An Artist’s Date with Adela Breton

Celebrating Easter Sunday with a walk around Bristol in the sunshine. I usually travel everywhere by bike so today I decided to slow down and just walk. I stopped and looked at things a little more closely than usual. The bees in the flowers. The ripples on the water from boats passing. Signs on buildings I’ve never seen before. Dogs walking their people! It was a quiet Sunday but I still managed to bump into a familiar face and we walked together. We walked and talked along the docks and parted as we reached the centre of town. I made my way to Bristol Museum to see their latest exhibition.

Adela Breton: Ancient Mexico in Colour

In the late 1800’s, archeological artist and adventurer, Adela Breton, travelled around Mexico with her guide Pablo Solorio making copies of the wall paintings in temples in Chichén Itzá, Teotihuacan and Acancéh. She painted the copies with watercolours which still hold their vibrancy today as the original wall paintings begin to fade over time. 

"Adela Breton always carried a sketchbook with her, giving a 'diary' of her travels. This one has sketches of landscapes, flowers and ruins of Mexico and Canada. It includes sketches made on her climb up the volcano of Iztaccihuatl, in snow and across glaciers, up to 15,000 feet above sea level - Adela Breton also carried a notebook at all times, and made notes of lectures, objects she saw in museums, and books she read." Bristol Museum

I was especially drawn to Adela’s sketchbooks of the places she visited on her travels. I have kept sketchbooks for many years and am mostly inspired to draw when I’m travelling and sitting in cafes. In the last couple of years I've been sketching antique netsuke from museums to make a collection of mini woodblock prints. Today after walking in the sunshine and looking through the sketchbooks of Adela Breton, I was eager to sit down, open my own sketchbook and take in my surroundings. The cafe where I was having lunch was the perfect spot. 

When I finished my lunch and my sketch, I walked home remembering the paragraph from Julia Cameron’s book Walking in this World.

“Walking and talking humanize my life, draw it to an ancient and comforting scale. We live as we move, a step at a time, and there is something in gentle walking that reminds me of how I must live if I am to savour this life that I have been given.” Julia Cameron
Clockwise from top left: Landscape from Adela Breton's sketchbook. Landscape from Adela Breton's sketchbook. Adela Breton's notebook of the Maya calendar. All three from Bristol Museum. A sketch I made today at Pinkman's Bakery, Bristol. 

Clockwise from top left: Landscape from Adela Breton's sketchbook. Landscape from Adela Breton's sketchbook. Adela Breton's notebook of the Maya calendar. All three from Bristol Museum. A sketch I made today at Pinkman's Bakery, Bristol. 

Netsuke at The British Museum

I set my alarm for 6am and spend the night tossing and turning and worrying that I won't wake up to catch my bus to London. And so predictably I wake up fifteen minutes early and watch the count down to 5.50am then crawl out of bed into the shower, quick bowl of cereal and out the door. The last minute indecision about which sketchbook to bring is resolved by bringing them all including the heavy hardback one which I had dismissed the night before. So I start the journey with a slightly heavier bag stuffed with sketch books and snacks and all set for the British Museum. My appointment is at 11am. After two buses and a tube adding up to four and a half hours and the last half mile walk with Google maps whispering directions in my headphones I am finally here. I am late and running up the steps of the entrance into the museum.

Inside The British Museum I am overwhelmed by unexpected beauty. I haven't been here for years and I had forgotten how magnificent this place was. A modern Greek palace with its bright limestone walls and a curved glass roof curling with the core of the circular stairs. Contributors names engraved on the cylindrical wall of the staircase. This is The Great Court. It is light, spacious, majestic and I feel immediately tranquil for a moment until hoards of school children come herding through the main hall.

