The Stamford Figure Drawing Group
The Stamford drawing group meets every Thursday and has done for nearly forty years. It is run by Mike, a retired humanities teacher who has always been a keen amateur artist. He is also an official with the Welland Valley Arts group which is based in the same building.
Stamford itself is a very picturesque town. The local land owner (Cecil of Burghley) prevented the railway from passing through the town in the early nineteenth century as he had interest in what was then, rather surprisingly, an inland port on the Welland. The eventual result was the commercial demise of the town but it did mean that it retained much of its Georgian character. There are some magnificent buildings in the town and it is frequently used as a location for period dramas. The Arts Centre is one such building. It houses studios, rehearsal rooms, a ballroom/concert hall, a cafe and a bar and it is a very bustling and active place.
The figure group’s studio is at the top of the building. You climb up several antique flights of steps usually to the accompaniment of the choir group warming up in a lower studio or noises off from one of the theatre groups rehearsing across the way. The group’s room is not big and has a very utilitarian interior with lino flooring, stacks of institutional chairs and a sink and table with a couple of kettles. Along with the easels and other art equipment there are a set of shelves on which clay heads executed at varying levels of competence indicate that the space is shared by the sculpture group among others.
The room can accommodate 15 people quite comfortably. Usually this is adequate but there are times when it is a little crowded. There is then some jockeying for position though I have never witnessed actual fisticuffs. We meet on Thursday evenings and work for two one hour periods taking a tea break for thirty minutes in between. No membership exists and the charge, between three and five pounds, just covers the model’s fee.
Mike himself is a grey bearded and slightly dishevelled figure who is a regular at all sorts of events at the Centre. An articulate and sociable extrovert he will expound on everything from Medieval boats in Scandinavia to the current state of the swift population. I would advise against steering conversations towards the political. If this happens his easy and loquacious style accelerates towards the frenetic and his normally amiable disposition veers towards the confrontational.
Mike is also a little obsessive about the way the equipment is stored. I once put all the drawing donkeys away, neatly stacked as I thought, only to have Mike come in, ‘tut tut’ audibly and proceed to demolish my handiwork and rearrange the lot. He has the same fastidious approach to all the equipment. Everything has its own ritual position. Rafael Nadal would feel at home. Even in the middle of a session Mike can launch into an impassioned and vituperative attack on other groups for leaving some items untidy.
Mike may be a little hard of hearing. If you want to engage his attention you must project your voice like an old-time Shakespearian. His mobile phone has a rather persistent and irritating fanfare which interrupts the drawing sessions. He seems to be oblivious to it. The half time mark is heralded by Mike crashing the kettles and teacups alarmingly. Miraculously they seem to survive their brutal handling from week to week.
Mike’s posing of the model can be somewhat unadventurous. It seems driven by concern for the model’s comfort rather than exploring the possibilities of the figure or challenging the draughtsmanship of the group. He shuns short poses and becomes short with those who offer suggestions.
In spite of all this it is Mike’s strong personality which holds the group together and keeps it going year in year out. He is dedicated to providing the facility. He organises exhibitions of the group’s work at the Centre and trips to London and elsewhere to view major art exhibitions. He is an all round good egg and we are all duly grateful. He himself has produced some fine drawings over the years and these frequently illustrate posters for the Centre’s activities.
The sessions are very informal. No tuition is given unless newcomers specifically request it in which case Mike or another mentor will lend a guiding hand and offer advice. We chat before and during the sessions and the atmosphere is easy and social. In general the working time is pretty well silent though this is not a strict rule. There are occasional moments of relief. A loud sneeze or dropped item will trigger a brief humorous exchange to settle us down again. So too will a melodramatic and murderous yell from the theatricals across the way. If the model drops off to sleep we may rouse them with gentle banter or just leave them to it.
