There were a couple of reasons why I chose to have a bash at sketching that particular painting.  The first was laudable: I knew it would be one hell of a challenge.  The second (to me of equal importance) was the proximity of a comfortable-looking padded leather bench. 

Most of the seats in the National Gallery are unforgiving wooden benches, dark brown with no back rests, presumably designed to deter people from loitering or falling asleep.  I know from bitter experience how easily physical discomfort, e.g. a numb bum, torpedoes higher functioning.  It’s Maslow’s hierarchy all over again: basic stuff has to be tickety-boo before self-actualisation pulls into view.  Hence my decision, taken a few years ago on my sixtieth birthday, to quit working outside, en plein air: too uncomfortable, crouching on my canvass stool, balancing everything on my lap, with the wind blowing and ants crawling up my legs.   

Yep, the proximity of the leather bench was a major consideration — oh, let’s be honest, the major consideration — when I chose to plonk myself in front of that painting.  Plenty of other paintings nearby, Turners and Constables, would have been easier, but the leather bench was nicely placed immediately in front of this one.  It was a large painting too, offering good visibility even when people loitered in front of it. 

But I was under no illusions, it was a tough call: ten figures clustered round a glass thingy, with lots of contrasting light and shade, and masses of intricate detail.  It looked more like a photograph than an oil painting, God knows how the artist pulled it off.  I’d seen a reproduction of the painting somewhere before and vaguely remembered that it was something to do with the Industrial Revolution. 

I read the notice beside the painting:

Joseph Wright of Derby 1734 – 1797, An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump, 1768

A lecturer demonstrates the creation of a vacuum to a family.  A white cockatoo (an exotic bird, unlikely in fact to have been used for this experiment) is imprisoned in a glass flask from which air is being extracted by a pump.  The candlelit setting is characteristic of Wright’s interest in dramatic contrasts of light and shade.

Can’t say that birds are my thing, but in my opinion, whoever dreamed up this experiment should have been reported to the RSPB (sadly, not possible. I’ve since looked it up: the Society didn’t come into existence until 1889). 

I sat down on the bench, just right, not too soft, and fished my large sketch pad out of my satchel.  Security had taken a good look inside it at the entrance, but since it only contained a large pad of cartridge paper, I was let through with a nod.  The pad balanced quite nicely on my knees.  I always sketch using a propelling pencil with a soft lead (3B if you’re curious, but I don’t want to give away too many trade secrets).  A propelling pencil saves you having to muck about with a sharpener.  

Refusing to feel daunted by the accomplished Joseph Wright of Derby, I made a start, outlining the figures using very feint lines.  I don’t hold with rubbers.  Knowing you can rub something out, is a licence to be slapdash.  Just think, if mistakes could be erased, murder, rape and pillage would be widespread and prisons wouldn’t have been invented!  So, no rubbers.  No rulers either (oh lord, more trade secrets!).

It wasn’t long before someone joined me on the leather bench — not a problem, plenty of space — at a stretch it could probably accommodate seven or even eight people, fewer if they were obese of course.  Anyway, I just kept sketching and didn’t look up.  It’s not that I’m anti-social, but I’ve found that if you ignore people and keep working they are more likely to have a quick gawp and move on.  I’ve made the mistake before of getting sucked into lengthy conversations about this and that.  It often starts with the passer-by asking a dumb question such as ‘are you an artist?’  I’m tempted to say, no, I’m a plumber, but that would probably spawn questions about why I was moonlighting when plumbers were in short supply.  No, I’ve found it’s better to come clean and curtail the conversation as quickly as possible.

Anyway, this time my companion just sat there, gazing at Wright’s painting (I could see him out of the corner of my eye) and I was beginning to admire him for not disturbing me, when he sighed and, with a sideways glance, said, ‘I see you’re left-handed.’

I continued to sketch and replied, ‘Ambidextrous actually, but I’ve always drawn using my left hand.’  

As soon as I said this I knew I’d made a mistake.  But I carried on sketching, resisting the temptation to turn and make eye contact.  If I’d really wanted to chat I could have told him about my teacher at art school who used to bandage my left hand to stop me using it.  But I just pressed on with the sketch, hoping the bloke would soon shove off.    

‘Ambidextrous, eh?  That’s unusual.  I once read that only one percent of people are ambidextrous.’ 

I answered, ‘Good to know I’m a rare species.’   By now I realised I’d blown it, so I stopped sketching and looked at the guy sitting on my right.  He was an elderly man, well, about my age probably, hard to tell because he was completely bald and had a white, bushy beard.  He was dressed in black and was wearing what looked like a university gown.  Beside him was a staff, made of dark wood and covered in carvings.  ‘Yes,’ he added, ‘but at least you’re not that much of an oddball.  Apparently ambidextrous people are far more likely to be male than female.’

Wary of being dragged into a debate about gender, I laughed and said, ‘Fancy you knowing that!’

‘Not at all, I’m full of useless pieces of information.’ 

We sat in silence for a while, he back to contemplating the painting and me busy sketching.  Eventually he said, ‘Care to hazard a guess about the connection between this painting and today’s date, 28th April?’  

‘No idea.  What’s this, Only Connect?   I hate quizzes.’

He chuckled.  ‘Apologies, an unfair question.  I’ll put you out of your misery.  Today is Terry Pratchett’s birthday and the cover design for his first Discworld book was a parody of this painting.’

I’m not a great reader.  When people mention books I usually nod knowingly, pretending I’ve read them, or at least have heard of the authors.  As it happens I had heard of Terry Pratchett because I knew he’d died of complications from Alzheimer’s, same as my mum, but I don’t go for fantasy stuff and hadn’t read any of his books.  I decided honesty was the best policy and said, ‘No way I could have known that.  I’m afraid I’ve never read any of Pratchett’s books.’

My companion smiled. ‘You don’t know what you’re missing,’ and looked back at the painting, with a reverential sigh.  It was a bit spooky really, him just sitting there, leaning on his staff, gazing at the painting.  I sketched on but after a while the silence seemed awkward and, breaking my self-imposed rule, I said, ‘I take it you’re a fan of Pratchett’s writing?’

‘Yes, that’s why I’m dressed like this.  I’d be wearing my black fedora but they made me surrender it at the cloakroom.  Said it would obscure people’s view.  Last year I came in my wizard outfit but they made me hand that hat in too.’

‘Oh, so you come here often?’

‘No, not often.  Just on 28th April for the past few years.’

I nodded as if accepting that it was perfectly normal to sit, dressed in black, gazing at Wright’s painting every 28th April.  I carried on sketching anticipating further clarification but he fell silent and when I next looked round, he’d vanished.    

On the padded bench, in the space he’d occupied, lay a small package addressed to me.  I opened it, puzzled because I was sure I hadn’t told him my name.  Inside was a paperback, The Science of Discworld by Terry Pratchett.  On the title page he’d written:

I’m shocked you’ve never read any of my books. Try this one the first of 41. 

Terry Pratchett

PS  Good sketch. Never met a left-handed artist before.  

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