Gull Feather CSI

I PICKED up this feather, a primary from the gull’s right wing,  on the pavement in front of the Bingley Arms, an old pub that stands on a narrow strip of land between the river and the canal at Horbury Bridge. Having a feather as a temporary bookmark in my sketchbook proved handy when I found myself sitting in a waiting room with nothing else available to draw.

The underside is a shade lighter. There’s a scallop-shaped indentation at the tip of the feather. Was this the result of the gull preening; tugging out an old feather that was past its best?

Under the microscope, half way down the unfeathered end of quill, you can see this scratch. Is the ‘V’-shaped impression on the underside of the quill an impression left by gull’s bill when it was preening?

Scratches like these around the base of a feather can be a sign that a sparrowhawk has gripped and twisted with its beak as it plucks feathers from it’s prey. Could this be evidence that the gull was taken by a sparrowhawk?

Smoking Shelter

A few yards from my suspected avian crime scene, down the side of the Bingley Arms, there’s a smoking shelter, one of the most picturesque I’ve seen, with petunias, geraniums and garden mint in pots and runner beans and sweet peas growing up the trellis.

If I was visiting a pub on a summer’s day, I’d find this more tempting than sitting in the public bar. But I’m still not tempted to take up smoking.

Flowers at Walton Colliery Country Park

Purple loosestrife

THE LAST of the Wakefield Naturalists’ summer field meetings; this morning we take a leisurely stroll around Walton Colliery Country Park, an area which is as botanically rich as any that I know in the area. There’s waterside, remnants of waste-ground and heathy slopes which will become woodland before too long unless they’re managed to keep their open aspect.

I’m not going to have the time to draw so I take the camera and the copy of the Collins Gem Guide to Wild Flowers which we keep in the glove box of the car. I found myself influenced by my 1972 diary illustrations in this dip pen and watercolour sketch.

When the group comes across a tricky flower half a dozen of us compare descriptions in our different field guides.

Melilot and Memory

For example we have to decide between two tall yellow members of the Peaflower Family; Ribbed Melilot and Tall Melilot. The Gem Guide points out that Ribbed has ‘hairless brown seed-pods’ while Tall has ‘downy black seed-pods’. I take a small piece home – it’s a common plant here – and photograph it under the microscope.

There are a few sparse microscopic hairs on the seed-pods but I’d hardly call these downy, so I’m plumping for Ribbed Melilot, Melilotus officinalis.

‘Officinalis’ means that this species was reputed to have a medicinal use; Culpeper tells us that ‘A plaster made of this herb boiled in mutton-suet, wax and rosin, is drawing, and good for green wounds’. He also recommends it for inflammation, tumours and as an eye drop ‘to take away the film that dims the sight’. Washing the head in distilled water of the herb will ‘strengthen the memory’.

Red Bartsia

Members of the Peaflower Family have nodules on their roots containing nitrogen-fixing bacteria. Accessing extra nutrients seems to be a theme of the plants on the grassy trackside; Red Bartsia, Odontites verna, a member of the Figwort Family, goes for a more direct approach in grabbing nutrients; it is semi-parasitic, tapping into the roots of other plants.

Fleabane

You can probably guess the use that Culpeper suggests for Common Fleabane, Pulicaria dysenterica, a plant of damp, grassy places: ‘The smell of this . . . is supposed delightful to insects, and the juice destructive to them, for they never leave it till the season of their deaths.’

Broad-leaved Helleborine

I last recorded Broad-leaved Helleborine, Epipactis helleborine, in my diary for 10 August 2000 on the nature trail at Collier Wood, the now defunct and much-missed picnic site in County Durham. None of our group remembers having seen it here at Walton Colliery Country Park before but it seems to be establishing itself as we see a second small colony of it later on our walk on a semi-shady woodland edge.

Helleborines are members of the Orchid Family.

