Looking at my shelves I realise how fortunate I’ve been as an artist to have collaborated on a good many interesting book projects. At the start of my career as a painter, Nicolas and Frances McDowall of Old Stile Press gave me multiple opportunities with their invitations to collaborate on volumes of poetry, plus the covers of two bibliographies. For them I made two volumes of works by the sixteenth century poet Richard Barnfield, The Affectionate Shepherd and the Barnfield Sonnets, plus The Mare’s Tale by Catriona Urquhart, an anthology of poems which memorialised the life of her late friend – and my father – Trevor.
At Old Stile I produced an illustrated edition of Peter Shaffer’s iconic play, Equus, which led to a commission from Penguin Classics to contribute an image for the cover of a new edition of the play in 2006, still in print today.
While at OSP I learned craft on the projects Nicolas chose for me, it would be fair to say it was in the books springing from my creative enthusiasms as an artist, that I’d find the most satisfying experiences. Simon Armitage’s 2018 revision of his translation of the medieval poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight for Faber & Faber gave the opportunity to use the fourteen-print series on the theme I’d made with Dan Bugg at Penfold Press, edited into illustrations for the edition. That led to a second collaboration with Simon of a much-loved fairytale for publisher Design for Today, Hansel & Gretel: a Nightmare in Eight Scenes, which won me the 2020 V&A Illustrated Book Award.
Next came a second book at Faber with Simon, by now appointed Poet Laureate. The Owl and the Nightingale was conceived as a companion volume to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and like its predecessor was a ‘translation’ of a medieval text.
Joe Pearson at Design for Today makes extraordinarily beautiful books which honour the great traditions of illustration, and after Hansel & Gretel in 2019, he invited me to make a child-size ‘pamphlet’ book, The Bird House, which enabled me to indulge my love of toy birds and toy buildings. No text with this one, just page after page of pictures.
Throughout the pandemic lockdowns I worked on my second ‘fairytale’ project for Design for Today, Beauty & Beast, in a reinvention by poet Olivia McCannon. Our starting points had been the eighteenth century French novella of the fairytale and the 1946 film La Belle et la Bête by poet/artist/director Jean Cocteau. However in Olivia’s hands the source materials were thrillingly transformed, underpinned by 21st century concerns about global warming and the destruction of environment.
For fifteen years I’ve been producing cover artwork and page decorations for the American poet and novelist, Marly Youmans. My most recent work for her has been a collection of poems under the title The Book of the Red King, and her novella-length narrative poem, Seren of the Wildwood.
This year I produced my second cover for Penguin, an edition of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, working with Penguin/Random House art director, Suzanne Dean.
Over the years I haven’t seen myself as being an illustrator so much as an artist with a wide range of interests, among which books are admittedly a bit of an obsession. Some of the book projects have been ones I’ve instigated and brought to completion with the help of others. Joe at Design for Today has been my major facilitator for the most significant ones, while others have come via publishing commissions. But however made, the books produced in collaboration with writers I greatly admire, such as Marly, Olivia and Simon, often thereafter cast their influences further into my practices as an artist. I have been majorly influenced and fuelled by poetry. It’s a persistent thread throughout my work at the easel, on the stage and in books. The past year has seen me working for Folio Society on a new illustrated edition of Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf, due out this summer. The project just dropped into my lap, brought to me by Folio Society art editor Raquel Leis Allion. I’d long wanted to work with the text, so it’s been a bit of a dream come true.
The orchard behind the house is is thick with hoar frost, glorious in the winter sun. Despite the sharpness of the imagery in this video capture, what I experience is not what you see here, good though my I-phone camera is. Tiny irregularities on the surface of the human eye make the crystals of ice appear to glitter and flash as I move through the garden. It’s utterly beautiful. Dazzling.
Think back to the Golden Age of Hollywood. Whenever a screen goddess appeared in rhinestones or sequins, her image would simply be off the charts with the reflective sheens and sparks given off by them, because the lenses back then were a lot closer to the imperfect human eye, and their surface imperfections created the starbursts of dazzle which photographers and cinematographers turned into glamorous magic. Here Marlene Dietrich turns the ‘pixie’ hat into an accessory for seduction, with cuffs to match.
Watch any film or tv commercial today and glitter has been added in post-production, and frankly looks like it. Instagrammers add sparkles to their selfies, staring in soft-focussed self-absorption through storms of ‘glitter’ produced by an app. All those 20th century Christmas cards embellished with glitter-frost spoke to us because they looked the way we saw ice and snow crystals with our own eyes. Everything glittered and flashed. These days the Etsy merchants selling vintage Christmas cards ‘with glitter’ can’t reproduce them effectively to show at their online stores. Their cameras can’t capture the reality. Everything flattens out, the glitter/glimmer/sparkle vanquished.
I recognise digital sparkle the moment it appears. It’s unconvincing, not remotely similar to what we see with our own eyes. It isn’t even what cameras from an earlier age captured. I know it isn’t real, just as surely as I know when confronted with a CGI dinosaur, no matter the artistry involved in its making, that it isn’t real. The artifice makes me feel differently about what I’m watching, certainly on a conscious level but almost more so on an unconscious one. I’m just not as engaged/involved. In the first Jurassic Park film the stand-out episode for me was not one created with CGI, but rather the sequence with the hunting velociraptors in the kitchen, which was created with brilliant puppets and razor-sharp editing.
All this is to come to the elephant in the room, which is the AI generated imagery now flooding Instagram. So much of its candy-coloured allure and textural brilliance is leaving many illustrators, painters and stage and production designers feeling that their long-honed drawing and painting skills are going to become obsolete. How, they wonder, can anyone compete with AI capacity to take/steal existing materials and reassemble and embellish them to such clever effect? How can any artist with pencils and brushes compete at anything like the speed? While I don’t believe there will be any turning aside from the technology, neither do I believe it’s game set and match. Just as CGI continues to co-exist with analogue skills, so there will be things which people still do better than a computer programme. After all, old-style glitter is still defeating the apps.
Jan Zalud’s beautiful facsimiles of the Hansel & Gretel puppets he’d made for the stage production of 2018 arrived here several weeks ago.
I commissioned the puppets when the producer Kate Romano of Goldfield Productions and the Goldfield Ensemble, repeatedly declined to lend the originals for my forthcoming exhibition at Oriel Myrddin. It was an inexplicable decision on her part because the puppets were funded in part by an Arts Council of England grant to Goldfield, and in part by me, and so ownership could be disputed. However instead of all the anxiety of embarking on a legal challenge, I decided instead to commission and pay for the facsimiles. It was the right decision. Jan has made a spectacular job of the rebuilds, and I’d defy anyone to spot the difference between these and the originals. Soon they’ll be on their way to costumier Oonagh Creighton Griffiths, who costumed the first puppets.
Rudi is fascinated by the puppets and is very gentle with them.
Over at the Sussex Lustreware website, Gloria has packed the shop with items from the Harlequinade range that we collaborated on last year. Harlequin, Columbine and a host of characters drawn from the great Victorian traditions of Toy Theatre, are resplendent in their sequinned finery and ready for ‘Curtain Up’. To celebrate the range, David W. Slack and I have produced our tribute to the golden age of the Victorian stage!
I find myself feeling sad, a condition, increasingly, of our times. Back in 2013 the book blogger known as Tomcat in the Red Room wrote a dream review of Marly Youmans’ novella/poem, Thaliad, published by Phoenicia. Now Thaliad is a jaw-dropping literary achievement by any standard, but Tom wrote a review which beautifully cast a net to ensnare readers who may not otherwise have found it. When I read his words I rejoiced, because he really understood what a talent Marly is, and eloquently conveyed the fact. I know it, but no-one is going to listen to me. Marly and I have been working together for nearly twenty years, and so when the long-term collaborator says “Read this woman’s work. She is a genius!”, people might well reply “Well he would say that, wouldn’t he?”
So here is Tom’s book-report, so insightful, tender, and clear-sighted. I discovered today that his blog is no longer active, or even viewable. I don’t know whether he still writes online, or even, given the events of the past few years, whether he is still with us. I will forever be indebted to him for what follows.
Tom Cat in the Red Room on Thaliad.
It seems that post-apocalyptic narrative is definitely on a roll here in the early 21st Century; what with Cormac McCarthy, China Mieville, David Almond etc. all turning to the genre in recent years. Marly Youmans’ ‘Thaliad’ is an unusual addition to the field, but it’s also one of the best examples I’ve ever read. ‘Thaliad’ has a commonality with The Road in that it comes from a literary tradition decidedly outside of the SFF mainstream: it’s a mythopoeic epic poem about seven children attempting to survive the aftermath of some non-disclosed apocalyptic event referred to only as `The Fire’. One of the children, a girl named Thalia, soon emerges as the de facto leader of the group, and together they settle in the ruins of an abandoned village on the edge of lake Glimmerglass. What follows is a desperate and genuinely moving cling to life that’s equal parts bleak and uplifting, harrowing and hopeful.
A lazy crib would be: `The Road meets Lord of the Flies in verse’, but such a label, however succinct, fails to encapsulate the sheer inventiveness and lyrical exuberance of Youmans’ writing. Who, for example, could resist such beautiful and strange and violent language as:
Nothing could have halted them from verdict
And vengeance, save angelic messengers
Arrived by unexpected thunderbolt.
A wail went out from Thalia and streamed
Across the mire, across the slough of blood
It’s structurally formal, but the poetry never feels rigidly metered or constrained; a feat entirely due to the beauty, flow and vitality of the writing. Sure it’s heavily stylised in the way you’d expect from epic verse that channels, among others, Homer; but the writing isn’t at all arch or overbearing. Furthermore, the book has some strikingly novelistic traits: chapter divisions, direct speech, and a first person narrator, all of which should act as a helpful way-in for those readers more familiar with novels than poetry.
‘Thaliad’ is composed in blank verse (that is, unrhymed iambic pentameter), and there’s a definite tension between the book’s future-looking, sci-fi-esque premise, and the New Formalist way it eschews free verse in favour of this more traditional approach to rhythm and prescribed syllable count. Wrapped up in this tension between the book’s setting and its form are Youmans’ playful references to the canon of classical epic poetry. The opening line, for example, “It was the age beyond the ragged time” references the first line of The Iliad, with “age” and “ragged” bearing more than a passing phonic and visual resemblance to Homer’s first-line repetition of “rage” (as it’s translated in English, obviously); and this serves as a definite tonal signifier for the poem that follows. Similarly, such chapter headings as `Seven Against the World’ make reference to Greek Tragic drama (as do the frequent allusions to masks), and the text itself is replete with lively puns, such as this clever nod to both the Icarus story and the fabled fluid that supposedly ran in the veins of the Greek Gods (the `ichor’):
The heavens, ichorous, let down a rain
That seemed as if it could have been the blood
Of dying Gods dreamed up in ancient worlds.
The most striking Classical reference is, of course, in the book’s name. Using the titular suffix `-iad’ would have been an act of pure hubris in the hands of less able writers, and initially I was sceptical, expecting Thaliad to be open to accusations of self-aggrandising pomposity and stylistic misappropriation; after all, calling your book `Thaliad’ and hence inviting comparison with Homer could be mistaken as a very cocky move indeed. Happily, there’s a fantastic inter-textual rationale behind this book’s title and its neo-classical form. The narrator (and supposed writer) of Thaliad, Emma, is speaking 60 years after the events she describes, and learnt her trade as a poet-historian by salvaging what books she could (presumably the Classics) from the ruined world’s libraries. So ‘Thaliad’, then, fictionalises the story of its own creation; the book itself is supposedly a piece of history, written as a record of the first years following `The Fire’.
It’s not unlike China Miéville’s post-apocalyptic landscape the `Railsea’, whose inhabitants have re-ordered society through a kind of collective performance of Moby Dick. The world of ‘Thaliad’ likewise addresses the problem of overcoming the apocalypse through an act of textual salvage: Emma and Thalia have re-constructed the world’s history via this filter of Classic literature, and the results are surprisingly uplifting. It really works, but only because the post-apocalyptic setting provides suitable thematic gravitas: no other genre of 21st Century fiction could get away with appropriating the language of classic Greek literature without simultaneously committing some enormous faux pas.
But don’t worry if Homer et al isn’t your particular thing. ‘Thaliad’ doesn’t pre-suppose an understanding of Greek literature, and knowledge of the Classics is not a pre-requisite to fully enjoying this poem. The book’s real appeal is its language, its characters and the heartbreaking decisions they find themselves making. Marly Youmans takes great pains to ensure that ‘Thaliad’ isn’t one of those post-apocalyptic narratives whose characters are mere passive bystanders swept along by Big, Important, Global events beyond their control. Choices made and not-made are the thematic heart of the poem, and for me the book’s most significant event occurs at its very beginning, when the children make their first collective decision: to abandon one of their number, Gabriel, a boy who won’t stop crying:
They shouted at him that he’d learn a thing,
Or two, to not be so unendingly
Unbearable, to weep as all could weep
But did not do.
[…] They drove away.
They drove away! And left that little boy
Alone with bridges, river, blowing ash,
Immensity. He was eleven, a child
The six remaining children soon realise what an appalling thing they’ve done and turn around, hoping to find Gabriel once more, but all to no avail.
The abandonment of Gabriel influences the moral identities of the children more so than any other of the book’s events. Chapters and decades later, it remains the significant episode of their lives, presumably because, unlike `The Fire’, discarding Gabriel is a tragedy of their own contriving. If the apocalypse can be read as a second Fall (and there’s plenty of Biblical imagery at play: “There is no peaceful land, / And gates of Eden long ago clanged shut”), this first decision made by the children is definitely their loss of innocence. On numerous occasions various speakers equate this early naivety with all their future tragedies:
– For where is Gabriel, that child of light,
Who might have been the father of the world? –
Perhaps the sin of Gabriel, forlorn,
Abandoned on the track has weighted us
Like pocket stones in deepening water.
If you want to be twee about it, you could probably argue that ‘Thaliad’ functions as a metaphor for the end of childhood and the violent emergence into the adult realm of moral responsibility. I wouldn’t tug at this thread too much, but it’s there if you really must.
It would be remiss of me at this point not to mention Clive Hicks-Jenkins, who as well as designing the book’s cover, has illustrated small iconographic vignettes that head each of ‘Thaliad”s twenty four chapters (note: the same number of books divide The Iliad). These striking black and white collages definitely influenced my conception of Thaliad’s world, and the grey-tone in which they’re rendered acts as a satisfying visual call-back to the descriptions of ash and rubble that dominate much of the poem’s imagery. As well as being unusually beautiful, Thaliad’s artwork is loaded with symbolism and connotation. The image that heads chapter twenty three, for example, depicts two of the children (now fully-grown) fighting over Thalia. The icon itself is a silhouette-esque depiction of two men locked in combat, with their swords provocatively placed so as to resemble the positioning of erect phalluses in a way that alludes to the lust that is the deeper subtext and reasoning behind their feud.
