Aside from Disney, of any film I ever saw, this film had by far the widest and most lasting impact on me. I had already been studying Latin at school from quite young (thanks to that great Scottish education), and I found it rather dry.
Now for the first time, the Roman world began to come alive. I bought the book, The Robe by Lloyd C Douglas, was fascinated by it, and started taking an interest in the Romans and their culture.
More than that though, I got a crush on the movie’s leading man, Richard Burton. Ah me – the effect of getting a teenage crush! But it was a very good thing for creativity, all the same!
Doing the usual teenage girl crush stuff of finding out more about Burton’s career led me into the world of Shakespeare at The Old Vic, Alexander the Great, The Dark Tower by Louis MacNeice, Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood, Coleridge’s Rime of The Ancient Mariner, and some of Christopher Fry’s plays. This new world I stumbled upon had an exciting richness of spirit. Shakespeare took on new life, and I began to look at literature with different eyes.
All of this impacted on my art – especially Alexander the Great : the door on Classical Greek Art and Architecture was opened for the first time. That was hugely valuable, because Greek sculpture taught me a lot about anatomy – along with a couple of books I got for Christmas presents. I spent some hours drawing anatomical studies from pictures of Greek pieces (didn’t they used to do that in Art School? – never thought of THAT at the time!)
The human body is arguably the hardest thing to render convincingly in art. Quite a number of people doing art struggle noticeably in that area, though the Photoshop ‘Artists’ just grab photos of models, and solve their problem that way. And they call it ‘Art’? Ha! Which goes to show : the good old Art School disciplines – canned in this modern age of ‘permissive everything’ – had some great value, after all!
A couple of years ago, I picked up the B/W drawing at the head of this post and worked it into a full color art piece. Click on the image for larger size and more details:
Done from a Roman sculpture – this is the most ornate helmet I’ve ever set eyes on : isn’t it gorgeous?
He was experimenting with molding and casting processes and it wasn’t long before I was learning the techniques of creating low-relief and three-dimensional sculpture in plasticine and making plaster of paris molds to produce master casts – mostly in plaster of paris also.
My dad had his own very strong sculpture style, which he passed on to me. Usually it was full of cutbacks and tricky shapes, so we started off making waste molds of plaster of paris. With free-standing sculptures, these molds had to have more than one part.
I learned how to box in the original and use either shims or gravity to make molds in several pieces, keyed into each other. Then to take the cast, we used vaseline as the parting agent before pouring plaster into plaster. Scary!
The end job of breaking the mold away from the hardened master inside it with a hammer and chisel was always an exciting and tricky business – sometimes fraught with accidents. There was always patching and sanding to do afterwards.
Making molds is a lot easier process today, even though the fundamentals are still the same. True, you could get rubber molding agents then, but they had to be poured hot – an impossibility with a plasticine original – hence the need to create a durable master cast to work from.
I came away from that early period with several pieces of my own and a wealth of experience.
I realize now these early beginnings were a real gift – something else that has never left me.
A few years ago, I took up sculpture again and found the molding and casting fundamentals I’d learned as a youngster were still there. They stood me in good stead working alone, even though the materials have changed (for the better) over the years.
It’s now most common to use cold-pouring, two-pot molding material, of course, and after a day of instruction at a bronze foundry I was able to adapt my techniques to make ‘rubber’ molds within a supporting plaster jacket very successfully. Thank you, Ken.
We were doing embroidery, and creating designs for that. I can clearly remember a tea cosy I made early on with a dragon design on it, that kept our teapot warm for a number of years, until a teapot warmer was no longer needed.
We did some leather work, and I still have the writing compendium I made as one of my projects – There was also a purse for keys, with a big sculpted key on the front of it, made from the same piece of leather. That wore out!
At one point, the class had to create a series of dioramas to illustrate a historical novel we were reading – it was Walter Scott’s “The Fortunes of Nigel“. The group I was in drew the ‘street scene’, and I found myself in charge of proceedings, making a cobbled pavements out of split lentils, 16th Century half-timbered houses out of cardboard and little people out of painted clay. Creativity on a roll.
I think our scene was the best of the 3, but then I would say that… (Please excuse old photos but thought I must show them.)
Here are a couple more of my stamp album and scrapbook illustrations – a Readers Digest train illustration copy on the left, and the herald on the right was inspired by some of Ron Embleton’s great work for Strongbow the Mighty:
Next time – “The Third Dimension”.
I had arrived in Scotland with a perfect BBC accent. Aberdonians are very Scottish, very patriotic, egalitarian and up-front. No place to be talking like a London radio announcer, as I soon found out. That BBC accent disappeared very quickly.
