I arrived a few minutes late to the brightly-lit North London community center, excited to begin my first life drawing class since my student days.
There were eight others already seated at tables arranged in a semi-circle around the model. Our teacher, a short man with a friendly face, mouthed “hello,” gesturing for me to pick a seat. I plopped down next to an elderly bearded man in a beanie and gray windbreaker, and was instructed to start sketching the model, a scrawny older man holding a 15-minute pose.
I cringed as I knocked a few pencils off the table onto the floor, disrupting the silent concentration of students nearby. I picked them up, and set to work.
Moments later, straining my peripheral vision like a kid cheating on a test, I caught a glimpse of my neighbor’s drawings. Perfectly proportioned, Renaissance-like sketches spread out on the page before him. He must be a regular, I thought, refocusing on my own clumsy images. The heel of my palm was already leaving a smudgy charcoal mess on the creamy paper.
Before I knew it, the model had shifted into another pose. Reluctantly, I abandoned my drawing and began another on a fresh page. Then two more poses, before a short break. The model was now walking around in a silk gown, commenting on people’s sketches, snapping the odd photo with his phone.
As others stood up to make themselves tea in the kitchen, I plucked up the courage to introduce myself to my neighbor.
“Arthur,” he said. His quiet voice, muffled through a wiry beard, was hard to make out against the chatter.
I could tell Arthur was shy. I asked if I could make him some tea, as I was on my way to get my own. He beamed and nodded. When I returned with our two steaming cups, he told me he’d been coming here for years, and then our teacher signaled the end of the break.
Heads down, heads up, eyes squinting. Graphite swishing across paper and chairs squeaking as bodies shifted. Everyone lost in the translation of a live figure onto a plane of flat paper. That was the general rhythm of class. But I was glad that I’d made a friend.
I went back two weeks later to find Arthur in the same spot, with an empty seat to his right. During the break, he asked me to make him some tea. Slightly conscious of becoming the tea lady, I agreed, happy to cement our new routine. He told me he’d been feeling down lately, and that my gesture last time had helped pick him back up.
Arthur was 83, I learned. He wasn’t a professional artist (“what does professional even mean?” he asked) but he’d been drawing and painting since young adulthood, having moved from Liverpool to London at 30 to pursue art.
He told me about a woman he’d approached at the National Gallery a while back, whom he’d noticed struggling to sketch a Caravaggio painting. “See the figure as different connecting geometric shapes, not as a human,” he told her. “Don’t fixate on the details.” His advice was so helpful that she asked if she could pay him, he said, laughing. I admitted I was having a tough time with my own drawings, as I fancied he already knew.
I barely knew him, but Arthur fascinated me and I wanted to get to know him better. I had a sudden urge to make a short film about him. Before the end of class, I asked him if we could meet for coffee. Surprised and seemingly amused by the offer, he agreed.
I found him the next morning, waiting for me at the cafe as we’d arranged, wearing his beanie and gray jacket.
He’d trained as a hairdresser in Liverpool, he told me, following in his mother’s footsteps, before abandoning the profession and moving to London. He’d always done odd jobs, but his passions were his art and his family. He and his wife had lived in the same apartment for five decades, and together they had eight children and several grandkids.
“A forest without old trees is no good. A forest without young trees is no good either,” Arthur said, describing our spontaneous friendship. In our budding forest, my curiosity about the world was being exchanged for his deep knowledge of it.
On his long walks on Hampstead Heath, Arthur sometimes went down to the ponds to pick reeds that he’d later turn into quills for watercolor paintings, or sit and meditate on a bench.
When we got chatting about the film I planned to make, I could see the idea made him self-conscious, but when I told him it would just be us chatting and spending time together, he relaxed. I put my digital camera on the table between us. He examined the buttons and was surprised by the weight of the machine. He let me take a few pictures of him as he shifted in his seat, not knowing where to look.
We met again the next week at the same cafe. As we were both about to head on respective trips—he to Wales, and me to France—we agreed that the film would have to wait. As I walked him to the bus stop after settling the bill, he threw an arm around me and said that it felt like I was his granddaughter.
A few weeks later, I found myself back at life drawing class on a cold, drizzly evening, but Arthur wasn’t there; he must still be away. The teacher made an announcement during the break as I was making tea, just for myself.
“I wanted to let you all know that Arthur, the man who usually sits right there, has passed away.”
Arthur had had a stroke a week earlier, and a fall. The teacher shared details about the memorial service. “I know some of you had gotten quite close to him,” he added, glancing at me.
I was almost confused by the intensity of my sudden grief. Why was I so saddened by the death of an 80-something year old? I’d only just met him. But my complicated feelings—grief over the ending of a new friendship, anger that I hadn’t made more progress on the film, and sadness for his family—were eventually dispelled by gratitude that I’d gotten to know Arthur at all.
When we’d met that first time in the cafe, Arthur suggested that I write my thoughts down before class, to set an intention and calm the mind; advice that could be applied to everything, not just sketching. As he showed me his own worn-out notebook, which had been resting on the table between us, I caught sight of the words “The Wanderings of Arthur” scrawled in his messy handwriting. I still think about that.