Modelling Contours

hills may be imagined as inundated with water, and that every time the water falls…, a mark is run round the surface of the ground at the edge of the water…[1] Paterson, 1882 How do you explain what a contour line is? G. D. Burr’s advice was to “Procure a stone somewhat resembling a hill”[2]secure it in a box, pour in diluted Indian ink, then drain it off at intervals so the stone is marked by a series of tidelines: contour lines. I tried recreating his 1839 experiment, yet however precise some of his instructions were, too many important details were missing: type of stone? Ratio of water to Indian ink? Duration required before reducing the level? Numerous experiments later, the crucial element for guaranteed results is deciphered: leaving the stone overnight between levels. Three years later Basil Jackson described “a very ingenious and striking”[3] adaptation of Burr’s experiment whereby the stone was replaced by “a model in plaster of Paris representing some hilly ground”. From my own trials I know plaster provides an excellent surface for emphasising each ink-stained ring; except in Jackson’s version ink isn’t used, the water is clear and: “At every successive fall of the water, he [Burr] traced lines on the model, indicating the curves shown upon its surface by the successive lowering of the water.” I tried recreating this version too, but ‘tracing’ with a sharp point tended to nudge the model, and ink (and charcoal and graphite) smudged in the water. To draw a steady clean line required a very wide shallow container, preferably on a turntable and a very particular pencil. In some respects, this iteration was an improvement, as now the experiment could be ‘performed’ for an audience.Until I started my own versions of these experiments, I hadn’t realised the implications of the different techniques: ‘flooding events’ versus ‘traced lines’; that the latter lends a more ‘abstract’ diagram-like appearance to the model, this version of the experiment is the one advanced by Alfred Wilks Drayson in the 1860s.[4]

W. H. Richards, 1884, fig.5

Yet, Burr’s original inky version retained the connection his students could make between contour lines and ‘real’ lines as seen in a landscape: receding tides deposit strata of seaweed or debris in a cove: ‘real’ contour lines are laid down before our eyes.[5] Had Burr ditched the stone for a plaster cast, retained the ink and emulated ‘flood’ rather than ‘ebb’ he could have ‘performed’ my version (that produces great results every time). Starting with inky water, subsequently adding only water, at 5min intervals, produces an attractive ‘hill’ ringed in tidelines of ever deeper hues suggestive of peering into the murky depths of a deep glacial lake.

The two versions from the 1800s – the diagrammatic traced line and the pictorial ink-bathed one – proffered two competing views for the depiction of relief throughout the 1800s. Arguments for methodical, repeatable, diagrammatic ‘abstract’ lines, were pitted against those favouring ‘natural’, pictorial and realistic looking lines on maps: contour lines were put to use by both camps.

Stones and plaster models were in use throughout the 1800s to teach cadets to draw (contours) in the classroom; ideas for [re]creating these drawing processes are currently abroad… watch this space.

[1] Paterson, Notes on Military Surveying… (1882) 4.
[2] G. D. Burr, A Treatise On Practical Surveying… (1839) 83–84.
[3] Basil Jackson, A course of military surveying… (1841) 68–69.
[4] Alfred Wilks Drayson, Practical Military Surveying and Sketching… (1861) 67.
[5] W. H. Richards, Text book of Military Topography… (1884) 18 & figure 5.
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Childhood experiences in 2 & 3 dimensions

Two Dimensions

At primary school I remember being praised as the first child to paint the sky as a blue wash tracking all the way down the paper. The colour threaded through the branches of a tree where a squirrel sat. The convention among children was to depict the sky as a line, or thin blue band, at the top of the paper. I can’t remember what it was that prompted me to break with tradition.

At secondary school one time, the art teacher set as homework to ‘depict a landscape’. Most pupils copied from famous paintings of romantic or atmospheric rolling hills, evocatively lit with setting sun. Not for a moment did it cross my mind to do this, I set out for ‘cow hill’, a short walk from where I lived. Sitting at the bottom of the hill, the arc of it filled the paper, as was so often, there were no cows present. I painted the different hues of green I could see: the grasses, nettles and cow-parsley up the hill till it met the sky, which, as I recall was a clear blue. I was pleased with the result which only added to my distress when the teacher disparaged the effort: what I had done was ‘wrong’ and not ‘a landscape’ at all. Yet I was perhaps the only one who had sat outside and looked at what I could see. Perhaps I would have got a better mark had I sat at the top of the hill.

