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

Lady Macbeth.
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Lady Macbeth: the story Stalin hated reaches the movie screen

Lady Macbeth grows less psychologically plausible the higher the body count rises.

Lady Macbeth (15), dir: William Oldroyd

Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, Nikolai Leskov’s novel about a bored, oppressed and bloodthirsty young woman, was adapted for the opera by Shoskatovich. Two years after its premiere in 1934, it had a terrible review, allegedly by Stalin himself, in Pravda. The new film version, Lady Macbeth, is set in 1865 (the year the novel was published) and feels resolutely anti-operatic in flavour, with its austere visuals and no-nonsense camerawork: static medium shots for dramatic effect or irony, hand-held wobbles to accompany special moments of impetuousness. The extraordinary disc-faced actor Florence Pugh has her hair scraped back into plaits and buns – all the put-upon teenage brides are wearing them this season – and the film feels scraped back, too. But it features certain behaviour (murder) that would feel more at home, and not so riskily close to comedy, in the hothouse of opera, rather than on and around the stark moors of low-budget British cinema.

Pugh plays Katherine, who is first seen reacting with surprise to a booming singing voice at her wedding ceremony. Unfortunately for her, it’s her husband, Alexander (Paul Hilton). On the plus side, there won’t be much cause for crooning in their house, no power ballads in the shower or anything like that. The tone is set early on. He orders her to remove her nightdress. Then he climbs into bed alone. It’s not clear whether she is expected to follow, and a cut leaves the matter unresolved.

Alexander defers to his grizzled father, Boris (played by Christopher Fairbank), who purchased Katherine in a two-for-one deal with a plot of land in north-east England, on important matters such as whether she can be allowed to go to sleep before him. So it isn’t much of a loss when he is called away on business (“There’s been an explosion at the colliery!”). Ordered to stay in the house, she dozes in her crinoline, looking like an upside-down toadstool, until one day she is awakened, literally and figuratively, by the sound of the rough-and-ready groomsman Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis) sexually humiliating the maid, Anna (Naomi Ackie). Katherine leaps to her rescue and gives Sebastian the most almighty shove. Pugh’s acting is exceptional; fascination, disgust and desire, as well as shock at her own strength, are all tangled up in her expression.

When Sebastian later forces his way into Katherine’s room, you want to warn them that these things don’t end well. Haven’t they seen Miss Julie? Read Lady Chatterley’s Lover? Thérèse Raquin? Well, no, because these haven’t been written yet. But the point stands: there’ll be tears before bedtime – at least if these two can lay off the hot, panting sex for more than 30 seconds.

The film’s director, William Oldroyd, and the screenwriter, Alice Birch, play a teasing game with our sympathies, sending the struggling Katherine off on a quest for independence, the stepping stones to which take the form of acts of steeply escalating cruelty. The shifting power dynamic in the house is at its most complex before the first drop of blood is spilled. Indeed, none of the deaths is as affecting as the moment when Katherine allows her excessive consumption of wine to be blamed on Anna, whose lowly status as a servant, and a dark-skinned one at that, places her below even her bullied mistress on the social scale.

There is fraught politics in the almost-love-triangle between these women and Sebastian. It doesn’t hurt that Jarvis, an Anglo-Armenian musician and actor, looks black, hinting at a racial kinship between groomsman and maid – as well as the social one – from which Katherine can only be excluded. Tension is repeatedly set up only to be resolved almost instantly. Will Alexander return home from business? Oh look, here he is. Will this latest ghastly murder be concealed? Oh look, the killer’s confessed. But the actors are good enough to convince even when the plot doesn’t. A larger problem is that Lady Macbeth grows less psychologically plausible the higher the body count rises. Katherine begins the film as a feminist avenger and ends it as a junior version of Serial Mom, her insouciance now something close to tawdry camp. 

“Lady Macbeth” is released 28 April

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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