Portraits of the Famous and Infamous

What a great title for a book – it was used by Rex Nan Kivell (1898-1977), for his self-published encyclopaedia of portraits of those people from the 15th to the 20th century, who had links with Australasia and the Pacific.  A colourful character himself, Nan Kivell collected the portraits that went into the book. He was a major contributor to the collections of the National Library of Australia. At present an exhibition of works related to Nan Kivell’s book is on display in the NLA’s  ‘Treasures’ Gallery.

I took the time while attending a lunchtime talk on the exhibition to practice a bit of portraiture myself, along with capturing some of the faces that appeared on the screen during the talk.

Faces real and projected, pen and ink, 4 November 2015

Faces real and projected, pen and ink, 4 November 2015

Up in the top right-hand corner is Nat Williams, the curator of the exhibition. Below him are Abraham Ortelius, the map maker; Betsey Broughton, survivor of a Maori revenge attack, who lived into her 80’s and is buried about an hour and a half’s drive from Canberra at the charmingly named Bong Bong cemetery. Sydney Spence a close friend of Nan Kivell’s and co-producer of the book and a partially finished sketch of Kalaimanokaho’owaha, a Hawaiian Chief.

Among the anecdotes that Nat shared was, that on being shown a map of Melbourne, Robert-Louis Stevenson said “When I think of Melbourne I vomit”. I can only hope for Melbournians sake that this may be inaccurate. I’ve only just been disabused of the idea that the quote, long attributed to Mark Twain, that “Newcastle [in New South Wales] consists of a long street with a graveyard at one end with no bodies in it, and a gentleman’s club at the other with no gentlemen in it” has neither primary or early secondary sources to attribute it to Twain.

Unfortunately I ran out of time and couldn’t make it to see the exhibition, but it’s on for another month so it will go on the ‘must see’ list.

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Urban Sketchers Canberra at the National Library of Australia

On Sunday we had our first official outing as Urban Sketchers Canberra, a goal we have been working towards since our sketching group started meeting in February this year. We had 15 people come along, including two people joining us for the first time.

With a bad weather forecast we had to do a last minute change from our planned outside venue to one that offered indoor drawing opportunities. So it was off to the National Library of Australia (NLA). As luck would have it the rain held off for a bit so many of us took the opportunity to draw outside the building.

Spot the non-sketcher, USk Canberra takes to the National Library of Australia

Spot the non-sketcher, USk Canberra takes to the National Library of Australia

I decided to tackle a part of the building that I must say I haven’t paid much attention to before, the large sculpture above the entrance to the library. The work is called Knowledge and was designed by Tom Bass, who is probably better known to most Canberrans as the designer of the sculpture of Ethos in Civic Square. Commissioned in 1966 the work was installed on the building in 1968. At just over 21 metres in length, 2 metres in height and projecting nearly 2 metres from the wall this is a complex piece of work. Indeed I didn’t really consider how complex until I tried to sketch the projecting elements of the work.

Part of the sculpture, Knowledge, at the National Library of Australia, watercolour and brush pen, 1 November 2015

Part of the sculpture, Knowledge, at the National Library of Australia, watercolour and brush pen, 1 November 2015

I managed to get through to the start of the watercolour when it began to rain. I retreated to the portico along with most of the other sketchers to complete adding the colour to my sketch.

As is traditional we met up at the end of our two hours of sketching to compare our efforts. As always the  subjects and approaches were quite varied.

Some of our final works on the day

Some of our final works on the day

Discussions of the day’s work continued over coffee and lunch in the Library’s cafe. Some of us also looked at the exhibition of work of William Strutt currently on display in the Library. Strutt’s ability as a draftsman really stood out and we were in awe of his fine pencil sketches.

