Urban Sketching Workshop, September 2017: Ancient Kent

Urban Sketching Workshop, Sept 2017: Ancient Kent

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I held an urban sketching workshop in Kent and East Sussex last week. I visit the area a lot, as some of my husband’s family live there. There are just so many amazing places in that part of England that could have been designed with urban sketching in mind. It’s stuffed to bursting with incredibly beautiful buildings spanning hundreds of years, and Kent’s great gardens feature in inspirational gardening books. The population is older than the national average, there is a strong sense of Englishness, everyone is extremely polite and everyone obeys the law. I love it.

My urban sketching itinerary was based on places I thought would be nice to visit and sketch, but when I asked my sister-in-law Monique to help me with the itinerary I was in for a treat. Monique is a professional event organiser with decades of experience in the industry, and she added some places to the line-up that she felt would be unmissable, such as Bodiam Castle, Sissinghurst and Smallhythe Place. She slotted them into the itinerary with ease, and in the event it felt effortless.

The day before the workshop began, Monique and I drove to the venues I had yet to visit, to get to know them a bit better. Afterwards, we visited the Apothecary in Rye, a quaint little café on the high street, where I did a quick sketch. Monique planned to join us on the workshop, as she’s a newbie but very keen urban sketcher, so I talked through a few reasons for decisions I made while I sketched. If you’d like to know what those decisions were, and the other techniques that I taught during my workshop, then I would invite you to become a patron via Patreon, which you can do on this website.

Apothecary Café, sketch by Róisín Curé

Wednesday 20th September
Our urban sketching workshop was centred around Tenterden, a pretty little town not too far from Ashford. We started the workshop on 20th September in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century at Tenterden Town Station. We were due to get the beautiful steam train to Bodiam Castle later on in the morning, and meanwhile the vintage signs on the station platform provided plenty of atmosphere.

Signs on Tenterden Town platform, sketch by Róisín Curé

We boarded the little steam train and found some seats. The engine driver was a tanned and fit woman in a classic blue-and-white striped uniform, complete with one of those adorable peaked caps. I found her most impressive. We had almost an hour’s trip ahead of us – these trains don’t go very fast – and we enjoyed watching pheasant, partridges, birds of prey and swans through the window over rolling reclaimed marshland. Our destination, Bodiam Castle, was breathtaking: it rose massively from a still moat and provided us with an opportunity to tackle scale and stonework, and of course reflections in the moat. Mallard ducks quacked around us in the warm morning sunshine, sounding just as if one or two ducks found their colleagues hilarious. We had a drop of rain which proved to be virtually the only wet episode of the entire workshop, but it didn’t last long.

We caught the little steam train from Bodiam back to Tenterden Town Station, and sketched the stacks of old suitcases. The station master passed me as I sketched. He was not a tall man, was bespectacled in gold-rimmed glasses, a magnificent red curly beard and an immaculate uniform in black, trimmed with red and gold. He wore a large cap with a shiny black peak. “If only those suitcases could talk,” he said. “What would they say, do you think?” I asked. He pointed to the one on top on the right. “That one has been to Mauritius and back,” he said, “in 1978. I nearly stayed there, but I met a lady here…” He drifted off. “I couldn’t say for sure,” he continued, “but I think my father may have brought it to war, and I know it originally belonged to my grandmother. That dates it to the 1930s.” We looked at the others and tried to guess their provenance. In the end I made them “talk” in my sketch.

Suitcases on the platform at Tenterden, sketch by Róisín Curé

The station master told me that people like him and the lady train driver, who suffer from train fever, just have to be near the objects of their devotion. He said their respective spouses tell them to arrange it so that they can spend their time at the train station. “We get too grumpy otherwise,” he said. I like to think of them happily spending their days in a fug of diesel and coal fumes.

At Tenterden Museum, around the corner from the train station, we found many things that attracted us to draw. I was touched by the sight of a coat of a sergeant, and decided to make it the subject of a demonstration. As I sketched I thought of the soldier who wore it, and how he sacrificed his life for his country in the First World War. Then I read the story of the soldier, and it turned out I was wrong: there had been false reports of his death sent to his family, and when they discovered that he was still alive and well they flew the Union Jack from the top of an oast house to spread the good news. He came home safe and sound and lived to be 97, and was a keen double bass player and skater. Happy ending for once! And it’s the only drawing I made of an oast house, which are everywhere in Kent.

Me giving a demo at Tenterden Museum, photo by Róisín Curé

Tenterden museum sketch by Róisín Curé

Thursday 21st September
The next day we went to Cranbrook, to visit Union Mill. We had been promised a private tour by the very welcoming people who look after the mill. It really couldn’t be prettier, and the amazing Chris showed us round. The mill is still operational, and Chris got a few of us to grind a little bit of flour. Enough for one scone, I’d say.

