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!

Sketches from the British Museum 2: The African Dance Masks

It was 11.30 am by the time I arrived at the British Museum on Saturday and by then the museum was busy. So instead of wandering about and fighting with the crowds, I went to the Africa Galleries and very luckily found a bench, opposite this magnificent wooden crocodile. It is part of a beautifully lit display of dance masks, some of them sharks, their cast shadows as descriptive as the objects themselves.


They are labelled as being “19th Century from the Abua or Ekpehia Igbo people in Nigeria

The masks are huge. I searched for some photographs to understand more about how they were worn and found these wonderful images from the Riverine Igbo region (Ekpafia, Abua, Ekpeya) taken in the 1930’s by Gwilym Iwan Jones a Welsh photographer and anthropologist. You can see more in his archives here.

abua2      ekpafia1


I then swivelled round on my bench to sketch a few more masks from the case behind me.


Everything about these masks interests me, from their construction to their use and symbolism. Some of the materials are beads, some incorporate metals, together with natural fibres, wood and found objects.
There is a delightful short video on the British Museum website of children talking about the masks. see it here. I also went back to look at the little stucco Silk Road horse; this time I sketched the figure next to him.


And made another quick sketch of the big beautiful glazed ceramic tomb horses with their groom.

horses-and-groom A5 sketchbook and pen.

I was interested in how both images are changed by the addition of the figures, even though the figures are not attached. In the second one  the “groom’s” hands look as though they would be holding a rope or reins of some sort but the horses have no halters. There is just an invisible tension between them.
I am working on these images over on Beautiful Beasts this week see “Silk Road Horses from the British Museum”.

Sketch Notes from the British Museum 1: Incomplete Animals

In January I resolved to go and sketch somewhere different once a month. I didn’t make it in January, but on Thursday, with Beautiful Beasts and the dragon puppet in mind, I spent a few hours at the British Museum. It is my very favourite place in London and I never leave without finding something new and fabulous. This time the trip was for more for visual research, than sketching for its own sake and I spent a long time just wandering and looking, and then returning to make notes. I made about 20 rough notes of beasts, bits of sculpture, of fabrics and ceramics. I was looking for dragons, found a few, but saw many other bizarre and wonderful creatures too.

marduks-dragon-horse-and-pi bm-1-bg



Dragons, lions, a cat, dogs, horses, a pig, a hen, a fire serpent, a harpy and a frog… from various rooms at the British Museum.  Pen in A5 sketchbook.

Incomplete Animals

Following on from my Incomplete Dodo from the Hunterian Museum, and as you might expect in the British Museum, I found some more delightful  incomplete animals. This is a pegleg Chinese Horse


The Pegleg Horse, the sketch and my sketch kit.

My sketching kit is very simple. One pen, 2 sketchbooks one A5 and one A4 and a water pen which I sometimes use.

bm-3 T

he Peg Leg Chinese Horse, A5 sketchbook

And then I found some wired crouching lion guards from the Nereid Monument in room 17.  One has a disembodied foot, both have missing bottom jaws.. poor things.


A metalwork lion and one of the great crouching Nereid lions


Another view of the crouching jawless lion, some of the beautiful big Chinese ceramic horses and a macabre little figure made of lead and glass with an ivory mask face. It was straight out of a Quay brothers film. But this one from the 7thC AD. Turkey. A4 Sketchbook

But my very favourite thing from this trip was a small stucco fragment of a horse being embraced by two disembodied arms, what a beautiful thing it is.


Fragment of a Horse.
Ming-oi, near Shorchuk, 8th-10th C.  Stucco with traces of paint.

I decided this would be my subject for Beautiful Beasts next week. I returned to the Museum for an hour yesterday and made some more notes which I will post this coming week. I could just take photos but drawing something means you have to spend a long time looking at it.

Sometimes the thing turns out not to be as interesting as you had hoped,  but often it is through the quiet, slow, observation and drawing that you fall in love with it and find some unexpected beauty.

Golden Bees and an Indian Summer at the British Museum

There hasn’t been much time for the luxury of drawing in the last few weeks. However I have done a little more bee research. Early in August on my first visit to the British Museum I found this fabulous huge golden wreath.

bee necklace

From the British Museum website :

“Gold wreath

Hellenistic, about 350-300 BC
Two cicadas and a bee nestle among the oak-leaves
This naturalistic wreath of oak-leaves and acorns is supported on two golden branches that are now reinforced by a modern copper core. At the back the branches end in obliquely cut end-plates, at the front they are held together by a split pin fastener concealed by a golden bee. Each branch bears six sprays with eight leaves and seven or eight acorns, as well as a cicada.”

bee wreath small

My photos are not too sharp due to the low light but this is the most beautiful thing. There is no explanation of the symbolism but the bee was already well established by this time in both economy and myth, a representative of royalty in Ancient Egypt and a symbol of immortality. There are also some rather odd little gold bee goddess plaques from seventh century Rhodes probably associated with the worship of Artemis. .. This is a strange creature half bee half woman.. a real Queen bee. I was curious about it, so scribbled a sketch while I was there.

queen bee 2

… but go here to Wiki the entry for a very good close up.

