Strange Sights in Sebastopol


Cat-Themed Road Sign in Sebastopol

Cat-Themed Road Sign in Sebastopol

Just a few miles to the west of our house is the small city of Sebastopol. There are sometimes strange things to see in Sebastopol, as I confirmed last week when, while driving along Main Street there, I spotted a huge traffic sign that immediately reminded me of our cat, Ginger (Tom).

The real Ginger is in fact no stranger to car travel, as seen below in San Francisco, during a visit that I described in an earlier post!

Ginger in the City

Ginger in the City

The city name Sebastopol perhaps seems surprising for California, and you could be forgiven for thinking that there must be a connection to the one-time Russian settlements along the California coast. However, those settlements were further north, having never reached further south than Fort Ross. In any case, by the time that Sebastopol came to be so named, during the 1850s, the Russians had already abandoned Fort Ross.

In fact, it seems that the name Sebastopol was chosen as a result of a local bar fight that reminded locals of the contemporary Siege of Sebastopol! The California settlement, which had originally been called Pinegrove, came to be known by the new name, and was incorporated under that name in 1902.

During the late nineteenth century, the area around Sebastopol developed into a major center for the growing of fruit and vegetables. Nowadays, most of the local crop consists of grapes for the wine trade, but back then a much wider variety of fruits were cultivated. One variety of apple that became very popular in the district was the Gravenstein (although it’s no longer a popular variety today).

The image below shows a real fruit label, probably from the mid-twentieth century, which I found in a local antique store. Although the apples shown on the label are not identified as Gravensteins, they probably were.

Kikuchi Apples Label

Kikuchi Apples Label

Move it by Rail

In those days, the usual way to preserve produce was to can it (since, even when refrigerated transport was available, most homes still did not have refrigerators), and the best way to ship it over any appreciable distance was of course by rail. Inevitably, therefore, railway lines were laid to Sebastopol. The first was the San Francisco & North Pacific Railroad, which eventually became the North Western Pacific (NWP). Their branch from Santa Rosa reached the town in 1890.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, a rival railroad called the Petaluma & Santa Rosa Railroad (P&SR) was proposed, including service to Sebastopol on its main line, the plan being for this to be an electrically-operated interurban network. Not surprisingly, the NWP violently opposed the construction of the P&SR, leading to the locally-famed Battle of Sebastopol Road in 1904.

Eventually, however, the P&SR was completed, the rival railroads learned to co-exist, and both served the people and industries of Sebastopol.

Petaluma & Santa Rosa Railroad

The P&SR station (depot) in Sebastopol faced onto Main Street, because the railroad itself ran down the middle of Main Street for some distance. The depot building was actually in the middle of a rail “wye” where the P&SR branch to Santa Rosa joined the main line between Petaluma and Forestville (which, thanks to the intervention of the 1906 earthquake, was as far north as the P&SR ever reached).

Fortunately, even though all the remaining railroads in the city were abandoned in 1983, and the rails removed shortly thereafter, the final depot building and nearby powerhouse have survived.

The final P&SR depot building, which was built in 1917 from stone quarried at the nearby Stony Point Quarry, has become the West County Museum. The museum is open to the public 4 afternoons per week, and displays various exhibits related to Sebastopol and its railroads.

The photo below shows the former depot facing Main Street. The P&SR main line ran along the middle of the street in the foreground, and the branches of the wye heading for Santa Rosa joined that line on either side of the building.

Former P&SR Rail Depot, Sebastopol

Former P&SR Rail Depot, Sebastopol

Immediately behind the depot building, on what appears to be a surviving short section of one of the storage tracks, is a former Pacific Fruit Express refrigerator car. Apparently, this box car now houses the museum’s stored collections, hence the steps visible in the photo below.

Refrigerator Car at P&SR Depot, Sebastopol

Refrigerator Car at P&SR Depot, Sebastopol

The former P&SR powerhouse, which was built from the same stone as the depot, has now become the very popular Hop Monk Tavern, as shown below.

Former P&SR Power House, Sebastopol

Former P&SR Power House, Sebastopol

All Change at Gravenstein

About a quarter-mile east of the surviving P&SR railroad depot is the site of the NWP’s depot and freight yard, where there was a substantial array of sidings serving the local canneries and industries. There’s nothing left of this complex, but, on the site of part of the sidings, a modern shopping center was built during the 1980s.

