His Peculiar Menagerie

Prommers gather in the arena of the Royal Albert Hall, 7.25 p.m.
Prommers gather in the arena of the Royal Albert Hall, 7.25 p.m.

tubaWe’ve gone for seats in the grand tier, in the last box to the right of the orchestra, giving us the closest view but arguably not perfectly balanced sound, however I can hear every instrument and follow the action from solo violin, to cor anglais to glockenspiel. The Prommers, the members of the audience who stand, sit or lie down in the arena, might be closer to the conductor but they don’t have the unrestricted view of the entire orchestra that we’re getting.

Some of the players don’t have the option of tuning their instruments off stage so during the interval I get a chance to draw the harpist tuning up. The kettle drum player has a method of tuning his drum during the performance, turning the keys and keeping his ear close to the edge of the drum. I think of a drum as a background beat that doesn’t really need any tuning but when it comes to finishing off some of the pieces the kettle drum really does have to hit the right note.


harpistRavel’s Mother Goose and Debussy’s La Mer are the old favourites that brought us here but the British premiere of a Symphony for Violin, Chorus and Orchestra by Lera Auerbach, The Infant Minstrel and His Peculiar Menagerie, is an event in itself.

Edward Gardner conducts the BBC Symphony Orchestra but I decide to miss out on the chance to sketch him in action because I don’t want to miss a note of the music. His conducting style combines the necessary precision and expression with a touch of wry humour and just a hint of mime. His peculiar menagerie of performers includes several glockenspiels, a musical saw, two harps and five vocal soloists including countertenor Andrew Watts. I’d have liked to have drawn them too.

East Coast Mainline

Hedges near RetfordDoncaster railway buildingWakefield Westgate to London King’s Cross, 10.18 a.m.: The embankments are splashed bright yellow by clumps of common ragwort, magenta with rosebay willowherb.

In the sidings at Doncaster there are a few spikes of mullein and a sprinkling of pale yellow evening primrose. Buddleia is in full flower but it’s only when we stop at Newark that I see two butterflies (peacocks?) chasing each other around its purple bottle brush spikes of blossom. There are white butterflies at Grantham where birdsfoot trefoil grows on the trackside ballast.

train sketchesAfter a steady climb up the Jurassic limestone scarp at Grantham the countryside opens out south of Peterborough. There’s a glimpse of cattle grazing in water meadows near Sandy, Bedfordshire, and of stag-headed oaks near Welwyn Garden City, Hertfordshire.

One of the catering staff compliments me on the watercolours in my sketchbook.

“I always take it with me.”

“You’ve got very steady hands,” she says.

“I wish I had!”

It’s part of the challenge of drawing for me, especially at 125 m.p.h. on the Virgin East Coast train to London.

A Walk Across Town

treesA bank of cloud hangs over the city but it’s just as well that it’s a bit cooler here as there’s 100 mile cycle race from Pall Mall into Surrey and back and they’re expecting 10,000 riders.

The journey into London for me is a journey back in time – to childhood visits and to my student days here and to when as a freelance I took my portfolio and my book ideas to publishers. There were always expectations and I still always feel that I’m going to come away inspired.

blossomAs usual we make our way to South Kensington via Regent’s Park, Baker Street and Hyde Park. We find a shady bench by the Serpentine Gallery in Kensington Gardens where I draw a tree, about 35 feet tall, which is in blossom.

In the Auditorium


Black-headed gull on lamp by Starbuck's, Birstall.
Black-headed gull on lamp by Starbuck’s, Birstall.

How do you get that great feeling of being part of a winning team; of striving against the odds and getting to the top of your game?

According to the commercials screened as we waited to see the new Star Trek movie, all you need to do is subscribe to a particular broadband service or choose the right brand of fizzy drink. I couldn’t quite follow the logic but then I was drawing my hand . . . and foot. Colour added later in Bella Italia.

Hiking Boots

hiking boots

hiking boot
Detail, full size.

These Trezeta hiking boots have stood up to a lot of wear, mainly in Yorkshire but they’ve been as far afield as Switzerland and Corfu.

I’ve drawn this in my A4 sketchbook to make it easier to include the details. The full size of the drawing is 8 x 5½ inches.

Link: Trezeta


feet feetI was drawing sandals yesterday so this  evening I’ve moved on to feet. I often draw my hand if I’m stuck somewhere waiting but what I can’t do is draw one of my hands clasped in the other (how would I move my pen?!), so I tried different ways of drawing my two feet together.

These feet look elongated but that’s the shape my feet are. Greg Davies, who is 6 feet 8 inches tall and has size 13 feet  was grumbling in this week’s Radio Times that the author of his Wikipedia article had increased that to size 17: ‘I’d be a human right angle.’

I’m only 6ft 4in but I’ve got size 13 feet, so I guess that I’m on my way to being a human right angle.

feetThese four sketches took 70 minutes and 54 seconds to draw. I know that because we were listening to Abba Gold. I needed music that would help keep my pen moving and most CDs have a slow number in them somewhere: not Abba Gold!

Walking Sandals

sandalsYesterday was the hottest of the year so far, a chance to wear sandals again.

Drawn with my Lamy Safari fountain pen with the broad nib, as I wanted a bold inky line. I went for an A4 sketchbook, larger than the sketchbooks that I normally take on location because I didn’t want to start putting in detail, and consequently tending to work larger, and then find that I was running off the edge of the page.

Lamy Safari with Z24 converter and broad nib, filled with Noodler's Black ink.
Lamy Safari with Z24 converter and broad nib, filled with Noodler’s Black ink.

I was going to add colour but then decided that I like the line just as it is. The everyday but for me rather challenging subject brings back memories of art homework from school days: going back to the rudiments of drawing.

Hot Day

large skipperIt’s the first day for over two weeks that we haven’t made the 10,000 paces target that Barbara has set herself on her FitBit. We’re hoping for thunderstorm to freshen things up. Even here in the studio with a through draught it’s got to 80 Fahrenheit.

To prevent the tomato plants flagging I’ve been damping down in the greenhouse. 

small skipper
small skipper

wood pigeonTwo skippers are settling on plants in the pond. On a day like this I guess that even butterflies need a drink. A wood pigeon comes down to the shallow end of the pond taking advantage of the access that I’ve made by cutting back the vegetation.

ant winged antThe ants on the patio are still active but the flying ants are appearing only in dribs and drabs.

dunnockA dunnock perches with a beak-full of insects on the beech hedge. I think that it must have a nest in there.


self-heal3 p.m., 70°F, 22°C, 75% white cumulus, slight breeze: Where it grows on a well mown lawn, self-heal can put out tiny flower heads that stay low and escape the blades of the mower. My mother-in-law Betty objected to the self-heal dotted about her lawn. She said the little purple flower heads reminded her of pieces of ground beef sprinkled on a pizza. Amongst the tall grasses of my patch of meadow self-heal is growing to two feet, to the same height as the knapweed growing alongside it.

bird's-foot trefoilThe same is true of the bird’s-foot trefoil which is scrambling amongst the grasses rather than forming a low cushion of brilliant yellow flower as it might on rabbit-nibbled turf.

A bumble bee with ‘fur’ that resembles a brown bear in moult visits one of the flowers.