Ducklings

11 a.m.: MALLARD DUCKLINGS are dabbling and snapping at flying insects or stretching up to peck resting insects from the tall leaves of reedmace in the pond by the occupational therapy unit of Dewsbury hospital. The feathers on their backs look soft and downy but they’re completely waterproof; droplets are repelled ‘like water off a duck’s back’.

Every waiting room should have an adjacent pond: this makes a change from drawing a chair, as I did yesterday morning as I waited for my mum at the doctor’s. And think what all those little ponds would do for our country’s commitments to increasing biodiversity!

It might make us healthier too. I’ve got only 10 or 15 minutes to sit on a rock at the water’s edge but, during those minutes I soon find myself drawn into a timeless world. I’m sure if the medics here hooked me up to one of their monitors they’d find my blood pressure and my pulse-rate going down, my muscles relaxing.

When you climb over the broken wall and walk past the scatter of drinks cans into this little park you enter another world. The watery jungle of reedmace stems is the nearest you’re going to find to a mangrove swamp in Dewsbury. The chicks swimming to and fro are behaving much as the chicks of Hesperornis might have 70 million years ago.

For that matter, the birds are probably behaving much as their dinosaur ancestors might have done down by the waterhole. A Moorhen chases a Mallard duck across the grass. The duck is larger but the Moorhen is more than a match for it.

Perhaps it’s so aggressive because it has young nearby. A couple of small fluffy black chicks paddle across the khaki-coloured waters of the pond towards the reedmace.

It might be protecting young, but on the other hand it might simply be expressing its crotchety character as a Moorhen. Moorhens don’t seem to need any excuse to act aggressively. Whether they’re protecting young, nest building or involved in courtship, they’ll take any opportunity to pick a fight.

Goldsmith on the Water-hen

Where the stream is selvaged with sedges, or the pond edged with shrubby trees, the water-hen is generally a resident there : she seeks her food along the grassy banks, and often along the surface of the water. With Shakespeare’s Edgar, she drinks the green mantle of the standing pool ; or, at least seems to prefer those places where it is seen.

History of the Earth, 1774

 

Animated Nature

I WAS given these volumes of Oliver Goldsmith’s History of the Earth and Animated Nature by my dad’s shooting and fishing friend Mr Chalkley when I was seven years old. I was already hooked on nature, enthusiastically drawing local wildlife and writing up my observations in a red exercise book. Here I am doing the same kind of thing over half a century later.

I was thrilled to be presented with such an impressive set of volumes; they have such an air of antiquity about them. It has 108 plates, signed ‘R.Scott’ and ‘Published by Blackie Fullerton & Co. Glasgow’ of animals, birds, shells and fossils, printed in a fine stippled technique – lithography? Unfortunately the text (and the footnotes which can go on for several pages) are in such small print that you can’t read the book for pleasure. It’s one to be dipped into.

The first edition of Goldsmith’s History of the Earth appeared in 1774 but the title page of this edition, published by A. Fullarton and Co, is dated MDCCCXXXII. That’s a year that crops up again and again in research for my various projects: 1832. At the weekend this was the date that Waldemar Januszczak chose to start his television history of Impressionism as this was when Camille Pisarro was born in St Thomas in the West Indies (some sources day 1830). Manet was born in the same year.

I drew the books in pen and black Winsor and Newton ink but had to stop adding dilute peat brown ink as a colour wash as it was soaking through the paper in my sketchbook and staining the drawing on the other side of page.

I started drawing this chair when I took my mum for an appointment this morning.

Tilly

Tilly is the new border collie at the bookshop where my wife Barbara works. Sadly Sox, who I drew on numerous occasions died aged 16 a month ago. It was only yesterday that Richard and Carol collected Tilly from the rescue centre but already it’s obvious how well she will fit in on her regular visits to the shop. She’s smaller than Sox and, as she’s a newcomer, there’s a tendency to think of her as a puppy but at 18 months this is as far as she’ll grow. She’s slim (there’s a contrast with Sox) and long-legged. Tilly’s ‘socks’, on her two front feet, are white with brown dots.

She’s shy but friendly and, unlike Sox, she’s pleased to meet other dogs. Perfect for the bookshop. I look forward to drawing her when she becomes more relaxed as she gets used to her new life.

