Listen to a Londoner Interview: James Sweetman

This is James. He kayaks to work sometimes (can you tell?). He also has a fabulously entrepreneurial spirit, co-owns Stickyboard – a virtual London community noticeboard site – with his brother and is on a search for 100 Great Things About London. When he asked me to contribute, I asked for an interview. We met at Sacred Cafe on Ganton Street where James bought me an Earl Grey tea entertained me with stories of man dates, a giant tunnel where kayakers dare not paddle and 1940’s swing dancing parties.


LLO:  Tell us about yourself. Are you originally from London? What do you do? Which area of the city is home? 
JS: I’m originally a Londoner, born and bred. Grew up in Ealing, went to university, did a little travel and came straight back. Me and my brother started a business together, which is a website called Stickyboard. It’s all about bringing a community together in the form of online noticeboards.

LLO: Any hobbies?
JS: I’m an active guy. I enjoy sports a lot. Kayaking! Ran the Paris Marathon recently. Unfortunately the London one is quite oversubscribed. I play a lot of lacrosse as well.

LLO: What’s the best thing about living in your postcode? 
JS: It’s W5. I’d say access to green spaces. There’s Ealing Common and Gunnersbury Park down the way. If you want to go a bit further, you can go down to Kew Bridge, Kew Gardens. When I’m training, it’s really nice to have a space to run around.

LLO: And where to do you work? 
JS: We work in King’s Cross at this amazing place called The Hub. It’s a start-up place for social businesses.

LLO: I’ve heard you kayak to work? Why did you start doing that? 
JS: I guess it’s because my brother and I were sat there after work drinking one day at a bar on the canal as you do. He’s the older one. It was a beautiful day. We were talking about getting on the tube, how awful it would be right then. I started saying it would be nice to go home along the canal. So it started out as a bit of a bet between me and him. One thing led to another.

LLO: Do you kayak to work every day? 
JS: (laughs) No, no…

LLO: How often? 
JS: It started last year when the weather was pretty solid up until October or November. It was a couple times a week then, but it turns out it’s really tiring!

LLO: What’s the journey like?
JS: I finish work, go down to the canal by the Guardian building, inflate the kayak, get in it, travel about four or five miles. Get off at Paddington and get on the train, 8 minutes to Ealing. It needs a bit of refining. It’s an inflatable kayak as well so it’s not streamlined. Maybe buy an actual kayak to start.

When I first got it, I wanted to get lots of miles under it. Sometimes I’d finish work on a Friday, go for drinks after work and I’d end up carrying the paddles and the kayak to the pub. Then stay with friends and figure out how to get to the canal from there. That’s really nice, when you have a long stretch of summer.

LLO: What do you see along the way?
JS: On my regular trip? I go through Little Venice. There’s a bit of a tunnel and then I go through Regents Park which is stunning. There’s a birdcage at the London Zoo which looks like it’s from Jurassic Park. One morning I went down. It was October, really misty and I went through the park hearing all of these bird calls. It felt like the jungle. Then there’s Camden Lock which is quite colourful with all the restaurants on the side. I have to carry the kayak around the locks and then a big stretch to King’s Cross with a huge tunnel at Angel before you can go on that side of the network. That is quite bad for kayaks. You’re not supposed to go down it.

LLO: What time do you have to wake up to kayak to work on time? 
JS: Fortunately since we own our own company I can go in at 10 and work late. I used to get up at 7:30 so not that bad. It became a bit like the gym. You’re nicely worn out by the time you arrive. Quite a few times I got rained on, turned up drenched. You feel life is against you then. You know what I mean? (laughs)

LLO: Where’s the best place to buy a kayak in London?
JS: Oh god, um, eBay! There’s lots of clubs where you can try it out if you want to. A lot of people in London own a kayak and want to sell it so eBay is actually quite useful.

LLO: Apart from the canal, where else is good for kayaking in London?
JS: There’s obviously the canal which extends across the entirely of London, all the way from Ealing, loops across the top and extends all the way to the other side in East London. There is a company that does kayaking on the Thames and quite a few little clubs dotted along the canal. There’s one up in Camden, one in Islington, Ealing, Brentford. So you can just dip in if you want to.

LLO: You have a website called 100 Great Things About London. I can think of more than 100 things. What happens when you get to 100? 
JS: We start at zero? No, we’d love to take the 100 articles written by people who live in London to share their favourite things and bring it all together with a map.  You could be anywhere in London and figure out where the best little places are nearby or you could map out a date or night out and link them together. I’d like people to become regular contributors. That’s the dream.

LLO: How many contributions do you have so far? 
JS: About 34 or 35. Each one has its own voice.

LLO: And of those, which are you most inclined to experience? 
JS: (laughs) There is one done by a friend of mine called The Man Date. It’s ridiculous.

LLO: What’s a man date?
JS: It’s a funny piece on going out with a guy friend. It’s because a bunch of guys and I had a day for close shaves at Trumpers, the classic male shaving place. Then we went to round the corner to Pitt Cue, a great place for ribs. It just happened that Six Nations was on so we watched that in a sports bar. It’s just a day for men. It’s ridiculous, a very jokey article.