The shopping center is called Gravenstein Station, and incorporates various features that commemorate its railroad heritage. From the road, you can see what appears to be the end of a railroad carriage sticking out of the building, as shown in my photo below.

Another Strange Sight: Gravenstein Station

Another Strange Sight: Gravenstein Station

At first, I assumed that this carriage must be a fake, since it’s clearly too close to the ground to be standing on a track. However, on looking at it more closely, inside the building (as shown below), it seems that it must be the body of a real Southern Pacific dining car, now used as a restaurant. Presumably the body was removed from the chassis because it was too high for the building.

Gravenstein Station: Former  SP Dining Car

Gravenstein Station: Former SP Dining Car

Also inside Gravenstein Station is a former Southern Pacific caboose, this time complete with its chassis and standing on a section of track. As shown in the photo below, it now houses a florist shop.

Gravenstein Station: Former  SP Caboose

Gravenstein Station: Former SP Caboose

Across the road from Gravenstein Station, on the site of the former NWP depot, is the Barlow shopping and office center, as shown below. The line of the NWP track to its depot approximately followed the line of cars parked in front of the building.

The Barlow, Sebastopol

The Barlow, Sebastopol

Sebastopol is an intriguing little community that has succeeded in making the most of its location in California’s fertile Wine Country, and is well worth a visit if you’re in the area.

Cat-Themed Road Sign in Sebastopol

Cat-Themed Road Sign in Sebastopol

The Tower by the Bay

The Tower by the Bay, 1976

The Tower by the Bay, 1976

I completed the painting above during 1976, but not at school. I apologize for the poor quality; not only has the poster paint I used decayed over time, but the painting was also folded into four at some point!

The scene depicted is completely imaginary, and doesn’t attempt to represent any real place. I’m not sure why I chose to do this particular work at home; perhaps I just felt that my schoolteachers would demand to know what it was supposed to represent, and I wouldn’t be able to explain!

Today (October 25th) is International Artist Day, so I thought it appropriate to feature some of my artwork in this post, even if it’s not of “professional” standard on this occasion.

If my painting above represents anything, then I suppose that it was intended to show my “ideal location”, from my viewpoint as a teenager. Looking closely, the “tower block” in the image has a sign on the side saying “Europa”, so presumably it was supposed to be a hotel somewhere in Europe. At that age, I had no experience of independent living, so it probably seemed to me that the only alternative to living with my parents was to stay in a hotel!

The city on the horizon, with its illuminated seaside promenade, is of course loosely based on views of my home town of Scarborough (as shown below in my 1977 photo). However, at that time, there were no modern “tower blocks” such as the one in my painting near the sea in Scarborough (although there was such a building—Ebor House—in the nearby resort of Bridlington, which was in the news just recently for the wrong reasons).

Scarborough South Bay at Night, 1977

Scarborough South Bay at Night, 1977

I seem to have spent a lot of time detailing the interiors of the rooms in the hotel, which I could have avoided simply by painting the curtains closed!

Slightly more than ten years after I painted the image above, I unexpectedly found myself in a seaside location that reminded me of that imaginary scene, although it was not anywhere in Europe.

Realizing the Dream

The photo below, which I took during my first visit to California in October 1987, shows the Metro Tower in Foster City, as seen from one of the lagoon bridges. At that time, the Metro Tower, which had only just been completed, had the distinction of being the tallest building between San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Foster City, California, in 1987

Foster City, California, in 1987

During the first evening that I arrived in California, I found myself very disoriented, because I thought that the tower and lagoon in front of it were facing westwards towards the Pacific Ocean. In fact, Foster City faces San Francisco Bay, and thus eastwards. I had to consult maps to figure out why the sea seemed to be on both sides!

I’m afraid that once again the picture quality is very poor, but I could not in fact go back and take the same photograph today, because other large buildings now surround the Metro Tower, as shown in the nearest-available Google Street View today.

As I mentioned in a previous post, after emigrating to California later in 1987, I did rent an apartment in Foster City, and lived there for about 18 months. It was a pleasant place to live, and the sheer modernity of the surroundings was a refreshing change from everywhere that I’d previously lived.