The mill was built by a lady who lived next to it for her son, so that he would have an income, back in 1803 (mothers!). That worked a treat until the end of the Napoleonic Wars, when parts of the economy crashed. The mill had a succession of owners and has been beautifully restored now as a tourist attraction.

Cranbrook Mill, watercolour by Róisín Curé

Up to the fourth level we went. “Make sure to come down the steps backwards,” advised Chris. The ladders got progressively steeper as we climbed. Chris was a terrific character, insisting we push ourselves to the edge of our comfort zones: he made me stand on one of the grain trapdoors just to prove to the assembled onlookers that they only open upwards, and to step outside to enjoy the view from the first floor, despite my fear of heights. Of course now I’m glad I did both.

I bought a jar of bramble jelly from the little shop on the ground floor. I figured my husband would like that better than any other gift (okay, I was thinking of myself). I spent much time as a teenager trying and usually failing to get blackberry jelly to set, so I was very happy with my purchase.

My eye was caught by these bags of grain. They made a good example of some of the techniques I was teaching. The bag of flour at the bottom of the sketch was suspended from a balance.
“A farmer turned up with the balance one day,” said Chris. “He’d been using it for years to measure feed for his sheep. ‘You can have it back now,’ he said, ‘I don’t want it any more.’ We told him not to bother but it came back anyway.”

Cranbrook Mill contents, watercolour by Róisín Curé

I didn’t get a chance to draw the mill from the outside as I was teaching, so I went back after the workshop ended and drew it again. I had promised the mill workers that I would make a nice sketch and send it to them to do with as they chose, as a thank you for their kindness. I was full of confidence – as always – but to my mortification, I couldn’t make it work. No matter what I did, the drawing wouldn’t work. Right under the gaze of all the passers-by! Here had I been magnanimously offering a sketch for whatever use they chose to put it to, and I was making a very public mess of it. I got it eventually: it was a simple matter of being too close to my subject that threw me, but sometimes we forget the most basic things.

Just before I left, Chris very kindly shared some of his beautiful home-grown peppers. Mine made it all the way back to Ireland and they were as delicious as only home-grown green peppers can be, with thin, firm flesh and super flavour. I shall grow them next year in place of the less-than-bounteous aubergines I grew last summer.

That afternoon we visited Sissinghurst, where Vita Sackville-West lived with her husband Harold Nicholson. They lived a rich life, both enjoying same-sex relationships whilst remaining harmoniously married. As well as landscaping her beautiful garden, Vita had an intense and passionate relationship with Virginia Woolf. The garden remains magnificent. Utterly beautiful. All the superlatives you can possibly think of. I recognised a couple of scenes from my Reader’s Digest Good Ideas for your Garden. Gardeners abound. A huge tower, a folly, is a focal point of the garden: it closes in October 2017 for renovations – why didn’t I go inside when I had the chance? Instead I painted bricks for the class and got very cold, for although it was lovely and sunny it was cold and windy in the shade, and the spot in which I was sitting was a bit of a wind tunnel.

Just before our scheduled minibus home, we challenged ourselves to a last twenty-minute sketch. As the clock struck 5.30, a few drops of rain began to fall, with impeccable timing, as we piled into our minibus out of the rain. My 20-minute sketch is on the left but I did the bricks when I got home. I hate doing that – my approach to a sketch means I do everything on site – but this time it couldn’t be helped. The sketch is definitely the poorer for it.

Sissinghurst, watercolour by Róisín Curé

Friday 22nd September
Next day was our trip to Rye. After some terrific weather, it was better again. Hot, sunny and still. We made our way to Rye Castle – Ypres Tower (I got its name wrong on my sketch) – and were awestruck by its simple lines and satisfying symmetry. This time the challenge was stone walls and shiny metal, as there were cannon and cannonballs on the ground in front of the towers.

Ypres Tower, watercolour sketch by Róisín Curé

After a while we slowly wended our way down the very steep Mermaid Street, voted by The Telegraph as one of the five most beautiful streets in Britain. It really is. It’s like a fairy tale street, straight out of the Brothers Grimm. The buildings have quaint names – “The House Opposite” “The House With Two Front Doors” and many have year they were built written above the doors, dated to the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

As well as very steep, the street is cobbled, making it heavy going for those unsteady on their feet. I will always remember my 16-year-old daughter in mint green stilettoes that were never meant for actual perambulation trying to walk along those cobbles about a year ago, on her way to her auntie’s wedding. “I can’t walk on this terrain!” she wailed. “You have to help me!” It was more physical help than she had accepted from me or anyone for years, but the alternative was breaking an ankle. The day we sketched we saw a couple of casualties: a man with a bad leg lost his footing and nearly crashed into one of the sketchers; a woman with a wheeled suitcase (not unreasonably) refused to swerve around a sketcher and take to the cobbles; and even I, in sturdy, flat-soled boots, was conscious of my step. One of the houses is called “The Old Hospital” – I wonder what it was like to be horribly sick or injured and to make your way there.