Aged around 13, there was a school trip to Wales. One day, the art teacher attached to the centre took us down to the beach to paint. All the children sat facing the sea, except me. I don’t know why I set myself up to paint the cliff behind us, but at some point, the teacher – without passing judgement on the quality of the work – said simply “you are painting the colours of the cliff”, in that moment I knew I wanted to be an artist when I grew up.

performance with flip-chart circa 1985

Three Dimensions

The art teacher at our comprehensive didn’t like me, my artworks weren’t ‘nice’. I preferred painting flattened surfaces where I could focus on colour rather than trying to convey in two-dimensions what was patently in three before me. Instinctively I preferred sculpture where three dimensions were rendered again as three.

In the first year we all did ‘technical drawing’, we sat in forward facing rows on high stools and were given small cuboid models in grey plastic to draw. Our instructions to measure the object and render its surfaces and outline in two-dimensions were clear and lessons had the absorbing quality of a jig-saw puzzle. Taught as an ancillary subject, ours was the first year offered the ‘choice’ which ancillaries to pursue. On offer were woodwork, metalwork, technical drawing, art, sewing and home economics. Previous to our year the classes had been split so the boys would continue in the former three, and girls the latter. It was exciting to be asked to choose and naturally I opted for technical drawing (and Lee Maxwell, who wished to work as a chef, picked cooking). However, when the lists went up, the sexes were split along the old lines. When Lee and I queried this we were brushed off, and neither of us had the wit to complain, we knew we weren’t important.

I can see now why I was so drawn to the problem-solving techniques offered us by the pared down shapes in technical drawing, and the vertical surfaces and colours of hillside and cliff. All my life I have grappled with the puzzle that is to render flat an object or scene onto paper. I have learned to draw perspective, distance, landscapes; but am not ‘gifted’ at it, and do not enjoy it in the way other artists patently do. It still confuses me, and I wonder if my preoccupation with contour lines, a simple – accurate ­– system for rendering three-dimensional terrain flat on paper, stems from this inability to do the flattening myself.

first year at art college, 1979

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Using Bodies for Contouring

From the comfort of a desk, a curious vertical system of contouring was described by a number of military men in the 1800’s. Their suggested method was to draw contours using the average height of a male body  – mounted or otherwise – as a unit of measure. The verb ‘contouring’ implies movement around a hill; the Ordnance Survey would most often contour by walking ‘a line’ at one altitude whilst imagining (interpolating) lines above and below them. Traditionally the military had used the body as an instrument to measure distance, printed tables gave the ‘average pace’, of both person and horse, and were used with the aid of a timepiece. The use of walking, running – or cantering – seems reasonable to gauge distance in a hurry, or in ‘proximity’ of the enemy, but I find it hard to imagine body height being the handiest rule for gauging altitude whilst ascending a hill. In the field it would entail a halting, walk or ride, and the placing of ‘twigs’, ‘stones’ or ‘pieces of paper’ “at each point from which to measure the next to mark [where] the contours would be put.”[1] And although Captain James said it was ‘comparatively easy’:

Contours at vertical intervals equal to the distance from the foot to the eye of the sketcher are put in with comparative ease, and a plan contoured with such short intervals is preferable to a sketch with hachures.[2]

James was contradicted by others; the hypothetical ‘5 feet tall’ used for the sketcher, “did not bear sufficient relation to [individual] … height of eye”.[3] A speedy reconnoitre might require travelling alone and with little equipment, but this suggested method of using the body as instrument of contouring would have entailed travelling quite slowly – and visibly – up a hill, a highly risky endeavour in proximity of the enemy. I am most curious as to whether this was simply a fanciful notion dreamed up in the comfort of an armchair, or if it was ever actually ever used in ‘the field’.