Not a Premonition

I realize that, in view of what happened to me later on, it’s possible to interpret my teenage painting as some kind of “premonition” regarding the place where I would find myself living as an adult (and someone did in fact suggest that).

However, in general I see no evidence that premonitions, in the sense of someone being able to know what will happen in the future, are possible (if only because the future of the universe is inherently not knowable). You may be able to make a very good guess as to what will happen in the future, based on the current circumstances, but it’s only ever a prediction. (This is, of course, exactly what weather forecasters do every day.)

In the case of my painting, I think the reality is just the opposite. Having unexpectedly found myself in California, Foster City particularly appealed to me because it was so reminiscent of the scene in my earlier painting. Thus, I took action to fulfill aspects of the fantasy that I’d had as a teenager, and made it real.

In fact, seeing it that way seems better than believing in some kind of premonition, because I was able to take action to change my life in the way that I wanted it to be, rather than accepting whatever situation I found myself born into.

The Tower by the Bay, 1976

The Tower by the Bay, 1976

The Century Numbering Mystery

Arch of Titus, Via Sacra, Rome

Arch of Titus, Via Sacra, Rome

The photo above shows the Arch of Titus, spanning the Via Sacra near the forum in Rome, taken by me while on holiday there in 1978. Although the arch displays several Latin inscriptions commemorating the achievements of the Emperor Titus, nowhere in those inscriptions are any numeric year dates provided.

Historians believe that the arch was built in 82 AD, where AD (Anno Domini) is of course a reference to the supposed year of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, but at that time Rome was not Christian, so obviously they would not have been numbering years “AD”. How then did the Romans, and other early civilizations, number the years?

What Have the Romans Ever Done for Us?

Given that so many aspects of our civilization can be traced back to the Classical times of Greece and Rome, it’s reasonable to assume that our system for numbering years would have Roman origins. However, thanks to an attempt to “Christianize” the Roman system, our current system has some strange quirks that continue to cause confusion.

Recently, during a news report, I heard the announcer state that an event that had occurred during the 1920s took place in the “Nineteenth Century”. In fact, as most people know, the period from 1901 through 2000 was the Twentieth Century, but exactly why is that? Why aren’t years from 1900 through 1999 referred to as the Nineteenth Century, and why did the Twentieth Century start in 1901?

I’ll answer those questions here, but I’m afraid that the answers may be rather uninspiring!

Trick Questions

When I was growing up, I used to spend quite a lot of time watching quiz shows on TV. (Well, we only had two channels, so there wasn’t much to watch!) Most of these were “trivia” contests, where the participants were asked questions to test their knowledge of a wide variety of subjects.

I’m not sure how educational those experiences were, but I do recall one type of “trick question” that was often asked on these shows. The quizmaster would ask something like, “What is the first year of the Twentieth Century?” The correct answer is 1901, but the anticipated wrong answers would be either “1900” or even “2000”.

These oddities sparked my curiosity, leading me to ask the questions listed above. I asked my schoolteachers about it, but they seemed unable to give a rational answer. Eventually, as an adult, I discovered that the reason for this mystery is, in part at least, ancient ignorance!

Year Zero

Our current “Common Era”/”Before Common Era” year numbering system (abbreviated to “CE/BCE”, and previously called the “AD/BC” system) is one among several systems that have been used during the past few thousand years. Some other systems are still in use now.

A common feature of all these systems is that the starting year is completely arbitrary. Some systems attempted to number years from the supposed creation of the Earth, but their estimates of Earth’s age were wildly inaccurate, so in effect the starting year was still arbitrary.

In fact, it may be just as well that we do have an arbitrary datum year, and that we don’t attempt to number years from the date of Earth’s creation. According to the latest research, Earth is about 4.54 billion years old. Every time you sign a check or contract, would you want to have to write out the year as something like “4,542,311,018”? I don’t think so!

The Years AUC

When Romans in the West wanted to provide a numeric year date, they sometimes numbered the years from the supposed “Founding of Rome”, which they named Ab Urbe Condita (AUC).

This date again was arbitrary, in the sense that there was no independent confirmation that Rome had really been founded in that year. In our current CE/BCE system, the year 1 AUC corresponds to 753 BCE.

The AUC system was not used consistently, and such dates may have been added in surviving literature.

