Visual Aids

IT’S JUST as well that I’ve whittled down my art materials to the bare essentials because I often carry these three pairs of glasses in my bag; varifocal Polaroid sunglasses, reading glasses and clear varifocals. Light-sensitive varifocals would have lessened my load but Polaroid appealed to me as it’s so successful in cutting down on glare. I felt that they would be useful for looking down into ponds. As they cut down on glare, they don’t need to be quite as dark as regular sunglasses, which should be helpful when I’m using watercolours.

Heron at the Pond

7.15 a.m.; AS I OPENED the blind on the window in the studio I was puzzled by a shape like a Grecian urn reflected in the pond. It was only after I’d seen the reflection that I realised that there was a juvenile Grey Heron standing behind the pond. It flew off towards the wood. As far as I remember, this is the first time in over 25 years that we have seen a Heron by the pond, although we’ve had them in the garden before.

It’s a reminder to me that I need to continue adding marginal, emergent and floating water plants to the pond to give the frogs and newts some cover.

Yesterday morning and again this morning we heard the high-pitched ‘mewing’ of a bird of prey. When I heard it yesterday, all that I could see in the air were a couple of crows. Today we saw a Buzzard soaring over the wood and I wonder if it has been perching somewhere down at this end of the valley, causing commotion amongst the local crows.

I’ve been working down by the compost bins. I opened the lid of one of the bins to add more compost and there, sitting at the top of the pile was a small Toad. It’s rare for me to do much work on a compost heap without coming across one.

Moriarty in Colour

With all the clearing up I had to do in the garden there’s not much time to immerse myself in the world of Sherlock Holmes today but I did have time to add a spot of colour to Moriarty. There’s a black and white engraving by Paget that I’d also like to draw from. It has the caption ‘He turned his rounded back on me’. In it Moriarty looks like a cross between a black beetle and a Marabou Stork. A colourful character even in black and white.


“You have probably never heard of Professor Moriarty?” said [Holmes].


“Aye, there’s the genius and the wonder of the thing!” he cried. “The man pervades London, and no one has heard of him. That’s what puts him on a pinnacle in the records of crime. I tell you, Watson, in all seriousness, that if I could beat that man, if I could free society of him, I should feel that my own career had reached its summit, and I should be prepared to turn to some more placid line in life.”

Arthur Conan Doyle, The Adventure of the Final Problem

THE NEXT plate that I’ve come to in my drawings from Sidney Paget’s illustrations to Sherlock Holmes is his portrait of the ‘Napoleon of Crime’, Professor Moriarty.

Last month I drew on the ledge at the Reichenbach Falls which features in Paget’s illustration ‘The Death of Sherlock Holmes’. The engraving is signed, in block capitals ‘SIDNEY PAGET, 1893’. The misty gothic background to the duel is a reasonably accurate depiction of the Falls themselves.

Drawing from the originals makes me appreciate Paget’s skill as an illustrator and his lasting contribution to our image of Holmes.

Moriarty reminds me of Max Wall (1908-1990), in his variety turn as the manically musical Professor Wallofski.

Sketching Sherlock

RETURNING TO my Sherlock Holmes book project after an inspiring visit to the Reichenbach Falls, I’ve decided to get back into the swing of things with some drawing rather than with writing or research.

Previously I’ve been thinking of illustrating Sherlock in black and white but I’m starting to realise that colour will make the book more attractive and will help me capture the mood of the story that I’m telling.

As with so many books and screen versions of Holmes, my starting point is the original illustrations by Sidney Paget that appeared in The Strand Magazine. This doesn’t entirely limit me to black and white; The Complete Facsimile Edition, published in 2006, also includes 15 colour plates.

The colour is muted in my first drawings, after Paget’s illustration for The Adventure of Silver Blaze, as Watson and Holmes Holmes are dressed for a day at the races. In place of his trademark deerstalker hat Holmes, like Watson, has gone for a top hat.

A small detail; Holmes wears brown leather gloves, while Watson’s are grey.

Yellow Loosestrife

Despite  its name, which might be a mistranslation of the Greek, this member of the primrose family isn’t renowned for its calming properties. Culpeper recommends it for wounds, sore-throats and as a fly and gnat repellent.

