Forget What Did.


‘ Forget what did. Have decided not to keep a journal anymore.’

So wrote Dorry, the younger brother, in ‘What Katy Did’ by Susan Coolidge. After a few short, sweet days he gave up the unequal struggle between recording the immediate past as opposed to living in the constantly enticing present. How I know that feeling.

Incidentally, I love the crickets on the cover and the play on words. A katydid is a common name for type of American grasshopper deriving (I think) from the sound the insect makes.

I love diaries. Nella Last is dear to my heart – more of her in a later post. I took my darling Samuel Pepys to Glastonbury (and enjoyed him more than Oasis) and Cecil Beaton’s private revelations have cheered many a darkening hour. I have often murmured to myself his thoughts on Coco Chanel: “She was a great genius, to whom all may be forgiven.” and found them strangely comforting.


I have resolved to ‘keep a journal’ so many times in my life, and like Dorry, usually given up after a day or two. I always felt that if I didn’t record the day’s events I had failed so I would give up sooner rather than later. But why? Even Samuel Pepys confessed to writing up his diary in hindsight, even though he got up at day break and rarely went  to bed before midnight. (The hyperactive bastard). Incidentally, he looks more than a little like my husband in his younger days!


But then I began to see that even before I kept this blog, my sketchbooks were a form of visual journal every bit as vital as a daily diary. And I have been making sketchbooks (although I didn’t call them that) since I was knee high to a Moleskin.


I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to realise that a sketchbook kept over a year or so is as least as valid a diary as one written with a quill pen lit by candle light. Or that my blog has become a very accurate record of my position as an artist –  if I feel qualified to call myself one. And I have decided that a) I am an artist and b) I’m the only person who can make that decision. The sketchbook pictured above was part of my life from 2013-14.  I used to feel twitchy if it wasn’t adjacent to my thigh. Now I have moved on and it can happily stay on the shelf (unless I decide I need  it for reference).

This is a strange thing. Starting a sketchbook and being committed to it is (at least) as hard as commencing a new relationship. Right now I have a a cheeky new Pink Pig sketchbook and although I’m fairly confident I will grow to love it there is a problem about becoming comfortable with the yet to be broached blank pages. I’ve made a few tentative forays but I’m not at home yet.

I don’t use sketchbooks just for drawing. A vital part of my practice is about making the connections between what I feel / see and what I know /read. I started trying to express this by making actual networks in my studio.


I used sheep wire from my home on a remote croft in north west Skye as a framework to underpin my thought processes. I pinned ideas, statements and books on the wire netting and laced them together with orange ribbon. There was a reason for using orange (possibly  my least favourite colour). When the Studio Jamming Symposium took place at the Cooper Gallery in 2014 I was lucky enough to be invited to take part. the show was curated by Marcus Miessen and he used certain key colours to identify  the main artists. Orange was not one of those colours so I used it as a connective strand in the sketchbook I was working on at that time.

Incidentally, it also brings back the gut wrenching stage fright just before I had to give my performance. I had not realised that the audience would be that big.


I also use arrows to demonstrate how my thought processes flicker back and forwards. Sometimes this only becomes clear to me as I start the mapping process.


And when you are thinking about Jean Francois Lyotard and his thoughts on sublimity it can be quite vexing to have Para Handy’s phrase ‘it’s chust sublime’ continually edging its way into your head. It helps to put it down in front of you and try to tease out the connections.


I’ve recently been rereading Mrs Miniver by Jan Struther. Originally published as a series of weekly columns in The Times, the book has a journal like quality because it follows the course of a year or so in the life of the eponymous heroine. (I do like an opportunity to to use that word legitimately)!

This book would appeal to me anyway without the crystal clear prose and its engaging central character because of the diary element. And Mrs Miniver herself knew how important a diary was and took pains to choose the right one. She considered it to be ‘apparently trivial, but momentous by reason of their terrible intimacy’ and remembered once having bought a cheap and nasty engagement book that ‘annoyed her for twelve months; everything she put down in it looked squalid’. How I know that feeling – a sketchbook does not have to be expensive but it does have to feel right.

Mrs Miniver thought of the book as a ‘skeleton map of the year……glancing through it help months hence, would be  able to fill in many, though not all, of the details.’ And so it is  with my sketchbooks.



The page above includes a receipt for the ‘goblits’ – my adorable, long coveted Siamese cats which I have already written about. I bought them from a now defunct antique shop on the Perth Road and I can still taste the triumph of finding them and later bringing them home.

Here are are two pages documenting some of my pronkstilleven research.



I notice it includes some rather weedy notes about using Publisher – I can also remember the frustration I encountered when I had to use this programme. I ended up paying someone to do it for me!

More pleasant memories come from the sketchbooks I made in Florence.


A halcyon day in late September climbing up to the Piazza de Michelangelo where I took a fortuitous picture of the bridges and noticed later that there was an egret fishing under the Ponte Vecchio. I have already written about egrets and there is more to come so I will refrain from banging on about the birds of the Arno just now.

Another page documents my experiments with poke weed ink, already faded since I tried it a year ago. If you look at the small photographs you can see the richness of the colour at the time.


I don’t think the American Declaration of Independence can really have been written with it.


Like Mrs Miniver, these sketch books were my intimate friends and form a sort of road map charting my artistic and personal experience. Below is a later one.


Looking at it makes me want to go back and revisit some of those ideas which I don’t think I have finished with as yet. It also recalls the stress of the Masters Show install.


still haven’t made that Quey Calves sculpture!


What Katy Did, Susan Coolidge, 1872

Mrs Miniver, Jan Struther, 1939

Tales of Para Handy, Neil Munro

Lessons on the Analytic of the Sublime, Jean-Francois Lyotard, 1994

Nella Last’s War:the Second World War Diaries of ‘Housewife, 49.’

The Unexpurgated Beaton: the Cecil Beaton Diariess.




About pennimania

Artist, entomologist, grumbler.
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