Thaliad is an extraordinary, deeply moving and fiercely intelligent poem, and I hope I’ve given some indication of its many achievements. I’ve not written much about the plot because, frankly, it’s difficult to do so without resorting to massive spoilers, but suffice it to say that several of the story’s twists are genuinely shocking, genuinely original. Its greatest accomplishment is the way it successfully melds so many disparate literary traditions into something cohesive, without seams. References to Diana Wynne Jones can be found adjacent nods to Ovid or Cormac McCarthy and Andrew Marvell. It plays with form in memorable and mischievous ways (the first fourteen lines of chapter 18, for example, could easily be isolated as a kind of weird blank verse bucolic sonnet), and it always works. Thaliad is a convergence of genre spaces, and we Science Fiction fans, sometimes so rigid and stubborn in our reading, would do well to embrace it.
A largely forgotten masterwork directed by Roman Polanski, Dance of the Vampires AKA The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967) rewards on every level – if you can find it. Ignore the US print from which sixteen minutes of footage was butchered by interfering producer Martin Ransohoff, who additionally saddled the film with an unnecessary animated credit sequence. He also extended the title to The Fearless Vampire Killers, or Pardon Me, But Your Teeth Are In My Neck, and dubbed Jack MacGowran’s Prof. Abronsius with a silly, cartoonish voice. Polanski so resented Ransohoff’s vandalism that he asked for his name to be removed from the credits of the US version. I have a Blu-ray disc made with a dubbed soundtrack for the Spanish market (El Baile de Los Vampiros), but it comes with the original English soundtrack as an extra. It is, inasmuch as I can tell, Polanski’s original edit. (It runs at 103 minutes as opposed to the 88 minutes of the US release.)
Dance of the Vampires/The Fearless Vampire Killers – as seen in Polanski’s original cut – is both a horror film and a comedy, and the two elements intertwine elegantly with no shortage of thrills along the way. It looks utterly ravishing, with designs embodying every trope which fans of the Transylvanian vampire genre could possibly wish for.
Wilfred Shingleton and Fred Carter worked together on production design and art direction, and their creations of the garlic-festooned inn and the dark castle rearing out of a pristinely glittering snow-bound landscape, are nothing short of magnificent. Look out for the scary portraits of Count von Krolock’s ancestors lining the castle walls. The camera doesn’t linger, but what we see is typical of the attention to detail characterising a Polanski film.
The inn is a masterpiece of squat, labyrinthine passageways and interconnecting rooms, wonderfully lending the creaks and pistol-cracks of its expanding and contracting wood construction to a soundtrack ripe with stealthy footsteps on boards and the reassuring clucking of unseen poultry in the yard beyond. Beds with grey over-stuffed duvets, fat as ticks, cram into rooms too small to accommodate them. Everywhere there are unexpected spaces, with cupboard-sized rooms crammed under eaves and a wine cellar which provides a suitably claustrophobic setting for a vampire chase. The design aesthetic is European in every sense, but then Polanski is a European director clearly revelling here in the things he knows and loves. The Chagall-ian tavern (the owner is named ‘Shagal’) embodies the character of a shtetl in a way that would never be seen outside a European film, save perhaps in Fiddler on the Roof. In visual terms the film is completely consistent throughout, with nothing of the ‘real’ world to distract from its immaculate construct. Where real landscapes are incorporated, they are melded perfectly with exterior miniatures and with additional painted scenic elements. It’s a twilight landscape of picturesque snow-drifts and ice-bound forests, where characters freeze solid and have to be carried, stiff as boards indoors, to be thawed back into life. (Or in one case, thawed into undead life.)
The castle is the best in any vampire film, ever. Polanski was paying tribute to Hammer Films with the lush, gothic style, but this goes way beyond anything the Hammer studios ever achieved.
The galleried castle courtyard was elaborately designed for the most perfect ‘chase’ gag, made in an unedited take, and it pays off wonderfully. But the film’s triumph of design is the sequence in which Professor Abronsius and Alfred pick their way across the snow-blanketed battlements and roof-scapes of the castle, and as the camera slides sideways to take in the full, wide-screen panoramic loveliness of the architecture against the mountains, the effect is simply breathtaking.
The cast is perfection, with stand-out ensemble work from Polanski as the timid Alfred and Jack MacGowran as a whippet-thin and physically elastic Professor Abronsius, as though Peter Cushing were being played Mr Pastry. Alfie Bass is outstanding as the obsequious innkeeper Shagal, bowing and bobbing in deference to the retreating vampire Count (the supremely elegant Ferdy Mayne) who’s just abducted his daughter. Shagal’s basilisk-eyed termagant of a wife is played by Jessie Robins, and Polanski brilliantly contrasts the couple’s physical disparities to create the sense of Shagal as a hen-pecked husband always doomed to come off worse within the marital state, though always straining to outwit the odds stacked against him. With her mountainous presence under an equally mountainous duvet in their tiny bedroom, he looks as though he’s about to be stifled under an avalanche of snow.
The Count’s shambling henchman, Koukol, is the British boxer Terry Downes, just thirty at the time of the filming, and he is astonishingly good. The character’s presence is one of the sinister/humerous lynchpins anchoring the film. He’s both funny and scary, and lumberingly lethal. (He polishes off an aggressive wolf with his bare hands and teeth!) And then there’s Sharon Tate, luminous as the Shagals’ daughter, Sarah, giving a performance so sweet and pitch perfect to the film that your heart aches for what we lost two years later.
Stand out sequences:
The lyrical yet sinister moment when Tate in her bubble-bath suddenly realises that snow is falling in the room, the window above her having been opened.
The Vampire Ball in which our heroes dance with the undead until the sublime moment when their game is suddenly up.
Crossing the snowbound rooftops of the castle.
A wonderful pursuit of Alfred by Count Von Krolock’s gay vampire son, Herbert, who has goodness knows what mischief in mind. (What I loved about this film both when I saw it on its release, and now, is that Iain Quarrier neither minces or camps, as a gay vampire would in any American or British film of the time (Kenneth Williams in Carry on Screaming), but plays it as a brooding, predatory dandy, like a blonde Lord Byron. It’s refreshing, funny and scary!)
Krzysztof Komeda’s music for the film shimmers with swooping vocal tracks that make a wordless vampiric chorus to the action. The effect is wonderfully atmospheric and spine chilling, and it was a crying shame he wasn’t enlisted to write music for the German stage musical, Dance of the Vampires, in which the magic of the film was utterly vanquished by relentlessly dreary songs, as though someone had pieced the show together from whatever leftovers never made it into Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables. You can hear bits online and it’s deeply depressing. Komeda wrote the music for several Polanski films, including Rosemary’s Baby, but in my opinion his triumph was what he produced for Dance of the Vampires.
It’s with huge delight that I can reveal, at last, that my current big project is the commission to illustrate a new Beowulf for The Folio Society, in the acclaimed translation by Seamus Heaney. The illustrations must remain shrouded in secrecy until the book is ready for launch, and I won’t be showing work in progress. Suffice to say that I’m already deeply bedded in the project, awakening every morning excited to be in the thick of it and enormously enjoying the many discussions and planning sessions with my wonderful Folio Society art director, Raquel Leis Allion. But this little vignette is all you’re going to see before the book is published, because we’re keeping the images under lock and key.
I’ve greatly enjoyed the notion of ‘the monster’, whether in novels, in film/tv or in folklore and mythology. Aged eight I was sold on the idea of the ‘Gorgon’ from the first moment I read about her, and the Hydra, too, and the three-headed Cerberus, guard-dog of Hades. As a child, when too young to actually see X-rated films, I pored over imported copies of Famous Monsters of Filmland, so I knew all about the Universal Studios monsters – which were vintage even back in the fifties when they were being given lush spreads in the magazine – long before I ever saw the films themselves. I thrilled to the images of Lon Chaney being unmasked in The Phantom of the Opera, of Bela Lugosi curling back his lips in a pasty-faced vampiric leer, and Karloff sitting in Jack Pierce’s makeup chair being transformed into one of the most iconic monsters of cinema history.
I’m not a fan of all ‘horror’ – in extreme form I find it distasteful – but when makers are creative in producing something that nails you to your seat, the ride can be thrilling. I particularly love it when the scary bits are not too in-your-face. One of the greatest strengths of Alien, is that it pre-dated CGI, and so the fully-grown creature is half-shadowed and all the more alarming for it. I think the best scares in Jurassic Park are in the kitchen where a pair of Velociraptors hunt down the children, because most of what you see is staggeringly clever animatronics and puppetry, made even better by masterful editing. When the monster is actually there, in close contact with the actors, and not just a man in green wielding a ball-on-a-stick to cue their eye-lines for special effects to be added later, there are worlds of difference in the performances.
I’ve particularly enjoyed it when I’ve been given illustration opportunities to engage with old-school classic creatures. For the cover of These Our Monsters (2019, English Heritage), I was able to trace back to Bram Stoker’s account of Vlad Dracula, which was quite an eye-opener because the original descriptions are not remotely like any of the character’s film incarnations. (The cover image here is for The Dark Thread by Graeme Macrae Burnet, who sets his troubling and elegiac short story in Whitby at a time when the mentally fragile Stoker has returned to confront his own creation.)
There were entirely new monsters in the book, too, and I loved creating what Sarah Hall only suggests in The Hand Under the Stone, which is about as close as I’ve ever come to making a monster inhabiting a similar ‘between-worlds’ plane of existence to those found in the ghost stories of M. R. James which I love so much.
I’ve made several varieties of Witch for two quite different books on the theme of Hansel & Gretel, for a stage production in which she was presented via shadow-puppetry, and for a toy theatre for Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop.
My first Hansel & Gretel book was a more or less textless picture-book for St Jude’s in which there was a Witch scary enough to require a warning for more sensitive readers. I made her glaucous-eyed and short-sighted – as witches traditionally were in some folk and fairy-tales, the Grimm Brothers telling of Hansel & Gretel included – but I dressed her in a garment embroidered with eyes to send out a different kind of message. (I stole the idea from a portrait of the first Queen Elizabeth in a gown embroidered with eyes and ears, as a coded message to her subjects – and more particularly her enemies – that the monarch saw all and heard all!)
For the Simon Armitage version of the tale, Hansel & Gretel, a Nightmare in Eight Scenes, I collaborated with paper-cut artist Peter Lloyd, providing him with rough drawings that he then transferred into elaborate stop-motion shadow-puppets. To begin with Hansel and Gretel saw only a crone in a bonnet and cloak, but when the cloak came off, the full horror of a spiny crab-like carapace was revealed, reverse-joint legs – like a bird – and a tail with a stinger that snaked into view and coiled and thrashed about.
When Simon Armitage’s libretto for the stage production was published in 2019 as an illustrated book by Design for Today, I made a monstrous Witch – seen below as she’s turned into a gobstopper when Gretel pushes her into a cauldron of sweets boiled down into molten sugar – and a monstrous personification of the haunted forest, too, wonderfully described by the poet in a text that’s an illustrator’s dream.
Beowulf is jam-packed with the eponymous hero’s encounters with monsters of many varieties. There’s a deep-sea-creature that drags him to watery depths, a dragon he slays – though he becomes fatally wounded in the process – and that arch-monster of literature and father of all horrors that came after him, Grendel, who is of a sufficient size to stuff thirty human corpses into a bag and make off with them. Beowulf tears off Grendel’s arm as a trophy, and the fatally wounded monster slinks away to die ‘off-stage’. We then discover there’s worse waiting in the wings, for Grendel has a mother, and she’s as wrathful as a nest of Asian Hornets on the warpath when she sets out to avenge her son’s death. (And you thought the vengeful mother was invented by the makers of the second Alien film. Turns out that she goes back to Anglo-Saxon literature, and before that to even more ancient mythologies and tales.)
So I am thrilled to be making images of these archetypal monsters, and hopefully in ways that will be unexpected and visceral enough to raise a few hairs at the nape of the neck. But in a good way, of course.
I was – and remain – a big fan of The Avengers. I loved the whimsy and style of the series, the brilliant pairing of the characters John Steed and Mrs Peel, brought so affectionately and stylishly to life by actors Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg, and the way it dipped so regularly into science fiction, weird fiction and a brand of folk-horror that was all its own.
In The Avengers the streets of London could always be relied upon to be strangely empty – which had the bonus of intensifying the tone of the series and foregrounding the players – and the countryside to be charmingly picturesque and devoid of eyesores. With droll dialogue and unexpected plots, each episode was a pitch-perfect jewel of escapist tv drama, and moreover was never un-balanced by overwrought visuals. The designers and special effects departments worked on a rigorously spare budget, and the constraint made everyone infinitely more inventive. Rigg and Macnee were masters of the quip and the ironic raised eyebrow, so that wherever the implausibilities of the plots would have tripped up more earnest actors, Steed and Mrs Peel instead exchanged knowing looks, poured glasses of restorative champagne and roared off in a convertible to the next chapter. (Or as below, trundled off on the back of a milk-float!)
The Hour That Never Was logged in at episode nine in the fourth series. As so often in the series … because actors know a good thing … it had a sterling supporting cast including Gerald Harper and Roy Kinnear. (The Avengers could always be relied upon for wonderful guest actors.)
Central to the plot of The Hour That Never Was, was a milk-float and a dead milkman. The United Dairies vehicle was an iconic one on the early-morning streets of the country, and there was a popular die-cast Triang toy of it.
My friend Simon Shaw, who is an aficionado of British tv/cinema horror and science fiction, has been busy producing wonderfully inventive models and figures for his Hobbs Lane Etsy Store. (He recently added a glow-in-the-dark possessed bed-sheet to his shop, based on the wonderful Jonathan Miller tv play Whistle and I’ll Come to You, starring Michael Hordern and adapted from the M R James short story Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad.) Having found a vintage Triang milk-float in an extremely play-worn condition, he sanded it down (actually he got his ninety-four year old dad to do that bit for him), re-painted it in new livery and then added 3-D printed elements, including milk-crates and the body of the deceased milkman, to make a perfect miniature replica of The Hour That Never Was vehicle right down to the correct number-plate. Then he boxed it in a commercially available reprint of the packaging, adding bespoke stickers to complete the effect. Brilliant!
Hats off to Simon for ingenuity in this charming ‘homage’ to a series so many of us remember with great affection. And yes, dear reader, I did acquire it, to go alongside some of the other memorabilia of tv I’ve loved, including several boxed sets of characters featuring Jo Grant from Doctor Who, given to me by the girl herself, Katy Manning, who’s my much loved cousin.
In 1964 Hammer Films released its Terence Fisher-directed horror, The Gorgon. It was an elegant and unexpected addition to the Hammer canon, taking as its titular ‘monster’ a creature borrowed from Greek mythology.
The studio was rather good at creating female ‘monsters’, The Reptile in 1966 being a significant success, as was The Countess Dracula in 1971.
Working out of Bray Studios, what Hammer Films lacked in budget, they more than made up for in lushly gothic design and brooding atmosphere. Their teams of writers, directors, set and costume designers, make-up artists, matte and model artists and composers, created a rich seam of cinematic horror. They re-invented the old monsters of the Universal Studios – Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster and the Mummy among them – in ways that found completely new audiences. The films were largely strongly European in their settings, with brooding Carpathian castles looming over villages where peasants lived in dread of their vampiric overlords.
