminated for Christmas very soon! Woohoo!
Going back a few weeks in my Moleskine, I finished the quick sketch I did before dinner the night we stayed in Calais. Dinner included wonderful little mussels, so i added those as a border. The fishermen were mending their nets on the rocks below the hotel, and the boats in the harbor were anchored together in a necklace of ropes separated by bright orange buoys, so all of that became part of the “fabric” of the sketch. Fun!
Following the nautical theme, we’re in the Putney region of London now, and we’ve found a great spot on the Thames to watch the rowing practices near the bridge.
The first night here I intended to capture just the chocolate river and the fading leaves, but suddenly the rowers came into view and I sketched them very quickly. Turned out they were a bit too big for the river, but that’s what I like to think of as artistic license. Then the sun came out from behind the clouds and set the leaves on fire, so suddenly it was a very different undertaking. And I love the little sign that says “Bay liable to flooding,”… so subtle, so British. They could say “don’t park here unless you want your car to float away,” but much like all of the “Mind the Gap” reminders in the subways, they leave you to figure out the risks for yourself.
The first time I came to Europe in 1978, I lamented the lack of Real Breakfast. Given my small budget and craving for eggs, I was reduced to buying boiled eggs at train stations. When we did splurge once for a B&B, I was appalled by the cold toast triangles accompanied by rock hard frigid butter… and a soft-boiled egg in an egg cup, which I had no idea how to manage to eat.
Fast forward to 2011. Not quite as poor. Still amazed at the complete lack of understanding that the Whole Point of Toast is the melting butter on the hot crispy bread. The fried “tomahto” is a great idea, however – get one serving of vegetables in early in the day! And the mushrooms are simply decadent… sigh. What strikes me now is the immensity of the plate – how could one person ever eat that much and not be miserable all morning? B&B’s and cafes offer “full British breakfast” right and left, but they still don’t get the Toast. In the sketch above, made yesterday from a photo taken of my plate in RamsGate’s Belgian Cafe last week, you see the vegetarian version, a bit heavy on the potatoes, cold toast not pictured. This version substituted “bubble and squeak” (leftover mashed potatoes and cabbage) for “bacon”, which is usually like Canadian bacon or very thin ham. Non-vegetarian versions also include two very plump and delicious sausages… Both versions include the British version of “baked beans”, which is essentially boiled navy beans in watery catsup… no onions, no brown sugar, no actual tomatoe sauce….needs a bit of work in my opinon. But the Belgains also included a half-pint of Stella-Artois and coffee, so ultimately it was a good deal!