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Leamouth: Typewriter artist James Cook set for Trinity Buoy Wharf exhibition

Workshops will also be on offer for those who want to have a go at typing out their own pieces

James Cook will be showing his artwork at Trinity Buoy Wharf

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When I was a young child, my parents gave me an old typewriter to play with. I loved hitting the keys, hearing that distinctive, hypnotic clacking sound, twisting the knob that made the roller revolve. 

But I couldn’t really comprehend what it was for. Even though this was the 1980s, by the time I came of age to make marks on paper, computer keyboards had already replaced the old mechanical machines with their inky ribbons and staccato rhythms. Fun for a kid – a relic of a bygone age, perhaps – but nothing more.

It’s fortunate James Cook didn’t have that experience.

While studying A-Level art in 2014, he developed an interest in inventive ways to make marks, drawn to David Hockney’s iPad paintings.

“Then I came across Paul Smith, who had used typewriters,” said James. “What really caught my attention was his story.

“Born in 1921, he suffered with cerebral palsy his whole life. At the age of 11, his parents gave him a typewriter because he couldn’t hold a pencil.

“But, instead of writing, he ended up creating drawings, which was his passion. He only learnt to speak and walk as an adult, but at the age of 11 he was already creating these amazing pictures – drawings of the Mona Lisa and it fascinated me that it was even possible to do such a thing.

“Immediately after I had read about him, I started trawling around charity shops trying to find a typewriter – at first without much success.

“Then an elderly couple in one of the shops overheard that I was looking for a typewriter and told me that they had one belonging to the man’s late mother.

“It had been sitting in the attic for about 40 years, not being used, and they suggested that I could come round and collect it.”

After a few squirts of WD40, James got the mid 1950s Oliver Courier going and began to experiment.

“I was lucky I picked that typewriter up and that I didn’t give up straight away,” he said. “As time has gone on, I’ve discovered that there are some models that just don’t work for this kind of work.

“But what I had was a very expensive, very mechanically precise machine. If this hadn’t been the case I might not have stuck with it.”

They include landscapes and portraits
They include landscapes and portraits

Perseverance paid off however and James now makes his living generating work on his collection of 40 typewriters, painstakingly using them to tap out artwork, either from life or photographs.

It’s exacting work, with drawings typically taking between a week and a month to complete.

“Usually the typewriters have 44 keys, so I have those parameters to work within and choosing the characters to use is one of the most interesting parts of making these drawings,” said James.

“I’ve been doing this for about seven years now, mostly part-time, and more recently full-time, and I’ve learnt by trial and error which particular character works.

“If I’m drawing a portrait, and I need to recreate someone’s skin complexion, most people want to be seen in the best light, so even skin tones require a character that has a large surface area, like the ‘@’ symbol.

“That’s also good for shading, which can be achieved by hitting the key more softly.

“If someone has dimples or freckles, then I might use some asterisks, because it’s a much sharper mark, whereas the underscore is a perfect shape for drawing horizontal lines in an architectural drawing, like the bottom of a window sill, or doing brickwork.

“Achieving curves is very difficult, especially if you’re working across multiple sheets, because they all have to line up.

“Typewriters inherently want to go from left to right so they’re great for straight lines, but not so good for verticals and curves.

“So what I’m doing is using my left hand to ever so slightly twist the paragraph lever by a minuscule amount while I’m typing to create a curve, like the roof of The O2, for example.

“I can’t think of any other way of drawing that requires you to use both hands in this way. Your right hand is on the keys and your left hand is responsible for making sure you stamp that mark on a very precise point.

“Once it’s been made that’s it, there’s no way of undoing it – I won’t use Tippex so mistakes become part of the drawing.

Every drawing is made by painstakingly typing to make marks
Every drawing is made by painstakingly typing to make marks

From April 1-10, the largest ever exhibition of James’ work ever gathered together is set to be held at Trinity Buoy Wharf, with many of the pieces created at the east London location in Leamouth. Entry is free.

“Visitors will see the biggest collection of my work to date,” said James.

“It’s mostly pieces from London locations, usually drawn on site with views of places like Greenwich Park, the Thames Path and Trinity Buoy Wharf itself.

“What’s also important for the work is to add a second layer of information, so the drawings are not just about piecing together various characters, they also contain concealed messages or hidden lines of text.

“I’ve often done that more recently when I’ve been working on location and I’ve spotted something, or when a thought pops into my head, especially if it’s the middle of winter.

“I did some of the drawings in January and it was pretty cold outside, so a lot of the messages are me complaining how cold it was.”

