Gallery 1

Travels to Penang

Drawings and Paintings



I spent a month in Penang, Malaysia wandering the streets in the equatorial heat – South-east Asia was a new world to me and the best place to experience it, I found, was in the thriving restaurants, take-away stalls and cafes, just watching life unfold…

Scraps of land alongside the road would transform into single-dish eateries, open for a few hours at any time from about 7pm onwards, then vanishing like vegetable steam into the dawn. These in their turn might soon migrate to a small yard or parking lot, open longer, with common tables and busboys and enough single-item trade to satisfy the most insatiable Malaysian appetite.



Football shirts abounded. You live near The Emirates Stadium? they gasped. My God how fantastic is that? they exclaim. Not hugely, I admit. But why? Well, for one I’m more of a Spurs man and besides, well…it’s a pain in the arse when you’re trying to get anywhere on a match day! So says Mr Cheerful…

I tended towards the Chinese food for breakfast or early lunch. Curry was less my thing to start the day. I wandered out into Georgetown at first light to paint each morning. I soon found the perfect pavement cafe, colonnaded from the rapidly rising sun, serving endless green tea, Dim Sum and some other stuff that looks like one thing and is entirely different when you eat it. Plus a very entertaining mother-and-son cat double act that worked the tables in the Street of Gold.

A somnambulant security guard sloped past holding his shotgun by the barrel, the butt almost dragging along the pavement. His demeanour did not inspire confidence. He set up next door-but-one in a rattan chair, so I followed his progress with some interest and made plans to revise mine, should things go garrity.



I sweltered in the close weather. Several showers a day were needed, despite adopting the habit of the locals and walking with the pace of someone at the funeral of an old and dearly-loved friend – even the cars seemed to move off the lights in a line abreast at the same drowsy pace. A fat Chinese lad in baker’s whites stopped me in one cafe. Why you no wear white in hot country? He indicated his own clothing. Well, for one, I fingered my black silk shirt, this is very light and besides…it makes me look thin! He liked that and laughed.



I used the buses to take me off to the outer areas of Georgetown and particularly the enormous shrine to Kuan Yin, at Kek Lok Si. I’d  been mesmerised by my first close-up glimpse of it the day I arrived, and sketched and painted it from the roof of the flats where I was staying as soon as I could. However one day, on a visit to the hills, I caught a glimpse of it down a side street, so next day returned to the same street. Sat down by the roadside, in the narrow shade of a solitary palm tree near a construction site, I got to work. As I did so, a builder’s lorry, a huge brute of a thing looking very 50’s and Russian,  drew up slowly and parked. Right in front of me. Just there. Just where I didn’t want a guffing old diesel lorry parked in fact, as I was about to to start blocking the picture in. Initially, I tried exasperated gestures, but that didn’t do any more than draw a polite smile from the driver, but gradually I managed to convey the problem and the driver realised what I was about. He smiled again, let out the handbrake, and gently rolled the lorry back ten feet to give me a clearer view again.



From then on I was surrounded by various curious, friendly drivers and sundry locals, all asking questions and looking over my shoulder. Now I can live with the performance aspect of public painting, but the sun was rising fast over my diminishing shade, I was encircled by a group of burly blokes blocking out any possibility of a breeze, had one existed, and their combined body heat plus the very slowly cooling engine block of the truck was making the sweat pour from me in rivers. Now I had to really concentrate and I tried to paint as fluently as possible, without making mistakes in front of ‘my’ public. It was with great relief that I jumped up at the end, showed everyone the finished picture, smiled, shook hands where necessary and legged it, to re-hydrate soonest…



Not only did I find myself going through sketch pads quickly, but suddenly my pencils and panels were runninag low. Pencils were relatively easily replaced, though I enjoyed the peculiar sensation of bearing gifts from distant lands when I showed them the remains of my pencils, and that they had erasers attached! There’s no such animal in Georgetown.

Panels were becoming a problem too, so one afternoon passing a Chinese wood-working business, I went in and haltingly enquired, in English of course, whether he had any ply of the same type. Despite speaking little English, he tapped his wristwatch and gave me to understand that I should come back in two hours and they’d be ready. And they were. No surprises that when I broke a small part off my pochade box, a day or so later, I went back to put some more business his way.



By the end of the month I had drawn about 200 pictures and 30 or so paintings, including the handful I left behind as a thank-you to my kind hosts – these were easily framed by another enterprising Chinese business in the middle of Georgetown for a price that satisfied both parties!

All the pencil sketches were drawn on the day, as were the oils – the pastel work was created later, on my return to London, hence their greater dimensions…


Special thanks to Muru Pillai, his family and friends for their generosity and warmth and showing me such a great time, and also to Chnee Po Im for further enlightenment…

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