Fatsia (right), drawn in the courtyard of the Beverley Hotel during a break between papers at the Robin Hood conference.

 

 

Brockadale

AFTER SO many Robin Hood talks during the past two days we’re here on a Wakefield Naturalists’ Society field meeting at a place which has long been associated with the outlaw. At the start of The Little Gest Robin Hood stands leaning against a tree in Barnsdale Forest. The forest was extensive and stretched northwards from the borders of Sherwood, so which part of Barnsdale did the ballad writers have in mind?

As at the start of the story Robin tells Little John, William Scarlock and Much to ‘go up to Sayles’ to scan the Great North Road for a ‘dinner guest’ (one who will subsequently be asked to pay!) they must be down here in Brockadale. Sayles is an outcrop overlooking the valley, now marked on the map as Sayles Plantation. Going back as far as 1841, iron age earthworks at Sayles were shown on the Ordnance Survey map as ‘Castle Hills’. Castle Hill is surrounded by several tower-like crags so it could have served as a look-out post and a defensible position for a band of archers.

Castle Hill was excavated a few years ago prior to an extension of quarrying operations. If the archaeologists discovered Robin’s hidden booty, they kept quiet about it.

Now managed, in part, as a Yorkshire Wildlife Trust reserve, Brockadale straddles the borders of North and West Yorkshire.

Damsons

Chapel Lane, Little Smeaton, 10 a.m.

JULY IS the middle of our summer but in the hedgerows there’s a feeling that autumn isn’t too far away. Hawthorn berries are beginning to appear – still green at the moment – but these damsons by the lay-by are well on their way to being ripe.

I’d always assumed that the ‘brock’ in Brockadale referred to the badger but apparently it means ‘broken dale’; the slopes are broken by craggy outcrops of magnesian limestone. The name might refer to quarrying on the valley slopes.

Perforate St John’s Wort (note the little ‘perforations’ when you hold a leaf up to the light, left) was used to treat wounds in Robin Hood’s day by the Knights of St John of Jerusalem, who had a preceptory at Newland, near Wakefield, and were Robert Hode’s close neighbours in the town on Warrengate, where Robin and the Hospitallers both held property.

The chalky soil that makes the limestone meadows so refreshingly different to the buttercup meadows that I’m so familiar with elsewhere on the coal measures and gritstone country of West Yorkshire.

Burnet Moths

This morning there are hundreds of 6-spot burnet moths about, some of them basking or feeding on the flowers of scabious and clustered bellflower.

Marbled White

There are also a few marbled white butterflies around today, mainly basking on a plant by the outcrop (top picture).

Sheep and cattle graze in the field below. Grazing is an essential part of the management of the grasslands, helping prevent bushes taking over and shading out the limestone meadow flowers.

Britain Revisited

Most of these drawings were made in Brockadale in July 2009. I was revisiting the east of England locations that I first drawn in July 1979 while working on my Richard Bell’s Britain sketchbook for Collins. There were so many places to revisit during July that I had to find some way of dealing with the rain. I took a pop-up shelter that I’d bought at Netto and set it up overlooking Brockadale (top picture).

I got some funny looks from passing dog walkers but at least I was able to work on my drawings most of the time except when the wind blew the rain straight down the valley and into my tent. I then zipped up the opening of the shelter and ate my picnic lunch snug in my shelter perched on the outcrop, as the rain battered against the canvas.

King Edward and his Merry Men

In my Walks in Robin Hood’s Yorkshire I follow the career of 14th century Robert Hode of Wakefield so Prince John and Richard the Lionheart are long gone but Edward II and his rival Earls (and rival lords of the manor of Wakefield) John de Warenne and Thomas of Lancaster provide a suitably dramatic and violent context. Their rivalry culminated in the Battle of Boroughbridge after which many men were declared outlaws.

I enjoyed illustrating the knockabout Little Gest of Robin Hood but I felt quite emotional when it came to the humiliation, mock-trial and execution of Thomas of Lancaster at his own castle at Pontefract. Here I was trying to imaginatively recreate real events which happened to a real, not a semi-mythical, person in a local town that I’ve long been familiar with.

Whatever his faults Thomas, Earl of Lancaster, didn’t deserve that kind of treatment. No wonder he was soon hailed as a saint!

