A new exhibition opens this week at Cliffe Castle Museum. Keighley’s War commemorates the end of the First World War, exploring some of the ways the lives of the people living in this part of West Yorkshire were affected by the fighting, the trauma and suffering, and the seismic social changes which were a part of the period.

It goes without saying that the First World War is not an easy subject to reflect on. History is full of dark times as well as moments that are easier to look back on – and this period in particular is full of things that are frankly terrible, a huge challenge to present it as the subject of an exhibition. But spending some time learning about the lives of our not-very-distant ancestors, the conditions in which they lived, the challenges they faced and the social changes that affected them is deeply worthwhile, and a compelling journey of discovery.

To offer this journey the museum has produced a clever, concertina-fold illustrated Trail that unfurls and becomes a guide-book to help visitors search out and find objects in the collections. Each one of these objects has a story to tell about the First World War – and I was asked to draw them to illustrate the guide.

Unsurprisingly, working on the drawings was an absorbing, challenging, and often disturbing experience. Getting to know something intimately by drawing it means that you literally get drawn in – and all these objects had a powerful effect on me. So I thought it would be interesting to share a bit about what this felt like and what I discovered – the story of the drawings, one at a time. Here are two; others I’ll write about in future posts.

The call to arms; Kitchener’s Men

Kitchener's Man armband

I had no idea what this was when I first saw it. A piece of stitched calico printed with the words ‘Kitchener’s Man’. I knew the famous recruiting poster of Lord Kitchener with his finger pointing directly out, with the words ‘Your Country Needs You!’ but I didn’t know that those early volunteers were called ‘Kitchener’s Men’, and because at first there weren’t uniforms to issue to these civilian soldiers they were given cotton armbands like this one to wear.

The men who joined up from a local district were often formed into single units which turned out to be an appalling decision. In their book ‘Kitchener’s Mob‘ Peter Doyle and Chris Foster describe how the idea of recruiting men into local “Pals” regiments – essentially all coming from the same community – was a tragic mistake when later these close-knit communities were devastated by the loss of their young men – fathers and sons, brothers and cousins.

The cover photo of the book shows recruits at Grassington Station proudly wearing their armbands – the Upper Wharfedale chaps leaving their home village on September 21, 1914, on their way to boost the troops of the regular army which had embarked for France on August 4. Massively outnumbered but with their murderous rapid rifle fire, they were attempting to hold off the hordes of German soldiers sweeping across Flanders and northern France.

As I sketched it I wondered if this armband could possibly have been worn by one of these men. They were on their way to the battle of the Somme, not knowing what awaited them in France……

Following the fighting from back home

Booklet, The Western Front at a Glance - WW1

This is not an especially rare artifact. You can still buy copies of this booklet on Ebay and elsewhere (different editions were published as the war progressed, at different prices) but what I was so struck by was the condition of this copy. It’s worn and dog-eared, well thumbed at the corners and cracked at the spine. Whoever owned this book must have pored over it daily, studied the route and the progress of – who? A husband? Brother? Son?

The drawing took a long time to do and I had the opportunity to immerse myself completely in the graphic style of the period – the colours, the fonts, the layout. And I kept thinking what a strange mixture of ideas it represents – on the one hand a kind of cheerful, eager, educational guide to troop movements and military events (it reminded me a bit of the I-Spy books we used to use as children) and on the other – a terrible reminder of what was happening day by day to the soldier in your family, so far from home.

Saying ‘No’ to War

As a counterpoint – and a different view of the events of 1914 – 18, the opening of the exhibition Keighley’s War coincides with International Conscientious Objector’s Day on the 15th May, a day marked this year by the Peace Museum in Bradford by a lecture called ‘Oh What a Lovely War-Resistance; music in opposition to war, 1914 – 18’. It’s easy to find recollections of heroism in acts of war; what’s not so easy is to remember the particular kind of courage it took – and takes – to refuse to fight and oppose military action. The Peace Museum is a unique celebration of the peace movement and its history, exploring the often untold stories of peacemakers and social reform.

More on exhibitions at both Cliffe Castle Museum and the Peace Museum in future posts………

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Some people draw to relax. I’m never quite sure whether I do this or not; I don’t think I do. I know I don’t deliberately pick up a pen and a sketchbook and think, ah, this is going to really help me unwind. No. I wish it were that easy. But – then again – perhaps that’s not what people mean, by saying that drawing helps them relax. Drawing takes energy and it can be exhausting, but it does bring me into a state of focused attention – and that more than anything is what I need, day in day out. But when I’m not well and have very little energy this something of a dilemma.

Partly, it’s what to draw. If I found quiet still-life drawings of flowers or fruit really got me going it might be easier, but I don’t generally get excited by flowers or fruit, it’s just not compelling enough as a subject and I can’t bring myself to start, especially if I’m feeling low. What I find totally absorbing is things that move, and that usually means people or animals, (quite why this is I don’t know) – but give me the chance to watch someone at work, or hanging out with other people just holding a conversation, waving their hands about occasionally, doing something not too impossibly fast – and I’m hooked. Once I start drawing I’m lost to everything else. Pain melts into the background. Tiredness doesn’t count. It’s always been this way.

Sketchbook pages with gesture drawings of people talking and drinking

So if I see anything going on outside that I can sketch from the window, I’m engrossed. This warm weather has brought people out of doors to stand around and talk to each other in the street, or chat over the fence. I can try to guess the conversation (!) and just enjoy understanding what’s happening by looking at body language, learning about people by watching how they stand, what they do with their arms and their legs and their heads. And then, if I there’s no live action, there’s always the TV (the sketches on the left hand page were done while watching a film).

It’s amazing really, all the things a sketchbook can be. This is a really restorative thing for me – connecting, observing, recording, this odd process that involves a pen and a page and me looking and looking and moving the pen……

Gesture drawings of people

Now, if I could figure out a way to find flowers as exciting as people, I’d be able to get this stimulating-connecting-sketching thing to work any time I look out into the garden. If only flowers moved.

This is a degu.

Watercolour drawing of a degu

At first glance you might be forgiven for thinking, rat? Mouse? But then you look at the tail…. and you say to yourself, hmm, dormouse? But the size rules that out (it’s bigger than a hamster) and you realise you’re looking at something entirely different from all of these.

Sketchbook page of degu studies in pencil

The first time I sketched them about a fortnight ago in their new home at Cliffe Castle all these thoughts were going through my head and I admit I was confused. In fact as I looked at their little rounded bottoms I kept thinking of guinea pigs, and just once in a while I’d suddenly see something in the eyes or the shape of a nose that made me think rabbit (though that immediately seemed ridiculous) so I kept on looking and drawing, although for a long while all my sketches looked either rat-like or guinea-pig-like – until I felt I knew what I was looking at. Degus. Very special little animals.

For sketching purposes it’s not that easy to see them clearly through the narrow link fence at the front of their enclosure (though after a while I discovered that if you crouch down until you’re on the same level as they are, you can see a lot better – perfect for children, a bit more awkward for me.) So to understand them better, when I got home I looked up some facts, googled photographs and did a couple of drawings from the screen –

Degus, sketched from photographs

– which meant that when I went back again to the animal houses a couple of days ago I had a better idea of what I’d be looking at. (I also learnt that they’re related to guinea-pigs and chinchillas and come from the high Andes, are active during the day but don’t like hotter temperatures, that they’re highly social, and that they live longer and are more intelligent than their near relatives).

Interesting facts – but I can learn a lot by watching.

So I stand with my nose pressed up against the wire, sketchbook and pen ready, and wait.

It’s a warm afternoon, and because of that they’re all inside their custom-built house which has two floors, several entrances and exits and lots of hay for bedding. I can imagine them inside all in a heap, snuggled together. (What’s the collective term for degus, I wonder?) I can just see a couple of noses, two pairs of beady eyes. They’re awake and watching me.

I don’t know if it’s getting cooler or whether they’re just curious, but one by one they start to come out of their house, sniff the air, look around. One or two of them do look at me, one from a lookout position at the top of the plank that leads to their second storey entrance, one perching on the edge of a large empty red bowl. I can see how their tails help them balance. I can see tiny toes, (I know there are five) and ears like crumpled petals.

Watercolour drawing of a degu

I can see their very impressive whiskers. And the tails – with their lovely black tufted ends that I try not to exaggerate, though it’s hard not to…

Watercolour illustration of a degu

Pretty soon one of them ambles slowly over to the green plastic exercise wheel, climbs in and gives it a whirl. I wonder whether I’ll be able to draw those flying feet and have serious doubts, but I give it a go anyway….. and there’s no squabbling when a second degu arrives and also wants a turn. They fit amiably side by side and go racing round together in perfect unison. I can’t draw that.

Drawing of a degu in an exercise wheel

The plastic wheel is also very good for gnawing….

Degu gnawing plastic wheel - pencil drawing

By now I’m beginning to feel I’ve started to get to know them, and the more I watch the more I want to touch and stroke those little rounded backs, feel the sleekness of fur, and if possible very, very gently touch a fragile ear with the tip of my finger. I can’t do that, but drawing almost does it for me; my hand may be holding a pen and touching paper, but my mind is feeling fur, whiskers, skin.

A chameleon does not look much like this….

The animals have returned to Cliffe Castle. The resident creatures (more about them later) are now established in their new home, but on Easter Saturday they were welcomed back with a custom-made rabbit-treat cake with carrot candles and enjoyed the company of invited guests; ferrets, who raced, and an assortment of reptiles and arachnids who occupied the glasshouses. I’d been eagerly looking forward to this event but in the end I couldn’t make it, and only got a tantalising glimpse of what happened from Elaine, my friend and fellow member of the Cliffe Castle Conservation Group who sent me a picture of a chameleon sitting on her hand. (She owned up to being unwilling to handle the tarantula, even though she’s not afraid of spiders. I was happier to have the chameleon. Even photos of large arachnids are not exactly easy for me, though I’m working on this – I’d have liked to have tried drawing one. At a distance.)

Thanks to Elaine Cooper for her hand, the chameleon and this photo

The reason I was keen to see reptiles was a preoccupation I’ve had lately with chameleons, or rather the idea of a chameleon – as in the drawing at the top of this post, which doesn’t look very much like one. They have the ability to change colour according to mood or condition in order to signal this state of affairs to other chameleons and it’s this that I’d been thinking is such a handy device. I wish I could do it, or something like it, because it would be so useful.

My physical and mental state varies from week to week, day to day, minute by minute. The condition I live with (ME) means that I’m never feeling fully well, or at least very rarely and only fleetingly for a few minutes at a time. Mostly I’m on one of about three different levels of un-wellness and I tend to stay on the same level for weeks and sometimes months at a time, but I slide up and down between these levels on a daily, hourly and sometimes momentary basis just to add variety to the mix.

Definately a Green day, overall – but with early outbreaks of Blue shading to a tendency towards Orange in the late afternoon…..

It would be so useful to be able to colour code these changing conditions and broadcast them, in a subtle but demonstrable way. I present as a confusingly erratic presence (or absence) because it’s hard for other people to get a handle on what’s going on. It’s sometimes hard for me to get a handle on it for that matter.

I think of blue as the largely absent state of perfect wellness (happily I do get to experience this in a transient way once in a while, and it’s extraordinarily, gloriously wonderful) and the next level down would be green, which is my highest level and which I call Restricted But Reliable. The next level is yellow, More Restricted, Unreliable. After that comes orange, where I’m basically Poorly, Largely Unavailable; and the bottom level would be red, where thankfully I’ve been only rarely and for short periods, but it would be called something like Completely Unable, Count Me Out.

I don’t know much about chameleons but they seem to be able to change colour rapidly as their situation dictates, and this is how my signalling system would ideally work – and so as long as my colours were understandable to others this would seem like a very handy tool. I wonder if anyone’s tried this, or something like it…….?

Chameleons that are still imaginary but look a bit more like chameleons….

I plan to do some dedicated sketching up at the animal houses soon, and even though there are no reptiles or spiders (except very tiny ones, mostly hiding) I can’t wait to renew my friendship with the rabbits and guinea-pigs, and I’m looking forward to meeting some new animals that that I understand have arrived, which I’ve heard about but never seen. Watch this space!

I love learning. I love going back to basics, doing exercises, practising. There’s no moment in any lifetime of art practice when drawing exercises aren’t a great thing to do – I really ought to do things like this more often.

We’ve had two Sketchwalks at Cliffe Castle Park now – the first one had to be rescheduled because of snow and I couldn’t get to it, but yesterday I was able to take part. It was refreshing, incredibly useful, and a lot of fun.

Louise Garrett led both workshops and we had an enthusiastic group of Sketchers on both days. The first session concentrated mainly on contour and line, and then looked briefly at tonal values – these are just a few of the drawings done on that day:

The second session was a chance to have a good look at composition, simplifying how we see when we’re sketching on location and exploring ways to organise what we draw in the best possible way. Louise had made us all adjustable cardboard viewfinders! We used them in a variety of different exercises and discovered what an incredibly useful thing this simple tool can be.