My new school was the High School for Girls in Aberdeen, now Harlaw Academy where pupils gain the advantage of a great Scottish education. I was there for 8 years in total – my longest term at any school by a long shot. In spite of our continual house moving though, my parents had always made sure I got the best possible schooling. This settled period at an excellent school occurred at just the right time in my education.
Outside of school, I started off making scrapbooks of pictures I liked, embellished with painted artwork and lettering, drawing on ideas from magazines and books. My stamp album got the same treatment. And though with some of these ideas I was copying from existing artwork or photos, I’ve come to appreciate that the discipline of doing that started to train my eye really well.
The leaping tiger was an icon used by Esso Petroleum at the time.
Getting close to pipe band competitions on Scottish soil inspired a pencil study of a Highland dancer, drawn from a photo in the local newspaper – I’m glad I have that. Not many people outside of Scotland realize that Highland dancing is actually an excellent fitness training. Traditionally, in Highland Regiments the soldiers did PT and the officers did Highland Dancing, to stay fit. Highland dancing is something I loved at school and would take up again, if there were any close to me – I was always happy when we walked into the gym and saw the pianist sitting at the piano!
The sword and helmet design was also an embellishment in one of my scrapbooks.
There was plenty of Art at school in the early days – I still have one or two of the many things we created in art classes. Of course, we were given the usual array of still life subjects, but it seems at some stage our art teacher got creative and found something especially taxing for us to focus on:
They’re actually quite tricky subjects, and I’m glad to have these two paintings still – mainly because I used the backs of them for designing something else. (It’s called keeping a portfolio -Haha!) They would have been done in my early teens.
As we got to the higher classes, we were encouraged to produce black and white ink illustrations for use in the annual school magazine.
My first was of Alice in Wonderland, drinking from the bottle and holding her hand on the top of her head to see if she was growing any taller. No prizes for guessing where that idea came from, but I remember especially the art teacher’s help and encouragement in creating it. I know it was accepted for the magazine, and so were a couple more in later years.
I wish I still had those magazines…
Parents – keep your kids’ art stuff!
Wow -I fell in love with that, of course. It’s interesting that of all Disney’s works available at the time, “Alice in Wonderland” was richest in landscape, as well as characters. And what a landscape it was! Lush parks, deep forest, the Walrus and the Carpenter’s moonlit beach, the White Rabbit’s house and garden, the Mad Hatter’s tea party garden, the Queen’s maze and croquet lawn – what richness of imagery and color Disney unleashed on the world in that movie!
I know most people prefer “Cinderella”, but for me “Alice in Wonderland” was definitely the tops, and I think that had a lot to do with the landscape settings, especially Tulgey Wood, which somehow totally hooked me in. Even today, pictures of the Tulgey Wood scenes have a powerful appeal and bring back some very strong memories.
Apart from Elleston Trevor’s “Deep Wood” tales which I loved, I didn’t have much experience of forests – none at all of real forests, that is. So there’s no obvious, immediate connection. Perhaps it’s relevant that while the Tulgey Wood settings were based on forest reality, the colors and shapes of the trees had an other-worldliness that generated an enormous fascination. And while they were kind of wild, they were also orderly and groomed. Not full-on wild, like the forests I came to know later in New Zealand.
Tulgey Wood invited further exploration, without being too threatening. You could see pathways and openings that beckoned. This forest has depth. And of course the ‘extras’ – the owl, the frogs, the horn ducks and the momeraths – all of these added enormously to its appeal. And the art was great. The super-realism of this tree trunk setting is something else:
And then – maybe it was the Elleston Trevor books, or even that old “Sherwood Forest” thing in the blood. One of the meanings of the surname Howitt or Hewitt (we have a double dose – both surnames are in the family) is thought to be a topographic derivation from the Olde English ‘Hiewett’ – which translates as ‘a place where trees have been cut down’.
Forest dwellers? Foresters? Who knows? I think we carry more programming from our ancestry than we give credit for. Here’s something that surfaced from my subconscious many years later :
On top of my CD towers sits a little stuffed Disney Cheshire Cat toy that I found lying in the street a few years ago, shortly after our local McDonald’s opened its doors for the first time. They were giving away little toys to kids. Sadly, some child was the poorer for my gain – but I’d like to think he came into my hands because in the long run, he carries a whole lot more meaning for me than he could for any child in today’s world of ever-changing toy fads…
The cartoon movie stills in this post are all Copyright Walt Disney Corporation. Thanks mainly to Lenny at Alice in Wonderland.net .
