This weekend my old brass alarm clock appears in Harrison’s Garden at Nostell Priory, an installation by artist Luke Jerram to celebrate the 300th anniversary of one of John Harrison’s early longcase clocks, created in 1717 (see link below).

My alarm clock, made by Peter of Germany, dates from the late 1970s, when I needed something more robust to get me out of bed in the morning than the little travel alarm that my Uncle Fred bought me for my 21st birthday.

In a drawing from 1977 (or 1978?), I included the alarm clock hanging from a metal shelf unit in a cluttered corner of my room.

Whatever I bought for my room, I tried to select something that I might use as reference for an illustration, so I went for a brass alarm clock that seemed to me to be the essence of what an alarm clock should look like.


Still life studies that I painted as a sample for my folio.

When I chose a brush to sweep the ashes from the hearth, I went for a traditional design: one that I’d be able to draw if I ever needed a brush as a prop in a children’s story. I chose well with that because, earlier this week, I used the same red brush, now with its bristles much worn down, to sweep up in the greenhouse.

These still life studies were mainly pencil and watercolour but I sometimes finished off with just a spot or two of gouache: the highlights on the handle of the brush are stipples of white gouache and the light tips of the bristles are streaks of yellow ochre. I remember being particularly pleased with how those bristles turned out.

The Mantlepiece

One of my favourite paintings at the time – and it’s still one of my favourites – was Vuillard’s La Cheminee in the National Gallery in London, so I guess that was the inspiration for this sketch of my own mantlepiece. I’ve still got a couple of those golden syrup tins on the end of the bookshelves right next to me as I type this. Today they’re mainly filled with pens and pencils.

I’ve still got the blue Thermos flask too; it’s on a shelf at the back of the garage, rusted through at the base but still usable. We’ve got better flasks now, but I can’t bring myself to throw it out, as it’s been on so many adventures with me. It once rolled part way down a cliff top slope on Skokholm Island, West Wales, and it appears in my Richard Bell’s Britain sketchbook, published in 1981 by Collins.

Self Portrait

Self portrait, August 1978.

As a natural history illustrator, I found that when I visited a publisher and showed them my portfolio and some of my sketchbooks of animals, plants and landscapes, the editor would ask me, ‘Do you ever draw people?’, so at that time, in the late 1970s, I made a special effort to improve my figure drawing: sketching at local markets, enrolling in a life class and reading up on anatomy.

I drew a series of self portraits in pencil, looking for features such as my:

  • depressor anguli oris (a muscle used in frowning)
  • levator anguli oris (a muscle used in smiling)
  • zygomatic arch (the bony arch of my cheek)

I set up two mirrors so that I could draw myself the right way round, as others would see me. Curiously since I drew this thirty-nine years ago, I’ve hardly changed, apart from looking thirty-nine years older.


Harrison’s Garden

Vuillard’s La Cheminee

Glistening Inkcap

At the tail end of what’s so far been a mild winter, there are still a few fungi about.

This Glistening InkcapCoprinus micaceus, is growing near a large Ash in the woodland by the Lower Lake at Nostell Priory.

Its white gills turn brown, then black and finally dissolve into ink as the egg-shaped cap expands into a bell-shape, splitting and sometimes rolling up along the margins.

The top of the cap is sprinkled with powdery flakes, which are the remnants of the veil that covered the emerging fungus.

Black Hunting Wasp

Those white dots might have been a little further along the antennae.

Moving flower pots under the bench in the greenhouse, I came across a black hunting wasp* with conspicuous white dots halfway along its antennae. There also appeared to be a white dot at the rear of its thorax. It’s been a mild day and it was even warmer in the greenhouse, even so I was surprised by how active it was. It didn’t appear to be just running for cover after I’d removed the plant pots, it appeared to be actively hunting on the surface of the damp soil. Its antennae were exploring all the time, moving independently of each other.

It was a little over a centimetre, about half an inch long, perhaps a little longer including the long antennae.

* It’s an Ichneumon – a relative of bees, wasps and ants – Ichneumon suspiciosus, a common species throughout the British Isles. Seeing it from above, I’d noticed a brownish tinge on its wings which was, in fact a broad red or orange band on its abdomen. The species also has pale spots to the rear, which I didn’t notice as it scuttled along.

Ear Fungus

I’ve done a bit more on the watercolour of ear fungus that I started drawing from a photograph a few weeks ago. I’d intended to keep things simple but I’m fascinated by detail and the macro photograph not only gives me a reference for the fungus, it also brings the miniature landscape of the bark of the felled tree into close focus.

