IT IS a cold, cold night in Glasgow and I am on way to see people naked in a pub.
The name of the pub is the Flying Duck. The name of the night is All The Young Nudes. It is a life-drawing club. Every Tuesday, for two hours, around 50 people gather here in a back room down a back lane with sketchpads and cans of cider. This is, perhaps, the only bar in Glasgow where a Stanley knife taken out and laid on the table implies not a threat of violence but an intention to sharpen one’s pencils.
There are three models working tonight: Katrina, Gabriel and Ron. The artists find it helpful to have a choice of ages, genders and body shapes. Ron is 58, silver-haired and greyhound-thin – “I’m not Arnold Schwarzenegger,” he later confides. Katrina is 26, film-noirish with an auburn bob and toenails painted red to match her lipstick, somewhere between ingenue and vamp. Gabriel is 30, a Hungarian neuroscience student, with a “What are you looking at, pal?” scowl strongly suggestive of someone who does not actually realise that he is naked and sitting legs akimbo in a leather armchair. Later, when I talk to him, the mystery is solved – Gabriel has poor eyesight and his fierce expression is actually more peer than leer. He could wear his glasses, of course, but if you are already taking off your pants, why bother?
The models, encircled by sketchers, pose in two distinct areas of the pub. The main area, down within a wooden oval, is notionally a dancefloor, but feels more like an old-fashioned anatomy theatre. The session begins with a series of quick poses, the idea being that the sketchers use these to warm up, to loosen their wrists and fingers. Joanna Susskind, whose event this is, rings a small brass bell every couple of minutes, the cue for her models to move. The bell’s handle has been carved into the likeness of a ship, the Mayflower, which feels appropriate as there is something of the solemn, prayerful pilgrimage about these weekly events.
But All The Young Nudes could hardly be called puritanical. The empty beer cans stacked beside stooks of pencil shavings put paid to that notion. To call the night bohemian would be a considerable understatement. The room smells of joss-sticks. The decor of the Flying Duck, which is in Renfrew Court, across from Cineworld, is 70s bachelor pad, all jazzy wallpaper and chrome lamps. The girl on the door reads King Solomon’s Mines by candlelight and invites patrons to help themselves to a bowl of sugared almonds.
Music plays throughout. Often, the playlist will have a theme; next week’s will be Valentine’s Day. As befits a club called All The Young Nudes, organisers make an effort to include a song by David Bowie each and every week. Far from being disruptive, the music somehow intensifies the hush of the process itself – all those eyes and minds focused on flesh, on breath, on the rise and fall of a breast; the only sound the scratch of charcoal on paper.
Tonight’s sketchers are both male and female, mostly in their twenties but some a good bit older, many of them students at the Glasgow School of Art. Others work in law, education, media, the arts. It’s fairly middle-class, what Dickens and Orwell liked to call shabby-genteel; scuffed brogues, paint-spattered jeans, pinafore dresses, Sarah Lund sweaters and jumble-sale cardies thinning at the elbows.
Donna Nicholson Arnott, a 36-year-old library assistant, has been using a fine-nibbed architect’s pen to draw Katrina using one continuous line. Donna is a regular at All The Young Nudes, making the effort to attend every week, and considering it an important part of her life; previously, she would sit in Queen Street train station and sketch strangers without them being aware of it – “stealing people, basically”. What is her experience of coming to these nights? “It’s liberating. It unhinges your brain from all of the other stuff that takes up thought and time in the week. It’s a really meditative process.”
Penny Anderson, a property writer, has been using pastel crayons to sketch Ron. “He is really fit and taut with well-defined musculature, and that’s excellent to draw,” she says. “It just doesn’t occur to you that you can see his willie. All you are thinking about is how you are going to get their proportion right. It’s really intense. Sometimes you do become aware of the bizarre fact that you are basically sitting in a bar drawing a naked person. But you are concentrating so hard that those moments are fleeting.”
