The Library of Obscure Wonders

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Fungi and the mysterious threads that connect things

I’m currently reading a wonderful book on fungi. It is fasinating! If ever there has been an obscure wonder it is mycelium, the networks in the soil formed of fungi threads. The book is by Merlin Sheldrake and I totally recommend it. In honour of the mycelium here is the little essay I wrote on here back in 2017. If it intrigues you then the book is far better.

Mushrooms! And how they help the trees talk


Mushrooms are amazing, I love to eat them, to look at them, to draw them, and when I investigate them they are quite mind boggling. No, before you ask, I haven’t tried magic mushrooms, one day maybe.

Opposite where I live in Newington Green there is a magnificent greengrocers which sells all sorts of vegetables and fruit, from the everyday parsnip to the weird and wonderful where I can only guess at name and purpose. Among this there are mushrooms of many types. Although recently it has been decided that mushrooms aren’t actually vegetables, but closer to animals, I and the greengrocers aren’t worrying about that right now. Yesterday I brought a selection of the more visually enticing mushrooms to paint. A friend popped round and on seeing the mushrooms said “Are those colours real? They’re not edible are they? They look poisonous”. I paint them in watercolour laid out in a line. It is difficult though, they wither very quickly and darken in colour.

Autumn is the time for wild mushrooms, that smell of autumn woodlands is created by fungi working their way up through the soil. The mushroom itself is of course the flowering body of the fungi, the part that disperses the spores. Fungi themselves are everywhere, often microscopic they are on every surface, in the air we breath, and everywhere we put our foot. Underneath, in the soil, is an intricate web of fungi threads, called the mycelium, which can exist in the tiny body of a dead fly or span across an entire forest. In the Oregon’s Blue Mountains in the United States there is a mycelium that occupies 2384 acres and is thought to be between 2000 and 8000 years old!

A friend and I once created a mycelium installation at the ICA. It was good fun, black inside with threads criss crossing through it. Members of the public enjoyed going and just sitting inside. They said they found it comforting. Recently I feel like I need to dig a hole in the ground and bury myself inside, amongst the roots and threads, I haven’t done so yet, it is probably from me reading too much Brian Catling and his book of abandoned angels.

As mentioned before trees have symbiotic relationships with fungi. Apparently 90 per cent of all land plants have mutually beneficial relationships with fungi so it is nothing unusual. The tree obtains sugars through photosynthesis for the fungi and the fungi obtains nutrients such as phosphorus and nitrogen from the soil for the tree. Plants also communicate with each other through fungi. Mycelia link up plants that are wide apart. In the media this is often described as being like the world wide web, but so much is described as being like the internet these days the phrase makes me cringe. But trees can transfer carbon, phosphorous and nitrogen between themselves through the mycelia. A large tree can help a small young tree in this way. It has also been found that old trees that can no longer photosynthesis are sometimes kept alive by trees they are connected to through the mycelium. No one knows why.

Amazing thought that, plants are communicating with each other and using the fungal networks to do so. Trees can also use mycelium to transfer chemical signals warning other plants of oncoming signals. This was initially discovered on tomato plants. The tomato plants are grown in pairs. Some of them are allowed to form fungal networks and some aren’t. The leaves of one plant in each pair was sprayed with blight disease. Air-tight plastic bags were used to stop any above ground signalling between plants. After 65 hours the scientists tried to infect the second plant in each pair. They found that if the plant pair had been allowed to develop mycelia the second in the pair was much less likely to get the blight and if they did they had significantly lower levels of damage.

I suppose I cant really mention this relationship without mentioning the other side of it. Some trees have been found to pass poisons across through the mycelium. Some trees don’t like other trees growing too near them, they like some space to themselves, so they send out poison via their roots and the mycelium to poison potential newcomers. Bit like me in my flat.

Fungi also feed on dead organic matter, and what a vital role that is for without this the world would pile up with dead leaves, dead wood, dead animals and other matter. The dead matter is broken down and returned as nutrients in the soil for plants again. There is even rumours that mushrooms can affect the weather!

Today the mushrooms on my table have become shrivelled shadows of what they were. I finish the painting and am still determined to eat them. I slice them and fry them with a lot of garlic. Delicious! Much more tasty than your regular mushroom. And I’m not dead yet…

Winter blues

Cornwall, Winter 2018

Winter is a difficult time for drawing nature. It’s too cold to spend time outside, the light indoors is too dark and the studio is freezing cold. I would rather spend the month hibernating if I could. The trees have a stark beauty to them though, in their naked position against the grey sky. I’m lucky that behind my flat is a small park with several trees in it. I can sit at my studio window and draw them from there.

