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February 28, 2009

Doing something


Posted by john at 12:08 AM | Comments (3)

February 27, 2009

To the men who make the machines that make the machines.

It’s all very well having posh instruments – all manner of adjustable gauges and scales that can measure stuff to within a whiff of a whisker – but what do you use to measure the machines that make the measuring instruments?

ramsden dividing engine.jpg
Ramsden’s Dividing Engine

You need a Dividing Engine, that’s what. Before the invention of this device for dividing other devices, people marked up measuring instruments by hand. So your calculations were only as good as the craftsman who scratched the brass in the first place, and if he’d had a bad oyster for lunch you could be miles out.

an octant built by Jesse Ramsden

Scribing increments on a straight edge was one thing, but scribing divisions on a curved surface was the problem. Navigation and surveying instruments relied on calibrated arcs to calculate their findings.

In 1773 Jesse Ramsden, born in Halifax, in the West Riding of Yorkshire, built the first Dividing Engine.

Jesse Ramsden

Ramsden’s engine meant that sextants, octants and theodolites, amongst other mathematical measury stuff could now be produced consistently, reliably and accurately.

This was thought to be one of the main causes of The British Empire.

Posted by john at 09:04 AM | Comments (0)

February 26, 2009

Ordnance Survey and the Jacobite Rebellion

Knowing what is where has always been useful. Knowing how to get there, and indeed back again, is good. Knowing where you are in relation to other people is useful too, especially if the other people are intent on getting up to no good. And especially if you of a military bent inclined to get up to no good yourself. It was the military that began the orderly mapping of things by Rigorous Principles.

It all started, as so many things did, and indeed probably still do, with the Jacobite Uprising of 1745.

Jacobites uprising

Once the clamour of battle had died down and the blood-soaked heather had dried off a bit, one feisty Lieutenant-Colonel, going by the name Watson, thought it would be a jolly fine idea to make a detailed map of the Scottish Highlands the better to know where all the lurking clansmen were. The Duke of Cumberland thought this was a good idea too, and so did George II.

The Duke of Cumberland

The job came under the auspices of the Board of Ordnance, the part of the government then responsible for supplying the army with its bullets and guns. Ordnance being, as it is, the general term for things that go BANG! and have a tendency to kill people standing in the way.


The Ordnance Survey was formed and over the next few decades the delicate art of triangulation was applied to the British Isles. Triangulation is, as you’re probably aware, a quasi-religious belief whereby if you know the name of two angels you can find out how big a hippopotamus is. Or something like that.

Three Surveyors engaged in Triangulation on the summit of Tan Troed, South Wales, sometime last century.

Posted by john at 11:57 AM | Comments (1)

more from the OS




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February 25, 2009

Some Old Maps


more on the Ordnance Survey later...

Posted by john at 11:12 AM | Comments (2)

February 24, 2009

Getting life to imitate art

Julieanne Moore can be found in several photographs which endeavour to copy or pay homage to classic paintings.

Seated Woman with Bent Knee, Egon Schiele, 1917 / Peter Lindbergh

The Cripple, John Currin, 1997 / Peter Lindbergh

La Grande Odelisk, Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres 1814 / Michael Thompson

To a greater or lesser degree of success depending on your point of view. Which highlights the dilemma of image making. Do we just hold up a mirror to the world?

Do we just copy what’s in front of us, verbatim, or do we try and interpret it? For years, before the camera, there wasn’t the choice. And now digital technology means we can manipulate reality like never before.

Lady with an Ermine, Leonardo da Vinci 1490 / Rainer Elstermann

Personally I think it’s important to impart some opinion, some other dynamic to a picture, be it a painting or a photograph. Just to reproduce an image is merely a clever trick and should be on the end of the pier. It’s a one-liner, an Ah! or even a Wow! but art it isn’t.

It’s not just Julieanne that’s been at it though: Naoto Kawahara gets up to it sometimes, though with oil paint rather than photography.

The Guitar Lesson, Balthus 1934 / Naoto Kawahara

And Michael Sanders produced this rendition of the famous picture of Gabrielle d’Estrées and one of her two sisters. Incidentally the pinching of Gabrielle’s nipple, by one of her two sisters, is thought to symbolise that Gabrielle, mistress of Henry IV of France, was pregnant.


Gabrielle d’Estrées et de sa soeur a Duchesse de Villars, School of Fontainebleau, c.1594 / Michael Sanders

Posted by john at 01:57 PM | Comments (0)

February 23, 2009

Look what happens when you’re not trying.

Taking pictures around an old print works, as you do, I took a photograph of an old sink.


It was only when I got back that, after furtive work in the electric darkroom, I realised I’d captured a singular moment.


Imagine how many pictures you'd have to take to try and get that shot. I just took one, without realizing the trap was dripping.