Artwork from ‘Walks in Robin Hood’s Yorkshire’, Willow Island Editions, ISBN 978-1-902467-19-1, from my display ‘A long, drawn out process . . .’ exhibited at the Robin Hood Scholars’ Conference at Beverley, 10 July 2011.

Forest Folk

The outlaws were the least of my worries; in Walks in Robin Hood’s Yorkshire, I had two earls, a king, a pinder, several Knights Hospitaller, assorted peasants and, not least, a Sheriff to design and draw.

Artwork from ‘Walks in Robin Hood’s Yorkshire’, Willow Island Editions, ISBN 978-1-902467-19-1, from my display ‘A long, drawn out process . . .’ exhibited at the Robin Hood Scholars’ Conference at Beverley, 10 July 2011.

Robin and Friends

In the comic strip section of my Walks in Robin Hood’s Yorkshire, I needed to make Robin instantly recognisable in every one of dozens of two inch square frames. I wanted to get away from the traditional Robin Hood hat, so I went for the medieval equivalent of a trilby!

Artwork from ‘Walks in Robin Hood’s Yorkshire’, Willow Island Editions, ISBN 978-1-902467-19-1, from my display ‘A long, drawn out process . . .’ exhibited at the Robin Hood Scholars’ Conference at Beverley, 10 July 2011.

Robin Hood: a walk in Barnsdale Forest

There were 6 picture maps to draw for the 19 miles of my Walks in Robin Hood’s Yorkshire along with two short town trails, plus local views and historical details.

I love the maps in Tolkien and The Wind in the Willows and my aim is to try to make the places look delightful enough for my readers to feel they’d like to walk there but accurate enough for them to follow the directions in the text without the need for an Ordnance Survey map (although I do recommend people take one with them in case there are unexpected footpath closures or if they decide to stray off the route).

Robin Hood’s Yorkshire

Artwork from ‘Walks in Robin Hood’s Yorkshire’, Willow Island Editions, ISBN 978-1-902467-19-1, from my display ‘A long, drawn out process . . .’ exhibited at the Robin Hood Scholars’ Conference at Beverley, 10 July 2011.

Robin Hood: Roughing it out

144 illustrations to plan – and that’s just the comic strip section! The idea of these lightning sketches for my Walks in Robin Hood’s Yorkshire was to make sense of my months of research and get rid of all those scary white pages by populating them with lively historical detail and traditional tales.

Rough visuals for the illustrations  from ‘Walks in Robin Hood’s Yorkshire’, Willow Island Editions, ISBN 978-1-902467-19-1, from my display ‘A long, drawn out process . . .’ exhibited at the Robin Hood Scholars’ Conference at Beverley, 10 July 2011.

Robin Hood Drawing Workshop

I WAS FACED with the problem of how to depict Robin Hood in the comic strip sections of my walks booklet (Walks in Robin Hood’s Yorkshire), so at a workshop session at this weekend’s Robin Hood Scholars Conference I’m interested to see how some of the assembled academics would picture the outlaw.

Despite protestations that they never draw, I get a group together. In our first sketch, we need to dispense with the traditional storybook image of Robin; a feather in his cap, a bow in hand and a quiver of arrows over his shoulder (left), wearing a Lincoln green costume with scalloped edges to his cowl.

My version is on the right (as it is in the examples below). Barbara says I have a tendency to make all my characters look like me! I certainly ended up with a lot of bearded characters with straggly hair when imagining the outlaws, earls, kings and peasants of the medieval world in my Robin Hood booklet.

The ‘Real’ Robin Hood

 Next we imagine Robin as he might have been if he really was a historical character (as I believe he was); an outlaw living rough in the greenwood, quite a contrast to the dashing hero of storybooks and the movies.

My group of post-graduate academics get more expressive in their drawings when they’re allowed to get away from the storybook cliche.

The moody Robin (left) has a brooding physical presence. I definitely wouldn’t like to meet him as I walked through Sherwood Forest.

Robin & Reynaert

With yesterday’s talk on Reynaert the Fox in mind, I ask them to attempt an atavistic Robin, going back to the ancient roots of legend. They can draw their character anywhere on a sliding scale between a wily fox-like human Robin to an anthropomorphic character like the fox hero of Disney’s animated version Robin Hood.

