‘I got it from a man I met in a pub!’
I was in the Barley Mow Pub in Shoreditch waiting for a friend of mine. After a short time he texted me explaining he would be late. Normally this is a bit of a pest but not tonight. The bar is open, they sell pork scratchings, and I have pencils and paper on me. Who need friends anyway?
I draw every day in one way or another; and it’s a fine way of filling time when you need to hang about for something. I would need to wait for 30 minutes so I took out a book of blank postcards and began drawing my fellow customers.
Once completed, a chap came over from the bar, expressed an interest in the drawing and asked to buy it. We negotiated a cash sum plus one pint of beer on top. We shook on it, I signed the drawing and handed him it to him, and he handed over the beer and money. Job done.
The next morning while nursing a brutal headache I got an email. My ‘client’ from the previous night had looked me up on the internet, really liked my watercolours and commissioned a painting of Columbia Road market for his wife right there and then.
Well Well! You won’t see a deal like that at The Harvard Business School!
About Columbia Road Flower Market
Columbia Market goes back to 1869 and was originally a large neo gothic structure more akin to a church or a civic building rather than a market. It contained about 400 stalls selling food and flowers. The stall holders preferred working out on the street and over time they graduated into Columbia Road where they still are today. The lovely building that once housed them was sadly demolished in 1958.
The local French Huguenot population were keen on cut flowers so flowers dominated the sales from then on. They were also keen on caged song birds too and one of the streets pubs is still called ‘The Birdcage’ as an echo of this time. The market then was on Saturdays though many of the local traders were Jewish and this caused issues with their Sabbath so by an act of Parliament it was changed to Sundays and Sundays it still is.
So on Sundays the traders get rolling at about 4am and open at about 8am. As I was on a job and know how hectic this place can get I got there at 9am and began my drawing. The client was keen for me to include the stall on the end as that is where his wife buys her weekly supply of lilies so that was my focus.
Setting up, I got chatting to a few of the traders. One noted that an old lady used to draw every week in the very spot I was standing. “She was there for years n years…’ he noted ‘…and one day she was never there again. Never knew what happened to her, she was just gone”. He lamented. London can be like that. People do just come into view for years, on your bus, in your street, at the shop, and suddenly they are not there anymore. London always moves.
Once the initial ideas were in, I shared a coffee with the busker, a drifter in a bowler hat with a voice rather like Tom Waites. I discovered he had an unwritten ‘agreement’ with the local Police. The law being that If he didn’t have his amplifier very loud then they couldn’t hear him, or indeed see him, and in the time I was there the ‘agreement’ worked out just fine for both. I enjoyed his company and promised I would put him in the final painting. You can see him there on the far right.
The client wanted him and his wife with their dogs in the picture too. I was musing on how to do this when suddenly he tapped me on my shoulder. I was surprised to see him then remembered that he comes here each week. I took the opportunity to discuss the finer details of what I had noted and made a few amends, we had to rush as his wife was buying the lilies as we spoke and she had no idea of the scheme he had planned. I drew her quietly.
I had all I needed by 11am and a bit more on top I made some colour notes for later and the tank was full, besides, the market was really crowded now and no place for those with pencils or indeed hay fever.
Just to note that a visit to Columbia Road on a Sunday does not have to entail flowers. It’s a great atmosphere and in the shops you will discover art galleries, coffee (surprise surprise) and knick knacks of all sorts. A treat of a visit if you find yourself in the East End.
Due to the nature of the site and time constraints I completed most of the job back in the studio. I did make a re visit when I was passing a while later to draw a few shoppers and put them into the final piece.
I delivered the job and the client and his wife were most happy. A great result all round thinking on it. I got to paint one of my most loved East End streets, a happy client and I got a beer out of it too.