Sunday, January 30, 2011


I was at the wood yard the other day 'helping' to prep wood for the wood burner. I was snapping bits of wood into kindling by kicking them in half, when I looked down at my mud-caked, sawdust-embellished Caterpillar boots and mucky coat and thought, 'Hm. They don't tell you about this when you buy a wood burner'.

They don't tell you about the filthy boot of the car, the sawdusty clothes you went out clean in, sawing in the cold, the endless dusting. They don't tell you about the fact that yes, you do have to keep getting up every half hour to put more wood on - or it'll go out and you'll have no hot water or heating.

No. What people envisage when you say 'wood burning stove' is a romantic, whimsical picture of an immaculate range in a country kitchen with three perfect logs piled up in some woven basket. There'll be a cat sleeping nearby and a picture-perfect cake fresh from the oven. Now you'll frequently see cakes emerging from my oven (if you read my blogs you'll already be painfully aware of this) - but the reality is more like four stacked old apple crates heaving with wobbly, mucky freshly-sawn wood, burnt splintery fingers and a permanently dusty floor.


It's wonderful. It honestly is. Taking some of the wood out of the car ready for burning the other day, we noticed these magnificent textures. I've recorded this wood as I collect textures for use in illustrations, but also because this is the magic stuff. This heats the studio (built it, in fact), makes the water hot, keeps us clean, cooks the dinners and dries the washing. It's amazing. Because of that, I don't care if I have to dust every day of my life till I leave here in a box made of the stuff myself. They're accompanied, incidentally, by an equally mesmerising smell - fresh-cut wood is different depending which tree it came from, but is always magical. In these shots you can see the hundreds of rings of its life, its knot root, its curves and weaves as it grew and formed over time.

Our wood is rescued from demolished buildings, which would otherwise be destined for pointless bonfires or skips. The trees from which these particular pieces come are hundreds of years old - they might have seen kings deposed, queens crowned, wars fought and won, been home to birds and sheltered wildlife. Our present government wishes to sell around 350,000 hectares of our Forestry Commission-run forests to the highest-bidding private companies, paving the way for 'golf courses, adventure sites and commercial logging operations throughout Britain.' No thank you.

The point is, the trees don't belong to the government. They don't belong to me or you. They do belong to everyone, including those not yet here to see them; after all, to quote an ancient American-Indian saying: 'We do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children'. Once sold, the forests are gone forever. I don't want more golf courses. The only 'adventure sites' I want are the ones nature's already provided. I want trees. What kind of bald-earth nightmare vision could their destruction create?

Read about the government's plans in more detail:

Sign the petition against this motion:

Read about the government's plans in more detail:

Sign the petition against this motion:

Additional linkage:

Decide for yourself:

Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Robert Burns Museum.

In April 2009 I was contacted by Charlie at Studio MB about whether I'd be interested in producing some illustrations for the new Robert Burns Birthplace Museum in Alloway, Scotland. A frantic one-day trip to Edinburgh revealed that this was going to be big - but I didn't appreciate how big until the end! For the uninitiated, Robert Burns is Scotland's national poet, and they're immensely proud of him. For around eighteen months I worked on this project, the biggest to date both in terms of scale, quantity of work and challenge.

The Burns' family cottage, Alloway.

The Museum had received an award of several million pounds for re-design and build. The existing museum consisted of the cottage 'Rabbie' grew up in, the landmarks he was associated with - the Brig o'Doon, for example - and a visitor centre. Studio MB, who also designed the Bosworth Battlefield Centre fifteen minutes from me in Market Bosworth, were charged with producing the creative elements. I spent the next year and a half working on a wide range of imagery for the £21m centre. I saw, for the first time in many years, my work rendered in three dimensions, and at a scale previously unseen.