Wild Carrot

It’s useful to go on a wild flower walk with a group because other people will point out details that you might miss. I don’t recall having noticed that some of the white umbels of Wild Carrot, Daucus carota, have a few red flowers at the centre.

Branched Bur-Reed

Branched Bur-reed, Sparganium erectum, has flower-heads that resemble a spiked medieval weapon. It’s an aquatic plant, growing in a water-filled ditch at the park amongst reedmace, Purple Loosestrife and Yellow-flag Iris (see top picture).

Autumn Berries

I WAS SURPRISED to see the first red Hawthorn berries this week, just odd ones, not a whole bunch as in my drawing. Most haws are still green but a few have ripened on a south-facing bush on the top of an embankment overhanging a pavement, so they’d had more warmth than most. I’ve also tasted my first Blackberry of the season and in the garden the autumn Raspberries in our garden.

On the black railings of Addingford Steps there were dozens of ladybirdsso many in one place that I had the impression that they might have recently emerged from pupae, but perhaps it was the warmth of the metal that attracted them.

 Clearing Willows

There’s a patch of devastation on the marshy field known as The Strands between the river and the canal downstream from Horbury Bridge. My vague memories of this area of willows is that it started as a few willows next to a water-filled hollow and over the years grew to become a dense circular thicket. It has evidently taken a great deal of effort to clear it.

Equine Delinquents

EARLIER THIS week at 6.30 in the morning we heard galloping hooves going down the lane and thought someone had got up early for a ride. At breakfast-time we saw that it was the three ponies from the field behind us that had escaped. They were escorted back up the lane with a police video van bringing up the rear.

The owners soon identified the weak point in the fence; a small gate to a service area. They sat on guard there drinking cups of coffee until repairs could be made. Later I could see from the hoof prints that the ponies got at least as far as the main road, making their way along the pavement and into the ends of driveways as they went.

Next door’s Sumac is now in flower and attracting hoverflies and bees. It’s a tree that doesn’t seem quite in step with the seasons.

Frog Trap

This morning I was upset to be unable to save a frog. It had become trapped in a drain at the edge of the road in front of Barbara’s mum’s house (which is currently up for sale). I found a pair of rubber gloves and a small bucket. Not ideal for the job, but what completely stumped me was that, without a crowbar to hand, I couldn’t use the lever point to flip open the grating. By then the frog had disappeared into the opaque black water in the sump.

Inky Feet

After drawing my slippers yesterday I thought I should try drawing my feet but I think I prefer drawing hands. The proportions are more familiar.


 

A View of the Meadow

BIOLOGIST Joe Hutto said that when he reared a brood of wild Turkeys, the main thing that he learnt from them, as he took his brood of fledglings foraging deep in the Florida Everglades, was always to be in the present moment; to give your full attention to the meadow you happen to be in, not to be thinking that a better meadow will be coming along later. You shouldn’t rush along regardless with some future goal in mind. It reminds me of Cornford’s poem;

‘O why do you walk through the fields in gloves, Missing so much and so much?’

Wherever you happen to be just now, that’s as good as it gets.

The young Turkeys did seem to be able to make all sorts of discoveries on their home patch. Hutto already knew the area well but he’d never realised, for example, that there were several rattlesnakes living nearby. Hutto admits to identifying so much with his charges that he joined them by eating the occasional grasshopper.

The Grasshopper Mind


I was listening to impressionist Rory Bremner’s investigation into Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. His ADHD, undiagnosed at the time, led to him having a total memory wipe-out when he walked on stage at the Royal Variety Performance.

Looking at my diary for 1972, I can’t help thinking that I had a tendency towards Attention Deficit. One of the symptoms of ADHD is having a grasshopper mind; always leaping on to the next thing. I was juggling so many projects at the time – thesis, exhibition, drawings, leaflets, scripts, articles. I can’t possibly have done them all to the standard that I was capable of. Would I have done better to have focussed on one aspect of my work and to have aimed at excellence at that one thing?

