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Brockley Adult Education Centre, London, 7 November 2020

What bliss! A full day of proper life modelling, in person. And what good fortune! I was with Esther outside the National Gallery waiting to enter its Artemesia Gentileschi exhibition, when Esther said, “Isn’t that Joanna?” Right enough, Joanna McCormick was walking by. After we’d chatted a while, Joanna said she needed a male model for the whole day on Saturday 7 November and asked if I would be interested…

It was to be a hybrid session at Brockley Adult Education Centre, with some artists present in the room and others participating online via Zoom. The latter aspect would make it my first experience of online life modelling in any situation. This hybrid format made the prospect more palatable for me, as personally I still struggle to find the idea appealing. I arranged my pose space in relation to five easels and a webcam.

Between 10am and 11:15am, we would be working through a sequence of very short poses, each timed by music of the exact length required from an eclectic playlist: five 1-minute poses to start, then three of 3-minutes, two of 5-minutes, one of 10-minutes and one of 15-minutes. Windows were wide open to keep the fresh air circulating but temperatures were mild for mid-autumn. Sunshine and exertion kept me warm.

We took a drinks break for quarter of an hour, then resumed with poses of 20-minutes and 30-minutes. Prior to each pose Joanna suggested a new method of mark-making for artists to try if they wished, and most would give it a go. Afterwards everybody was invited to show their work and talk a bit about their choice of materials. Remote artists were able to engage with those in the room, and the vibe was upbeat throughout.

We took half an hour for lunch before closing the session with one long pose. I chose to be seated and settled into position at 1:20pm. Stretch breaks could be taken every 20 minutes but I declined the first, opting to stay motionless till 2pm before easing my limbs for a minute or two. At 2:20pm we paused again and all took a 10-minute break before resuming for what would be our final half-hour, taking us up to 3 o’clock.

This session was able to go ahead during England’s second nationwide ‘lockdown’ of the coronavirus pandemic due to an exemption for schools and colleges. In the week that followed, however, all my remaining bookings for 2020 were cancelled. The risks simply appear too great for many institutions. It’s a shame, but understandable. If this was indeed my last booking of the year, well… it was a lovely way to spend the day.

Mall Galleries, London, 28 October 2020

It’s a frivolous observation to make amidst the trauma and upheaval of pandemic, but one entirely unanticipated consequence for me was a booking on 15-minute poses at Mall Galleries. All previous sessions for Hesketh Hubbard Art Society had been on portrait, long-pose or 30-minute poses. Now, with strict COVID-19 safety measures in place, artist numbers limited and other models dropping out, my time had come!

These days the gallery has a one-way system, requires artists to wear face coverings and prioritises social distancing. Such restrictions leave room for only three models to work. Long-pose and portrait pose would be as usual, but I was to provide a hybrid of 15-minute poses for the first hour and 30-minute poses for the second. By agreement between the artists, however, we switched to make it 15-minute poses throughout.

Drawing by Liz Elmhirst.

Drawing by Liz Elmhirst.

Drawing by Liz Elmhirst.

Drawing by Liz Elmhirst.

On the busiest evenings of bygone years, there might be a hundred or so artists here. This session had, I reckon, perhaps twenty split between two rooms with six or seven drawing me. Not many to witness my debut 15-minute poses at Mall Galleries but the connection felt stronger with those who were present. The space had become almost serene; the uncannily becalmed eye of a coronavirus storm across the world outside.

I’ve often jokingly referred to short-pose bookings here as the ‘sexy slot’ in recognition of an unspecified quality that, despite a change of model each week, somehow seems to be ever present. I never imagined carrying the responsibility myself, but gave of my best – just my own quirky lines and angles – and felt gratified to get positive feedback. Exceptional circumstances, desperate times, special moments.

The Conservatoire, Blackheath, 12 October 2020

This session at The Conservatoire, Blackheath, was only my second life modelling job since the UK coronavirus (COVID-19) lockdown of spring and summer 2020. The door is once more ajar for in-person life drawing, yet with coronavirus cases, hospital admissions and deaths on the rise, I fear it won’t be for long. At least the Victorian art studio here offers plenty of room for two-metre social distancing.

All doors were wide open to the street when I arrived, providing maximum ventilation. Instinctively I wanted to close them and keep the cold air out but, of course, priorities have shifted now. Two mini radiators and a ceramic heater soon got the space warm. They felt safer than fan heaters that redirect each exhaled breath towards the model. We began with quick poses of 1 minute, 1 minute, 1 minute, 5 minutes, 10 minutes.

A single long pose would occupy the remaining 2 hours. Tutor Victoria Rance asked whether I would oblige the class with a standing pose – in particular, a revision of the arms-out posture I’d made with 219 others for Spencer Tunick’s Everyone Together photographic installation one month earlier. Victoria called it the “Doctor Who pose”, as it resembles the Time Lord’s dramatic stance when regenerating…

‘Everyone Together’

Doctor Who

For a mass photoshoot, one might be in pose for a few minutes. For the wracked and dying Doctor, it’s mere seconds. For me, however, it would be a couple of hours. With six artists looking on, I planted my feet, arched my back and spread my arms. From a little after 8pm till 8:35pm it was OK. From 8:45pm to 9:05pm, my left arm went numb and my back began to lock. Thereafter, it was agony. We finished a bit before 10pm.

It would take days rather than seconds for my human body to regenerate. Six months of limited activity, chair-bound hunching and insufficient preparation took an inevitable toll. Put simply, I was out of shape and out of practice. Life in 2020 has been all about getting through it and finding a ‘new normal’; here my muscles experienced the same. I’m sure I must have grimaced a few times but portraits were captured nonetheless.

