So, what an incredibly exciting year 2018 has been. The year culminated in teaming up with Professor Alice Roberts at the Royal Institution of Great Britain (RiGB) for the famous Christmas Lectures.
At a chance meeting with Alice when she toured with her ‘Who Am I’ lecture and visited Norwich, knowing I was a veterinary illustrator she asked me first: What am I doing in December? And second: Would I paint the skeleton on a horse for the opening lecture?
Of course I accepted! Broadcast on Boxing Day on BBCFOUR, this was recorded in mid December, and oh the excitement! Travelling down to London the night before with the painting equipment in my faithful grooming box which looked thoroughly incongruous on both the London Underground, and inside a London Hackney Cab the following day.
I had managed to get some practice in for this horse painting lark on a local horse and as it turned out, I knew this lovely Friesian from way back – he’d been a ‘friend’ of my own wonderful Friesian called Moyjse, who I sadly lost to colic seven years ago, so it was quite an emotional reunion with this lovely boy called Lammert (Lammy).
Arriving at the RiGB I felt euphoric but very humbled to be entering the very opulent black and white tiled entrance hall. Surrounded by oil paintings, stone carvings boasting of Davy and Faraday, Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth ll, and statues of the Great and the Good of Science, not least the imposing Michael Faraday at the bottom of the grand staircase, clutching his famous induction ring. Floor to ceiling book shelves of fascinating scientific tomes dating back two centuries, glass exhibition cases housing the original scientific inventions and note books of the most famous scientists in the world, a mural of all past Christmas Lecturers…it was all jaw-droppingly surreal and, walking on air, I made my way to the Green Room following the Assistant Producer of Windfall Films up the sweeping staircase.
The Green Room was one huge library full of scientific artefacts, books and oil paintings, with help-yourself tea and coffee at one end and industrial sized baking dishes soon to be filled with the most tastiest lasagne and salad, courtesy of the location caterers.
‘My horse’ Leo was arriving at 1.30pm so I had time to have a nosey around the Ri, listened in on the monitors to Prof Alice as she rehearsed in the lecture theatre which was, strangely, only in the next room. Lights, cameras, cables, technical TV things, a monitor with the Test Card on it surrounded me, it was fascinating stuff – what goes on behind the scenes is just as exciting as being in front of the cameras; more so perhaps as the work that goes into every second of filming is quite breathtaking and inspiring. It’s magical.
Leo arrived and I went out to the horse box to meet him and his handlers Charles and Caroline. It was odd to see a horse box pulled up next to the pavement in busy and glitzy Mayfair; Cartier to the right, Chanel to the left, and an Equi-Trek horsebox in the middle! Calm and composed, out came the most beautiful black ex Kingís Troop Horse, who’d travelled all the way from Windsor to be with us today. I was told he had some Friesian in him, so I just knew we were going to get along!
We led him up the road and through some narrow double doors into the Ri and into the large room where I was to paint him. Huge sheets of cardboard had already been put down so that he wouldn’t slip or mark the floor; or anything else! I had to get to work straight away as I only had two and a half hours to paint him before he was due on set for rehearsal. A GoPro camera was set up to Time-lapse the session and I was interviewed as well at the same time as painting so it was all rather busy. Leo was as good as gold, proving to be a most beautiful horse inside and out, as he stood so patiently, completely unphased by his surroundings.
As I sketched – scapular, pelvis, vertebrae, rib cage, fore and hind limb bones, I had the help of Charles who was on hand to fill these in with more paint and so by ten to four I’d finished. Leo looked incredible and he was getting lots of media attention which he enjoyed, and thoroughly deserved. We gave him a final walkabout so that I could check that his painted on skeletal system was accurate when he was moving, and satisfied with the job he was ready to go. Now to get him out of the Ri main building, up the road passing in between two huge Outside Broadcast lorries, back inside the Ri and up the back stairs…what a good boy he was as he ascended three flights of narrow stone stairs under a fairly low ceiling. He took the last few steps at a leap and then was safely on the first floor. We led him behind the lecture theatre which was little more than just a corridor and he was given his supper. Cool, clam, collected and so composed he tucked into his feed as if he was at home in his stable. Nothing, absolutely nothing worried him!
Then it was time for him to rehearse. I snuck up into the auditorium to watch him come on stage and sat next to Alice. She was thrilled with the artwork and gave me a huge hug too so I knew she was happy, as she was beaming and really excited about having a live horse at the Ri, the first ever! Suddenly, Leo took on a stance; the stance that means thereís going to be an almighty flood as yes, that Blue Peter and Lulu the elephant moment had happened. All hands on deck as much mopping up had to be done and luckily the audience had still to arrive so it was only us and the Ri crew and staff that were doubled up in fits of laughter. Poor Leo, but when a horse has got to go, he’s got to go!
He was led back behind the stage and the audience started to arrive. He had a final spruce up, a few brush strokes repaired, Charles went to change into military attire then it was time for the warm up guy to prime the audience and get them gee’d up (gee-gee’d up even). Cameras rolling, cables stretched, lots of activity here and there then time for Leo to make his entrance again, this time in front of a full house of school children all as excited to be there as we were backstage. I videoed Leo going on then recorded the rest of the performance from the monitors. He was an absolute STAR!
Once he’d completed his mission – to demonstrate his skeletal system as to how similar horse (and subsequently armadillo and bat too) are to us humans, he was led off stage and I met him round the other side of the theatre. It was now time to get him downstairs, but this time we were using the main grand stair case. Each stair had cardboard laid on top to protect it and I was extremely anxious now for him. Going up stairs is one thing for a horse, fairly easy, but going down is another matter. Their peripheral vision, the eyes set each side of their head, are placed thus because in the wild they are ‘prey’; they don’t have forward facing eyes like us, or other ‘predator’ animals. This makes it difficult for them to really grasp the concept of going down steps. Further more, as the horse lowers his head to try and understand this concept of going downstairs, he automatically brings all his weight forward and so it’s, well, dicey to say the least. With a little coaxing and proffered mints, he took each step, one at time, very carefully. I felt very tense, had my heart in my mouth and could hardly bear to watch, but he made it and took the last couple of steps in one go and was safely back on the ground floor. Phew!
Charles stopped the traffic as Caroline led him at a smart trot down the busy, and by now dark, evening rush hour of Mayfair, although the Christmas lights illuminated Leo beautifully as he swiftly got to his horsebox. I held him while Charles opened up the lorry and so many passers by couldn’t believe what they were seeing, as this ghost horse, this beautiful, ethereal, spectral creature stood there under the street lamps…people were getting their phones out to take pictures and one guy started recording an on-line blog to explain what he was watching!
Leo was safely loaded into the horsebox, we said our goodbyes and then they were off. We waved as they passed us, made our way back to the Ri, said our goodbyes to the crew, grabbed the box of painting tricks and wondered back up to Green Park station. On a high, we passed the glitzy Ritz; the myriad Christmas lights and the blazing window displays dazzled us, as we dodged and jostled through the crowds along the frantically busy pavement. Arriving at the tube station, the crowds just swallowed us up as we descended the escalator carrying us further and further into the deep of the Underground. I couldn’t hide my smile as the euphoria of the day still bubbled away.
And on Boxing Day, just a few days ago, I felt that euphoria again, as I watched the first part of ‘Who Am I?’ with pride and honour at seeing Leo again on the screen, my name on the end credits and the whole experience at being part of this year’s Christmas Lectures. By all accounts, this year’s series has proved the best yet. What a send off as we launch into 2019.