Globe Jotter | Clerkenwell to Kathmandu

From Clerkenwell to Kathmandu – artist Karen Neale has sketched the world. We meet her as she prepares to exhibit her latest work at the Barbican this spring.

When you look at one of my sketches, I want to draw you into it, so that the place, and what I felt about it, opens up to you,” says artist Karen Neale. Armed with just an A5 pad and a black Bic biro, she has travelled the globe capturing detailed views of fascinating cities and historical sights on paper. She even writes her impressions of a place around the edge of her drawing and the words become the metaphorical frame.

She started her journey in London, where she was living and working, as an architect, in Islington. She would walk the city (“I walk everywhere”) with her sketchbook. “One of my favourite walks is down St John Street, through Smithfield to St Paul’s. I love Clerkenwell,” she affirms, “with its sense of history and little alleyways.” Among the local places that have caught her sketching eye are Exmouth Market, Clerkenwell Green and St Bartholomew the Great.

But she was restless. “I wanted to do more with drawing in my life. Something inside was compelling me.” So she had an idea to sketch UNESCO World Heritage Sites around the world and, all set to beg the bank manager for a loan, she applied for, last-minute, and won a Winston Churchill Memorial Trust Travelling Fellowship. It funded her five-month itinerary, which started in France and ended in India, snaking its way via Italy, Greece, Turkey, Iran, Uzbekistan and Nepal. “So I took a sabbatical from work and just wanted to see where things would go. It really was a journey of a lifetime.”

‘I took a sabbatical from work and just went’

That was in 2001 and she’s been a fulltime artist ever since. Now, 14 years on (it’s also, aptly, 50 years since the death of Churchill and 70 years since the birth of UNESCO), she’s launching a book of her sketches from the trip this May, and hosting a corresponding month-long exhibition, at the Barbican. A Fellow Traveller: A Sketchbook Journey Inspired by World Heritage Cities and Sites follows on from previous books she’s published of London and the Georgian town of Stamford in Lincolnshire, where she now lives.

The name A Fellow Traveller obviously plays on the fact that she won the travel fellowship, but it also refers to her sketchbook. It was her constant companion and even more important to her, she says, than her passport. “It’s a really nice filter to people and places… Because people can see what you’re doing, just sketching, you’re not threatening. You meet a lot of good people who care about where they are. A picture is universally understood, it goes beyond language and other barriers.” Neale invites you to be her fellow traveller, too.

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Image: Karen Neale with one of her sketches on Waterloo Bridge

“I’ll walk around a place for ages and then suddenly think: ‘This is what I want to draw and where I want to draw it from.’ It’s difficult to explain the essence of that moment,” says Neale. Her chosen vantage point isn’t always at street level – it’s often a rooftop, bridge or tower.

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Image: Smithfield Market

All Neale’s sketches are done on site, in the open, at one sitting (or standing). It takes her four to five hours to do each one, “depending on how many interruptions there are; a big lorry parks in front of you, roadworks, the weather…” She then paints over her biro drawing with watercolours, on site if possible or later at home.

exmouth market
Image: Exmouth Market

“I like using Bics because they’re cheap, robust and you can get them anywhere in the world. You also don’t need to sharpen them.” Besides her biros, all Neale carries with her is her A5 sketchbook, a pencil (“for doing just a few little points here and there”), a small box of watercolours and “ a scrubby little eraser” – not for correcting mistakes but because “things can land on your sketchbook…”

clerkenwell green
Image: Clerkenwell Green

“Since leaving school I’ve always kept a sketchbook, just to record things. Drawing is a passion for me and I find it very calming. My sketchbook is my personal take on the places around us. It’s about saying, ‘Look at the world, we need to live with it, we need to look after it.’”

Neale has had many interesting commissions since returning from her travels. She’s been an artist in residence at the Houses of Parliament, the Athenaeum Club and Lord’s Cricket Ground. She’s drawn Hadrian’s Wall, Buckingham Palace (a picture that she then presented to the Queen), and the old Arsenal stadium (her prints of which have raised thousands of pounds for charity).

There are 42 sketches in the new book, whittled down from more than 100 that Neale did originally. They’re not all of World Heritage Sites – “there were so many gorgeous things to draw along the way,” she explains.

fellow travel copy

“A Fellow Traveller: A Sketchbook Journey Inspired by World Heritage Cities and Sites” is showing at the Barbican Library 1-27 May. The books will be available at the exhibition. For more information, visit