Despite my pains, I’m thankful for the opportunity. My last job had been comfortable, and now this was more of a test. But with a second lockdown looking probable before the end of the year, both rough and smooth are to be cherished alike. What once had been regular work is now a rare treat. Hopefully it’s not unreasonable to keep it going into the long dark months of winter. No life has no risk; this one felt well-managed.

Fairkytes Arts Centre, London, 22 September 2020

The coronavirus (COVID-19) lockdown of spring and summer 2020 had wiped out my life model bookings from mid-March to the end of August. Online life modelling wasn’t for me so my work for artists ended, but life during lockdown remained busy and I’d felt in a good place. Nonetheless, I was happy when, from mid-July, autumn bookings started to drip through. The first of these was for a return to Fairkytes Arts Centre.

Mine was only the second session for LeNu Life Drawing since Fairkytes reopened. New rules were now in play. For a start, a larger room was given over to life drawing, which allowed better social distancing. I would be in the round rather than having my back to a wall. Most eyebrow-raising from a life model’s perspective, however, was a requirement to have windows open. Fortunately for me, it was a warm evening.

Full credit to the group’s organiser, Natansky, who posed nude for the first session to get a sense of how it could be for subsequent models. For this session she joined us at the set-up, but had to depart before our 7:30pm start – her regular artists would be running the show; deciding the pose lengths and keeping time. Many of us knew one another, so trust was already there. We began with poses of 5, 5, 10 and 20 minutes.

The group had clearly been missing social interaction as much as life drawing so our quarter-of-an-hour break ended up running to 25-minutes. It’s another vital part of life drawing groups that can’t be recreated online. Once underway again, we finished the evening with poses of 20 and 25 minutes. The temperature dropped towards the end but not enough for a heater to have been desirable. Overall, it went very well.

My main concern going into this booking was not temperature or even coronavirus – I knew proper safeguards would be in place – but rather my own rustiness. It had been over six months since I last stretched and twisted my body for up to two hours. Aches and pains never materialised, however. The warm-ups worked. And now I’m back. No burning desire to fill the diary again, but happy with occasional work for good people.

Everyone Together: Spencer Tunick in London

BOOM!! A surprise call-out arrived by email on Monday 17 August 2020.

Come Together, London – Spencer Tunick Installation 2020
A communal, social distancing, mask wearing, human artwork. Participate for Spencer Tunick in a group, nude, photographic installation [which] is intended to be a creative outlet for participants to come together to make art in these trying times. It’s an artistic exploration of the possibilities of human connection. A visual statement with a message to stay strong, safe and united while making art together.
Date: Saturday, 12th September, 2020
Time: To be determined.
This artwork has been made possible by the generous support of Sky Arts.

After six months of locked-down, doom-laden, isolated existence – during which time the arts and social-living had been sacrificed on the altar of coronavirus safety – this was a much-needed breath of renewed life for enthusiasts.

The email also said: “sign up sooner rather than later as there are space limitations.

Ninety-nine minutes later, my application was in.

Getting in

Applying was the easy part. Getting accepted proved harder. My own experience was a reverse hokey-cokey: out, in, out, in. By the end of the following week, successful applicants started getting emails saying: “Congratulations, you have been selected to participate in Spencer Tunick’s latest installation“. Esther got one; I didn’t. Esther was in; clearly I was not. After a few days of inconsolable moping, I decided – in the words of Peter Cook – that “I wasn’t taking ‘no reply’ for an answer.”

On 1 September, I sent the most humiliating, cringing, hand-wringing, begging email I’ve ever sent to anybody in my life. I wasn’t proud, I was just desperate. This will be wholly unrelatable for the overwhelming majority of sentient lifeforms but, for reasons I can’t explain, participation in body-positive art installations has become my passion. Opportunities are so rare these days, even without a pandemic, that this one could not be missed. Somehow it worked; next day the answer came: “OK: YOU’RE IN!

And then five days later I got another email saying: “Due to the current pandemic, we have had to limit the number of people we can have on site at once, and unfortunately we are now at maximum capacity with participants so on this occasion, we won’t be inviting you to take part in the installation this weekend.” Ah, fate is a cruel trickster. I responded immediately, expressing my grave disappointment but adding: “I’ll go along anyway as you’ve still included my girlfriend.

None of us applicants knew it at the time, but one of Spencer’s installation concepts would be focusing on couples. Two days later – just three days before the photo shoot itself – I received a reply telling me I could take part after all. Jubilation! This time for real! Rather than being valued on my own merit, it was likely I’d been selected solely because my partner would be involved, but hey, these are wretched times. Pride is a luxury of little use at the end of the world.

The venue was revealed to be Alexandra Palace, and we were to register on site at 4:10am. These things inevitably require mustering before sunrise. After weighing-up numerous public transport options – none which were viable – I booked us a room in the salubrious setting of Travelodge London Wood Green. That evening we found a nearby Italian restaurant, ordered a light repast with wine, and thereon entirely failed to get the early night we’d intended.

Sign o’ the times, heading into town.

Checking in

The alarm went off around 3am. We splashed ourselves, quit our room, dropped the keycard at reception, then set off into the black of night. It was a brisk half-hour walk to Alexandra Palace and, whilst the capital never truly sleeps, it was noticeable that traffic intensified as we neared our destination. The car park was filling with Spencer’s volunteers, in dozens rather than hundreds. Even so, I was surprised how quickly we found our friends Cy and Paula in the pale yellow electric gloom.

