Category Archives: Inspirations

Behind the scenes in the organ workshop: a visit to Harrison and Harrison


I’ve just come back from a few days in Durham, working on a very exciting project with a team from the Royal Festival Hall. Pull Out All The Stops is a campaign to restore the spectacular organ at the RFH, all 7,500 pipes – the restoration is now almost complete and will be celebrated with a huge organ festival next spring. Two lucky primary schools have been involved throughout, with the Year 5 classes visiting both the RFH and the workshop in Durham which both built and restored the organ, Harrison and Harrison.

My role has been to work with the two schools to produce a children’s guide to the organ, for and by children, and I will post more on this nearer the festival. Last week I felt very lucky to visit Harrison and Harrison with children from the school in county Durham, as well as a film-maker and an animator – the results are going to be fabulous! The children spent a day drawing then filming with Sam, and another day animating with John from Skidaddle Films – this was very inspiring to watch and made me really want to experiment more with film. We also had a great time inventing a board game (based on snakes and ladders), which will be part of the festival next spring.

It was thrilling to get to see how an organ is made, up close – the metal room was particularly exciting, as we were able to watch old pipes rapidly disappear into a furnace and emerge on a giant ladle as a shining river of molten lead. Dotted throughout the workshop were cauldrons of honey-like glue….I particularly loved the description of the visit one boy wrote the following day: “The smelly golden glue, sprinkling out like golden syrup out of the hot pot in steaming water falling. Saws chopping, drills cutting, metal hammers banging loud.”

There’s a lovely notice in the foyer of the workshop – Mr Harrison’s Instructions, dated 1883. Looking after the organ is important: “Should the keys get dusty, as they surely must from time to time, do not begrudge a few moments to clean them. What can look worse than to see the delicate ebonies and ivories of the notes and drawstops in a state of dirt and dust, helping them, forsooth, to lost their whiteness and polish prematurely. A soft dry duster is all that is needed.”


The Great Draw Off Draw-Off

Ever since I first found out about it, I’ve been fascinated by the idea of the Thames draw-off – an event that happens once a year when the weirs at Richmond are opened for a month or so to allow for maintenance of the lock, weirs and sluices and inspection of the river bed. At low tide this can lead to a very empty-looking river, and I have always intended to go down there to have a look.

When I mentioned the draw off to my artist friend Jill, she thought I meant a ‘pencils and sketchbooks at dawn’ competitive drawing event – and once the confusion had been cleared up, we agreed that a ‘draw off draw-off’ would be an excellent idea. And so it was that earlier today, having checked the tide tables, we went down to the river at Ham, wellies on and sketchbooks under arms, eagerly expecting to be able to walk across the dry riverbed.

Disappointingly the river was still rather full and the White Swan pub on the other side remained inaccessible – but with gloves on we settled down for some chilly outdoor sketching and enjoyed watching the subtle changes in the water surface as the tide changed. And the water was low enough to expose some interesting root patterns along the shore. Jill had the great idea of using some river mud and a stick to draw with, which created a lovely textured line. Rubbing dock leaves on the page gave a surprisingly intense green too. We finished with a pot of tea at the Hollyhock cafe on Richmond Hill, where the teapot needed gloves on to keep the tea warm.

Little green fingers…

By the studio door we have a giant banana plant, whose huge green leaves unfurl every spring from the most unpromising stumps. The storm in the early hours of Monday morning brought a tiny casualty – a banana flower head, complete with rings of tiny green bananas, snapped off. It’s been a great source of interest in the studio – the flower head is astonishingly heavy, and the stem must be the softest, most velvety thing in the plant kingdom. Artist Joe Madeira, who has his studio in The Art Cabin downstairs, drew the banana flower then passed it on to me – then I did a quick painting after which we ceremonially sliced into the flower to see what was within. It’s fascinating to see the rings of tiny embryonic bananas, bright yellow when cut then swiftly becoming purple and black. And the sap it exudes is as sticky as PVA.

The final step was to try some print-making – I inked it up with goache and took a few impressions. The results were rather fuzzy, but it was a good experiment to try. I’ve used all sorts of vegetables for printing in the past, and the best without any doubt is okra. So now you know!

Silver and sludge

As part of my research for an exhibition I’ll be holding next year, I am exploring some parts of the Thames that I have never visited before. The biggest gap is the Thames Barrier, which has been open for 30 years and while I’ve lived in the same city all that time, I had never seen it until last week. It’s a stunning sight, a series of silver sculptures gleaming in the late afternoon sun. Hidden away in a tunnel by the water is a delightful surprise – a profile of the entire river, from Thames Head to Sea Reach, by artist Simon Read, showing all the locks and tributaries.

Having visited the source of the Thames a couple of months ago, I felt a sense of amazement that this was the same river that began in a dried up pile of stones. Here, the river is surrounded by grinding conveyor belts delivering sand or sludge – the river is working hard. Over the coming months I am going to contemplate everything I have seen, and through drawing and print-making try and arrive at an exhibition.