Garden and Cosmos The main reason for being at the British Museum was to see the fabulous “ Garden and Cosmos: The Royal Paintings of Jodhpur” exhibition, a feast of exquisite paintings depicting lush gardens, delightful scenes from everyday life, love, the Ramayana and, most beautifully, the abstract concept of the “absolute”. See more here.

My good friend Gill and I spent 3 hours lost in wonder and admiration. It was spiritually uplifting, sometimes funny in its observations of life and so finely executed. A favourite scene of mine depicts a grove of holy men, one of whom is “comforting” two troubled souls.. a merchant and king, who even then I imagine had much to be troubled about, by revealing that the apparent solidity of the world is a mere illusion.

garden and cos

Below, in a detail of a larger painting, elephants frolic in the monsoon rain while death and drama are continuing stage left.


I may well return to all this in another post, it was complex, beautiful and inspirational. I feel some welcome influences may creep into my future work.

Outside in collaboration with Kew Gardens had been planted a small companion Indian Garden.
Here you could find banyan, peepul, lotus, mango , the delightful blue sausage tree and various small shubs and flowers which were being enjoyed by some obliging local bees. A wriggling little English honey bee on Himalayan Cranesbill

bee on cranesbil

Bumble bee on Atriplex Perovskia

bumble and pereskia

A curious footnote.. this wonderful exhibition was part of the “ Indian Summer” season at the British Museum.

I wonder how many of us presume that the phrase “An Indian Summer” meaning a late pleasant spell of weather, came from British Colonial Indian times.. apparently not so, it originated in America.

Leaf of the day: Leaves of Steel, the Mozambique Tree of Life

On Saturday before driving up to Lincolnshire I called in briefly at the British Museum, primarily to see if there was any more information on the wonderful knitted hats from the Cameroon. There were some very nice examples but I didn’t have time to sketch. However, an unexpected bonus was seeing the Mozambique Tree of life which is also on display in the downstairs African rooms. This impressive “tree” was made from decommissioned weapons which were handed in after the bloody 16 year war there.

It was made under the umbrella of the “Transforming Arms into Tools” project in 2005, an initiative whose aim is to collect as many arms as possible from among the population and to destroy them, preventing them from finding their way back into use again at knock down prices. The guns are exchanged for tools which can be used to rebuild homes, farms and livelihoods. The success of this campaign led to an associated project to turn the decommissioned arms into works of art.
It’s a striking and poignant work, a tribute to the many dead and wounded in the 16 year conflict and for those involved in the project a glimmer of hope of a better future.
This extract and the images are from the Africa Focus website

“Mozambican artists spent three months creating the three-metre-high sculpture, made entirely out of weapons such as AK-47s, pistols and rocket-propelled grenade launchers. They see it as a way of using their art to promote peace.
There are still millions of arms hidden throughout Mozambique – a legacy of the 16-year-long civil war that ended in 1992.
In the last nine years the project, which employs some former child soldiers, has collected and dismantled more than 600,000 weapons.
Bishop Dom Dinis Sengulane is the founder of Transforming Arms into Tools, which is supported by Christian Aid.
He said: ‘I tell people that sleeping with a gun in your bedroom is like sleeping with a snake – one day it will turn round and bite you.’
Dr Daleep Mukarji, director of Christian Aid, said: ‘It’s amazing to see how Mozambican artists build a culture of peace through creating fascinating sculptures from dismantled killing machines. This project encourages people to exchange tools of death with tools for living.’
The Transforming Arms into Tools project has been so successful in collecting guns from former soldiers that other African governments are considering implementing similar schemes.
Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, said: ‘The Tree of Life is an extraordinary, thought-provoking sculpture which is a potent emblem of the complexities linking Africa to the rest of the world. Mozambique is one of the poorest countries in the world with more than three quarters of the population living on less than $2 a day.
Such extreme poverty can fuel crime. As long as the guns are still usable there is a danger that they could end up in the wrong hands and cause even more death and suffering.
Filipe Tauzene, a former child soldier, said: ‘The life I have now is much better as before I didn’t have the bicycle to move and go to town and sell things in my shop. I didn’t have iron sheets to cover my house. I have been given very useful things, which means I can get on with my life.’

At the Museum the tree is displayed with insects and animals, as the bird above and my one good photo of the fly below.