This post stems from a talk I will be giving at the British Library as part of “Lines on a Map” 13-14 Dec 2019, it’s free to attend, please come! Register here:


  1. F. J. Hutchison and H. G. MacGregor, Military Sketching and Reconnaissance (1878), plate X (cropped). Image use with thanks to the Wohl Library of the Institute of Historical Research
  2. Captain H. D. Hutchinson, Military Sketching made Easy, 1886 (1915, 7th Ed), plate V.
  3. W. H. Richards, Military Surveying and Field Sketching (1873), 90.

[1] W. H. Richards, Military Surveying and Field Sketching, the various methods of contouring, levelling, sketching without instruments, scale of shade, examples in military drawing etc. etc. etc., (London: Wm. H. Allen and Co., 1873), 91.

[2] James, Capt., [in] “III Military Sketching,” Papers on subjects (1866), 52.

[3] Webber, R. E., “On the Representation of Ground, especially in Military Reconnoissance,” Papers on subjects (1865), 139.


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Body Doubles 2

“… an officer, who wishes to be employed in reconnoitrings, should studiously apply himself to figure drawing…” Charles Stanislas de Malortie, A Treatise of Topography, 1815

Banish the image of the ‘life-model’ partially draped in cloth, eyes lowered, pose demur; surrounded and ogled by ‘agitated’ teenage cadets. This is not the scene Malortie was proposing. Rather than bare flesh on display as substitute for the “various and sometimes so graceful curves which the courses of water and the undulations of soil describe”, his recommendation was for officers training to be surveyors and engineers to study ‘antique statues’: the stony equivalent of the scantily clad. This Friday afternoon as part of Rethinking Objects (see Events, or come if you can). I’m offering a lightning reconnoitre of Body Doubles: the body as substitute for landscape, flattened (as drawn object). Malortie eloquently espouses on the ‘striking analogy’ between map making and figure drawing: “Experience has shewn that this kind of drawing is the foundation of all others, and that a Draftman, [sic] who is properly acquainted with it, has no difficulties to apprehend in any other kind.”

From a sketch by W O Carlisle dated 1862, with thanks to Yolande Hodson and the Royal Artillery Barracks

Malortie drew on teaching methods in use in France in the early 1800’s, techniques that: “combined mathematical analysis and artistic style.” He was based with the Military Academy in Woolwich, where Charles Hutton taught. In his Treatise, he encouraged use of the body as: “an aid to interpreting the curves of the landscape”. Unfortunately, the only example I currently have of a sketch thus drawn by cadets is the one above (I owe a huge debt of thanks to Yolande Hodson for the loan of a slide of this). It’s not clear if the drawing is from a cast or from another sketch, I assume the latter as it is very prettily done. It is dated somewhat later than Malortie’s Treatise, though the original sculpture depicted was created in 1787. It is possible that the Academy held a replica of it throughout the 1800’s for the drawing practice of cadets. Malortie revels in his descriptions of the “rents, defiles, depressions, and anfractuosities” of mountains, offering “numberless resemblances” one to another, and thus implies the same of the sculpted body; that through its ‘curves’, ‘undulations’, ‘bendings’ and ‘sinuosities’, we grasp the relational nature of ‘hip to spine’, and can conceive of it as stand-in for ‘crest to col’. The body as ‘body double’ for terrain on maps, before the battle for contour lines was fought and won. As advocate of regular drawing practice for the officer cadets, I love the passion – nay ardour – of Malortie’s exhortations: “the habit of handling his pencil with ease and lightness will enable him to express quickly that multiplicity of windings, contours, and curves, indefinitely varied…” Indeed.

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Horizontal and Vertical Mountains

The research is taking me all over the place, quite literally: Thursday week presenting a talk for the International Conference on the History of Cartography in Amsterdam, then Tokyo the following day for the International Cartographic Conference (see Events for two-places-at-once explanation).

As preparation for the above, a recap is handy: first there were isobaths – submarine contours – possibly ‘invented’ by Bruins – or Ancelin – either way, definitely in the Netherlands where the need to understand qualities of water drove innovation. And they fitted so well: swirling, fluid, ‘horizontal’ lines that looked so similar to conventional depictions of water-bodies; it is impossible to mistake ‘lake’ with ‘land’ on these maps. Here (see below) ‘pictorial’ water-lining and ‘scientific’ isobaths work together hand in hand.