The cast was stellar: Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee and Richard Pascoe, with Barbara Shelley in the role of Carla Hoffman. Shelley was the studio’s top female star. With her rich auburn hair, evenly chiselled features and low voice, she brought gravity as well as beauty to all her roles. In Carla she played a distaff to that horror staple – the werewolf – by being transformed at full moon into Megeara the Gorgon, whose dreadful stare turns human flesh to stone, the premise for which is the ‘serial killer’ heart of the story.
Fisher and his team were concerned that transforming Shelley into the Gorgon was going to create multiple difficulties. The story required the creature’s true identity be revealed only toward the end of the film, but given there were to be several close-ups of the monster’s ‘killer stare’, it was believed the deceit would be hard to pull off were Shelley to be under the make-up. There was also the matter of time. Transforming Shelley’s classic looks into Megeara would hold up filming on a regular basis, so despite the fact that she was very keen to play the character in both manifestations, no matter the discomforts involved, it was decided to use another actress who might plausibly represent a grotesque version of her, up to the point when the duality is revealed.
Enter Prudence Hyam, an actor and retired ballet dancer who Fisher and his team believed would have the necessary performance skills to embody the elegant, poisonous intensity they hoped to achieve in the Gorgon, yet be up to the rigours of of the uncomfortable physical demands. Hyam didn’t disappoint. She cheerfully submitted to the heavy headpiece hiding the snake mechanisms under her wig, which was over seven pounds in weight. She wore bloodshot, full-sclera contact lenses that in these early days of the technology were not at all comfortable.
This short clip shows Prudence in full make-up and towelling dressing-gown, marching out of the Bray Studios make-up department having hitched the cumbersome loops of snake-mechanism cable-controls over her shoulder, while make-up man Roy Ashton follows with the box that will operate everything out of shot. Hyam looks like a woman not to be put off by seven pounds of special-effects attached to her head!
Hyam clearly didn’t have any problem with playing a character deemed to be ‘monstrous’. One gets the sense she was a performer to her core, relishing the challenges and an opportunity to be evil.
When the Gorgon makes her first appearance in Castle Borski, it’s a moment of spine-chilling unease. Cobwebs billow as she emerges from behind them, a simple effect that adds to the sense of predatory malevolence. Hyam was on a small wheeled platform that created a gliding trajectory – rather like the one employed under Josette Day in Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Béte – and her dancer’s posture wedded to an icy intensity of expression, makes the moment unforgettable.
The set is one which fans of Hammer will know from several films, instantly recognisable by the colonnaded gallery encircling the entrance hallway and the stairway that’s so effective in terms of staging low-angle dramatic moments. Here the space is tellingly furnished with the life-sized hulk of a headless and decaying classical statue, a queasy clue as to what haunts its shadowy recesses.
The Gorgon is not a film without flaws. But having seen it, despite its X-certificate, when I was just thirteen – the local flea-pit cinema never having ever turned down a ticket-purchase on the grounds of age – the memory of it has stayed with me for a lifetime. The appearance of the Gorgon herself has attracted occasionally – in my opinion – unfair comment from critics, with jibes about the character’s design deficiencies. But the jerky rubber snakes and the the too-obvious scaly skin appliances notwithstanding, her appearance gives the film moments of genuine horror, and Hyam’s fierce intensity as she glides out to literally petrify her victims, has persisted in my dreams for five and a half decades. So many times the mood of that colonnaded gallery with its monstress glimmering as green-as-absinthe in the cobwebby shadows has nudged into my work, whether in Neo-Romantic paintings of mood-drenched ruins, or in the creepy filmed sequences of interiors I made for the stage production of Hansel & Gretel: a Nightmare in Eight Scenes.
Soon there is to be a little tribute to the Gorgon, in all her basilisk-eyed venomousness, in a little project I currently have on the go. Watch this space.
Those who deserve credit:
Director: Terence Fisher
Music: James Bernard
Cinematography: Michael Reed
Editor: Eric Boyd Perkins
Production Design: Bernard Robinson
Art Direction: Don Mingaye
Make-up: Roy Ashton
And lastly, Prudence herself, who so memorably added to the canon of movie grotesques, and deserves to be better credited and celebrated.
I’ve had this card for most of my life. Say hello to Ethel Marion Foreman, born in 1887 and died in 1976. Marion was an actress and the first wife of actor Basil Rathbone. While performing with Frank Benson’s Shakespeare company, Rathbone met and fell in love with her. He wrote:
“Marion Foreman had been on the stage for some time before I met her at Stratford on Avon in August 1913. She was an excellent actress with a beautiful speaking and singing voice. Both on and off the stage we saw much of each other for many months.”
The couple were married at the church of St. Luke, Battersea, London, on October 3, 1914. The following July their son Rodion was born. The Rathbones divorced in 1926. Marion believed they would come together again, though that was not to be. Much later the Hollywood ‘press’ presented their marriage as an indiscretion of ardent youth, and she’s barely mentioned in Rathbone’s autobiography. Rathbone was reunited with his grown son Rodrion when the young man tried his hand as an actor in Hollywood, and indeed lived for a time with Rathbone and his wife, Ouida. The evident warmth between father, son and stepmother as expressed in the movie magazines was not to last, and the three were estranged after Rodion and his wife felt that their wedding had been hijacked by Ouida as a Hollywood ‘society event’. (Ouida was her husband’s manager, and by all accounts was a very busy networker.) Rathbone’s Hollywood career placed him on a high pedestal of achievement and success, but his staginess was not to everyone’s taste. The renowned stage actor and wit, Mrs Patrick Campbell, described him in her autobiography as “an umbrella taking elocution lessons.”
Around or about 1956 in Newport, Monmouthshire, my mother Dorothy was getting anxious, believing that I should speak with no trace of the accent she was convinced would hold me back in life. I was five when she delivered me to ‘Madam Rathbone’ for elocution lessons. I recall very little of the lessons beyond the room in her house in which they took place, whch was airy though dark with heavy furniture and the glimmer of silver frames containing photographs on many polished surfaces, including the piano. Madam R would have been in her late sixties at the time, which to me seemed incredibly old, and she wore black. What her connections to Newport may have been or why she lived there, I have no idea. Her address has survived and bears the name ‘Rathbone House’ in Serpentine Road, not far from Newport Civic Centre. (My thanks to Stephen Lyons for that information.)
I was an obedient student and a quick learn. I could imitate with skill. By the time Madam Rathbone was through with me my speaking voice had changed forever. What you hear today is how I spoke when I emerged from her tutelage. Later, as a young actor in my early teens, already I sounded like something out of my time, forever cast as toffs.
I look at Marion Foreman in the photograph, in her teens or twenties, from an earlier age of the performing arts that seems almost inconceivable to us in the first quarter of the 21st century. Marion was born a Victorian, and she bequeathed me the speaking voice I have today.
Obituary of Marion Foreman
1887 – 1976
“Miss Marion Foreman, the Shakesperean actress, died at Denville Hall, Northwood, on September 8. She was 89. One of the oldest surviving members of Frank Benson’s company at its meridian, she played in many Stratford upon Avon festivals. Benson held that she was the best Viola in his experience.
Born on June 2, 1887, Ethel Marion Foreman went on the stage when she was 15. At Stratford before the First World War she was in those famous seasons remembered as idyllic and intimate, that were led by a dedicated visionary. With Benson, too, she toured North America during 1930 – 40, acting Jessica, Gertrude and Ann Page for a company that included, beside her husband the young Basil Rathbone, such celebrated classical players as Randle Ayrton, Dorothy Green and Murray Carrington. A ready and endearing actress (in her day applauded as Juliet and Ophelia), she was also an expert fencer.
During the summer of 1919 she and her husband – who would become as well known in the cinema as he was in the theatre – returned to Stratford for the first festival directed by W. Bridges-Adams. Between wars she acted a great deal in the United States. When finally she retired to settle at Newport, she directed, for charity, performances of Macbeth (1939), playing opposite Donald Wolfit at Caerphilly Castle before the Princess Royal. She also directed at two other castles: a Macbeth at Chepstow and Hamlet at Usk. Respected as a teacher, lecturer and adjudicator, she put on many Shakespearian and modern plays among the Welsh miners with whom her association was always understanding and affectionate.
Her marriage to Basil Rathbone (by whom she had a son) was dissolved.”
UPDATE: I am most grateful to Stephen Lyons for the following information about Ethel Marion Foreman:
Ethel Marion Foreman was born in Stepney, London. Her father Edward was a Superintendent of Baths and Gymnastics Director. Sometime between 1891 and 1895 he moved his family to Wales, where he took up a job with Newport Corporation. In 1939 Marion was living at 1 Serpentine road, and was a Drama Lecturer, Producer and Actress. She was also volunteering as an Ambulance Driver.
I lift the latch of a blue-painted iron gate under the trellis archway laden with the Rambling Rector rose that was the gift of my sister, and enter the garden past the reading-bench tucked to my left under the umbrella canopy of a weeping crab-apple.
Pausing only briefly to admire the unlikely olive tree that has survived in the shelter of this place, I skirt the trimmed box-bushes now grown to the size of large sea-boulders and the myrtle propagated from a sprig stolen by a Scottish poet from a shrub in the grounds of a royal residence, grown from a sprig pulled from a nosegay given to Queen Victoria in 1845 by Prince Albert’s grandmother, the Dowager Duchess of Saxe Gotha.
I ascend a grassy bank springy with tussocks and clustered with primroses to the ruins of the myrtle thief’s chair, still at the uppermost part of the garden, where in her last evenings with us she sat in the dusk among the flicker of hunting pipistrelle bats, the glimmer of the illicit Gauloises betraying her secret vice as I anxiously watched for her while washing the supper things.
My beloved friend Catriona Urquhart died early on May Day 2005, at home in Caerleon with her partner Ian, her mother and siblings and nephew and niece around her. I was sitting in the chair at the top of the garden in Aberporth thinking about her when the call came with the news. I’d spent time with her the previous week, squeezed her hand and whispered my goodbyes to her closed, peaceful face.
Seventeen years have passed, and still she is with me. Here at Ty Isaf the stick-in-a-pot she gave us is now a walnut tree nearly thirty feet high. Her collection of poems with Old Stile Press, The Mares Tale – still available from OSP – continues with its power to make me weep, because I feel as raw and bereft as I did on the day of her departure. But I laugh, too, whenever I see the myrtle, because Catriona was emphatically not a Royalist, and she would positively crow with delight to see the fruit of her thieving doing so well in this west Wales cottage garden.
I should say up front that I never set out to be a designer or maker of toy theatres. I love the whole idea of toy theatre and I’m an aficionado of the form. I collect toy theatre ephemera and have from earliest memory. My discovery of 19th century toy theatre sheets as a child was a significant influence on getting me to stage school as a young teenager for the training I’d need for a life of theatre, and while there I found my way, of course, to Benjamin Pollock’s Museum and Toyshop in Fitzrovia, which place still thrills over fifty years on.
So all of those things link up for me: love of toy theatre, love of theatre and love of Pollock’s. But what I didn’t see coming was that I would occasionally find myself designing toy theatres. That, was a surprise.
As a stage designer in my thirties, my background of toy theatre undoubtedly influenced the way I thought about stages and the way pictures on them were presented to audiences. Always the sense of a frame and what’s seen through it, which is not so very far from looking at a painting in a frame on a wall.
When Susan Williams-Ellis of the Portmeirion Pottery designed her Pantomime range in the 1960s, the records indicate she found the images in a book published by Pollock’s. Mention is made of the engravings being too faint to successfully reproduce on china, which may well be true, though by re-drawing them she will also have sidestepped photographic copyright issues. Whatever the full truth of the matter, her ink drawings were dark and sharp, and they reproduced with clarity.
All the reference material for the Sussex Lustreware Harlequinade range of ceramics has come from my own collection of 19th century toy theatre sheets. Because there were so many printmakers producing these – Green, Skelt, Redington, Pollock etc – I did quite a lot of adaptation so that Harlequinade would have the unity of a single visual aesthetic. Some of my drawings stayed fairly close to the original material, but occasionally I ‘improved’ the designs so as to be what I needed to work for the collection, while always staying firmly within the bounds of the toy theatre ‘style’. My collaborator at Sussex Lustreware, Gloria, came up with the idea of using freehand lustre swags to link the transfer-ware vignettes of the audience around the edges of plates.
Susan Williams-Ellis had rendered her ‘Pantomime’ designs in pen and ink. I drew mine in soft black pencil scanned in greyscale to make transfers ready for applying and firing to the earthenware. Neither Susan’s ink drawings made in the 1960s or my pencil drawings made last year mimic the engravings that were our inspirations, but each of us made what we knew would reproduce well on white ceramic. My pencil drawings have the same silvery tone as some of the old engravings, and the results look particularly good when combined with the soft gleam of pink lustre.
The Golden Beehive Inn is a backdrop from Whittington and his Cat or Harlequin Lord Mayor of London, re-printed by Benjamin Pollock from the play originally produced by Green and then Redington. (The origins of plays can be tangled as toy theatre printmakers frequently re-engraved earlier plates, replacing the original makers’ names with their own.) The Whittington engravings are quite crude, though have a pleasing naive boldness and vigour, and the scene of the inn on a harbour is one I liked so much that I kept returning to it. I combined it on a mug with ‘street’ characters from Green’s The Castle of Otranto or Harlequin and the Giant Helmet, including a ‘Postman’ and an ‘Egg-seller’.
Occasionally an original engraving required quite a bit of ‘adaptation’ to produce the image I required for Harlequinade. Clown Riding a Donkey was one such, as I wanted an illustration with much cleaner lines and a better definition of the subject matter than provided in the engraving.
Popular poses and groupings of characters from Harlequinades appear repeatedly in 19th century sheets, drawn by different artists for various publishers. Sometimes I adapted from more than one version of a particular design, as in this drawing for Clown and Pantaloon having a tea-party, reproduced on the Sussex Lustreware Harlequinade teapot.
Groupings of Harlequin characters in a pyramid are enormously popular on toy theatre character sheets, usually with Columbine at the apex.
Pieces from the Harlequinade range may be purchased direct from Sussex Lustreware
In 2016 Random Spectacular published a picture-book of my dark re-working of the fairy tale Hansel & Gretel. There was no text, save what I hand-lettered into the illustrations.
The following year Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop in Covent Garden commissioned a toy theatre kit from me, based on the book.
In response to the two publications, Goldfield Productions engaged me to direct and design a stage production. Hansel & Gretel: a Nightmare in Eight Scenes with music by Matthew Kaner and a libretto by Simon Armitage, was created for a chamber consort, a narrator/singer and two puppeteers, and it premiered at the 2018 Cheltenham Music Festival followed by a five month tour.
A matinee at the Barbican was recorded and broadcast by BBC Radio 3 Christmas week 2018.
The following year Design for Today published a hardback edition of Simon Armitage’s libretto that I illustrated, and in 2020 it won me the V&A Illustrated Book Award.
In 2023 there’s to be a major exhibition of my work on the theme of Hansel & Gretel at Oriel Myrddin in Carmarthen. The exhibition is to include original artworks made for the several publications, my project books, maquettes and preparatory works.
There will be many items from the stage production, including shadow puppets created by Peter Lloyd, set models built by Phil Cooper, vintage toys that I loaned to the production and a huge doll’s house, the inside of which I decorated and filmed to represent the interior of the Witch’s lair.
