For artist extraordinaire Carl Lavia, his epic bid to sketch Britain’s cities isn’t so much a labour of love as a work of endless devotion.
The London-based artist is close to completing a huge aerial vista of Perth as part of an ambitious Portrait of Britain project, which will see him capture each of the UK’s 69 cities in ink.
His stunning 2m x 1m impression of Perth, which is taking three months to complete, is the latest instalment in a quest that began in 2016 with project partner, photographer Lorna Le Bredonchel.
This bold new vision of the Fair City should be complete by mid-October. Then the sketch will be mounted before going on show in January for a 12-month stint at a local venue still to be announced.
The people of Perth are in for a treat. In an age when our cities are increasingly being stifled by identikit uniformity, now is a good time to celebrate what makes so many of them distinctive – and, in Perth’s case, distinguished.
Blessed with a style, form and – let’s not be modest here – an elegance that sets it apart from most places of a similar size, Perth has already made a lasting impression on Carl, who first took up drawing at the age of five.
“For Lorna and I, this has been our first proper visit to the city,” says Carl, “though we stopped off briefly here on a previous research trip that saw us caught up in the infamous 'beast from the east'.
“It’s great to be here as I’d long had a fascination for the place because of my interest in horse racing. Perth’s national hunt racecourse is somewhere I've always been eager to visit.”
Often it takes an outsider’s eye to pick out what makes a place special. Carl’s sketch is Perth as you’ve never quite seen it before: a giant, sweeping vista of the city, from the racecourse and Scone Palace, through the city centre, to the countryside beyond.
With sketches of London, Birmingham, Edinburgh, Stirling and Dundee already completed, Carl was eager to get the measure of a city set in scenic surrounds.
“The whole project is a bit of a whirlwind,” Carl explains. “As soon as one city is finished, we’re on to researching the next. We don't have time to build many preconceptions of cities we are yet to visit, so we have to hit the ground running when we get there.
The end result – mysterious, sprawling rainclouds of ink – mesmerise in a way that conventional maps and photographs simply can’t, and do so with an indefinable energy all of their own.
“One thing that’s really struck us about Perth, though, is the River Tay. We knew it was incredibly scenic, but to find out that it’s the longest river in Scotland is simply epic. Another thing that’s impressed us is the astonishing amount of trees dispersed throughout the city.”
Carl’s general approach is to depict the cities he visits from an aerial viewpoint, predominantly working with ink on archival paper – an especially durable, acid-free surface most commonly used for publications of high legal or historical significance.
To Carl – aka Sketch – that seems appropriate: “There’s been nothing of this scale completed in Perth that I have seen in the past 150 years. As we draw towards completing the piece, the main thing for us is to provide a public space where the people of the city can get the chance to see it.”
Carl is a self-taught artist. As a child, he was fascinated with drawing maps, architecture and fictional cities. After contracting, and overcoming, Guillane-Barre syndrome – a condition that affects the nervous system and can leave sufferers paralysed – he vowed to take his childhood passion more seriously.
Perth is about to benefit from his ambitious vision and unique approach: Carl distinguishes between drawing and his own idiosyncratic approach – sketching – which allows for a more immediate and impressionistic response to the cityscapes unfolding in front of him.
The end results – mysterious, sprawling rainclouds of ink – mesmerise in a way that conventional maps and photographs simply can’t, and do so with an indefinable energy all of their own.
“Maps and aerial photos capture the objective 'truth',” reflects Carl. “What I produce offers insight into the subjective truth of how a city leaves its mark on an individual through the nuance of personal interpretation, leaving an emotional blueprint.
Each new artwork sees Carl and Lorna explore the city on foot, with Carl making sketches and Lorna, who studied photography at London College of Communication, undertaking planning, research, photography and the production of drone videos.
Says Lorna: “We see our project as a grand artistic adventure, an epic road trip, fuelled by sweat, tears, and ink. We hope it shall be seen as an affectionate document of each city’s present time in history; one that hints at the indelible ties connecting people to places, as part of an incredible and continually unfolding story.”
Typically, the process starts with the pair visiting a city several times, photographing significant buildings, and getting to grips with its general layout of roadways, suburbs and central business districts.
While a city is being explored on foot, research is also happening online, with trawls through photo archives, YouTube footage, google maps, aerial image banks and shelves of books.
Three books, in particular, have been immeasurably helpful to Carl since his arrival in July: Perth by John Hulbert, Bygone Perth by Guthrie Hutton and Perth Through Time by Jack Gillon.
“During the research phase, which actually doesn't really stop throughout the whole process, I'll be laying down faint lines on the paper, a sort of skeleton or whisper of the city.
“I’ll use small sketches and photographic fragments, always black and white, pen on paper, to capture simultaneously the intricate details and vast expanse of the urban environment.,” explains Carl.
“I usually start capturing the city centre, the business district, and then I'll work my way outwards, faint scratches of lines, layering over and over again, outward and outward until the sketch is complete.”
Highlights in Perth have included sketching one of the city’s great underrated treasures – its magnificent railway station. Also catching his eye have been St John’s Kirk – ‘an incredibly beautiful building’, says Carl – and The Sandeman public house, which he sees as a perfect mix of past and present.
“Generally, Perth is a great walking city,” says Carl, “which, in my case, has been helped by the great coffee at Mill Street café!! There’s ease of navigation around the place, courtesy of the grid system. One walk that is burned in my memory is going along by the Tay and seeing the hills behind, rise up in all their majesty.”
Despite Perth being one of the UK’s smallest cities, the sketch is one of the biggest undertaken so far, although Carl’s drawing of Dundee, currently showcased in the city’s McManus Galleries, is the same size.
The challenges that Carl and Lorna have encountered during their time in Perth have been the tight time frame, the need for accuracy and the demands of all-encompassing research – to say nothing of having to redo an entire section of the sketch.
“This ate into the project's time scale,” says Carl, “and caused monumental stress. Let's not forget, Lorna and I are trying to complete all of the cities of the UK and, after Perth, we have still have another 63 to go!”
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