Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Taking a line for a walk - from Le Havre to Rome

Paul Klee once explained that "a drawing is simply a line going for a walk". In the summer of 2000, Christopher Lambert drew a straight blue line between Le Havre and Rome on a map of Europe when eighteen months short of his 70th birthday. He then set off with his all leather Brasher walking boots, a small rucksack, a couple of pens, some watercolour pencils and a sketchbook journal. 1,075 miles and 71 walking days later he arrived in Rome having taken a page each day to sketch and write about what he saw on his trip.

This is the hardback facsimile version of his sketchbook. As a concession to his handwriting, there is a thin typescript margin containing two lines of summary text about each day - as he says his writing gets a bit cramped at times!

Lambert developed a taste for long distance walking when, on his retirement, he walked 440 miles along five ancient footpaths across southern Britain to his new retirement home in Devon. For the Millennium he thought he'd like to try one of the pilgrim routes across Europe. Consequently, in July 2000 he set off carrying a pilgrim's passport - a letter of brotherly greetings in Latin from the Anglican Provost of Portsmouth Cathedral to Pope John Paul in the Vatican in Rome. On his trip he averaged just over 15 miles each walking day overall, although this inevitably varied along the route across France, through Switzerland, down through northern Italy and the 'thigh' of Italy to Rome. En route - and along his straight line - he visited Honfleur, Fontainebleau Forest, the Canal de Bourgogne, Dijon, Lausanne and from there along the ancient pilgrimage route, the Via Francigena, through the Grand St. Bernard pass across the Alps to Aosta, Lucca and Siena before reaching Rome.

What particularly appealed to me about this book is his habit of doing daily sketches while travelling - a habit I developed on my two USA trips last year (see RH column for more details). I also identified with his approach to sketching. He uses pen and ink to sketch, followed by coloured pencils to indicate values and form and something of local hues. The book contains over 240 illustrations of a huge variety of 'views', buildings, people, flowers, insects and the butterfly which sat on his hand one day while he drew (see below - page 52 Col du Grand St Bernard)

Pages 85 and 85 Lucca
"Taking a Line for a Walk"
copyright Christopher Lambert - used with permission

His working life as an architect is evident in the ease with which his eye takes in and quickly absorbs the key features of complicated architecture. I loved the way he tells himself off when he's done something overly complicated - giving himself injunctions to simplify. Overall, despite what he says below, his style is very pleasing - being loose and unfussy. Some of the very simplest sketches have the greatest impact.
"The sketches had priority - to the extent that I would often make myself late departing from a place because I just had to record it....I wanted to shake off my architectural topographical style and in a few flicks of the pen and pencils capture the essence of a thing or place, but it very rarely happened. Nevertheless these small drawings became my footsteps as the miles elapsed and the pages filled...."

His habit of sketching over meals is also one with which I'm very familiar. I even suspect, given the nature of his sketches, that we might share the same habit of table hopping to find the table which offers the 'right' view. Which is not always the best view but rather is the one which lends itself best to sketching.

His meditations on walking, his surroundings and the impact that a long walk has on an individual are both interesting and powerful reminders to reflect on life at something less than 4 miles an hour. It's a book which more than repays any attempt to read his handwriting - which is not so difficult once you get used to it. This is a book that I can particularly recommend to all those accustomed to travelling to many destinations at top speed and who may not be acquainted with the benefits and "the inevitability of gradualism"! ;)

In conclusion, I'd highly recommend this book for anybody wanting to keep a sketchbook journal of a trip. Those visiting places along this route will also get an insight into life outside a car and the rhythm of life which occurs when walking everyday on a very long walk.
"The illustrations have a wonderful vividness and the text has a gentle undercurrent of humour.......It's the kind of book that you can pick up time after time and feel yourself wandering through the byways of France and Italy, hearing the sounds and smelling the fragrance of the hedgerows and fields around and about, or imagining yourself sitting outside in a village square enjoying a glass of wine" Sir Chris Bonington
NOTE: In future: the new revamped version of this blog will contain reviews of various books relevant to individuals travelling with a sketchbook. I'm anticipating this will include:
  • the published sketchbooks of other artististic travellers
  • 'how to sketch' books
  • good travel guides for an area
  • maps I've found useful in the past
Since I have bookshelves weighed down with the above it should mean I can avoid the stop/start frequency of a blog which is just about trips!


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  1. I've updated the post to include a couple of samples of the inside pages which I've now got permission to use.

    I love the one of the butterfly perched on the end of his pen while he draws the pass over which Napoleon took 5,000 cavalry and 50 canons in 1800.

  2. Great idea for your blog. I've added this book to my Amazon wishlist!

  3. If you'd like to see more of Chris's work, he e-mailed me with a link to the website he set up for the book

    Thanks Chris!

  4. Katherine,
    I wish that I could have spent more time looking at this book the day I was with you when you bought it. Now it is on my wish list. I also tried to remember the name for Julie Oakley because her one mile walks, with sketching, everyday is a similar venture - just not linear. Can't wait to see other books you review. I will remember to send you a few names from my bookshelf.

  5. AnonymousMay 18, 2007

    What a interesting post! I've always been interested in the place of walking takes in the creative process , kick-started by reading Bruce Chatwin in my teens. This travel journal seems like a great read - I shall be tracking a copy down! Thank you for sharing!


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