I could go on working up all that detail for a few more hours, but I’m going to leave it at this stage because I didn’t intend this to be a sharp focus still life study. It’s fine as it is.

Coffee Time

My current pocket sketchbook isn’t designed to take watercolour but it makes a change to use crayons.

I always feel that using a ‘flesh-coloured’ crayon is cheating but, having started with that as the basic colour, I can add various browns and a touch of crimson red to represent the actual colours of my skin.

Early Birds

The blackbirds have the lawn to themselves first thing in the morning, just as it is getting light. We counted eight on the back lawn yesterday. They concentrate on the area around the feeders, so I guess that they are primarily interested in spilt sunflower hearts.

At the top end of the lawn, a male has a bit of luck and seems surprised to have caught a worm. Soon a female notices what’s going on and tries to make off with his prize. He chases her off, then returns to the worm.

Before he can settle down to eating it, a rival male blackbird barges in. As the two males fight it out, the female spots her opportunity, dashes in and makes off with the worm.

Hen Party

The dawn patrol of blackbirds is soon ousted by a gaggle of female pheasants.  It’s not unusual to see seven of them busy around the feeders but usually one or two of them will break off the main group to inspect the herbage around the pond, or to forage on the veg beds.

There’s evidently a pecking order amongst the females because as they pirouette around, pouncing and pecking any spilt seed they notice, one of them will make a quick lunge with her beak at another, momentarily shooing it away from her personal space.

The Forest Scene

This morning we finished the village scene for this year’s pantomime, Cinderella, and this afternoon we’ve blocked in the forest, on the reverse side of the backdrop. I had no fewer than seven helpers – members of the cast and their mums – filling in the outlines for me.

The flat, rounded shapes remind me of Clarice Cliff designs, but we’ll add a bit of shading and outline tomorrow morning.

Dress rehearsal is tomorrow at two, but I’m sure we’ll be finished by then.

Roadside Buzzard


On the lane between Notton and Woolley, a kestrel sits, hunched and huddled, in a roadside tree.

At Woolley Edge, there’s a flash of colour as a jay gets up from a roadside verge. Oak trees grow along the sandstone ridge here, so perhaps it was burying, or retrieving, an acorn.

As we reach the open higher ground at Bretton roundabout, we pass a buzzard sitting on a fence-post at the edge of the road.

As we get nearer to Flockton, we see a second kestrel, hovering over the field by the road.

Notton in the 1800s

Notton from the original Ordnance Survey map, 3D view created in Memory Map.

Looking at our route on the original Ordnance Survey map from the 1800s, I’m surprised to see what a busy landscape this was, with its sandstone quarries, gravel pits and a brick kiln where George Lane meets the Wakefield to Barnsley road.

Just north of the gravel pit there are kennels and, more exotically, three-quarters of a mile to the northeast, there’s a Menagerie, which was part of the Chevet Hall estate.

An osier bed, near the top right corner of my map, would have produced the flexible whips of willow needed for basketmaking.

Living Room

The armchair, at Barbara’s brother John’s, makes a laid-back still life subject with its generous proportions and its rumpled cushions.

His Sony stereo, with its antenna, eye-like twin knobs and gaping mouth, looks like the head of a robot from an animated movie.

Peace Lily

John’s living room even gives me a chance to sketch some botanical details; there’s a Peace Lily, Spathiphyllum, on the table by the window.

The cluster of small conical flowers, arranged spirally around the spadix appear to be all female.

The Peace Lily, also known as the Sail Plant, is a member of the Araceae family, the Arums, members of which are mainly tropical. There are only two British species: Cuckoo-pint and Sweet-flag.


Goose Chase

1.51 p.m.

Five pink-footed geese have touched down on the Middle Lake at Nostell Priory, but they’ve been spotted.

12 seconds later.

The cob mute swan of the lake’s resident family increases his speed as he draws nearer to them and the geese appear to be increasingly uneasy.

Another five seconds, and they’re taking off.

They soon decide that it’s time to make an exit and they take off heading down the lake, then double back to fly up the lake, heading off in the direction that they appeared from, only fifteen minutes earlier.

The goosanders (in the foreground in my last photograph) don’t get involved.

The cob mute swan has defending his territory uppermost in his mind. He spends a lot of time looking up at the small waterfall where the overflow channel beneath the bridge on the Doncaster Road flows through from the Upper Lake. There’s another family of swans on that lake and I’m sure they’d expand into our resident cob’s territory if they got the chance.

Meanwhile the four cygnets of the Middle Lake family are looking increasingly like adults, with fewer and fewer grey patches. I’m afraid that he will soon want them to move on, so that he and the pen can start raising their next brood.