As we sit in Pizza Express in the White Rose Centre, there’s a constant stream of passers by. As there’s so little time, I start with one man’s head but then add the next man’s body. No, that’s not going to work because everyone has a distinct overall character: Man One wore an anorak, Man Two had a brisker gait and held his head more erect.
If I mix and match, I’m not going get the jizz, as birdwatchers used to call the characteristic impression given by a particular species.
So the remaining four figures are mental snapshots. I follow a figure’s progress across the entrance hall then, only when they vanish from sight, attempt to draw the whole figure.
I add the watercolour twenty or thirty minutes later, after a Leggera Padana pizza, when the Noodler’s ink has dried. I can remember the colours of the coats pretty well but there’s a bit more guess work on the colour of trousers, bags and footwear.
Leggara Padana pizza, only 465 kcals . . . chocolate brownie to finish, er, another 235, then there’s the cappucino . . .
It was an emotional finale to Dick Whittington last Saturday when our producer for the last twenty years, Wendie Wilby, retired. The presentation included a framed copy of my sketch of her which I drew a few years ago (greatly enlarged here, but it brings out the texture of the watercolour better than a same-size scan).
The Pageant Players are also going to miss the support of her husband, retired joiner and pigeon fancier, David, who has been stage managing the shows for almost as many years. The only thing that’s missing from my portrait of him is the pencil behind his ear that seemed to be a permanent feature.
You’ve already seen my working drawings for the backdrops, so here’s the cast. I took a particular interest in Alderman Fitzwarren because he – or should I say ‘she’, as this is a pantomime – was wearing a three-cornered hat of the type that I need to practise drawing for my Adam and the Gargoyle comic strip.
As so often in a pantomime, the baddies get all the best parts, so Queen Rat (above, left), was greeted by enthusiastic boos from the audience whenever she appeared.
The End! – OH NO it ISN’T!
After fifty-one years, I’ve said that will be my last production with the Pageants. With Wendie stepping down it seemed like a good time to go but I’ll be interested to hear how they get on. Like many drama groups they’re now faced by sky-rocketing rents for theatre space. The price per hour in Horbury Academy is still quite a bargain if you are requiring the room for just a few hours, but the Pageants need their set-building weekends, three technical rehearsals, dress rehearsals and the four evenings of performances, plus a Saturday afternoon matinee.
Reviewing my A6 postcard-sized Pink Pig landscape format sketchbook for this winter, you might think that my life has been dominated by a search for the perfect scone. It has, and we’ve got our visits to Nostell timed to coincide with when the scones emerge from the oven, however these freshly-baked scones, were at the Rich & Fancy Cafe on Queen Street, Horbury.
But I don’t insist on Bake Off standard cakes to draw; I equally enjoyed drawing the salt and pepper pots and the sauce and vinegar bottles on my brother-in-law’s dining table. These drawings are all larger than they appear in my sketchbook because I like the texture of pen on cartridge paper, which I lose at screen resolution. Drawn with my favourite pen, a Lamy Safari with an extra fine nib filled with brown Noodler’s ink.
I’ve got another Lamy Safari filled with a cartridge of Lamy black ink, which I blotted with a water-brush to get this wash effect on a brooding morning at Charlottes. Again during a coffee and scone break. A pattern is emerging.
We’re having wintry showers this morningbut it’s milder so the sleety rain and wet flakes of snow are actually clearing the pavements of the snow and ice that have covered them during the last week.
We’ve decided that it’s a good day to stay put and catch up, so we’ve got a batch of dough rising above the hot water tank in the corner of the studio, ready for knocking back, and I’m delving back into my sketchbooks to catch up with my blog posts.
When I drew at Charlotte’s at the end of January, patches of snow on the distant moors were imperceptibly disappearing into the mist.
I drew these in my pocket-sized notebook, which has such small pages that you can pick it up even when you’ve only got minutes to spare.
