Monday 6th April
I am rather overcome by the beech tree buds of yesterday’s sketch, and I feel the need to sketch some more. There is something so delicate and perfect about the buds of trees and I can’t believe it has taken me this long to seek them out as subjects. The beech tree buds are long, pointed little spears, a rich reddish-brown. They deserve their own close-up, which leads me to look for more trees in bud.
Behind my studio is a horse chestnut tree. In mid-afternoon I navigate my way across a huge pile of woody garden waste and stand in the warm afternoon sun to sketch the buds. I am not a day too early, as the leaves have already started to unfurl, and they are limp like damp, lime green umbrellas. What were buds a week ago are open and well onto the next stage. These small, papery leaves will be massive, magnificent green fans in a couple of weeks. But for now they fit on an A5 page. My husband Marcel comes along with a cup of tea. We drink our respective teas, delighted that the weather is nice enough to drink it outdoors. “Just look at this tree,” I say. “Isn’t it beautiful?” “Yes,” he says, “it’s coming down.” “What!” I say. “No it’s not!” “Yes it is,” he says, “it’s been ruined by storms and it’s too close to the fire pit.” This is not in my plan at all.
The next morning I add ash buds and oak buds with last year’s oak apples because there is white space on the page. The black pointed buds remind me of miniature horses’ hooves. The teeny purple berries on the tips of the ash tree branches are new to me, another thing I would have merrily gone through life not knowing about if it were not for this sketching project. The round wooden balls on the oak tree are more than familiar to me. I climbed that very oak tree early last summer like someone intent on raiding a nest: it was wasps’ nests I was after, for those oak galls are nurseries for the gall wasp. The lady wasp injects some kind of chemical into the branch, along with her eggs. The chemical causes a tumour to grow up around the eggs, which then forms a little cocoon while the eggs pupate. When they are ready to leave home, the adult wasps burrow out of the oak galls, leaving these perfect spheres behind. I collected and smashed sixty of them with a hammer, soaked them in a jar of water for a month, added ferrous sulphate and gum arabic (if memory serves) and made iron gall ink. I brought it with me to Amsterdam, where I was privileged to teach some fabulous people over a series of a few workshops during last year’s Urban Sketching Symposium. I also made goose feather quills: I will never forget how it felt to sit in Rembrantsplein those three hot July mornings, watching the participants drawing with the same tools that Rembrandt himself used, next to a pensive-looking statue of the great artist. But today I am sketching the raw ingredients for the ink in situ: a bumble bee flies close to the grass nearby, seeming dissatisfied with everything it finds, sheep bleat a field or two away, and a fox barks in the field behind me.
I decide to draw a diagram for making cloth masks, to share online. Some people might be on Facebook but not on You Tube, or might be more comfortable following something they can read, rather than watch. It turns out I’m right, as the instructions are shared many times over the day. People start sending me photos of the masks they’ve made from the instructions. I am happy to have done this.
12.54pm – 1.06pm
Someone asks me on Twitter how long my masks take to make. I stop what I am doing – any excuse to procrastinate – and tell her I will time myself right there and then. Twelve minutes later, I take a picture of a newly-sewn gingham mask and post it to her on Twitter. It’s not very beautifully done, there are many threads that need snipping and the fact that it was gingham (and therefore self-gridded) meant it was easier than most other fabrics. But it is soft, comfortable, fits well and has a nicely-hemmed slot for a filter.
Liv (15) and I go for a quick walk. We pass some beautiful bay horses on the way up the road. They are stunning – smallish and young, but so graceful – and look identical to each other. They are rich brown, with black manes and tails, and they have been buzz-cut except on their fetlocks and a patch on their backs. Their bodies are glossy, their muscles ripple. They are all boys. One is unusually friendly, and allows us to scratch his muzzle vigorously. Most horses jerk their heads away when you try to pat them. This one’s friends reckon that since he’s vouched for us, they’ll allow us to pat them too, but they soon start butting and whacking each other irritably. We give them grass, which they politely accept, despite having plenty of grass in their lush field. Liv sense that they would far rather carrots. We continue with our walk, passing the hordes that are now a regular fixture. (By hordes I mean about four other people, which is roughly four times as many as have ever been out for a walk on this road.)
Boris Johnson has been taken to ICU as his covid infection has become worse, and he is struggling to breathe. This phrase was not uttered by the British press but by broadcasters outside the UK. The UK press has tried to downplay the seriousness of the prime minister’s condition, and have said many times “…as an excess of caution” regardless of what they are referring to. So, the PM is only in ICU as an excess of caution. Before that he was brought to hospital an an excess of caution. Who knows how this will end. I cannot bear the man’s politics, or personality, but I find myself silently wishing him a full recovery.
More baking. Liv has made a Victoria sponge from a packet. She presents it to the family and it has been transformed: it is beyond pretty, with fresh whipped cream and strawberries on top, and Bonne Maman strawberry jam on the inside. “That’s my cake!” says Honor, who emerges from her
lair bedroom when she smells the fake vanilla. “I bought that cake mix! I deserve two slices!” “But I made it,” says Liv. “Did you provide the eggs? The oil? The water? If it weren’t for me, you would be tucking into a plate of powder.” Nice one, Liv.
I go to bed feeling unwell. If I haven’t got diabetes II “when this is all over” I will be doing well.