Posted by john at 09:22 AM | Comments (1)

February 22, 2009

Looking under the bonnet

It’s something about potential, about possibility. Some people seem to get a thrill looking at a Chevrolet engine.


For me it’s the body and its bones and muscles and skin.


To draw the body, and indeed paint it, you need to know how it works. You can’t make a car without knowing how the engine goes together. So you need to know about anatomy and then, when you look at the figure, you can begin to make sense of the minute differences of tone that signal the presence of the bones and muscles beneath the surface.

Leonardo would strip down an entire engine, at night, in the mortuary, to find out what went on, the better that he could draw.


Time was I could strip out the air filter, change the oil and oil filter, adjust the points and tap the business end of a spark plug with a blunt hammer until the required thin strip of metal, it what was charmingly called the Feeler Gauge, would fit snugly in the gap. Even replace a radiator hose or HT lead twixt plug and distributor cap.


But that was in the days when, lifting the bonnet, you were presented with something that looked like an engine, like the one above, recognisable for all its internal combustiveness.

And today? Well, having lifted the bonnet of my Mercedes Vito, I guess I’ll stick to drawing.


Posted by john at 09:50 AM | Comments (1)

February 21, 2009

and sometimes there are humans in the machine


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February 20, 2009



JoJo, charcoal on paper, detail

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February 19, 2009

Trapezius – the trailer

Finally finished the new dance film TRAPEZIUS. I started it last August, though in a way it all started at the end of the 80s when I was working in London with a dancer called Ali.



You can, if you so wish, see a short* trailer for it, by clicking the go bit:

TRAPEZIUS - the trailer from John Coombes on Vimeo.

big thanks to Ali B, Katrin, Rachel, Jasmin, Ian, Elodie, Marie, Joelle, Lucie and all at Foolish Clown.

*one minute forty one seconds to be precise.

UPDATE: ah, it probably says 01:41 up there already

Posted by john at 03:42 PM | Comments (1)

February 18, 2009

Marie-Louise O’Murphy

Before photography, painting was the medium of choice for advertising.

When Henry was recommended by Cromwell to take Anne as his fourth wife [with a view to easing political relations in Europe] he sent his court painter, Holbein, off to Cleves to paint Anne’s portrait so he could see what he was getting himself into.

Anne of Cleves, 1539, Hans Holbein

Likewise, when Casanova was recommending a mistress to Louis XV he got Boucher to paint her, in one of the most sensuous pictures of the time.

Louise O’Murphy, 1752, Francois Boucher

The lady in question was a girl aged fourteen, one Marie-Louise O’Murphy, daughter of an Irish shoemaker from Rouen. The painting was clearly a success because, for a couple of years, Marie-Louise was one of the mistresses of the French king.

Others have tried to copy the pose:

on the bed.jpg
painting attributed to Steve Hanks – though I haven’t been able to verify this

Even your present interlocutor:

study for On the Sofa, conte crayon on paper

study for On the Sofa, charcoal on paper

study for On the Sofa, charcoal on paper

But it’s a tricky pose, requiring a deep understanding of soft-furnishings and the human anatomy. The foreground leg is relatively easy, but to get the back leg bent in such a provocative manner must have taken Boucher a long time amongst the cushions and pillows. I speak from experience.

Posted by john at 10:59 PM | Comments (0)

February 17, 2009

drawings from the drawing drawers

This weekend, for reasons known only to myself [and even then I'm a bit unclear] I photographed some 300 plus drawings from five of the twelve drawing drawers. [the other 22 long thin flat drawers contain long thin flat things like mounting card, backing board, blank paper, photographs, prints and roadkill].

Here are two of the drawings

Judy sitting with a stick, 1988, conte crayon on paper.

hand studies, conte crayon on paper, 1988

I think I was planning a large painting of Boudicca

Posted by john at 03:46 PM | Comments (0)

February 15, 2009

Robertson over the years

My friend David Robertson has been coming round to my studios for many years. And some times he stays long enough for me to draw or paint him.

Robertson, oil on panel, 1994

Robertson [watching the Madness of King George], charcoal on paper, 1995

Robertson, charcoal on paper, 1999


Posted by john at 07:39 PM | Comments (1)

February 14, 2009

And so back to Wurzburg...

It was Christmas eve in the medieval town of Wurzburg [which would have been considerably more medieval had not Bomber Harris used the town to practice his carpet bombing in March 1945]

Das Käppele, built by Balthasar Neumann between 1748 and 1752 [with some help probably]

Wurzburg is steeped in history, it was the seat of several Imperial Diets, including one in 1180, as I’m sure you’ll remember, when Henry the Lion was banned from the Empire and his duchy handed over to Otto of Wittelsbach.

Otto of Wittelsbach, Duke of Bavaria

On Christmas eve it was mainly steeped in cold. So much cold that the water wheel on the banks of the Maine froze in festive fashion.


Later on the moon came out, but only a bit.


