Thursday, 29 September 2016

A History of my Archive in 10 Objects. No.6: Old Man earthenware figure, 1978

The sixth item in A History of my Archive in 10 Objects is an earthenware figure, made during my Foundation Course at Bournville School of Art early in 1978.

Old Man, earthenware figure, 31cm tall, 1978

Bournville School of Art was located at Ruskin Hall in the beautiful surroundings of Bournville Village, the famously idyllic workers' community built by the Cadbury brothers next to their chocolate factory. Opened in 1903, it was purpose built as an art school by a friend of John Ruskin, and stood in that role until it's controversial closure in 2012. The suburb was deliberately created to mirror a pastural tudor village, the college overlooked the 'village' green. It was a very straightforward commute for me, as it lay on the same train from Four Oaks to Birmingham, just on the opposite side of the city. Every morning I'd get off the train and walk past the chocolate factory to Ruskin Hall, breathing the chocolate scented air - it was almost perfect, the only downside (from a student point of view) was the lack of a pub, the Quaker Cadbury brothers being of course abstainers.

There was also a secondary studio at Steelhouse in the middle of the city, used mainly for life drawing and painting.

The year I spent at Bournville School of Art was an incredibly rewarding experience, it opened my eyes to new artists and a more directly relevant graphic business, many of the tutors were working artists and designers as well as lecturers, so had direct experience of the creative business, it was an intense, exciting course that broadened my horizons, introducing me to life drawing, etching, photography ... and ceramics.



And so to this figure, the "little old man" as my mum always called him. It's a character from my doomed novel In Search of Summer Gold, so in many ways a last gasp of my adolescent fantasising before the maelstrom of degree course. Standing 37cm tall he's quite heavy, with a detachable head. He used to hold a clay pipe in one hand, which has now broken off and lost.

Like many of the things studied at Foundation Course, this is regretably the only thing I made in ceramics, the course was all too short - focusing all my attention on illustration thereafter, I've never been anywhere near a kiln since. Similarly I've not made etchings either, which I greatly regret.

This figure would have been familiar to anyone who visited my parent's home, as it sat in their front room window looking out onto the world for decades, it was the first thing you noticed as you approached the house.

For that reason it conjures intense memories of the family home to me, every trip back from Japan I'd wander up the drive and there he'd be, my "little man", welcoming me back to the old place. He now sits in my studio, not looking through a window onto the world, but instead glaring reproachfully at my work table. He's telling me to get back to work....

Wednesday, 28 September 2016

A History of my Archive in 10 Objects. No.5: Birds, 1977

Number 5 in the History of my Archive in 10 Objects, is this triple set of bird studies from early 1977.

Buzzard, Kingfisher, Long-Eared Owl. Watercolour on paper, 1977
I was 17,  I was about to leave school and start a foundation course at the now-gone and much lamented Bournville School of Art, I was full steam ahead for a career in illustration, the world of graphic art, experimentation and adventure awaited.

But all that was in the future - in the meantime I was generating some income from selling these kinds of traditional studies in a local giftshop/framing gallery in Mere Green. The owner, Mrs Gameson, was extremely supportive of my work and gave me wall space to display and sell pictures of wildlife and familiar scenes of Sutton Coldfield, in watercolour (as here) or pen and ink. Gameson Gallery on Belwell Lane also managed me as an artist on commission - word of mouth recommendations led me to draw many of the big houses on the private estate in Four Oaks, I'd cycle with sketchpad and ink bottle to anywhere that wanted a drawing - unfortunately this came to an end when one customer returned their house sketch, upset that I'd included the washing on her line in the drawing.

Virtually everything I painted at that time was sold by the gallery, but these three studies survived because they were a birthday gift to my mum in January 1977. I believe they were amongst my first attempts to paint in pure watercolour (that is, just paint, no pen lines).

