A Quiet Afternoon Sketching

I went to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford yesterday for a lecture on the Euston Road school of painters. Sadly I was a month early, but they told me there was a free drawing class going on down in the cast room. As I’d just been in an art shop and had ready materials I decided to do that.

Unfortunately I could not open the hermetically sealed packaging containing the stiff card holding my new charcoal pencils. A woman in charge of the group tried to help. After a struggle, lacking a Swiss army knife, she got out her door keys and began slashing and stabbing at the packet. We got it open, making a jagged hole, but I had to apologise to the sketcher sitting nearest to me for the groaning, exasperated noises we’d been making.

I began drawing a large Greek cast showing a naked woman being attacked by a naked man. She had however got the advantage and had her hand over his face apparently pushing him over. They fought it out before us immured in silent white marble, but then three people came in, one of them a young woman. They sat her down, gave her art materials but she started singing. I know you are not supposed to do it these days but I asked her politely to stop her tunes and at that she went completely mad, screaming, shouting, making terrible animal noises and then rushing around the gallery.

She created quite a wind as she rushed past my little folding stool. I didn’t dare look behind me but I expected to hear the crashing and shattering of revered marble at any moment. Her carers and two attendants set off after her dashing around the small gallery, making cooing noises at her. Eventually they got her to stop running and soothed her.

She kept shouting, ‘Sir!’ I don’t know who the ‘Sir’ was in her life, but the people with her were extremely gentle, soothing her almost begging her to sit down and have a go at drawing. There was no suggestion that she shouldn’t have been there, or that they would take her out. When she started up again with the screaming they finally gave up with their attempt to get her to draw and left.

Shortly after a party of school children came in all talking loudly, particularly their teacher who addressed them as if they were in a very large auditorium. I asked an attendant who already looked shaken by the previous upheaval if he would ask the teacher to keep her voice down? He said he would but sneaked out without approaching her. Like people with serious mental health issues, teachers and school children are sacrosanct these days, and any idea of being quiet in public places has vanished. It certainly cannot be asked of them for any reason. Asking for quiet is seen as offensively repressive.

After an hour of struggling to concentrate on the fine sweeping lines of my woman fighting off rape, and the wonderful, twisting negative spaces between her and her assailant I left, and was back out on the street, where many people going into the gallery were adorned with headphones so that they could listen to their own private cacophony without disturbing anyone else’s.

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