Map by Cruquius, Image use courtesy of Leiden University

The question was, could horizontal lines ‘climb out of water’ and encircle mountain-sides? There was no doubting the value of contour lines ‘scientifically’, the question was one of perception; could we ‘read’ them? In the 1770’s Hutton used them to show altitude, though we don’t have his map. The French were toying with the idea (more on them another time). But at issue is a mismatch: when mountains have always been represented with vertical lines ^^^ (including hachures), how can watery, fluid, horizontal lines be readily perceived as rugged shoulders and lofty peaks?

Image use with permission of The National Archives (TNA)

An early – tentative – foray was made by Robert Dawson. A fabulous draftsman, rather than scientist (or writer; he calls his watercolours “essays” and one can track his thinking through his drawings). In 1803, required to teach cadets drawing skills, he planned a ‘course of instruction’ for the Ordnance Survey. As this entailed working in ‘the classroom’, he advised: “Stones may be taken as Models of Hills, their Surfaces being frequently varied by accidental frictions, to a direct similitude of Features, with those, which Hills display.” (See? Bit clumsy with words.)

Image use with permission of The National Archives (TNA)

Tucked inside his hand-written ‘instructions’ are these beautiful little drawings of stones, some employing traditional vertical lines, in others he also experiments with a pictorial use of horizontal lines. These are not ‘scientific’ contour lines displaying accurate elevation, but you ‘see’ him figuring out whether mountains could be drawn ‘horizontally’. Forty years later he was still not convinced (more on that another time, or come to Amsterdam and hear: “A line drawn: the tortuous progress of contours onto British Maps”).

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A quarter of bruised Aleppo galls

It has been a week of highs and lows: high, having an article published (see below); low, thinking I am reading about Ordnance Survey printing processes circa 1875, only to realise I am witness to Colonialism in action. Look at the materials listed here: “a week solution of powder of Tripoli…”, “… varnished on the reverse side with Japan black”, “The plates are of the best Silesian zinc”, “… and smoothed with a piece of steatite, known in the trade as snakestone or Water of Ayr stone.” “A mixture of Paris black, Castile soap, white wax, tallow or sweet oil, and shellac …”, “Copper-plate printers’ ink consists of Frankfurt black and a little indigo or Prussian blue …”, “… three ounces of Burgundy pitch …”, “… three quarts of moderately thick gum Arabic water …”, “… finely powdered bitumen of Judea.” “… a quarter of bruised Aleppo galls in a quart of water …”. Each material named by provenance (I am beginning to interrogate text like a geographer). It was the mention of ‘Aleppo’ that had me tracking back for the other products named by the places where we meddled in people’s lives, took things from them and called it ‘trade’; sending me to the doors of despair.For me contour lines on a map represent freedom of traverse, I forget that the intention of the Ordnance Survey then was not to enable artists to go wandering in the landscape, but rather for quantifying or qualifying land for defence and attack or ownership, taxes, railways, trade: generally, the transfer of money and belongings to those who already have enough. Yet now targeted OS adverts on Facebook exhort me to eschew the gym and subscribe to their products to get into the hills; how times have changed. You follow this blog because it’s about contour lines, no? So, here’s my own ‘advert’; you could do a lot worse than give this article – free to download, and written with the wonderful Emeritus Professor Robin Johnson – a peruse over breakfast tomorrow.

Quotes and images from: Lieut.-General Sir Henry James, Account of the methods and processes adopted for the production of the maps of the Ordnance Survey of the United Kingdom..., (London: Longman & Co, 1875), 175-212.
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Body Doubles

“A map is a representation on paper – a picture – you understand? – a picture – showing, representing this country – yes?” Books have been written on what maps are and are not; I know, I am presently wading through them for the PhD. In amongst the dry, the erudite and the dull are gems that are causing me to rethink what I assumed to know. First up among them are the 19th Century training manuals used to teach cadets to draw maps. To explain the contours of a landscape some required students to study the body: above on the left, a face is depicted through contour and hachure, it does little to reveal features or character, it is designed to give accurate elevation of the nose: an unusual characteristic for a portrait. So, there is on the one hand the body as ‘body double’ for landscape and then, as alluded to in the previous post, the bodies of the surveyors in the landscape.