Permission for a loan to the gallery of the puppets of Hansel and Gretel designed by me for the production, has been turned down by Goldfield’s Artistic Director, Kate Romano. She gave dislike of me as her reason. Given that the costs of designing and making the puppets had been paid for out of an Arts Council grant, and given the budget was so tight that I personally paid a costume designer to create a wardrobe for them, her decision seems at best ill-judged. As the director of a charitable trust which has been extensively funded from philanthropic organisations, anyone might expect better from her than this. The exhibition will be especially appealing to children, and for a registered charity to deny a ‘museums accredited’ gallery the opportunity to inspire young minds with such beautiful examples of the art of puppet-making, is not merely perplexing, but frankly shameful.
I approached the Chair of the Goldfield Trust, Caroline Clegg, hoping that she might persuade Kate to change her mind and save the company from public scrutiny into a matter that looks very bad for both of them. It would be hard to tell from Caroline’s e-mail that she and I know each other, having both worked on the production for months when she was appointed by Kate as dramaturg to it. Weirdly, both her e-mails to me make it sound as though we’ve never met before. This has added another layer of the surreal to what has frequently felt decidedly strange when dealing with Kate Romano and Caroline Clegg. Here’s Caroline’s second e-mail to me:
Dear Mr Hicks-Jenkins,
In response to your recent request the Trustees of Goldfield Productions support Ms Romano’s decision not to loan the Hansel and Gretel puppets.
Ms Caroline Clegg
as Chair of Goldfield Productions
Why am I writing about all this now, so long after the event? Certainly not to persuade Kate Romano to change her mind about loaning the puppets. Over four years I’ve several times held out a hand of reconciliation in the hope of encouraging her to set aside resentments so we may together protect the legacy of what we made. I was and remain proud of my work on the stage production of Hansel & Gretel, and want to be able to share what was achieved in the exhibition. However everything I’ve written to Kate has gone unacknowledged and unanswered. There’s been not one e-mail reply to any of my attempts to lower the temperature of her antagonism. She is down a bunker in this matter, refusing to engage, and such behaviour in the world the way it is right now, is not a good look for anyone, let alone an arts administrator. Today I’m writing this because many are beginning to ask whether the puppets are going to be in the exhibition. Luckily because we have an ample record of the puppets in drawings, photographs and videos, they will be seen, though not be present.
It would be easier in many ways just to make a simple excuse for their absences which skates around what’s happened, but I see no reason to do that when Kate Romano and Caroline Clegg should clearly be the ones to explain why they’ve made the decision to hide the puppets from public view.
Simon’s reinvention of the fairy tale, is eerily prescient of what we’re seeing now in Ukraine. The puppets would have meant a great deal to many visitors had Kate Romano found it in her heart to lend them to the gallery, but she did not. The puppets were conceptualised and designed by me, their making supervised by me, in part funded by me and their performances on stage, shaped by me together with puppeteers Di and Lizzie. Kate’s reason for refusing the gallery loan appears to be all about personal enmity, which is troubling in a CEO in the performing arts. Anyone who feels that she made a decision that requires explanation, might take it up with her.
The film was made and originally released in five one-act instalments at Instagram. We’d intended it to be a promotion for the just published toy theatre and an encouragement for would-be performers, to show them what might be achieved with the model. However it swiftly evolved into something that was a creative project in its own right, and as David and I planned and worked, our ambitions for the film became greater.
Even though we elaborated on the presentation in ways that were clearly only possible in the realms of digital animation, we felt that the overall effect would be to encourage anyone performing the toy play to be inventive and give creativity a free hand.
I’d asked Olivia to give me a play-script that incorporated all the traditions I associate with nineteenth century toy theatre productions: actors directly addressing the audience, rhyming verses, jokes, songs, political references, allegorical characters and opportunities for sumptuous stage effects. But it was important too to have that sense of the slightly bonkers that I see in just about every historic toy theatre play script. Fairy tale is the right material to be allowed its head in matters of strangeness. Too much sanitising and it loses character. Beauty and the Beast as a narrative can be so much more than is usually allowed. Olivia has followed the threads of earlier iterations, but has reinvigorated the tale by making climate change and pollution the culprits for Beast’s condition, rather than a dark fairy’s curse. Moreover Beast is allowed to be more thoroughly himself than when the storyline moves toward a princely restoration. (When Jean Cocteau gave a first showing of his film La Belle et la Bête (1946) to its cast and technicians, he invited his friend Marlene Dietrich as his guest. As the end credits rolled she could be heard in the darkened viewing-room loudly wailing:
“Ou est ma Bête?”
Most audiences ever since have agreed with her.
The Beauty & Beast Team:
Animated Film: David Slack & Clive Hicks-Jenkins
Script: Olivia McCannon
Original Music for Time for a Change of Heart: Paul Sartin
Narrator: Jennifer Castle
Jennifer Castle’s Portrait Photography: Ross Boyask
Accompaniment for Time for a Change of Heart: Tricia Kerr Mullen
Adapted from the Beauty & Beast Toy Theatre published by Joe Pearson at Design for Today
The Design for Today Beauty & Beast Toy Theatre (see above) may purchased online, direct from the publisher:
All toy theatre is an abbreviation, by reason of the medium. Fifteen minutes is about the maximum length a toy theatre performance can sustain. However the complete fairy tale as retold by Olivia McCannon in Beauty & Beast, illustrated by me throughout, is to be published by Design for Today in Spring this year.
The Owl and the Nightingale will be performed as a reading at the Royal Court Theatre, Jerwood Theatre Downstairs.
In a new translation by the Poet Laureate Simon Armitage, this witty and enchanting edition of the medieval debate poem will be directed by John Tiffany and read by Maxine Peake and Meera Syal with Simon Armitage.
Following his acclaimed translations of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Pearl, Simon Armitage shines a light on another jewel of Middle English verse. The disputed issues within the piece still resonate – concerning identity, cultural attitudes, class distinctions and the right to be heard.
Following the performance there will be a book signing in the Balcony Bar.
The Owl and the Nightingale reading is supported by The Institute of Digital Archaeology.
Well, not quite to join the circus, but certainly to have an adventure!
Before the World of Wonders range emerged from Sussex Lustreware, Gloria sent the above photograph of herself with the sheets of the drawings-reproduced-as-transfers, ready to start work in her studio. It was an exciting moment as the precursor to what came later.
None of this would have come about without the novel that started the whole journey, Marly Youmans’ Charis in the World of Wonders, for which I was commissioned by the US publisher Ignatius to make a cover and chapter headings.
So the novel first, then the illustrations for the novel, then the publishing of the novel with its illustrations and after that, the collaboration with Sussex Lustreware to produce the World of Wonders range using the drawings made as chapter headings.
Finally, the still-life paintings I’m currently making of the World of Wonders lustreware. Everything tumbling along merrily. Literature begetting art begetting ceramics begetting art. What a delight it’s been, in the company of people I both admire and love.
All life is light and shadow and the struggle to hold those two in balance. I know that at the extremes, my preoccupations can seem hard to make sense of. One moment artworks I know viewers can find hard to look at, and the next, animations in which the characters of Victorian Harlequinade spring to joyful life. Night versus day, dusk versus dawn, grief versus joy.
At the private view of my Autumn 2021 Martin Tinney Gallery exhibition, a man I barely knew began quizzing me. Gesturing to the walls teeming with illustrations for Simon Armitage’s about-to-be-published The Owl & the Nightingale, he said “So you don’t paint anymore.” (Note the statement, not a question.) I’m always taken aback when someone is challenging almost from the first sentence. I didn’t want to defend myself to a man putting words into my mouth, so I replied simply, “I paint every day.” He carried on regardless, again gesturing to the walls. “Yeah but not REAL paintings any more, you know…” and here he grappled for words … “… the BIG ones!” Me, fixing his eye. ”I paint the things that I care about, and I always have. And now you’ll excuse me.”
The first subject matter that brought me serious attention as an artist was The Mare’s Tale in 2001. As an exploration of a nightmarish experience in my father’s childhood he carried with him for more than eighty years, the work has often been described by others as ‘the son’s exploration of the father’s trauma’. It was partially that, but it was also grief, not only for my dad, but for the many of my family and friends who had gone.
In Simon Armitage’s extraordinary reworking of Hansel & Gretel, the children’s parents are not the malign mother and weak father of the Grimm Brothers’ original tale. Simon sets the story in an unnamed war-torn country, and the children are not abandoned but in an act of parental desperation, directed away from home and bombings. They’re migrant children. At the end of the story they return home to find their father broken, their home in ruins and their mother, dead and buried in a coffin made from their bomb-splintered beds. When making the illustrations for the book (Design for Today, 2019) I researched, made hundreds of studies and drew on memories that are always with me.
My mother’s health had been catastrophically compromised by childhood meningitis. I think she can only have been in her thirties when she had her first heart attack, and though she lived another three decades, the steady advance of heart and organ failure was unstoppable. She was courageous and fought to be well, and there were times of respite when illness didn’t shadow her so heavily.
But in the end, it got her. In those days visiting hours in hospital were strict. No matter how ill the patient, there were no exceptions to the rules. My mother died alone in a public ward without anyone she loved to hold her hand. It was the end she feared most, and not a damned thing that we could do to stop it. We were called at the crack of dawn and raced to the hospital. It would have been kinder of the nurse to tell us the truth in the phone call. Instead we drove like maniacs only to find my mother icy-cold in her bed, having died hours earlier. My father retreated to a corridor, buried his face in an alcove and howled like a dog. I held my mother’s hand and studied her face, careworn with illness but still beautiful.
All life gets poured into my art. Here she is, recalled in the illustration in Hansel & Gretel of the dead mother in her unlined coffin, tenderly garlanded with flowers.
It’s largely forgotten these days that the actor Ralph Richardson was significant in the preservation of the toy theatre tradition. Benjamin Pollock, the last of the print-making toy theatre sellers, died in 1937. Thereafter his daughters ran the shop in Hoxton Street until damage sustained during the Blitz forced its closure.
Alan Keen, a local bookseller, together with Richardson, picked up the threads of Benjamin Pollock’s business and remaining stock, and together carried forward the tradition, enlisting practitioners of the art of toy theatre, famous artists and renowned actors to assist them. George Speaight was an historian, enthusiast and collector of toy theatre ephemera, who in 1946 published the still unsurpassed textbook of the toy theatre tradition, Toy Theatre, and he was among those Keen and Richardson worked with.
Richardson’s celebrity ensured the added lustre of luminaries such as Laurence Olivier and playwright J. B. Priestly stepping forward to promote the art of toy theatre. Olivier agreed to a toy theatre adaptation of the 1948 film of Hamlet, which he’d directed and starred in. Published by what was now being called ‘Benjamin Pollock Ltd’, the Hamlet toy theatre is a curious thing, quite wan in many ways because the ‘puppets’ are all tinted photographs of the actors from the film, while the sets are sketchy if atmospheric black and white drawings by the film’s production designer Roger Furse.
A far more lavish and full colour affair was The High Toby, with a script by J. B. Priestly and scenery and characters painted by the prominent artist, Doris Zinkeisen.
The growing cost of the book outstripped Alan Keen’s available funds, and it was done as a Puffin Cut-Out Book ‘in association’ with Benjamin Pollock Ltd. But even with these celebrity contributors, while the book is very pretty, anyone who has tried to offer a performance will know that it’s less satisfactory as a play than one might imagine given who wrote it, and though Zinkeisen’s settings and characters are lavishly detailed, she took no account of how difficult the puppets would be to cut out, massively compromised by fine details like whips, walking-canes, feathers on hats and the slenderest of wrists.
Moreover even when those hurdles had been clambered over, the characters don’t register particularly well against the backdrops, their drawing-room elegance and soft colours legislating against them. Toy theatre needs a robustness not present here, and The High Toby is toy theatre play that looks far better in the imagination, and on its pages, before scissors, paste and card have been brought into play.
Toy theatre is an art, and not just a physical reduction. A long and complex script isn’t the best accompaniment to a toy theatre performance, and scenery cannot simply be a version of what might be seen in a live theatre. There’s something like alchemy in the process of making a successful adaptation of a story to the reduced script and the reduced stage of a toy theatre. The same rules of drama don’t apply, nor do the rules of perspective used on a full-scale stage with breathing actors. The toy theatre requires its own, unique aesthetic. It’s so much better when allowed to be itself, rather than when trying too hard to ape its origins in the live theatre.
When all the components are in place and a toy theatre can be made to work, it works magnificently. But it’s a form fraught with perils, and more get it wrong than right, and always have. English toy theatre – for it was almost uniquely an English form, practiced most successfully in London, that city of many theatres and printmakers – had a period of unrivalled brilliance. When not made overly sophisticated, and when drawing on the lively tradition of the English printmakers’ ‘Actor Portraits’ of the Regency and nineteenth century, toy theatre was at its best, graphically bold and slightly bonkers. Later it became displaced largely because the far more sophisticated toy theatre imports from France and Europe were catching the eye of the public, and the meteoric rise of native toy theatre faltered when comparisons were being made to the enormously elaborate foreign imports. English Toy theatres were not subtle. They had the character of folk art, and were the perfect vehicles for barnstorming melodramas and that most unique theatrical tradition of these islands, the pantomime. (Harlequinade was a hugely popular entertainment of the English stage, and the characters of Clown, Harlequin and Columbine were endlessly reproduced in toy theatre character sheets.)
Marguerite Fawdry acquired the Pollock’s business in the 1960s, afterwards transferring it from Covent Garden to its current address in Fitzrovia, where there was room for a toy museum over the shop and a basement where the Pollock printing press and stock of engraved plates could be stored. The business has continued as a family affair, now helmed by Marguerite’s great grandson, Jack, in whom the toy theatre tradition is still alive and flourishing. There’s a Pollock’s Trust, too, to lend support to the Museum, led by Chairman Alan Powers.
I was commissioned in 2016 by Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop to design the Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop Hansel & Gretel Toy Theatre, which was published in 2017 and is still available from the shop. The project led to others, most significantly a commission to develop a new stage production of Hansel & Gretel, and in 2018 Hansel & Gretel: a Nightmare in Eight Scenes, a stage production for music ensemble, actors and puppets with a score by Matthew Kaner and a poetic text by Simon Armitage, directed by me, premiered at the Cheltenham Festival of Music before embarking on a tour. A performance of the work before an audience was recorded by BBC Radio 3 and broadcast Christmas week 2018.
In 2019 the text of Hansel & Gretel: a Nightmare in Eight Scenes was published by Design for Today in an edition illustrated by me. In 2020 I won the V&A Illustrated Book Award for my work on it.
In November 2021 Design for Today published my new toy theatre, Beauty & Beast, made in collaboration with Olivia McCannon, who wrote the script, and David W. Slack, who assisted me and designed the model.
The Beauty & Beast Toy Theatre is available from Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop in Covent Garden and Pollock’s Museum and Toyshop in Fitzrovia, and also online from:
With Olivia’s play script for the toy theatre delivered, it was time to consider who might write the music to accompany her lyrics for Beauty’s song ‘Time for a Change of Heart’, performed at the end of the play. Olivia approached her friend, musician Paul Sartin of the group Bellowhead, and to everyone’s delight, he agree to join the team.
