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  • Alan Dale

A Whole New World In A Box

The Christmas wrapping fell away. I pulled out a flat, cardboard pack, with a beautifully printed harbour scene on the cover. Ships, warehouses, cranes, wharves – the business. “Build your own model harbour,” read the banner, suspended in the sky (not supplied).

Little model-making junky heaven! True, aged seven, I found the jolly, 1950s-style instructions a tad mysterious. Exhortations to “bend tabs backwards, ensuring correct location, before applying adhesive” hinted at complexities to emerge in later, professional engineering life. I was, happily, devoid of second sight.

This was my first glimpse of how scenes could be represented “in a box”, a pack, a picture, any small scale physical representation. I sat, fascinated by a whole little world, visualised, then outlined, detailed, coloured and finally compressed onto sheets of perforated coloured cardboard.

The inevitable learning curve of torn tabs, damaged delicate parts and glaringly crooked sub-assemblies followed, before the rickety but recognisable construction emerged. But what was this? When placed on a table, a chair back loomed above the formerly towering warehouse frontages. Full-sized window frames soared skyward, dwarfing the hitherto lofty dockside cranes.

I probably learned more about perspective, through such early disappointments, than any formal, geometrically based instruction at that age would have conveyed. Mum started me off, in our rooms, in Camberley. Aged five, I’d ask her to show me how to draw trains. Naturally gifted and with formal training from school, she would draw them in perspective, with the last few distant carriages tapering almost to a point.

My first school art experiences involved powder paints, grey cartridge paper and huge, utterly uncooperative brushes that rendered most attempts at detail futile. Subsequent mandatory lino cuts did little to enhance my technical abilities.

I just wouldn’t buy into certain illusions. Take Meccano. A marvellous invention – I enjoyed my little set. The empty holes, however, made those wonderful working cranes and locomotives that one saw at Hamleys, appear to have been strafed by machine guns. I explained this to Mother. “You’re just difficult,” she replied, laughing.

I subsequently developed a great fondness for Picasso. on reading that he couldn’t master arithmetic, because the number seven looked like an upside-down nose.

We were once told, in primary school, to draw a fairground scene, including any feature of our choice, e.g. a coconut shy or roundabout. I’d been fascinated by the huge diesel generators that powered the various attractions, at a local fairground. I produced what I felt was a perfectly passable picture of such a machine, only to incur considerable ire. Such is the price of anarchic non-conformity. Years later, my late wife Angela’s professional contempt for that teacher’s attitude greatly consoled me, as she emphasised the need to encourage children’s interpretations.

Freed from any curricular obligations, I chose art as one of my “arts for science six-formers” options. The art master, authentically bearded, welcomed me back, as one who had actually displayed a knowledge of perspective, thanks to Mum. I designed and made a miniature theatre set, choosing a simple Arcadian glade, surrounded by woods. Passable success in representing sunlit foliage with pointillist dots of green, yellow and orange remains among my happiest educational memories.

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