Trackside Landscapes

I DREW Xander the black and white cat in colour this weekend and I felt that my usual rapid sketches drawn as the train headed for London should have colour added to them too.

Instead of drawing individual trees, hedges and buildings as they flash by, I try to link them into a landscape composed of bits and pieces that may have been drawn miles – ten miles or more in some cases – apart.

By my first sketch I’ve written ‘Doncaster to Grantham’, while the second was drawn between Stevenage and Potters Bar.

Midland Landscapes

On the return journey there’s a section where the line follows an attractive lowland river for a while.

After that the landscape features rolling hills, farms and stumpy church towers with small spires. My sketch also includes a couple of sheep, a crow and a cutting through Jurassic limestone. These features were scattered across miles of trackside landscape in the Grantham area.

Finally, as we neared Doncaster, here’s a landscape of more church towers, cows and distant hills that I didn’t quite get finished. I got as far as dabbing in a grey and pale green wash. It was a dull, overcast afternoon.

A Sketchbook Underground

Until you leave the central zone, there isn’t much to see through the windows of a London Underground train. A fearless drawing journaller like Dan Price might have sketched fellow passengers in the busy train but I settled down to drawn my left hand. Again, as this is unfinished, you can see how I start off with a pale wash of grey before adding yellow ochre, sometimes with a dash of permanent magenta.

Permanent magenta is the cool red that I’ve used to replace alizarin crimson, or permanent rose or whatever else I was using in my pocket watercolour box. The thinking behind this is that magenta will be more useful for mixing the colours of wildflowers, so many of which are variations on magenta. Neutral tint recently replaced the rather acid, greeny blue version of Paynes grey that I’ve used for a decades as the grey in my watercolour box. So far neutral tint seems to work well for the natural subjects I’m keen to draw.

Finally, here are hand studies, and a handful of details drawn as they flashed by through the window, drawn between Kings Cross St Pancras and Hunslow East on the Piccadilly Line.

More of Xander

I’D FORGOTTEN just how many sketches I’d made of Xander when I added my last post but you can’t have too many sketches of this relaxed and comfortable individual, he’s such pleasure to draw, so here are the rest of them, from four pages in my A5 sketchbook. Even though he’s a black and white cat, I feel that colour adds a lot of life and information to a drawing, so I added watercolour to my pen and ink whenever he gave me long enough.

Sometimes I had time only for the basics before he turned his head, often to see what Alfie was up to on his brief visits via the back-door cat-flap. As I mentioned, Alfie isn’t as comfortable about having visitors like ourselves in his house.


The grooming routine goes by rapidly but I manage a quick sketch – what I’ve heard a called a ‘gestural sketch’ by tutors taking life classes – of the stage where his back leg goes into the air, as if he’s playing a cello.

Next a whole sketchbook page. I feel that for animals you’re usually best with a bigger spread, so that you can keep going on to the next pose without turning the page. There’s also the chance, a slim one admittedly with Xander, that you could come back to a previous pose if he happened to go back to that position.

Cat Naps

But it’s when Xander at last settles down to sleep that you finally get the chance to add texture and colour. Of course he might decide to go to sleep somewhere where you can only see his back legs. Never mind – I need practice on back legs too!

Or he might stop only long enough to access the chances of moving in to take some of Alfie’s food. I think you can see that thought process of Xander looking at the food bowl and thinking ‘you’re mine – all mine!’, even in my crude, quick sketch. He didn’t get away with this; Alfie’s food gets cling-filmed as soon as Alfie pops out through the cat-flap. Even Xander hasn’t worked out how to remove the cling-film.

Paws for Food

Cats that are allowed outside tend to eat more than those who are restricted to living indoors. When Alfie and Xander were younger, they were kept in the house and they ate just as much as they needed, when they needed it; the food was always there for them.

Now, when they can come and go with a degree of freedom, they tend to go straight for the food bowl when they come in (I know that feeling of coming in, ravenous) but they also like to have a feed before they set out on their adventures again, on the grounds that you never know where your next meal is coming from.


XANDER is the friendliest of the two tom cats in the house in Hounslow where we’ve been staying with relatives this weekend. Xander is the black and white cat who appears in all but one of my sketches. Alfie, the tabby, is more wary of visitors and settled with us only briefly, while Xander soon accepted us, treating us as part of the furniture.