Experts on ADHD say that it’s a matter of degree. The off-the-wall thinking and improvisation of a grasshopper mind can lead to creative solutions. Typically, in business, someone who is good at a more creative, hands-on job – in sales for instance – will struggle when they get promoted to management, which requires organisational skills.

One strategy for ADHD sufferers is to make sure you have a partner who has those organisational skills. Thank goodness I met Barbara!

Of course observational drawing also forces me to slow down and to be in the moment for a while.

Tide of Vehicles

‘. . . he dashed in wild pursuit amid the stream of traffic, but the start was too great, and already the cab was out of sight.

‘”There now ! ” said Holmes, bitterly, as he emerged panting and white with vexation from the tide of vehicles. “Was ever such bad luck and such bad management, too ? Watson, Watson, if you are an honest man you will record this also and set it against my successes !”‘

Arthur Conan Doyle, The Hound of the Baskervilles

IN MY VISUAL research for my Sherlock Holmes project I’ve been drawing from the original colour illustrations by Sidney Pagett but the detail above, which fits so well with the account of a chase through the streets of London in The Hound of the Baskervilles, is from a painting by Pagett’s contemporary Briton Riviere (1840 – 1920). It’s from Lost or Strayed (1905) which depicts the plight of a dog, lost amongst the London traffic.

Best known for his paintings of animals, Riviere had a studio on Finchley Road, conveniently close to London Zoo, where he had drawn as a child. His studio was modified to allow to him bring domestic animals in, including the deerhounds bred by his brother-in-law Sidney Dobell.

Copying his painting makes me realise how skilful those Victorian painters were. Riviere has captured the bustle and movement of London. I like his colour key – that bluish urban light. It wasn’t always foggy in Victorian London (or, as in this picture, Edwardian London).

Student Days

23 June 1972: Working on my degree show at Leeds College of Art. Harpo and Chico.

MY OLD DIARIES and sketchbooks sit on a shelf in the attic and it’s only on odd occasions, such as looking up the details of my first meeting with Stan Barstow (see previous post), that I take a look at them. While I have my 1972 diary down here by the scanner, I can’t resist showing you a few more of the drawings from it. I can see the influence of Victor Ambrus in my pen and Indian ink drawing (above).

In some ways I prefer these playful attempts to catch the events of everyday life to my self-concious efforts as an art student.

Time Capsule

College work, films, television programmes, concerts, books and my dreams all appear in the diary. The Marx Brothers and Dr Who keep cropping up and this Jon Pertwee episode from a story of a 30th century World Empire, screened on Saturday 8 April 1972, seems appropriate as it involves a capsule from the Time Lords which ‘can only be opened by the one for whom it is intended’.

Before watching that episode of Dr Who, I’d been browsing the secondhand books on Wakefield Market and climbing Storrs Hill ‘the hard way’ (right).

I wish that my time capsule of a diary could be more of a two-way process as I’d have one or two pieces of advice to my younger self!

Looking at a diary is a different experience to looking back at one of my sketchbooks. Drawings in my sketchbooks bring back memories of particular places or incidents but as the diary is more about what I was thinking it makes me remember what it felt like to be me. Unlike the sketchbooks, the diaries were never intended to be seen by my tutors as part of my college work nor were they ‘secret diaries’ full of angst. Almost all the drawings were drawn from memory as I wrote up each day’s events.

Greenhouse Mural

It was the year of my 21st birthday and in the September I started at the Royal College of Art. After a few weeks, on Wednesday 4 October, I came up with an ambitious idea for a painting that would take me, on and off, the rest of my 3 years in the Illustration Department to complete:

I did some sketching of plants and birds in the Conservatory. Well it wasn’t too bad doing them in ink. But, after lunch I decided I would have a go with my designer acrylic gouache. A disaster. Perhaps it was too hot to work with paints. But the difficulties; of making the brush go where you want it to – you can’t push it; of mixing the paint and of having no black or white.

