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Still life: for many years a favourite subject. From commissioned illustration way back in the 1970’s and ’80’s (often food) through to today’s paintings, I’ve loved the composition of the domestic. Initially those illustrations were supposed to suggest a concept (those were the days), but the ingredients – jars, bottles, glasses, bits and pieces from around the house – took on their own life. The shapes were enough to work with. The silhouettes became the material. No ‘meaning’. So working with, from, and through still life, came this series of paintings. All were painted over the last eighteen months, through the joy of shape; through observation, play, and accident. These have become progressively more abstract, yet underlying each is the nature of things.

This is an exhibition of a selection from the ongoing series: just ten paintings. Through still life.

Friday 17th to Sunday 19th July, 10am – 6pm. The Stable Gallery, Paddock Art Studios, Paddock Lane, Lewes BN7 1TW.







Way back in the day, as they say, 1964 probably, I opened a door with some trepidation and saw my first naked woman. Or nude woman. I’m still not sure how to describe someone who is intentionally without clothes, for artistic reasons. And as a job. I enrolled in the Saturday morning life class at Goldsmith’s College, London, and loved it. The tutor was Sam Rabin, a painter (you can see his work in Tate Britain) and a champion wrestler. Fortunately, not with his students. He’d nudge you off your seat though (called a donkey – the seat, that is) and with a stubby black pencil he’d demonstrate how to look, how to transfer the naked/nude person in front of you into two dimensions. Totally inspiring.

One Saturday I walked into the life class and there sat a naked (near-naked in this case) and very elegant person with a purple rinse, rouge and eye make-up – the Naked Civil Servant himself, Quentin Crisp, earning every penny of his 7/6d (38p) an hour. Of course we boys sniggered quietly at the Stately Homo of England at the time – shame on us. Since then, on and off, I’ve been going to life classes. The quality comes and goes, and I remember being much better at life drawing than I am now, 50 years later. But I don’t have those drawings, so I don’t know.

It takes intense concentration, a juggle of measuring with flow, accuracy with spontaneity, precision with feel. But it’s all about looking. At naked people.

Adobe Photoshop PDF

After I illustrated Grace Nichols’ and John Agard’s poems in the November issue of VivaLewes, the three of us decide to make a limited edition screen-print of their poems with a new image to accompany them. The last time I was struck by the poignancy of Grace’s mother closing the curtains on the Bonfire celebrations – is she Guido’s mother, the mother of a Protestant martyr (16th C!) or the innocent mother of a British jihadist? This time I try to incorporate something of the wry humour of John’s poem, but incorporating references to Lewes (the castle), subversion (the mask) and the real person behind the mask, plus a tiny amount of the debris left behind after the celebrations, that has always completely disappeared by the next morning…

The limited edition of 100 prints, signed and numbered, on 300gm watercolour paper, are on sale at readings and performances by John and Grace, and available at Skylark Books shop in the Needlemakers, Lewes, priced £20.

John Agard is the guest on Desert Island Discs tomorrow (Sunday 16 November, repeated Friday 21 November)




To celebrate Bonfire, VivaLewes magazine invites the wonderful poets Grace Nichols and John Agard to contribute a poem each. I am flattered when they ask for an illustration to accompany them, and particularly taken with Grace’s poignant ‘Fifth of November’:


From day-break the build-up,

which I like best, begins to stitch the town –

threads of an ancient ritual.


The boarding-up of shop fronts

in case of shoving crowds;

in case Prometheus’s children

out to commemorate

his hotly stolen gift, get out of hand.


Already the scent of kerosene invades the air.

Street-food vans take up their stand

as ordinary folk become

transformed into Tudor and Victorian ladies,

blackened-faced Zulus, fine-feathered Indians,

the no-nonsense striped-jersied.


Later in the crowded streets

among the bangers, sparks and brass,

we crane our burning cheeks to see –

the procession of lit torches

soon-to-be burnt effigies

wheel barrows of flaming logs.


And now, the whole town

reverberates and shakes

to the crackling booms of fire works –

the cold air gasps at bright spells cast –

fountains of diamonds

showers of falling stars.


Am I the only one to glimpse

at an upstairs window

the pale face of a woman

drawing her curtains on it all –

as if she were the mother of a martyr

or one called Guy Fawkes?


© Grace Nichols 2014. Published with kind permission.


bonfireYes – the two words go together, like, well… they just go together. Ask any Lewesian or anyone who’s come into Lewes for Bonfire on any 5th of November. It’s the big deal here. The members of the Bonfire Societies work towards the 5th preparing floats, banners, the firework displays, and of course, the costumes.

I’m asked to be a judge of South Street Bonfire Society costume competition, mostly on the basis of having no Bonfire connection at all. I think about what to wear and decide on my best suit out of respect. My fellow judge is the radio producer, David Blount (he knows nothing, too – so we’re impartial, you see).

We watch a parade of members in their costumes – mostly colonial pre- American War of Independence and English Civil War, in different categories: Under 5’s (girls), 5-9 (boys, girls), 10-15 (girls, no boys!) and so on. Great imagination and craft have gone into the making of these costumes, and somehow we have to decide who gets the gold, silver and bronze medals. It’s tough. Young Thomas (4) gets a joint bronze. He chews the ribbon in contemplation of…

The Men’s, the final category, and there are only two contestants. In any normal situation, Benjamin would have won. In his perfectly recreated Civil War musketeer’s costume. But Tony (landlord of The Snowdrop Inn) sashays in as a Time-Travelling Steampunk Medicine Man! I say Tony but he’s hard to recognise: his face has been unzipped and opened out, revealing a ghastly skull encrusted with glittering cogs and wheels and gems, the brim of his topper topped with optician’s instruments and a raven’s wing, his leather-strapped coat writhing with worms of light… on his gauntlet is perched a brass multi-barrelled revolver…  No contest.



Our last day In Leiden – a lovely city – with Els, our host. We cycle into the centre, park the bikes with the hundreds of others, and stroll into the crowds on the canalside, thick around the fish stalls: today is market day. But fish later – we walk down the narrow alleys past quirky little shops, until we enter a really nice shoe place. (Yes I have a thing about shoes, but not in a fetishistic way, or on the epic scale of Imelda Marcos, but… oh, some other time.) So I compare two loafer styles – not much in it, you may say, but it’s the details that count. I’m not buying (€259.00!) just observing.

And so to lunch – herrings! Wedged onto a bench with a lovely view of the canal but encompassed by a steel sculpture that is a bike rack, we drop the maatjesharing smothered in onion bits down into our mouths in traditional style (Els is most amused) and bite into smoked eel broodjes. (In the early 70’s I suffered a surfeit of eels – and white wine – from the rack of my friend’s cycle in Amsterdam; it did not endear me to her. Or to passers-by.)

Back at Els’s, we sit at her garden table and eat Jakob’s almond cakes – gevulde koeken – which are the best I’ve ever eaten. And Els is trying to manage the fallout from a newspaper splash about her government department…


We take the train to Den Haag Centraal (after cycling to Leiden Centraal but with saddle slippage and perineum danger) and then to the Mauritshuis: I have to admit, so we can look at The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius, the subject of Donna Tartt’s novel. And it is exquisite! the scratchy brushstrokes, the highlights, the feathered, well, feathers… And here’s Vermeer’s Girl With A Pearl Earring which is so soft and glows!

I’m drawing as I go, and writing notes of what to look up when I’m home. And then to the Gemeente museum and the Rothko exhibition. I stand in front of the paintings and let them grow over me.

After a day of art I’ve run out of sketchbook pages. In the jazz café, I dig out my i-phone and finally try the Brushes app I’ve been so dismissive of up to now. I draw the musicians with a big clumsy drunken finger…

(It’s not a real Rothko above. I made it up.)



I first came to Amsterdam in July 1968, courtesy of my new friend Paula, and stayed with her on Brouwersgracht. It’s still my favourite city. Now, Tiemen, our friend Els’s son, brings us to the Eye, the striking new film institute, across the water behind the central station, shining white under a heavy leaden sky. Inside there’s an exhibition and installations of the stunning works in light by Anthony McCall, artist, and fellow student of mine, who I believe was also on the same trip to Amsterdam back then…

Outside the Eye, on the terrace, waitresses are straightening the chairs, while I try to draw them at angles before they get there.

Later I have white beer and ‘Grandma Bob’s’ croquettes in a toasted sandwich. Then onto the new Stedelijk Museum to see Marlene Dumas’s huge and moving exhibition. I love this place!

If you like Amsterdam it’s worth getting the City-Pick anthology of writing about the place, for which I designed the cover. Highly recommended.


…but I hope it’s not just the drugs. 4 injections of Hydrocortisone a day for 5 days makes a big difference to your inflammation, but also to your outlook. And your energy level. And, maybe, to your attitude. I don’t want to bang on about it too much, but the jolt to the system has been a very positive one.

Lessons for myself:

1  Be more empathetic. More kindly, accepting, of others, but also of yourself. You are better than you think you are.

2  Look for the good in others, rather than the Daily Mail in them. (I know what I mean – perhaps you do).

3  Look for and be open to beauty around you, however unlikely the place.

4  You can always do more.

5  Live now. Be in the moment. Suck it dry.

6  Show your friends that you value them.

7  It’s a wonderful world (yeah I know blah blah… )

So – we all knew this already. But how to live it? That’s the real work.





Kenneth, fresh from his shower, is settled back into bed. Chris, in playful mood, combs his hair into an upswept Mohican look: Kenneth is not that enthralled with the style. I personally think it could work with a little trimming round the edges, but I’m not his style guru. I’m rather taken with the disgruntled pushed-lip look in profile, so I ask him to hold it for a few minutes.

We embark on a series of profile portraits, exploring Kenneth’s modes, as he gets better. None has the clarity or character of the Big Lip Mohican drawing, but he consents to adopt a Quentin Crisp (whom I drew back in the 60s) and somehow I turn him into Anthony Burgess, too.

I give him the drawings, and the staff make a little gallery of Kenneth on his wall. He’s pleased, and I’m flattered, and glad to have found such a good model. Thank you, Kenneth!