My mother was born in England, so we would often travel to London from my hometown, Sydney, to visit relatives. From a young age, my relationship with travel has always been intertwined with London.
We would usually visit during the Christmas holidays, in the darkest depths of the English winter. It was an alien experience to step off the plane in shorts and T-shirt from the Australian summer, into grey skies, soon to turn black.
Coming in from Heathrow, I suddenly realised there was a world full of a huge variety of cities different to my own. My worldview changed instantly and the unfamiliar buildings drew me in.
It wasn’t just the architecture but also the way of organising those buildings that confused and intrigued me. My aunt’s terrace house in Queen’s Park was always a stopping point. Simple things stood out – the repeated buildings curving down the street, the repetition of bricks, the patterns, the mazelike structure of the neighbourhood.
It reminded me of the houses in Sydney, but there was an unfamiliar relationship between the building textures, the roads and the footpaths. It is these juxtapositions that intrigue me about places and why I have come to draw them so obsessively.
Seeing these new elements in any city prompts me to draw their details. It is an attempt to coax out some kind of essence that seems to lurk within the way a city is put together. Perhaps if I draw all the grout lines in the buildings, I’ll find a secret chink that unveils the character of a place. Drawing involves a personal loop of touch and sight that cements memories for me.
On one of my first trips to London as an adult I was given a vintage London tourist guide. I think it was from the 1900s and it had all these walking tours of the city. I found myself naively using the book to navigate. I started one walk and soon realised that the road wound in the same way described in the book, unchanged after so many years – though it was now overtaken by new architecture and planning. The most intense experience was coming to a set of foundations in a park and reading the description of the beauty of a church that was no longer there. It occurred to me that it must have been destroyed during the war and was never rebuilt.
This process of looking beyond what was in front of me and trying to draw out stories about where I stood is something I have taken around the world. It is the same with each city I travel to – I am intrigued by the details, and drawing the buildings allows me a way in, to stop and look and hopefully understand some of that city’s hidden essence.
Cities and their architecture are full of quirky and intense contrasts. I’ve lived in London as an adult over many different periods of my life – I gradually came to know some of its different characters. I try to build a relationship with what I draw by noticing distinct structures and the way they sit together. Drawing glues places together for me, creating a personal map.
In London, it all began with my auntie’s little house in Queen’s Park, where I traced my pencil along the old patterns of bricks as I walked home from the tube, stopping to see if I could draw out something of interest with a pencil and paper. This initial obsessive interest in London and its architecture pulled me – it got me drawing the city in its multitude of shapes and sizes. This has stayed with me as I travel and draw all sorts of buildings: the brownstones in Brooklyn, the skyscrapers in Manhattan, the winding Seuss-like structures in Paris, and all the way back home to the ornate terrace houses in Sydney.
• James Gulliver Hancock is an illustrator and author of books including All the Buildings in London