Animal traits can help when designing a human character. The Robin Hood meets The Simpson’s figure (above, far left) is a cheeky, cheerful character – you can imagine his cute cartoon voice – a contrast to the Robin/Reynaert figure (right) who occupies the dappled shade of the forests we visit in fable and folk tale. I think he’s from a dreamlike Jungian world; from the animalistic depths of our storytelling collective subconscious.

The Sheriff

Robin can be an enigma, something of a blank at the still centre of the legends. At the start of The Gest he’s just there, with no explanation of his origins, leaning against a tree in Barnsdale Forest. It’s often the other characters who actually do things. Robin can’t be Robin without his friends and, of course, his foes . . .

I’m not alone in feeling that, in most of the movies and television adaptions, the Sheriff is my favourite character. Someone suggests this is because the role of the Sheriff always requires a good actor; Alan Rickman, Keith Allan and, in the 1950s television series that I grew up with, the urbane Alan Wheatley, bring a great deal more than pantomime villain to the role.

Henry de Faucumberg, the 14th century Sheriff of Nottingham who features in my version of Robin Hood was evidently an able administrator as he is one of only two men in history to be, at different times in his life, appointed both Sheriff of Nottinghamshire and Sheriff of Yorkshire. As commander of the King’s ‘Yorkshire Array’ he played a decisive role in the downfall of Thomas of Lancaster after the Battle of Boroughbridge, an event which resulted in ‘my’ Robin being declared an outlaw. And yet, in his early years in Wakefield, Faucumberg was fined for stealing wood from the lord of the manor’s barn and of refusing to take the oath in the town’s Burgess Court. An intriguing character.

My thanks to the group for allowing me to feature their drawings here.

Robin Hood Scholars

Conference of the International Association of Robin Hood Scholars, Beverley

THIS IS my first academic conference and I’ve really enjoyed it – although it’s surprising how exhausting it is just to sit and listen to ten short talks in one day! Unfortunately I miss the opening session – which included a talk by Professor Helen Phillips on Guy of Gisborne – otherwise I would have heard a dozen.

One of the delegates tells me that I’ve chosen a good conference for my first; the Beverley Arms hotel, a former coach house dating back to 1794, is a friendlier setting than a big university would be. As it’s on a smaller scale, you get to know everyone who’s here, and, as there aren’t multiple talks going on at once, you don’t have to make difficult choices about which papers you’d like to hear.

Dr Lesley Coote of Hull University, who is organising and chairing the conference, tells me that she has experience in the theatre, working both on stage and behind the scenes as stage manager; ideal qualifications for a running a successful conference, which is a performance in itself.

People must think that I’m taking a lot of notes, but it’s an ideal opportunity for me to draw figures, something I’ve felt an urge to do recently, while catching up on the latest Robin Hood studies.

Storytelling

The first speaker (right) has been investigating interactivity in storytelling. He suggests that when the original Robin Hood ballads were told, in taverns or around camp fires, there was a degree of audience participation. Once a story is set down in writing there’s less opportunity for the audience to influence its progress.

There’s a parallel with the story structure of computer games; there’s a strong narrative framework but how the player gets from one set piece to the next involves a number of choices, drawing them into the story and making them feel that it’s their own.

John Marshall of Bristol University has made some new discoveries about Robin Hood pageants and how the tradition spread to London. It’s known that in 1516 Henry VIII attended a Robin Hood pageant at Shooters Hill. By checking out the date in the royal accounts Marshall has been able to supply some fascinating details about who supplied the costumes, the names of some of the performers and he’s thrown some light on the introduction of Friar Tuck as a member of Robin’s outlaw band.

I didn’t expect to hear a talk on pirates today but the next speaker charts the career of privateer turned Barbary coast corsair John Ward (c 1553-1622) who captained a ship called The Little John.

A French post-graduate student talks on how the medieval concept of chivalry was reinvented by Louis XIV and others.

In the afternoon we have talks on the inscriptions on Saxon swords and on how Disney has influenced the way we think of the middle ages; they’ve become a kind of historical playground, sufficiently removed from the present day.

The final talk is the story behind Richard Lester’s 1976 film Robin & Marian starring Sean Connery and Audrey Hepburn.

If pressed, I think I’d have to say that Sean Connery was my favourite Robin Hood.