I gave up and stormed down to the room (like Van Gogh returning from a cornfield) and did a sketch from imagination of the proposed identification chart which I thought that I might do as a large painting – in emulsion of course!

 Tutorial: ‘Cheat like mad!’

I favoured emulsion because I was so used to using it for scenic painting. Fortunately painting tutor Bateson Mason persuaded me that acrylics would be more suitable. From then on the illustration tutors had to make there way up to my room at the Kensington Gore building if they wanted to keep up with my painfully slow progress on the 4ft x 8ft acrylic on chipboard painting. I remember Bryan Robb chuckling and heartily endorsing Quentin Blake’s advice to ‘cheat like mad’. That’s my natural history illustration tutor John Norris Wood on the right.

I particularly like this drawing of me busily finishing an overdue article for Yorkshire Life in my narrow room at the college hostel at Evelyn Gardens, South Kensington, only 10 minutes walk from the college. It brings back that feeling of having a room of my own for the first time and having lots of time allocated to creative work.

Mid-term, I was invited back to Yorkshire for the Morley Operatic production of Pickwick, to see the scenery for  that I’d painted during the summer vacation (how did I fit that in?!). You can see, in this entry from my diary for the following day, when I had time for a walk around the valley, that after just two months in London I was glad to be back home and that I was feeling a nostalgic pull from my home patch.

 

Stan Barstow

WRITER Stan Barstow died yesterday, aged 83. Recalling his early life in an obituary in today’s GuardianIan Haywood quotes him as having said: “There were no writers in the family (there were, in fact, few real readers).” Haywood continues:

Barstow began to feel the real frustrations of his regional and cultural isolation. He regarded these feelings as symptomatic of the exclusion of the working class from literary tradition: “We had the temerity to think we could write but [had] no teachers and no models.”

I was lucky because, growing up a couple of decades later in his hometown of Horbury, we had Stan himself (left in my illustrated diary for Sunday, 4 June 1972 ) as a role model; a local writer with short stories, novels, television series, radio plays and one movie, John Schlesinger’s production of his novel A Kind of Loving, to his credit.

As a final year student at Leeds College of Art, researching my degree project about Horbury composer William Baines, I called on him (cycling down Hall Cliffe with my research in a hold-all hanging from the handle-bars, in the sketch in my diary, right).

His son Neil (left, who later read the part of William Baines in my Radio Leeds documentary about the composer) asked me to call back the next day when I chatted with Stan for some hours about Baines and ‘all sorts of local things’. On the Monday I popped down again and saw Stan’s wife Connie (right) to leave him a copy of Eric Parkin’s record of Baines’ piano music.

Here’s the piece he wrote for my leaflet on The Yorkshire of William Baines:

‘I was born a few doors along from William Baines in Shepstye Road, Horbury; but he had been dead for six years by the time I arrived on the scene. He was, in fact, exactly contemporary with my mother and it’s odd to think of her still alive and William dead all those years. But consumption and the like nipped off many a young life in those days: my mother’s talk of her youth is full of references to parents who “had eight and buried three”.  And, of course, it’s tempting but futile to speculate upon how Baines’s talent might have developed had he survived and been with us, in his seventies, today.

‘I probably saw William’s father, though I doubt that I ever heard him play the organ, for I went into the Primitive Methodist Chapel no more than a couple of times. The Highfield Methodist Chapel was where I spent the Sundays of my youth. There were four Methodist chapels within a couple of hundred yards along Horbury High Street in those days: the two I’ve mentioned and the Wesleyan and the Congregational. What their precise differences in belief andform of worship were I never knew, but it was only much later, after the Second World War, when their separate congregations began to fail, that three of them (the Congregational holding on to its independence) amalgamated for survival. A supermarket stands on the site of the Primitive Methodist Chapel now.

