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Posts tagged ‘Architecture’

The Sicily Series | Part VI – Noble Noto, treasure of the Baroque

I had heard much about Noto, the small town in the South Eastern corner of Sicily, before going. In fact the promise of a radiant Baroque treasure so intact that it has been granted UNESCO protection was what persuaded me that this would make the perfect base for the second half of our trip to Sicily. Yet as we approached the town, nerves started to take over. Not only were the surrounding landscapes devoid of civilisation, but the immediate outskirts of the town were anything but baroque. However there came a point when we crossed the brow of a hill and suddenly the landscape transformed; when what stood before us was an urban panorama which literally dazzled. Here was a horizon peppered with cupolas and embellished roof tops, with extravagant decoration and exquisite carvings. But above all things one imbedded with glowing tones of a creamy honey coloured yellow. This was the notorious Noto to which all the guidebooks had referred.


Built in the early 1700s almost entirely in one go when the former town of Noto was destroyed by an earthquake, the Noto we see today is inherently characterised by the baroque fashions which dictated its construction. The result is a town almost perfectly intact in its baroque splendour. Every building is elaborated with architectural flourishes, with putti and angels, with classical columns and vast sweeping staircases. But while the Baroque of Catania is darkened through the use of Etna stone, Noto’s constructions are luminescent in their creamy vanilla yellow turning a deeper shade of gold.

Thus the town glows and dazzles like a jeweller’s window or an architectural showroom from another century. But beyond its obvious splendour, it is a town which feels alive with a spirit of recreational indulgence and amenable sociability. As the sun descended each day, the swallows would swoop through the air, and the temperatures fell to a more bearable level. In this moment, Noto’s principle Corso Vittorio Emanuele would become  a veritable magnet to residents and tourists alike.


As the great caramelised sun descended, the stone of Noto transformed into a heavenly shade of creamy ochre, and the best way in which to enjoy la bella vita was to sit in sidewalk cafes, sip on an affogato al cafe or drink a sparkling prosecco. Reclining back in the evening sun, the great silhouette of Noto’s grand spectacles warming the eye, it was truly possible to bask in the town’s reflected glory, and to become as resplendently baroque as the ravishingly theatrical town itself.


© Nicholas de Lacy-Brown and The Daily Norm, 2001-2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of the material, whether written work, photography or artwork, included within The Daily Norm without express and written permission from The Daily Norm’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. 

The Sicily Series | Part I – Catania, Black City

Over the last few weeks, the Daily Norm was all about Marrakech, and the highly spiced rose city will resonate long in the minds of Norms and the Daily Norm writer. But now this blog has headed back to European shores, albeit not far from the desert sands of Morocco. For one of the Mediterranean’s most southern points, and its largest island, is the Italian island of Sicily, known for some as the ball being carefully nudged by the point of Italy’s toe. Famous for its volcanoes, its mafia, its voluminous seafood and rolling agricultural land, for its ruins and its baroque splendour, Sicily is a veritable melting pot of historical and cultural highlights, and the perfect location for any aesthete on holiday.


But Sicily is a large island and we would be pushed to do it all in the time available. So with only a little over a week at our disposal, we concentrated our energies on the Eastern coast, and the lands above and beneath the mighty shadow of Mount Etna, one of Europe’s most active and prominent volcanoes. With its proximity to Greece as well as Italy, the Eastern side of Sicily is one heavily characterised by a history of both Greek as well as Roman civilisations, not to mention the Arabic and Spanish influences which also made their mark during their respective occupations. All of these influences were clear to see upon our first stop in Sicily, in its second biggest city and the tenth largest in Italy: Catania.


Both the scale of this bustling city, as well as its historical and geographical influences were immediate upon arrival in Catania. Bracing ourselves behind the wheel of an all-too-new hire care, our first encounter with Catania was with its wild roads, filled with drivers, irritated by the heat and paying little attention to generally accepted driving rules. Mercifully unscathed, it was only when we parked that we were able to calmly appreciate Catania, a city whose roads seemed to stretch off into an eternity of traffic jams sparkling like slowly moving jewels, whose streets are crammed with more churches than there are shops, and whose landscape is rendered tiny by comparison with the mighty silhouette of Etna which is omnipresent in the background, wherever you look.


