A Thousand Words

Some pictures really are worth a thousand words.
To me, anyway. A trilogy.

‘Giant Gallery Label’

⏥ ⏥ ⏥

I always feel I might still have a couple more career changes in me.
This is about the time I tried to leave copywriting for illustrating.
I mean, I was always drawing, even in the casino days and the abattoir days, but the plan was to make a living from it now.

The first step was to self identify as an illustrator.
After all, it’s what I’d done in becoming a copywriter.
Without any formal training.
There was no point waiting around for someone to ordain me.
Anoint me with graphite.

The second step was to quit the steady day job.
This was easier in the days before the responsibilities.
So, upon finding myself home alone all day with only the cat for company, ‘Giant Gallery Label’ was one of the first pieces of this brave new era.

Conceptually it was just something that struck me as funny.
The original plan had been to produce a series of ever increasing sizes.
‘Even Bigger Gallery Label’.
‘Absolutely Humongous Gallery Label’.
You get the idea.
I liked that it felt a bit David Shrigley.

Executionally it was a return to art college days.
Those increasingly obsolete draughting practises we studied to give us a grounding in what to do on these new-fangled Macs.
Depth scales and French curves. Jeweller’s rouge and Letraset catalogues.
Slightly wibbly, don’t look too closely, hand painted letters in oil on a 36 x 24 inch canvas.
In time-honoured gallery label layout.

But the illustration dream wasn’t quite everything I’d dreamt.
Most of the commercial work I scared up took the thing I’d done for enjoyment and escapism
and made it about money and deadlines.
I moved from pens to vectors which meant more speed and flexibility but also more dreaded screen time.

Plus I was always searching for my style.
It was definitely based in graphics.
And a bit on the weird side.
But I could never shake off the ideas-centric advertising approach.
When sometimes I just wanted to focus on the craft.
I could never just draw a nice picture of a flower for no good reason.

Truth be told, and this isn’t false modesty, I soon realised I wouldn’t become the success I’d hoped.
I wasn’t even close to the league of practising artists I admire.
Supermundane, McBess, Malika Favre, Tom Haugomat, Hattie Stewart, Oliver Hibert etc.
Let alone the legends.
Quentin Blake, Pete Fowler, Chris Ware, Ralph Steadman.
That level of instant recognisability that comes with years of practise and epic talent.
I know that’s like comparing my living room guitar noodling to Radiohead.
And how unhelpful that is.
But it’s how I felt.
They weren’t so much influences as unreachable yardsticks.
And anyway, illustration wasn’t paying the bills.

So after six months I slipped back into freelance writing and the jig was pretty much up from that moment.
‘Giant Gallery Label’ is still on display though.
And serves as a reminder of a few things.
That my creations won’t necessarily make me rich or famous.
Sometimes they won’t even be seen by anyone other than my modest social media following.
Or visitors to our house.
(You really need to come round to appreciate the scale and the stupidity of this piece).

But not everything has to be a side hustle.
And faking it ‘til you make it.
Sometimes it’s alright to make it for the sake of it.

‘Hoe & Co.’

⌖ ⌖ ⌖

We bought number 13.
Our first house.
Unlucky for some?

It was the archetypal ‘fixer-upper’.
Not only were it’s windows broken, it’s floorboards infested and it’s wallpaper mouldy.
It was also FULL of crap.
In the back garden alone we found a rotten pool table and two broken fridges.
How long does a house need to be neglected to go through two fridges?

Then there was the loft.
The second big dumping ground.
Just sticking my head through the hatch revealed piles of bags and boxes.
All included in the price of the house.

But despite the trials of the garden I was actually quite excited about this one.
With a head full of treasures that might be uncovered.
Not expecting to trouble The Antiques Roadshow or anything.
But maybe a couple of sticks of unloved mid-century furniture we could revive.

In reality the haul was disappointing to say the least.
Bin bags full of a former-tenant’s old bank statements.
A random sign from a McDonald’s that said ‘Please Refrain From Smoking in This Area’.
Some mildly engaging bits of old packaging - dash of vintage Flag Sauce, anyone?

And one single item of genuine human interest.
A framed certificate caked in the grime of over half a century.
I retrieved it back down the ladder and carefully cleaned it up.
Even though I had plenty of other stuff to do.

In 1932 a man called William A. Davies started work in the Blackfriars, London branch of the New York company R. Hoe & Co. Ltd; manufacturers of printing presses that dominated the pressrooms of the major newspapers of the U.S. and England since the 1850s.
On the final day of 1957 he received this certificate for 25 years’ loyal service.

