David Lemm: The King's Cross Landscape

Our new Illustrator in Residence explores the King's Cross estate and shares his first impressions.


  • David Lemm
  • Residency

It's been a quick month since I officially became this year's Illustrator in Residence at House of Illustration!

I'm based in Edinburgh, so will be visiting London every few weeks. I'm considering these initial trips as field studies, where I’ll be researching, observing, collecting and sketching material to develop back in my studio. I’ll be posting a lot more regularly as the project develops and using the hashtag #HoIresidency across social media if you want to follow my progress there.

I'm open to how the residency might unfold, but have a few key themes in mind as starting points - in particular, I’m interested in representing spatial relationships, considering how we perceive, navigate, evaluate and organise the world through subjective experience, whilst exploring the forms which make up our environments and the potential for idiosyncratic narratives to emerge.

I hope to also explore ideas relating to knowledge communication, specifically maps/diagrams, and our assumptions of truth based on abstract, graphic representations of reality.

I'll be working with these initial concepts in relation to the area surrounding House of Illustration over the coming months whilst developing a new body of work.

A big part of applying to the residency was to have the opportunity to explore different techniques, perhaps focusing more on a hand made/physical approach, having become slightly disillusioned by purely digital techniques. Drawing has always been a starting point in my work, but I haven’t really considered it as a final outcome for a while, so I'm keen to begin the residency by reconsidering how and why I draw.

My first visit was early in July. I did a lot of walking, becoming acquainted with the area and making a loose map in my mind of where I was, having rarely ventured north of Kings Cross on previous visits.

I've been thinking about psychogeography a lot recently - the idea of engaging with the city through playful enquiry, rather than pre-determined incentives guiding movement - so this felt like a good place to start. I wandered around, following my curiosity and finding my way along desire lines in the landscape rather than navigating, noticing interesting forms/compostions in the landscape and only occasionally referring to a map.

With the Caledonian connection I was keen to explore the Caledonian Road. I discovered the road was actually named after the Caledonian Asylum, now the Caledonian estate, which was originally built for orphans of Scottish servicemen. The building features Arts and Craft style railings which I was really drawn to.

A lot of streets/buildings around have Scottish names. I wondered if many people notice or make that connection, or if I was projecting my personal experience to make sense of a strange place. Is that how we tend to perceive places and would I have noticed if all the street names referenced somewhere else?

I noticed the Kings Cross development from the Cally road (interesting spelling as in Scotland Caledonian would be shortened to Caley) and wondered what visual impact it will have on the residents and their sense of place within the city. I spoke with a resident on the Caledonian estate who said the development was "coming up diamond" and described it as a castle when I asked about it overlooking the Cally road.

Closer to House of Illustration I wandered to Camley Street Natural Park. It feels like proper woodland, but in the heart of the city, full of log piles and primitive wooden structures - an interesting juxtaposition to the elaborate structure and geometry on the other side of the fence rising into the sky at St Pancras square.

Nearby are the Pond and Skip Garden. Quite a surreal place - but perhaps highlights a concerted effort to re-introduce nature and natural systems into the urban environment. Even the hoardings camouflaging the building work are covered in green leaves, creating bush-like rows - similar to a maze garden. Speaking with the install team back at House of Illustration, they assured me there was something strange or interesting around every corner in this area.

I wasn't really aware of the re-development at Granary Square and around Kings Cross prior to visiting, and that has immediately caught my imagination. It’s exciting to witness a new place emerging first hand and being able to respond to that. It's got me thinking more about how we define place. Is Granary Square a place yet since it's not finished? Is anywhere ever finished?

People are experiencing this place for the first time - will they be allowed to learn, discover the spaces or will everything be pre-determined through design with people forced to follow signs/paths telling them where to walk, sit, see...?

I headed home feeling I'd had a bit of an adventure, helped in part by the tube strike, sleeper Megabus back up to Edinburgh, and general sense of discovery I'd experienced in a few days.

Since then I've been busy planning a couple of workshops/events for the coming months which I'll talk more about later, and researching the Kings Cross development in more detail.

Looking forward to my next visit!

You can follow David as he explores and develops ideas over on Twitter and Instagram - and keep an eye on our What's on page for the events he'll be leading. Join David on 19 September for an experimental map-making workshop.