For me, Catania was a city with much of the hectic disorder of Naples, but with the refinements of Rome. It is one characterised by the breadth of its architectural splendour, from frequently arising Roman and Greek remains squeezed between more modern houses, to the exquisite quality of its baroque architecture. And above all, it is one which has earned its epithet: “black city”, forged as it is from the lava stone which nearby Etna has regularly granted the city, Surprisingly hard but tellingly cratered, the lava stone from which Catania is built is a true testament to this city’s unavoidable relationship with its nearby volcano – both the source of its wealth, and the constant threat of its destruction.


Perhaps it is this vulnerability which gives Catania the undeniable spirit which pervades it. Its residents can be excused for living by the ethos: carpe diem. After all, Etna is continuinuously erupting, and no one can ever be sure just when the next large eruption will reach this heavily inhabited Sicilian city. So seize the day we certainly did, passing 24 hectic hours in Catania in what was a relentless conveyor of churches, coffees, aperol spritz and lots of pasta. And what a great beginning to our Sicily trip it was!

© Nicholas de Lacy-Brown and The Daily Norm, 2001-2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of the material, whether written work, photography or artwork, included within The Daily Norm without express and written permission from The Daily Norm’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. 

The Colours of Marrakech, Part 3: Palaces of Gold

Not everything in Marrakech is pink. Masterpieces are carved out of a rich ochre stone with such intricate geometric embellishment that the stone itself seems to resemble sparkling, resplendent gold. This is the side of Marrakech from Sultans past, when the excesses of power and wealth produced some of the masterpieces of the world’s historical architecture.  The Daily Norm is no stranger to some of Islam’s most stunning architectural inventions, having indulged last summer in the jaw-droopingly extravagant craftsmanship of the Alhambra Palace in Granada, Spain. But in Marrakech, the journey continued, as ancient masterpieces unveiled themselves within narrow doorways in the crowded Souk, and from amongst the crumbling remains of former palaces. These are places both preceding and inspired by Granada’s famous gem, and no less beautiful in their masterful conception. Some are now in a very bad state indeed. The Badii Palace is a mere shadow of its former self. But across them all one common thread remains: the colour of ochre, butterscotch, Gold.

The Medersa Ben Youssef


The photos on this page are dedicated to three such buildings which we explored during our trip to Marrakech. The Medersa Ben Youssef is perhaps the most extensively and impressively decorated, especially when you consider that it was an Islamic College rather than a palace. Its walls literally weep with honeycomb-like carvings and elaborated horseshoe arches, while perfection in symmetry imbues the space with a finessed tranquility spoilt only by the tourist hoards which inevitably occupy the space.

The Saadian Tombs


Packed with tourists was likewise the trend exhibited by the Saadian Tombs, a complex of some 66 royal tombs which sounded like it was going to be substantial in the guidebook, but was actually little more than a single room preceded by a huge queue and whose entrance was forbidden. Rather tourists were granted a brief glimpse at the tomb room through a very narrow roped off doorway, and the brevity of their indulgence was kept carefully in check by a security guard who looked none too pleased by any such attempt to linger beyond a couple of photographs hastily composed. But it was worth the ill treatment: the tombs were stunning. I have never seen such a highly decorated space so compacted within a small area.

The Badii Palace 


But perhaps our favourite of these golden palaces was the Badii Palace, which is funny really since it was also the least attractive in terms of decoration or embellishment. What took some 25 years to complete and was said to have been one of the most magnificent palaces ever constructed is today a mere skeleton of its former self, having had its riches brutally scrapped by a conquering sultan when he decided to move his centre of power elsewhere. Nonetheless there is a definite poetry in what remains, and an impressive sense of the scale of the original gauged from what is left behind. Best of all are the elegant storks who love to nest on the crumbling site, and probably made for the best photos of them all.