‘How quiet Horbury must have been in William’s day. I remember it as quiet enough in mine, for although I was born into the age of the internal combustion engine it was half a lifetime before bypass roads and six-­lane super highways. An attractive little town at that time, compact, stone-built, sitting on the hill above the Calder, with green fields all round it. In the evening a one-armed lamplighter made his rounds; in the early morning you would be stirred out of sleep by the clatter of colliers’ clogs passing under the window. Not much different, one imagines, from William’s time, for although his youth and mine were separated by a terrible war, change came much more slowly than in the years since 1945.

‘A puritanical town, of course. What other could it have been under that great weight. of Methodism? Drink was a blatant evil, sex a vast unmentionable mystery. It’s perhaps fortunate that William was a composer, rather than a writer, for music carries few of the moral associations of literature. He’d have had a hard time putting the truth on paper in those days. His departure from his birthplace was not the kind of exile D. H. Lawrence had to seek from a not dissimilar environment, and his future, had he lived, would surely not have been plagued by the kind of persecution Lawrence suffered. But that is speculation again, and we should be grateful for what, in his short life, he left us to enjoy.’

Memorial Park

Today the last of those Methodist churches is surrounded by a cordon of wire fencing panels and scheduled for demolition. The Baines memorial plaque that hangs there will be moved to the former Primitive Methodist church hall. Plans to rename Horbury War Memorial Park, otherwise known as “Sparra’ Park” in honour of Stan are currently stalled.

Stan gave me so much encouragement and down to earth advice about writing and publishing. He wrote the introduction to my first book A Sketchbook of the Natural History of the Country Round Wakefield, published in 1978.

A Twinkle in the Eye

In the 1980s I helped out at a Save the Children craft fair, organised by Connie at Flanshaw, drawing portraits of people in conté crayon on Ingres paper. Stan volunteered to be drawn and I suggested that he should use the finished sketch as the frontispiece for his collected works.

He drifted back 20 minutes later: ‘Richard, can you make a change to this? – You’ve missed out the twinkle in my eye.’

I added a highlight in white crayon. Sure enough, the portrait needed that twinkle. That’s how Barbara and I always think of him – with a twinkle in his eye!

Link

The Literature of Stan Barstow

Mossy Logs

26C 4.45 p.m.

THIS PILE of moss-covered Buddleia logs and darker crab apple branches looks rather autumnal and I expect that a month from today we really will be seeing summer fading away fast. During the 3 or 4 hours that I’ve been drawing, a male Gatekeeper butterfly has been patrolling this north-facing side of the hedge. I’m surrounded by House Sparrows; it sounds as if there are dozens of them continuously calling and chattering to each other.

After a week when we’ve been doing a lot of work on the house and the garden, I felt the need to settle into a proper drawing. What could be more inviting to draw than a pile of mossy logs? – They don’t move about and, as it is an overcast afternoon, the light is steady. What could be easier to draw?

It proves to be an absorbing subject (I won’t say a ‘difficult subject’ because whenever I get into a drawing everything seems difficult to some extent!) –  because of all those interlocking shapes and criss-crossing stems. Drawing something like this, looking into its details, is like getting lost in the jungle; you find yourself repeatedly losing your way.

I might be drawing ‘just’ a pile of logs, but it doesn’t feel like that. There are elements of landscape, botany too of course, but I also I find myself half-thinking of the shape of a crocodile’s head, or of fishlike shapes as I draw.

Adding watercolour to my pen and ink drawing isn’t as simple as ‘colouring in’. To get a sense of depth I need to establish a tone for every detail. It’s only when almost every scrap of white paper has disappeared that the tonal arrangement of the log pile becomes apparent in the drawing.

I started adding a wash of neutral tint to most of the darker areas but this has resulted in a colour key which is noticeably cooler when I compare it with the log pile itself. I’ve added wash of yellow ochre with a touch of scarlet lake to try and correct this but I should have started with a brownish, rather than a greyish, tonal wash.

It feels good to have the time – a whole afternoon – to get involved in drawing again.

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.