They’re both large cats, despite the careful control their owners take to ensure they don’t eat too much, however neighbours report that both Xander and Alfie have been known to go visiting and, while they’re there, eat the rations left for other cats.

In my childhood we always had a cat, occsaionally two, in the house. I could get used to it again. I’d never be short of a subject to draw and it’s comforting to have one sitting on your lap or settling down next to you on the sofa. but I like the freedom that comes with not having to make arrangements for their care if we suddenly decide to set off somewhere for a day or two.

The House at Hoylandswaine

I FOUND this drawing pasted inside the front cover of a secondhand book. You wouldn’t have got that if you’d been downloading an e-book. It’s dated 8 May 1922, a Monday, and it’s apparently by a C A Clifford. The postman must have knocked on the door of this house on that Monday morning as Clifford records that he (possibly she?) received the book by post from publishers and that he paid 8 shillings and sixpence (42.5 pence but equivalent to about £9 in value today).

He left his mark on the book, stamping and writing his name and address in it seven times, in the front, back and middle. He gives his address as ‘Hoylandswaine, Nr. Penistone, Nr Sheffield’. I’d like to go there to see if I can identify the house.

I can tell you a little more about Hoylandswaine as the book is Place-Names of South-West Yorkshire, by Armitage Goodall, M.A., late scholar of Queens’ College, published by the Cambridge University Press in 1914.

Place-names aren’t always what they seem, he tells us, for instance, you might guess that Armitage Bridge near Huddersfield gets its name from one of the author’s namesakes, the Armitage family who have long been associated with the area. In fact the family probably owe their name to the place; there was a Hermitage here. In a charter of 1212, the Normans refer to it as ‘Heremitagie que jacet juxta Caldwenedene brook’, the hermitage which lies beside the Caldwenedene brook’. The local people soon dropped the ‘h’ from this Old French word, and it appears as ‘ermitage’ in a deed of 1352.

Hoylandswaine was, he suggests, the Viking Sveinn’s  piece of ‘high land’. It is recorded as Holande in the Domesday Book, which in the local dialect soon became Hoyland.

I find these place-names fascinating as I can often relate them to a landscape I know. It’s as if our Viking, Anglo-Saxon, Norman, Celtic and Roman predecessors are still there, evoked in the names we use every day.

Whistle and I’ll Come to You

This feeling of a historical presence in the landscape is a feature of M R James’s short stories, published as Ghost Stories of an Antiquary. In The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral the spirits dwell in ancient timbers, in Whistle and I’ll Come to You it’s a bone flute that triggers the supernatural events. One of my favourites involves a curious etching of an ancient house that alarmingly shows signs of life. In fact, can’t you see a face at the gable end window of The House at Hoylandswaine?! Those lace curtains were closed a moment ago . . . weren’t they?

It doesn’t surprise me that the leading member of the Editorial Committee of the Cambridge Archaeological and Ethnological Series, who published this Place-Names book, dealing as it does with a species of ‘ghost’ in the landscape, was M R James himself, Litt.D., F.B.A. and Provost of King’s College.


Meadow Buttercup

THIS Meadow Buttercup, Ranunculus acris, has grown to about a foot tall with flowers three-quarters of inch across in the week or two since we last mowed the lawn. Ranunculus, the Latin name for the buttercup, comes from the Latin Rana, for frog, as this genus of plants grows in damp places.

In preparation for planting our tomatoes, I’ve been spring-cleaning the greenhouse. Below the staging, behind the plastic bags of compost and grit, as I swept up the winter’s debris, I disturbed the greenhouse’s resident Common Frog, Rana temporaria, which hopped off to find a damp crevice behind the water butt.

Nearby, in crevices in the concrete footings of the greenhouse, a couple of Smooth Newts, Triturus vulgaris, hunted invertebrates (the larger had some kind of invertebrate prey in its mouth – a small spider?) in a macro-habitat of moss plants that resembled a miniaturised version of the Giant Club Moss forests that its giant amphibian ancestors had swum and slithered through right here, 300 million years ago. I say ‘right here’ but at that time our part of the Earth’s crust lay near the equator. True flowering plants, such as buttercups, had yet to evolve.