That morning I also drew cushions on my brother-in-law John’s sofa and a crow by the boulders in the goat enclosure. They’re similar subjects; when I can’t get out to draw rocks, cushions make a reasonable substitute.
The goats love climbing and settling down at strategic look-out posts on the rocks but during the winter they’ve been confined to the stables. Hopefully they won’t have long to wait before it’s suitable for them to live in their outdoor enclosure again.
The Old Cart Shed
The old Cart Shed at Blacker Hall Farm dates from c.1620, so the old beams always appeal to me as a subject.
The little sketchbook was handy again when at a family meal at Holmfield House in Holmfield Park, Wakefield, I drew this tree.
Distant memories can be seen through a golden glow or, in the case of my earliest recollections of the 1950s, a somewhat muted and bluey grey – although I think that the 50s probably were muted and bluey grey thanks to the tail end of rationing and all that coal smoke – so it’s been a real memory-jogger to revisit familiar domestic scenes of 1964 in live action in colour-soaked Kodachrome.
We’ve just had our family cine films from the 1960s and 70s transcribed to digital format and I’m impressed with the quality, considering that this was all Standard 8 film with a frame size, allowing for the sprockets, of just 5 mm, less than quarter of an inch.
We’re lucky to have plenty of family photographs from that time but, for me, browsing through the old cine films brings back the era more vividly than any photograph album.
Me, aged Thirteen
I’m intrigued by this shot of me, aged 13, taken by my Dad as he tried out the interchangeable lenses of his Leitz Leicina.
I’m sure that expression isn’t genuine, so perhaps at the start of my teenage years it’s supposed to signify a combination of worry and hang-dog; if so, that was good practice for me, as that’s the default state of mind for most of us who choose to become freelance illustrators.
But it could have been intended to represent diffidence and scepticism: a useful attitude for anyone who makes a living from looking at the world.
The Garden Path
Our garden looks so verdant and I realise that having that as my backyard made a huge contribution to the person I became, as a resource for inspiration and as a sheltered habitat for concocting waywardly creative projects.
Behind a prolific row of raspberry canes, the runner beans are just starting to climb their canes. Partially hidden by an old Keswick cooking apple tree there’s the timber summerhouse that had been built by the former occupants of the house, the Baines family, in the 1920s or 30s.
My Dad, Robert Douglas Bell, Doug to his friends, appears in this early reel, picking gooseberries. If he’d still been with us, he’d have been celebrating his 100th birthday in October but as he died 28 years ago after a steady decline with dementia, it’s good to be reminded of him in his prime.
Mum, slightly older, would have been a hundred last Monday, 26th February, so we met to remember her in the place that she’d suggested, should she make it to that milestone: Charlotte’s Ice Cream Parlour, a favourite place with her for coffee and scones. She appears in the 1964 film, characteristically, putting the washing on the line.
Standard Vanguard Estate
This Standard Vanguard Estate, with a registration, RHL 777, that I wish we could have kept, was my favourite of all the cars we had. Its headlights had been painted yellow for a summer holiday in France. Note the AA badge and the badge of the Institute of Advanced Motorists, which my Dad was rather proud to be a member of.
I was wondering where my Dad would be going, in his collar and tie and with a cigarette in his hand. My sister tells me that at that time he worked for the Coal Board in Wakefield and he would have come home for lunch, so he’s heading off back to work. Because of the traffic today, you’d be hard-pressed to get to and fro between Wakefield and Horbury during a regular lunch hour.
Also appearing, Vache, an English springer spaniel, kennel name Chastelton Merrylegs, my Dad’s gun-dog but in fact the perfect family pet, a remarkably laid-back spaniel. There are brief shots of him ambling across the lawn; sitting half in and half out of the back door; pricking his ears up when he thinks a visitor is arriving and rolling on his back as he enjoys being fussed over.
Again, for me, they evoke his character more effectively than the stills we have of him.