So I’m simply adding a few more illustrations from the Elleston Trevor books to supplement the pictures in my last post “Elleston Trevor – Spies, Badgers, Kites and Miniature Cars“.
As I mentioned there, these books open up a wonderful world of pioneering, ‘do it yourself’ innovation that’s rapidly being lost in today’s world. Children’s toys these days are ‘plastic fantastic’ and they come with everything supplied – minimum imagination and minimum inventiveness required. And for that reason, they soon pall. So parents have to look round for something else. And the cash register rings again. What a waste!
It’s sad, because kids are missing out on developing one of the most important faculties a human being can acquire – CREATIVITY.
In New Zealand we call it the “Number 8 Wire Mindset”, harking back to the days when it used to be said that a NZ farmer could mend or create just about anything with a piece of Number 8 fencing wire. Here at least, we still put a premium on ingenuity.
These books bring to light for kids who’ve never had the experience, just what it means to be self-reliant, resourceful and handy with one’s hands (paws, wing-tips or whatever). The stories are full of activity, sharing, goodwill and the creative spirit.
W A Ward illustrations for “By A Silver Stream”:
David Williams illustrations for “Heather Hill”:
Dust Jacket images for these children’s books on the net are not the best, and of course it’s rare for old titles to come with dust jackets now, anyway. But I’ve worked on what I could get, tidied up scuffs and torn edges and hopefully improved on what’s out there. The “Heather Hill” dust jacket illustration in my last post was the worst – there’s a limit to what you can do even with Photoshop. Maybe a better “Heather Hill” dust jacket image will surface over time.
Check out the only available Reviews of Elleston Trevor’s Children’s books.
He was a versatile writer, his most popular works being “The Flight of the Phoenix”, and the Quillar and Hugo Bishop series, both under the pseudonym Alex Hall. He was born Trevor Dudley-Smith.
When he died in Arizona in 1995, his obituary in The Independent described the Quillar novels as “best-selling, tough and suspenseful spy thrillers with a distinctly noir-ish edge, featuring an ice-cold killing-machine, or “shadow executive”, called Quiller”. Furthermore –
“During the 1950s Trevor was one of Heinemann’s star popular authors. Along with Nevil Shute, the Americans Erle Stanley Gardner, Erskine Caldwell and Frank Yerby, the Australian Arthur Upfield … and the incomparable Georgette Heyer. At one stage a short Authors At Home promotional film was shot at Trevor’s home in Roedean, near Brighton, where he was glimpsed at his typewriter, and flying kites and racing miniature cars, both hobbies he followed with enthusiasm.”
Children’s Books Too
It’s hard to believe that at the same time this man was also writing delightful children’s books -about 25 kids’ books in all. And along with many other youngsters I loved and read them. “By A Silver Stream” and “Heather Hill” are two I’ve managed to get hold of again so far. But prices are high:
These were akin to “The Wind in the Willows“, based around themes of humanized small animals, but with a kind of pioneering twist. There are no psychological ‘Toad’ dramas here (thank goodness) – no Toad in fact, although there ARE venerable badgers, wise owls, excitable field mice, frogs, rabbits and peaceable moles. There are challenges though, of the kind that would appeal to any child with a practical bent – resettling a community deeper in the forest to avoid confrontation with man, building suitable houses, laying on water pipes, finding resources and transporting them home, making boats and gathering supplies for any job on hand. And above all, these stories are told with a wonderful, dry humor that brings the characters and amusing events to life.
They are well illustrated, mainly with a single full-page illustration and numerous smaller sketches throughout. “Into A Happy Glade‘, “By A Silver Stream“, “Deep Wood“, “Heather Hill” and the “Wumpus” series stand out in my memory. W A Ward (for “By A Silver Stream”) and David Williams (for “Heather Hill”) were the illustrators whose work is shown above.
These books are hard to come by now, but they still have some ardent followers – especially in the UK. For many youngsters of the era, they formed the basis of a lifetime’s love of animals and nature.
I’ve collected together the only available Reviews of Elleston Trevor’s Children’s books from Amazon.co.uk – because I believe these books have something that’s often lacking in today’s children’s story offerings. Check them out they are all together on one page!
I’d been given four small books in a series published by The Studio in London. One was “How To Draw Farm Animals” by Charles F Tunnicliffe.
There was also “How To Draw Birds” by Raymond Sheppard, “Baby Animals On The Farm” by Vere Temple and another, the name of which escapes me. They were all excellent learning tools by real quality artists – CF Tunnicliffe in particular created an enormous oeuvre of top quality work, illustrating at least 250 books – some written by himself and some authored by others.