The Badii Storks 


© Nicholas de Lacy-Brown and The Daily Norm, 2001-2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of the material, whether written work, photography or artwork, included within The Daily Norm without express and written permission from The Daily Norm’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

Hampton Court Palace, Part 2: Bipolar Palace

For me, Hampton Court Palace is all about its gardens, or at least it certainly was when I visited, and outside the fragile glass which history has maintained within the ancient woodwork of the Palace’s hundred-fold windows, the sun shone with a rare early glimpse of British Summer in Spring. Yet there is something unapologetically festive about the hallowed halls of the Tudor-come-Baroque palace, which I’m sure on a colder day would be all the more enchanting. For Hampton Court Palace has the power to ensnare like no other.

Tudor exteriors


First it is characterised by the glamorous myth which surrounds the British Tudor Dynasty. Whether it be the 6 wives of Henry VIII who were either divorced, beheaded, died (naturally) or survived, the great religious schism triggered by Henry’s thirst for a male heir, the very bloody Queen Mary, or the flame-haired majesty of England’s favourite Queen, Elizabeth I, the Tudors are the stuff of legends, not just in English classrooms, but around the world. Seen as the very archetype of Britain in the Middle Ages, Hampton Court Palace was, and remains, the backdrop of that tumultuous time, and today its walls literally echo with wealth of that history, ghosts and all.

Tudor interiors


Secondly, the Palace is enticing because of its dual personality. A very Tudor entrance, a grand hall and a suite of wood panelled, stained glass rooms lead swiftly on to a complete architectural about-turn, as the gothic metamorphoses into the palatial Baroque, and a construct more akin to Versailles emerges from behind the forest of Tudor chimneys. This great change was the result of a complete renovation project began by King William and Queen Mary of Orange when they moved into the palace in the late 1600s and who felt the need to modernise, largely to compete with the Sun King in France. Sweeping aside whole swathes of Henry VIII’s palace, they replaced it with a grand symmetrical construct based around quadrangles of triple rowed grandiose windows, elaborately frescoed interiors, and a new landscape of neatly geometric flowerbeds and fountains. However they ran out of money before the restauration was complete, and it is for this reason that today’s Palace is the hybrid of Tudor and Baroque, something for which we must be grateful – how else could we explore a slice of the grandeur at the heart of the Tudor Dynasty which today remains so remarkably intact.

The Baroque alter ego  


The photos which are shared in the post give a flavour of the great contrast between the Tudor and the Baroque aspects of Hampton Court. What perhaps the Tudor side lacks in elaborately frescoed ceilings it makes up for in colourful stained glass and the stunning gothic ceiling of the Royal Chapel. And what the Baroque side lacks in stag heads and grand vaulted ceilings it instead replaces with wide sweeping staircases and rooms flooded with light from the masterfully manicured garden beyond. All in all, this is a tale of two Palaces, offered, very conveniently, to be enjoyed all at one time.

© Nicholas de Lacy-Brown and The Daily Norm, 2001-2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of the material, whether written work, photography or artwork, included within The Daily Norm without express and written permission from The Daily Norm’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. 

The Greatness of Granada, Part 2: The Alhambra

Few places in all the world have the power to arrest the eyes and ensnare the heart quite like the Alhambra in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. Glowing every shade of ochre, and pale gold through to deep russet and coral red, it is no wonder that in arabic, the name of the fortress like construct means “The Red One”. But the true treasures of the Alhambra lie in wait inside, where room after room of twisting, tangling geometric patterns, forests of marble columns, and incredibly carved honeycomb like domes seem to reach up into infinity. It is a place which offers visitors a vision from paradise, even when it is (as always) hosting its daily quota of tourists, a sensation augmented by the plethora of pools and trickling waterways, magnifying the space with reflection and filling its stone halls with the gentle harmony of trickles and splashes.


Originally constructed as a small fortress in AD 889 on the remains of Roman fortifications, the complex was constructed into its current state of glory by the Emirate of Granada in the 13th century. Converted into the most lavish royal palace the world had ever seen, it was revered by the reconquering Christians when they took the city in 1492, becoming part of the Royal Court of Ferdinand and Isabella and subsequent monarchs. While they embellished the site in turn with Renaissance-style palaces which didn’t quite live up to the beauty of the Moorish offerings, they did so at least in the same glowing gold stone thus creating the complete whole which now permanently characterises the landscape of Granada. Shockingly, the palace was later allowed to fall into disrepair for centuries, until it was rediscovered following the defeat of Napoleon, becoming the favourite of Romantic-age travellers and inspiring generations of artists, poets, and writers since.


