Derby Sketching Club: A Time-honoured Art

Derby Sketching Club celebrates its 125th anniversary. Ashley Franklin pays them a visit

One of the absurdities of the art world is that although the Turner Prize is named after one of our greatest painters, it is deemed a major surprise if a painter earns even a nomination. Also, since Robert Hughes published

The exhibition showcases a wide spectrum of current members’ work but also celebrates many former members of distinction such as Ernest Townsend, Frank Cudby, A.J. Keene, Terence Storey and one of the finest living Derbyshire artists, Andrew Macara, who has been Honorary President of the Club for 25 years.

The Derby Sketching Club has a simple admirable aim: It is ‘for artists, improvers and beginners, all believing in the common goal – the love of art and the desire to share it’. Although its membership is modest – just under 50 – stalwart Life Member of 40 years Ann Eames believes there are few similar clubs as active, with three meetings every week in which members regularly work from life.

The Derby Sketching Club’s unbroken line was etched from the moment ‘five young bachelors’ met in an office in The Wardwick to discuss forming an art club. It was exclusive and strict: the club was for gentlemen only, annual subscription was two shillings and sixpence and, as the Sketching Club effectively doubled as a drinking club, members needed to prove they were as committed to the club’s raison d’�tre as they were the bar facilities, so anyone failing to produce at least one sketch a month was fined a further half-crown. Even as recently as 1971, when Ann Eames applied to join, she had to show the committee several pieces of work before being admitted. Had Ann applied for membership six years earlier, she wouldn’t even have got as far as meeting the committee: women were not allowed in until 1966.

By then, a young Andrew Macara had just become a member. ‘I didn’t know many artists then,’ recalls Andrew, ‘and so joining was a way to meet people who had skills and knowledge about different ways and methods of working, in watercolour, oils, charcoal and pencil. It still offers that attraction today.’

As mentioned, Andrew is on a long roll-call of named artists who have been associated with the club. Furthermore, in the 1940s, the club played a significant role in the renowned Goodey Collection, housed in Derby Museum and Art Gallery. Local art collector Alfred E Goodey became President of Derby Sketching Club and commissioned many members to depict local scenes, thus helping provide a unique and vital record of the changes that have taken place in the city and its surrounding countryside.

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Although the club today is smaller, it is no less active and just as important for keen artists. As Chairman Joe Read points out, the club ‘enables me to mix with like-minded people.’ That is what drew Robin and Gwen Cameron, along with ‘the company of people from a wide spectrum of life.’ Ann Eames speaks of the many friendships formed at the club. ‘It’s helped keep me sane through family traumas,’ she reveals.

There are no entry requirements now, which member Chris Jones favours as ‘there is no elitism.’ This also means that aspiring artists with only a little experience or ability are welcomed. ‘We don’t offer tuition,’ says Ann Eames, ‘but beginners will be amazed at what can be learnt just by watching a more experienced artist work and we all offer encouragement and advice and raise people’s aspirations. One gentleman turned up once and his drawing skills were almost at "stick men" level but he watched, learned and persevered and, although he may never be a Rembrandt, he now gets tremendous satisfaction from his drawing.’

Great satisfaction is encapsulated in the words of Chris Jones who has a particular love of the club’s weekly life drawing sessions which he finds challenging, absorbing and even restorative: ‘Before retiring, I was an engineer which meant I was inclined to make careful, boring drawings, so Derby Sketching Club was the start of some liberation for me and allowed me to continue my undeveloped passion from schooldays when I used to win art competitions for drawing. Life drawing is demanding and difficult, especially in trying to visualise and interpret underlying muscle or skeletal references, but get it right and it really enhances the drawing. Trying to represent three dimensional form on a flat piece of paper is endlessly fascinating.

‘Although you need to concentrate while drawing, I found it tremendously therapeutic, especially when I was working. Now I’m retired, I find it even more relaxing and enjoyable.’

‘When I put paint to canvas, charcoal to paper, I become at one with the subject matter in hand,’ enthuses member June Asprey. ‘Forty years on, I still feel a thrill of anticipation when confronted by a fresh sheet of watercolour paper or a new canvas,’ adds Gwen Tarbuck. Member Julie Marshall loves the club though her view is not quite as rose-coloured: ‘The club has a warm social camaraderie but sometimes lacks a contemporary perspective, particularly with the model poses and approach. However, the opportunity to develop and exercise useful "hand to eye" drawing skills outweighs their old fashioned mentality.’

