Hansel & Gretel, from Random Spectacular 2

Here are few pages of a version of Hansel & Gretel I wrote and illustrated for the art magazine Random Spectacular 2, produced by Saint Jude’s Prints. This idea has now blossomed into the full-blown project to produce a Hansel & Gretel book, Get Lost!, in collaboration with designer Simon Lewin, and work on it is currently underway.

 

For the short, Random Spectacular version of the fairy tale, I made the images and Simon added colour and made the page designs.

The cover of Random Spectacular 2 sports a splendid print by Jonny Hannah.

I believe there a few copies of RS2 are still available from the Saint Jude’s Prints online shop.

after the storm

Last night’s tumultuous winds shrieked around the eaves of Ty Isaf denying me sleep. This morning I took a turn with Jack around the garden. There’s been surprisingly little damage, though despite the fact that every time I’ve driven down the drive over the past ten days I’ve reminded myself to photograph the aspens, I kept forgetting, and now the buffeting winds have stripped them and I’ve missed the opportunity to record their shimmering, autumn gold.

Below: between throwing the ball for Jack on the lawn, I gather and twist what’s fallen from the silver birches into kindling faggots for the stove, stacking them under the tree for later collection. Silver birch wood is volatile, and even when damp the twigs burn with a tremendous crackle.

The young tulip tree

Dogwood

Gingko

Maple in the foreground with a Liquid Amber beyond it

Dogwood: Midwinter Fire

Fallen fly agaric

Mulberry

Russet apples are slow to ripen, and so have done well during these long warm days of autumn

the witch files

My project-file for Hansel & Gretel is growing fatter by the day. (Like Hansel in his cage!) Yesterday I mixed several paint combinations that may or may not be the colours I’ll use throughout the book. I need to experiment before deciding. In order to try them out I’m making a trial of one of the double-page fold-outs that will give a panorama format to some of the images. This is just a detail of it.

Here are some of the development sketches for the spread.

The witch in my recent Hansel & Gretel project for Random Spectacular looked like this…

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… but after that, I made further images, which brought her to this…

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… from which I reinvented her yet again for another project.

Right now I’m at a stage of thinking which brings together a combination of the two. I like the tight linen cap, which links her to an earlier, medieval tradition of witches, and the glaucoma-like eye. She’s blind… or nearly so… and the pale, bloomed orb will be lovely to draw and paint. But to make up for poor vision she has a fantastic sense of smell, and I have a trick up my illustrator’s sleeve to add a chilling aspect to her appearance that will account for her olfactory sensitivity. The pointy witch’s nose, sharp as a blade, is artificial, and when she really wants to get a whiff, she pulls it aside to reveal that she has no nose at all, just a skull-like cavity for sucking in the scent of children!

Yikes!

the road to beastly passions part 2: penny dreadfuls

 

There is something in the British psyche that is drawn to both the prurient and the ghastly. UK tabloid newspapers have long evidenced an interest in both, and it’s not a recent phenomenon, as a history of such things predates the twentieth century.

The Victorians had a vision of an industrialised economy that would drive innovation, and anyone casting an eye over the staggering technical discoveries of the nineteenth century can’t but be impressed at how we led by example. Iron forged in the south Wales valleys was exported the world over. It made not only our own railway systems, but the ones that bridged the vast reaches of the United States. The period threw up the engineering geniuses Thomas Telford and Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who between them changed the face of Britain with canal systems, bridges, dockyards, roads, harbours and tunnels.

But in the middle of all this brilliance, there were other industries running like dark veins through our great cities, fuelled by poverty and a lack of any social welfare. Prostitution was rife, and of many varieties to suit all tastes. While the glittering new world was being raised by the celebrated civil engineers, Jack-the-Ripper stalked the sheets of Whitechapel, predating on the poorest and most vulnerable sex-workers.

The Illustrated Police News was one of the earliest British tabloids. It launched in 1864 and ran right through to 1938. Needless to say it made much of the Ripper murders, bad news being good for circulation, and the IPN got very good indeed at plastering its front pages with horrors as a spur to sales. Wherever misfortunes were to be found, the newspaper’s journalists would lay them out for the public to feast upon. The more dreadful the stories, the better everyone liked them.

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There was a precedent for this interest in the grotesque. Pre-dating The Illustrated Police News with its tales of real-life horrors, there had been the Penny Dreadfuls, cheaply published novels specialising in murder and mayhem, often with supernatural overtones.

 

And before the Penny Dreadfuls, the great engraver Hogarth had titillated our relish for comeuppance in his series The Rake’s Progress.

With such a native appetite for the lurid, it comes as no surprise that the Staffordshire potteries occasionally proffered equivalent horrors, such as the tableau of a mother slain by a tiger escaped from a menagerie, her baby pathetically flailing in the beast’s jaws. Who knows what tragedy this was based on… I can find no specific source for it… but whether true or invented, it’s a strange subject to have produced in jaunty glazed pottery to decorate a dresser. Perhaps it was deemed as ‘cautionary’, to warn little children not to step too close to the bars of the animal cages in the ‘zoological gardens’.

The notorious slaying in 1827 of young Maria Marten, shot and buried in a barn by her lover William Corder, was commemorated with bucolic Staffordshire groups belying the violence of the event. (See top of post and below)

Even the toy theatres that gained popularity in the Regency were not averse to a touch of Penny Dreadful, as the surviving play-lists show. Jonathan Bradford, or The Murdered Guest was available as a toy theatre melodrama, as was a dramatised version of Bluebeard, the serial wife-killer of fairy-tale. Then there was The Mistletoe Bough, or The Fatal Chest, the story of a bride who dies when trapped in a heavy coffer during a coy game of hide and seek with her groom.