Today, unsurprisingly, the site is UNESCO protected and is a ravishing complex of echoing courtyards and colonnaded porticos each enjoying the most incredible views over to the Albayzín below. Lucky then that these hallowed halls should be salvaged for generations to come, where we can but imagine the lives of kings and their hareems languishing in the finest coloured silks by reflective pools and in throne rooms built for the imperial best. Beyond, of course, are the gardens, perhaps the most sensually lavish spectacles of all. But those wonders of nature and man’s creative touch I will leave for another day.


All photos and written content are strictly the copyright of Nicholas de Lacy-Brown © 2016 and The Daily Norm. All rights are reserved. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of the material, whether written work, photography or artwork, included within The Daily Norm without express and written permission from The Daily Norm’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. 

The Greatness of Granada, Part 1: Dual Faith, Double Identity

Granada in the heart of Spanish Andalucia is a city deeply characterised by the historical vicissitudes of its religious and political identity. On one street you may confidently conclude that you are in a richly embellished bastion of Catholicism; mere metres away, you feel as though you have been magically relocated to Marrakech. In Granada, you can find shisha pipes being smoked and moroccan mint tea being sipped with baklava right next door to where, in one of Europe’s biggest and most imposing cathedrals, the bells of a campanile call the Catholic faithful to prayer, and incense is swung majestically before a statue of the Virgin Mary. It is a stark contrast which can be noted across the city, recalling the turbulent but glorious history which has made Granada truly unique in the modern world.

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Of course much of what you see today has a ring of Disneyland about it, The tightly packed streets full of arabic wears and shops clustered with so many glittering glass lamps, silks and leather goods that you feel as though you have entered Aladdin’s cave, are all somewhat contrived for the tourists. But they are nonetheless deeply rooted in a past which begun in the early 700s, when the muslims crossed the narrow Straits of Gibraltar and swiftly conquered the Iberian Peninsula, founding Al Andalus, a kingdom of such rich prosperity and harmonious living that it was the nearest any civilisation had come to the Roman Empire before it. But the State’s precarious location encircled by Catholic countries meant that it was never destined to last for ever. One by one, a Catholic reconquista swept through the Iberian Peninsula, reclaiming Spain for the Christian world, until only one citadel of Al Andalus remained, the strongest of all – Granada.

Granada’s magnificent Catholic face

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It took some 250 years of negotiations, wrangling and final all out war before Ferdinand and Isabella, the “Catholic Monarchs” were able to complete the Christian reconquest of Spain, take Granada, and banish the Muslims for good. But they were never able to banish the heritage they had left behind. Spectacular monuments such as the Alhambra Palace remained as a clear testament to the stunning creativity of the artisans of Al Andalus, and remain today because their beauty was such that the Christian’s could not bear to destroy them.

However a visitor to Granada today will likewise note that the city is bounteous in its Christian relics too. Constructions such as the vast Cathedral of the Incarnation are every bit as glorious an architectural gem of the city as the Alhambra, and were no doubt contrived to be all the more beautiful owing to the need for the Christians to show-off their creative prowess in the aftermath of the reconquest.

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Happily, the dual identity of Granada is one which has returned to the city, long after the terrible years when all non-Christians were expelled from Granada. While much of the Arabian shops and bizarres are laid on for the tourists, there is a very evident presence of a renewed muslim population in the city, allowing visitors – us included – to enjoy the wealth of their religious and social culture alongside the distinctive Spanish culture which has emerged from the years of more recent Catholic rule. These photos are testament to our discovery of both cultures.

All photos and written content are strictly the copyright of Nicholas de Lacy-Brown © 2016 and The Daily Norm. All rights are reserved. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of the material, whether written work, photography or artwork, included within The Daily Norm without express and written permission from The Daily Norm’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. 