LLO: So a full day of man-dating?
JS: I don’t think anyone can take that!

LLO: Do you have a woman date?
JS: Well this is where you come in. You can do the response.
LLO: Maybe I will!  

LLO: What’s your own favourite London discovery?
JS: It’s really hard to narrow it down. I’m a huge fan of the Lates at the museums. We went to one at the V&A the other day. Really good. These places stay open late and they have DJs or silent discos, dancing, drinking. You wander around the exhibits. When we went to the V&A one, you could paint your own pants. Creative things.

LLO: Any more favourites?
JS: Secret Cinema. Amazing. We went to Prometheus the other day which was astounding. Such a good time. Incredibly random but good. Then there’s the Blitz Parties and Prohibition Parties. They’re monthly parties, basically swing dancing. You dress up in 1940s clothes or war time clothes. An amazing night. Definitely worth checking out.

LLO: Tell us more about Stickyboards and what you’re planning to do with it.
JS: It’s using the concept of a village noticeboard, online, by borough. The idea is that people can come on and share news, events, services, bringing communities together. We’re working right now with Ealing Voluntary Service with an add-on so people can donate time, money and goods to support local actions. We’re piloting it in Ealing, then hoping to expand it across London.

LLO: Changing direction, we’re looking for a place to go for dinner and drinks tonight. Any recommendations?
JS: Get an early dinner, maybe Meat Liquor or Lobster & Burger. Then the Piano Bar on Kensington High Street. Saturdays are lively nights.  There’s a charming pianist who takes requests, does a bit of humour and you sit around the piano. There’s lots of drinks. It’s bustling. There’s also the Troubadour in Earl’s Court. Or Ronnie Scott’s. Soho Theatre always has lots of great comedy on for about £10-12. There’s the Toucan Bar right next to it that has the best Guinness in London. Probably more of a guy thing though.

LLO: Tell us about a Londoner you know who’s doing something interesting worth talking about. 
JS: There’s a great blogger called The Londoneer, a really nice guy who writes about London. There’s a Big Issue guy who works with us. What they do is amazing.

Thanks James!

For more Listen to a Londoner posts, click here.

London Art Spot: Hartwig Braun

With the observant eye of a professional architect, Hartwig Braun knows when he can break the rules – and he does so often with a mesmerising outcome. Somehow managing to maintain a pretty high level of accuracy, he twists up aerial views of a city and plays with perspective to create something akin to a caricature. With itty-bitty details in place, Hartwig chooses some of the most important features of an area to highlight and, after many drafts, presents to the world a playful rendition of a cityscape. His images – drawn freehand – come out with a “fish-eye” effect. Collaborating with Isaac Lilos who introduced me to Hartwig’s work in their Greenwich Market shop, Arty Globe, last weekend, Hartwig has been able to build a successful business out of his passion for illustration.

On the side, he loves cooking exotic meals, engaging in heated debate and learning languages – he speaks four fluently, probably a result of having lived in so many different cities.

For this week’s London Art Spot, Hartwig shares loads of fun images, tells us about the intricate process of creating his artwork and how Isaac pushed him over the last six years to where he is now.   

London Eye

LLO: How long have you lived in London and how does this city influence your creativity?
 I am still relatively new to London, I only moved here in November 2008 after spending about four years up north in Nottingham and Lincolnshire. I’ve always been a big city person. Before coming to the UK, I lived in Berlin for 10 ten years, two years in Amsterdam and for a while in Paris. So London is the place to be in the UK for me. I really love living here and I definitely unpacked my suitcase.

My fascination for the vibrant metropolis is also reflected in my work. I love the hustle and the bustle, the dynamics and the great energy of this city, the cosmopolitan mix, which can really give you the feel of a global community. I want to capture the wealth of architectural diversity, the juxtaposition of old and new and the abundance of different impressions, which change at every corner. I am a passionate “flâneur” love strolling around town, discover and absorb all the little amazing detail London has to offer.


LLO: Describe your artistic style.
 I call my images illustrations with an emphasis on cityscapes and architecture. I wouldn’t call them maps as some people do, as they are not a depiction of reality but always my own interpretation of the existing city (you wouldn’t use them for finding your way in town).  In my illustrations I want to give a feel for the pace of the city so the drawing sets it in motion – the horizon curves, streets bend and the buildings swell. I love playing with the rules of perspective, deliberately breaking them and creating my own rules.