James draws many of his pieces on location
James draws many of his pieces on location

Every weekday during the exhibition, James will be hosting free workshops for those who’d like to try creating their own typewriter art.

He said: “When people look at my art, usually it’s not enough, they want to know how it’s made.

“The idea is these groups of about five will get to sit in front of a typewriter and have a go.

“It won’t be creating finished masterpieces, but hopefully we’ll have some fun and it will be a start. 

“They can bring along pictures to inspire their typing or I can provide them for reference.”

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Leamouth: How Lightship95 offers musicians high quality recording riverside

Trinity Buoy Wharf-based studio on a boat is all set up to capture any sound you can make

Giles Barrett, left, and Dave Holmes of Lightship95
Giles Barrett, left, and Dave Holmes of Lightship95 – image Matt Grayson

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There’s a moment during my interview with Giles Barrett and Dave Holmes when the waters of the Thames sweep into the mouth of the Lea and lift the entire venue we’re sat in, gently off the riverbed.

But it’s not the subtle undulation of the liquid beneath that these two are primarily interested in – they spend their days tuning into and capturing waves of sound created by a diverse stream of musicians flowing through the recording studio they run.

Now moored at Trinity Buoy Wharf, Lightship95 was originally built as a floating lighthouse, part of a fleet of similarly sturdy vessels capable of holding position in all weathers.   

Owner Ben Phillips, a producer and engineer, bought her after she’d left active service and conceived and undertook a two-year project to turn her into a recording studio – an alternative to the pressures and uncertainty of building one on land.

He ran the business until 2017, when Soup Studios relocated to the vessel from Cable Street in Limehouse.

In 2021 Soup moved back onto dry land, but Giles and Dave – two of its crew members – opted to remain aboard, launching their own partnership under the name Lightship95 and continuing to record.

“I’d been running small studios in London since 2005, when I graduated, but the weird coincidence for me about this ship is that I could see it from where I grew up in Kent,” said Giles who takes the role of Lightship95’s studio manager.

“It was working as a lightship on the Goodwin Sands and I could see it on the horizon pretty much every day, so it’s quite strange to be on it now.

“The reason I’m here now is tied in with the reason that Ben decided to build a studio on the ship in the first place.

“I’ve built and then been kicked out by gentrification very quickly from a number of studios in London over the last 16 years.

“That’s what happens – artists go in, they build something, it’s a nice building and then the landlords realise it’s time to raise the rent.

“That’s difficult when you’re trying to run a studio.

“Soup wasn’t kicked out of our last studios in Cable Street, but we never had any security there, because there was a yearly rolling lease, so you’re terrified of the landlords the whole time.

“The really good thing about Trinity Buoy Wharf is that it has written into its lease an obligation to make a certain section of its income from cultural activities and that’s a rare thing in London.”

Lightship95 moored at Trinity Buoy Wharf
Lightship95 moored at Trinity Buoy Wharf – image Matt Grayson

Dave is Lightship95’s senior engineer and didn’t see the vessel growing up, on account of doing that in New Zealand. 

He said: “I came over in 2011 after a couple of years backpacking in Europe and South-East Asia and thought I would have a look around and see what was happening on the other side of the world.

“Initially I was freelancing, doing bits and pieces for about a year, mostly at the Royal College Of Music, before a mutual contact put me in touch with Giles in 2015.

“Then I started hanging around at Soup, bringing my microphones and other equipment over from New Zealand bit by bit.

“We worked hard to grow the studio and the client base and then we found out the ship was available. It was a bit of a risk, but our clients followed us, so it paid off.

“The pandemic has been different to normal, obviously, but it has given us the opportunity to refocus and get this business the way we’d imagined it.”

The studio’s 1980s tape recorder – image Matt Grayson

With a control room contained inside the ship’s former diesel tank, its live space occupying the former engine room and a vocal booth nestled between the two, Lightship95 offers a wealth of flexible facilities and expertise to its clients.

“The lion’s share of what we do, apart from making good coffee, is to allow people to forget what is normally invading their conscious minds and come and do what they’ve booked the place to do,” said Dave.

“It’s about looking after our relationships with our clients, because we want them to come back.

“It’s our job to understand what they’re trying to do, what their set-up is so we can arrange the live space in the best possible way.

“There are lots of little things – like the sounds of the instruments in the room, the sight lines and the monitoring so that when we take them into the control room and play it back people say: ‘That’s what we’re looking for’.

“There’s a huge amount of experience and knowledge which is hard to break down, that goes into building what that sound is.