The Years AM

The Byzantine Empire (which was the development of the Eastern Roman Empire) used a year numbering system known as AM (for Anno Mundi), which supposedly numbered the years from the date of Earth’s creation. The Year One AM was from September 1, 5509 BCE, to August 31, 5508 BCE.

This also illustrates the point that, even in our own calendar, the start of a year hasn’t always been on January 1st. This fact makes it more difficult to align year computations in different calendar systems.

In about 525 CE, a Christian monk called Dionysius Exiguus was once again engaged in an attempt to determine the age of the Earth from the Bible, and this led him to develop the CE/BCE (or AD/BC, as he called it) year numbering system that we now use.

Ancient Blunders

Frankie Howerd in a Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

Frankie Howerd in a Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

My illustration above shows Frankie Howerd performing in the stage play version of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. His expression seems appropriate in this context, because some details of the CE/BCE system seem like something that Howerd’s Roman slave character might have concocted!

The CE/BCE system also has an arbitrary start year; in this case the supposed birthdate of someone who may never have existed (and if he did exist, probably wasn’t born in that year)!

If you’ve learned about the history of arithmetic, then you’ll know that the concept of zero was introduced to Europe during the Middle Ages from the Arabic world, and was previously unknown to Western civilizations. Dionysius Exiguus apparently wasn’t familiar with the concept, so he omitted it from his year numbering system.

As a result of that ancient ignorance, there is no Year Zero in the CE/BCE system. The year numbering goes straight from 1 BCE to 1 CE. This is part of the reason why century numbering in this system seems so confusing.

The system also has no concept of a “Zeroth Century”, either BCE or CE. Thus, the years from 1 CE through 100 CE are the “First Century CE”, which accounts for the correct answer to that “trick question” about why the years from 1901 CE through 2000 CE are the Twentieth Century CE.

Below, I’ve created a table showing how the years AUC, CE and BCE align with century numbering. This should be a helpful reference, at least for people like me, who are more visually-oriented.

Centuries BCE and CE

Centuries BCE and CE

The general algebraic formulae for the centuries are as follows:

The Nth Century CE runs from [(N-1)*100 + 1] CE through N*100 CE

The Nth Century BCE runs from N*100 BCE through [(N-1)*100 + 1] BCE

Of course, as I mentioned above, years didn’t always start on January 1st, so this table is only a rough guide. There have also been date adjustments over the centuries, such as when the Gregorian calendar superseded the Julian calendar, so, before asserting the exact equivalence of two dates, further checking would be wise.

Arch of Titus, Via Sacra, Rome

Arch of Titus, Via Sacra, Rome

Leaving Home

Whitefriars, Coventry, 1979

Whitefriars, Coventry, 1979

I took the photo above in Coventry (West Midlands) in 1979, depicting an interesting contrast of ancient and modern. The building on the right is what remains of the Whitefriars Monastery, which has survived because it became Coventry’s workhouse during the nineteenth century.

On the left, next to the monastic remains, the city’s elevated Inner Ring Road sails past, with a modern office tower in the background. Ironically, since I took the photo, the modern tower seems to have been demolished, while the ancient Whitefriars building looks just the same now as it did then.

I first left my parents’ home in Scarborough, to live independently in Coventry, almost exactly forty years ago today, during the first week of October 1978, and the scene shown above was just one of many extraordinary sights that greeted me after I arrived in a new city.

A Memorable Day

For most of us, the day when we leave our parents’ home and start living independently is likely to be a memorable one. That was certainly true for me, although it was an event that I’d somewhat feared until it actually happened.

When I did finally make the move, I found it to be wonderful. A whole new world seemed to open up for me, and I never wanted to return to living with my parents!

To College or Not

For those who go on from school to university, their first experience of independent living is likely to be as undergraduates in college “dorms” (halls of residence). However, back in the 1970s, when I reached that age, only about 10% of Britain’s young people went on from school to university, so that experience was available only to a minority. (The situation is drastically different now.)

In those days, there were no universities in our home town of Scarborough, so, for me, going to college would inevitably involve living somewhere else. The nearest universities were in York and Hull, but even those were not sufficiently close to allow daily commuting.