Once his music was ready, it was time for graphic designer Laurence Beck to lay out Olivia’s play script, Paul’s arrangement for her lyrics, David’s instructions for constructing the model and my brief histories of toy theatre and the origins of Beauty and the Beast, into the booklet to accompany the model. The 10 construction-cards to cut out and make the toy theatre, scenery and characters of the production, together with the 24 page booklet, were designed to fit into a 23 x 25 cms folder where the scenery, puppets and script could be stored for safe keeping once the theatre was made. All that remained was for the many elements of the toy theatre to be printed and packed ready for sale.
To promote what was about to be published, with Joe’s agreement David and I set about producing an animation video for the Beauty & Beast Toy Theatre, to be shown at YouTube and on various social media platforms. The plan was to offer a condensed visual account of Olivia’s scenario set to music, and as he’d already played such a significant part in creating the toy theatre, David was perfectly placed for making the animated version of it. With the animation prepared, everything was set for launch. We would have our beautiful toy theatre out in good time for the Christmas market.
Still we weren’t through. David and I had been wondering how we might further promote the toy theatre, and what alternatives might be open to us if we weren’t able to have a pre-Christmas live event to which an audience could be invited.
A broadcast film of a performance might be the solution, but even that could be difficult to organise given the current circumstances. So we began to plan a film in which all the contributing creators could work at a distance from each other. The first and most urgent requirement was to find an actor to read Olivia’s play script, and moreover one who would seize the multiple opportunities afforded by it. Here were poetry, humour, menace and crackling atmosphere, and we needed an actor skilled on multiple levels to give a nuanced and mesmerising performance. Luckily I knew who would deliver all that for us in bucketloads, and Jennifer Castle became the final creative talent to join the Beauty & Beast team, alongside Ross Boyask, who undertook to both record the audio tracks of Jennifer’s performance and take the many portrait shots of her that we needed in order to incorporate her into the film.
The work is underway and further announcements will be forthcoming before too long. Here’s a toy theatre that is not just a desirable object, but one that comes with all the online creative encouragement and inspiration that anyone could wish for. I’m enormously proud of the team that made it. My thanks to:
Joe Pearson at Design for Today
David W. Slack
The Design for Today Beauty & Beast Toy Theatre is available
It all began earlier this year with the Hansel & Gretel Toy Theatre I’d designed in 2017 for Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop. David W. Slack and I didn’t know each other, but exchanged a flurry of messages at Instagram about how he was planning to adapt his newly acquired Hansel & Gretel model to include a curved stage-front. Before we knew it we were in regular contact, fuelled by the fact we’re both painters and by our shared passion for Toy Theatre. I was working flat out on the illustrations for my next book with publisher Design for Today, Beauty & Beast, in collaboration with writer Olivia McCanon, and David and I talked about the evolving images for it. In photographs, his finished model of the Pollock’s theatre I’d designed was sharp and meticulous. The man really knew how to cut and construct a toy theatre.
I had a notion to make a very simple toy theatre as a promotion for Beauty & Beast. It would have to be simple because I had no spare time to work on it. Before I tried the idea out on my publisher, Joe, I confided in David about it, casually wondering whether if he had the time he might consider helping me out. As it was going to be a modest project and would hopefully not take up too much of his time, it could be fun. Beyond the sense of ease that made online conversations between us so relaxed, I had the strongest feeling that we needed to collaborate. It was almost an imperative. Luckily he felt the same way and enthusiastically leapt in.
The division of labour evolved with complete ease. I made roughs while David worked confidently to produce the optimum design for the model. Ideas flowed smoothly. We were so attuned that we developed a pattern allowing each of us creative freedom. Once the proscenium arch design had been settled on, David produced prototype toy stages at extraordinary speed, each version improving on the last. By this time he was leading with the design work, briefing me on what I needed to be making. He was drafting scenery, too, often using my completed illustrations made for the book as initial sources. I was having to fit all this between my daily schedule of illustrations for the main book, though things became simpler when David began sending me templates so all I had to do was fill in the shapes with drawing, knowing the ‘fit’ had already been worked out.
David’s enthusiasm for the project meant that he was forever coming up with ideas to ‘improve’ outcomes, which meant the dawning realisation for both of us that it was a rather more complete production than we’d anticipated at the outset. Olivia McCannon was enlisted to write the script, a task she undertook with good grace even though it greatly added to her already overburdened work-load. It wasn’t to be a straight adaptation of her beautiful text for the book, but a clever reinvention of a nineteenth century toy theatre pantomime, ingenious and slightly mad. I broke the news to Joe Pearson with some trepidation that we’d gained more construction pages than originally estimated, and that moreover several of them required printing on both sides, which would require meticulous alignment by the printer. Joe took it all in his stride and began costing.
The script was still being written and so we had no idea how many pages it might fill. We began considering the matter of the binding for the toy theatre book, so as for it to be simple to take apart. I’m pretty certain it was David who first suggested we consider not binding, but offering loose construction sheets in a folder, and Joe who came up with the idea of something like an old-fashioned double-LP cover, with half-wallets inside. These were exciting developments because they meant the toy theatre would be unique in its presentation. Joe felt a separate ‘chapbook’ for the script and instructions would be the way forward, slipped into one of the pockets of the folder. The idea of a script in miniature for toy theatre performances was lovely, and mirrored the toy theatre scripts of the nineteenth century. Everyone was in a frenzy of invention and creativity.
Today I take pleasure in announcing that Jennifer Castle has joined the Beauty & Beast Toy Theatre team, and that we are working together to create a filmed performance of Olivia McCannon’s wonderful play-script with Jennifer giving life to all the roles, accompanied by the toy theatre in action. In a curtain-raiser to all that excitement, Jennifer and I have been in conversation.
Clive: Jennifer, for the past nine months the artwork, model construction, script and graphic design for the Beauty & Beast Toy Theatre have been gently evolving into the product we have today. You’ve come to the project only recently, but from our conversations I’m getting the distinct impression you’ve hit the ground running, and that in part must be to do with the script by Olivia McCannon. What were your feelings when you read it?
Jennifer: Right from the beginning, I suspected that Olivia McCannon and I might be close together in age. So many of what at first glance might seem to be ‘throwaway’ lines resonate deeply with me. For example, Beauty herself, so often portrayed as the noble ingenue, in Olivia’s hands becomes a somewhat exasperated, fully formed young woman cognisant of the ridiculousness of her situation. Her brusque ‘we know why I’m here, let’s not waste time getting up to speed’ attitude, combined with the innocence, intricacy and beauty of the poetry itself delighted me. Yet Beauty remains recognisably the same character we have all come across as children for 300 years. Thanks to Olivia’s writing, I feel free to explore the character of Beauty, all of her anger as well as her inherent goodness, without worrying that she will be unrecognisable to anyone. From a technical point of view, in terms of the actual playscript; it is subtle and wicked, the work of a poet at the very top of her game, and I feel a keen sense of responsibility to do the rhythm of the work justice.
Clive: My friend Simon Callow, who has a fair number of one-man shows under his belt, once told me that the thing he missed most when performing alone, was the camaraderie of the team and the liveliness of a rehearsal room filled with people and ideas. How do you feel about the fact that you’ll be performing all of the roles in this short play?
Jennifer: I will be performing all the roles in the play. So I will play! As a child, I didn’t have any problems holding a doll in each hand and improvising full blown dramatic confrontations that would put a soap opera to shame. It’s been a while, I grant you, but if a toy theatre can’t help me back into the unselfconscious headspace of a child with a couple of Barbies, I think I may be in the wrong profession! Joking aside, I am happy to say that I don’t consider this to be a ‘one-woman show’ at all. I’ll have the beautiful characters written by Olivia, drawn by you, and brought to stunning animated life by David W. Slack right alongside me. When we first spoke on the telephone about this project, you told me that in a previous collaboration with Simon Armitage of Hansel & Gretel, what had impressed you most in a live reading of the piece by him was that he didn’t attempt to ‘do’ voices for each role, but simply read the lines in his own voice and let the characters speak for themselves. I found that really interesting.
Clive: The pandemic has changed the conditions of work for all of us. But because I live in a far- flung corner of west Wales, long before social distancing catapulted just about everyone into working through the mediums of email, messaging and ‘Zoom’, I’d been forging collaborative relationships via social media. My close collaboration with Dan Bugg of the Penfold Press has for the past five years been carried out almost entirely through Facebook and Insta messaging, and although David W. Slack and I have been in extensive daily contact as he designed the Beauty & Beast Toy Theatre model, we’ve never met. (A fact I find hard to believe because we feel very close.) The entertainment industry has been hard hit by Covid, and particularly live theatre which effectively closed down completely. How have things been for you as an actor? Have unexpected ways of working – and unexpected projects – emerged out of all this strangeness?
Jennifer: Can I tell you something? As an actor, the most unexpected thing for me was how I came to view NOT working. When we think of actors, we naturally think of household names. But only 2% of professional actors make a living from the profession and 90% are out of work at any one time! So when the pandemic hit, I suddenly didn’t have to go through the exhausting ritual actors face every time we meet casual acquaintances or family: answering the question “So what are you acting in now?” with a self deprecating shrug and a “well….” It was such a relief. Of course I got fed up of sitting on the balcony reading comics within about 2 weeks, so I and my fellow actor friends soon found each other online and began planning for the moment lockdown ended! I wrote my first script, participated in Zoom script readings for friends and rediscovered a desire to get out there and just DO something that had been waning in the couple of years prior to 2020. Though restrictions are now easing, I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that the future of film and tv castings is going to be ‘self-taped’ auditions, which may sound convenient but instead of getting to meet and connect with a casting director, getting a feel for the room and trying a scene out a few times with feedback, I now have to film myself in a bathroom and hope for the best, which can sometimes be a frustrating experience! But on the whole? I was so happy when productions were allowed to start up again. Remote work can be valuable and productive, but as an actor, NOTHING beats human contact when it comes to creating. What about you? As an artist, do you think that you would still live in ‘far-flung West Wales’ if you didn’t have the internet or would you need to live closer to an artistic hub?
Clive: Moving to Ty Isaf fifteen years ago coincided with the burgeoning of the Internet and the appearance of social media. Facebook was just taking off. Almost from the first week here our connections with the outside world began to grow. Of course the world managed to function perfectly well pre-Internet, but my re-location to a far-flung corner of Wales has been founded from the start on good, strong connections with my collaborators through social media messaging services, e-mails and much later, Zoom. How would I manage without these connections? I suspect not at all well. I love peace and quiet and even isolation in bite-size chunks. But I am collaborative by nature and I’m social by habit, so I need a balance. Before Covid Ty Isaf had been a bit of a creative hub, with my collaborators frequently spending time here so as to be able to work in close contact. We’ve held early brain-storming production meetings on performative works here, and I have a pretty good pop-up animation studio that I can fit into the dining-room when occasion demands.
Although you and I met just the once, several years ago in Cardiff at the home of a mutual friend, you’ve come to this project via a post you made at Facebook (social media, again) that caught my eye and got me thinking.
Jennifer: You have generously omitted the fact that my bad day was caused by my absolutely bombing in an audition that morning! I took to Facebook to admit as such and received a surprisingly sympathetic response. We actors rarely admit our failures because like sharks, theatre folk can smell blood in the water.
Clive: It must have been a slightly strange experience having someone coming at you out of the blue with a hard-to-describe and evolving project after you’d admitted on social media to having had a bad day.
Jennifer: If you were reading a novel, and the protagonist, dejected after yet another failed audition, received a message from a famous artist telling her that he’d like to offer her a chance at a challenging project because her honesty impressed him and she replied “Eh….nah”, how far across the room do you think you would throw the book?
Clive: I take your point. Nevertheless, you took a leap of faith and engaged with me where many would have balked, and I appreciate that.
Jennifer: Gosh that’s interesting that you would say that. Who would balk? Should I have balked? In all seriousness, you not only took a chance on me, you’ve shown nothing but faith in me from the start of this journey. I’m not taking that for granted.
Clive: Are you generally a cautious or adventurous person?
Jennifer: Yes, sometimes cautious and sometimes adventurous.
Clive: David W. Slack and I have a passion for the work of David Firmin and Oliver Postgate, who were the creators at Smallfilms of Clangers, Noggin the Nog and Bagpuss. When I described to you that Bagpuss was an inspiration for the low-tech way in which we hoped to make the film, you yelled with delight and enthusiasm. Did that cinch the deal for you?
Jennifer: I was already enthusiastic at the thought of a toy theatre, but the old stop motion beauty of Bagpuss is timeless and perfect and wonderful. It’s so very British – comforting and sometimes uncomfortable at the same time. I can’t wait to see what we come up with together. I’m excited and nervous, comfortable and pushed beyond my comfort zone – I’m ready to be Bagpussed!
Clive Hicks-Jenkins and Jennifer Castle were in conversation. The top image is by David W. Slack, with special thanks to Ross Boyask for Jennifer Mullen’s portrait shot.
The Design for Today Beauty & Beast Toy Theatre is available:
This post was written by my friend and collaborator Gloria, who under the umbrella of her business Sussex Lustreware, has produced the Harlequinade range of lustre-embellished transferware for which I made drawings on the theme of Victorian Toy Theatre.
A post on the subject of theatrical swags – and collaborative sparks!
“With our first collection, the World of Wonders, Clive gave me his beautiful drawings and more or less carte blanche on the production and decoration of the pots, largely leaving me to get on with it as I thought best, a touching display of trust!
With Harlequinade he was creating the artwork especially for them, and greater collaboration on the overall design seemed in order to make the most of it. So over the summer we had some lengthy chats via Instagram, with pictures and ideas flying back and forth between us. And emojis of course! 😀😆👍
As an admirer of Laura Knight’s ‘Circus’ designs for Clarice Cliff in the 1930s I was keen at the chance to use plate rims in a similar way, with an audience and ruched swags suggestive of a night at the theatre.
Clive obliged with small groups of spectators, while I tried to work out how best to suggest draped velvet with lines of lustre.
Other influences and inspiration cropped up in conversation, from Hockney’s ‘Rake’s Progress’ Glyndebourne sets, through Rex Whistler interiors, to the trompe l’oeil Austrian curtain wallpaper in my aunt’s C20 Bethnal Green bathroom 🤩.
We decided that a single ellipse was too abstract, that three were too much, and so arrived at two. Plus the trio of embellishments, so that the glamour of the occasion – and our fluency as semioticians – should be in no doubt!
I was so pleased with the results that the swags ended up not just on the plates but festoon the jugs and trinket box too ✨💖
It was really fun working in this way, so I thought you might like to see a few snippets ‘behind the scenes’!”
Behold the Harlequinade teapot. The wonderful Gloria at Sussex Lustreware has boldly decorated its Falstaffian belly with two scenes featuring Clown, Pantaloon, Harlequin, Columbine and some performing dogs. In addition the spout and lid swarm with vignettes of Cinderella’s slipper, stars, a jovial sun, oak leaves and a jaunty windmill!
