Basel, February 2020

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

There are fountains.

Gemsberg, Basel Old Town

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”.

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 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, balancing on a precarious shelf, is clearly endangered by the thrust of the lance. It’s a dynamic and three dimensional scene.

Here is work in progress.

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 “victorianweb.org”]

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

France: Paris and the South, Jan 2020

Here is a corner of St Eustache, near Les Halles in central Paris.

St Eustache was built between 1532 and 1632. I drew it standing in the pedestrian area near Les Halles, as people flowed by. I enjoyed the fact that there were huge chimneys on the church, shown high up on the left edge of the picture.

The sky was overcast. It was a Monday. A group of lively young people were hanging about, calling to each other.

Meeting point for Public Calm

This pedestrian area was one of those liminal zones: between public and private, not quite a pavement, not quite a plaza, partly a thoroughfare, partly a resting zone. As a result, the social rules were ambiguous. People were hanging around, people were passing through. Evidently there have been incidents. A large poster said: “City of Paris, Meeting Point, Public Calm. The operatives of the City of Paris in charge of Public Calm welcome your feedback and comments between 6pm and 6:30pm, Monday to Friday. To report an incident (“incivilité”) call 3975 or go to Paris.fr/incivilité”.

I was intrigued by the idea of City operatives charged with “public calm” (“tranquillité publique”), and wonder how and whether it works.

Here’s another sketch in the same area. This the “Bourse de Commerce”, the Commodities Exchange. It’s now the former Commodities Exchange, with massive building work going on to convert it into a contemporary art space. The architect for the conversion is Tadao Ando.

Bourse de Commerce, with crane and hoardings.

This was a sketch as I was waiting for the swimming pool to open.

I did some people-sketching in a café and in waiting areas on the trip. I am on a mission to get more people into my drawings, so I practice.

I walked across to the Left Bank, searching for “Maison Charbonnel”, the home of the maker of the etching ink that I favour. The place was there, on the Quai Montebello, just across the river from Notre Dame. However, because of the Métro strikes, or because of the weather or for some other reason or no reason atall, the shop was closed “until the 3rd of February”.

I drew a picture of Notre Dame.

Notre Dame, West front, from St Michel.

This took about one hour 35 minutes. The temperature was 7 degrees C.

Then I took sanctuary in a marvellous art shop I found: “Magasin Sennelier”, 3 Quai Voltaire. I was served by a gentleman who might have been there since the 1950s. He was pleased to tell me he knew L. Cornelissen & Son of London, and Green and Stone, and he knew Mr Rowney, of Daler Rowney paints, personally. Or had done. Sennelier paints were superior, I was authoritatively, if not entirely objectively, informed.

In the South I made a pen sketch of a vast canyon:

Blanc-Martel hiking trail, start point.

And here’s a quick sketch in the library, before dinner:

Corner of the library

Turks Head Café Wapping

Here is the marvellous Turks Head Café, Wapping, rescued from demolition by local residents in the 1980s.

The Turks Head Cafe, in front of St John’s Tower

Inside, I found warmth, quiet tables, and the gentle murmur of conversations: people actually talking to each other. I felt welcome here. The food was marvellous. Next time I’m going to have the Blueberry Tart. I only noticed it after I’d already had the substantial Chicken and Avocado Sandwich.

Inside the Turks Head Café

I went to pay my bill. When I returned to my table, there was a little group of people admiring the sketch (above). I chatted to a man called Mark, who, it turns out, runs the website “lovewapping.org“. We exchanged anecdotes about the representation or otherwise of residents’ views on local councils. His group grapples with Tower Hamlets Council.

Then I went outside to draw the café.

The tower in the background is St Johns Tower. The tower is “all that remains of the parish church of St Johns circa 1756 … the surrounding ground was rebuilt as flats in the 1990s to an attractive design reflecting the previous building on the site” says the Knight Frank website (an estate agent).

This drawing took 1hour 15 mins, done from the pavement by a huge brick wall. The colours are Perinone Orange, Phthalo Turquoise, Mars Yellow and Hansa Yellow Mid. As you see, the front of the cafe faces West, and caught the setting sun.

Here is the wall next to where I was standing.

London Bricks in Wapping.

Bunhill Fields Memorial Buildings

This small building stands peacefully in a garden, surrounded by later developments. It is the local Quaker Meeting House.

According to the very interesting leaflet produced by the Bunhill Quakers, the current building is the sole remnant of a once large establishment, the Memorial Buildings, completed 1881. These Memorial Buildings housed “a coffee Tavern, mission rooms for the adult schools and breakfast meetings, Sunday schools, a medical mission, and a large meeting house”. The construction was funded by money obtained when the Metropolitan Board of Works wanted to widen Roscoe Street, and purchased land owned by the Quakers to do so. Roscoe Street was then called Coleman Street. “The success of the Adult School brought in funds for the erection of an Extension building in 1888”, they write. 300-400 people attended the meeting in those days.

Bombing raids in 1940, ’41, and ’44 destroyed “all but the caretakers’ house”, and the council “re-zoned” the area to “allow only residential building”. Friends Meetings continued, however, and still continue, in the former Caretakers’ House, which is the building I have drawn. As well as the Quaker Meetings, it is the centre for a travelling library. A small notice by the door says that this is the drop-in centre for an organisation called “At Ease” which provides a “Free, independent and confidential advisory service for people in the Armed Forces.”

The leaflet from the Bunhill Quakers is on their website and also here:

I made the drawing from the Quaker Garden on the site of the Bunhill Fields Burial Ground.

The drawing took about 1 hour 30mins. The sky is a new colour: Phthalocyanine Turquoise, a Winsor and Newton colour, pigment PB16. Other colours are Perinone Orange, and Mars Yellow, both Daniel Smith Watercolours. Here is work in progress:

The air temperature was 5 degrees C. That blue sky was not a “warm blue” whatever the photos seem to say.

Bastion House, London Wall

I hastened to draw the magnificent Bastion House, on London Wall. It is due for demolition.

In the foreground you see the balcony and privacy screen of the flat in Andrewes, whose leaseholder had kindly hosted me.

The line of red brick, and what looks like chimneys, in the foreground are the rooftops of a part of the Barbican, “The Postern”. Behind them is the Barber-Surgeons’ Hall on Monkwell Square, where I have been to give blood. The curved green building on the left is on the other side of London Wall. It is “One London Wall” near the Museum of London Rotunda: multi-use office space.

Bastion House is the huge monolith in the centre of the drawing. It reminds me of the monolith in “2001 – a space odyssey”, and indeed it dates for that period. It was proposed in 1955, and started in 1972, completed in 1976. The architect was Philip Powell of Powell and Moya. This practice also designed the Skylon for the 1951 South Bank Festival of Britain, and Churchill Gardens in Pimlico.

Here is drawing work in progress.

This drawing took me about 2 hours. This is my first drawing in a new sketchbook: the “Perfect Sketchbook” from Etchr. This will be Urban Sketching sketchbook number 6.

I have sketched Bastion House before:

St Giles and Bastion House

Today Urban Sketchers London held a “sketch crawl” in the Barbican. So I joined them. An astonishing number and diversity of people assembled inside the entrance of the Barbican Centre at the appointed time of 11am. I counted about 35 and then another dozen or so joined. All shapes and sizes of people, tall, short, … Continue reading “St Giles and Bastion House”