Wednesday, 11 March 2020

Thirty years on: the van revisited

Thirty years ago, in early 1990, I bought a camper van, packed it with homemade sketchbooks and pencils and, funded by £40 a week from Margaret Thatcher's enterprise allowance scheme, set off around the country for six months retracing the route of an old travel book I'd found in a car boot sale: HV Morton's In Search of England. Once home, I wrote about my experience, exhibited drawings completed on the trip, found a literary agent, and saw a parade of the UK's top publishers politely turn it down.

What since? While most of the 900 drawings have been kept safely in cardboard boxes and occasionally shared online (a selection of them were exhibited at Wolseley Fine Arts, London, in 1996), the 50 chapters have been archived in a series of devices that tell a story of technology since that time. The book was started on a typewriter, completed on an Amstrad and stored on floppy disks, and then passed through a succession of Apple Macs to laptops, the cloud and hard drives, and now to this blog. Over the coming months, to mark the 30 years since I started the journey, I'll be posting chapters from it along with the drawings.

Ludlow's Boots

An admission: these chapters were written and the drawings were done by a man half my age, and the person I am now would do things differently. My story has been given a gentle edit, but I have resisted changing things too much. It represents where I was during those six months. There are parts I wince at, but they survive.

Morton has fared even worse over time. The truth about the hugely popular travel writer, who died in South Africa in 1979, was revealed in Michael Bartholomew's In Search of HV Morton, published in 2004. The way Morton portrayed himself in his books was a carefully constructed work of fiction. There were plenty of warning signs about his character that I became aware of as I followed his route, but I hadn't expected to him to turn out to be the racist, adulterous, hypocritical Nazi-sympathiser that Bartholomew's book reveals him to have been. But, ugly as we can now recognise Morton as being, that too has become part of the story of my journey.

My drawings, only some of which are included in these posts, were done at a formative time of my artistic career. Although I had just come through four years of art education at Hastings College of Arts and Technology and Winchester School of Art, those six months of constant drawing around England saw my work evolve almost beyond recognition. Again, I have kept in some of those early, clunking images, because they too are part of the real  story.

My trip in the van was delayed for a while because of its hideous unreliability and, particularly, a faulty water pump. The date I started my journey, 24 April 1990, was noteworthy in a couple of ways. On that very day, at the Kennedy Space Center, Florida, the Hubble Space Telescope was launched on its own long-term mission to send back to Earth images from the corners of the cosmos, a role it is expected to continue until at least 2030. With humbler technology and a more terrestrial focus, my Fiat 850T camper van trip also started sending back a series of images, except these were images drawn in pencil and from such other-worldly locations as fields near Hereford, front gardens in Bradford-on-Avon and lorry parks in Lincoln.

Read on: Following Morton: the 1990 introduction

You can also follow me, and see more of my drawings, on Instagram.

• The second – and more personally significant – way that the date of my launch around England is worth remembering is that ten years later to that very day, 24 April 2000, my elder brother Dave died of cancer. I have a photo of him with his head under the bonnet of the van that I'll post if I can ever find it.

Wednesday, 4 March 2020

A visit to the Sketchbook Project, Brooklyn

A library dedicated to sketchbooks? We had a family visit to New York recently during which I finally had a chance to visit a place that I've heard a lot about over the years. The Brooklyn Art Library is home to the Sketchbook Project, which consists of more than 40,000 sketchbooks from around the world, submitted by whoever buys a book from the project and then sends it in.

The library, located down an unassuming road just a short L or G train ride away from Manhattan, is in a bookshelf-lined space behind a shopfront. You could almost mistake it for a shop at first, in fact: there's a counter and tables of merchandise, and then, as your eyes adjust to the light, the receding shelves of sketchbooks come into view.

The sketchbooks used for the project are small – 5x7in and 32 pages – and not so space consuming, but because of their lack of a spine they are mostly anonymous when on the shelf. This isn't a place to pick books off the shelf at will and browse at length. The process for handling the books requires placing a request by doing a catalogue search on the provided tablets or on your smartphone through artist's name, subject, locations or tags – or randomly. Within a few minutes, or seconds even, the book is delivered to you by the librarian. (The book's creator even gets a message to say it has been accessed.)

The reasons for this system are obvious, but it can have the effect of stifling the best of serendipity that working your way through a physical shelfload of books would allow. And the search for items is only as good as the metadata. The books are also not curated, so of widely variable standard. This could perhaps be considered an advantage rather than a disadvantage. One of the project's founders, Steven Peterman, told the New Yorker that one of the reasons for setting it up was to subvert the traditional exploitative gallery culture: "We wanted to create a community anti-gallery space that was inclusive of everyone that wanted to be a part of it." But on my own visit I never felt I cracked the search system in such a way that I found a rich seam of exciting work. Some preparation with regards to what I wanted to see on my visit would have been a good idea.

Participants can, for a fee, also have their books digitised, so opening them up to a much wider audience – you can check them out here. Seeing the books online is not the same as holding them in your hands (I'm turning into a cracked record), but it's an accessible route in, wherever you are. A mobile library in the form of a three-wheeled bookmobile (which is parked in the corner of the library) takes examples of the collected books beyond the library's confines on occasions, and there have been tours of the books in the past.

Not everyone is keen on the idea of buying a sketchbook and giving it back to the people they have bought it from (the book becomes theirs while the copyright to your sketchbook's contents remains yours). The project has very recently become non-profit, which will bring new things such as more education programmes, but it is still a good idea to check the small print before participating, which includes:
  1. 1.2. License to Content. By providing Content through the Services, you thereby grant The Sketchbook Project a perpetual, worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free, sub-licensable and transferable license to use, reproduce, distribute, prepare derivative works of, display, and perform such Content in connection with the Services and The Sketchbook Project’s (and its successors' and affiliates') business, including without limitation for promoting and redistributing part or all of the Services (and derivative works thereof) in any merchandise or media formats and through any merchandising or media channels...
This may seem like a reasonable price to pay (beyond the financial one) to have your work in this unique sketchbook environment. Here I should admit that several years ago I bought a sketchbook from the project fully intending to submit it, but I never have. It languishes in a drawer next to the desk among a pile of old art materials. The librarian told me it was not too late to finish it and send it in. Maybe I still will.

Brooklyn Art Library is at 28 Frost Street, Brooklyn, NY 11211, USA. It's worth a visit.