The Harlequinade range celebrates the great Victorian tradition of toy theatre and brims with the characters that would be found in nineteenth century theatre entertainments. Harlequin, Columbine, Clown and Pantaloon were adopted into British pantomime from the Italian Commedia dell’arte, leading a supporting cast of tradesmen and street-sellers forming the backgrounds to their adventures.
There were also assorted fairies, sprites, ogres and demons from the world of faery, together with a mix of gods and goddesses of the Ancient Worlds plus a spattering of historic characters.
The London printmakers who created the toy theatres which became so popular, adapted their scenery and character sheets from live performances, and that’s why the 19th century toy theatres are such an excellent record of what was going on in the real theatres of the times.
The actors of Harelquinades were adept at all the performing arts, and we can tell from depictions of them in toy theatre sheets that they were acrobats, dancers and even equestrian performers. In my images for the range of china I’ve represented them in all their diversity of skills.
Below: My drawing of Harlequin, Columbine, Clown and Pantaloon in the ‘pyramid’ arrangement so common in toy theatre representations of the characters.
The photographic record of Harlequinade is very thin, composed of costumed performers in photographers’ studios, because the art of photography at the time was not up to recording them in action on stage. Here in an undated but late-Victorian hand-coloured studio photograph, actors in the roles of Harlequin, Columbine, Clown and Pantaloon pose in all their Pantomime finery:
Toy theatres, by contrast, with their scenery showing all the elaborate transformations and spectacular stage tricks, as well as the wide range of characters, give us an excellent impression of how the live performances looked to an audience of Victorian theatre-goers.
In 2016 I was already partway through a planned fourteen print series exploring the themes of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, when the poet Simon Armitage unexpectedly appeared and asked whether the prints, when completed, might be available to illustrate a forthcoming ‘revision’ of his translation, due out from Faber & Faber in 2018. My print collaborator, Dan Bugg of Penfold Press who was publishing the series, was as keen as I to take this heaven-sent opportunity, even though it meant we’d have to get our skates on, as the original intention had been to publish just two prints a year for seven years. It was Simon Armitage’s 2007 translation that had been our inspiration for the series, and a dog-eared copy of it had been at my side throughout the work completed to that point.
Simon was a thoughtful collaborator. He let me have my head, and although my emphasis in many of the images was different to how he saw things, he was invariably gracious and allowed me leeway. There were aspects of the poem I’d been wayward with in my translations to images. Before the agreement with him and Faber, I’d been freely interpreting the poem as I wished. For reasons too numerous to bore you with here, I’d changed the Pentangle on Gawain’s shield to a Star of David. The print had already been made, showing a six-pointed star rather than the five-pointed one described – at length – in the poem.
Simon listened carefully to my reasons for the change. He said that if I were determined to stick to my guns, he would support me in my decision, but that I should know it would cause problems among academics and readers who would notice. I admired him for that, and without hesitation agreed to make the change. I couldn’t make it to the edition of seventy-five prints already out in the world, but I could digitally adjust the image that appeared in the new book. I say I, but in fact I have no digital skills, and so the work was undertaken as a favour by my friend, digital printmaker, Mark Brown. Mark also re-coloured Gawain’s sash green in another image, where I’d bleached the green in a twilight setting. Simon lobbied for a greener sash, and he got it.
David Lowery has taken liberties, too, in his film interpretation of the story. That’s not a bad thing. Artists and directors need to be free to ‘adapt’ literary sources. A poem is far from a film, or even a painting – or a print. The film has to work entirely through its visuals. There are the words too, of course, but the way a film looks is what it will stand or fall by.
Clearly I’m not the only one to have a problem with the colour green. Lowery and his designers have bleached their eponymous Knight to an ashen grey/blue with barely a vestige of green. What works for me when he appears, is less his appearance than the truly spectacular sound editing that so compellingly and viscerally announces his presence. (I can’t recall anything in previous films even close to the artistry achieved with the clop of hooves, creak of leather and the belching breath of the horse in this scene.)
My anxieties about the colour green were all about avoiding any possibility of the Green Knight looking silly. The descriptions of him in the poem are unequivocal. He is both a man:
“a fearful form appeared framed in the door: a mountain of a man, immeasurably high, a hulk of a human fromhead to hips, so long and thick in his loins and limbs I should genuinely judge him to be half giant, or a most massive man, the mightiest of mortals.”
but also, green:
“Amazement seized their minds, no soul had ever seen a Knight of such a kind – entirely emerald green.”
So not even plain green, but ’emerald green’, which is a hard thing to pull off in a world where the Jolly Green Giant and the Wicked Witch of the West have set a precedent in bright green that’s common currency today, though would not have been for the original readers of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in their medieval world.
Lowery’s Green Knight is splendidly filmic, man-shaped, but not in the slightest bit fleshy, more of a mash-up of the Winter King and and the Forest Giants of the Lord of the Rings films. Twiggy and somewhat desiccated, you sense he’d bleed not blood, but sap. This distances us from him. He doesn’t have the vulnerability of a man’s flesh and blood, that too-slender fragile neck-stem of skin, muscle and bone awaiting the decapitating blow of an axe. By turning the Green Knight into a character that appears entirely un-fleshy, the inhumanity of decapitation as a wager is less powerfully repellent than were he a man.
Decapitation is pretty much an unsurmountable problem, for film-makers and artists. In a world where terrorists perform such atrocities for the dark web, execution by decapitation remains the thing that is too dreadful to show on news channels or in documentaries, and rightly so. It can be inept and agonising when performed by hand, far from the swift efficiency of the guillotine. Even in drama, where CGI makes all things possible, decapitations are the events from which, for the most part – the schlockier film-makers aside – the camera averts its implacable eye. I was relieved beyond expression when in the TV adaptation of Wolf Hall/Bring Up the Bodies, the execution of Anne Boleyn was off-screen. Claire Foy’s horror alone was knee-trembling enough to make me lose sleep for nights thereafter. In the poem the axe-blow to the Green Knight is described in detail, as is what follows, when the headless yet still-standing Green Knight retrieves what has been lopped from his shoulders:
“For that scalp and skull now swung from his fist; to the noblest at the table he turned the face and it opened its eyelids, stared straight ahead and spoke this speech, which you’ll hear for yourselves:”
So, another element which though fresh in its day, has since been rendered a cliché by every film in which some Viking/Roman/Barbarian/Troll, strides to camera bearing a head swinging by its hair from a clenched fist, and it was one I went twelve times around the block to avoid in my illustration of the moment. This is how, after much trial and error, I showed the Green Knight bearing his own head, counterbalancing him with his caparisoned horse, ears back and eye rolling in terror. The poem describes the great spurt of blood from the wound, but that too felt clichéd when I attempted it, and so I abandoned the description and made instead a strange, unfurling organic blood-cloud, like a fungi springing from his truncated neck.
Arthur’s Court, in the poem, is young and vibrant. The rot we know is coming – in later accounts of the Arthurian myth – has yet to get underway:
“All these fair folk in their first age, together in the hall: most fortunate under heaven, with Arthur, that man of high will; no bolder hand could ever be found on field or hill.”
Gawain is a privileged and yet, up until now, untried youth. We discover he is pure of heart and steeped in the chivalric code of medieval Knights. He is undoubtedly a virgin, and the only woman who has him, body and soul, is the Queen of Heaven to whom he dedicates himself. When armed for his quest, his shield-lining bears an image of the Virgin and Christ child.
I like the premise in the film, so different to the poem, that the court of Camelot is ageing. Lowery gives us a King bone-weary from a hard life, and a grizzled Guinevere, ramrod straight and glitteringly armoured with tiny metallic talismans worn like a breastplate against harm. Unexpectedly Arthur speaks in dialect. The pair look sick and tired, like weary saints in icons, complete with halo-like devices fastened to their crowns that gleam in the half-light.
When reading from the slip of parchment deposited on the round table by the Green Knight, Guinevere, like a medium channeling the dead, delivers the challenge in a voice not her own. In response, Arthur admits he is too old to face down the Green Knight, and appeals to his court for a champion. Steps forward Gawain, his nephew. Everything to this point is engaging. Afterwards, not so much. When the Green Knight takes the fatal blow, it doesn’t amount to anything, because he’s not really a man, and so there’s no fragility in him and therefore no tragedy. Behind Gawain’s back, the corpse stirs and lurches to its feet, a moment that might make the flesh creep, but doesn’t. There’s no sense of dread, or more critically, of impossibility. Nothing is surprising here, because the Green Knight is so patently unreal.
A year later, Gawain steps out to meet the Green Knight’s challenge, to accept a blow the equal of the one he gave, no matter the consequences. In the poem he’s armoured by the King, magnificently encased in engraved and jewelled plate metal. His trials are not described in detail in the poem, though we know they entail battles with serpents (dragons), ogres and ‘woodwoses’ (wild men). With no ‘squire’ attendant to unfasten him from his elaborate armour, he’s effectively sealed into it, travelling, sleeping, fighting, sweating and steaming in the equivalent of a pressure cooker. In the film he is not so encumbered. Neither is he the lithe and practised fighter of the poem, and when he has run-in with the wonderfully creepy feral-boy, Scavenger (Barry Keoghan pitch-prefect in the role), Gawain comes off the worst, and loses his weapons, his shield, his money and his horse, Gringolet.
There is a GGI fox which mercifully talks only briefly, but departs without leaving any impression on the story. (A real fox would have worked so much better. Foxes are infinitely stranger and more beautiful than anything cooked up in a computer animation programme.)
Eventually Gawain seeks respite from his journey at a sumptuous castle where an un-named Lord and Lady welcome and shower him with affection and favours. The Lady (Alicia Vikander) gets jiggly with Gawain in his bedchamber, and the encounter has none of the almost unendurable sexual tension of the poem, where her verbal duelling with the sleep-befuddled and embarrassed young man is so dazzling that every time I read it I find myself holding my breath in anxiety that her husband might burst in. (Or get wind of the shenanigans.) In the poem Gawain is aware – and ashamed of – his nakedness, covered only by a bedsheet in the presence of the Lady, though he is unaware of his own beauty, described so alluringly by the poet. So we can picture clearly, in imagination, the gulf between her worldliness and sexual teasing, and his vulnerability and confusion. (Mrs Robinson and Benjamin in The Graduate.)
Counterpointing these exchanges, verses describing the hunting, killing and butchering of animals by the Lord of the castle add a bloody and steaming physicality, as he too appears to be intent on sexual games, demanding from his young houseguest the gifts (kisses) his wife has elicited from Gawain while he was cornered beneath his flimsy bedsheet. (We’ve witnessed that there was rather more than kisses exchanged, but the film ducks that.) In the poem the episode of the castle where Gawain is wooed is full of unease because he is a sexually innocent and deeply honourable young man endeavouring to be polite in the face of predatory behaviour. By contrast in the film we know him to be sexually experienced, so there’s no tension when Lady Bertilak mounts him in his bed and we get the swift, unnecessary shot of ejaculate on the hand with which he grasps the green belt that’s the token of her ‘affection’.
Chivalry is the foundation on which everything in the poem is built. But in the film the codes of chivalry don’t exist, and without them, everything that transpires is meaningless and unanchored. It’s glacial in pace, which initially invests it with a sense of gravitas, though that palls as we realise the meandering narrative is yielding little to keep us engaged. Gawain meets giants plodding in slow motion across a misty landscape, but nothing happens. He has an odd meeting with the ghost of St Winifred, martyred by decapitation but still hanging around asking for her head to be retrieved from a nearby pond/stream/sinkhole and reunited with her decomposed corpse, laid out on a bed. Gawain obliges.
At the Green Chapel we arrive at the encounter toward which the entire trajectory of the narrative has led. The poem gives us another spectacular entrance by the Green Knight, Gawain bowing his head to receive the axe blow to his neck, and all the threads of the tale coming together in the revelation of what underlay the Green Knight’s challenge at Camelot and who was responsible for it. In the film we know from the start that Gawain’s mother conjured the Green Knight, and so all that remains at the chapel is for the challenge to be completed. Gawain discovers his nemesis sleeping, and has to wait patiently for him to revive. It’s deadly dull, a damp squib and ends with an ungainly scrabble of an escape. A cluttered, decades-leaping montage later, we learn that we were not shown all that transpired at the Green Chapel, but by then I’d stopped caring. Odd that in the twenty-first century, this film-maker has produced a second, much-anticipated meeting between Gawain and the Green Knight, that is decidedly less cinematic than the account offered by the medieval poet.
My misgivings don’t extend to the performances. Dev Patel, Sean Harris, Alicia Vikander and Barry Keoghan are excellent. (Sean Harris’s King is infinitely more interesting than the Arthur of the poem, who seems a cardboard cut-out by comparison – though of course that was intended by the poet.) If Patel seems to me to be too mature for the role, that’s because I have the fixed view of Gawain as an innocent, physically tough though barely out of boyhood. But that’s what I get from the poem, and it’s not how the character is presented here, where he’s dissolute and an untrustworthy lover from the start of the film. Throughout The Green Knight we’re offered intriguing scenes and visual treats, though there are worrying and atmosphere-destroying errors of judgement. The Lady at the un-named castle inventing the pinhole camera in the Middle Ages, and the Green Knight exiting Camelot cackling like a Disney villain, are frankly wince-making moments.
Jade Healy’s production design is bleak though beguiling, and costume work by Malgosia Turzanska is great right up to the moment when suddenly, at the end, a new character appears who’s a dead-ringer for Padmé Amidala in The Phantom Menace. What impressed me more than anything in this film was the music by Daniel Hart, which will stay with me for a long time, not least because I’ve purchased it and plan to read the poem while listening to it.
For over three years I was completed immersed in the world of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight as I produced the fourteen prints and the Faber book. I read the poem every working day, often from beginning to end. I knew the characters and their experiences inside out. I made thousands of drawings. Nevertheless I was fully prepared to set all that aside so as to be able to experience a different telling of the tale. I longed for a different version, something I could lose myself in. I love cinema, and an underlying passion for the history of film underpins a lot of my work. (The book I’ve just finished illustrating, Beauty and Beast, is a paean to Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Béte, a film I’ve loved for over fifty years.) But here there was just too much borrowed from the poem, yet without the context that would have made sense of it. The film-makers should have perhaps detached themselves further from the text than they did. I acknowledge that the complex codes of chivalry are not anything a modern audience would understand or have sympathy with, but a simplified expression of them could have better supported the narrative of a knightly quest. Gawain is not everyman. He’s not ‘one of the boys’ who we identify with because he’s just like us. His code of honour drives him, and would make him uneasy company in any age. He has something in common with the character played by Edward Woodward in another film with roots in what’s now known as folk/horror, The Wicker Man, who we discover late in the story is a virgin, which accounts for the way he behaves and places him as an annoyingly principled outsider. The poet’s Gawain is an outsider, too. He may glitter with youth and idealism and the borrowed trappings of jewelled armour, but he is a loner. No-one wins his heart, which is set on higher things. He begins and ends the poem alone, and there seems very little chance of a good outcome for him beyond the conclusion.
Gawain appears in subsequent Arthurian stories from other hands, though never again as a central character. Placed at the periphery he is not the hero any longer, but a Knight grown sour with age and disappointment.