The Stay-at-Home Who Didn’t

As my younger brother and I were growing up, it seemed that I was usually the “stay-at-home”, whereas he seemed to be the more “adventurous” one, who was thought to be more likely to leave.

The idea that I might one day “go away to university” was first suggested to me by my mother when I was about 8 years old. I really didn’t like the sound of that, to the extent that she had to assure me, explaining that, when my father went away to Teacher Training College, he had really enjoyed the experience. (She failed to add that, when my father went away to that college, he was about 40 years old!)

Tea in the Garden, West Street, Scarborough, June 1973

Tea in the Garden, West Street, Scarborough, June 1973

The photo above shows (left-right) my mother, our dog Meg, my brother and me, staying at home!

Artificial Limitations

In 1977, I was preparing to sit my Advanced-Level examinations, and it was time to start thinking seriously about what I would do after leaving school. Everyone seemed to take it for granted that I would continue my education at a university. Personally, I wasn’t so sure, and in any case, what would I study and where?

I’ve mentioned in a previous post that, thanks to poor career advice, I decided to apply for Civil Engineering degree courses. (With the benefit of 40 years of hindsight, that decision seems even more ludicrous!) Some universities offered a more general Engineering Science degree, in which you could opt for a Civil Engineering specialty before graduation.

I interviewed at and received offers from four universities, and, on the basis of my experience during the interviews, I eventually decided to accept an offer from the University of Warwick (located in Coventry).

I was the first in my family even to apply to a university, so I had absolutely no guidance as to how to choose between the offers. I seem to remember that my final decision was made on the basis of the landscape in each campus, which is actually quite a poor basis for making such an important decision!

I still hadn’t really grasped the fact that I had committed to moving nearly 200 miles away in the near future. However, as the date of the first term drew closer, I warmed to the idea of getting away from the depressing environment in Scarborough.

Expanded Horizons

During the first weekend of October 1978, my parents drove me to the Halls of Residence at Warwick University, helped me get my suitcases into my room, then left me to it.

Any sense of trepidation that I experienced at that moment soon evaporated, as I began to discover the new freedom of independent living!

Of course, the fact that most of my fellow students were experiencing the same epiphany was tremendously helpful, because we could “compare notes” regarding the best places to shop or hang out. Very few of us could afford cars, so we were mostly reliant on public transport. Fortunately, the West Midlands Passenger Transport Executive (WMPTE—which we referred to as “Wumpity”) and the Midland Red company provided comprehensive bus services, so we were able to get to most places that we needed to visit. Even so, bus travel wasn’t necessarily always pleasant, as illustrated by my view below of Coventry’s Pool Meadow Bus Station one snowy winter morning.

Pool Meadow Bus Station, Coventry, in the Snow

Pool Meadow Bus Station, Coventry, in the Snow

For longer journeys, British Rail offered “Student Railcards” that provided a 50% discount on standard fares, making rail travel quite cheap.

An Exciting City

Before I began living there, all that I really knew about Coventry was that it had famously been “blitzed” during World War II, which had destroyed much of the city center. By the time that I arrived there, most of the bombed sites had been redeveloped, and the central area presented a pleasant, neat and modern appearance, as shown below in my view of Broadgate Square from the tower of the bombed-out cathedral.

Broadgate Square, Coventry, from the Cathedral Tower

Broadgate Square, Coventry, from the Cathedral Tower

Although British industry was already in decline in those days, Coventry was nonetheless still very much an engineering center (which was largely what had made it such a tempting target for the Luftwaffe).

Many local engineering companies gave professional presentations on their newest developments, and as a student, I received invitations to those. For me as an aspiring engineer and transport enthusiast, it was very exciting to be able to go along and listen to discussions of new vehicles and other technical advances! For example, one evening the commercial vehicle manufacturer Metro-Cammell Weymann gave a presentation on their new Metrobus in the Hotel Leofric (on the right in the photo above), and I went along not only for the talk, but also for the free “wine and cheese”!

Clipped Wings

Sadly, as I’ve related in previous posts, my first year at Warwick did not go well academically, largely because of the traumatic events that were occurring in our family at around that time. (I even visited the University’s Student Counselor, in the hope that she would have sympathy for my situation and offer me some kind of “deferment”, but she clearly had no interest in such things.) I was forced to drop out of the course at the end of that year, which at the time seemed like a disaster (but as things turned out, was for the best).

