March: in like an Adder’s head..out like a Peacock’s tail.

The adders were my ongoing subject for Beautiful Beasts in March and this old weather proverb can go both ways, but we had a beautiful sunny weekend so maybe it is going out like a beautiful shimmering peacocks tail this year.
Chris and I had a walk around Woodwalton Fen yesterday which was fascinating. More of Woodwalton Fen to come, but in the early chilly morning it was beautiful. Birds, bees, a distant Marsh Harrier and the black water of the meres  reflecting a struggling sun. I thought about my adders again.

The large adder print


The block and some of the mess, the rest is scattered on the floor and around the house.


2 colours..9.5 x12 inches


3 colours… A proof print

In all I made 8 prints, each quite different, trying a variety of combinations as I cut away. They don’t call this reduction printing “suicide printing” for nothing! Once you have cut you can’t go back. I will post more stages on Print Daily soon. This is one I liked..

Fenland Adders: Keepers of Peaty Treasures.


Four colour reduction print 9.5 x12 inches

What’s it about?
Well, in my personal, alternative reality, wild things generally have a better time than in real reality. It’s a grey breezy day with clouds bubbling up in a huge fenland sky.
My beautiful adders, keepers of the secrets buried in the peaty darkness of the fenland soils, rise up to survey their domain. One black and one patterned. They watch the distant peat cutters.
The sensible mouse keeps a safe distance. What are those things scattered in the soil? Who knows what lost treasures, bodies and bones are buried in the peat? It is a subject of enduring and delightful speculation.
It’s back to bees this week!.. then maybe eels 🙂

Catching Up: More British Museum Sketches and more adders

Last Saturday I returned to the British Museum for a couple of hours to do a bit more research and sketching.

Working on the Beautiful Beasts blog has made me wonder why we so like to make images of animals. Of course, the use of animal imagery in art, design and utilitarian objects warrants a lifetime of study, each culture having its own different beliefs, magic and symbolic systems and there is a wealth of info in the Museum.

I go to the Museum to read, as much as to look and draw and on Saturday I particularly wanted to read about the Egyptian mummified animals and then get a quick visit to the fabulous Beyond El Dorado Power and gold in ancient Colombia” exhibition of exquisite golden and ceramic artefacts.

The animal mummies in Egypt were prepared for various reasons; a favourite pet to accompany you, an offering to the appropriate animal god or as food in the afterlife. In the main animal mummy case are cats, small crocodiles, falcons, a baboon, bronze relic boxes for a snake and an eel, a beautiful ibis case and fish “coffins”. There is nowhere to sit, so it’s a matter of drawing on the move while dodging the crowds .. the lines are a bit wobbly!


Everyone is fascinated by the cats. One in particular has a smile. One apprehensive little girl wanted reassurance that they were really dead.The linen wrappings are very beautifully executed with contrasting coloured cloths in a geometric pattern.

In another case were two forlorn bulls which don’t attract much attention, so I could wedge myself in a corner by the case to draw.

“Bulls were sacred to several gods. The famous Apis bull at Memphis was considered the earthly manifestation of Ptah, through which he issued oracles” from the British Museum Website



The wisdom of the bull.. Beyond El Dorado On to the El Dorado exhibition which was packed. It was impossible to stand and draw without getting in the way of the tide of people, so I just made a few notes.

Bird_staff decoration
This is an exquisite little gold staff decoration.
From the British Museum Website.

“The exhibition will explore the complex network of societies in ancient Colombia – a hidden world of distinct and vibrant cultures spanning 1600 BC to AD 1600 ….The remarkable objects displayed across the exhibition reveal glimpses of these cultures’ spiritual lives including engagement with animal spirits though the use of gold objects, music, dancing, sunlight and hallucinogenic substances that all lead to a physical and spiritual transformation enabling communication with the supernatural.”

There were some interesting snake related items. I was particularly pleased to read that snakes were revered for their ability to move easily between the elements of earth, water and sky (through jumping) and through the shedding of their skins were linked with concepts of renewal…..Go snakes!

notes-Br-M2-bg    Brit-mus-sketches-

A few notes of the lovely little ceramic figures from Lake Guatavita. A5 sketchbook. T

here is so much material to work with and so many ideas to pursue. If you are ever in need of inspiration, a trip to the British Museum is the answer, but take a sketchbook not a camera. You will see much more.

Adder Progress…is slow… But steady and I am back to the adders for Beautiful Beasts this week. The two 2 lino prints in preparation are going to be an opportunity for more experimentation. It’s the end of March very soon and so I am concentrating on getting previous idea resolved and a few things finished. One quarter of the year already did that happen!

Black Adders from the Black Fens

Holme Fen

On Saturday we went to Holme Fen, a remaining fragment of peaty forested fen, not what you would expect from fenland really.


Shimmering silver birches at Holme Fen on Saturday 8th March

It has a fascinating history and was once a part of Whittlesea Mere, the largest lake in lowland England which was 3 miles across and a venue for ice skating in the winter, fishing and sailing. It was drained at last by the Victorians in 1851 with John Appold’s, Steam Pump brought up from the Great Exhibition.