The past months have seen me pleasurably employed in a second collaboration with Sussex Lustreware designing imagery for their forthcoming range, Harlequinade. This has been a bit of a dream project for me, and one which I suggested to Gloria on the coat-tails of our collaboration earlier this year, when illustrations I’d made as the chapter headings for Marly Youman’s 2020 novel, Charis in the World of Wonders, were re-purposed as lustre-embellished decorations on the Sussex Lustreware World of Wonders range. Gloria and I got used to working around each other on World of Wonders, and on Harlequinade her glorious freehand lustre embellishments suggesting the swags of theatre curtains and the flashes and arabesques that conjure the glitter and tinsel of the stage, are perfect companions.
For the yet to be released Harlequinade range of plates, bowls, trinket-boxes, mugs, jugs and a teapot, I used my life-long love of Victorian Toy Theatre as inspiration, turning to my collection of toy theatre ephemera for inspiration.
All design from historic sources requires adaptation, and in order to make images that fit the various available spaces on the china, and to ensure that the designs have consistency across the range, I’ve reworked – and occasionally reinvented – material from many diverse sources. Toy theatres were produced by a host of print publishers over hundreds of years, who all had their favourite artists. Although overall the toy theatre ‘style’ had something of a consistency, close examination shows many different hands at work, and those wrinkles needed to be ironed out for the purposes of re-presenting the characters here, for a new generation to appreciate. Here you will find the stock characters that were originally lifted from the Italian Commedia dell’arté, Harlequin, Columbine, Pantaloon and Clown, together with a handful of interlopers such as the god Neptune, in his shell chariot drawn by mer-horses – because Harlequinades loved to have a good spattering of the mythic/fantastic – and the fairies so essential to Victorian (and contemporary) pantomime.
There are the tradespeople who had their goods filched by Clown, and the performing dogs and circus horses so appreciated by 19th century theatre-goers. (In the age before motor cars, trained horses were so popular that specialised indoor arenas were devoted to equestrian spectacles, and to this day some theatres bear witness to their previous lives in the name, Hippodrome.)
My collaborator David W. Slack and I have been busy together making some animations to promote Harlequinade in the run-up to its launch. I draw and David animates, though we could as easily reverse that as David is a wonderful artist as well as an animator, and I too am an artist who also animates. It makes the collaboration particularly pleasurable, as we always understand what the other is doing, and the challenges of the work. Watch this space. There are more on the way.
In the first six months of Lockdown I turned my attention to several outstanding book projects, including the commission from Faber & Faber to make illustrations for Simon Armitage’s new translation of The Owl & the Nightingale (see image above) and a small picture-book, The Bird House, for Design for Today. With those completed I turned my attention to a subject that had long held fascination for me, and with a commitment to publish from Design for Today, I invited the poet Olivia McCannon to explore with me the fairy tale Beauty & the Beast.
Olivia and I used many literary and cinematic sources for our work, most significantly Jean Cocteau’s 1946 film of La Belle et la Bête, and the result of what we’ve made together, Beauty & Beast, will be out later this year.
New works from Clive Hicks-Jenkins: Adventures in Books, will showcase my illustration work of the past couple of years, including artworks for The Owl & the Nightingale, Beauty & Beast and the Beauty & Beast Toy Theatre, also published by Design for Today.
I’ve worked over the past months on the designs for a new collection from Sussex Lustreware, which earlier this year produced the World of Wonders range of ceramics. World of Wonders charmingly utilised chapter-head drawings of animals I’d made for Mary Youmans’ novel Charis in the World of Wonders, published in 2020 by Ignatius.
For Harlequinade I’ve made all the images specifically for Sussex Lustreware, inspired by the great tradition of Victorian Toy Theatre. In preparation for the launch of the collection, I’ve worked closely with my collaborator, animator David W. Slack, to produce a series of films to promote the range. Here’s the first:
The animations are made up almost entirely of drawings produced for the ceramics, brought to life on a stage which I designed specially for Harlequinade.
The Harlequinade collection is traditional black on white transfer-ware, embellished by hand with pink lustre and occasional splashes of gold. It will consist of plates, jugs, bowls, mugs, trinket-box and teapot. The Autumn launch date has yet to be announced. Watch this space.
I first came across Toy Theatre sheets in the 1960s, when as a boy I was given a stack of them by the actor and playwright, Bill Meilen, who thought I might enjoy them. The sheets were a mix from a great many ‘plays’, the quaint titles of which printed along the top edges were all unknown to me. There were a gratifying variety of backdrops, cut cloths, headers, ground-rows and wings, few of which matched up, depicting rural idylls, dense pine forests, mountain passes ripe for bandit attacks, raging storms at sea and buildings that ranged from rustic hovels to fanciful palaces. There were no scripts, no theatre in which to hang the scenes, and no characters either, but I was a resourceful child and deft with my pencils and paints, so the omissions were just challenges I found stimulating. I built myself a toy theatre, and made the characters to fit the scenes.
Some time later, when I left my home in Wales to attend a school in London, I discovered Benjamin Pollock’s Museum and Toyshop, and thereafter I was lost. The toy theatre disease was in my blood, and it was incurable. All my pocket money was spent in the Pollock’s shop, and later theatre became my profession. As a theatre director and designer I was forever making model stages, because that’s how full-size sets are designed. And later, when I began to work as an artist, I returned to that early love of toy theatres, making them as a part of my practice, but also just for pleasure.
Toy theatres are much on my mind right now as I have two shortly-to-be-announced toy theatre-related projects nearing completion. (And I must first offer my apologies for having to hold back on revealing them for a little while longer.) But while clearing my desk in preparation for the next project, I came across a photocopied reference-set of all the characters and scenes for Green’s production of Wapping Old Stairs, published originally in 1845. Lingering over the loose sheets as I numerically ordered them ready to be put away, I had a sudden pang of the old joy and anticipation that came upon me all those decades ago, when first I held sheets of 19th century toy theatre scenery and tried to figure out exactly how to cut and colour and assemble it all into a three dimensional setting just waiting to be filled with the characters I planned to create.
Victorian toy theatre sheets didn’t come with instructions. The scripts, printed and gathered into chapbooks, gave the order of scenes, but the would-be toy theatre producer had to use imagination and ingenuity to get the stage into a performable state, and it’s a fact that for most, the visions in their heads of how the production would look, were infinitely more splendid before clumsiness and impatience had rendered the results disappointing. Colouring the sheets alone was a minefield, as the clarity of black and white became muddied with the inept application of watercolours. The dreams of how wonderful a scene would look when expertly painted and assembled, were what kept me going, the perfect example of optimism overriding past experiences.
The art of Toy Theatre reached magnificent heights in the 19th century. The sheets sold by the print shops and toy-sellers were so beautiful in their pristine states, that any child confronted with hundreds of them pegged out for inspection, must have been incoherent with the agonies of choice and the calculations of how far their pennies would stretch. Characters and scenery for entire plays, including scripts, could be had by those whose pockets were deep. There were even professionally hand-coloured sets available, for those with no skill with watercolours and brushes. For the rest, the productions had to be purchased in plain black and white, a sheet at a time, with each purchase carrying the producer a little closer to the goal of a full production.
Here, in a microcosm of the problems that have historically made toy theatres a challenge for their builders, I show the components of a single scene from Wapping Old Stairs that illustrates how bewilderingly complicated the matter of interpretation can be, and how any misjudgements would almost certainly result in disappointment. On the title-page character-sheet can be found a small vignette of how Scene 3 of the play might look on the stage. Here’s an enlargement of it:
Below, the backdrop itself. It’s different in many details from the vignette. Most notable at even a cursory glance, is that the buildings of the vignette are much more elegant, whereas they’re undeniably stolid and lumpen in the backdrop. Moreover the outside edges of the buildings are visible in the vignette, whereas they’ve been cropped in the backdrop. I wonder which came first, vignette or backdrop. Whichever the order, the sketch above is so sure, and so lively and fresh that I’m certain it’s not by the same hand as the backdrop. (I do have a warm affection for the rather foursquare, naive style of British toy theatre scenery, quite different in character to what was appearing in European toy theatres of the time, so it’s perhaps unfair to draw comparisons between the deftness of the above sketch – which would be a perfect illustration in a book – and the toy theatre backdrop below, which also serves the purpose for which it was made.)
A sheet of 4 x wing-pieces carries the information that they can be used for several of Green’s productions, including Wapping Old Stairs. Confusingly wing sheets didn’t offer the numbers of the scenes they were intended for. It was a question of trial and error and putting them where they best fitted.
So how can we be sure that the wings were meant to accompany this particular scene in Wapping Old Stairs? It’s because, helpfully, an illustration was included with the set of sheets that was intended to convey the full splendour of the scenery when set up on the toy theatre stage, complete with a tableau of the characters in the closing moments of the play, and two of the wings from the sheet of four are flanking the stage.
However the artist has stretched the scene well beyond the edges of the backdrop as provided, and indeed this ‘panorama’ format is not at all representative of the proportions of most British toy theatres, which offered a much more compressed image, side to side.
In the illustration the wing pieces allow the audience to see the full width of the backdrop, whereas in reality on a stage of the proportions for which this play was designed, even one set of wings would substantially close down the audience’s view of the backdrop. So neither of the two images – not the vignette and not the panorama – may be relied upon as indicators of how the scene will look on the stage, though they’d almost certainly be regarded as reliable by anyone cutting and pasting away and hoping the result would look as good as it does in the illustrations.
So back in the nineteenth century making toy theatres from the sheets sold by print-shops was always a perilous activity, fraught with the anxieties that the results would be disappointing. These days we have the wonders of inkjet so we don’t have to cut up anything irreplaceable, but there is still the business of getting it right, and making something that matches, at least in part, the wonderful dream that we have in our heads of the perfect production.
In 1985 Pollock’s Toy Theatres Ltd published a facsimile of one of the most ravishingly beautiful of Orlando Hodgson’s plays for the toy theatre, The Giant Horse or The Siege of Troy. Hodgson’s sheets were published in 1833, engraved from original ink and watercolour drawings by Robert Cruikshank (1789 – 1856), caricaturist and lesser known brother of George.
Robert Cruikshank drawing for Orlando Hodgson’s Giant Horse of Troy
Pollock’s Toy Theatres Ltd used a copy of the the play from the V&A Theatre Collection, producing it in an edition of 500, of which mine is numbered 456. The original ten sheets were enlarged so as to fit Pollock’s Redington stage front, and the edition included the original script and a leaflet of the history of the production, packed into a large paper and card envelope.
Pollock’s 1985 reproduction of The Giant Horse of Troy
Hodgson & Co had been a forceful presence in the world of printing for the toy theatre, producing between 1821 and 1825 close on seventy titles. But perhaps the pace and ambition had over-extended the business, because it then passed into other hands.
Robert Cruikshank drawing for Orlando Hodgson’s Giant Horse of Troy
Enter Orlando Hodgson, who emerged to relaunch the family business and reputation. After a slow start as a printer of ‘fancy stationary’, he reverted to the family tradition of publishing sheets for the toy theatre, and between 1831 and 1835 produced full productions of Aladdin, Chevy Chase, The Miller and his Men, The Maid and the Magpie, The Giant Horse and The Forty Thieves.
Robert Cruikshank drawing for Orlando Hodgson’s Giant Horse of Troy
The beauty of Orlando Hodgson’s toy theatre sheets notwithstanding, the rough and tumble of a trade in which others undercut and undermined his business by producing prints that were smaller and cheaper, were discouragements he couldn’t live with, and The Forty Thieves was his last title.
It’s sometimes said that the printmaker West, who came after Hodgson, surpassed him in terms of artistic merit, and that might be engagingly debated. He certainly made more of a success of his business. But for me, the Hodgson sheets have a delirious extravagance that remains hard to beat, and the Cruikshank drawings for The Giant Horse are proof of the lengths to which Hodgson went to ensure that the translation from drawings to printed sheets, were meticulously done.
Robert Cruikshank drawing for Orlando Hodgson’s Giant Horse of Troy
Peter Wakelin’s obituary for Nicolas which appeared in yesterday’s Online Guardian ‘Other Lives’ section, was a necessarily reduced version of what he produced. Here is the obituary in full:
Nicolas McDowall Obituary
Nicolas McDowall, who has died aged 84, spent a lifetime creating beautiful books, first in educational publishing and then through the private press he established with his wife Frances, which was at the forefront of the British fine-art press movement.
Nicolas and Frances worked directly with artists to create between one and five books a year for forty years under their imprint, the Old Stile Press. Among dozens of collaborators were Harry Brockway, Glenys Cour, Natalie d’Arbeloff, John Elwyn, Garrick Palmer and Peter Reddick. Sometimes Nicolas also made books of his own, such as his typographic conceit A Bodoni Charade. They published historical texts and worked with contemporary writers including Ted Hughes, George Mackay Brown and Kevin Crossley-Holland. Such choices reflected their love of the natural world and a humanitarian ethos attuned to Nicolas’s Quaker faith.
Each book was a beautiful object that brought word, image, type, paper, binding and slipcase into a creative unity. Values of design were fundamental; Nicolas balanced type and imagery and sought a satisfying negative space on each spread. The guiding spirit was a neo-romanticism that melded traditional qualities with modernist inventiveness, underpinned by Nicolas’s enjoyment from an early age of William Blake, the Kelmscott Chaucer and the contemporary artists then showing in the London galleries. He explored techniques unfazed by the sensitivities of purist bibliophiles but he loved the age-old feel of words and images impressed in paper. Like autographic prints, the books often used artists’ blocks directly and were numbered in a signed limited edition. They ranged from miniatures and pamphlets to a folio of Philip Sutton’s woodcuts nearly half a metre square and the full script of Peter Shaffer’s play Equus with images by Clive Hicks-Jenkins.
Nicolas was born on 22 May 1937 at Emsworth in Hampshire. His father, Toby McDowall, was a GP and consultant psychiatrist and his mother Nell (née Kewley) was a full-time mother to their three children. His education at Winchester College was excellent but he was deeply unhappy. Studying Philosophy at the University of St Andrews was a joyous contrast and it was there that he met his future wife Frances Pickering, daughter of the Fleet Street editor Sir Edward Pickering, who was reading English and Music. They married in 1964, by which time both were working in publishing, Frances at OUP and Nicolas at Edward Arnold. He began as a sales rep touring schools before moving into management at the Mayfair offices. He became a commissioning editor, head of the education department and finally a director. His creativity came to the fore promoting bold typography and graphics in books for schools, exemplified in the poetry anthology Dragonsteeth, which used a strikingly wide format with a stark silhouette of Stonehenge on the cover.
In the 1970s Nicolas took classes in typesetting and bookbinding and began printing letterpress in a studio in their back garden at Blackheath. The first Old Stile Press book appeared in 1981, by which time Robin and Heather Tanner had become crucial friends and mentors. As the press had been named after a country stile Robin designed a pressmark based on the flared ‘squeeze-belly’ examples found in Wiltshire. Nicolas went part-time at Edward Arnold so as to concentrate on the new venture and in the late 1980s, once their children Daniel and Cressida had left school, they moved to a spot beside the River Wye upstream of Tintern Abbey and he took the opportunity of redundancy.