From school, Tunnicliffe won a scholarship to the Royal College of Art in London, and from then on his busy working life began. He was honored by the art establishment, and the Crown. In 1978, he was awarded the Order of the British Empire – a year before he died in 1979. Tunnicliffe was the subject of a 1981 BBC Wales television documentary, True to Nature, produced by Derek Trimby and narrated by Robert Dougall.
I was fortunate. Having these books as an instruction and an example was really good for me, and they also got me closer to appreciating the world of animals and birds in art.
I’m gradually chasing these artists down, thanks to the Internet, and recently bought C F Tunnicliffe’s “Bird Portraiture”, published by The Studio in 1945 with a reprint in 1946. I scanned the pictures below, and don’t think they appear anywhere else on the net:
Though Tunnicliffe’s regular subjects were wildlife and the countryside, whenever he includes humans in any of his works, they take their places naturally in the scene, executed with the same style and authenticity as his landscapes, animals and birds.
He has come to be regarded as arguably one of the greatest wildlife artists of all time.
Apart from the straight Disney content, there was one other cartoon strip in Mickey Mouse Weekly that I came to rate just as highly – a cartoon called Strongbow the Mighty, illustrated by another real master of his trade – the London-born illustrator Ron Embleton. Ron created a huge body of artwork pretty much single-handed, in a really short space of time.
Ron was in a league of his own, and it shocked me since to find out that at the time he was doing Strongbow, he was only in his early twenties, having started illustrating for comics at the age of 17 – amazing. I still have 37 Strongbow comic pages stashed away and kept over the years because I admired his work so much, and once I get my scanner going again, I’ll put them online, because I notice there doesn’t seem to be anything much out there about this particular comic strip.
Meantime, I’ve set up a page at Patricia Howitt.com with one or two Strongbow images, which I’m sure will be relished by those who remember the cartoon – and by anyone with an eye for outstanding graphics. Here are a couple of them:
I loved Strongbow for Ron’s marvellous, crisp black and white images, his detail, his strength of line and composition (again!), the brilliant accuracy of his men and horses, and above all his total mastery when it came to capturing power and movement.
My dad and I used to pore over his pages, marvelling at his rendering of horses and men, often frozen in a split second of violent action, but fluid, powerful and graceful nonetheless. Very, very powerful stuff.
Now I’ve had the chance to see more of Ron’s work, I’ve a sneaking feeling that the Strongbow era might have been one of his favorites, because the images he created for it are so complete and so satisfying. Ron captured the spirit of that period so vividly, that it’s hard for me to realise that he was also engaged with Biggles (another of my favourites), American Wild West, science fiction and Playboy magazine. What an artist!
Strongbow, as far as I remember, was only ever a black and white comic strip. I saw some of Ron Embleton’s color work in comics recently when I searched him on the net, but to be honest, I think black and white conveys his mastery of comic strip work far more effectively. Having said that, he also had brilliant control of tone and color, and produced many individual images that are truly breathtaking. It was a real joy to me recently to find a great body of his illustration work for book publishers that I previously hadn’t known about – see above.
The other thing that appealed about Strongbow was the “Robin Hood.”quality of the story. As I’ve said before, Sherwood Forest has some deep resonances in our family history, that I wasn’t even aware of at the time. That will surface later, though.
The earliest piece I have, done within a couple of years of moving to Scotland, is a half-finished drawing on a sheet of lined paper ripped from a school exercise book of a tiger attacking a buffalo, copied freehand from an illustration in the book “Man-Eaters of Kumaon” by Major Jim Corbett.
It was perhaps the fist edition of this book, and there have been many since. I’m not sure if they all have the original artwork, which I think was by the great wildlife artist, Bob Kuhn. I remember being fascinated by the illustrations in that book – more quality artwork!
And though the book was technically a “hunting” book, it was special. Jim Corbett has an enormous reputation as a humble yet highly skilled and patient hunter, who rid parts of India of some really dangerous wildlife, while at the same time showing humanity and care for wild animals. In later life, he exchanged his rifle for a camera, as many hunters do.
Another very early piece was this Guy Fawkes, developed from a black and white logo in a newspaper advertisement run by a fireworks company. Inside the small circle, probably less than 1″ across, you could just see the face and the tall hat, the armful of fireworks and the side of Guy’s lantern. Tiny as it was, the quality of the design made an arresting image.
My dad suggested I do something with it. The challenge was to expand it out, bring in color, and still retain the play of light and shadow created by the lantern. I was about 10 when I did that.