Is Derby Sketching Club a little pass�? And, in the face of so much modern art, is drawing and painting a dying art? Ann Eames provides a firm brushstroke for the future: ‘There will always be a place for traditional drawing and painting. For anyone going off into conceptual art and all this installation stuff, they need to know the basics. It’s like learning your alphabet before reading

The Shock of the New in 1980 and with both the Turner Prize and Tate Modern constantly grabbing the headlines, one can gain the impression that the art world is all about contemporary, conceptual and installation art. Not so... For a welcome shock of the old, walk into the main room of the Derby Museum and Art Gallery until 19th May. You will not see any unmade beds, experience lights going on or off or catch even the merest whiff of formaldehyde. Instead, you will find the air positively refreshing – that’s if you are a lover of the traditional, time-honoured skills of painting and drawing. The work on show, The Unbroken Line, celebrates 125 years of Derby Sketching Club.War and Peace. There are fewer budding artists prepared to study the basics but that doesn’t mean drawing and painting are dying. Just look at the local art classes full of people wanting to produce something for the sheer pleasure of doing so; the numerous "how to do it" publications; the many TV programmes; the big art materials shows in Birmingham and London. I believe people will always want to express themselves in art, and in particular through drawing and painting. Our club is living proof of that and will be for many years to come.’

Derby Sketching Club’s ‘The Unbroken Line’ exhibition continues at Derby Museum and Art Gallery until 19th May. There will be a special Portrait Session at the Gallery on 24th April, 10.30am–12.30pm. Non members welcome, with sketching materials provided. For details about the Club, contact Ann Eames on

01332 769569

Derby Sketching Club member Ann Eames is invaluable to the club: she arranges most of the portrait sitters, usually relatives and friends, and there is an annual invitation to the incoming Mayor of Derby. Ann also approaches bus travellers, pedestrians... and Derbyshire Life writers. So there I was, on a Tuesday morning at Littleover’s Grange Hall Community Centre, trying hard not to fidget for two hours, albeit with a break halfway to check my legs still worked. Ann asked me to fix my gaze on something straight ahead in the distance. To be honest, a Fire Exit sign wears out its welcome after about 10 seconds, so I spent the next one hour 59 minutes and 50 seconds wishing I had brought a Marilyn Monroe poster. I felt no early concern because, after all, once smocks were donned and easels unfurled, I would be engaged in banter and badinage. I then realised that portraiture is a serious... and silent business. Ann arranged for some gentle Segovia guitar to waft through the hall but otherwise the only sound was the scraping of a pencil. I began to relax and enjoy the quietude and blissful escape from the relentless pace, noise and intensity of my work and lifestyle. I sat there mulling things over, planning my weeks ahead and even composing part of this article. I thought: I should do this more often. I could write that novel. Not surprisingly, my gaze occasionally wandered from the Fire Exit sign and I became aware of the artists’ mix of fleeting glances and darting stares. I was suddenly aware that a dozen or so individuals were focusing an enormous amount of attention on me, and I became intrigued as to how I was being depicted. Would someone reveal not just a likeness but my essence? Would the sketch, watercolour or oil painting capture my dashing Dustin Hoffman handsomeness or my insufferable vanity brought about by a lovely lady who once claimed to actually see Dustin Hoffman in my features? Would I be rendered in lifelike pen and ink or was there some maverick in the pack who, in a few brazen brushstrokes, would concoct a jade-faced Picasso abstraction with one enormous eye and an isosceles triangle for a nose where my mouth should be? I tell you, sitting quiet for two hours can summon up myriad thoughts. I needn’t have worried. OK, I wished I hadn’t looked quite so serious but then you try affecting a rictus grin for two hours. I felt a couple of portrayals achieved a remarkable likeness, I was satisfied with those that conveyed more character and fascinated, shall I say, by the way the rest had seen me. I would recommend doing a sitting. You might be asked to attend two but that’s well short of what Gertrude Stein went through when Picasso made her endure 90 sittings before he was done with her. You also get a tenner and a cuppa, and one artist was kind enough to gift me her drawing. Better still, David Walton’s drawing of me that day ended up in an exhibition at the Birmingham Society of Artists. Not only that, someone, somewhere is sharing the same thrill as my wife, gazing at my Dustin Hoffman handsomeness every day: that someone bought my portrait.

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