Knowing that I was going to have to leave university lodgings, I made some effort in Spring 1979 to try to find a job in Coventry, but received very negative responses. (Later, such attitudes would not have deterred me, but I was too inexperienced at that time to persevere.) Thus, it seemed that I had no choice but to return to my mother’s home in Scarborough (my father having died in April 1979).

A Commitment to Leaving

As related in an earlier post, I ended up obtaining an office job in Scarborough and living with my mother there for about 18 months, before returning to university, this time further away—in London—but with ultimate success.

Despite my “false start”, my mind was made up from those first few weeks in Coventry, that, whatever it took, I would move away from Scarborough and forge my own independent life.

Of course, I still had no desire at that time to move to another continent, which I in fact did within 10 years. Nonetheless, the seed of the idea that ultimately led to my being here, now, was planted on the day that I left home.

Whitefriars, Coventry, 1978

Whitefriars, Coventry, 1978

Flying North Again

Tatra T87 at the Minneapolis Institute of Art

Tatra T87 at the Minneapolis Institute of Art

The photo above shows a preserved Tatra T87 automobile, which, in my opinion, must surely be the ultimate “Art Deco Car”. Designed in Czechoslovakia in 1936, this particular example was built in 1948. The swooping lines and graceful curves of the design are highlighted in this case by the gleaming silver paintwork.

I’d have expected to find a car such as this on display in a prestigious European motor museum, so I was quite astonished this week when I visited the Minneapolis Institute of Art, in the Midwest of the USA, and found it there.

The reason for my visit to Minneapolis was simply because that’s my wife’s hometown. We went there to visit her family, most of who still live in or around that city. We had a great visit with everyone, but I must confess that, as I get older, I increasingly prefer the comforts of my home, so I was glad to get back!

Far Away is Close at Hand in Models of Elsewhere

Many years ago, during the 1970s, there was a famous item of graffiti that appeared near the approach to Paddington railway station in London, which ran:


The first inkling that I ever had that there existed a place called the “Midwest” was when I was about 7 years old. In 1967, the Trans-World Model Railway opened at the Corner Café in Scarborough. This was a gigantic OO/HO scale model railway, which included inter-connected sections depicting Britain, France, Germany, and, via an “Atlantic Bridge”, the USA and Canada.

One of the US sections was captioned “The Midwest”, but of course I had no real idea where it was, nor did I ever expect to visit such a place, and I certainly never imagined that I might one day marry someone from there!

Having been married to Mary for some 27 years now, I’ve traveled with her to Minnesota on many occasions. We try to visit different places during each visit.

The Inland Beaches

As you might guess, the Midwest is far from either the Atlantic or Pacific Oceans, so there’s no ocean frontage to be found there. Nonetheless, given that Minnesota is the “Land of 10,000 Lakes”, there are still beaches within the state. The photo below shows one: Thomas Beach, on Lake Calhoun in Minneapolis, with the skyscrapers of downtown visible in the distance.

Thomas Beach & Downtown Minneapolis

Thomas Beach & Downtown Minneapolis

As a girl, my wife lived in an apartment that’s behind the trees on the far side of the lake, and she used to swim at this beach.

A Cultural Center

I realize that the Midwest may not generally be thought of as a center of culture, but in fact (probably thanks to its industrial wealth) Minneapolis has more than its “fair share” of cultural attractions.

In the past, I’ve visited the Walker Art Center, and various local museums, but I’d never before been to the vast Minneapolis Institute of Art. Hanging above the lobby of the Institute is a large glass sculpture by Dale Chihuly, as shown below.

Dale Chihuly Exhibit, Minneapolis Institute of Art

Dale Chihuly Exhibit, Minneapolis Institute of Art

Inside the Institute, many substantial collections are on display, covering all time periods from the Stone Age to the present, and spanning all continents.

Amid the collection of Twentieth Century artwork, there’s one painting by Piet Mondrian, whose art and beliefs I discussed in an earlier post. The photo below shows a closeup of his initials at the bottom left of the painting, to prove that it’s really his, rather than some simulation that I cobbled together on my computer!