The toy-like naiveté overlaying lurid melodrama in the Staffordshire groups commemorating tragic events, make for oddly unsettling pieces of popular-art. Looking at them I began to wonder what would happen if instead of making paintings of existing examples… like the one I made for my friend Ben Elwyn’s birthday…

… I invented versions based on contemporary tabloid front-page reports. The idea for Beastly Passions came about when I began to imagine what today’s headlines might look like re-imagined as though through the prism of Staffordshire pottery groups. Dreadful events, it seems to me, would carry an unexpected and perhaps more tender charge, if wrapped like brightly coloured boiled-sweets in shiny cellophane.

The research is already underway and the first drawings are emerging. I’ll be posting about this project when I’ve more to show.

the road to beastly passions part 1: origins

When I was a boy I was entranced by the Staffordshire groups ranged on the mantelpieces and dressers of my nan and various elderly relatives. To me the figurines, daubed with colours as vivid and as tempting as the boiled sweets in jars on the corner-shop’s shelves, were the visual equivalents of fairy-tales. Their costumes were fanciful, redolent of Victorian pantomimes and the ‘Juvenile Dramas’ of Benjamin Pollock. A bonneted Scottish shepherd-boy with a sheep the size of a Shetland pony came from the same world as The Tinderbox, in which a soldier climbs down a hollow tree to be confronted by a dog with eyes the size of millstones. Small children clung to the backs of spaniels as big as heifers, and kilted huntsman sat high in the saddles of elegantly prancing steeds straight from a circus ring. I particularly liked the Staffordshire soldiers, broad-shouldered and wasp waisted in scarlet jackets over tight white breeches worn with knee-boots polished to a china glaze. The sailors too, had an allure, with their jaunty straw boaters and ruddy cheeks, ready for a jig or a brawl.

Coming late in my life to painting, I found myself drawn back to the world of the Staffordshire figurines, this time as subject matter for my brushes. To begin with I strove for verisimilitude, teaching myself to capture the shiny glazes on white china, and the soft modelled shapes that were pleasingly challenging to get right. These early works were neo-romantic in feel, with dark, tumultuous skies and Winter-blasted landscapes. Colours were relatively muted. The mood was sombre,troubled even.

Later I began to calm both the mood and the paint surfaces, flattening out shapes and concerning myself less with the lustre and gleam of the pottery than with character embodied in it. The images increasingly referenced the ‘toy theatre’ aspects of Staffordshire that had so charmed me as a child. (The Staffordshire figures frequently bear a startling resemblance to the characters in Regency toy theatre character sheets, another source familiar to me when I was young, having been given a stash of them by an actor-friend of my parents.)

 

I began reconfiguring Staffordshire groups to better serve what I required compositionally. Often the pieces in the paintings were hybrids, inventions stitched together from several sources, or I changed the proportions and colours of the china to suit my needs.

The final transformation of my ‘Staffordshire’ work saw the paintings pared to a bare minimum of detail as I turned my attentions to the prismatic effects of light on china glaze, and the play of shadows on the soft, chalky walls of the cottage where I was working.

Eventually, and with many paintings of china groups behind me, I was done. I’d been producing works on the Staffordshire theme throughout a period of significant change in my life, and my painting too, and perhaps the way I viewed the world, had transformed. What I was making by the end didn’t bear much resemblance to where I’d started.

I moved away from the subject of Staffordshire figures to pursue other expressions of narrative painting, not expecting to return. And I didn’t until few weeks ago, when out of the blue Ben Elwyn wrote requesting the birthday gift of a postcard… a blank postcard was enclosed with a SAE ready to return to him… decorated on his suggested theme of ‘Gold and Death’. I produced this:

Part 2: penny dreadfuls,  tomorrow.

I’ve written before, and more fully, about my initial flirtations with Neo-romanticism and what followed. You can read about that journey:

HERE and HERE

Beastly Passions

Early in my  career I made many still-life paintings of Staffordshire pottery groups. This weekend I reignited that old flirtation by making a postcard-sized coloured drawing for my friend Ben, based on the Staffordshire pottery version of Tipu’s Tiger.

Man Slain by a Tiger

I greatly enjoyed making Man Slain by a Tiger, and I now find myself considering further explorations of Staffordshire beastly beasts. I came across this group commemorating the death of sixteen year-old Ellen Bright, an animal trainer who died in 1850 after being mauled by a tiger while performing with Wombell’s Circus!

 

Then there’s this extraordinary group depicting the body of a woman on which an escaped tiger from a menagerie crouches, a limp, bonneted child dangling from its’ jaws!

 …

I assume the popularity of such groups was driven by a mixture of the Victorian inclination toward sentimentality, coupled with a relish for Penny Dreadful horrors. They are a strange blend of the ghoulish and the picturesque, these vibrant oddities, the ghastliness rendered less visceral by being so toy-like. I have a notion to push the idea a little further, using contemporary expressions of fatalities at the sharp end of nature, but filtered through the prism of the Penny Plain/Tuppence Coloured naiveté of the Staffordshire groups.

I don’t know whether I’ll be able to achieve this with any degree of success, but I know the idea will niggle away at me until I give expression to it. Watch this space.

Gold and Death

My friend Ben sent out blank postcards to friends on the approach of his birthday, inviting the recipients to respond by ‘decorating’ them. The theme was ‘Death and Gold’. Here’s my offering to him: Man Slain by a Tiger.

I based it on this handsome Staffordshire piece titled The Death of Munrow, though I simplified the figure of the prone man, making it a little more stiff and doll-like because I was after a more illustrative quality.