“The wind, which of autumn of 1851 was curling the blue water of the lake, in the autumn of 1853 was blowing the same place over fields of yellow corn.” Skertchy (1877

But one small piece of the reclamation, which is now the Nature Reserve was considered too wet to cultivate and gradually returned to birch forest.
My information from Natural England’s trail leaflet PDF here.

The Peat

Walkng through these elegant birch woods was easy going, the ground under your feet is springy, so unlike the yellow sticky mud that we have been trudging through here for the past few months. The peat here escaped exploitation and despite astonishing shrinkage, (as you can see by the Fen Post), they think the peat still extends 3 meters down over most of the site.


Chris standing by the post. His head is by the 1870 marker. The peat was level with the top of the post in 1851. The peat had shrunk to this mark in only 19 years.

Fenland Adders

Black, beautiful peat, back-breakingly dug for years mostly for fuel, also creates good adder habitat; black adders in particular if you read old accounts of peat cutting from the Fens. They were said to rise up suddenly, unseen against the black fen soil and frightening the land workers.

Other grim Fenland adder stories in Witches and Black Adders from Yaxley History which make me feel even more sorry for these lovely snakes. In 1963 Sybil Marshall published the Fenland Chronicle, her parents memories written in their Fenland dialect and detailing life on the Cambridgeshire Fens. It is a fascinating read and tells some good adder stories. More of those another time but she does say:

Needless to say we had a healthy respect for adders-nobody only a born fool would want to be too familiar with them. They abounded in the fen and were a common sight to the turf diggers who couldn’t be said to be frightened of them, even if they didn’t make pet on ‘em”

It would seem logical for adders to be black as camouflage against the black fenland soil but they consider adder colouration is more genetic than in response to habitat.

black adder Paul Smith

Paul Smith’s photo from the ARC website again see more here

Adder Sketches

I am still thinking about how to develop the adder image. More sketches today. I wonder if I can redress the balance a bit with my portrayal and have an adder loving fen man with adders fondly clustering round, or perhaps 2 dancing adders ( the mating dance) with the peat diggers in the distance.


Rough ideas  A4 sketchbook


2 thumbnail ideas for a possible print.

I am also rather interested in their eyes. They are a beautiful orange red with a slit pupil unlike the grass snake and slow worm whose eyes have round pupils.


Watercolour sketches of the eyes; adder,grass snake, slowworm ( which is really a legless lizard, hence the eyelid)

Adders and Grass Snakes have no eyelids but a transparent scale called a brille which covers the eye and is part of their skin. Just before shedding this brille  turns blueish, clouding the eye.  After the old skin has peeled away, the adders eye is returned to its glowing brilliance. Amazing. For more adder love see artist Ben Waddam’s short film on a peat bog adder here.

PS: If you were wondering about the name Blackadder it doesn’t have much to do with snakes!

Adders: What’s not to love?

My Beautiful Beast for this week is the English Adder or Common Viper Vipera berus, and indeed it is very beautiful.
It seems unforgivable that these fascinating, timid and endangered creatures have over the centuries been treated with such hatred, fear and persecution. While it is understandable to have an innate fear of dangerous, possibly life threatening animals, ignorance and religion have a lot to answer for in the ridiculous demonisation of various creatures, but of snakes in particular.


Photo by Alan Hyde from  Reptiles and Amphibians of the UK.

Yes, it is classed as venomous but you would be very very unlucky to be bitten and even more unlucky to die.

I have only seen one adder and that was when I was a child in Scotland. My father saw it basking in the sun on a woodland path. There was no panic or alarm and we were told just to be quiet and respectful and to leave it be.
I remember watching it slide away slowly into the bracken. But adders do have a long and fascinating history in folklore and superstition.

The Amphibian and Reptile  Conservation Trust ( ARC)  have a page of collected stories: They are also inviting you to record adder sightings and to spread a bit of adder appreciation…even if you can’t quite stretch to adder love.
I watched again the lovely interview on Springwatch from a couple of years ago with Sylvia Sheldon, about her work recording adders and her fabulous book of unique adder ID photos.

sylvia sheldons book BBC

I challenge you to watch this and not be charmed. Watch it here. But what to draw? How to tackle an image? What do I want to do? To win you you with cartoony cuteness, to instil more fear by emphasising their fangs, those steady, always open red eyes and threatening poses, or to try to show you something of their beauty, their grace, their patterns and fascinating life cycle.  As always my sketchbook is my starting point.

adder-sketches-bg      adder notes 2 bg

The beautiful red eye and a thought about camouflage And two small watercolour sketches following the same thought.


I really like these.  It’s a very busy week ahead so I may just spend the Beautiful Beasts time learning more about adders, sketching and thinking about developing my adder woodcut a bit more.

There is also some pressing bee gardening to be done, a trip to Holme Fen weather permitting, our first Easton Walled Gardens Workshop on Friday, keeping up with the Horse Chestnut and I am getting the oils out. 🙂