3:59am, Alexandra Palace car park.

We had been chatting for little more than a couple of minutes when the call came for everyone to line-up in two queues. These directed us to adjacent desks immediately outside the entrance of the main hall. We joined the right-side queue and – needless to say – then seemed barely to dawdle forward while the other queue cantered along. At least the uneven pacing brought more friends alongside us: first Camila, then Ian. Eventually our own speed picked up and delivered us for processing.

Two queues for the check-in desks.

We’re in the slow lane so there’s time for a selfie.

At the outside check-in desk, we were first required to show our passports. We then cleansed our hands with sanitiser gel and were invited to take white face masks from what I assumed must be equally-clean proffered hands. Entering the building, our next pause was to have a temperature gun pointed at our foreheads. This found us in rude health, or at least not aflame, so we proceeded to a final desk where we were issued colour-coded seat numbers. Red 18 for me; Red 19 for Esther. It was now 4:30am.

From YouTube: ‘Everyone Together’, © Imogen Watson – checks outside.

From YouTube: ‘Everyone Together’, © Imogen Watson – checks inside.

We wait

Chairs inside the halls were arranged as a socially-distanced grid, 9 feet away from each other. At a rough count, it seemed to me there were 200 chairs set-out in four blocks of fifty, 5 chairs wide and 10 rows deep. Our red zone was the back-left block. We found our chairs, sat down and waited patiently as remaining empty chairs in the hushed hall were filled and a few more were brought out. Every five minutes, a dude with a microphone at the centre of the hall read the same strict safety instructions…

From YouTube: ‘Everyone Together’, © Imogen Watson – social distancing.

Welcome to Ally Pally this morning. First I’d like to ask everyone not to post anything on social media until after September 17th. After September 17th. Please ensure the safety of yourself and those around you by wearing the provided face masks at all times, indoors and outdoors. Make use of the hand sanitisers at designated stations throughout the building.

From YouTube: ‘Everyone Together’, © Imogen Watson – one chair, one bag.

Remain seated at your designated seat unless you need a toilet break or require assistance. You’ll find hand sanitiser stations are designated at each individual area. There’s also a member of staff who will answer any questions you may have. If you do need to leave your designated seat, please ensure you maintain a minimum of 2m distance from others at all times. Take notice of the floor markings and directional signage throughout the venue.

Grid of chairs.

Please remain clothed until prompted. Please do not take any pictures throughout the installation. If you do take pictures, you’ll be asked to delete them and may be asked to leave the event. Please pay attention to the floor markings and directional arrows to the toilet facilities and seating areas. Gents’ toilets, front venue to the left; ladies’ toilets, front venue to the right.

The view from Red 18.

This installation was commissioned by Sky Arts to mark their move from subscription channel to free-to-air on 17 September, hence the embargo till after that date. Around 5:15am a Sky Arts chap offered a few words, then Spencer spoke for 10 minutes. He shared his vision and said he’d planned a group mass installation when the pandemic first hit, but when he realised there were shortages of PPE, N95 masks and surgical masks, he thought it would be insensitive. Now we were lucky: we could make art!

Listening intently.

Understandably, before Spencer appeared the atmosphere had been more sombre than at his previous installations. Now the mood was lifted but our temperatures were sinking with every passing moment. I pulled my coat tighter around me, knowing that far worse was to come, and getting nearer. Sunrise was due at 6:31am, with the first twilight glimmer of dawn at 5:57am. Accordingly, some time between those markers the call came for us all to undress and take a socially-distanced walk outside.

On go our art installation masks!

We emerge

After waiting so long, you might think the moment of undressing would be a sudden exhilarating rush of excitement, but more often it’s simply a rush. One wishes to be stripped immediately and outside making group art, but first there are clothes to be removed and folded, valuables tucked away, and everything bagged. It becomes a rapid fumble followed by a swift scuttle to catch-up the line of bare bottoms already disappearing out the door. I never feel graceful.

From YouTube: ‘Everyone Together’, © Imogen Watson – out the door…

From YouTube: ‘Everyone Together’, © Imogen Watson – …down the steps.

We left the main hall and turned right, descended a first set of steps, crossed South Terrace road, descended more steps followed by a patch of lawn and a footpath, then began spreading out on the grassy slope below. Spencer and his assistants awaited on an industrial elevating platform positioned on the footpath, so for the opening shot we would be situated between the artist and a sliver of crimson daybreak beyond an otherwise overcast London skyline.

Into the park.

There were two hundred and twenty of us. Two hundred and twenty bodies, entirely naked except for thin white masks, jogging on the spot to keep warm whilst twirling with arms outstretched to maintain a two metre distance from those closest. As well as his assistants on the platform, Spencer had two or three more foot soldiers on the ground to keep us corralled in the area of each shot, and to correct various positional infractions that individuals would inevitably make.

From YouTube: ‘Everyone Together’, © Imogen Watson – Spencer prepares.

Location 1 – London skyline backdrop

And so to work, creating sets of simple coordinated poses. These installations could never be described as choreographed, but Spencer clearly has an eye for details and spends a great deal of time using his megaphone to steer individuals into the perfect positions, or getting his helpers to manoeuvre us as required. When first experienced, this can all seem a little stressful, but for veterans it’s recognised as a key part of his modus operandi and, to some extent, the charm.

Pose 1: standing, body and face forwards, arms down.

From YouTube: ‘Everyone Together’, © Imogen Watson – positioning.

© Documentary photography of Spencer Tunick installation courtesy of the artist.

© Documentary photography of Spencer Tunick installation courtesy of the artist.