 I carried on working with the Gameson Gallery even after I started my Foundation course, right up until I left for Manchester, Mrs Gameson gave me my first ever one-man (or one kid!) exhibition, mostly wildlife paintings. My parents were particularly proud of this and my father was disappointed when I drifted away from such work. Being an artist in the eyes of my father was to paint attractive pictures, exhibit them, sell them and put them on the wall. He could never really get to grips with my choice to be an illustrator rather than a gallery fine artist, there was a suspicion I was under-selling my talents. I'll always remember him saying "when are you going to paint a proper picture I can put on the wall?" By "proper", he meant a landscape, seascape or genre oil painting. But eventually he did come round to understanding my creative path.

The fact remains though, of all the work I created and showed my parents in the intervening years, the one thing that never left their walls, on display without a break for nearly forty years from 1977 until 2016, were these three bird studies.

I always wonder what became of Mrs Gameson...


Tuesday, 27 September 2016

A History of my Archive in 10 Objects. No.4: Corona 4 typewriter, 1924

Number 4 in this series of 10 Images from my Archives found at my dad's house is my old typewriter... and I mean old typewriter!

Corona Model 4 portable typewriter, 1924 pattern

When I was 16 I discovered the work of the Golden Age illustrators (Rackham, Dulac, Heath-Robinson, Stratton etc). In fact it was a re-discovery really as my mum had kept a couple of compendiums from her childhood that had been illustrated by these artists, but I rarely saw those. It was only in the mid-70's that I began seriously examining children's illustration, Arthur Rackham's work in particular began transporting me to realms of the imagination. Gradually my artwork at school began to take on the iconography of old fashioned ethereal fairy tales, anthropomorphised animals and so on. By the time I reached 6th Form I knew I wanted to be a children's book illustrator, so it was only natural I'd also pursue writing too.

My first attempts at writing children's books had been laughable copies of Enid Blyton adventures, written by hand when I was around 13.... none extended past the first chapter! But by 1977 I was serious, and so managed to persuade my parents to buy me a typewriter.

Of course, what I had in mind was a modern, zippy electric typewriter that I could churn out pages of manuscript. But, ever watchful for a bargain, my mum spotted an ad for something second-hand, and what I ended up with was a Corona 4 manual machine,  released onto the market in 1924. I remember the day we picked this up from a big old house on the private estate, I didn't quite know what to make of it - this wasn't hi-tech! though I fell in love with it's look.



I'd never touched a typewriter before in my life, so the fact the ribbon feed was rusty, you had to bang down the keys so hard it made your fingers ache, or that the 'e' was slightly misaligned didn't bother me, I had no other experience to compare to so just got on with it - it was the only way for me. I felt I was following the route of the great writers, rather than obsolete, it was 'classic'.

While other 18-year olds were discovering pubs, I spent most of my free time typing out my first manuscript In Search of Summer Gold - my one and only attempt at a novel - a long, pretty unpublishable tale of anthropomorphised mice and fairies in the 18th century, a mix of The Wind in the Willows meets The Lord of the Rings, with a good dollop of Brothers Grimm and Peter Pan thrown in for good measure. And of course I illustrated it with highly derivative pen drawings. From a professional level it was not very good and was turned down by two publishers before I eventually shelved it .... but at least it taught me to type!


Later on I used the Corona to type up my degree thesis, and in the early '80's the first issues of the Norwich post-punk fanzine/magazine The Blue Blanket ... banging those keys down with a satisfying smack! smack! smack! as they hit the ribbon, it was the perfect instrument on which to take out frustrations with the world. But thereafter it was retired, and I've never attempted to write a novel again.

It took a battering in the years I used it, 35 years in my dad's loft has not been good to my old stalwart either, but I was very glad to rediscover it there.


Monday, 26 September 2016

A History of my Archive in 10 Objects. No.3: Toothless Old Man, 1976

In part three of 10 objects from the archive of objects found in my dad's house, I'd like to offer this.

School project: Toothless Old Man. Pen & Ink. 80cm x 60cm, 1976
After the tentative steps of the Henry Hudson picture I worked on two other school projects before setting to work on this large piece, which proved to be the most experimental and successful of my school drawings in pure pen and ink. It was drawn from a randomly selected photo reference using a multi coloured pen and ink line technique - on the face and hat I used three separate pen nibs to switch colours and gradually build up the drawing in different coloured cross-hatching, the waistcoat was filled in by dabbing ink with sponge. It was a labour-intensive technique for such a large sized drawing, but proved a great success. Sadly many of the coloured inks have faded over time.

The image was the centre piece of my school's 1976 art show during the summer festival, and made it to the pages of the local newspaper - my first press appearance! Even my junior school headmistress came to see it. By this time I was absolutely determined to be an illustrator and had my sights set on art college.

After the show this picture adorned the walls of my parent's house for a few years before being consigned to the loft. The identity of the man in the photo I never knew!

Sunday, 25 September 2016

A History of my Archive in 10 Objects. No.2: The Last Voyage of Henry Hudson, 1975

Number 2 in the discoveries made at my dad's house from long hidden archives of my work. In my wildest dreams I never thought I'd ever see this picture again, but there it was, in my dad's loft, warts and all, the very first drawing I ever attempted in pen and ink, from 1975, aged 16.

School project: The Last Voyage of Henry Hudson,
copy of an engraving in The Graphic,
after the painting by John Collier.
Pen & Ink with watercolour on paper. 73cm x 51cm. 1975.

Prior to this drawing I'd worked steadily but unassumedly at school on assigned projects. It was acknowledged that I was "good at art", but this was post modernist, late hippy mid 1970's, most of the art classes were light on drawing skills, heavy on texture and tactility, I found little to inspire me and positively hated that year's art teacher. Batik tshirts? Organic bio-plant patterns? Yeuk! No, I wanted to draw! Draw people! Things!

Away from school however I'd long since discovered the joy of the BIC biro, and filled old unused school exercise books with drawings, copied or inspired by WW2 Commando comics. After my dad bought me a couple of Adrian Hill guides to drawing and sketching I'd taken a sketchbook with me everywhere I went, and on every holiday over the previous year filled it with directly observed sketches from life in biro. This was all entirely independant from school. Then one day a confrontation with a school bully ended up with the contents of my school bag scattered across the classroom floor, and my sketchbooks were discovered by my form tutor (and head of Art Dept) Al Sayers.

Everything changed from then on. My next wonderful art teacher Jackie Asbury (where is she now?) introduced me to a dip pen and a bottle of indian ink for the first time, and told me to draw something challenging. A 19th century engraving of Collier's The Last Voyage of Henry Hudson seemed to fit the bill.  I knew absolutely nothing about Henry Hudson or John Collier, or for that matter pen and ink drawing, but I set to and produced this clumsy, tentative piece, little knowing that pen and ink was to become my chief medium for the next 40 years.

Well, this is what I wanted it to look like....

The source engraving, The Last Voyage of Henry Hudson, after the painting by John Collier

It's embarassing - those terribly badly drawn hands... it bears little resemblance to the source image, how could I hope to reproduce an engraving with a dip-pen? I had a lot to learn, but it was a start, and I never looked back.


Saturday, 24 September 2016

A History of my Archive in 10 Objects. No.1: Sketch from the back garden of Butlers Lane, 1976

For the first in the Museum of My Archive in 10 Objects  (apologies to Neil MacGregor and the British Museum) I bring you a sketch of our house, drawn just before my 17th birthday from our back garden during the sweltering summer of 1976.

23 Butler's Lane from the Back Garden Rotring pen and Winsor & Newton ink on paper, June 1976.

We lived in Butlers Lane, Sutton Coldfield from 1970 until the end of 1977,  this was the house where I grew from child to teenager.

It was a corner house and significantly bigger than any of our previous (and subsequent!) homes. My parents bought it for a bargain, it hadn't been altered since it was built in the 1920's and was in desperate need of complete modernisation, much of which my dad did himself. I still have clear memories of when we moved in - there were slate fossils of ammonites and other pre-historic sea life left in the kitchen from the previous owner, also a big, black cast iron built in range, and in one of the bedroom cupboards an old clockwork railway set. All were disposed of very quickly in the urgency to fix up the house, much to my regret!