Sketching The Okimono of Turtles

To find the Asia study room I follow the curve of the stairs and round past the book and gift shop right to the back of the main hall and up a few flights of stairs. I take a left into a deserted room full of Chinese ceramics. Tranquility is unbroken here. I gently pull the enormous glass doors leading to the study room. I ring the bell. Lowri greets me at the door. I sign my name in a big name book and Lowri offers me a place to sit. She opens a cupboard and brings out a large plastic box, brings it over to the table and asks me what I would like to draw first. The Okimono of Turtles are popping their heads up through the tissue. Lowri wears gloves to handle the netsuke and places it on a sponge mat it in front of me. I had seen The Okimono of Turtles on the British Museum website but it is so much smaller in reality and much harder to see the detail. I have been so used to drawing from close up photographs where the netsuke have been enlarged at least double their original size. I take out my pencil and start sketching. I haven't warmed up or settled in properly yet and The Okimono of Turtles is a bit challenging for a first drawing. The turtles are piled on top of each other like pancakes. I have over complicated the drawing and can't see how this will work as a print. I can simplify it later so I take a break and move on to The Foxes.


Sketching The Foxes

This time I'm pleased with the drawing and enjoy the simpler form of this netsuke. I prefer the shape of the foxes huddled together wrapping their paws and tails around each other. Their long noses and curling bodies weaving in rhythmic form. I turn the sponge to get a different view of the Foxes and make two more little drawings. My drawings are small but not as small as the netsuke which are only 4.5cm high.


Sketching The Tanuki

The Tanuki (a type of Japanese racoon) is a lovely rounded character with its paws on its pot belly (described on the British Museum website as Tanuki beating belly.) The first sketch is plausible but the second looks more like a chicken or maybe a penguin if you rub out the pointy ears and the third is not far off a pig. Time seems to be racing so I move on to The Dog.


Sketching Sitting dog with paw raised

I can't believe my time is nearly up and I still have two netsuke to draw. The dog is tiny. Only 3cm high. I make four little sketches of the thin little ribbed dog from different angles. It's ears flop over its head turning away towards its circle curling tail.


It's almost one o'clock and no time to sketch the little palace. Lowri offers me an afternoon slot as the study room is quiet today but this afternoon I have made plans to visit Laura Boswell and Ian Philips woodblock print and lino print exhibition at the R K Burt Gallery. I thank Lowri and head through the room of Chinese ceramics on my way out pausing to look at the beautifully glazed Northern Song Ru stonewares. Then up the stairs to see the netsuke case in the Japanese gallery.

Japanese Gallery at The British Museum

The Goldfish, the Sleeping Rat and the Kirin are all there behind the glass. I try to take photographs but the light is too dim, again producing grainy, blurred photographs. I open the big wooden doors into the Japanese gallery and immediately in front of me is replica of a wooden tea house with tatami matting and paper sliding doors. Unfortunately you can't step inside the tea house for a rest or a cup of tea so I move on past the earthenware figurines, bronze bells, tarnished mirrors, spearheads, ceramic tombs, vessels, wooden statues of buddhist deities, hand scrolls of the sutras and landscapes, masks, shrines, jars, tea pots, tea bowls, Samurai armour, illustrated books, woodblock prints, paintings.

Two smaller glass cabinets hang on the wall above steps to modern Japan in the next part of the gallery. Both cabinets hold a small collection of netsuke. One with netsuke animals. A monkey clasping its leg, two horses entwined into the shape of a heart, an eagle gripping a tanuki in its claws, a curled up snake , an ox with calf, a deer holding up one hoof and a tiger baring its teeth with its tail whipped round to front of its chest. The second cabinet holds netsuke people. A Chinese official, Dutchman and cockerel, Ainu woman and child, Monkey trainer and monkey, Okame bathing and Naked Chinese woman.


I continue into modern Japan and find a woodblock carving on cherry wood of Stonehenge. 'Woodblock for Stonehenge by Night' carved and printed before 1916 by Urushibara Mokuchu who had come to London to teach woodblock printing techniques at the Anglo-Japanese Exhibition of 1910.

I carry on back down the steps towards another staircase. Halfway down the stairs a huge silk scroll hangs on the wall with a couple resting beneath a trellis of moonflowers sharing a cup of sake. "Evening Cool beneath Moonflowers" by Yokoyama Kazan.


A reminder its time for a drink and a bite to eat. I head out into the main hall for a quick snack and then to the bookshop. I find a book about Netsuke 100 miniature masterpieces from Japan by Noriko Tsuchiya and Japanese Netsuke by Julia Hutt with an introduction by Edmund De Waal. I buy the books and make my way to the R K Burt Gallery.