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!


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.

Heron at the Pond

7.15 a.m.; AS I OPENED the blind on the window in the studio I was puzzled by a shape like a Grecian urn reflected in the pond. It was only after I’d seen the reflection that I realised that there was a juvenile Grey Heron standing behind the pond. It flew off towards the wood. As far as I remember, this is the first time in over 25 years that we have seen a Heron by the pond, although we’ve had them in the garden before.

It’s a reminder to me that I need to continue adding marginal, emergent and floating water plants to the pond to give the frogs and newts some cover.

Yesterday morning and again this morning we heard the high-pitched ‘mewing’ of a bird of prey. When I heard it yesterday, all that I could see in the air were a couple of crows. Today we saw a Buzzard soaring over the wood and I wonder if it has been perching somewhere down at this end of the valley, causing commotion amongst the local crows.

I’ve been working down by the compost bins. I opened the lid of one of the bins to add more compost and there, sitting at the top of the pile was a small Toad. It’s rare for me to do much work on a compost heap without coming across one.

Moriarty in Colour

With all the clearing up I had to do in the garden there’s not much time to immerse myself in the world of Sherlock Holmes today but I did have time to add a spot of colour to Moriarty. There’s a black and white engraving by Paget that I’d also like to draw from. It has the caption ‘He turned his rounded back on me’. In it Moriarty looks like a cross between a black beetle and a Marabou Stork. A colourful character even in black and white.


“You have probably never heard of Professor Moriarty?” said [Holmes].


“Aye, there’s the genius and the wonder of the thing!” he cried. “The man pervades London, and no one has heard of him. That’s what puts him on a pinnacle in the records of crime. I tell you, Watson, in all seriousness, that if I could beat that man, if I could free society of him, I should feel that my own career had reached its summit, and I should be prepared to turn to some more placid line in life.”

Arthur Conan Doyle, The Adventure of the Final Problem

THE NEXT plate that I’ve come to in my drawings from Sidney Paget’s illustrations to Sherlock Holmes is his portrait of the ‘Napoleon of Crime’, Professor Moriarty.

Last month I drew on the ledge at the Reichenbach Falls which features in Paget’s illustration ‘The Death of Sherlock Holmes’. The engraving is signed, in block capitals ‘SIDNEY PAGET, 1893’. The misty gothic background to the duel is a reasonably accurate depiction of the Falls themselves.

Drawing from the originals makes me appreciate Paget’s skill as an illustrator and his lasting contribution to our image of Holmes.

Moriarty reminds me of Max Wall (1908-1990), in his variety turn as the manically musical Professor Wallofski.

Sketching Sherlock

RETURNING TO my Sherlock Holmes book project after an inspiring visit to the Reichenbach Falls, I’ve decided to get back into the swing of things with some drawing rather than with writing or research.

Previously I’ve been thinking of illustrating Sherlock in black and white but I’m starting to realise that colour will make the book more attractive and will help me capture the mood of the story that I’m telling.

As with so many books and screen versions of Holmes, my starting point is the original illustrations by Sidney Paget that appeared in The Strand Magazine. This doesn’t entirely limit me to black and white; The Complete Facsimile Edition, published in 2006, also includes 15 colour plates.

The colour is muted in my first drawings, after Paget’s illustration for The Adventure of Silver Blaze, as Watson and Holmes Holmes are dressed for a day at the races. In place of his trademark deerstalker hat Holmes, like Watson, has gone for a top hat.

A small detail; Holmes wears brown leather gloves, while Watson’s are grey.

Yellow Loosestrife

Despite  its name, which might be a mistranslation of the Greek, this member of the primrose family isn’t renowned for its calming properties. Culpeper recommends it for wounds, sore-throats and as a fly and gnat repellent.

Thrush’s Anvil

2.30 p.m., 22°C

FLIES, INCLUDING one bluebottle and three glossily metallic greenbottles, are attracted to the slimy stain on this fragment of sandstone in the bottom corner of the garden. The Song Thrush has been using it as an anvil, leaving fragments of the shells of at least three Brown-lipped Snails and one Garden Snail. I think that the plain ochre yellow snail in the middle is a colour variation of the Brown-lipped Snail.

You might think that the colour would provide suitable camouflage in this corner of the garden but it evidently wasn’t enough for it to escape the attentions of the Song Thrush.

Leylandi Stump

Soon after I’d started drawing this stump, a Bank Vole appeared, pausing under the stump before disappearing beneath it. Later I had a glimpse of its white front paws (do voles have ‘paws’?) beneath the adjoining log pile. Bank Voles have chestnut fur and a longer tail than that of the greyer Field Vole, which is also known as the Short-tailed Vole.

I’ve stacked the stump and sawn-up branches here as a habitat pile, so I’m pleased to see the vole using it.

But I have removed another habitat that it had been using; voles (or perhaps Wood Mice) had excavated a small network of tunnels beneath a clump of the Flag Iris that we removed from the pond. That has now gone on the compost heap.

Flying Ants

There’s more than usual ant activity on the patio by the kitchen window this afternoon. It’s a still, warm settled day and it’s been chosen as the time for ant colonies in the area to release their winged queens and smaller winged males on a nuptial flight. Barbara said that on her walk home from work at 5 p.m. there were lots of them about, some of them landing on her as she walked down Quarry Hill.