John Betjeman: Against A Mackerel Sky

John Betjeman: Against A Mackerel Sky

Against A Mackerel Sky – John Betjeman is a watercolour inspired by John Betjeman’s Devonshire Street, W1 poem. Today’s challenge is half light and this watercolour is the perfect subject for it in my mind. I couldn’t find a photo which matched such criteria. But I did paint a watercolour on Betjeman’s “Devonshire Street, W1” poem and it’s set in half light so I believe it will do. Here is the poem.


The heavy mahogany door with its wrought-iron screen
Shuts. And the sound is rich, sympathetic, discreet.
The sun still shines on this eighteenth-century scene
With Edwardian faience adornment — Devonshire Street.

No hope. And the X-ray photographs under his arm
Confirm the message. His wife stands timidly by.
The opposite brick-built house looks lofty and calm
Its chimneys steady against the mackerel sky.

No hope. And the iron knob of this palisade
So cold to the touch, is luckier now than he
“Oh merciless, hurrying Londoners! Why was I made
For the long and painful deathbed coming to me?”

She puts her fingers in his, as, loving and silly
At long-past Kensington dances she used to do
“It’s cheaper to take the tube to Piccadilly
And then we can catch a nineteen or twenty-two”.

— John Betjeman

Against A Mackerel Sky – John Betjeman

This is a small street perpendicular to Marylebone, North of Oxford Street in the heart of London. John Betjeman, a famous poet of the twentieth century and even of the post-war period, known for his sense of humour, particularly touched me with this poem full of fatalism, which tells the story of a man whose end is predicted, inevitable. An X-ray under his arm, accusing, ruthless, he holds his wife by the hand and looks at the house opposite, haughty, motionless, showing its brick chimneys standing out against a sky which looks like the skin of a … mackerel! The incongruity of the metaphor, encouraged me to make this drawing for this poem, which deals almost lightly with such a serious, banal subject, a subject which unfortunately comes back to us so often at the moment.

Betjeman has often been despised for not being a ‘poet of light verse’, an author who would be ‘enjoyed by the Queen Mother‘, but it is without consideration for this image that, almost by chance, I came across, while browsing through Edward Lucie Smith’s post-war anthology of British poetry.

I chose this poem which touched me by its simplicity and yet the richness of its theme, while remaining light (in the end, life goes on anyway, with the almost trivial question about the choice of bus or metro). Minstrels’ analysis of the poem is very accurate, don’t miss it.

From a pictorial point of view, a few novelties with new home-made colours, a French vermilion intended – in opaque and successive washes – to make the red of the brick houses stand out even more, and a green earth that I have also tinkered with (the colour at the bottom of the page) which turned out to be rather strange both in its texture and its rendering, but which produced a bizarre and almost unreal moiré effect that I liked and decided to keep.

This post is also available in: Français

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  1. What a lovely post. The poem is sad and beautiful — and i *adore* your watercolor! Thank you for sharing them both.

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