Studies of two male figures and a woman's head, William Strutt, c. 1860, pencil (PIC R3339 LOC1132/F), collection of the National Library of Australia

Studies of two male figures and a woman’s head, William Strutt, c. 1860, pencil (PIC R3339 LOC1132/F), collection of the National Library of Australia

The next meeting of Urban Sketchers Canberra will be on 5 December, at the Australian National Botanic Gardens. You can find details of events and more pictures on the group’s Facebook page, or contact us directly at urbansketcherscanberra@gmail.com

Going medieval – part 2

The National Library’s Medieval Manuscripts day was something I was looking forward to and it didn’t disappoint. Our guide for the day was Professor Emerita Michelle Brown and she was both very engaging and extremely knowledgeable.

We were led through 1500 years of manuscripts, looking at materials, construction, images and text. There was so much ground covered that I was grateful to have studied, albeit in my deep past, Roman civilisation, Byzantine and Medieval European history, which gave me something to hang onto as we careened through various historical epochs. The morning was spent looking at the development of tablets, scrolls and book forms, reed and quill pens not to mention the difference between parchment – made from sheep and goat skins and vellum – made from calf skins. Thankfully we were supported mid morning by yummy pastries and copious quantities of tea and coffee.

We were diverted by interesting anecdotes such as the martyrdom of Saint Boniface, who held a book over his head in an unsuccessful attempt to save himself from the swords of the Frisians who killed him in 754. Indeed the very book he was purported to have held to protect himself, the Ragyndrudis Codex (Codex Bonifatianus II) still exists and is located in Fulda in Germany.

One of the earliest images of Saint Boniface using a book as protection. Detail from Fuldaes Sakramentar, ca. 975. Image source

But I’m getting sidetracked. By lunchtime my head was just about exploding with information. So I took myself outside the library for a breath of fresh air and a Modernist detour with the help of Henry Moore’s sculpture, Two Piece Reclining Figure, No. 9, (1969)

Henry Moore, 1969, Two piece reclining figure, no. 9, outside the National Library of Australia, pen and ink, 19 June 2015

Henry Moore, 1969, Two piece reclining figure, no. 9, outside the National Library of Australia, pen and ink, 19 June 2015

The afternoon session held the pleasure of getting very up close and personal to some of the volumes and fragments that form part of the Library’s medieval collection.

There were little faces included in capital letters – the faces below are about 1 cm in height.

Looking out of the past, the spots are the pores in skin that was used to make the parchment. Fragment from the Nan Kivell Collection

Looking out of the past, the spots are the pores in skin that was used to make the parchment. Fragment from the Nan Kivell Collection, National Library of Australia

Who is that?, Fragment from the Nan Jovell Collection, National Library of Australia

Who is that?, Fragment from the Nan Kivell Collection, National Library of Australia

And we were given an insight into the manufacture of these books when looked at manuscripts with unfinished artwork in them. This is an unfinished ornamental capital in an Italian book from the 15th century.

An unfinished ornamental capital, Mantua, 15th cent.

An unfinished ornamental capital, Mantua, 15th cent.

Obviously this didn’t stop the book from being used and someone even thought they should have a go at completing the book themselves.

The man in the moon, addition to a capital letter, Mantua 15th cent.

The man in the moon, addition to a capital letter, Mantua 15th cent.

But this was a minor indignity compared to what some old manuscripts have suffered. As printed books became more readily available and affordable, the parchment and vellum pages lost their value and were used by bookbinders as covers …

Manuscript re-used as a part of a book binding.

Manuscript re-used as a part of a book binding.

and fragments were used to stiffen book spines and some pages were even used as pasting surfaces!

Re-use manuscript to strengthen a book spine

Re-use manuscript to strengthen a book spine

The last part of the afternoon we spent looking at magnificent volumes such as the Luttrell Psalter (only images on the screen) and comparing the use of page layouts with contemporary web designs. Wow what a ride! I’m still trying to consolidate what I heard on the day and follow up all sorts of interesting images.

Thanks to the team at the National Library and Professor Brown for such an amazing day.