© Documentary photography of Spencer Tunick installation courtesy of the artist.

As the first shot was captured, so the cold permeated deeper. For the next set-up we stayed on the same spot but rotated 90 degrees. Spencer asked us to turn our heads so our faces were towards him yet without looking at him. Instead, our gaze was to be directed at the old Alexandra Palace transmission mast. Of all my discomforts, the aching neck from this pose lasted longest. Afterwards we all walked a little to the right and mirrored the previous neck-aching stance.

Pose 2: standing, body facing right, face turned left to Spencer, eyes away.

From YouTube: ‘Everyone Together’, © Imogen Watson – eyes left.

From YouTube: ‘Everyone Together’, © Imogen Watson – eyes still left.

© Documentary photography of Spencer Tunick installation courtesy of the artist.

Pose 3: standing, body facing left, face turned right to Spencer, eyes away.

© Spencer Tunick / @spencertunick.

Now the moment everybody must have anticipated with trepidation: the instruction to lay flat on our backs upon the damp grass. Curiously it didn’t feel too bad, but by this point I may have already achieved maximum coldness. The next request was that we raise both arms. I did so, and watched my hands shaking uncontrollably; I really was unable to stop the shivers. But then we were asked to lower our right arms and keep only our left arms vertical, so the shaking then only looked half as bad.

Pose 4: laying parallel with the path, head to Spencer’s left, arms down.
Pose 5: laying as before but with both arms raised straight up.
Pose 6: laying as before but with just the left arm raised straight up.

From YouTube: ‘Everyone Together’, © Imogen Watson – flat out.

From YouTube: ‘Everyone Together’, © Imogen Watson – arms up.

© Spencer Tunick / @spencertunick.

Location 2 – Alexandra Palace backdrop

Upon returning to our feet, we were asked to go back up the grassy slope, across the footpath and assemble on the patch of lawn between Spencer and Alexandra Palace. This was a much smaller area, however, so those that couldn’t fit (socially-distanced) were directed to the terrace above, or even onto the balcony of the palace itself. Here we stood with bodies, faces and palms forward – the magnificent palace façade at our backs – for what would be my favourite artwork from the shoot.

Pose 7: standing, body and face forwards, arms down but angled outwards.

From YouTube: ‘Everyone Together’, © Imogen Watson – on higher ground.

From YouTube: ‘Everyone Together’, © Imogen Watson – multi-level.

© Spencer Tunick / @spencertunick – my favourite artwork.

As the early hours advanced, so did an increasing succession of accidental intruders. Vehicles passed along South Terrace with greater frequency, ranging from cars to red double-decker buses. Even a police car stopped to investigate. A photographer had to be moved along and we waited patiently whilst a jogger loped through. Somehow the unexpected always breaks the ice, in every sense. When able to continue, we turned and reached out to our nearest, then went onto our knees – arms down, arms up.

Pose 8: standing, turning, reaching out one arm to the person nearest.
Pose 9: kneeling on both knees, body and face forwards, arms down.
Pose 10: kneeling as before, arms down but angled outwards.

From YouTube: ‘Everyone Together’, © Imogen Watson – reaching out.

© Documentary photography of Spencer Tunick installation courtesy of the artist.

Location 3 – couples on steps

The final set-ups were for couples only. This accounted for 50 participants in total, so almost a quarter of the group stayed on whilst the rest retreated rapidly to their warm clothes. Spencer’s inspiration was ‘The Lovers II‘ by René Magritte. We moved to the steps immediately below South Terrace and embraced our loved ones. To refine the composition, Spencer asked Esther to stand one step higher than me; oh, we’ve done it many times before! We kissed, swapped sides, and kissed again.

Pose 11: couples standing in a close embrace, kissing through masks.
Pose 12: couples as before, swapped sides, kissing through masks.

© Documentary photography of Spencer Tunick installation courtesy of the artist.

© with kind permission – couples pair-up.

© with kind permission – artist and crew.

From YouTube: ‘Everyone Together’, © Imogen Watson – masked intimacy.

© Spencer Tunick / @spencertunick (with media censorship).

From YouTube: ‘Everyone Together’, © Imogen Watson – we’re done!

Got it!

All right, got it! Thank you so much!” With these words Spencer brought the shoot to its conclusion. We all cheered and clapped, not because it was over and we could get warm again, but because we’d made it through an extraordinarily harsh six months of human existence, culminating in an unexpected opportunity to make art, and had now completed the journey. The very fact that this sort of thing could still happen – to us or to anyone, anywhere – was uplifting. Existence could still be living.

© with kind permission – holding-up the traffic.

© with kind permission – back to the palace.

Smiling eyes.

Everyone together again

A call-out to ‘Come Together‘ became an installation of ‘Everyone Together‘. Except it wasn’t. We know many people who applied but, for reasons never explained, were not selected. Special mention goes to Emma, Karen, Les and Natasha – I know how sad I’d felt when I thought I’d been left out, so you have my complete sympathy. I hope all those for whom this is a passion get another chance, and soon. You were missed, as were other friends who chose not to travel because of the risks or difficulties.

7:37pm, a room is empty without friends.

In our clothes, outside, we found familiar faces in the car park. Camila, Cy and Paula had lingered, as had John, Niv and, of course, Gil. We talked a while, took photos (a final flash from Paula) and caught up with all the things that hadn’t been possible for months before. As delightful as this was, I think we were all feeling the want of sleep and a need for rest. After saying our farewells, Esther and I headed towards Finsbury Park, pausing only for pastries at Velasquez and Van Wezel before going home.

Reliving the magic.