“But I quite like the idea that our clients aren’t really aware of that – we want them to focus on what they’re doing and not be worried about the technical stuff.”

The live room at Lightship95
The live room at Lightship95 – image Matt Grayson

Giles added: “We make records in lots of different ways and one of the things that we do in a studio of this size is to encourage whole bands to come and record together. 

“Lots of records get made in a layered, computerised way – one instrument at a time – and that’s fine, but it’s great to encourage musicians to come and play together to get that interaction, that live feeling.”

Alongside different recording set-ups, Lightship95 is equipped with a bewildering array of tech, both digital and analogue. 

Giles said: “From a technological point of view, this is the best time to be making music. We’ve gone through the time when everyone chucked out their analogue gear, brought in the digital stuff and realised that a lot of it wasn’t good enough

“But now we can make a record on just a MacMini and challenge anyone to tell whether it went through analogue or digital.

“Then we still have all the analogue gear which we can use as creative inspiration and with total flexibility because it can be integrated into a digital environment.” 

Dave added: “Some of our microphones are 80 years old and we have a tape machine from the 1980s, which was the pinnacle of analogue.

“The mixing board is analogue too – the last model before the company went totally digital.

“The beauty of digital is that it’s such a clean result – you might want a 1960s-style guitar and you can get an instrument from that era, use a microphone that will give it that colour and then, digital capture of that will be perfect.

“It’s also the flexibility of having so many inputs and outputs that means you’re never short of workspace – the computer power is ridiculous.”

The studio offers both digital and analogue tech
The studio offers both digital and analogue tech – image Matt Grayson

While the extensive soundproofing prevents anything much being heard outside the boat itself, Lightship95 has hosted all sorts of clients – many on the modern jazz scene – as well as the likes of Ghostpoet, Mike Skinner and Roots Manuva.

“It’s a really exciting time to have a studio business,” said Dave.

“We want the place to be used – we’ve been quite crafty in that we have all these things we like to use, but it’s still affordable, and that’s important.

“This is our life – as we’ve grown, our clients have grown at the same time and it’s been really exciting to see the successes of people we’ve been working with for for many years.” 

Lightship95 costs £480 per day to hire with discounts for block bookings. Rates include use of instruments, equipment and an engineer.

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Leamouth: How Vicky Phillips is drawing the future aboard Lightship Print Shop

Based on Lightship95 at Trinity Buoy Wharf, her pattern designs are used on all kinds of products

Lightship Print Shop founder Vicky Phillips
Lightship Print Shop founder Vicky Phillips – image Matt Grayson

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Visit Trinity Buoy Wharf and it’s impossible to miss the bright red vessel, moored where the river Lea meets the Thames.

Crowned by a lighthouse, it now contains a recording studio in its belly.

But up front, tucked down a tight stairwell from its bows, lies something else – a space where Vicky Phillips draws the future.

Lightship Print Shop inhabits a cabin in stark contrast to the industrial scarlet gloss of its shell.

Illuminated through rows of port holes and by pendant lights that gently sway with the motion of the Lea as the ship bobs at her moorings, Vicky’s studio is brilliant white.

A central slab of table, complete with neatly plumbed-in, eggshell blue anglepoise, is served by steel and leather seating and supports a slim but serious iMac and Wacom pen tablet, all ready to go.

 The floor is pale grey wood and pot plants decorate this workspace, faithfully in motion with the rise and fall of the water outside.

For Vicky’s business, it’s the engine room.

“Lightship Print Shop is a surface pattern studio,” she said.

“I create designs for fashion, homeware, textiles and anything else that needs a repeated print on it. I started the business in 2019, about eight months before the first lockdown.”

In essence the core of Vicky’s operation sees her either draw or paint images and scan them or make digital pictures before bringing them all together in her computer to be arranged as a tile that can be replicated to create a pattern on almost anything.

“That’s what I sell to companies – they buy the copyright,” she said.

“It normally takes at least a year for my designs to come out on products, because all the businesses have their own lead times.

“You wait for ages, but then it’s really exciting when you see it reproduced on whatever they’ve created.

“I usually start my designs with a lot of trend research. I use companies such as WGSN and Trendbible, who predict future fashions.

“Their guides are a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy really, because all the brands that use them buy into the process and so it becomes true that they are the trend makers.

“From a business perspective, it makes sense to follow what they are predicting with my work.

WSGN, especially, has been very useful over the past 18 months around the lockdowns and other restrictions.