Onwards to Vienna, Part 2: The Churches

If the Ringstrasse and the palatial buildings that line it are demonstrative of Vienna’s more recent 19th century prowess (and, with the recent additions of the MuseumsQuarter, its 21st century cultural advances to boot) then its spectacular churches are demonstrative of a magnificent history which goes back yet further. For these religious monuments have truly stood the test of time, from their inception as far back ago as the 13th century, to the progressively exquisite embellishments which have since followed.

The Stephansdom inside and out


We begun our tour of Vienna’s grandest religious spectacles with the centre point of them all, the Stephansdom cathedral. Often called the soul of the city itself, it is perhaps no coincidence that the cathedral contains a great many of the remains of some of the most historically significant of the Hapsburg rule which lorded over Vienna, and the empire which spread out around it, for centuries. But rather than begin this visit from the inside, we instead claimed the 300 or so steps of its main gothic spire, taking advantage of the aspect which is perhaps most characteristic of this building – its enormous height. There, from somewhere close to the top of the “Steffi” or spire, we were able to enjoy magnificent views not only over all of the city, but of the incredible tiled roof which contains almost a quarter of a million glazed tiles, meticulously restored after the damage inflicted towards the end of the second world war.

Vienna from the top of the Stephansdom


Having caught our breath upon our rather perilous descent down a very narrow spiral staircase, we did not linger in the inside of the cathedral for long. This was not so much owing to a lack of content, but to both the queues for, and the price of, admission, both of which inspired us to take our leave and seek further thrills in this city of plenty.

The Stephansdom’s spectacular tiled roof


Next on the list was the equally impressive domed Peterskirche, a romantic oval-based construct remodelled in the 18th century on St Peter’s in Rome, and by no means lacking the exuberant ostentatious interiors of its inspiration. For the interiors of Peterskirche are amazingly lavish, with an eye-catching pulpit meticulously sculpted by Matthias Steindi, and frescoes embellishing the huge dome depicting the Assumption of the Virgin by J M Rottmayr. From the extravagant altar to the richly carved pews, this was a church whose every detail was dripping in embellishment, and easily the equal of the Stephansdom up the road.



We encountered several other religious spectacles as we proceeded with our tour around Vienna, although we seldom ventured inside. One we would have liked to have explored, on the inside and out, was the last iconic church of the city, Karlskirch, sitting at one end of the central Karlsplatz. But as I bemoaned in Monday’s post, a further prohibited entrance fee found us fleeing from the tourist entrance, leaving us to appreciate this columned baroque masterpiece from the outside – an aspect which, like so many others of the magnificent buildings clambering to be admired in Vienna, could not fail to impress.



All photos and written content are strictly the copyright of Nicholas de Lacy-Brown © 2016 and The Daily Norm. All rights are reserved. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of the material, whether written work, photography or artwork, included within The Daily Norm without express and written permission from The Daily Norm’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

My travel sketchbook: Karlskirche, Vienna

The minus temperatures in Vienna were in no way conducive to the gentile activity of taking out my sketchbook en plein air and capturing the city “live”, as it were. But having somewhat shunned the interior of the Karlskirche, arguably one of Vienna’s best known monuments and most famous churches, owing to the exorbitant costs of entry, I felt that I should at least begin a sketch in appreciation of its glorious exterior, before completing the drawing back in our wonderful hotel suite. 

With my rather exacting method of sketching direct with sketching pens (I enjoy the permanence of the final effect as opposed to a paler sketch from pencil), getting the proportions of the church right from this rather difficult angle, seen from one corner through the trees of the impressive Karlsplatz gardens, was not easy. And while the sketch which results would probably send architects quaking for its lack of precision, I am more than happy with the result. After all, it captures all of the grandeur of this most charismatic of monuments, while being viewed in the softened context of the gardens which surround it. 