The models themselves are very good overall. There is only very rarely a no show. There are one or two fidgety ones. It is possible to adjust to them and modify your approach accordingly. We have people like Cathy who is a local teacher and actor with the Centre’s Shoestring company. Occasionally someone will turn up to draw and Cathy says ‘The last time I saw him was at the parents’ evening. Vicky is a yoga practitioner. Tall and elegant she can hold poses for an hour at a time absolutely motionless. her daughter Lydia, though young and ebullient has the same ability. Ruth is a matronly Polish lady who is also very good but on one occasion she took up a standing pose and nearly passed out. Fortunately she was caught just in time. Clive sports a magnificent physique and could be the original for Bradbury’s ‘Illustrated Man’. Laura works in the Centre’s cafe. She sports Punk attitude in her dyed hair and her clothes. She is a great model with a beautiful face and is a lovely lady.
From time to time you get people who come in late and, rather than settling themselves in discretely as a civilised human being would, insist on making a dramatic entry and disrupting the entire group. It has been perpetrated repeatedly in the past by several particular individuals. A hippie maiden of some fifty odd summers with flowing hair who would sweep in with the bearing of the lady of the manor. An inebriated local ‘character’ who carried his own atmosphere of tobacco and possibly other smokeable euphoriants and a Glaswegian lady who seemed to mistake the evening for a psychoanalytic session. You may have gathered that this behaviour is a pet hate of mine.
Generally however the evenings are pleasant and productive. I look forward to them.
There is an eclectic social mix among the regulars. Judy winters in The Gambia and the oils which she exhibits frequently feature scenes and people from that country. Colin and Judy are a retired postman and post lady. They are still keen runners, once regularly competing in marathons. Judy is a fanatical steam train enthusiast. Terry is a very keen oil painter. He is an ex rock guitarist with a portly figure, a ruddy complexion, a large earring and is completely bald. His distinctive figure is to be seen virtually every day in the streets of the town with his easel. He will engage passers-by in cheerful chat while he paints He is one of the few painters who can capture the atmosphere of the place in my opinion. He exhibits his local scenes at the Centre.
Tim is a practising art teacher at a local sixth form college. He produces robust, sculptural charcoal figures. He is also a gliding enthusiast who takes part in long distance races. David is our oldest regular. Now eighty six he perseveres with his pencil studies. He is not always there as he takes himself off to Scotland to fish for salmon in the Tweed or the Tay or else assists as a beater in the local pheasant shoots. You will not be surprised to hear that he has a lean and weatherbeaten appearance. I refrain from engaging him in disputes about bloodsports partly because he is such an amiable chap and partly because he is now very deaf. Clive is a baker in the neighbouring village of Market Deeping on the edge of the fens. He loves all things arty. He is a regular performer with the local outdoor theatre company at Tolethorpe. He is a tall, powerfully built fellow covered in tattoos. We know this as he often poses for us and he is an excellent model. A gentler and more courteous man would be difficult to find.
Other ladies are Rita who is Polish but lives here and makes a wide range of jewellery which she sells online. Originally a photographer she also paints draws and has exhibited widely. Caroline produces very precise conté drawings. She has recently had an unusual whole arm tattoo which looks like a sleeve and depicts wildlife and leaves in beautifully subtle colours. Apparently it masks some teenage indiscretions in the same genre. Michelle is a musician who works with psychiatric patients. She is a portraitist and illustrator with wide artistic interests. She cycles everywhere. Her daughter is twenty years old and an art student in London. Michelle looks about five years older than her.
Two members also stand in for Mike as organisers. Jonty is a local sculptor specialising in finely modelled equestrian statues. He has his own sculpture class at the centre but for me his best work is to be seen in his exquisite charcoal portraits. Paul has classes in Wisbech. He looks the part. A big, heavily bearded man with an earring and a quiet and authoritative way of speaking he is an excellent portrait artist.
We have A level art students and college students too. They come along to swell their portfolios of work. They are generally super kids who enliven the evenings and inject the liveliness of youth without which these sort of groups are doomed.
If you are ever in the area drop in. You will be very welcome.