Mondrian's Initials

Mondrian’s Initials

There’s also a large collection of Impressionist works, three of which are shown below. The painting on the left, Notre Dame de Paris by Maximilien Luce, sold in 2011 for $4.2 million, a record amount for an Impressionist work.

Some Impressionist Works

Some Impressionist Works

It’s impossible to do justice to the scale of the Institute’s collections in this short article, and I would encourage you to visit this amazing museum yourself if you’re ever in the vicinity.

The Scandinavian Diaspora

Many of the early European settlers in what’s now Minnesota came from the Scandinavian countries; Denmark, Sweden and Norway. Apparently, circa 1900, about 25% of the population of Minneapolis consisted of Swedish emigrés. Thus, it’s perhaps not surprising that Minneapolis is home to the American Swedish Institute. We visited this Institute too, and took the tour of the Turnblad Mansion, which was built in 1908 by the proprietor of a Swedish-language newspaper. The mansion is shown in the photo below, seen from inside the modern extension built next to it.

The American Swedish Institute

The American Swedish Institute

The ASI also has an excellent restaurant, FIKA, but it’s an understandably popular lunch venue, so you may have to wait for a table!

Flying Home

We returned to San Francisco airport directly from Minneapolis. I took the emotive photo below from my seat, as our Boeing 737-800 was descending to land in San Francisco. Our flight left Minneapolis at about 6.30pm, so we were “chasing the sunset” back to California as shown in the photo.

Boeing 737-800 Landing at Sunset

Boeing 737-800 Landing at Sunset

The circumstances of my flight reminded me of the lyrics of Thomas Dolby’s song Flying North, which was popular in the early 1980s when I was first traveling to the US. Part of the lyrics are:

Metal bird dip wing of fire

Whose airlanes comb dark Earth

The poles are tethers we were born in

Now I’m back in the London night

On a bench in a launderette

I’m staring right into my face

And I’m drawn out like a plot

And I’m flying North again


These days, I’m no longer flying home to London, of course. Instead, we just had a wonderful dose of Midwest culture, and now it’s great to be back home in California!

Tatra T87 at the Minneapolis Institute of Art

Tatra T87 at the Minneapolis Institute of Art

The Correct Scale for Artwork

Life Study, 2003

Life Study, 2003

The image above is a scan from a life drawing in pencil that I produced in 2003. This was one of several drawings that I recently had scanned professionally, because the original image size is simply too large (about 24” x 19”) for my equipment.

The issue of the “right size” at which to create artwork has concerned me several times over the years, and I generally haven’t received much guidance on the subject.

When I was growing up, there seemed to be a general attitude (even among my teachers) that the goal of producing artwork was to create a “pretty picture to hang on a wall”, so the “correct” size was simply that at which you wanted to be able to view the picture.

As I described in an earlier post, it was only when I arrived at Imperial College, and became the Publicity Officer of the H G Wells Society there, that I was faced with the requirement to produce artwork that was intended for reproduction. Thus, my original artwork didn’t automatically need to be the same size as the reproduced version.

Avoid Magnification

My initial drawings and paintings were created rather casually on a standard A4 pad, and it was only when I needed to reproduce those as posters that it dawned on me that the posters would be A3 size, i.e., double the size at which I’d created the artwork. In the case where I’d produced a black-and-white line drawing, as below, the result didn’t look too terrible, but some of the others looked quite bad when enlarged!

Comic Strip Artwork, 1981

Comic Strip Artwork, 1981

I learned a harsh lesson from that experience, and, since then, I’ve always endeavored to create my original artwork at a scale larger than 1:1, relative to the final displayed size.

Comic Strip Techniques

I did learn later that much artwork for magazine or newspaper reproduction, such as comic strips, is normally created at twice the size of the intended final reproduction. That was one of those “commercial techniques” that nobody bothered to teach me during my artistic training!

Vector Artwork & Infinite Scaling

In a post on my professional blog, The Two Types of Computer Graphics, I explained the fundamental difference between bitmap and vector representations in computer-based artwork. (Some seem to believe that such artwork is “computer-generated”, but that isn’t the case. Although the computer provides the hardware and software to record the image, it still requires a human artist to perform the actual drawing or painting.)