The end result consisted of ten 2m high weathervanes, over 520 square metres of illustration, four wallpaper designs, 25 metal animals, three 3D cows, five metal-cut story illustrations and lots of other ingredients which combine to richly envelop and embellish the collection of artefacts which present Burns the man; the poet, the father and the farmer. On November 30th we went to the grand opening, through the much feared snow and ice.

Watching how people interacted with and observed the exhibits was fascinating. The main room is tall, dark, eerie, and atmospheric indeed, luring you in to look closely, and at first I felt a little bit teary at seeing so much of my work and at such a scale. It literally enveloped everything else, and created the continuity that held it all together.
The whole thing begins with a timeline of the poet's life paralleled with historical events around the world:

The main room had the feeling of completely enveloping you, which I liked - I felt this built on the suggestion of claustrophobia suggested by having been into the tiny cottage first. The entire Burns family and all their animals co-existing in that tiny space. Lighting levels were very low, but in parts very directional, so that, entire elements of the illustrations - particularly at low levels - disappeared. I saw people bending down to peer (good, nice bit of interaction) but also saw those unable to bend far struggling to see things - this applied to the imagery up high too. Children were at the right height to spot hares and cats, but due to the colour differences being very subtle in the print, combined with the low light, those things appeared to be overlooked. Here's what you see as you enter the dark and gloomy Intro gallery...

Section of the cornfields in the introduction gallery, containing quotes by Burns

The original artwork for one of the cornfields, much reduced!

Detail of the Poetry Perimeter wall (the nearest house sits around 4ft tall) - artwork...

...and on the wall.

Section of artwork...

...and on the wall.

Here's a shot of Rhona, landlady at the B&B, posing by the Trysting Tree, a metal tree composed of lines from Burns' poems on which visitors could hang messages of their own. This picture illustrates the difficult lighting - I'm wondering if this might get addressed in the future. (We stayed in her 'Robert Burns Suite' - how could we not?)

Behind the last picture with the tips of the branches showing, (with Jean on the foreground, Burns' long-suffering wife who outlived him by decades) you can see the start of one of the four wallpapers designed to fill the 'Inspired By' cases, looking at the the inspirations for Burns' poems: love, music, nature, books. Behind Jean is 'Love'.

And this one is 'nature' (artwork section below) and next, 'Words and Music'.

These little laser-cut metal pieces were literally leaping off and out of the books on the shelves - shown here is Don Quixote and Macbeth's witches, all from stories which ignited the young Burns' passion for writing.

The Man O'Parts exhibit showed the different roles he had to play in his lifetime indicated by a particular item such as hair or razor hidden behind a 'clue' illustration (note my 'entirely faked but accurate' Burns signatures!) The illustrations are tiny and done with a very fine nib and ink - but they were huge in print!

Outside, the ten weathervanes, telling the story of Tam O'Shanter, looked great against a very appropriate sky. I thought they were going to be bigger to be honest - I got the height and width confused though obviously - I thought the 'vanes were 2m wide! Nonetheless, seeing something I'd created at A3 in ink become a solid object spinning with the biting wind was wonderful.

Weathervanes on the path leading between the Museum's main sites (also available on the obligatory gift shop teatowel!)

The storytelling continues back in the cottage, with Su Blackwell's beautiful paper sculpture telling the story of Hannibal's War.

Cottage window: the family shared its living space with the animals, including the dairy herd next door. The snuffling cows would, I imagine, have been a comfort and a source of warmth.

Finally, not one of my creations, but an exhibit which brought a lump to my throat was the collection of floating embroidered babies' gowns over the little bed - it moved me suddenly and without warning, and illustrated with painful vividness the hard lives they all lived. That any of them survived is continually amazing to me!

The Burns babies' gowns seem to 'hover' over the bed in which they were all born.

My only regret is I wish I'd been able to come to the museum first before starting work. And maybe a couple of times throughout. Reading about Burns and his poetry wasn't, with hindsight, enough for me to really grasp 'the man'. Of course this would be difficult since the museum itself wasn't built as I saw it...but the cottage and the environment would probably have created enough of an impression. If I'm ever involved in something like this again, I'll insist on visiting for a couple of days first, camera and sketchbook in tow.