I’m currently giving one to one tuition at my studio in Islington. Prices from £20 an hour (a discount can be arranged for students and those on a low income).

Group workshops

Small group workshops are regularly given in Islington and the surrounding area. Contact me for upcoming classes or get together with a bunch of friends for a private class. Classes can be for beginners or more advanced and subjects can include drawing, watercolours, coloured pencils, mixed media and collage, home printing techniques, botanical illustration and drawing animals.

To discuss this phone 07531065040 or email

For further information email –


I find autumn a beautiful yet slightly sad month. The fruit and seeds ripening, the changing colours of the leaves. The Rowan is a particularly pretty tree, small with delicate leaflets and orange berries. There are lots planted on the streets of London and they cheer up the streets this time of year.

The Rowan has a smooth grey shiny bark, frothy white blossoms from May to June, clusters of red-orange berries in September, and pretty elliptical leafles. In Irish and Scandinavian myth the first woman was born of a Rowan tree and it was the Rowan tree that bent low and saved Thor when he fell into a river.

The Rowan tends to like to grow at high altitudes and is common in the Scottish Highlands. Often it can grow in unlikely places such as in a cleft in a rock or within another tree. When it is found growing in places like this it is referred to as a flying tree and was thought to be especially magical. It was thought to be auspicious to have a Rowan tree growing near the house. 

When drawing a tree don’t start with the leaves, that just leads to frustration, instead work out how much of the tree you wish to draw, trees can be massive things and you might not even be able to see the whole tree. Then draw the overall shape of the tree. Follow this by drawing the basic shapes within the tree, it can help to reduce the shapes to circles, squares and triangles. Make sure to add the sky holes as light outlines. After this you can add the general light and shade, the values. Don’t add the details till last, otherwise you will get confused.

Classes coming up:

Botanical illustration with Colour Pencils

One day workshop

Saturday 9th September

10am till 4pm

South London Botanical Institute 

323 Norwood Road

SE24 9AQ  London

United Kingdom

020 8674 5787

Colour pencils have become increasingly popular among botanical artists over the last decade. 

The quality of them has improved a lot, new vibrant colours make it possible to create accurate greens and browns. 

The great advantage of using colour pencils is they are portable, so it is much easier to draw plants in their natural environment.

Learn techniques for drawing with colour pencils and accurately representing plants in the garden of the SLBI

This workshop is very nearly full so if you’re interested apply now..

Drawing and Painting from Nature

Ten week course on Wednesday evenings 6pm till 8pm

Imperial College London

South Kensington Campus

London SW7 2AZ, UK

020 7589 5111

During this 10-week course you will be trying your hand at drawing and painting from natural objects set up by your tutor, and you will be encouraged to experiment with a range of approaches, from accurate studies through to more individual and expressive forms of art.

Have a pleasant autumn.

The Library of Obscure Wonders

Sketching Trees in Coloured Pencil

This July there will be a new workshop on sketching trees.

 Learn techniques for drawing with coloured pencil and accurately representing trees. Studio and location based, this workshop will include visiting the beautiful New River walk in Canonbury, Islington.

Sketch of an apple tree

Apple Blossom

Spring is here, and the apple blossom is out. An excellent time of year to go out sketching if the weather is agreeable. Apple blossoms are a symbol of love, fertility and long life. The ancient celts would decorate their bedrooms in apple blossom this time of year to encourage romance. Apple blossom also represents life continuing after death, as the tree returns to life after the winter months.

The apple is an ancient fruit originating from Asia, perhaps the first ever cultivated. According to Pliny, the Roman natural philosopher, there were 22 varieties of apple worldwide. It was in the 18th century that hybrids appeared in Britain from Europe. Different species were grafted onto wild trees to produce greater fruit yielding trees, they are known as Malus domestica. Now there are thought to be 2000 species of apple tree world wide. The uncultivated apple, the crab apple, has short thorns on its branches. It grows across Europe and western Asia and prefers lowlands and the edges of woodland. A deciduous tree it grows up to 10metre with a dense crown on top. It flowers from April to May with clusters of white/pinkish blossoms. These attract a large amount of bees during the day with its scented nectar, and insects during the night. The fruit appears from September to October. Crab apples are sour and dry to the taste. The seeds of orchard apple trees often revert to ancestral type if sown in the wild.


beech2Charles Darwin, aside from evolution, came up with the “root-brain” hypothesis along with his son Francis, in their book The Power of Movement of Plants. This suggests the roots act like a brain network. Ignored at the time (evolution was enough to deal with without the suggestion of trees having brains as well) it is only now beginning to be taken seriously.