The street is also full of doves and pigeons, so I drew one…

Mermaid Street, watercolour sketch by Róisín Curé

We spent the afternoon in Smallhythe Place, onetime home of Ellen Terry, a famous actress. We made our way to the little café behind the main building to have a bite of lunch. It was lovely to sit in warm sunshine with our tasty lunches, then not to even have to move as I went around and gave instructions for the next exercise. My only regret was that the house itself closed a few minutes ahead of schedule at 4.40pm rather than the stated 5pm, so our sketchers missed their chance to have a look inside, having left it to the last minute. I did have a look, though, and it was full of fascinating memorabilia and some beautiful gowns worn by Ellen Terry. Ellen’s daughter Edy Craig lived at the house with two other women in a ménage a trois and established a wonderful theatre there, which still stages plays in an impressive, grand old oak-timbered converted barn. My husband Marcel and our children were fortunate enough to have been brought to a production of The Wind in the Willows there last summer by his sister Monique. I wish I had been there too.

Smallhythe Place, watercolour sketch by Róisín Curé

Saturday 23rd September
The next day we all met up in Little Dane Court, the wonderful B&B in Tenterden where some of the group were staying. Rod Hardingham, the proprietor, is a lover of all things Japanese, and he has blended Tudor and Japanese styles in his house and garden in a delightful way. I went over some of the principles we had discussed over the previous three days, and the students painted whatever took their fancy, putting into practice some of the things we’d learned during the workshop. It was relaxed and convivial. One of our number, the inimitable Dougie Simpson, had a stroke of inspiration: we would each paint a postcard based on our trip and let the others choose one blind, so to speak. It was a lovely way to express the camaraderie we had developed over the course of the workshop. After that everyone went their own ways the length and breadth of England and as far away as Switzerland (and of course Ireland).

Little Dane Court, watercolour by Róisín Curé

The next day, Sunday, was my last in the UK. Monique and her family cooked a marvellous lunch, which we ate in her exquisite garden. My dear mother-in-law Erika looked resplendent in baseball cap, gold scarf and striped top, and I could not but attempt to capture her glamour in a sketch.
“Do you think you could possibly keep still long enough to be drawn?” I asked her. Erika was unsure, but did her best. I told her she could ask very short questions, to which I would give comprehensive answers ( she wasn’t allowed to talk, you see) and this worked for a while, until various insects decided to investigate her sleeves. But she did extremely well in the circumstances and I have a sketch which I will treasure forever.

Erika, watercolour by Róisín Curé

As my taxi drew up, I hugged my family goodbye. On my return, Monique and I immediately began hatching plans to stage a workshop next year. We have found a large house not far from Tenterden that would make a great base for us all. We intend to provide all meals and accommodation there, leaving us free to spend more time to sketch at the beautiful places in the area. We also aim to add a further day to the workshop, making it four full days instead of three, with a half day at the end. We are currently inviting expressions of interest, and will offer a discount to those who book early.

I’m looking forward to it already!

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  1. Steve

    October 3, 2017 at 3:03 pm

    A nice read, and as I live in Kent I’m very familiar with all the locations – you’ve done a great job of capturing them. I’m usually visiting with family in tow so just snap photos, to have the time to sit and sketch would be great !! One day I will find the time for it :o)

    • Róisín Curé

      October 3, 2017 at 3:09 pm

      Lucky you, Steve. So many beautiful things to sketch in Kent. It’s hard with family to sketch but I’m a believer in benign neglect, which leaves time to sketch. Can’t say it’s worked too well though, ask me when they’re not teenagers any more…!

  2. Yvonne

    October 2, 2017 at 6:37 pm

    Love reading your stories. I’d be interested in finding out about your trip next year sounds as though you had a lovely time. I am having a short trip to Ireland next week and hope to visit Galway for a day and possibly do some sketching.

    • Róisín Curé

      October 2, 2017 at 6:48 pm

      Thank you Yvonne! Let me know your dates and so on and if I’m free maybe I’ll join you for a bit of sketching. Meanwhile keep an eye out for news on next year, it won’t be long before I tie down a plan. I have a few names already.

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