The quote at the beginning is from Brian Friel’s Translations (1981, with many thanks to Matty for alerting me to it), where creatively imagined transactions between OS men and locals abound. How peculiar they would have appeared, these men traversing their land with chains. It’s easy to forget colour when thinking of the past: black, white and sepia have a stranglehold on imaginings, but thanks to the painting cited in the previous post, I now see a sluagh of Red coats in Green fields. As if some 20th Century ‘Land Art’ or Site-Specific Performance strayed the bonds of time.

Posts will be less frequent now that I need to be serious and orderly with regard to learning, but to those among you who enjoy reading (to the end), I wish you a very happy new year!

The image is taken from VRV Streffleur’s Der gegenwärtige Standpunkt der Bergzeichnung in Plänen und Landkarten, 1868.With thanks to Anne Taylor, Head of Map Department, Cambridge University Library and the Charles Close Society.
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Island Life 2: midst the stormy billows of the North Sea

“While the attractions of transportation to Australia, &c. operate in some degree as a premium to crime, more especially since the discovery of the gold regions, it is thought that the dreary prospect of passing some joyless years in the midst of the stormy billows of the North Sea would tend much more to deter from crime, and from its sobering effect on the mind, would afford a better chance of reclaiming the guilty from their vicious habits.”                                           Island of Rona, a dependency of the Lews. Burnaby, 1852

It was the Laird – and arguably biggest villain – of Lewis proposing Rona the site of a new Penal Colony, and Captain Burnaby – head of the first Ordnance Survey there – sent to investigate Rona’s potential. Of these key players we have records, albeit patchy and incomplete; but with regards the individuals making up the survey teams stationed there, what remains of their stories? Over the 49 sheets of first edition 6” maps of Lewis the drawing styles change markedly, not all the hill ascents are spattered with Bench Marks, so how much autonomy did individual surveyors have? Most of the OS men (and Burnaby himself) were posted near Stornoway, but according to the 1851 census 20 OS men were residing in the North of the Island, should we presume they were responsible for maps 1-5 of the series?  The Laird was planning major works including: croft clearance, deer parks and new roads:

“Walked over the line of proposed road between Ness and Tolsta, there are nearly 100 men at present … They are paid at the rate of 1/- per yard of finished roadway one half in Destitution Meal and the other half credited to their rents…”                                                    From John Munro Mackenzie: Chamberlain of Lews Diary for 16 August 1851. According to the Chamberlain’s diary he met with Burnaby at least 14 times that year, who gave Burnaby orders: the OS, or the Laird? And how was the decision arrived at to contour every 25ft? On beginning this research I romanticised the longevity of the survey as a simple love-affair with island life. But it appears more likely a result of the Laird’s demands for detailed maps to expedite his proposed structural changes to the island. Building a picture of island life has been greatly aided by the Masonic Lodge on Stornoway whose records date back to 1767. Thanks to them I know which OS men or ‘Sappers & Miners’ joined the Masons whilst on Lewis, others will have joined elsewhere. I had assumed there to be a photo of the surveyors amongst their records, so when we couldn’t find this, I went back to my source who clarified ‘a painting’, not of ‘OS men’, but in honour of an event that took place in 1847. Of the remarkable 84 figures depicted, 5 are OS: Captain Burnaby and Corporal Kielle resplendent in red (I hadn’t noticed their uniforms in the b&w copies I initially saw). Sappers and Miners: Matheson, Stafford & Auckburn fare less well, skulking in the back row minus uniform, though Stafford seems to be sporting a bow tie. According to the census Matheson worked as a Clerk, but of the others: who had taught them surveying? And were they previously stationed in Ireland? Having jumped forward in time with this Summer’s Lewisian foray, I need to begin research in the place where the OS first adopted contour lines… Ireland next stop.