One last flash.


We waited patiently in silence until the embargo date of 17 September, then rejoiced as images and press coverage started to emerge. We too were free to speak openly about our experiences. Apparently it was a Hope and Glory PR ‘naked success’!

…to link but a few.

Images were shared widely across news websites and social media. Still these days, however, censorship looms large; often insidious, occasionally comical. Full marks to the censors in Taiwan and Vietnam for their dedication and creativity, below.

Media censorship – Taiwan (top) and Vietnam (bottom).

On 17 September, participants eagerly tuned in to Sky Arts hoping to see coverage of our art-making but there was none, and none had been promised. For Sky Arts, it had been about publicity. For Spencer, it was about realising a vision he’d harboured since the pandemic began. For the rest of us, it was a fleeting liberation from the grim reality of recent months, and – even for those unable to take part – a beacon of hope that art, life, creativity and unity can still happen and will happen in our futures, together.

Life during lockdown, part 1

Today, Friday 11 September, marks 6 months since the World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General gave a coronavirus (COVID-19) media briefing to announce:

WHO has been assessing this outbreak around the clock and we are deeply concerned both by the alarming levels of spread and severity, and by the alarming levels of inaction. We have therefore made the assessment that COVID-19 can be characterised as a pandemic.

A pandemic. The first in my lifetime. The first ever to be caused by a coronavirus. Its impact on the UK had been limited up until that point, but we would soon experience its full force. Six months on, this country’s official COVID-19 death toll is 41,608 and rising, plus it’s estimated a further 23,000 people have died in excess of the number expected for the same period during an ‘average’ year.

The date of that WHO media briefing, Wednesday 11 March, was also the last date I modelled for artists. Seemingly every aspect of life has changed since then, and life drawing has been no exception. This blog is my reflection on a half-year of disruption and disconnection, but also evolution, both within my own personal state of being and across the wider world of life art.

Six months ago at Shine.

It’s the end of the world as we know it

That the virus would reach the UK and hit us hard was never in doubt. We followed its progress from New Year’s Eve when case details were first reported to WHO in China, through its unrelenting transmission across continents, to the nationwide lockdown in Italy from 10 March, and the declaration of a pandemic just one day later.

In the fortnight up to that point, life for me and Esther had continued pretty much as usual, albeit with a shadow of apprehension ever present. We even managed to get abroad for a 5-day break in Albania around the first weekend of March. Our last duo life modelling was for our friends at cave the day before WHO’s announcement.

In the Roman amphitheatre of Durrës, Albania.

From our last duo session, at cave.

As we entered official pandemic, however, the weight of concern could no longer be brushed aside lightly. One after another, life drawing groups started to close. Some ceased without hesitation, unwilling to countenance even the slenderest risk; others kept going until the unbearable burden of social responsibility, and eventually the law, made continuing impossible.

At the time, I had bookings in my diary through to 19 August. Early in the pandemic, life drawing organisers would send apologetic messages when inevitably they had to cancel. This practice didn’t last long, however. After a couple of weeks it was merely taken as understood that regular life drawing could not happen. Days drifted by and bookings evaporated until eventually all were gone. Respect goes to institutions that honoured their fees and even offered sick pay for models.

Escape from London

By mid-March we had some serious decisions to make. Esther’s autobiographical performance event with life drawing, ‘Growing Roots‘ had been due to take place at Candid Arts on 18 March. Would it be safe to go ahead? After long consideration of potential risks, she decided: “yes”. Ticket sales were limited and audience members could be seated 2m apart. It must have been one of the last shows in London before the arts sector closed completely. We’ve since verified there were no casualties.

Next came a bigger decision. If the country was to go into lockdown, where would we want to be locked down? We’ve been a couple for over 4 years but kept our separate abodes: my house in south Essex, Esther’s flat in south London. If we were to get through the coming months together we would have to share a home. We agreed the safest option was probably my place. On Friday 20 March, we packed as many bags as we could carry on a single train journey and, with little ado, Esther moved in.

We’d imagined we could shuttle to-and-fro her flat when other things were needed but as the national picture worsened over that weekend, it became clear this might not be the case. On the evening of Monday 23 March, we returned for all remaining items we could think would be useful. Whilst we were still there, it was announced the UK had officially entered a full lockdown. My mind reeled with dramatic visions of troops and tanks deployed onto the night-time streets – I said: “We need to go… now.

In fact the streets were quiet; not wholly deserted, yet still somehow oppressive. We took the DLR north to Limehouse, where we waited for a train to convey us from the capital. It felt like a wartime evacuation, albeit tinged with absurdity. Esther wheeled her bicycle with loaded panniers, whilst I cradled her beloved basil plant in one arm and hefted various bags on the other. It was late when, at last, we retreated into our Essex sanctuary, lowering the curtains on an unseen personal drama.

On the run – with seasoning.

Opting out

From this moment we effectively opted out of the life drawing world. Five days before full lockdown, as Admin of the London Life Drawing Models and Artists Facebook group I’d presciently posted:

The closure of life drawing institutions and groups for a few weeks – maybe months – is going hit hardest those who rely on them for financial independence. My personal suggestion for our community:

Artists and organisers – if/when you do book a model in the coming months, please could you prioritise on those for whom you know life modelling is a sole or essential form of income?

Life models – if (like me) you have a separate steady source of income but you are offered a new booking in the next few weeks, please could you consider suggesting the name of another model who you know relies on the work for their financial independence?

