A barn owl. Photo: Getty
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A hoot and a half: owls, it turns out, are hard to draw

There is no shortage of life drawing lessons but these seem to be the only classes in which live animals – owls – are doing the modelling.

We sat in a circle on wooden chairs. One by one, we were asked to introduce ourselves to the group and explain why we had come. Finally my turn came and I felt painfully aware of 30 strangers staring at me.

“My name is Sophie. I’m a journalist. And I’m just really into owls.”

On a wooden table in the centre, a fluffy, white juvenile barn owl was greedily devouring a chick, one bloodied leg dangling from its sharp beak. A larger tawny owl tottered around nearby, swaying from side to side. Every now and then, a set of black cages on the floor emitted an angry hiss.

This was the first session of “wild life drawing”, a new series of art classes set up by Jennie Webber, a London-based artist. There is no shortage of life drawing lessons but these seem to be the only classes in which live animals, rather than naked people, are doing the modelling.

The sessions take place at the Proud Archivist, a self-consciously trendy east London bar, restaurant, gallery and general hipster hangout. On the evening I visited, it was advertising a Panini sticker exhibition and “pop yoga” classes for those who want to do their sun salutations to music and while watching psychedelic projections. (Count me in!)

It could not have been a better time to launch an owl drawing class. The birds had been all over the news a week earlier after the Labour Party’s press team tweeted what could have been its most popular manifesto pledge to date: that everyone should have their own owl. Labour later released a statement saying its Twitter account had been hacked and confirming that its “head-turning policy” was “no longer going to take flight” – just two of hundreds of puns circulating online that day. The media excitement at least revealed a national love for the birds.

Yet owls, it turns out, are hard to draw. Not only is it difficult to make a picture of an animal that is shaped like a large blob with two eyes look like an artistic achievement, but you can’t ask the birds to hold a five-minute pose. Their eyes are fixed in their sockets; so, to try to take in their audience, they constantly wiggled their heads from side to side, like a Bollywood dance troupe. Occasionally, one would fall off the end of the table or swoop towards a delighted sketcher.

“Look away now if you’re squeamish!” Webber said each time the owl trainers, from the Sky Bird of Prey Display Team, ripped dead chicks into bite-sized chunks with their hands before feeding them to their noisy charges. The hope had been that the owls might fall into a postprandial trance – but no such luck.

When all six birds had been returned safely to their cages, we placed our sketches on the table while Webber cooed words of encouragement. A few of the drawings were disconcertingly accomplished but she found something nice to say to everyone.

Her own work has a Victorian feel. She produces intricate etchings of wildlife and is also a taxidermist. Taxidermy, like handlebar moustaches and penny-farthings, seems to be another 19th-century trend enjoying an unexpected revival in the city’s creative East End.

The point of wild life drawing, Webber told us, isn’t just making good art. Instead, she hopes her classes will help Londoners discover a love for nature. It worked for me: I dumped my drawings in a bin outside Haggerston Station but now I’m even more obsessed with owls.

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 02 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, After God Again

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Beware of tea: the cuppa has started wars and ruined lives

. . . and it once led F Scott Fitzgerald to humiliate himself.

A drink sustains me – one that steams companionably as I write. It is hot, amber and fragranced differently from any wine; nor does it have wine’s capacity to soften and blur. I’ve never understood how the great drunks of literature, Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald and their like, ever put anything on the page more worthwhile than a self-involved howl, though even Hemingway apparently finished the day’s writing before beginning the day’s drinking.

Tea is more kindly, or so I’d always thought. Those aromatic leaves, black or green, rolled and dried and oxidised, have some of wine’s artistry but none of its danger. Even their exoticism has waned, from a Chinese rarity (“froth of the liquid jade”), for which 17th-century English traders were made to pay in solid silver, to a product that can be found dirt cheap on supermarket shelves.

There are even home-grown teas now. The Tregothnan estate in Cornwall has supplemented its ornamental rhododendrons and camellias with their relative camellia sinensis, the tea plant, while Dalreoch in the Scottish Highlands grows a white (that is, lightly oxidised) tea, which is smoked using wood from the surrounding birch plantations. Tellingly, this local version is priced as steeply as the imported rarity once was.

I enjoy a simple, solitary mug, but I also appreciate communal tea-drinking – the delicate tea warmed with water at 85°C (a little higher for sturdier black blends), the teapot and china, the pourer volunteering to be “mother”, as if this were a liquid that could nurture. But in reality, tea is not so gentle.

Those long-ago English traders disliked haemorrhaging silver, so they started exporting opium to China from India and paying with that. This was a fabulous success, unless you happened to be Chinese. In 1839, a commissioner attempted to clamp down on the illegal and harmful trade, and the result was the Opium Wars, which the Chinese lost. “Gunboat diplomacy” – a phrase that surely constitutes froth of a different kind – won England a great deal of silver, a 150-year lease on Hong Kong and an open tea market. China received a potful of humiliation that may eventually have helped spark the Communist Revolution. As many of us have recently realised, there is nothing like economic mortification to galvanise a nation to kick its leaders.

Later, the tea bush was planted in India, Ceylon and elsewhere, and the fragrant but bitter brew for the upper classes became a ubiquitous fuel. But not an entirely sweet one: just as the opium trade ensured our tea’s arrival in the pot, the slave trade sweetened it in the cup. Even today, conditions for tea workers in places such as Assam in north-east India are often appalling.

Scott Fitzgerald also had tea trouble. When invited round by Edith Wharton, he frothed the liquid jade so assiduously with booze beforehand and risqué conversation during (a story about an American tourist couple staying unawares in a Paris bordello) that he was nearly as badly humiliated as those 19th-century Chinese. Wharton, unshocked, merely wondered aloud what the couple had done in the bordello and afterwards pronounced the entire occasion “awful”.

Some would blame his alcoholic preliminaries, but I’m not so sure. Tea has started wars and ruined lives; we should be wary of its consolations. On that sober note, I reach for the corkscrew and allow the subject to drive me softly, beguilingly, to drink.

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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