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!
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”.
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.