Around that time, Esther and I were approached by a life drawing group organiser to explore the idea of live-streaming a series of sessions for which we would meet with a tutor and camera operator once a week. At first, all parties were very keen – we even offered a spare room in our home for filming – but then unforeseen logistical problems and ultimately the full severity of lockdown extinguished our plans. The idea was never revisited and we were content not to pursue any similar notions.

Nonetheless, those who were determined to keep running life drawing sessions in a safe and economically-viable way realised they had but one choice: to go online. It was an enforced evolution for both artists and models alike; one that few would have favoured by natural inclination, but which turned out to be right for the circumstances. Life drawing had been forced to adapt and, as Jeff Goldblum put it in Jurassic Park, “Life finds a way…

Life drawing online

Just one week after the nationwide lockdown on 23 March, several London-based life drawing groups held their first online sessions. A few had sensed what was coming and made provision even earlier. Technology was not an obstacle; Zoom became the de facto standard platform for connecting artists with organisers and models whilst all remained socially-distanced in their respective homes. It’s free for participants, easily installed and enables events to run safely within prevalent coronavirus restrictions.

A few details unrelated to the virus were less straightforward to resolve:

  • how much should organisers charge artists?
  • how much should organisers pay models?
  • how to safeguard nude models from exploitation on the internet?

Having stepped back from the community, I paid little attention to online discussion of these subjects at the time. It was clear, however, that impassioned polarised opinions were at large. For example, some people realised their livelihood might be dependent on this for a long time and wanted to establish a fair business footing from the outset. Others saw it solely as an interim measure for the mental well-being of those isolated at home with no income, and felt participation should be by voluntary donation only.

Ultimately, a mixture of social ethics, peer pressure and market forces determined the broad commercial ground. Artists in general pay less, perhaps half as much as they would to attend a session in person. Models, by contrast, get paid more to recognise their extra commitment in creating the pose space, providing good quality broadband and accepting the lifelong implications of exposure on the internet. Event organisers, meanwhile, have realised the world has no limits as their marketplace for income.

Sex sells

The shift online was driven by organisers and models in desperation, doing whatever they could to keep their vocations alive, their finances afloat and spirits uplifted. Even so, necessity is the mother of invention and within days a whole new genre was born. The early ground-breakers helped many lonely confined people assuage their artistic cravings. It wasn’t the same in 2D but it offered contact and continuity for life drawing devotees, whilst opening the practice for hitherto unreachable audiences.

This brand new dawn was not without a societal cost, however. As life drawing went back to square one, so did its sense of body equality. In the first month of online life drawing, it was evident that the overwhelming majority of models being booked were either conventionally attractive, physically athletic or – most likely – both. There was very little, if any, representation of ‘ordinary’ everyday or unconventional body types. Given the wonderful diversity of models in London, this made a stark statement.

I don’t believe any individual made the conscious decision to ‘sex up’ life drawing but there’s absolutely no doubt that years of progress on body positivity went backwards in a matter of weeks. As a non-participating bystander, I wondered what was behind this apparent ethical slide. Three possible reasons came to mind:

  • commercial – organisers starting a new business selected only those models they felt would be alluring to the most customers and maximise their income in competition with other groups starting at the same time
  • excitement – organisers suddenly realised they were no longer restricted to the same loyal pool of London models they’d relied upon for years and could instead take their pick from around the world
  • availability – models who do not conform to mainstream body ideals may have felt less comfortable in baring all for scrutiny online, where bullying, abuse and body-shaming are still rife

Whatever, I felt sad that newcomers to London-based life drawing might see it as an elitist scene accepting only bodily perfection. Other life models may have experience and talent but during that period, if they weren’t a young dancer or acrobat, physically ripped or classically curvaceous, they had to look elsewhere for income. After the first month or two, a bit more diversity emerged – perhaps self-consciously in response to Black Lives Matter – but body equality still didn’t seem to be a consideration.

Much of the art world had come to a sudden halt. Institutions were pleading for funds, stressing the invaluable role of art in developing us, elevating us, lifting up our spirits and tearing down barriers. With so many people struggling to manage their mental health during on-going lockdowns and isolation, I hope life drawing online will realise its own potential to fulfil these roles. It helps people create, but can also help them simply to cope, to face their body image issues and show them they’re not alone.

Life on the outside

I’d publicly put myself out the game before the scene shifted in a way that would have probably excluded me anyway. Esther was of a similar mind. We’d agreed we would model online if it was for an exciting project or close friends but otherwise we weren’t drawn to it. For both of us, life modelling is about a connection with those in the room; a response to the space, the atmosphere, the relative positions of artists, the invisible signals, the inspirations of the moment. It’s about people and presence.

Working the spaces – at The Birds and cave last year.

With life modelling off the agenda for us, we looked for different ways to satisfy our artistic urges. The first priority, of course, was basic survival. By April, disease was running rampant and deaths were being counted by the thousand. Life was all about isolation, prolonged hand-washing, crossing the road to avoid other pedestrians and waiting in long solemn socially-distanced queues at supermarkets. Still, the sun was shining most days and we relished our long walks on open land behind my house.

My day-job continued throughout, busier than ever, though now working from home rather than an office. Enforced cancellation of foreign holidays meant I was left with several days’ leave to take, so I contrived about two months’ worth of 3-day or 4-day weeks. As England recorded its sunniest May on record, so Esther and I spent many hours pottering naked in the garden, tending our newly planted tomatoes, beans and courgettes. The pandemic slowed our lives and brought us back closer to nature.

Tending our crops.