“They would normally go to trade shows to see what’s next from our side, but instead they’ve been setting briefs – we can respond to them and get included in its publications. That allowed me to reach new clients, who wouldn’t otherwise have seen my work.

“After I’ve done my research, the process starts with trend boards, looking at colours and how I should interpret a theme. 

“Should I use watercolours or gouache? Or should I start on an iPad? There’s a variety of approaches. Each one then has its own route until it all ends up on the computer.”

One of Vicky's vibrant patterns
One of Vicky’s vibrant patterns – image Matt Grayson

Drawing was a passion from a young age, leading Vicky to study to become an illustrator at university.

She said: “It was always my first choice at school. I just love drawing.

“The course I did was very good, but it was quite traditional – great if you’re going to be a natural history illustrator but other worlds were not really explored.

“Early on I decided I wanted to be a freelance illustrator where you have to be known for a certain style of work so clients know what they’re going to get. 

“That was my problem, I didn’t really have a style – I jumped around a lot, probably to my detriment.”

Having worked for clients such as Scholastic, Dolce & Gabbana and The Independent, Vicky took a job with homeware company Bombay Duck.

“I thought I needed some commercial experience,” she said. “But because I was the only designer I didn’t get to learn much from anyone else. 

“That’s when I applied for the job at Paperchase. Back then I had no idea surface pattern even existed as an industry.

“I thought everything was done in-house by different brands, but it makes sense for companies to have an external source so they can buy prints and have much more variety.

“They can keep on top of trends more easily. At Paperchase there was a lot of in-house design, but they couldn’t do everything themselves so they’d purchase the copyright to patterns and make use of them.

“At that point, I thought I’d like to be one of the people selling the prints, having the freedom to do what they wanted and hoping somebody bought their work.

“That’s when I founded Lightship Print Shop and, luckily, I was able to do a couple of trade shows in London and New York before the pandemic arrived.

“I managed to get some clients and keep that going over Zoom and that’s really helped me. In surface pattern it’s an advantage to have a variety of styles to present to a client, so that’s been a benefit too.”

Work in progress at Lightship Print Shop
Work in progress at Lightship Print Shop – image Matt Grayson

Vicky’s work has been bought and used by brands including La Vida Loca, Peter Alexander, Knightley’s Adventures By Samantha Faiers, American Eagle and Paperchase.

“I’m working on some designs for Paperchase at the moment, actually,” she said.

“I kept that connection after I left and I’m producing some bright and colourful things for them. When I’m done with that I’ve got to work on some tropical prints for Spring/Summer 2023.

“My work is typically conversationals – basically designs that aren’t floral. The majority of surface patterns are based on flowers, but that’s not something that interests me much.

“The designs I produce are more fun and whimsical – they don’t have to be hard-hitting, cutting-edge fashion.

“I like things that are fun to draw whether that’s tigers or toucans wearing glasses. I do try to gear what I do to a trend, though.

“At the moment that’s all about optimism – after the lockdowns people will want things that are brighter combined with hope for the future, so that means vibrant colours printed on recycled fabrics.”

Lightship95 at Trinity Buoy Wharf
Lightship95 at Trinity Buoy Wharf – image Matt Grayson

Lightship 95 was originally converted into a recording studio more than a decade ago by Vicky’s now husband Ben. 

“I love the ship,” she said. “It’s such a wonderful icon and a great thing to draw as well.

“It’s also the identity of my business – it wasn’t difficult to think of a name. I think being based there helps in my work – it’s certainly easier to get people to come and visit. 

“With surface pattern, you’d normally be asked to go into a company’s office and you’d have to bring a huge suitcase with all the designs – there’s lots of moving things around.

“But people are quite keen to visit me here, which is nice.

“My plan for the future is to do more of the same and continue to build my client base.

“Although I don’t have any control over what my prints are used for, it’s always an amazing feeling to see them out in the real world.

“That’s often on social media, where people post images of themselves wearing these products and talking about them. 

“It’s a real honour that anyone would choose to wear something I’ve designed.

“Because of the sorts of illustrations I do they get used for a lot of kidswear, and seeing the designs photographed in a playful way is really cool.”

Vicky also produces prints and a limited range of products that are available to buy direct from her website.

“During the early stages of lockdown, I thought my core business might stop completely, so I thought I’d produce some of my own stuff – pin badges, notebooks and things like that,” she said.

Her work will also form part of the decoration at rooftop venue Roof East in Stratford when Urban Space Management, which is also based at and operates Trinity Buoy Wharf, reopens the space in 2022. 

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