Speaking of which...Robert Burns' own writing set - a tiny quill and nibs, with ink and a sharpening knife.

It was an incredibly challenging job but I enjoyed it so much, and learned an awful lot - something which pleases me since it proves no matter how long you've been doing something, there is ALWAYS a ton more to learn.

The Guardian featured a some photographs of the museum on its website on 25th January.

There is so much detail at the museum, I'd recommend a trip there, whether you actually like his poetry or not! The sense of place and Scottish history is immense, and the surrounding countryside is breathtaking. Details are below.

In the press:
Where we stayed:

Wednesday, January 19, 2011


Don't worry, I'm not about to start blogging every bit of work I do, but I haven't done a newspaper illustration in a long while so thought this was a good one!
This one's for The Washington Post's health section, published every Tuesday, about a baby whose breathing alarm kept beeping so often that its parents turned it off... not realising all was not well with the little fella.

As with all newspaper jobs this was done in a hurry but for the very on-the-ball AD Brad Walters, who kept the comms coming thick and fast to get the job in super-quick time. You can see the online version of the article here:

...and don't worry, the medical mystery has a happy ending! (There's a prize for anyone who spots something that might ring a bell in the illustration...)

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

January at the New York Society of Illustrators

Each month the New York Society of Illustrators has a little show by one of its members, and when offered the chance I picked January.

I chose the date over 18 months ago with no idea what I'd be showing, but as it happens, this series of 12 pieces fits the bill nicely for a start-of-the-year display, the calendar for Atelier.

They were framed up in white by my friend Jill Derber, who did an admirable job of getting these printed, framed and packed off to NYC (since I'm over 3000 miles away) over the busy New Year period.

They're on display until 31st January, and anyone can call in and have a look.

Feature on the NY SOI's website.

Gallery Hours:
10 A.M.– 8 P.M. Tuesday
10 A.M.– 5 P.M. Wednesday - Friday
12 noon– 4 P.M. Saturday
Closed most holidays

Museum of American Illustration
at the Society of Illustrators
128 East 63 Street
New York, NY 10065

Photographs by Liam Clayton:

Google maps location.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Bag book

Fellow CIA artist Jitesh Patel spent last year writing a book about tote bags, and a few of mine are in it, photographed in the sunshine of Mum and Dad's garden. I can still feel the warmth now!

He's done a good job it seems. Here's the blurb from the book:
"The tote bag is an eco product for this century, destined to replace disposable plastic bags. The canvas bag has become increasingly popular in recent years, as more people have become environmentally conscious, concerned about climate change and aware of the impact of their carbon footprint. The media reminds us all to be more conscious of the world we live in, and environmental issues are inescapable.
The tote bag artworks that are most striking, inventive, ironic and original have formed the basis of this book."

Mine were designed for an American firm and were certainly popular when they originally went on sale. There are one or two left in the shop, and as well as being of incredibly sturdy manufacture (fat fabric and hardcore stitching), they do have the best inside pocket selection ever seen on a tote bag! For your lippy and pens and EVERYTHING!

Sunday, January 02, 2011


What is it about celebrations that bring out the creativity in everybody?

This year I had a significant birthday and a Christmas where we cooked for the whole family for the first time. That 9-course extravaganza is dealt with in another blog, but I've spent the last few days soaking up the goodness that's flowed my way over the last couple of weeks, at times feeling a bit overwhelmed by it. Every day, something has appeared at the door in an envelope, or in the hands of the person who made it, which delighted us in its originality and - at the risk of sounding uncharacteristically sentimental - the love it brought with it.

First there was our friend Lisa, who took a handful of our dinks and turned them not only into jewellery but into tree decorations and a Christmas card to be hung on Tom Hare's improvised Christmas trees. These are sure to come out again every year - and will hopefully find their way into the shop.