Back indoors I began spring cleaning with the aim of completely clearing a room that would become Esther’s studio for art, yoga and mindfulness. I feel rather ashamed it took a global crisis for me to tidy the place, but maybe when our world seems out of control, all that’s left to do is get one’s own house in order. As a performance project, whilst on our once-a-day rationed walks for exercise we recorded location footage to create a short film marking a personal milestone for Esther – Friday 8 May.

Salvaging summer

On 10 May, the government announced a “conditional plan” to reopen society. Esther visited her flat that weekend for the first time since lockdown; gradually thereafter she divided her time between our two homes. Reopening society was to be a frustratingly slow process. Most people’s plans for summer gatherings or events or holidays were in some way thwarted. Even the London Naked Bike Ride – a June tradition – was cancelled, so Esther and I improvised our own ‘Not the World Naked Bike Ride‘.

Not world naked bike riders.

Another tradition each June is our gathering with friends to mark the summer solstice. This year we went to the Millennium Stone Circle on Hilly Fields, expecting to see a handful of people. Instead we found the place crammed with musicians, Black Lives Matters activists, and many young people. The public had lost its faith in government hypocrites who break their own coronavirus rules, and this was a consequence. Only in the evening was there space enough for some fleetingly-skyclad solstice capers.

Hilly Fields solstice by day…

…and by night.

Come the first week of July, lockdown rules were eased to allow overnight stays away from home. By lucky alignment, this was exactly in time for a trip north we’d booked months before. We weren’t allowed to stay in Scotland as originally planned, but our train tickets took us to the Lake District instead. A change of scenery was bliss, as was being ahead of the UK’s ‘staycation’ rush. We even managed an outdoor meet at Castlerigg Stone Circle with our Cumbria-based friends, Ursula and Simon.

On Castlerigg Stone Circle.

Simon, Ursula – with Octy, of course – and Esther.

When subsequently we tried making plans for a mid-August break, it was clear we’d lost our initiative. The rest of the UK had caught up and overtaken us. Trendy holiday hotspots had long since been fully booked, but we managed to find room at Havant on the south coast. From there we explored the islands of Hayling, Thorney and Portsea, and dined on pub cuisine of varying merit. Life was creeping back towards normality; even life modelling in the same room as artists looked set to return.

On Thorney Island.

On Hayling Island.

The new normal

But life still isn’t a recognisable normal. Not the normal of last year or the year before. Our new normal is uncertainty. Sure, we have life model bookings in our diaries again, we boldly make plans to travel abroad, we book gallery tickets and restaurant tables; we wear masks, wash our hands, keep a distance. Yet we may lose it all within days. Coronavirus cases are once more on the rise, scientists are gravely prophesying and our piss-poor politicians are priming us for another lockdown.

Although I’ve written critically of life drawing online, I mean no malice towards anyone involved. We’ve all done the best we can simply to keep going and survive. There was never a guidebook for this. Now, however, I believe life drawing online is here to stay, with or without a pandemic. The earning potential has proven far too great for it to be abandoned, even when traditional life drawing returns – in the flesh. I can’t see it ever being my thing, but I do hope it will re-evolve to embrace broad-based body equality.

In the past six months I’ve felt fear of loss, fear of a future I’m powerless to influence, the stresses of work and making life work, the extra burden of responsibility to others. I’ve also found moments of tranquillity, learned new skills, discovered beauty outdoors that I never knew was within walking distance of my home. Above all, I’ve been lucky. My sincerest condolences to anyone reading this who has lost friends or loved ones. The virus does not discriminate. It could easily have been me. It might be me next.

I appended “part 1” to the title of this blog because the virus is still out there…

Stay safe, everyone! Life goes on.

Not the World Naked Bike Ride 2020

Context – it all happened so fast

On 31 December 2019, a pneumonia of unknown cause, detected in Wuhan, China, was reported to the World Health Organization (WHO). A month later, on 31 January, the first cases of coronavirus (2019-nCoV) in the UK were confirmed. On 5 March, a first death in the UK from the coronavirus disease – COVID-19 – was confirmed. The number of known UK cases passed 100. Six days later, WHO declared a pandemic.

On 23 March, the UK was ordered into partial lockdown. We were instructed only to leave our homes for limited purposes such as: for any medical need; to go shopping for basic necessities; to take one form of exercise a day; and to go to and from work, only when absolutely necessary. By 12 April, the number of people reported to have died with the coronavirus in UK hospitals alone exceeded 10,000.

On 14 April, just 105 days after that first report to WHO in China and with more than 12,000 deaths in the UK, the inevitable announcement came from WNBR London:

“So sorry to say it, but here is the news you were probably expecting to hear. The World Naked Bike Ride in London will not take place on 13 June 2020. Participants and spectators should not go to the start locations. WNBR London has considered current circumstances and concluded we must take a cautious approach for the safety of our participants and the general public. We assume it will still be unwise to encourage public gatherings in June.

“We have seen no reliable evidence to indicate when it will be safe to take the ride onto the streets so we have not proposed a new date for the ride. It is possible that there will be no ride in 2020. We will review the situation at each of our monthly meetings and have the ability to mount a ride at short notice if circumstances change. We will let you know if there is any news.”

Many other regional rides had already cancelled, as indeed had most events across most of the whole world. We were all shut away in our homes for our own safety and the safety of others, only allowed to take exercise outdoors with members of our own household. People were dying by the thousand, while the living were going stir-crazy within their own four walls. We all needed a lift. We needed to do something. Safely.

Bowers Marsh Naked Bike Ride

Locked-down in south Essex, Esther and I decided that for one day, our ‘one form of exercise‘ would be our very own naked bike ride. Not a World Naked Bike Ride – not an official one – but one for ourselves, somewhere local, without many people about, where we could ride for at least 10km, for more than hour, without courting trouble or breaking the lockdown rules. We opted for RSPB Bowers Marsh Nature Reserve.

