Monday, 15 March 2010

On s'amuse au musée

My son wanted to see some real swords and shields, so we went to the Musée des Antiquités in Rouen to look at the things the Gauls, Romans and Vikings left behind. We took sketchbooks, making this the first drawing trip we've ever been on together. He asked me afterwards if I was going to put our pictures on the internet. How could I say no?

You've got to love the ancients for their interest in animals, and the curious things they did with clay and bronze as a result. When you're only five and also interested in beasts, finding whole troupes of gibbons, lions and mythological creatures at eye-level is enough to put even swords and shields out of mind. Despite only being allowed a few lumpen wax crayons (not every exhibit is behind glass), Max heaved a security guard's chair over and started to draw.

Sketching an object is a bit like crawling all over it with your mind. There's no better way to really understand how it is, and what it's like. With observation alone, the eye tends to slip from one feature to another, registering everything but rarely fixing much in the memory. Drawing forces you to look again, to see all those features as part of something complete. This always provokes a proprietorial feeling in me -- a sense that in some way I own that object once I've drawn it. And with something hand-made, it's also a moment of contact between my mind and the mind of the person who made it, irrespective of language, culture or the passage of time.

Max was delighted by a little Roman monkey jug made of clay, and wanted me to draw it with him. It was only through the sketching process that I noticed it had a surprisingly human anatomical feature that made the responsible Dad in me wonder if I should steer Max to something else. I'm glad I resisted such a prudish impulse. Max, free of prejudice, drew everything he saw in grown-up silence.

On the way to the museum, we met a friend who was impressed that I was going to teach my son to draw. I made one of my 'just-so/perhaps not' grunts (I'm good at those, especially in French) and changed the subject. There's no question of teaching anything – all Max needs is to feel that it's okay to look closely and okay to draw in public.

Max's patience lasted for an hour and a half, and he's already forgotten most of the things he saw in the museum, but I'm sure we'll both remember his brazen little monkey for many years to come.


  1. Great personal posting with excellent illustrations. I envy your facility with the pen (pencil?). The fact that it was in Rouen, however, reminded me of my visit to the Flaubert museum there and, most of all, the janitor with halitosis exactly as Julian Barnes described him in Flaubert's Parrot.

  2. It's so darling to take your son on a drawing expedition. And the monkey:) What can I say, it's good. Kids are innocent and free of hang-ups. It's adults that get weird. So I'm glad you resisted the prudish.

    I enjoyed all the drawings. Max amazes me for his talent at that age. And he's spelling now too. Does he also speak French?

  3. We'll send (little) Thomas over in a couple of years for your tutelage. ( :

  4. Many thanks, Bill. I've had Flaubert's Parrot on my reading list for so long I've forgotten I haven't read it yet.

    Thanks, Terry. Yes, adults can be ridiculous sometimes, me most of all:). Max is French, but he does speak English, which is just as well since we're moving to the UK in a few months time. We try to keep things bilingual as much as possible which will make spelling a challenge.

    Hey, Jenn -- we'd love to have him over!

  5. Please give Max a huge cuddle from me, he is one of the two cutest nephews in the world. Bless him and his little monkey.
    Tatie Julie

  6. "Sketching an object is a bit like crawling all over it with your mind" - brilliantly put!

    The monkey certainly doesn't appear to have any hang-ups!

    I accompanied my daughter on her school trip on Monday - a four hour walk through nikau forest to mangrove beach - we made beach art and she wrote a poem. I might post it on my blog now I've seen this!

    (You can see the concentration in the sketch of Max - wonderful.)

  7. Thanks, Julie. Hugs transferred.

    Thanks, Rachel. I hope to read that poem soon.

  8. Having seen the museum pictures Max drew in the flesh so to speak.I am of course very proud of him. I have a wonderful elephant hanging on my fridge door Max drew for me as a special request. Good for you Thomas for showing Max how natural it can be to draw in public


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