My Dad gave him his everyday name, Vache, not because his liver-and-white markings resemble those of a Friesian cow but because my Dad bought him when he was attending a course at the Vache Coal Board staff training college, a country house near Chalfont St Giles in Buckinghamshire.
Grandma & Grandad
One of the reasons that I was so keen to get the films transcribed to digital format was so that we’d preserve a rare snippet of my grandparents on my Dad’s side.
Jane, Bagshaw as was, and Robert Bell met at the celebrations for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, on Tuesday June 15th 1897 at 3 o’clock at Serlby Park, Nottinghamshire. He was then aged 19, working as second coachman to the Galways at Serlby.
When he arrived at the celebrations, Fred Bagshaw, who worked in the stables, asked him “Would you like to take a girl on the swings, Bob?”
The girl, Fred’s sister, Jane, was already in service at the age of 14. She and Robert married some years later.
I’ve still got the invitation in our family archive. I guess that I wouldn’t be here today if Bob hadn’t taken Jinny (as he called her) on the swings that day.
It’s amazing that we caught them on film.
Grandma is chuckling as she puts on her white gloves and I can see that, before setting out, she’s popped one of her favourite sweets, a Nuttall’s Minto, in her mouth.
The Street of Many Fools
One final blast from the past: in the August of 1967, my Dad, my sister Linda and family friends Betty and Alf Deacon, emerging from the arched entrance to The Street of Many Fools on the backlot at Pinewood Studios, Buckinghamshire.
Carry On, Follow that Camel, had just finished filming, so Phil Silvers, Kenneth Williams, Jim Dale and Joan Sims had probably walked that way in the previous weeks.
Knowing of my interest in films and stage scenery, Betty had arranged with a friend who was a scene painter there to give us a full tour of the studios.
Aliens, Agents and Flying Machines
By then, my brother Bill and I had already made a couple of sci-fi shorts (with my sister playing the monster), a war film, a spy film and we’d made a start on shooting our most ambitious five-minute feature, Those Magnificent Boys in their Flying Machines, with a spectacular disaster filmed on location in Horbury Quarry.
We learnt a lot from our tour of the studios and greatly improved our technique in the next scene of the film, in which a remarkably lifelike mannequin of my brother plunges on a feather-winged bicycle from the top of Storrs Hill.
Like the Pinewood Team, we took a cast of Bill’s face – in our case in plaster, making the mask from papiere mache. To tell you the truth, it turned out to be better-looking than Bill himself, so we’d leave it sitting around in odd corners of the house, which confused my Mum on her rounds and she’d ask it, over her shoulder “Bill, haven’t you started your homework yet?!”
In search of a drawing for my latest Dalesman article, I’ve been delving back through my sketchbooks of ten and eleven years ago. Browsing through pages that I drew while we were travelling or at family gatherings, I realise that it’s time for me to get back into everyday sketching
As a small start, here are a few pages from my current pocket-sized Leuchtturm 1917 notebook. It’s paper isn’t intended for watercolour but, inspired by those 2007/8 sketches, I feel that colour adds a lot to rapid line drawings; not just extra information but also mood.
If you use a sketchbook as a visual diary, colour can evoke a memory more effectively than black and white.
So far, it hasn’t been a hard winter, but it has often been drearily wet so the veg beds in our garden are sodden and the paths in the wood muddier than usual, but snowdrops and winter aconites have been in flower for weeks and we do keep getting brighter days, encouraging Barbara and I to begin to thinking about setting off for the coast or the hills or to take a city break or a Eurostar break.
When we do I want the sketching habit to have become second nature.
Spurred on, I drew people on the platform at Leeds station last week, adding colour from memory later.
I’ve taken to scanning my sketches a high res, 300 dots per inch, then scaling them down for the web, but seeing the full res version on screen, I realise that I lose a lot of texture in the smaller version. In fact, I can see the drawing better blown up on the screen of my iMac than I can in the original sketch.
This figure pulling along a case is just an inch and a half tall in my sketchbook.