Learning About Art
Gradually, art awareness began to develop. With help, I was learning to analyze what I saw from a graphics point of view – maybe not with the improved understanding that comes from years of practice, book study and looking, but at least innately. My dad encouraged me to start a “swipe file” of pictures I liked, as a reference tool. Over the years it grew to huge proportions, but it still contains stuff that dates back to that time.
Soon, when looking at books or magazines, I was taking note of the artwork. How was that picture done? What about the composition? What about the colors? What about the angle? At the time I was barely conscious of this, except to know that I enjoyed pictures, but through sharing my dad’s thoughts, the habit grew stronger and never left me. It took me a while to realise that not everyone sees things this way. Quite a shock!
Years later, that old Tiger drawing got reworked it into a fantasy battle between a tiger and a huge snake. Must have been looking at too much of Frank Frazetta’s work, he had a real passion for huge snakes!
Michelangelo didn’t limit himself to drawing from life. In 1492 at 17 years of age he put himself in serious danger by dissecting dead bodies in the mortuary of the Santo Spirito monastery in Florence.
The penalty for interfering with human remains was death. Why would he do that? To understand how the human body is constructed and how it works – and that is what gave such unprecedented life and movement to his paintings and sculptures.
Drawing – Making Line Live
I’ve come to appreciate that though I never went to art school, I did get a pretty rigorous training in drawing and in making what I created truly express the reality. This came from my dad’s critique, which harked back to the good old basics of looking hard at one’s subject-matter, understanding it and capturing it.
If what I drew or painted didn’t look like what it was meant to be, and didn’t have life, I GOT ROASTED. If the technique was weak or fussy, I GOT ROASTED. About that, more later.
So I came to value clarity of line, especially when it expresses 3 dimensional mass and movement economically.
The Second Principle : Strength of Composition – Design
Composition is arguably THE most important element of a painting – sculpture too, though it’s more complex in three dimensions. If there’s one thing that really puts me off, it’s a painting with a number of elements scattered around the space, without real consideration for the overall layout of the composition as a whole. No design! And that happens more often than you might think. And the average person doesn’t see it.
Look at frames from Disney cartoon movies, and see how all-pervading good composition and design was in the huge array of Disney’s animations – masterly! Given the number of artists working for Disney at any one time over the years, maintaining such consistency is a huge achievement in itself.
Taking the subject of composition a little deeper, here’s something most people are totally unaware of. It was clearly explained in a book called ‘The Painter’s Secret Geometry: A Study of Composition in Art’ by Charles Bouleau, which I have among my texts. The book is out of print now, but people on Amazon are crying for a reprint. I really can’t improve on this short excerpt from a review by T Campbell:
“This is the art history text we all should have had and didn’t. It is the only book I have found in several years of looking into what has been printed on composition/design in the 2-D arts that actually shows the manner in which artists in a number of Greco-Roman to western traditions managed their space. It was certainly not the “I’m OK, you’re OK” approach that is so common now. The great ones then, and to a certain degree even now, were very well educated in their traditions, which included mathematics, especially geometry, the application of which to image making was connected to their faith, as well as being an expression of their genius.
“Bouleau carries his argument into the 20th century and shows that respect for geometric spatial division to establish harmony is not dead. It still works, even with completely nonrepresentational art.
“This is a stunningly informative look at the visual arts in the European traditions and is the only book I have found that informs me on how the “old masters” and some contemporary masters built their paintings.”
Below are works by 2 relatively modern artists, showing their use of geometric principles in composition. “Miserere” by Georges Roualt and “Composition ll in Red, Yellow and Blue” by Piet Mondrian:
Don’t be misled: this is not a case of art being forced into a geometric matrix to suit some theory. Just as mathematics underlies much of our world (think of music, for a start), it is inescapably true that artworks whose composition or design complies with certain geometric principles, are more powerful and satisfying.
Hence the value of basing your studies as an artist on the very best of traditional and contemporary masters.
We lived first in a semi-detached Army villa in the suburb of Seafield. At the bottom of the street was – is – a small park called Johnstone Gardens built around a rocky landscaped stream, surrounded by paths, shrubberies, flower beds and rock gardens, with tall trees as a backdrop. I was given my first little camera and shot many photos – now lost – in that park.
My mom took me there often : it was a ‘wild’ landscape in miniature.
I’d just got a serial comic – it was Odham’s “Mickey Mouse Weekly”. My folks enjoyed it too, but I’m sure my dad was looking for artistic quality in what he chose, and I’m really grateful. I looked forward to that comic, and devoured its contents. It wasn’t all Disney though – many of the other cartoons and illustrations were of a different quality and appealed less. I found myself gradually getting a preference for the Disney style of artwork.
