Basel, February 2020

In the streets of Basel, you can hear your own footsteps.

There are fountains.

Gemsberg, Basel Old Town, 7″ x 10 ” on Fabriano Artistico paper, [sketchbook 6]

In the hour and half that it took me to draw this picture, people made use of the fountain. Someone came out of one of the adjacent houses and filled a watering can. A woman helped a child to stand on the white marble edge and then to walk cautiously on the iron bars across the water. The child dipped her hands in the flowing water and drank. She played with the water that came from the spouts. Then the woman and the child returned to their bicycles, and continued their ascent of the hill. Elderly people, climbing the hill, paused here to rest. A runner lent over the water and sluiced his face, before pacing on up the slope towards me.

This part of town is very old. Basel has the fine custom of telling you a little about each street, on the street sign. The one for Gemsberg says:

“Zum Gemsberg, 1661 erstmals erwähnter Hausname”

So this street was named after a house which stood here in 1661. [German speakers reading this: please correct me if I got that wrong!]

The house on the right has an inscription in magnificent script. My German-speaking consultant enables me to state with some confidence that this reads as “In 1563 [this house was created] by joining together two houses: “To the Fridberg” and “To the Slifstein”, both mentioned in 1300-1322″

“Fridberg” might mean “Tranquil mountain” and “Slifstein” might mean polishing stone, or polished stone. Perhaps these were people’s names. I learned at the Basel Paper Mill that in those times smooth stones were used to polish paper, so may be Herr or Frau Slifstein was a paper polisher. But that’s just surmise.

Caption beneath a reproduction of a glazing hammer, Basel Paper Mill.

Here’s work in progress on the drawing.

Later I tackled a tough assignment: Basel Cathedral, “Basler Münster”.

Basler Münster, West Front, 7″ x 10 ” on Fabriano Artistico paper, [sketchbook 6]

This is a magnificent medieval construction, the present building dates from about 1500. It is a real challenge for the Urban Sketcher. Each edge is decorated. Each corner hosts a saint, or often two. Every planar surface has decoration, low relief, a statue. Not content with simply a sundial, they added also a clock. And on top of all this, the two towers are by no means identical. They each support a forest of spires, some octagonal. The main spire on the right seems to have curving edges, unless that was a cunning optical illusion. Even the roof is decorated with a pleasing coloured diamond pattern in tiles. I did my best, but those medieval stonemasons got the better of me.

To the left of the door is St George and the Dragon, a very realistic statue which I had to put in. St George’s horse prances on a firm plinth. St George himself wields a real metal lance, copper or some copper-containing alloy, since it is green. The dragon, some distance away, is made to balance on a precarious shelf, endangered by the thrust of the lance. It’s a dynamic and three dimensional scene.

Here is work in progress on the drawing.

I made more sketches around the city:

On the long journey home, I sketched the people, and my luggage.

Sainte-Croix, February 2020

The weather in the Jura mountains is changing. This is climate change, the residents tell me. Once, the snow came reliably every year, bringing skiers. Now, the snow is unreliable. “It shouldn’t be like this,” they said, looking out at the slushy rain. This is February: high skiing season. “It should not be like this,” they say again, sadly.

Here is a sketch made looking out of the window into the rain and melting snow. The lady at the Post Office added the stamp.

Sainte-Croix, February 12th 2020, looking down the hill towards the station.

I made that picture with just watercolour: no pen.

The Hôtel de France celebrates the fine engineering expertise of the area with a collection of typewriters. There were several in the meeting room where we worked. Here is one of them.

Typewriter. The Post Office lady obliged with the stamp.

This was a busy visit. My arrival had been delayed by a storm, and so work was compressed into a few hours. My next sketching opportunity was while I waited for a lift to the station.

Here’s a view across Lake Geneva in the rain.

Wapping Old Stairs E

On a radiantly bright day I walked East from the City in search of horizons. Wapping, east of Tower Bridge, is where the buildings at last are of human size, and you can see the sky.

Next to the pub called “Town of Ramsgate” on Wapping High Street, there is a small passage, a slot between buildings. I darted down there, and found a long view over the Thames, and the stone steps leading down to the river. This is Wapping Old Stairs E. Turning round, to go back, I saw this mix of buildings.

On the right, with the blue window, is the “Town of Ramsgate”. High above it are the walls of the former warehouse “Oliver’s Wharf”, built in 18691 The warehouse was turned into flats in 1970-1972, making it one of the very early warehouse conversions. Warehouse conversions later extended all the way down the river on both sides.

Sketch map showing the buildings around Wapping Old Stairs E.

On the left are the backs of the houses on “Pier Head”, which is a wide elegant road joining Wapping High Street to the river. There is a chain across the road to deter those of us who would like to look at the river from there.

One of the things I notice doing these sketches is the amazing number of television aerials that persist on rooftops, in defiance of the proliferation of broadband services. In this view there are two, both seriously complex and business-like examples of the genre. I think it is time for a exhibition of Television Aerials, as Art. If you are the V&A reading this, consider it now, before they all disappear, or become very valuable.

Wapping Old stairs is not a lonely place. It must feature in books. During the hour and a quarter I was there four couples and individuals walked along the passageway, looked out to the river, took photos and walked back. A man came with his tiny dog. The dog showed an unwise interest in my water pot, which by that time contained an unhealthy mix of Perinone Orange, Phthalo Turquoise and Mars Yellow. I tried to deter the dog from drinking it, and then had to explain to the dog’s owner that I didn’t mind the dog atall, but I didn’t think he should drink that particular water. They were going to go for a walk on the foreshore, but the tide was still high and sloshing over the steps, which put paid to that idea.

Here is work in progress.

(1) F. & H. Francis. 1869-70. Wapping, London E1. Built for George Oliver “in the Tudor gothic style, this wharf handled general cargo but had special facilities for tea” [Craig, Charles, et al.  London’s Changing Riverscape: Panoramas from London Bridge to Greenwich. London: Francis Lincoln, 2009. Quoted in “”]

View from the South side of the river, photo from “”. This photo shows the smoke from a fire which broke out in one of the flats, Sept 2019.
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