Posted by john at 05:19 PM | Comments (0)

February 13, 2009

Is she or ain't she?


wearing pants, that is.

[thanks Shorpy]

Posted by john at 02:29 PM | Comments (0)

February 12, 2009

to clear up any doubt...

riding a bicycle


Posted by john at 11:13 PM | Comments (1)

Of dragons and drawing

We were living in Earls Court at the time, taking an inflatable dragon round summer fairs in a 4 ton truck – the way you do.

It was a hot summer. The fairs were mostly at weekends so, apart from a bit of dragon maintenance, we had the weekdays free. Simon spent his time making radio controlled cars, and his girlfriend Annie wandered about in the buff.

Not being one to miss an opportunity I drew.


That's the thing about drawing. It's not like riding a bicycle - unless you do it all the time you forget.


Posted by john at 12:27 PM | Comments (0)

February 10, 2009


Firstly you think of the unfortunate consequences of a chance meeting with Hostile Space People, particularly ones making suspicious use of practice golf balls and old Hoover pipes,


and generally being at the wrong end of a Ray Gun, with your molecular integrity in imminent danger.


Then you might think about the 1999 novel of the same name by Michel Houellebecq,


where one of the main characters is a troubled molecular biologist and no-one meets any Space People, by chance or otherwise, or uses practice golf balls for anything other than practicing golf.

Or you might think of the subsequent film, by Oskar Roehler,


But this isn’t about gun-toting aliens or the bizarre sex-life of a molecular biologist, this is about the mechanical sculpture by Jim Bond.


Now you can see it moving, which, being a kinetic sculpture, is not unreasonable.

atomised from John Coombes on Vimeo.

Posted by john at 09:20 AM | Comments (1)

February 08, 2009

coming soon


[apparently it pays to advertise]

Posted by john at 08:08 PM | Comments (1)

Cybermen or how to get ahead in business.

Rated as the second most feared adversary of Dr Who [the first being Daleks] the Cybermen also reach the top ten in the all time bad guy list when it comes to dodgy aliens.


Surprising considering they started out as men in shiny suits with practice golf balls and old Hoover pipes stuck to their arms and a legs with some sort of space accordion strapped cheerily to their chests. But then that was the sixties when television was black and white and far more terrifying as a result.

The plain fact was their plastic heads were incapable of expression. So they just had to appear round a corner, ruthlessly, to send most ten year olds scurrying round the back of the settee. There was no reasoning with these fellas.


Like all good baddies, when the BBC realised they had struck a chilling chord, they wheeled them out for a second time and the costume department spent a bit more money. The Hoover pipes and space accordions were still there but the practice golf balls had gone, replaced by sinister knobbly valve-type things.


Now, with all the special effect machinery available, the Cybermen have become, to me, less frightening. OK, I’m a bit older, but these now look like toys. When the Cybermen first appeared there was nothing that looked remotely like them – except, and here is the key, us.

Whether it’s plastic golf balls or injection-moulded exo-skeletons, their success was due to their lack of emotion. Cold hearted killers, that’s who we fear most. The Daleks were wonderful and intelligent and ruthless, but they didn’t look like us, they were frightening, but not terrifying. They couldn’t fit in a telephone box, they couldn’t go up stairs. Your bedroom was safe from Daleks – but not from the Cybermen.

They say the best businessmen are the ones without emotion.

Posted by john at 01:30 PM | Comments (0)

February 07, 2009

too short


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February 06, 2009


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February 05, 2009

The Advertising Budget

As the dance film nears completion my mind turns to promotion and publicity. I have to produce posters, a DVD case, and the face of the DVD itself. I also have to write a synopsis - more on that later.

a poster idea, work in progress

They do say that up to 50% of a Hollywood budget goes on advertising and promotion. Hollywood, as Mike Figgis is at pains to point out, is about Show Business - with the emphasis on Business. When pitching an idea the Marketing Men outnumber the Executive Producers. And it is the marketing department that gives the famous Green Light.

Very long article about marketing movies, here, if you've got the time and the inclination.

Posted by john at 06:09 PM | Comments (0)

February 04, 2009

Looking for Dragons


AA Milne and Ernest H Shepard

Posted by john at 11:55 PM | Comments (0)

February 02, 2009

Sodium Snow

For those who've missed it: it's been snowing a bit.

snow falling at night in the street light

Posted by john at 10:32 PM | Comments (0)

Do the Dishes

a poem by Meliors Simms

One morning I rode my breath
into the presence of God
and (not wanting to waste the opportunity)
I asked, what should I do?


Some time later
the answer rose up warm through my soles
on the cold wooden floor:

Go do the dishes

So I did and then, and later,
I noticed it was always the right thing
to wash the dishes
as an expression of love and gratitude
a sensual pleasure
a social solution
the end of a string to lead me out of an impasse.

Posted by john at 09:44 AM | Comments (0)