I have been sitting drawing beech tree roots today. They are fascinating indeed. Largely unseen they undertake a big proportion of a trees practices and are often the same size as the tree above ground. Their skin can have an interesting textured quality and they curl around each other like snakes which is very good to draw. Where I live in London you can see the roots bursting through the Tarmac, looking distinctly like monsters from the underworld. What happens in roots and around roots is just as strange as what they look like.

Roots search the soil for water and minerals that they absorb and then send up to the leaves for photosynthesis. A root grows from its tip which it pushes forward through the soil. The root tip can detect the pull of gravity and aims itself downwards into the soil. Behind the root tip are root hairs that grow into the soil to gather supplies.

Fungi have symbiotic relationships with roots, this is called Mycorhizass. There are two main kinds of mycorrhiza, ones that penetrate the roots and ones that surround the roots without penetrating. The fungi transfer essential minerals such as nitrogen and phosphorous from decaying matter to the tree. The fungi cannot photosynthesis so the tree does this for them, providing the fungi with energy.

Other advantages to such relationships include speeding plant growth, stimulating fine root development and lengthening the life of the roots. They can also protect plants from drought, predators (such as nematode worms), and micro-organisms that cause disease. In areas polluted by toxic heavy metal it seems fungi can buffer their tree partners against harm. A diversity of fungi is valuable to a tree, as different fungi will specialise in the various functions, so one species may be good at taking up particular nutrients, while another will be better at producing enzymes.

Trees have also been found to pass on carbon dioxide to other trees in need of it, even trees of different species, through the roots. This is also thanks to a symbiotic fungi in the soil. In fact new discoveries about roots really put them as essential and quite incredible things. I’m reading a lot about tree communication at the moment, I’ll write about it more once I’ve got my head round it. The idea of them having a “root brain” where the tips of the root are small neutron centres seems to fit in somehow.



Winter 2021

The Holly Tree – Painting tip: Holly has a blue tint to it, it can work well if you give it an initial very pale blue wash, allow that to dry, then paint on a green and using a damp tissue remove parts of the green in areas you want to look highlighted.

Holly, unlike Oak, seems to repel lightning and has been seen as guarding against lightning, poison and evil spirits. It was sacred to the Celtic God of Thunder, Taranis, as well as the Scandinavian Gods Odin and Thor. During the Roman festival of Saturnalia holly was sent as a gift to a friend. These days it is often regarded as the Christmas decoration, being evergreen with its green leaves and bright red berries.

Holly wood burns the brightest of all the woods and it also produces a good charcoal. It is a powerful tree, symbolising strength and protection. It keeps its leaves and berries throughout the cold winter months providing food for many woodland creatures. The thrush loves holly berries.Men carrying holly leaves were said to be irresistible to women. A mild tea of holly was said to be good for relieving feelings of jealousy, envy, anger and revenge. Placed over the bedpost or burnt as an incense, holly could help rekindle desires and increase appetite.

A Holly leaf placed under the pillow can give prophetic dreams, it is said to reveal the source of your problems and encourage you to deal with your darker more difficult emotions.

Courses this term

Online: Drawing and Painting Nature.  In association with The South London Botanical Institute. Tuesdays 6pm to 8pm. From 18th January to 22nd March. Suitable for beginners and those with some experience. Follow this link for more information:

Studio based teaching: Get skills in botanical illustration.  City Lit, Keeley Street, London. Thursdays 10am to 1pm. 27th January to 17th February. Botanical illustration is both an art form and a means of scientific engagement. Learn about depicting form, colour and differences in plant species with precision and detail on this studio and location-based course. More information:

Online: Make a creative Handmade Sketchbook. Tuesdays 10.30 to 12.30. 22nd February to 22nd March. This Handmade Sketchbook Course will take your ideas and personal stories as a starting point and explore them in different visual directions, through drawing, painting, collage and mono-printing techniques. More information:

All course dates can be seen on the website www.obscurewonders.comFor further information email

Autumn Newsletter 2021

As the autumn months appear I am fascinated by the changes occurring in plants and trees. Walking through Newington Green the other day I noticed two rather woeful looking hazel bushes sitting under a London Plain. They had been well and truly battered by London life and the severe cutting of a somewhat over enthusiastic gardener. Yet I noticed on the tip of one of the branches a small bunch of mature hazelnuts. Quickly I sketched it and took a photo. It’s quite unusual to see ripe hazelnuts on the tree, usually the birds have eaten them. To me it suggested a determined continuation of life. I painted the tree at home- watercolour with pencil on top- and did a little research on the hazel.

Hazel is a deciduous tree losing its leaves in the late autumn. Often growing underneath oak and birch; it is a small tree sometimes pruned into a bush. In managed woodland it is frequently coppiced which extends its life from 80years to several hundred. Both male and female flowers grow on the same tree, but hazel flowers must be pollinated by pollen from other hazel trees. It is mainly wind pollinated, bees find it difficult to carry hazel pollen as it is sticky and the grains repel each other. The male flower is a yellow catkin that comes out in February before the leaves. The female flower is small and bud like with red styles. Once pollinated the female flowers develop into round fruits that hang in groups. They mature into nuts with a woody shell surrounded by a leafy husk. Hazel leaves are hairy and soft to the touch, oval in shape they are toothed and pointed at the tip. Hazel leaves turn yellow before falling in winter. Many caterpillars live off the hazel, this is particularly good for the Hazel Dormouse, for they can eat the caterpillars in the summer months and save hazelnuts for hibernation in the winter.

Hazel was the tree of wisdom, according to Irish mythology. In the otherworldly realm there is a well from which the rivers of Ireland flow. In this well there swims a salmon and around it are nine sacred Hazel trees. The hazelnuts from these trees fall into the pool and are eaten by the salmon everyday so they themselves become wise. These wise salmon swim from the pool to the sea and back. If you manage to catch and eat the salmon you too will become wise and able to tell the future.

Late Constable at the Royal Academy of Arts. Learn how, in his later years, John Constable used a more expressive style and a greater use of light and shade that’s evident in drawings, sketches and paintings from 1825 until his death in 1837.
Runs from 30 Oct to 13 Feb.

Courses this term
Drawing and Painting Nature Online. Tuesdays 6pm to 8pm. From 12th October to 14th December. In association with Imperial College and The South London Botanical Institute. Suitable for beginners and those with some experience. Follow this link for more information:

Painting from plants and flowers. City Lit, Keeley Street, London. Mondays 10am to 1pm. From 1st November to 6th December. Explore a variety of artists’ approaches for painting flowers from observation. Discover the rich history of this genre while getting inspiration from contemporary artists who use flowers as their starting point in painting. More information:

A short introduction to botanical illustration. City Lit, Keeley Street, London. Thursdays 10am to 1pm. From 18th November to 9th December. Botanical illustration is both an art form and a means of scientific engagement. Learn about depicting form, colour and differences in plant species with precision and detail on this studio and location-based course. More information:

Painting tip – Breath slowly, into your stomach and relax. Relaxing will help mark making skillls.

All course dates can be seen on the website
For further information email –

Summer Newsletter 2021

Drawing & painting Nature Classes

Now it is very much summer so time for another newsletter. 

Courses this term

Natural History illustration

30th June to the 14th July. Three Wednesdays from 10 til 4 at CityLit Keeley street.

Learn how to capture wildlife on paper, from fossils to fleeting birds and butterflies. Gain skills using a variety of different media including digital. Includes a trip to the Natural History Museum. Suitable for beginners.

Summer School – Drawing and Painting Nature outside in a beautiful garden.

24th July to the 21st August. Five Saturdays from 10.30 to 12.30

This new Summer School is held in the beautiful garden of the South London Botanical Gardens. It is  in association with Imperial College and The South London Botanical Institute. Suitable for beginners. Follow this link for more information:

Free online workshop on drawing trees.

In July there will be a one off online tree class. Email me for further information and look at my website for updates


Here are some summer exhibitions that caught my eye:

Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser, Victoria & Albert Museum

‘Lewis Carroll’s magical, mind-boggling story of Wonderland has been enchanting audiences for generations. Now Alice’s adventures are the subject of a major new show at the V&A charting the story’s evolution from manuscript to a global cultural phenomenon, inspiring the likes of Salvador Dali, Walt Disney and Tim Walker.

