For those of you who have followed my work for a while now, you will know that my ‘signature tune’ in most of my drawings is a ladybird. I am not totally sure as to how and when I decided to put these little scarlet beetles into my drawings, but I do know why I am so particularly fond of them. When I was a little boy my Grandfather Lake was keen on growing roses and he and I would go to the site of the old swamp in Tanfield Lea and gather as many ladybirds as we could find to put on his roses. They were very hardworking gardening allies and kept all the pests at bay; my Grandfather’s roses flourished year-after-year. Through the years, the ladybirds became more and more prominent in my work and it now reminds me of dear friends, such as Mildred from Carlisle and Dorothy from Whitehaven.
So, whilst having lunch at Hexham Fish Bar with my friends from Carlisle, Mary and Peter Lupton, Mary turned to me and said, “Darling, what are you going to do for your next blog post?” I wasn’t sure and later when we were talking to Stella, the young lady that works in the fish bar, Mary suggested I give her one of my business cards. Stella’s family are from Cyprus and she pointed out the ladybird on my logo. I asked her what the insects are called in Cyprus and she said she would check with her father. He said that they are called Babavura or Paparouna, which relates to ladybirds bearing the same colours as the field poppy – scarlet and black. Quite appropriate! Whatever your nationality it would seem that ladybirds are lucky or beneficial insects in most countries or cultures with pet names such as ‘God’s Cow’ and ‘Mary’s/Our Lady’s Beetle’ -relating to the Virgin Mary, who was often depicted in early mediaeval paintings wearing scarlet and black robes, instead of the traditional white and blue that people are now familiar with.
So, on this very sunny and warm Good Friday, I decided to sit down and do a very quick coloured pencil sketch of ladybirds on one of my favourite flowers, forget-me-nots. I allowed myself a very strict time limit to do this illustration and I just managed to meet the deadline. I felt a little bit silly for sitting in drawing on such a glorious April day, but with the window open and the sun pouring through it was like being outside inside. I enjoyed doing the illustration and it was interesting to see just how many colours were used to create the final piece of artwork!
I have always had a love of swans, but Mute Swans in particular. They are known as birds that are legally protected in Britain by HM Queen Elizabeth II. I rather think they match being a royal bird as the regal way they bow and raise their heads is grace personified. I also admire the way that they glide serenely on a lake, whilst their legs are frantically going like the paddle wheels of a riverboat steamer beneath the almost unrippled surface!
I do know swans have gained, with some people, rather an aggressive reputation, but I think their protective ways are much needed in a world where irresponsible dog owners let their dogs run after and threaten (and on occasions kill) cygnets. I have also seen children throwing stones and bricks at these beautiful birds, so is it any wonder that many of them are very protective especially to their young? I can see the swan’s point of view and have to say that with all of my many up-close-encounters with swans have all been tranquil and placid.
I found a nice photograph of a mute swan preening its feathers in the shallow waters of a lake and decided that I would draw it in soft pastels. I was rather pushed for time, but I was also needing to use up some creativity that was bubbling to the surface that day. With this in mind, I did the drawing on a very small scale and on a very textured paper. This wasn’t the best of ideas, as the texture was perhaps a trifle strong for a drawing that small, so much so, I put the illustration aside for a while after only doing a small part of the background. Later, with a little bit of persuasion from a friend, I was encouraged to persevere with it, which I did rather begrudgingly (time always being a much prized and scarce commodity with me).
After half-an-hour of sustained colouring with my pastels, I started to enjoy the drawing for the act of drawing and being creative, rather than trying to complete something that was ‘pleasing’ to me… As it happens, it pleases a friend of mine very much, who has kindly requested it for his brother – an ardent nature lover.
I finished the mute swan today and have learned a few lessons from it, firstly that textured paper and small drawings have a conflict of interest and secondly that enjoying doing something is sometimes more important than the finished result…
From being a young boy my Mother’s family, the Lakes, bought me copies of the charming animal stories by Beatrix Potter, so I am very familiar with them. I am particularly fond of Jemima Puddle-duck, Squirrel Nutkin and Hunca Munca from ‘The Tale of Two Bad Mice’. Since early childhood, I have also gathered a number of friends who also love this lady’s work, including Sara, who has a particular fondness for Mrs. Tiggy-winkle. 150-years-ago today, Beatrix Potter was born in London and in this commemorative year her characters and illustrations are being featured on Royal Mail stamps and Royal Mint fifty-pence coins. So, it would seem an appropriate moment to mention a ‘Beatrix Potter’ inspired illustration that I was commissioned to do, whilst working in Carlisle, in April 1997.
When I worked with Sara and many of my other friends, on such publications as Cumbria Life and the Cumbrian Gazette newspapers, I was often asked to produce illustrations for the advertisements or editorial features. On one occasion, I was asked if I could draw an illustration, which was to feature on an advertisement for a very prestigious and beautiful hotel in the Lake District – famous for the red squirrels that live in the grounds. The clients asked if I could do a red squirrel pencil or watercolour illustration on a Beatrix Potter theme. I was keen to try and immediately set to sketching some red squirrels in the delicate fashion of this famous lady that has inspired me for many years. I have in no way captured the beauty of her work (I had a very short deadline to do the illustration by, as it happens!) but at least I have tried to capture the essence of her unique style and flair.
After having seen her original watercolours work at the National Trust gallery in Hawkshead, Cumbria, I can only say that some of her work was so intricate and delicate that it left me speechless. I can only hope that Beatrix Potter would smile benignly on my ‘Squirrel Nutkin’ illustration, with a look that is both kind and favourable. I hope you like it too 🙂
Helen Beatrix Potter, English writer, illustrator, natural scientist and conservationist • Born: 28 July 1866 – Died: 22 December 1943
NB. Please note that the picture (above) is framed and this image shows some slight distortion caused by reflections on the glass.