Whereas bitmap graphics are created on a matrix of pixels, and thus have fixed dimensions, vector artwork consists of shapes entirely described by mathematical functions, which have no predetermined dimensions. Thus, in principle at least, vector artwork can be rendered at any size with no loss of resolution. I featured an example of vector artwork in another recent post, and it’s shown again below. The forms consist entirely of geometric shapes, which the computer can render at any size, so there’s no loss of resolution (although lack of artist-provided detail becomes obvious as the image is magnified).

Egret Shock Wave, 2018

Egret Shock Wave, 2018

Size is Proportional to Time

Returning to the large life study shown at the top of this post, as I became more practiced at such drawings, I tended to make them larger, because that allowed me more control in areas where I wanted to include precise details (such as the face, as shown below in another similarly-sized drawing).

Life Study Detail, 2003

Life Study Detail, 2003

The price to be paid for choosing to produce larger drawings, of course, was that it took me far longer to shade the entire drawing satisfactorily! For that reason, I never actually produced many such drawings.

The advent of computer-based artwork, and the fact that we often now view artwork of all kinds on computer screens, requires artists to think more carefully about the “correct size” for their work; it’s no longer just a question of what will “look good” hanging on a wall!

Life Study, 2003

Life Study, 2003

The Last Day of Steam at Agecroft


Last Day of Steam at Agecroft: Locomotives 1 and 2

The image above shows two steam locomotives that, on the day that I photographed them, were just being retired from active commercial service. On the basis of that description, you might think that this must have occurred some time during the 1940s or 1950s, but I’m not that old! In fact the date of the photo is Saturday, 12 September, 1981.

I mentioned in an earlier post that, during the summers I spent as an apprentice at Ferranti in Manchester, I was always on the lookout for interesting local places to visit at the weekends. These days, of course, such places are easy to locate—you just do a web search—but back then it was more difficult and more haphazard.

At some point during my first summer in Manchester, I must have spotted a notice somewhere advertising the Last Day of Steam at Agecroft Power Station. I didn’t have a car, which made it difficult to visit places that were not well-served by public transport. Fortunately though, as I learned from my A-Z street map, the power station was in Pendlebury, not too far from where I was living in Middleton, so I went along on the advertised day to see what was happening.

The map excerpt below, which is from a later 1992 edition of a Manchester street atlas, shows the location of the power station, near a railway line and a canal (for deliveries), and the River Irwell (for cooling water). The nearby Agecroft Colliery was the source for the station’s coal. The general appearance of the power station is shown in this BBC photo.


A Coal-Based Operation

As is well known (in the UK at least), British Rail had phased out steam traction in 1968, but that change didn’t apply to other users of steam locomotives in Britain. The locomotives at the power station were owned by the nationalized Central Electricity Generating Board, and, since the station was itself coal-fired, it made some sense to keep the locomotives in operation for as long as possible.

Three locomotives were being retired that day, and were giving joy rides to the public, as shown in these photos. They had all been built by the famous firm Robert Stephenson & Co., in 1948, so by steam locomotive standards, they were still relatively new. Locomotive No. 1 was painted red, and Locomotive No. 2 was blue. Those locomotives are both visible in the heading photo.

Locomotive No. 3 was painted green, and is shown steaming in my photo below.


Last Day of Steam: Locomotive 3

My photo below shows a more general view of the Power Station, with Locomotive No. 2 hauling joyriders in a set of yellow carriages.


Joy Rides at the Power Station, 1981

Unfortunately, my photographs are all somewhat too dark, so it’s difficult to see the locomotives well in them. The sky that day was very showery, so lighting conditions were changing rapidly, and my camera had only manual controls. Such concepts as High-Dynamic Range photography were unknown to me in those days, and in any case not available with the equipment that I had.

Fortunately, someone else called Dave Dixon took much better photographs of the same event, and has made them publicly available on Flickr here.

What’s Left Of It All

Not surprisingly, following their withdrawal from CEGB service, all 3 steam locomotives were bought for preservation, so they all still exist. The same cannot be said for any part of Agecroft Power Station itself, which was closed in 1993, and demolished in 1994. The entire site was redeveloped and is now the location of a prison.

My presence at that historic event was very much a matter of chance. It was another of many Manchester locations that I visited, but which have now completely vanished.

Last Day of Steam at Agecroft: Locomotives 1 and 2

Last Day of Steam at Agecroft: Locomotives 1 and 2