Thrush’s Anvil

2.30 p.m., 22°C

FLIES, INCLUDING one bluebottle and three glossily metallic greenbottles, are attracted to the slimy stain on this fragment of sandstone in the bottom corner of the garden. The Song Thrush has been using it as an anvil, leaving fragments of the shells of at least three Brown-lipped Snails and one Garden Snail. I think that the plain ochre yellow snail in the middle is a colour variation of the Brown-lipped Snail.

You might think that the colour would provide suitable camouflage in this corner of the garden but it evidently wasn’t enough for it to escape the attentions of the Song Thrush.

Leylandi Stump

Soon after I’d started drawing this stump, a Bank Vole appeared, pausing under the stump before disappearing beneath it. Later I had a glimpse of its white front paws (do voles have ‘paws’?) beneath the adjoining log pile. Bank Voles have chestnut fur and a longer tail than that of the greyer Field Vole, which is also known as the Short-tailed Vole.

I’ve stacked the stump and sawn-up branches here as a habitat pile, so I’m pleased to see the vole using it.

But I have removed another habitat that it had been using; voles (or perhaps Wood Mice) had excavated a small network of tunnels beneath a clump of the Flag Iris that we removed from the pond. That has now gone on the compost heap.

Flying Ants

There’s more than usual ant activity on the patio by the kitchen window this afternoon. It’s a still, warm settled day and it’s been chosen as the time for ant colonies in the area to release their winged queens and smaller winged males on a nuptial flight. Barbara said that on her walk home from work at 5 p.m. there were lots of them about, some of them landing on her as she walked down Quarry Hill.

Little Black Shrew

WHEN I RETURNED to work at the end of the garden this afternoon, I disturbed a small creature – smaller than a vole – that scurried around in the undergrowth beneath the hedge before disappearing into next door’s garden in a place where they have a large, and currently rather overgrown, pond.

It was blackish rather than brownish so, looking in the book, it is more like a Water Shrew than a Common Shrew, which is the species that I’d expect to see in our garden. I didn’t get a view of its head and I can’t be sure that I’ve drawn its tail in the correct proportions but I did get a good view of the blackish sausage-shaped body.

We’re near to Coxley Beck here and in at least three consecutive back gardens there are ponds, supporting reasonable numbers of frogs and newts which would provide suitable prey for a Water Shrew. Water Shrews are often found away from wetlands.

Iris Roots

I’ve been splitting the clumps of Yellow Flag Iris that we removed from the pond, whittling down hulking blocks of root, rhizome and moss into manageable chunks. At first I tried hacking at them but I couldn’t make much impression on the springy mass of vegetation so I used two garden forks, stuck into the root-mass back-to-back, to lever them apart.

I’m know going to cut them up into fist-sized pieces before I put them on the compost heap.

Perhaps the mystery shrew had been checking out the debris. Blackbirds were pecking about amongst it later.


AFTER  CLEARING the pond last week and leaving the water to clear we’re now adding ten weighted bunches of oxygenating Curled Pondweed, Potamogeton crispus. I’m thinking carefully before I choose the floating and emergent plants that we’re going to add next as I don’t want to introduce anything which will completely take over the pond as the Yellow Flag Iris did.

The evening after we’d cleared the pond and cut down some of the surrounding vegetation, we watched a Hedgehog snuffling around the pond edge. It waddled over to the garden shed to search amongst the grasses before disappearing under the hawthorn hedge into next door’s garden.

Snails are a regular part of a hedgehog’s diet but the empty and broken shells that we find on concrete paths in our garden are the result of another snail-eater which we’ve been seeing quite often recently; the Song Thrush. A week or two ago it came up to the patio with two youngsters. It may have nested in the ivy in the far corner beyond the greenhouse or in one of our next door neighbour’s dense evergreen shrubs.

Sadly another young Greenfinch collided with the patio windows on Sunday afternoon. We heard the bang. Sometimes the bird is dazed but it survives but this one was unlucky and apparently broke its neck on impact. The windows were open at the time but unfortunately it flew into the glass instead of flying into the house.


WHEN WE were walking between Hope and Castleton in the Peak District on Wednesday, we came across crinoid fossils in some of the capstones of the drystone wall as we crossed a stile. Crinoids are also known as sea-lilies although they’re invertebrate animals, relatives of sea urchins and starfish. They’ve been called ‘starfish on stems’; creatures that spread their arms to catch food particles.