4 p.m., 1°C, 34°F: A grey afternoon; a blackbird’s scolding alarm call. One hundred wood pigeons disperse from the wood – or, more probably, from the field behind the wood – flying over quietly as I draw our compost bins.
There’s an unlikely warble, which soon gets extemporised; only a song thrush would improvise such a varied and eccentric song.
Twenty or thirty winter gnats are dancing in a loose column, five or six feet above my bedraggled square of meadow.
There’s a thin song from a robin and repeated nasal chirrs from a blue tit. As sunset approaches every bird seems tetchy and alarmed, then there’s a strident insistent call that sounds exactly like a house alarm. Hang on, it is some kind of alarm which my neighbour is testing out.
Who would have thought that copying the lettering on a Georgian satirical etching would be of any practical use so soon. The freely hand-drawn italics and capitals from Darly’s Antique Architect were what I had in mind when I added the name to the sign over Alderman Fitzwarren’s shop for the London scene in this year’s Pageant Players’ pantomime, Dick Whittington.
Talking of lettering, a little tip: if you’re fitting lettering into a particular space, work out which is the middle letter and start with that.
In the case of the ‘Fitzwarren’s’ shop sign, I started at the halfway point above the Georgian bow-fronted window and painted the second half of the word – ‘arren’s’ – before working my way, in reverse order, through the first half: ‘Fitzw’. Just be careful not to smudge the lettering you’ve already added.
Sadly, this will be the last pantomime with our producer Wendie Wilby at the helm, as she’s stepping down, and I’ve decided that it’s a good opportunity for me to call it a day, after fifty-one years painting scenery for them. It’s a shame because, as one of the younger members commented today, being in the Pageants’ is like being part of a family; she was referring to the mutual support that helps members make progress, from complete beginners to – in some cases – a career in show business.
That certainly refers to our team of scenic painters today as we more or less completed the desert scene after the lunch break.
As this is Wendie’s last production we’ve thrown everything at it: beach, palm trees and even a volcano.
I was determined not to do any research for my comic strip, working title Adam and the Gargoyle, but here I go again . . .
My characters might have been reasonably convincing in the pencil roughs but, when it came to inking and resolving the details, it didn’t seem to be working. I realised that, for instance, I don’t know what kind of tailcoat my architect character, Robert Adam, might have been wearing c. 1770, when he was busy with improvements and decorative schemes for Nostell Priory.
Of course, I’m creating a pantomime version of Adam but it needs to relate the historical character so I was delighted when Google turned up a caricature, an etching dated 11th October 1773, by the prolific satirist Matthew Darly(fl. 1741-1778), now in the collections of the British Museum. It occurs to me that this might be the work of his wife Mary Darly(fl. 1756-1779), who was was also a publisher, satirist, teacher and caricaturist.
The ‘Antique Architect’, one of a series of Characters, Macaronies & Caricatures that Darly published, most probably depicts Robert Adam (1741-1797) as Robert and his brother James had recently published their first volume of Works in Architecture.
As I copied the etching on my iPad (in Clip Studio Paint, as usual), one detail that I found odd was the writing implement. It looks like a double-ended pen, topped and tailed with steel nibs, which I imagine would have been impractical to use.
Again, thanks to good old Google, I’m able to identify it as a porte crayon, a travel pencil: a piece of bamboo split at both ends to accommodate two crayon leads, with two brass rings to keep the leads in place. In the one that I’ve drawn from a photograph on an auction site, there’s red at one end and graphite at the other.
I called in at the Stables at Nostell Priory this morning to take a another look at the gargoyle. He’s bigger than I imagined – about half as big again – that’s one of the disadvantages of drawing from a photograph.
I photographed him from an angle this time, to get a three-quarters view, which brings out different facets of his character, so, whereas before I thought that he was rough around the edges, cracked and crazy-looking with dinky little ‘Fungus the Bogeyman’ style horns, I now see that he’s rough, yes, crazy and cracked, yes, but with the rather stylish, swept-back horns of a young goat.