9:47am by Church Road: ready to roll

Royal Society for Protection of Birds (RSPB) reserve facilities were closed but its walking and cycling trails remained accessible. In early sunshine on Monday 1 June, we painted our chests with positive slogans, saddled-up in loose clothing and set off. Our start point was by Church Road, a couple of kilometres from home, just south of its bridge over the A13. We undressed in the tree-shadows of a discreet side turning.

Church Road descent

At 9:47am, we began. This upper part of Church Road passes beside a crematorium and cemetery so we took great care to check that nobody was visiting. Further along, we were ignored by a mother and daughters out walking, before we hooked right and freewheeled down the steep hill leading to St Margaret’s Church. After a brief photo stop, we continued to the end of the road and turned right, into the reserve itself.

9:48am by Church Road: waiting for traffic to clear

9:49am on Church Road: about to turn south

9:51am on Church Road: freewheeling downhill

9:53am on Church Road: a pose at St Margaret’s Church

9:54am on Church Road: under the c2c rail line between Benfleet and Pitsea

9:54am on Church Road: the parked cars of other visitors

9:55am on Church Road: into the reserve we go

Round to Great Pound

For the rest of our ride we would be bumping along stone tracks. Our outbound route would be roughly circular, going anticlockwise: north to west to south to east to north. We started slowly, our city bike wheels crackling the pale gravel beneath us. The first quarter of the ride took us to the most westerly point of our circle, the first lake of our traverse, evocatively named ‘Great Pound scrape‘.

9:58am: starting slowly off road

9:59am: no knowing what’s around each corner

10:00am: our only encounter on this stretch – a lone twitcher

10:02am: not many obstacles, but this was one

10:05am: emerging from the bushes into marshland and reeds

Between the lagoons

The south part of this circuit sent us between two lagoons: a freshwater lagoon to our left and a saline lagoon to our right. On the path by a reedbed at the first of these, we met our second twitcher; a nice chap with whom we stopped to talk for a few minutes. He wasn’t the least bit bothered by our nudity, but warned us that other people ahead might take offence. I smiled; we were natural in nature, just part of the wildlife.

10:10am: a sign of life, part 1

10:11am: now heading south-east

10:20am: a chat with a friendly twitcher

10:27am: ignoring a helicopter overhead

10:28am: freshwater left, saline right

10:29am: gates for grazing cattle

10:31am: under a big sky

The long way

A couple of women on bicycles passed while we chatted, taking no notice and surely no offence. We pushed on: first left towards the Old Saltings viewing point, then right, but a missed left-turn meant we would be going the long way around. Ahead we saw the people about whom we’d been warned, but it looked like they were only a couple of minutes’ walk from their parked cars. We waited a short while, then continued.

10:32am: first left

10:34am: Old Saltings left… but we’re going right

10:36am: a sign of life, part 2

10:38am: passing a frogless pond

10:44am: within metres of completing one circuit

Parking and picnic tables

Almost back at Church Road, we turned left onto a narrow path running alongside the pre-pandemic entrance to the car park. We walked our bikes over a low embankment, cycled across its surface of broken white shells, walked over another embankment on the far side, then veered right, around a barn and between picnic tables. On a superb morning like this, I was surprised to find the whole area deserted.

10:46am: entering the car park

10:46am: car park crossing

10:48am: one hour into our ride

10:49am: no picnickers here

10:50am: back towards the Old Saltings

Saline Lagoon

We soon completed a loop back to the Old Saltings crossroads from where we would start our long return journey. We hadn’t gone very far, however, when we took a short detour along a more overgrown track down to East Haven wildlife viewing point at the saline lagoon. Here it was private enough for us to get off our bikes and take a break, with little chance any random encounters.

10:51am: an utterly pointless gate

10:55am: up to East Haven wildlife viewing point

10:59am: us


It was a few minutes past 11am when we rejoined the main track. From this point on, we would be backtracking paths we’d already ridden. With a friendly nod, we passed another cyclist (clothed) and we met our twitcher friend again as he looked for marsh harriers and cuckoos. In the last quarter, we overtook a guy that we’d crossed on our outbound journey, and we passed a couple of women walkers. None complained.

11:03am: between the lagoons again

11:13am: with an RSPB van away to our right – distant, but did they see us?

11:14am: into the final quarter

11:16am: a walker we’d passed once before

11:18am: cracked my chain guard on this bloody barrier

11:22am: St Margaret’s Church in sight


We called a halt to our ride just before we rejoined Church Road. It was 11:23am and we’d been cycling naked for more than an hour and a half. Under a cloudless sky, our backs had been baked, our nostrils assailed by pollen and our exhilaration eventually became exhaustion. Our ride was finished and so were we; but we had honoured the official WNBR spirit. Let’s hope that spirit can reclaim our cities before 2020 ends.

11:23am: end of the first – and probably last – Bowers Marsh Naked Bike Ride

Our ride on Vimeo

Our route around Bowers Marsh

Open the official RSPB Bowers Marsh Nature Reserve trails guide (PDF 156KB).

About the World Naked Bike Ride (WNBR)

WNBR is a worldwide campaign that demonstrates the vulnerability of cyclists and protests against car culture. Its linked objectives are to:

  1. protest against the global dependency on oil
  2. curb car culture
  3. obtain real rights for cyclists
  4. demonstrate the vulnerability of cyclists on city streets
  5. celebrate body freedom
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