Described as a ‘theatrical, immersive journey down the rabbit hole’, Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser brings together over 300 objects spanning the story’s 158-year history. Highlights include original drawings by John Tenniel, set designs and models from the various film adaptations, album-artwork for Little Simz and Bob Crowley’s costume for the Queen of Hearts from the Royal Ballet’s 2011 production. Take the whole family on this extraordinary adventure. Just don’t be late.’

WHEN Saturday 22 May – Friday 31 December, 10am-5:45pm

WHERE  Victoria & Albert Museum, Cromwell Road, South Kensington, London SW7 2RL

Eileen Agar: Angel of Anarchy, Whitechapel Gallery

‘Although best known as a Surrealist, Eileen Agar (1889-1991) experimented with Cubism and Abstraction, too, finding inspiration in a myriad sources, from the natural world and ancient mythologies to sexual pleasure and her own biography.

Eileen Agar: Angel of Anarchy, the largest exhibition of Agar’s work to date, celebrates a phenomenal career that spanned almost a century. It brings together over 100 paintings, collages, photographs, assemblages and archive material, much of which has rarely been exhibited, to chart the development of her uniquely spirited style.

Highlights include Angel of Anarchy (1936-40), a plaster-cast head covered with feathers, fabric and diamanté stones; and Dance of Peace from 1945. ‘I’ve enjoyed life,’ Agar once said. This exhibition looks set to prove that.’

WHEN Wednesday 19 May – Sunday 29 August, Tuesday – Sunday, 11am-6pm

WHERE Whitechapel Gallery, 72-78 Whitechapel High Street, London E1 7QX |

Michael Armitage: Paradise Edict exhibition, Royal Academy

‘An exhibition of riotous paintings has opened at Royal Academy. Brightly coloured and crowded with figures, the works of Kenyan-born artist Michael Armitage (who is a graduate of the Royal Academy) are large scale and dripping with political and social commentary – think Goya meets Gauguin. But while European painting is a powerful source of inspiration for the 37-year-old artist, Armitage, who divides his time between Nairobi and London, is most significantly influenced by the traditions of East Africa. of riotous paintings has opened at Royal Academy. Brightly coloured and crowded with figures, the works of Kenyan-born artist Michael Armitage (who is a graduate of the Royal Academy) are large scale and dripping with political and social commentary – think Goya meets Gauguin. But while European painting is a powerful source of inspiration for the 37-year-old artist, Armitage, who divides his time between Nairobi and London, is most significantly influenced by the traditions of East Africa.’

WHEN 22 May 2021 – 19 Sep 2021, 12:00 AM

WHERE Royal Academy

Burlington House, Piccadilly, London, W1J 0BD

Paula Rego, Tate Britain

Paula is one of my favourite artists, ever since she asked politely if she could leave her empty coke can in my studio space with a cheeky yet nervous smile. This exhibition of her work looks good, I may have mentioned it before, but I think it’s probably worth mentioning twice.

‘Paula Rego is a phenomenal storyteller. Whether in paint or pastel, collage or ink, she conjures up images that speak of personal as well as social struggle. Over the course of her prolific career, Rego has drawn on a broad range of references, from comic strips to history painting, and experimented with both abstraction and figuration. 

This major solo exhibition, the largest and most comprehensive of Rego’s work to date, features over 100 works that chart the artist’s creative trajectory. Early works dating from the 50s will hang alongside large pastels and richly layered, staged scenes from Rego’s acclaimed Dog Women and Abortion series. Prepare to delve deep into her rich and fertile imagination.’

WHEN Wednesday 7 July – Sunday 24 October, 10am – 6pm

WHERE Tate Britain, Millbank, London SW1P 4RG

Painting tip – If uncertain, stop and have a tea break.

For further information email –


At last it is spring and the blossoms are out on the trees. I love this time of year, the change from the sleeping branches to the beautiful blossoms is incredible. Though I notice on the weather forecast it is predicting more cold weather and possibly snow.

The Youtube video I’ve put up this time is on painting a freesia blossom in watercolour. The freesia was originally from South Africa, its beautiful colours and sweet smells have made it popular here. It flowers in the spring and summer and comes in many different shades. The difficulty when painting it is getting the colours accurate in tone and as bright as in the actual flower.