Following in the creative footsteps of his turntable-and-pencil-wielding Dad, this little boy had his first piece of work published on this enthusiastic Christmas card. We're assuming it'll be his twin brother's turn next year! Go Alex!
Michael, creator of the Inkymole website, made this birthday card from him and his wife Anna (whose yoga classes keep me on the straight and narrow) with the sort of gleeful crayon-work usually reserved for the under-10s - and if the pop-up sunflower and effervescent ladybird weren't enough to have me beaming, it's the sentiment expressed that I love:

And our friend Jed Smith, master chef and food designer for all Inkymole's creative events, even found time to manufacture and post this card between Christmas shifts at his brand new job in New York at Momofuku. The lad's only just moved there, on his own hence the picture. You'll be hearing more about Jed later.

Now. Birthdays in our family come with a cake, regardless of what age you are, which is always made by my Mum. Since this one was 'a particular number', she was tasked with making one which was more about spectacle and flashness than flavour - although, it's impossible for Mum to make a cake that isn't delicious. After a series of experimental cakes tested on Dad's harrassed girth, this one, kept secret till the day, strode into the house in a giant box, showing off its three vegan tiers of strawberry, vanilla and chocolate sponge, and laying the smack down with its fantastically girlish icing. There's a bit left, if anyone wants a piece.

The cake next to its creator. Yes, it is holding up those girders!

There was a companion piece to this creation which came from The Woods - no, not emerging from a dark clearing among trees, although it could have - but from our friends Simon and Caroline Wood. In the shape of a Mole wielding an ink pen, it was a phantasm of insulin-panicking icing and manic Allsort eyeballs; all-chocolate, and largely consumed there and then in the brewery. The cake was a reply to one I made for Simon on his 21st - 15 years ago - which you can see here.

The birthday brought presents of course. I'm not hard to buy for - there's a handful of criteria, but really, if it's sparkly, pretty or hand-made, sounds good or I can eat it, you can't really go wrong. However I was unprepared for the lump in the throat and the thinly-disguised tear to the eye triggered by this, from one of my two best friends who is just three weeks younger than me, knows all my haircuts including the 80s perm series, and has been critic, colleague and sidekick for years. It's not hand-made, but the phrase is hers, and means a lot since we live just a ten minute walk away but sometimes struggle to find each other in the fervour of our day-to-day lives. It's going to live on my desk, to remind me I only have to run down the street if I feel like a chat. (Jules' Mum and Dad bought me a Sindy, but you'll see her another time!)

Birthdays also bring a healthy amount of subterfuge. A giant 'hats off' goes to Melanie Tomlinson, my other BFF, for managing to stay quiet about these. Commissioned by my Mum and Dad, she made these, her first pair of earrings, in collaboration with a local jeweller, via a series of undercover trips to their house and furtive emails to and fro with designs attached. They took my breath away.

In their own hand-made box bearing a quote from Emily Bronte - who Mel knows is a pivotal influence on my early work - they're hand-cut from tin and covered with Mel's tiny gouache paintings.

Each piece - two birds, two flowers, two butterflies, a mole and a dragonfly - was strung together by the jeweller, and are finished with a little jewel. A bird appears to hold each earring aloft by its beak as you open the box.
There were, apparently, other designs - I'm chasing those down, as I can't live with the idea that they remain unmade.

There's no receipt for these objects, nor could I get one; and there were obviously many other objects and acts of thoughtfulness - the hamper filled with vegan goodies and notebooks, the sparkly yoga gear, the running shorts, the fabric-covered Wuthering Heights, Charles Darwin, the Angela Carter edition - that I can't fit on the blog. But they've filtered osmosis-style through the last couple of weeks, as little representations of the people who made them, to colour the days like brightly-coloured inks in fresh water.


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