PS if you would like to look at the Luttrell Psalter, The British Library has a version that you can turn the pages of, click here. I particularly like the designs that act as ‘line fillers’ on each page.

 

Going medieval on me – part 1

You’d be forgiven for thinking you were living in the wrong century because for the past few weeks things around here have been focused on the medieval. Of course its all in commemoration of the 800th anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta. (If you didn’t know, Australia owns one of the only four extant 1297 copies of the document).

Two weeks ago we attended the Medieval Fest, held at Old Parliament House, which startled everyone by completely blowing out of the water all expectations of attendance. We tried to see the morning session of the heavy combat re-enactment but it proved to be difficult.

Too popular by half!, what we really saw of the combat reenactment, 8 June 2015, pen and ink

Too popular by half! Or what we really saw of the combat re-enactment, 8 June 2015, pen and ink

Luckily we were a lot smarter, not to mention arrived earlier on the spot, for the next session.

Heavy combat re-enactment in the courtyard at Old Parliament House, 8 June 2015

Heavy combat re-enactment in the courtyard at Old Parliament House, 8 June 2015

It was reported that over 10,000 people attended – so much for the theory that Canberra would be empty on the long weekend!

After we had our fill of medieval food and drink – thumbs up for the blackberry and brown sugar milkshake – we decided to take the opportunity to see the display of the Rothschild Prayer Book in the National Library of Australia. Created in the early 1500’s this is one very up-market Book of Hours. Each two page spread has a image, opposite a page of text, both encircled by exquisite margin surrounds.

St Stephen from the Rothschild Prayer Book

St Stephen from the Rothschild Prayer Book

I love this illustration of St Stephen, who, literally as a sign of his martyrdom, has rocks in his head! (in case you forgot, he was ‘stoned’ to death).

As only one page of the Prayer Book is displayed at a time, the Library is projecting onto a large screen a digital copy of the whole book. The modular nature of the layout was obvious as we sat entranced watching the pages of the book turn. Yes, not everything was invented recently! There appeared to be several artists who specialised in different forms of margin painting. One was focused on painting Gothic architectural detail, one of flowers, as above, and another on decorative lattices. Separate artists and craftspeople, yep there were quite a few women known to have worked in the medieval book trades, were responsible for the writing and decoration of the various sections of each page. Many of the paintings were made by leading Flemish artists of the time, such as Gerard Horenbout and Simon Bening.  When I saw that the Library was holding a Medieval Manuscripts Day I just had to put my name down to attend (that’s a story for Part 2).

It was a happily tiring day and it was good to know that Magna Carta is still having an impact on our society today.

'Ello, 'ello 'ello ...

New (coffee) grounds

I drew in two ‘new’ places this week. Appointments and exhibitions took me to different spots around the city. First a cafe in a suburb I rarely visit offered a very trendy setting with a wall of stacked wood and these intriguing pots hanging upside down from the ceiling. Clearly this fern was loving it.

An upside down hanging pot, pen and ink, 11 June 2014.

An upside down hanging pot, pen and ink, 11 June 2014.

Less thrilling was the overwhelming smell of gas when, as it turns out the next door petrol station was having it’s tanks refilled. Both my partner and I and several other groups of people thought a gas explosion was imminent. Thankfully the staff told us what the odour was – just before we all headed out the door to save ourselves!

While it is definitely a place I’ve visited many times, I’ve never stopped to draw inside the the National Library of Australia before. The Bookplate Cafe, tucked into a corner of the foyer has the luxury of incorporating several stained glass windows designed by the artist Leonard French. Aided by what must have been the biggest bucket of coffee I’ve ever had, I was able to make the following sketch. That is until my pen ran out of ink. All to the good, according to my partner who told me that I was in grave danger of over-working the sketch as it was.

The bookplate cafe and windows by Leonard French, pen and ink, 13 June 2014.

The bookplate cafe and windows by Leonard French, pen and ink, 13 June 2014.