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

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.