One of the things Louise asked us to do was to look at an earlier sketch we’d done previously in the glasshouses, and then draw the same object from various angles using a viewfinder. I had a sketch of a hanging cactus in my sketchbook that I’d done a few weeks ago, so I advanced on the same plant viewfinder in hand, and very quickly realised that if I’d had this handy tool with me when I drew it before, things would have gone much more smoothly from the start.

Hanging cactus, sketchbook page

Hanging cactus, viewfinder thumbnails

In fact, with the viewfinder I’d have been able to tackle the crazy angles of the clothes-airer that the cactus hangs from without getting all despairing about it.

Lastly, I made an effort to try to record as many of our group as I could with a quick scribble – hoping it would also help me remember everyone’s names.

Sketchwalk participants examining their cardboard viewfinders

Another pair of Sketchwalks will be happening later this Spring, and judging by the way the first two sessions went and the response we’ve had they’ll be well attended. Sketching on location is getting increasingly popular and it doesn’t matter whether you’re a complete beginner or a sketcher with a lifetime’s experience – these sort of practice sessions are a real boost, and a great way to explore drawing and enjoy it in the company of others.

Scales for weighing individual gooseberries, circa 1870. Cliffe Castle Museum.

Scales for weighing individual gooseberries, circa 1870. Cliffe Castle Museum.

I love drawing in museums. I think this fascination with strange objects goes right back to my childhood, because I remember at the age of about 7 or 8 I created a tiny museum of my own in the Wendy House my father had built for us at the bottom of the garden. It had an odd assortment of things on display, each carefully labelled – an elephant’s tooth paper-weight, a stone age scraping tool made of flint (I found this on the North Downs near our home) several disassembled owl-pellets (collected and examined by my sister and me) and a small clay hippopotamus with a gaping mouth displaying my own teeth, thoughtfully returned by the tooth-fairy. There was an obvious bias towards natural history, but also a preoccupation with oddities – probably influenced by our occasional visits to Potter’s Museum in Bramber, on the South Downs in Sussex.

Vintage photo of Potter’s Museum at Bramber: Photograph: Dr Pat Morris/ Joanna Ebenstein

It was an extraordinary place, very unlike the museum in our county town of Maidstone (where my flint tool was authenticated) or the Natural History Museum in London, which I also came to love. Potter’s Museum was dark and crowded to overflowing with indescribably strange things many of which were weird and slightly grisly. We loved it.

Sketchbook page of drawings done in the natural history gallery at Cliffe Castle a couple of years ago when I was exploring the idea of drawing things I’m frightened of, like spiders. (Skeletons don’t worry me, and neither do hares – they just happen to be on the same page)

Perhaps this is partly why I enjoy sketching in Cliffe Castle Museum so much – not just because I love exploring by drawing and it’s a treasure-trove of things waiting to be discovered – but because somewhere in the dark reaches of my memory there are misty recollections of things like a stuffed giant albatross, and an elephant’s foot waste-paper bin……

Half way through the week I realised I might actually make the 100 tally – it’s now Friday afternoon and I’m over 80, so I might just get there.

I’ve been sketching from the TV a lot. News programmes feel almost like drawing from life, but no matter what I’m watching I fairly often miss vital features. So eyes get left out, or mouths….

But it’s a great way to observe an extraordinary range of different faces, even if they do move about at an unnerving pace and then suddenly disappear altogether.

It’s made me realise how much I need to study the shape of eyes and mouths, from different angles and in different expressions. Fascinating.

And of course I’ve been drawing outdoors as well, in the park. Thursday was snow in the morning, and cold bright Spring sunshine in the afternoon.

I know I’m learning a lot from all this – mostly I’m discovering what I find hard and what I really need to work on – but it’s so enjoyable. I think for now I’m not going to worry about what needs improving, and just go on enjoying myself for the rest of the week.

It’s that time of year again – the 1 Week 100 People sketching challenge.

I’m not going to stress myself by trying too hard to hit the target of 100 people, although you never know – but I haven’t been sketching fast enough or for long enough. But for me that’s not really the point – I’m getting a lot of practice – and I’m using the challenge to sketch in different ways. Some more successful than others – but all fun.

I sketch a lot from the TV – anything I happen to be watching, news broadcasts, dramas, documentaries, films. People moving are a lot more interesting to draw than people caught in a still photo, and there’s such a huge variety of faces and expressions.