An iron Colosseum and other Eastern excitements

Lea Valley Drift is a walking-based project aimed at encouraging exploration of unexpected, sometimes undeveloped corners of East London’s Docklands and lower Lea Valley. With map in hand I set out to follow the ten mile route – but ended up only completing half because what I found was so interesting that progress was slow. I thoroughly recommend this inspiring urban adventure – it begins with a trip on the Emirates Air Line cablecar – ten minutes high above the wide and silvery Thames, all its curves laid out below you. The vast Victoria Dock is beside you when you land – it even had a beach and billowing deckchairs this week. Trinity Buoy Wharf is approached through a gallery of street art in Orchard Place, home made soup is available in a container cafe while you watch the tugs at work. East India Dock Basin is a developing salt marsh, with ribbons of bird footprints scrawled all over at low tide. Out on the radio shack jetty 35 cormorants were gathered, sunning their wings and surveying the Dome opposite.

The Lea loops like a small intestine, and in one of the loops is a dragonfly-filled paradise, Bow Creek Ecology Park. Under the DLR track there’s a beautiful mural of reeds and rushes. A stretch of industrial park follows, conveyer belts of recycling and stacked yellow skips – and a rather macabre offering on the pavement, a box containing cows’ ankles complete with cloven hooves. A tiny tucked away memorial was next, with an eternal gas flame commemorating gas workers who died in the war. And beyond them is a forest of majestic ornate gasometer skeletons, like an iron colosseum.

Colourful canal barges offer boat rides a little further on, while a dredger was hard at work scooping mats of duckweed from the water. Three Mills and Abbey Mills Pumping Station are magnificent buildings in their own different way, and the Greenway was a revelation. The walk ended for the day at Stratford, but I am looking forward to doing the next section soon.

If you would like to try the walk, email [email protected] for map info!

The peace of empty spaces

I am a huge fan of libraries of all sorts, and I am constantly in and out of my local one with sackloads of books. It’s very sad when libraries close, so in theory this photograph should induce a sense of deep melancholy. But for some reason – perhaps the way the light is falling – looking at it makes me feel very tranquil, clears my head and puts me in the mood for new projects. I took the photo a couple of years ago in the marvellous Tower Hamlets archive (reassuringly, the adjacent room is packed with wonderful old books) when doing some research for the built environment project I did in Whitechapel with Canon Barnett Primary School and English Heritage. Iwas reminded of the photo when looking at sculptor Frillip Moolog’s blog post on empty spaces, which is well worth a visit here.

Never start anything you can’t finish…

I’ve been enjoying rummaging with my father-in-law through his marvellous collection of Edwardian postcards this week – several boxes and tins-worth of fascinating social history, from seaside promenades to postcards home from soldiers in WW1. There are saucy ones, sad ones, cards with secret pockets out of which a concertina of tiny photos cascades, velvet inserts, embroidery, glitter and even a squeak in one. Philip sometimes used to use them for teaching, and they would certainly be a very inspiring source for writers of any age. I’m showing some of my favourites here…I love the bizarre babies’ banquet, where the little cherubs are feasting on plates of casserole washed down with red wine. The series of seaside clinches appeals as well (there are many more in that vein), and seem particularly amusing juxtaposed with the displays of fresh Yarmouth bloaters (has that fish been re-branded? Not something I’ve ever spotted in a fishmonger). My absolute favourite, however, is ‘Never start anything you can’t finish’ – now there’s a fellow you would want to spend the evening with!

Visiting Miro’s studio

Whenever I go somewhere new I like to visit art galleries, but best of all is when there’s an opportunity to see an artist’s studio, in full working order. Recently I had the chance to go to the Fundacio Pilar i Joan Miro on the outskirts of Palma, Mallorca, where Miro worked for the last years of his life, in a purpose-built studio designed for him by Josep Luis Sert overlooking the Mediterranean. The studio is so light and airy and spacious, filled with colour, paint and brushes and unfinished canvases everywhere, mixed in with pinecones, stones and interesting old toys that Miro collected. There’s also a gallery, and another, older house where Miro also worked and drew out his new ideas for sculptures all over the walls.It’s impossible to visit without wanting to go home and pick up some brushes then paint something very large…or draw all over the walls. Very inspiring.

A suitable repository for ideas

I found out last week that the great children’s writer Allan Ahlberg keeps an ‘ideas box’. Whenever he is struck by a combination of words or a particular thought that has potential, he scribbles it down and posts it in the box, which then acts as a resource for future writing. Apparently, ‘The Jolly Postman’ spent some years in there before emerging as one of the most delightfully original children’s books of the last 30 years.

This struck me as a very good idea – so I have made myself an ideas box, and intend to fill it. I’ve collaged it with bits and pieces, some leftover from school workshops (Grace Carteret was a housekeeper at Ham House many many years ago), then given it a coat of PVA as an easy varnish.

I’ve put a couple of embryonic ideas in there to get it started, and might trawl through some old notebooks: this is where I normally note ideas, but inevitably forget them once the page has been turned or a new volume started. I’m thinking of it as a low-energy slow cooker – I’m going to let a few ingredients bubble away in there and see what happens.

The Marvellous Mr Sivko

When I was very little I was given a book called ‘Modern Tales and Fables’. Published in 1967, it had a thrilling colour wheel on the front and a crazy mixture of surreal Czech stories inside. From the sad tale of a singing dead light bulb to the boy who planted his grandfather and grew a tree full of new ones, I loved them – and the illustrations, by Vaclav Sivko, I loved most of all. There was a pull-out page where a hippo grew a giraffe’s neck, Victorian collage mixed with loose scribbles and a definitely somewhat psychedelic atmopshere to the whole book – it was the late 60s, after all.

More recently I tracked down another book illustrated by Sivko, though this time it’s in Czech so I can’t understand the stories. But I still love the pictures, very much. So here are a few favourite spreads to share…