The reason this is the first in my History is because this house is where it all started, this is where I really embraced a love of history and of art, where I began drawing in earnest. I've more fond memories of this house than any other.

One of the best things about it was the long extended back garden, which had two large trees and several smaller ones (not visible in this drawing), a rock garden and an allotment at the bottom, which my grandfather cultivated when he later moved in with us. I shared a bedroom with my brother (on the whole amicably), on my side of the room my dad built a study alcove which we were supposed to use for homework, but which I actually used mainly to paint Napoleonic soldiers. Airfix model aeroplanes hung from the ceiling in an eternal dogfight. On my brother's side of the room was a large cardboard cut-out of Marc Bolan, Roger Dean posters and a fur trimmed record player. We got on okey. My sister always had her own room, bedecked with posters of Black Sabbath and David Bowie. The house was easy walking distance to school and local shops at Mere Green, a bike ride from Sutton Park, and just a couple of minutes walk from Butlers Lane train station, which gave us access to Sutton Coldfield and Birmingham. In the summer I'd cycle the opposite direction along country lanes out towards Lichfield.

From this distance in time it seems a pretty well perfect place to have grown up. I loved this house.

This wasn't the first time I'd drawn it, nor would it be the last, but this particular image seems to me to sum up a perfect summer at one of the happiest and most carefree times of my life.

Friday, 23 September 2016

The Museum of Me

My dad was the last of his generation in our immediate family. One of the consequences of his passing has been the sorting out of all the nooks and crannies of his house, which revealed a lot of things I'd completely forgotten still existed. Not only parental items we grew up with from childhood, but also things left behind by us kids as we moved on in life. As the artist of the family I've by far been the worst offender - when I set off to art college all my school art work was consigned to my dad's loft, where some of it stayed for 40 years. Even when my parents moved house, they loyally took my old artwork with them.

Other bits and pieces were thrown away, but artwork was sacred, even the scrappiest of work. To this initial pile of stuff in their loft was later added my degree course sketchbooks (though I threw away most of my finished course work when I left Manchester), then bags of artwork from my London studio after I gave it up and headed out for the Far East, and various bits and pieces from the 21 years I lived in Japan, including every single letter I wrote home to my parents.


They kept it all. Yellowed, damp and foxed from all those years in my dad's loft, great wads of the stuff. And now it's all in my possession again.

This is in addition to my dad's creative life - the contents of his little art studio room, his oil paints and other materials, some of his paintings, boxes of books and postcards that inspired him (largely seascapes, the Impressionists and Victorian genre painters). Plus his collection of First World War books, and most importantly for me, our family archive of photos and documents - as the family genealogist I worked a lot on these with my dad's encouragement, painstakingly identifying faces, scanning and photoshop restoring, compiling and researching our family history, these are all in my safe keeping now.


So I've been buying new storage furniture for a major reorganisation.

When I left Japan I came back to the UK pretty well empty handed, in grief over my wife's death I threw away virtually all artwork except children's book illustrations, abandoned my furniture, household items and record collection, and sold off 2/3 of my books. I brought very little back from Japan, it was a new life coming back to England, I wanted to start afresh, not be burdened by the weight of a previous existence. I regret throwing so much away now, but it did stand me in good stead over the numerous times daughter and I moved house.

But now with the arrival of all this material I'm in a bit of a dilemma what to do with it, not the family archives, but particularly my old artwork. My dad's occasional paintings are one thing, but my adolescent stumbling art attempts? Some of these ancient works are truly embarrassing, for the prosaic subject matter as much as anything - what was I thinking? It always surprised me that my parents were more interested in displaying my immature work on their walls rather than my professional illustration career. But age has given this work a resonance and unique significance I can't ignore. It's now an archive, I can't throw it away, it's history!

..... some of it I'm quite proud of actually, these were important stepping stones.

So, inspired by Neil McGregor's successful BBC/British Museum tie-up series A History of the World in 100 objects, I'll share a few bits and pieces of in a History of my Archive in 10 Objects.

Coming up is Object Number One....