But then there’s always the challenge of doing a bit of a portrait study from a photo, and I realised I’m not even restricted to drawing living people – so here’s Robert Browning, from an incredible portrait photograph by Julia Margaret Cameron. The drawing doesn’t do the photograph justice – he’s actually far more charismatic and doesn’t look half as pale and worried.

I’d said I would draw from images of the students who survived the Florida school shooting and who have been campaigning for gun control and I have a number of photos that I intended to sketch, but today when I looked at them I felt very reluctant to use them in this way. I may come back to them but it doesn’t feel right at the moment. Instead I drew from a photo of two young armed women police officers who were patrolling the area around the school just after the shooting.

Impossible to record everything I felt as I sketched this; I haven’t caught the complexity of emotion on their faces but there was so much there – anxiety, determination, shock, and a sort of stoicism and sense of duty. I couldn’t help but be struck by the amount of arms and weaponry they carry which seems overwhelming, and the fact that they both look so young. I felt it shows a lot, too, about the way an incident like this traumatises the whole community and what a burden of responsibility is carried by the police and security services, and also all the teachers and staff at schools across America – who incidentally do not want to be asked to carry guns.

And when I can I sketch from life! The task of nail-cutting, requiring concentration and a lot of movement in the hands, which explains the confused blurriness of fingers.

The week goes on – I’ll post more towards the end of the challenge.

And a technical note: I’d recently ordered some De Atramentis Document Ink Thinner from The Writing Desk and it arrived just in time for me to try it out this week. I love it! You can use it to dilute De Atramentis ink and I’ve mixed this lovely pale grey using blue + brown mixed with thinner. Great possibilities…….

I try to understand things by drawing them. It helps me think.

Since the Parkland school shooting in Florida last week, like everyone who was appalled that this can have happened, again, I’ve watched and listened, wondering – again – how this can be allowed to happen.

This time the aftermath does seem to be different. Those teenagers who huddled in terror, those who witnessed their close friends being killed beside them – are standing up and demanding that things must change, that laws must change, that politicians must stop taking money from the NRA. And they’re speaking with dignity, with clarity, and determination. It takes my breath away. Just look at this video of Cameron Kasky asking Senator Marco Rubio whether he will pledge not to accept NRA donations…. and read the account of it here.

I’ve read a lot about all the nuances behind the gun laws in America, which from over here in Britain seem hard to understand. I believe absolutely in listening to all sides. The one thing I keep coming back to is the thought of children going to school in fear; having to take part in routine drills for procedure when there is an ‘active shooter in the school’. Having to know how to barricade doors and what a kevlar blanket is for. Fear of any kind is pervasive, corrosive, corrupting – it is massively destructive, both in the short term and over a lifetime. And fear feeds other fears, feeds on itself, breeds distrust, does all kinds of dark and damaging things. All that – and of course you may well be shot, or see your fellow students or your teacher killed.

I try to understand by drawing. Sometimes understanding is impossible, but sometimes it’s possible to imagine more accurately that way. It can be a kind of listening.

I can only draw this story from photographs, and through the eyes of whoever took the picture. I won’t draw people in distress whose privacy I’d always respect but anyone demonstrating, debating, putting themselves in the public eye – these people I can try to celebrate. A small way of showing solidarity.

The#OneWeek100People2018 event starts again this year on March 5th. This year you can bet I’ll be drawing some of the people who are saying ‘Never Again’.

Ever thought you might like to join in and try sketching in the glasshouses and the park at Cliffe Castle?

Ferns in a hanging watering can, in the glasshouses Cliffe Castle

Louise Garrett and I are planning a series of Sketchwalks at Cliffe Castle. They’ll be a kind of cross between what Urban Sketchers call a sketchcrawl (a fairly informal get-together at a prearranged spot to meet, sketch and enjoy each others company) – and a guided workshop.

We’ll be welcoming Sketchers of all levels of ability and experience – even those who have never sketched before but who’d like to – and exploring sketching skills in the newly opened glasshouses and around the park. A bonus is that the café in the glasshouses is now open!

The sessions will be led by Louise, and the first is on Wednesday February 28th, from 10.30 – 12.30.

The Sketchwalks are being supported by the Parks Dept and Cliffe Castle Conservation Group and are being advertised locally to anyone interested in sketching. They’ll be in sets of 2, the first set Feb 28th and March 14th, and the second set May 16th and May 30th. Numbers have to be limited, due to the workshop format and space limitations – so if you’re interested, more information is on Facebook here – and if you’d like to reserve a place, email cliffe.castle.park@bradford.gov.uk – and you’ll get your place confirmed.