They’re usually found where a current wafts across a reef. At the time these fossils formed what is now the Peak District lay close to the equator.

This comic strip version of how fossils form is from my 1991 geology A-level notes:


500 MILLION YEARS AGO: in the world’s oceans, graptolites, colonial creatures, float with the currents. They are too small for their accumulated remains to build up into sediments on the sea floor but, given enough time, they can leave a thin layer in the fossil record. This can happen only where sedimentation is slow, for instance hundreds of miles away from land.

Their fossils look like calligraphy, hence their name, taken from graptos, the Greek for ‘marked with letters’.

Life on the Reef

330 MILLION YEARS AGO Castleton: a reef built up by algae separates a calm shallow sea to the south from a sea at least 150 metres deep to the north. In contrast to the graptolites, which are heading for extinction at this time, some organisms are so successful that they form sedimentary rocks. These include in particular; crinoids, corals, bivalves and brachiopods.

In my A-level notes I’ve written; ‘Allochemical : stays in place’ but this is misleading: allochemicals are chemicals that come from elsewhere. ‘Allo’ is from the Greek for ‘other’ or ‘different’. In the case of the reefs at Castleton ‘allochemical’ might refer to the chalky ‘cement’ that holds the shell fragments together. The cement-like matrix may have come from elsewhere but shelly sediment itself is autochthonous, meaning that it is ‘not transported’ that it formed ‘in place’.


‘. . . we find masses of limestone wholly composed of the stems of the stone-lilies, as they are rather poetically called. This stone is often seen polished in mantelpieces ; when exposed to the air, the softer parts, which are immediately between the stems, weather away, leaving the surface of the rock as if the fossils had been stuck on to it, as in the illustration of encrinitial limestone (Fig. 75). The heads of the animals which the stem supported were a corona of tentacules, with a mouth at the centre. These arm-like feelers waved about in the waters, bringing into their mouth the prey which they enclosed. As specimens, we give the Cyathocrinites planus (Fig. 76) and the Woodcrinus (Fig. 77).’

The Popular Educator, Volume. V, c. 1860?

A Bear at the Hepworth

SOMEWHERE DEEP in the vaults of the new Hepworth Gallery by the river in Wakefield, in the reserve collections, there’s one of my paintings; a 6ft 6 x 4ft acrylic on canvas of Waterton’s World, along with a sketchbook of the working drawings that I made for it. These were of South American birds collected by the naturalist Charles Waterton between 1812 and 1824. The sketchbook is handmade; a large-format section-sewn hardback filled with Saunders hot-pressed paper. It proved too cumbersome for everyday use and I only ever filled a quarter of the pages. I must pop in to the Hepworth and draw something special in it some day!

My painting has yet to make it into the public galleries but this cuddly bear and the bear tile, the work of our talented neighbour Alice, aged 6, have been exhibited at the Hepworth as part of a show of work by local children. An artist came into her school to work with them.

Alice tells us that her favourite modelling clay creation is this cheerful hedghog (right) but she explains that as it was made more recently it wasn’t included in the show.

Finding a battered butterfly in the garden, she used her watercolours for this large painting which she kindly presented to us.

Monkey Flower

11.50 a.m., 30°C in the sun, 90% cumulus

AFTER LAST WEEK’S big clear out, the pond is now a bit of a blank canvas. Duckweed is beginning fill in the shady corner by the shed but this Frog was resting on the sunny side of the pond, in the corner next to this Monkey Flower, Mimulus. This variety is ‘Highland Orange’. You find the plant on riversides, so I thought it would be happy with the pot standing in the water at the edge of the pond. It’s the first plant I’ve added to the pond. More important, but proving rather elusive in the garden centres that I’ve visited so far, is oxygenating pondweed. That’s the first aquatic plant that I need to get established.

Pond skaters have been attracted to the open water. There were always a few on the limited scraps of open water that remained between all the water plants before we cleared out the pond but today there are 32 gliding around on the surface.

The pond reflects the changing sky and reacts to every movement of frogs hopping in and out or birds coming to drink. It’s a shame to have had to ruthlessly cleared out so many plants but the pond is now more of a centrepiece for the garden than it was when it blended in with all the surrounding vegetation and it looked like a thicket of flag irises.