Ron has a day job in the media and has been posing nude for about four years, both here and in the art schools, and is kept busy as there is a real shortage of men. “Guys seem quite reluctant to expose their flesh in public. I actually find it quite therapeutic. The first five minutes can be nerve-wracking, but after that you relax into it.” Modelling, for Ron, is also an opportunity to pursue the naturist lifestyle which he first embraced while on holiday in Corfu in 1981. “It’s a great feeling of complete and utter freedom,” he explains, “and it means you don’t have any white bits.”
Katrina, the young female model, is a singer at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. Between studying and working several part-time jobs, life can feel pretty fraught, and modelling is “a release, a chance not to be mentally doing my accounts or thinking about a recital, to focus on nothing but staying still. I’m not an extrovert, but I’ve never had any shyness issues. I’m not going to pretend I don’t have body issues. I hate my body as much as the next woman, but it just doesn’t matter. I’m not trying to be attractive or sexy.
“It’s not about contorting yourself into ridiculous poses. You can go for something more demure, or if you really fancy you can go full frontal. It’s completely about what you’re comfortable with. The artists don’t care. I doubt very much there’s anybody thinking, ‘I can’t see her nipples from here.’ Nobody is here to perv. I’ve felt more threatened walking down Sauchiehall Street at lunchtime.”
Is there no erotic charge to it, though? It would be wrong to suggest that figurative art is entirely chaste. Look at Manet, look at Schiele, look at the blockbusting art show of the moment, Lucian Freud. In fact, the atmosphere between artist and nude model seems not to be voyeuristically erotic, but rather one of intimacy born of close attention. We almost never in our lives look at anyone with as much care as an artist looks at a model.
“We’re very anti anything sexy,” says Joanna Susskind. “Quite often one of the models will ask, ‘Shall I wear a corset?’ But I think that’s going in the wrong direction. I’d rather keep the focus on draughtsmanship.”
Susskind, who is 27 and runs a digital artists’ collective, started All The Young Nudes three years ago. In the first week, there was one model and just eight people turned up to sketch. Now, with the club a word-of-mouth phenomenon, there are plans to franchise it out to Edinburgh, Dundee and Aberdeen. The great draw, other than the opportunity to bevvy, seems to be that All The Young Nudes is not an art class. There is no tuition and no judgement. Everyone is welcome, from – to reference Bowie again – absolute beginners onwards. Also, for four quid you get three models, which is a good deal. Susskind has around 150 models on her books, around 30 of whom she considers regulars, prizing them for their willingness to show up and their ability to stay still.
“A lot of the models are naturists, a few are exhibitionists, some are actors or dancers who enjoy doing this because they like performing,” she says. “It’s almost all girls, and they are almost all between 20 and 25. There’s one called Camberley in her mid-30s. She’s massive. She has an amazing body – rolls and rolls of flesh. She does loads of life-modelling because nobody else looks like her.”
There is, undoubtedly, a physical challenge to life-modelling. “Good body-temperature regulation,” is one quality Katrina cites as necessary to success in the field. “And it’s a lot harder to sit still than you think. If you’ve got pins and needles that’s all you can think about.”
Ron’s advice is “make sure you find a pose you can maintain comfortably, one which isn’t going to cut off the blood supply to various parts of your anatomy.”
He knows, too, that there can be a downside to a pre-session nerve-steadying pint. Once, about 20 minutes into a pose, he had to make a dash for the gents – a blessing for his bladder, but a serious breach of modelling etiquette. “Sacrilege,” he sighs.
At 10pm, All The Young Nudes is all over. Everyone puts down their drinks and closes their sketch-pads. The models move, like statues come to life. There’s a strong sense of a spell being broken, of a held breath exhaled, of the dull care of the world about to break back in. As one of the sketchers said to me, “These nights are a wee bit magic. Everyone these days is on Facebook and Twitter all the time, but this feels like a real experience.”
Gabriel, if you asked him, would no doubt nod at the wisdom of this. As it is, he puts on his specs, covers his pecs and wanders out, into the cold Glasgow night, for a fag.