Two principles stand out in Disney’s works, and I’d like to think they are a good training ground for any artist. Firstly, clarity of line. The Disney line is stylish in its boldness. Eye and hand are coordinated to produce a highly polished, clean result.
The First Principle : Clarity of Line (ie Draftsmanship)
In today’s art world it’s kinda cutesy and clever to leave your viewers guessing. “Is that a fish or a bird?” “Is that a person standing in all that murk or is it an elephant?” Hmmmm. Too many people are getting away with bad draftsmanship because their creations are regarded as “innovative” or “thought-provoking”. We are putting a premium on gimmickry rather than solid grounding. Art is becoming cerebral instead of visceral in its appeal.
Maybe the fact that the Universities have got in on the act of training people to be artists has something to do with it.
I admire Prince Charles for stepping up to the plate and founding The Prince’s Drawing School. It’s time someone stood up for the real fundamental values in Art. There’s nothing ‘old fashioned’ about it – these fundamentals apply to digital art just as they’ve done to traditional art through the centuries. For more information see also Wikipedia on The Prince’s Drawing School.
Photographs are definitely not art
Right now, photography is doing its darndest to take over the Art space. Many would say, “If you can get a good photograph why go for paintings?” And that, of course, provides another excuse for the current trends in Art proper. Well, I’m sorry, photographs (even manipulated, Photoshopped ones) won’t ever compare, and that’s because they lack involvement of the hand, eye, brain and understanding of the artist – the true creative process. And I mean involvement with the subject-matter, not the photographic process.
About which, more next time
They earliest thing I can recall about doing art was drawing a kiddy house as a square with a pointed roof, four windows and a door. The usual standard tot’s drawing.
When I drew the pathway as two straight parallel lines going downwards from the door to the bottom of the page, my dad showed me how to draw a winding path in perspective, wider at the bottom than the top and with a couple of sinuous bends on the way – looking like it was lying on the ground and not sticking up in the air.
What a revelation, at that young age! What a foundation for future interests in architecture, model houses, and landscapes, haha!
So began a long “collaboration” on art between us. And though there were times when I was right properly irked by his input, I know I owe my dad an enormous debt for what he passed on to me over the years. Where HE got his knowledge from, I have no idea.
Art at School
When we moved from Chelsea Barracks to Kennington, London, I attended the girls’ side of the boys’ prep school for Dulwich College for a short time. It’s a pity that in those days kids were not encouraged to keep their artwork. Hopefully things are different today – it’s important to start building your portfolio as young as possible, and.parents need to know this, too.
Anyway, the one piece of art that sticks in memory from that school was a shaded pencil drawing I did of a goose that was sent off somewhere to an exhibition and to be critiqued by the mysterious “powers that be”. I was told it got awarded some kind of distinction, but I got no record of it, and the work never came back to me. Wish I had it now.
Real, live animals didn’t come into the equation in those days – living the nomadic army life doesn’t lend itself to relationships with pets, or long-term friends either, unfortunately.
I’m sure thousands of army brats (gee what a phrase – who ever got to be a brat with a Guards RSM, or any other army NCO for a parent?) know exactly what I’m talking about. On the one hand, you get enough exposure to the wide world to kill parochialism stone dead for life (thank goodness!). On the other hand, you find it hard to conceive that ANYTHING (especially friendships and relationships) can be lasting.
It’s a lonely world, especially if you’re an only child and forbidden to play with “ranks’ kids”. In my early years, I had only one real friend – the son of one of my dad’s NCO associates. Nowadays, animals are some of my favorite subjects, as well as my best friends. And it’s that goose drawing that stuck in memory over the years.
The Movies – Walt Disney
Movies were another major influence. Just off Piccadilly Circus there was a small picture theater that ran continuous Walt Disney cartoon movies. Whether it still exists, I really don’t know. At any time of the day you could buy a ticket and wander in there and stay as long as you liked watching Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse. We went there quite often and I can still vividly recall watching Donald Duck especially – oh man that attitude and that voice! It wasn’t until I got real live ducks of my own only a few years ago that I realized what a great duck impersonation Donald really does.
It was all just entertainment.. At six or seven years of age, there was for me no critical appreciation of what we were looking at – the colorful antics on screen were just something to laugh at and enjoy. But this first brush with Walt Disney was going to develop into a relationship that would impact on skills to come.
About which, more next time!
When my dad ran away from home to join the Guards, he tried to escape the influence of his father’s name on his own career by enlisting in the Coldstreams. Short-lived dream: the enrolling officers in the Coldstream Guards knew the name Howitt all too well and shunted him off to the Scots Guards real fast. It was a tradition that sons should follow in their father’s regiment.
Now my grandfather’s mother, Georgiana Howitt (nee Hewitt – Yes!), ran a cab yard at the top of Normanton Road, Derby, England, where I was born. This involved taxi services, funeral services (all horse-drawn), and a hostelry, or inn. Though she had brothers, it was she who took the business over from her father. So horses run deep in the family.
I used to hear family talk about “the cab yard” from time to time. It was many years before I got to the bottom of what it was all about. Not until of my own volition I started riding horses – and wishing I’d learned earlier in life.
To keep her only son out of trouble – and probably to give herself time to run her business – Georgiana packed him off at an early age to live with relatives in Heanor, a small mining and textiles town about 8 miles north-east of Derby. In that rural environment he labored, did carpentry, found time to paint and sharpened his skills with horses. As a result I believe he became senior riding instructor at Sandhurst for awhile. He was also an outstanding soldier.
My grandfather fought as an NCO with the Scots Guards in the trenches in France in World War l and was severely gassed. His batman saved his life, and he returned home, to be invalided out of the Guards and into the Sherwood Foresters (now part of the Mercian Regiment of the British Army).
Sherwood Forest – now THERE’S a name that rings through family history down the generations – of which, more to follow later.
My grandfather died when I was still a toddler. I can remember he used to call me ‘Poppy’, and I remember his roses, his woodworking shed and the aviaries at the bottom of his garden. I dearly wish I had got to know him. Aside from roses, his love was finches, budgies and canaries. As a sideline, I have bred rare breeds poultry. That kind of came upon me and I didn’t think of the connection when I first got started …
When my aunt, Ena May Howitt (my father’s twin), died in Boston USA in 1983, my mother and I went over to clear up her estate. I hoped above all that I might find some of grandpa’s paintings from the Heanor days. I’d heard about them – especially one of a water mill at Heanor – and I clung to the dream that they might have been in my aunt’s house in the States.
Well, I came home with heaps of family photos and stuff – but no paintings. The only artwork I have of his are a pair of beautifully painted Scots Guards crests – one for each of his twins, with their names hand-lettered underneath. They are very dear to me.
Among my aunt’s belongings I found my grandfather’s Regular Army Certificate of Service – another of those slim red books. It came home with me to join my father’s.
Once again, history repeats itself … The Final Assessment of Conduct & Character, completed personally in the handwriting of his CO, Major A A Sims, was : “Exemplary”.
True: but journeys don’t only have beginnings – they have roots. Physical and spiritual roots that reach back through the generations standing behind us. It’s scary to contemplate at times.
We accept readily enough that our immediate physical world operates by cause and effect. No-one has the slightest difficulty in understanding that if they jump off a building they will hit the ground. What we do have trouble with is recognizing that same law operates on a spiritual level as well, both for individuals and generationally – “visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation.” Hummmm. Food for thought.
My father, Kenneth Methuen Howitt, was the source of my artistic journey. Its roots lay on his side of my family. Regimental Sergeant Major of the 1st Battalion Scots Guards, with an army career spanning 24 years, he had an amazing artistic talent operating around the sidelines of a busy working life. As I’ll explain later, he nurtured in me the talents I got from him, and though he never had time to be a serious ‘painter’, he produced great sculpture with seemingly little effort.
He organized and ran some stunning Charity Balls for the Guards in London – with Royalty counted amongst the guests. He thought big, and produced the results to go with it: everything had to be right and to look great – and some of that at least rubbed off on me.
He was exceptional in the skills of training and handling men – which may have saved his life more than once. One time, in April/May 1940 contingents from the Scots Guards were sent on the ill-fated Allied invasion of Norway. My mother often told the story of going down to visit him in London and arriving at the barracks late at night to find – unexpectedly – the troops lined up on the square ready to move off for Norway. One can only imagine her state of mind as she waited at the barracks gate while one of the sentries went to find her husband.
When he finally came, it was with the news that he was not going to Norway – he had been promoted and held behind to carry on with training the troops. Thank goodness – as I child I can remember being told many men were lost in the Norway Invasion. Wikipedia states “The British lost 1,869 killed, wounded and missing on land and approximately 2,500 at sea.”
Years later when we moved up to Aberdeen, my dad was seconded to run to run the Aberdeen University Training Corps under Lt Colonel Thomas Broun Smith, QC – training potential army officers from the ranks of the students at Aberdeen University. He was later commissioned into the Gordon Highlanders, wearing the kilt and continuing to conduct training maneuvers in the Highlands of Scotland – with the same outstanding qualities of character.
I still have his Regular Army Certificate of Service – a small, slim, red book that details every step of his army career. The Final Assessment of Conduct and Character, completed personally in the handwriting of his Commanding Officer, Lt Colonel Tom B Smith, was “Exemplary”.
It begins in the City of London, right in Regents Street. It was there in one of the greatest and busiest cities of the world that a very small girl found her favorite haunt on the top floor of a wonderful toy shop – was it Hamleys or Gammages?
My mom, dad and I were living in Chelsea Barracks close to the Thames and Big Ben. Even as a small child I got used to looking for the light on top of Big Ben that showed Parliament was sitting.
We were part way through a whirlwind of army life. I realized later at the age of 16 I had lived in 16 different houses scattered through the country in towns as far apart as Derby, Caterham, Aldershot, Windsor, London and Aberdeen.
What I didn’t know then was that much more travel was to follow.
In fact, it was some years before it dawned on me that travel was (and still is) the always recurring theme in my dreams. Whatever else appears In my sleep, I am usually going somewhere, traveling along a road or trying to find my way… Journeying.
Model Railway – Hamleys or Gammages?
Back to Model Railways. We used to frequent both Hamleys and Gammages. In all of those enormous stores, with all their floors and dazzling displays of toys, my favorite place was right up on the mezzanine under the roof where the toy trains lived in – I think it was Gammages. Strange that it wasn’t the dolls departments – or even the teddy bears. I much preferred teddy bears to dolls, which I didn’t have much time for. But no, it wasn’t even the teddy bear department that drew me like a magnet. It was the model trains.
I could have stayed for hours – and probably did – watching the trains come and go, walking around the huge oval model railway display that circled right round the balustrade of the mezzanine floor. In and out of the little stations they clattered, along the winding tracks, through the tunnels in the hilly landscape. YES – those hills: for some unexplained reason, they had a fascination for me. Gammages’ train tracks were beautifully landscaped and I was fascinated by the green, paper mache sculptured landforms that made the journeys of those little trains such a joy to watch.
I always wanted a train set. I never got one, and in all truth if I had, it would probably have been a disappointment. Without all those wonderful hills and tunnels, I doubt that it would have really satisfied.
My dad with his artistic skills could have made a landscape for me – if he had the time. I remember an indoor target range he made for the London Scottish regiment with a green landscape made of plywood flats where tanks and other targets appeared and disappeared, running on hidden rails between the hills – quite like the trains, in fact. The night he took me to see that still sticks in my memory.
I was a city girl, born into a Brigade of Guards family, used to living in barracks around London and Windsor and used to hearing my father drilling troops on the square daily. The only hills I had seen were on train journeys between Derby and London – visiting my dad before we moved up to London to live with him in barracks – and of course at Gammages. Now, I am a lover of steam railways and vintage British Rail Posters.
Then when I was 8 we moved from London to Aberdeen, living initially in a suburb on the edge of town and later moving to the village of Peterculter, on the Deeside road to Balmoral. There I had my first encounter with cows – right over the fence of the small house we lived in. The hills didn’t make any great impression though – that was to come later.
Briefly, I was born an Army child in Derby, England, traveled about, and now live in New Zealand. Having trained and worked as a lawyer, I’m at last refocusing my life on what I’ve been secretly doing all along – art.
The journey so far has taken me from England to Scotland, to Africa, and now New Zealand. Through it all, art underpinned and sustained me through a heap of stuff – I’ve been grateful for that.
Now, this exercise of putting down on ‘cyberpaper’ the journey that brought me to where I am as a person and an artist is helping me rediscover myself after ‘losing’ ten years of my life caring for my elderly mom with Alzheimers. I’ve come away with no regrets for giving that time, and at last it is being returned to me. Here, if you care to check out some of the struggles of being a carer, is my account of the process written while in the thick of it – The Alzheimers Carer.
This blog is in a sense its own fulfilment, though like my art it does have a definite message of love and respect for our wonderful planet and the creatures that inhabit it with us – we have severely misused both.
If anyone cares to join me in this journey, I shall be truly honored. For my main Home Page that links and knits together all my websites, click HERE.
For a time warp journey to my last project, visit Taketakerau.com which features the 36 major paintings I created for a recently-published book about the nature and history of New Zealand.
Showcasing the Paintings, Sculpture and Jewelry of a multi-talented New Zealander with a love of nature and a background in – of all things – the law.