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Looking for Meaning

Ten years ago, I lived beside a single-track road with no name. Walking it, I often had the feeling it was trying to communicate with me; in autumn, through a complexity of pattern left by the scattering sycamore seeds, in winter – a particularly compelling season – the judder track left by a jag-tooth snow plough. I would walk the road, studying the ‘signs’ for a message, never even figuring out what language it would be: नीचेदेखकरअर्थकीतलाशमें?Two years ago, whilst studying in Cambridge, I began noticing a different road grammar: full-stops, ‘nothings’, big fat zero’s littered the streets; clustered in the vicinity of the campus, they exuded a peculiar fascination and I began to ‘log’ them. The project – which resulted in an exhibition – ended some time ago, but my eye won’t let go and still I note them, stopping to stare when I see a particularly engaging composition.Now there is a new focus: not straight down, but sort of knee-height. I worry I have the demeanour of a dog assessing walls to mark. Street corners, have stolen my gaze. (My partner tuts under his breath each time I slow down… I bagged three bench marks between pub and home last week, where I’d seen none before; I’d never looked. It is a route that used to be taken up with a perusal of utility covers from yet another project, I still like to note them for they speak of local foundries, dates are often present and hints of the story of the fight against cholera).Just last Saturday, walking to the Art Houses event in Whitley Bay, I’ve stopped dead, the group I’m with tugging my ‘virtual leash’ as the traffic lights change, but I’ve sniffed out a particularly interesting bench mark, plus what? Signature? First attempt? The light already low – and as the only one interested – it’s a poor photo snapped quickly, but I think you can see what I mean? It might be worth a second visit.Looking for something, or looking for nothing, I know I now have my ‘eye in’.

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Bench Marks Revisited

It’s safe to say I have returned from Lewis with more questions than answers. A trip to the standing stones at Calanais revealed you don’t need to travel 5,000 years back in time to unearth mysteries. No one knows exactly why the stones were erected, Patrick Ashmore says: “The most attractive explanation… is that every 18.6 years, the moon skims especially low over the southern hills. It seems to dance along them”. This doesn’t explain why in the second OS survey of the area (in 1898) there seems to be a track running right through the middle (had stones been removed?) and a Bench Mark (89.1ft) incised potentially into one of these ‘druidical remains’! I am pleased to report the track swings to the west of the circle and I could not find this OS graffito (also, neither track nor this particular BM, are recorded on the first survey: 1849-52).The short walk south from stone circle to shore-line passes the recorded ‘sites’ of two other Bench Marks and a ‘trigonometrical station’ (triangle with a dot in the centre), which appears on both maps at the summit of a mound titled ‘Cnoc an Tursa’. I’m not sure what would have been used to mark the place at the time, there is no ‘trig point’ extant (as we would know it), but a careful perusal did reveal a faint Bench Mark in roughly the right place.I have been trying to untangle what it is about B.M.s that I find so entrancing, I know why I’m drawn to contour lines, but there’s something about a mark hewn in a landscape that when repeated on a map – in roughly the same shape and form (vastly reduced size obviously) – beguiles. They served a purpose: fixing altitudes, and were incorporated for 100 years or so, although I have discovered neither start nor end date, nor why that particular symbol was enlisted; indeed in the landscape its format changes a great deal, if the site is not vertical it may be devoid of horizontal top bar. According to Jochta: Used and made from the 1800s to around 20 years ago… A familiar horizontal levelling line with a three-line arrow pointing towards it (usually upwards). Each one is unique depending on the mason who cut it, some are plain, some decorated. Some roughly cut, some exquisitely cut with high accuracy. Whilst I’m busy with the questions: is this symbol a particularly OS British/Irish thing?

The only Bench Mark (39.6) to appear on both 1st and 2nd edition of the 6” maps is on the corner of ‘Callernish Inn’ (1st) or ‘Post Office’ (2nd) and is – as with so many B.M.s in Scotland – sadly lost beneath a rough coat of pebble-dash.Bringing us to the B.M. on the beach mentioned in a previous post, it doesn’t appear on the 2nd edition, so I presumed it washed away by storm and tide. According to the Modern OS Explorer Series (458), the beach is made up of boulders, loose rock and mud, which is what you see (under a hefty carpet of sea-weed). We scrambled across to the visibly biggest boulder, and whilst I skidded around its base searching at ‘knee-height’, Cal and Julia leapt to the top and: Huzzah! There it was.

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