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.