Everyday Sketchbook

CHARLOTTE’S Ice Cream Parlour  at Whitley, with its assortment of farm animals and its panoramic views across the Calder Valley, is a relaxing place to draw. It’s up on a ridge-top but on a windy day you can retreat to the shelter of the cafe . . . and perhaps sample the Real Jersey Ice Cream.

As well as a contented Jersey cow there are a couple of donkeys, some heavily pregnant nanny goats and rare breed sheep.

Peacocks are displaying to the peahens, a black hen is leading her brood of black chicks across the meadow and, adding an exotic touch, a couple of rheas (or are they young ostriches?) are strutting along in the paddock by the car park.

The donkeys wander over to meet visitors and indulge in a bit of mutual grooming.

I’m back to working in the Crawford & Black portrait format sketchbook – that’s the one with the 96 gsm acid free cartridge which I find a bit thin and absorbent for my pen and watercolour sketches but it will do for everyday. When I get the chance for some natural history drawing, I’ll go back to landscape format.

Recent snatched sketches in my ‘everyday’ sketchbook include the backs of some shops and this tubular metal chair.

Pond in a Pocket-Park

Longlands Road, Dewsbury, OS ref: SE 233229

LEAVING my mum for her physiotherapy session at Dewsbury Hospital, I set off in search of a takeaway coffee then head off with it, via a gap in a stone wall, into a pocket-sized park, no larger than a football pitch.

As I sit down to draw this Water Mint, Mentha aquatica, growing in the pond, I crush some of its leaves that are growing on the bank in the mown turf, releasing a delicious cool, clean aroma of spearmint.

Three juvenile and one adult Moorhen dabble around the pond and come out to peck about on the grassy slope. A Blackbird sings from the trees in the leafy margins of the park.

Yellow Flag

The heads of Great Reedmace, Typha latifolia, are bursting into feathery white seeds, while behind them a few Yellow Flag Iris, Iris pseudacorus, are starting to unfurl their flowers.

Still on my learning curve, I refer to a book and add a few botanical terms and Latin names. Iris was the Greek goddess of the rainbow but pseudacorus means false.

Typha is from the Greek name for the Reedmace, while latifolia means broad-leaved.

Landscape Format

This little park is the perfect place to take a short break from a morning spent in or on our way to waiting rooms; in the doctor’s earlier I’d had to make do with drawing my hand – again!

I’m inspired, as I often am, by starting a new sketchbook. I gave up on my previous sketchbook – a birthday present from a kind friend – because I didn’t like the absorbent and rather thin paper. For my pen and watercolour wash work I prefer a thicker, smoother cartridge, so it’s back to a Pink Pig, made at a factory not far from home up at Emley, and this time, with travel to wilder places (rather than travel to waiting rooms!) in mind, I’ve gone for a spiral bound A5 (about 8 inches x 5.5 inches) sketchbook in landscape format. It seems perfect for the drawings and notes I’ve got in mind but it’s a format that I’ve used only once before, as far as I remember. With printed booklets in mind I usually go for portrait format.

I’d like to go for colour whenever I can (I finished off the sketch of my hand in colour later) and for wildlife . . . whenever I can escape through a gap in the wall.

Canary Island Ivy

MY BROTHER Bill gave me a large Canary Island Ivy as a house plant about 25 years ago. In a few years it had outgrown its corner in my studio and I planted it out by the larch-lap fence behind the greenhouse. It had survived for twenty winters, providing a nest site for Blackbirds and Song Thrushes, but last winter proved too much for it.

I’m not sure now whether the larch-lap fence is supporting the twisting stems of the ivy or whether the ivy is holding up the fence. The main stem is the thickness of a man’s arm. The spreading vines twist around like an untidy version of Celtic knotwork. Although it’s evident that they won’t sprout again, I’m not in a hurry to cut back the plant back as it’s now such an attractive subject to draw; more so than when it was just a wall of foliage.

Besides, as I started to draw and moved an old post that had been leaning by the fence, a Blackbird flew out in alarm. I’m aware that a pair has been nesting in the mass of dead ivy stems and foliage that juts out above the corner of the fence.

