Urban exploring is one of my favourite activities, and yesterday I set out for Vauxhall with my artist friend Jill to do some sketching. Icy winds made drawing difficult, but we found plenty of interesting things to look at. Just below the MI5 building are some very angry looking lions. Judging from the tide marks, they must get water up to their noses twice a day which might account for the bad temper. Jill gathered some interesting flotsam (or should that be jetsam?) and we peered at some debris in a dock before stumbling on the old Doulton building, an astonishingly ornate edifice where every surface is decorated with heavily patterned ceramic tiles. It was also a great opportunity to get some inspiration for my forthcoming Thames exhibition, with a bright cold sky and gulls wheeling overhead.
Cormorants are one of my favourite birds – I love their craggy profile and their habit of standing rather awkwardly with their wings out, soaking up any winter sun that’s available. I was always very fond of Graculus in the Noggin the Nog stories – it’s never entirely clear what species he is, but he must be closely related to the cormorant family.
There are so many of these magnificent creatures on the Thames these days, particularly in winter, and there’s a particular tree on Stephens’ Eyot just downstream of Kingston that always has quite a group of them perched in its branches. I watched some diving near Chiswick the other day – they whirl round like a Catherine wheel on a pivot before they disappear underwater, often for quite a long time.
Dawdling on the towpath is all part of the preparation I’m doing for the exhibition I’ll be holding at The Art Cabin this May – it’s inspired by the river Thames, and I’ll be posting lots more about this as things develop. I’m looking forward to experimenting with collage and paint, and also to learning how to make woodcuts at the London Print Studio.
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.
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.
All my life I have lived near the river Thames, and it’s a mighty body of water that I feel a very strong emotional connection to. As a child I used to love visiting the river at high tide and letting it go over the top of my wellies, and I still feel a thrill when I see the water lapping over the towpath. In the last couple of years I have taken up skiffing and punting, so I am spending more time than ever on the water, enjoying seeing the river and its wildlife up close in all seasons. I’m also very involved in one of the tributaries, the Wandle, through local environmental organisation The Wandle Trust which organises monthly river clean-ups.
I’ve now been given a wonderful opportunity to create an exhibition for The Art Cabin, and I think the Thames is going to be my subject. I’ve started a bit of drawing and collaging, observing herons, grebes, grey wagtails and my favourites, the cormorants. I’ve also been delving into one of my most treasured books, Sweet Thames Run Softly, by Robert Gibbings. (there is a marvellous British Pathe film clip of Gibbings walking by the river here). Gibbings was a writer and woodcut artist who built his own small boat on the eve of the second world war, and paddled the whole of the river, from Lechlade back to London. The book is a beautifully illustrated account of the journey. Back in May I did the same journey over four days by skiff, and have been sketching out some ideas for linocuts inspired by my own trip.
It’s very exciting to be at this stage of a project – it could go in any direction, any media and at the moment there are no constraints. I’ll post more news on the project soon.
I went down to the river Wandle yesterday afternoon to pick up copies of the booklet I illustrated and designed for the Wandle Trust – I mixed paper-cuts and wildlife drawings with photographs and a hand-drawn map for the centre foldout spread. It’s printed up very nicely – and thankyou to the Wandle Trust for the lovely bouquet of flowers! I hope the booklet will help secure an environmentally sound future for this lovely urban chalkstream.
I’ve had my scalpel out this week cutting stencils of native species of plants for a project I am doing with the Wandle Trust – I’ve been looking at aquatic species that thrive in the river Wandle. A few ended up on the window to liven up the view – look out for the banana leaves behind.
It’s taken five years of wading, rummaging, sifting and heaving but my Wandle alphabet is finally complete – a complete A-Z made with objects found during clean-ups of the river Wandle with the Wandle Trust. I think my favourite has to be the false teeth ‘U’, though I am also very fond of ‘R’ and ‘O’. The ‘F’ is from a fish and chips sign.
I found the perfect T for my Wandle alphabet at the river cleanup at Kimber Road, Wandsworth yesterday. The alphabet is nearly complete – now I only need B, H, W and X, then it’s ready to turn into a poster.