Besides all the quirk, I want to be quite accurate and include buildings or detail that define a specific location and make it recognizable. I also want to catch the very essence of a building. As for a caricature of a person you need to analyze a building and define the key features, which make it recognizable and make “the spirit” of it.  Then you know where you have the freedom to exaggerate and to play with the perspective 

Berlin, Winter

LLO: Your cityscapes are very detailed, intricate and intriguingly accurate in an obscure sort of way – a result of your background in Architecture?
Well, I guess so. Probably it is the architect inside me who, whenever I take the soft, thick felt pen I use for the first impulsive doodles of curves, lines and blobs, says: “Ok, those streets cross each other in such an angle and over there needs to be this particular building which is very characteristic. I’ve always had an attention to detail and when I start something I like I really dive into it and so the artwork becomes more and more intricate

British Museum

LLO: Tell us about the process that goes into creating an image from idea to finished product.
First I try to get as many good aerial photographs as possible. They are always the best source of information. Then I do a little layout sketch to define the best angle for the most dynamic view, I decide about the area I want to show and try to arrange the given elements of the city (rivers, bridges, streets, landmarks and other key buildings, green spaces) together with the curved horizon as a dynamic and balanced composition. As a next step I project a simplified street map onto my “globe” to define the horizontal distortion of the street layout (e.g. straight lines as the Mall become smooth curves).

Having done this I walk around the area and take lots of pictures on street level and watch out for the special little detail.

The next step is a rough 3-d version of the first sketch. Buildings become cubes or blobs to define the right size, proportions, angles and degree of distortion. Then I need to transform those cubes into individual buildings by tracing over my own sketches again, again and again. Each time I do more fine tuning, add more detail or correct things if necessary until I am completely happy with the result. At the end of this lengthy process I need to bring all the different parts and pieces together on one big contiguous line drawing, which I scan. Most of the times I need to put the scans in parts together again before I can eventually start the digital colouring process 


LLO: How many drafts do you typically sketch before you are happy with a result?
It really varies. Some buildings are easier to do and may be finished after 3 or 4 steps. On the other hand, very technical constructions as the London Eye or baroque churches as St Paul’s Cathedral can be really hard to do with all their fiddly little detail. I need to find the right balance between giving a realistic image of the construction and not overloading the drawing with too many lines, which could would be rather a mess. So I easily end up drawing and fine tuning certain buildings 20 or 30 times until I am completely happy with the result.

LLO: What are you working on right now?
I just finished an illustration of Canary Wharf, which hopefully will be on the cover of a magazine soon. The next project is finalizing the designs for a range of greeting cards comprising London and some other cities for a well known UK card publisher.

London Retro

LLO: When did you meet Isaac Lilos and how did the two of you come up with the idea to collaborate in a business venture?
I met Isaac over six years ago in Paris and we hit it off straight away. It was thanks to Isaac that I moved to the UK from Berlin several months later. About two years later Isaac spotted a little postcard design of Amsterdam I drew some years before when I was living there, which I sent to my family and friends for Christmas. He started pestering me to do something bigger and bolder with my style and to draw a bigger panoramic view of London as he felt that together with his entrepreneurial skills it could be developed into an exciting venture. I did not really believe him in the beginning!

I was working as an architect and my spare time was fairly limited – I could just not see the opportunities he saw at the time I guess. After six months of pestering I had to get him off my back so I promised I would make a start and see what happened and that’s how, nine months later, the first panoramic image of London was born.

To be honest I was quite amazed myself when I finished the image as I had no idea I could create something as complex and intricate. It took me a few more years to develop the portfolio of images I currently have and it took us some time to find the best way to build a successful commercial venture around the artwork but it has definitely been a very rewarding process and journey since. 

New York

LLO: Your work has been sole at Arty Globe in Greenwich Market for about one year now. How has the business grown in this time and where do you see it going in the next few years?
The business has grown substantially in the past year especially as more and more local people who discover us keep coming back and bring their friends and family with them. Isaac and I are constantly busy developing new merchandise to keep our collection fresh and diversified. Having our own shop and talking directly to customers also enabled us to refine the range and designs over the time.

It is really great to see that over 50% of our customers are locals and Londoners who seem to really appreciate my style and take on the city. They also tell us that our merchandise makes great gift ideas to send or take on visits to family and  friends.

We feel that the time is right now for our products to be sold in other shops around London. To achieve that we will be taking a stand at “Top Drawer” (the trade show) in September where we would hopefully be able to show our full range and launch the wholesale side of our business. We also have some very exciting opportunities to do more bespoke work for some of London’s most famous establishments – something we will be pursuing in the coming year or two…

Regent Street

LLO: You’ve had commissions from, among others, the London Eye, the British Museum and for Hamley’s 250th anniversary this year. Do you have a dream client or a list of others you’d love to involve in your work?
Being seen on Transport for London Posters on Tube stations or drawing the Olympic sites for London 2012 would be really great. I can see a great affinity to my work since it is very much about London scenes and architecture and being an eye catcher and getting people’s attention. Of course it would also be nice to have such great exposure.

Transport for London Competition

LLO: Who are your other favourite London-based artists?
I admire Wolfgang Tillmans’ photographic work. He manages to turn those little every day scenes and objects into true art, and makes you look at things differently. Lately he started experimenting with abstraction and photography, two things you wouldn’t think can go together.

I also love the work of Hannah Dipper and Robin Farquhar the guys behind “people will always need plates”. They feature some of my favourite international style buildings from the 20s and 30s here in London on their beautiful line of ceramics. And I adore Emma Nissim’s wonderfully sophisticated and elegant textile designs with a very personal style.

Thanks Hartwig!

For more of Hartwig’s work, check his website: