“It all started four feet from the floor on one of my many bookshelves, with the slim yellow volume by engraver/author/printer/all-round rascal Robert Gibbings. It was my first Gibbings book, flatteringly titled Lovely is the Lee. In it he traces the River Lee from Cork to its springhead, the magical settlement of Gougane Barra and its island church. I followed his steps, and thus began an obsession with books by artists.
My drawings along this path were crude scribblings. Guinness-splashed, rain lashed and wind swept, they taught me valuable lessons: buy waterproof ink, buy a seat, and buy more Guinness. All have kept me in good stead. The shelf now groans under the weight of every Gibbings book. I was inspired by the enjoyment he had illustrating and writing them, canoeing down rivers, diving in the Pacific and drifting down a few more rivers back home. So travelling and drawing were validated, and nothing could stop me now.
I ventured out armed with Fabriano pads and wholesale quantities of skinny pens. I’ve had my share of airport misery stories, but here’s the secret: Arrive. Get straight out and find a quiet place to draw. Spend an hour rooted whilst the chaos of the world whips by, gaze (with the usual twang of discontent) at your drawing, then find the nearest, coolest beer in town. Repeat several times a day, and your tiny fold-up stool becomes your anchor, your pivot, your single, still point of discovery.
Discover what you will, for me it is whimsical architectural confection. The Wrigley Building in Chicago. The gothic balancing act of Salisbury Cathedral, the over-ornamented stick houses of San Francisco, the lobster-crammed diners of New England.
It was in New England I would find my next obsession: Andrew Wyeth. Another rascal by all accounts, but his work allows forgiveness. Overwhelmingly impressed with his output, I would scour second-hand bookshops for his huge and heavy volumes. The inevitable wrangle over excess baggage fees was worth it.
Wyeth could draw buildings. Beautifully. But then again he drew the same farm for thirty years, so I don’t feel so bad about my own 40-minute dabbles. Knowing when to finish a piece can sometimes be hard, but I seem to have this strange inner feeling when it’s time to stop. Maybe I should have bought the luxury stool with extra padding. Andrew Wyeth is silent on this subject, but for 14 years he secretly drew his buxom model Helga in the barn. We all have our methods.
But then there is the work of two real gentlemen. The first is David Gentleman, a personal hero and winner of the Most Book Shelf Space competition. His evocatively illustrated tomes on India, Italy, Paris and Britain showed me the true value of drawing at home, too. His coastline and Suffolk drawings emphasised the wonder of our own country. My own drawings of Gateshead, Clovelly and Bath are poor attempts by comparison, but they open my eyes to the crash and juxtaposition of our own wonderful streetscapes.
I confess that when I draw these streetscapes I’m a grumpy artist. I can’t settle down until the drawing takes shape, which means that for ten minutes I’m a cantankerous man muttering to himself as he balances on a tiny fold-up seat. When buses block my view I sit with folded arms, counting the passengers and asking myself if this route is strictly necessary. But once the drawing starts to flow so does my confidence. I chuckle to myself and hum tuneless songs as I scratch away with my pens. Passersby throw compliments my way, and I gladly respond to their questions. Then I start thinking of the nearest, coolest beer. And I understand again why I draw.
The second gentleman is Paul Hogarth. I have about 18 inches’ worth of his books on my shelf: Provence leans against the Mediterranean shore, Cuba nestles beside Philadelphia. This man is amazing. I must have every book he’s ever published. What set him apart was the energy with which he surrounded his buildings. Taxis and pedestrians, cowboys and buses, everything pumped full of life. This man didn’t sulk at buses, he drew them with vivacity and panache. He bent his architecture and exaggerated his structures in a way I am only just beginning to develop myself. Oh, and his colour — genius! He wouldn’t have moaned about road workers digging up the street. He would celebrate their fluorescent jackets, their striped barriers and their pneumatic drills.
People do feature in my work, but you can’t see them. They are always behind me, bustling out of gospel churches, milling around busy Neapolitan markets, ambling down High Streets, all eager to talk. That’s the other wonder of sketching: the people I meet, the conversations I have, and sometimes the inspiration I am able to share.”
Profile of the artist: Chris Lee ASGFA is an urban artist who captures architectural heritage with delicately rendered pen and ink drawings. Even when he was an architectural illustrator he preferred to scribble out ideas, and only used a computer as a prop for his presentations on large handwritten concept boards. Twenty years and millions of pounds later, he is often found squatting on his three-legged stool, squinting up at a large building and drawing it. Please visit Chris’ web site here.
Editor’s notes: Robert Gibbings (1889 – 1958) was a central figure in the revival of wood engraving in Britain. He studied at The Slade School of Art and the Central School of Art and Design in London. Gibbings was a founder of the Society of Wood Engravers in 1920. (The Society of Graphic Fine Art was founded the year before — and had its roots in the Central School of Art and Design). The main collection of Gibbings’ work is held at Reading University.
For more information on the other artists featured in Chris’ story, please visit the following web sites:
Andrew Wyeth (1917 – 2009) www.andrewwyeth.com
David Gentleman (b. 1920) www.davidgentleman.com
Paul Hogarth OBE RA (1917 – 2001) was a descendant of the English painter, printmaker and social critic William Hogarth (1697 – 1764). paulhogarth.co.uk