Canary Island Ivy, Hedera canariensis, is a native of the Azores and Canary Islands and is less hardy than our native Ivy, Hedera helix. The popular house plant variety that I planted here on the fence and on our garden shed – where it also died back this winter – was Gloire de Marengo which has large variagated leaves, with green centres and creamy white margins. Our native ivy is still looking fine although a late frost a couple of weeks ago killed some of the young sappy spring shoots. They looked as if they had been individually scorched.

Raised Bed

THIS FLAGGY piece of sandstone on the edge of the raised bed was probably shattered by frost during the winter. The fragments have created a miniature landscape, surrounded by a lush forest of buckler-leaved sorrel, a bitter-tasting herb which likes this well-drained sunny spot.

The wolf spider is at home here too. Two females alternate between sunning themselves on the mini-cliff below and retreating into shady crevices to cool off. I say females because they’re both carrying egg cocoons and, as far as I know, it’s the female who provides the parental care. The cocoon, of dimpled spider’s silk, is over twice the size of the spider’s thorax. I notice one touching its cocoon with its back legs and I’m guessing that she was testing the temperature or perhaps the humidity of the bundle of eggs that she is incubating.

A group of House Sparrows are enjoying a dust-bath in the fine tilth of one of the veg beds – right where we sowed the perpetual spinach!

By the way, these drawings were made with dip pen and Daler-Rowney Calli ink. Although this is described on the label as ‘non-clogging, pigmented, waterproof calligraphy ink’ it does take – in places anyway – rather a long time to dry so that it ran into the watercolour wash. I didn’t have this problem when using my ArtPen with Noodler’s ink to draw the Aquilegia but I was keen to use the ‘inkiness’ of dip pen for my drawing of the shattered sandstone.


AS A WILD FLOWER, Common Columbine, Aquilegia vulgaris, occurs throughout Europe except in the far north but it is also frequently found as a garden escape. This plant, 16 inches tall with flowers 2 inches across, has made itself at home in our flower border – we never planted it there but it has sprung up near the bird feeder.

Commn Columbine often hybridises with other species of Aquilegia grown in gardens but this specimen comes close to the typical appearance of wild species; for instance, its stamens scarcely protrude beyond the petals.

The hooked spur behind each flower gives the plant its botanical name because of a resemblance to an eagle, Aquila, but its medieval Latin name Columbina, meaning a dove-like plant, seems nearer the mark as the five flowers with their wing-like petals look like a little gaggle of pigeons getting together.

With that long spur behind the flower, it’s not surprising that the main pollinators are long-tongued bees.

Botanical Drawing

Every spring, I feel the need to learn more about botany as, in May in particular, so many wild flowers appear in quick succession. But after all the distractions from my artwork that I’ve had for the past nine or ten months, I also feel the need to get back into the habit of drawing; real drawings that you might spend an hour or more on, rather than the snatched sketches that fill the bulk of my sketchbooks.

By drawing flowers I can combine those two; I can get some drawing practice while I learn more about botany through close observation. Drawing is great from that point of view because you can be wholly absorbed in the artistic process of drawing and yet also totally involved in the scientific discipline of close observation.

This second Columbine was growing on the raised bed. It’s larger than the other plant, growing 27 inches tall with flowers up to 3 inches in diameter.

9.34 a.m. As I drew it, I was aware of a movement behind me to my left; a vole was scurrying and pausing, apparently oblivious to my presence, by the shed door before disappearing under the shed. Later it emerged again and made its way under the hatch of the compost bin.

I believe that it’s a Short-tailed Vole, otherwise known as the Field Vole, Microtus agrestis.

I went back to the first plant to draw it in close up and from above in order to show more of the structure of the flower. You get a better view of those bird-like flowers.

In his Complete Herbal, Culpeper suggested Columbine for sore throats, liver complaints and jaundice.

“The seed also taken in wine causeth a speedy delivery of women in childbirth ; if one draught suffice not let her drink a second, and it will be found effectual. The Spaniards used to eat a piece of the root thereof in a morning fasting, many days together, to help them when troubled with stone in the reins or kidneys.”

In Shakespearean English, reins is a synonym for kidneys.

I wouldn’t recommend you to try any of these remedies; Columbine is a member of the – often poisonous – buttercup family, so I would treat it with caution.