Vienna Sketch

Karlskirche from the Karlsplatz, Vienna (2016 ©Nicholas de Lacy-Brown, pen on paper)

© Nicholas de Lacy-Brown and The Daily Norm, 2001-2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of the material, whether written work, photography or artwork, included within The Daily Norm without express and written permission from The Daily Norm’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. For more information on the work of Nicholas de Lacy-Brown, head to his art website at

The Gaudi which eluded me: Palau Güell

While I am as familiar with the works of Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi as the next Barcelona aficionado, there is one Gaudi masterpiece which has managed to elude me in all of the years I have been visiting the city: the Palau Güell. For many years this was due to extensive renovations of the property which saw it closed to the public both partially and entirely for some 7 years. But latterly I just never seemed to be in the city when the palace was open to the public. But no longer is this unsatisfactory position the case! As soon as our Barcelona trip was booked, the first thing I did was to reserve our entrance to the Gaudi masterpiece, and within hours of our arrival in the city, we had entered its impressive lofty interior. 

The Palau Güell

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Built between 1886 and 1888 in the El Raval neighbourhood of Barcelona, the Palau Güell was in fact one of Gaudi’s earliest works, and the first major collaboration with the industrialist Eusebi Güell who was to become Gaudi’s most significant patron. Although its sombre interiors show somewhat more restraint from the man who was later to go on to design such fantastical masterpieces as the Sagrada Familia and the Casa Mila, the exterior of the house already showed the young architect pushing the boundaries of socially acceptable architecture, filling his facade with magnificently twisted wrought iron, animal forms, and his terrace with his now iconic multi-coloured tile chimneys. 

The famous terrace

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That is not to say that the interiors were boring. Far from it. Past the initial somewhat gloomy entrance which was intended to be the preserve of carriages, the upstairs rooms showed every sign of the virtuosity for which the architect would become know, with magnificently intricate woodwork, wrought iron and personalised furniture heavily influenced by the Moorish design which is so prevalent in Spain as well as the innovations of line and shape which were becoming modish in what was to be known as the modernist or art nouveau era. By far the most spectacular feature of the house is the main atrium: a dazzling space which cuts through the entire height of the house, topped with a dome into which little holes cut are like stars twinkling in space.

The impressive central atrium

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So the house which had long eluded me did its best to impress, and certainly received from me the admiration it deserved. I did however leave somewhat concerned by some of the renovation works undertaken, not least the extent to which staircases have been modernised, for example, with swish inlayed lighting which is clearly out of character with the original house, and worst of all the adaptation of the roof’s famous chimneys such that on one, a contemporary artist has shamelessly attached a tacky toy lizard as some kind of new interpretation of an otherwise perfect Gaudi icon. Why this was allowed I will never know. As they say: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.


Mallorca Sketchbook: Palma Cathedral from the Parc de la Mar

Having noticed a considerable period of many months passing during which my travel, and now Mallorca, sketchbook played no active role in my life, I have made a conscious effort to reopen and reinstall my sketchbook’s regular participation in my weekly artistic activities. The result is that my sketchbook is once again travelling outside of my art studio as a kind of regular escort to my journeys across Mallorca and indeed closer to home.

Most recently, a little stroll just round the corner from my apartment provided sufficient inspiration to generate a new sketch in my sketchbook. It’s not hard – after all, I do live in one of the most indisputably beautiful cities in Europe, and the old town of Palma de Mallorca is a true gem in every sense. Best of all, I am but 5 minutes walk from La Seu, the city’s mighty gothic cathedral which is so relentlessly beautiful that it could be sketched from every one of its 360 surrounding angels.

Palma Cathedral from the Parc de la Mar (2015 © Nicholas de Lacy-Brown, pen on paper)

Palma Cathedral from the Parc de la Mar (2015 © Nicholas de Lacy-Brown, pen on paper)

On this occasion, taking a seat in the leafy Parc de la Mar sandwiched between the sea and the cathedral, I took refuge in the shade, opening my sketchbook and making this quick pen sketch of the back of La Seu. True, it is but a small portion of a glorious bigger spectacle, but I have no doubt that this magnificent building will reappear in its full glory in my sketchbook soon.

© Nicholas de Lacy-Brown and The Daily Norm, 2001-2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of the material, whether written work, photography or artwork, included within The Daily Norm without express and written permission from The Daily Norm’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nicholas de Lacy-Brown and The Daily Norm with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. For more information on the work of Nicholas de Lacy-Brown, head to his art website at