It’s quite the mash-up of design styles.
Yet it still holds together.
A trellis border of hand-illustrated rose bushes is interspersed with collaged greyscale photographs of a range of presses on technical drawing gridded backdrops. The old central London factory sits proudly in the centre. Calligraphic lettering pronounces the occasion, complete with Lombardic capitals. Then an etching of a famous old American press from 1450 that looks like a medieval torture device is thrown in for good measure as a sign-off.

All this presumably printed on the very machinery William helped to produce, and designed to show off their many and varied capabilities. The end result is like an illuminated manuscript.

I showed it to our new next-door neighbour, Rae, who had lived there for decades.
He actually remembered William and said he was probably the last person to care about number 13 until we arrived.

After a tough 18 months.
Of every weekend, every gap in freelance jobs and every penny spent on the house.
Of my Mum’s first visit to see it when she told me she had cancer at the front gate (she’s been clear for a number of years now).
Of one point living there with our two year old but no kitchen or bathroom.
And of the dust.
So much dust.
We were finally about done renovating William’s old house.
And turning it into our home.

I hung his Hoe & Co. long service certificate on the freshly painted Little Greene ‘Custard’ wall in the hallway.
Who knows, maybe he hung it in that exact same spot once upon a time.
Then out of the blue an unexpected new opportunity came up.
So having finally made the place habitable again, we left and let someone else inhabit it.
Already it was a rental property once more.

The certificate had become symbolic of the period and number 13.
Abandoned with nobody to treasure it.
Now shown some love and brought back to life.
And, like William, I’d earned it.
So, as we packed up to move the family to another country, I didn’t chuck it back in the loft.
It came along on the journey with us.
A part of our family history now.

‘Great Auntie Betty’

❁ ❁ ❁

I’d like to introduce you to my Great Auntie Betty.
Well, her portrait.
In watercolour and pencil.

I always remembered it from visits to her house as a child.
That and the constant tick of the Grandmother clock.
And down the years my memory of it became like an influence.
The simple composition. That graphic grid. Those muted pastel tones.

A few years ago Auntie Betty passed away.
It’s ok, she was in her late nineties.
Her nephew, Martin, was executor of the will so I asked him about the painting.
Did he remember it? Of course.
Was anyone receiving it?
He wasn’t sure but said he’d find out.

At the funeral he gave a moving eulogy to Auntie Betty.
And spoke a lot about her artistic pursuits - her writing and painting.
And also those of her late husband.
I had no idea she was so prolific.
To me she was just a nice old lady sitting in a chair.
I’ve always been the ‘creative’ one in my family.
They say “I don’t know where he gets it from”.
So what about this creative power couple?

At the wake Martin took me out to his car and just pulled the painting right out of the boot.
So I’m stood in the pub carpark holding her self portrait.
And now it’s suddenly taken on holy grail-like significance.
It’s a missing link.
Plus, it’s mine.

I’d only ever seen this artwork from across a living room and from the perspective of a small child.
But once I was alone with it I could study it properly for the first time.
The faint construction lines, the subtle differences in shade between neighbouring squares.
And the signature.


Who is WOT?
Is it her pseudonym?
Her tag?

And then I turned it over.
It wasn’t a self portrait as I’d always assumed.
It was painted by her husband, Robert Watson.

It had been part of an exhibition but he hadn’t made it available for purchase.
This was the limit of the new info it gave up.
That and the vastly increased poignance.
Of my Great Auntie looking at his depiction of her from her favourite armchair for all these years.

I flew home with this treasure excessively bubble wrapped.
But couldn’t stop thinking about what Martin had said about finding many more examples of their work.
In her house that was about to be cleared.
When I got back I wrote him a letter to say thank you and enquire further.
Hungry to see much more like this one.
But got no reply.
I had heard he was unfortunately in poor health, himself.

Research for any of the projects I work on is a breeze.
I can easily find out who Leiomy Maldanado is.
Or look up a mildly offensive Swedish phrase.
But with Auntie Betty and Robert Watson it’s not so straightforward.
If they were active today instead of in the 1960s they’d probably have their stuff on a Cargo site.
But they aren’t, so they don't.
I’d need to return to my home town, have awkward conversations with some estranged relatives.
Or keep that artistic ancestry a mystery.
Which makes this one artwork all the more sacred.
A singular legacy.

Now it hangs on the wall behind my desk.
I didn’t place it there intentionally but one day when I got up to make a cup of tea 
I realised she was kind of watching over me while I worked.
I wonder what she makes of my endeavours.
The stories I’m spinning for brands.
Or the weird illustrations (will anyone cherish one of those in 60 years’ time?).
The endless noodling on the elusive first novel (5 years and counting).

You can see from the eyes in the portrait, Auntie Betty was a kindly person.
I like to think she’s a supportive ECD.
Up there with her creative partner, Robert.
Who even had his own logo like me!
Must be where I get it from.

The Ends.