A big, powerful man, Nicolas was nevertheless reticent and spoke in a mellow voice with a slight stammer; he hated public speaking and business lunches and avoided exhibition openings and literary events unless duty compelled. The peace, natural surroundings and creative work of the decades after they moved to Monmouthshire were a tonic to the debilitating depression he had suffered periodically since his schooldays; while Frances toured the international book fairs he enjoyed the therapeutic routine of day after day working at his presses and roaming a garden that stretched from river to woods. He designed each book and printed every sheet by hand while Frances ran the business operation, commissioned bindings and made paper in the basement.
Their Arcadian idyll was shared by like-minded visiting artists and writers (I was one of them) who spent happy days talking and planning projects over the dining table, experiencing a unique atmosphere of kindness and encouragement that enabled both youthful and established talents to flourish. Visitors were fascinated by the works of British neo-romantic artists that surrounded them: Nicolas said that he aimed to stretch his resources to minor works by the major artists and major works by the minor artists. He and Frances were keen to share their enthusiasm with others: they loaned works freely and an exhibition from the collection toured public galleries.
Nicolas died of cancer on 31 July after a short illness. Frances died in 2019. They are survived by their son Daniel McDowall and daughter Cressida Maher, grandchildren Luke, Toby, Oliver, Imogen, Willow and Fenn and Nicolas’s younger siblings Julian and Christabel. The books of the Old Stile Press are in public and private collections across the world and its archive has been acquired by the University of Indiana.
Great Pucklands by novelist Alison Alison MacLeod appears in the anthology These Our Monsters, published in 2019 by English Heritage. The story focuses on the close bond between Charles Darwin and his daughter Annie. I found myself deeply bound up in both the story and the history that underlay it. A print-out of what I believe to be the only known photograph of Annie sat on my desk throughout the work, though I had no intention of making a direct likeness of it for the illustration. Somehow that wouldn’t have fitted with what I wanted to convey of Alison’s story. I needed to absorb the mood of the piece and somehow create something that had Annie in it, but transformed. Here’s the drawing.
I loved making it, and I kept all the sketches and studies preparatory to it. The ammonite and trilobite are from my small collection of fossils. Sometimes a story gets under your skin, and you have an imperartive to serve it well and to do it justice. That was the case with this one. But I also wanted to honour the person at the heart of it. This image was made for Annie Darwin, who died aged just ten in 1851, one hundred years before the year I was born.
The only image of Annie is a lovely one captured in a daguerrotype. In a world where lives are charted every hour of every day, snapped on smartphones and loaded onto social media sites, and when it seems everyone on the planet is photographed incessantly from birth to death, a single, beautifully accomplished portrait of a child who clearly prepared and gravely composed herself for the momentous occasion, tugs at the heartstrings. Annie left behind so little: this photograph, a gravestone and the ‘box’ in which her parents preserved a small handful of mementoes. Perhaps it’s the modesty of what survives her that opens the door to creativity, because it gives the freedom to writers and artists to ‘imagine’ versions of her into life.
On Friday our friends Sarah Joseph and her son Sam came to Ty Isaf to be with Peter and me for my birthday. All of us now twice vaccinated yet still super cautious, we sat distanced in the dining room while Sarah and Sam pored over the Beauty and Beast drawings. (Soon to be dismantled from their hard-cover sketchbooks before scanning for the publisher and thereafter framing for the October book launch and Martin Tinney Gallery exhibition.)
With windows and doors open to a bracingly cool breeze, Sarah and Sam worked with admirable slowness through each of the – to date – forty illustrations. It was something Sarah and I had done regularly with her husband James throughout the long months of creating Hansel & Gretel, the publishing of which by Design for Today we were able to push through before James’ death in 2019, so that he was able to see what he had watched being made.
Before even the first studies had been made for Beauty and Beast, James quizzed me over how long the book might take, as he had plans to lobby his oncologist for more time in order to be able to be with us throughout the project. That was not to be – as he well knew – though he liked to pretend otherwise.
Long ago, when James had been a stage manager, and I a choreographer, we had been friends and co-workers travelling the world together. In time the habit had grown between us of him being my advisor in all things related to music. His knowledge was encyclopaedic and his skill as a musician ran deep. Throughout the preparations and rehearsals for the music theatre production of Hansel & Gretel that preceded the published edition of Simon Armitage’s libretto, James and I discussed the themes and studied the score together, and his insights brought depth and nuance to my understanding and direction of the piece. Through the incredible determination and support of his family he was even able to be present at the premiere of the work at the 2018 Cheltenham Music Festival, in his wheelchair, and loving every moment of the evening.
I’m going to be a little indiscreet here, and I apologise in advance to any of those who were present at the occasion I’m describing and feel uncomfortable about what I’m about to reveal.
Is this how it’s going to be from now on?
On Friday I was seventy. I should say I’ve never had trouble acknowledging the passing of years before now. This time, however, the number choked me. It seems so impossible an age, and not the person I see myself as being. Or perhaps I should say ‘saw’ myself as being, because now, I do. I have to.
In 2019 I was commissioned by a big organisation to lead on a project to design what was to be the major element of their creative theme of the year. The first meeting took place at the offices of the digital render company who would build and launch the project, so we could all talk and get the ball rolling on the design work. There were quite a lot of people around the table, including the digital company’s Managing Director. I was the only old man at the table. Most around it were in their late twenties to mid thirties. The M D looked super cool, a bit of a surfer-boy-turned-exec. He was, if I’m honest, a tad prickly, as he’d lobbied for his company to provide in-house design. Instead he got me. As the creative talk began and ideas flew around the table, I listened carefully before beginning to throw in suggestions that I could see were going down well with the team from the organisation who’d commissioned me. I could see I was making a lot more work for myself, but on the plus side all the thematics of the project were going to play to my strengths. Toward the end the MD turned to me and said that if I found the pace and demands of the project to be too much, his team would be happy to take on any work I wasn’t up to completing. The air around me turned to ice.
The MD was being a twat. But just as I drew a sharp intake of breath before releasing a fusillade, the Art Director of the commissioning organisation stepped in and quite sharply explained to the MD that there would be no designer on the project other than me. And that’s the way it went. I wasn’t yet out of the woods. The Project Manager at the digital company threw deadlines at me throughout the design process that would have daunted a man half my age. I worked through weekends and nights for three weeks. It was a sort of hell, though it was also exciting.
I never missed one of those deadlines, and I’m proud of that. And in the end the project looked damned good. The old man pulled it off.
I’m guessing there’s going to be more of this, as time goes by. People will look at me when I walk into a room, and make assumptions. That bothers me, a lot. Keep watching. I’ll let you know how it all works out.
Work on Beauty and Beast. Textby Olivia McCannon and illustrations by Clive Hicks-Jenkins. To be published by Design for Today in October 2021.
Dissatisfaction is a part of the artist’s armoury of creativity. Without it, how would we ‘grow’ ideas?
To begin with there was nothing tangible, just the notion of making a book that had been rattling around in my head, seemingly forever. There was no text, only a huge admiration for Jean Cocteau’s 1946 film, La Belle et la Bête, shared with the poet and translator Olivia McCannon.
Olivia and I emailed each other for over a year, working out what there might be in terms of a book. Would it be a new translation of Cocteau’s screenplay, a return to the origin tale and a reinvention of it, perhaps in a contemporary setting, or something else entirely? Maybe something with threads running through it in homage to Cocteau’s masterpiece. A hybrid, both new and old, creating a dialogue with Cocteau and his fellow creators.
When I began preparations, there was much research, but as yet no text. Olivia and I were still exploring ideas. I’d been making maquettes and character studies, but everything was still undecided. My maquettes referenced the film, but also changed the characters. They weren’t likenesses of the actors playing the roles.
As our talks focussed in on the notion of a hybrid creation, I made a single illustration – one I felt confident about as the foundation block – to which another was added, and then another, and another.
I’ve never worked in this way before. My illustration projects have always been responses to an existing text. But on this book I’m working with conversations with the writer as the starting points, and fragments of text still in flux. In illustration, the decisions made at the outset affect everything that follows: the way the characters look and what they wear. The settings – the buildings, rooms, passageways, gardens and landscapes of all the locations of the story. Every detail considered, invented, revised and rendered.
A group of images made out of sequence to the emerging text, grows. New images are added to make connections between them. Gradually a narrative in pictures emerges, but it’s a creation that morphs every day because each new part of it not only adds to what’s gone previously, but changes it. Each emerging section of the text, changes it. My starting point is invariably a scene from the film, which then transforms into a version I believe will work on a page. So a scene in which multiple cuts show Belle, la Bête, a table laid with silverware, crystal and fruit, an overmantel clock chiming, living statues watching from the shadows and a fire-blazing, gets condensed to a single double-page image.
Illustrations become sandwiched by others that affect them. Sometimes an image is cancelled out and discarded, but more usually changed to better deliver what’s needed at that stage of the story. Things that weren’t issues, become so overnight. An idea I thought was coming over with clarity, becomes muddled because its context has changed.
I try to avoid obviousness when making images to accompany a text. I draw inspiration from Olivia’s emerging narrative, but largely attempt to colonise the spaces between her lines of poetry.
As the book expands, and the passages of text emerge to fit together with the images I’ve already completed, then my revisions begin. Perhaps I see that the adjustment of a character’s glance might better signpost the page-turner’s forward trajectory, or profitably pause it. A new line suddenly makes clear that the image is needed as a bridge to the next page turn, and an adjustment could aid that process. I enjoy the challenges of patching illustrations with newly worked elements, of discovering forgotten aspects and realising on reflection how they work better – or not so well – as I’d originally thought. The revisions don’t show in photographs and won’t show when printed, but the changes will be apparent when the works are exhibited in a gallery in October, when close inspection from oblique angles in bright light will reveal the myriad surgeries. I like the idea that the journey will be visible in the surface of the artworks, like age-lines in a characterful face.
It’s sixteen years since you left us on May Day 2005. I didn’t believe it at the time, and I don’t believe it now. Your voice is as clear and true in my head today as if you were just downstairs and calling me to tea. That morning my friend Susie Savage picked up the phone in Penparc Cottage that I didn’t hear ringing because I was sitting in your chair in the garden, and I knew the moment she appeared at the back door the news she carried, because her face was stricken at what she had to tell me. Everything in life changed at that moment: my chum, confederate-hatcher-of-plans, confidante and muse, companion-gardener, playmate, poet-in-chief and heart-healer, gone.
The stick in a pot that you gave me all those years ago, now planted in a garden to which we came after your time, has grown into a magnificent Walnut tree big enough for us to picnic under its shade. (The photograph here was taken several years ago, since when it has grown a great deal more and we’ve raised its canopy.) I see it every day, from the house and whenever I’m in the garden, and it will always be ‘Catriona’s Tree’ for me.
I never thought there would be other poets after you, but I was wrong. First there was Marly Youmans’ whose poetry carried me on wings of creativity, and with whom I’ve been collaborating for about a decade and a half, making covers and illustrations for her poetry and novels. More recently there has been Simon Armitage, now our Poet Laureate, whose Sir Gawain and the Green Knight I illustrated for the 2018 revision from Faber & Faber, and who I’ve since worked on with two more books: Hansel & Gretel: a Nightmare in Eight Scenes, for which I won the 2020 V&A Illustrated Book Award, and The Owl & the Nightingale, another translation by him from the medieval, due out in October this year. How proud of me you would be for these poet friendships and collaborations. Soon there will be Beauty and Beast, a reinvention of the fairytale and film that you and I talked about so much, shaped by the poet Olivia McCannon into something that’s thrilling to be working on, and it too will be out in October this year.
I think so often of conversations we had, and the conversations we would have now, were you here to have them with. In fact (Shhhh, tell no-one) I do have those conversations, and I hear your answers, and you’re as unexpected and funny now as you ever were in life. But still, still, still I miss you, and I always will.
Did I tell you that little dog Jack died? I can’t remember now whether I did. Three years ago. That connection with you, too, now severed. He’s buried here at Ty Isaf, so we have your tree and Jack in the garden. It’s a marvellous place and you would love it. Yesterday I watched as redstarts dashed back and forward to drink from the birdbath, and laughed at the antics of Mr & Mrs pheasant, the family of jackdaws and the marauding squirrels, all arguing away under the bird-feeder hanging from the big apple tree on the turning circle of the drive. Let’s take a walk later today. I want to share news.
I first saw Jean Cocteau’s 1946 film of La Belle et la Bête in the early 1960s. Before the age of video I recollected the film from that first, single viewing, for years running it over and over in my head, remembering, and very likely misremembering it, until the ‘video’ age dawned when everything could be acquired and watched at will. So for most of my life, one way or another, the film has been my companion. I’ve thought about it, watched it scores of times, analysed it and dreamt about it.
Now I’m making a book of the story, with my collaborator, the poet Olivia McCannon. It started out as a full homage to Cocteau’s interpretation, but through development has turned into something quite different: a new, reinvented version of the story, in which together Olivia and I acknowledge the film’s influence while finding our own own creative path.
There are several places in the book in which I want to visually capture my memories of watching sequences of the film when the camera ‘panned’ horizontally to reveal spaces by degrees. Beauty’s bedchamber was chief among these sequences.
Cocteau remarks in Diary of a Film how visitors to the studio loved exploring Beauty’s bedroom. Walls made of scrim allowed lights to be shone through them and created dissolving vistas of the garden sets beyond, and I imagine that must have made it a strangely liminal space for the actors to work in, finding themselves un-anchored and floating between worlds. Beauty’s bed, voluptuously draped with fur under its canopy of muslin, seems like a boat in this strange sea, and everywhere the glimmer and sheen of opulence.
It’s heady stuff. But the screen ratio of the time was undoubtedly confining, and so a panorama is suggested rather than attained, with the horizontally moving camera the director’s tool to take the audience on a tour of his creation.
By using a double-page spread, I have a ‘panoramic’ shape in which to set my illustration.
With no camera point-of-view to slow the reveal of my illustration, I rely on making an image that offers up all its elements slowly, to halt a headlong rush past them. So Beauty’s ‘enchanted’ looking-glass, is not a rectangular, framed mirror on a table, as it is in the film…
… but a full dressing-table with incorporated looking-glass, half veiled in a flimsy sheet, seen below in a detail from the final render. The time it takes to decipher the object, slows down the viewer, who must pause to better understand it.
And because I have no recourse to Georges Auric’s shimmering, orchestral film score, I set imagined breezes through the composition, ruffling the veils and sending leaves skittering, so the image ‘suggests’ a soundtrack where there is none.
Most people read an image left to right, and so we begin with the bed, with its vertically compressed canopy and hangings which stream out to carry the eye further into the composition, to the Caryatid with candles on her head, the veiled dressing-table and shell-backed chair, up to the bowed balcony overlooking the garden with the Beast’s pavilion/treasury shining in the twilight. (Or it might be an empty birdcage, swinging in the window.) Winds feature in the film whenever the strange is present: Beauty’s father is buffeted by a silent wind when he attempts to pour wine from a pitcher at the Beast’s table, and again at the moment when his previously unseen host appears in the garden, enraged by the theft of a rose.)
There’s no room here for the towering furniture and high ceilings of the Doré engravings that had so influenced Cocteau when he was planning the film. Budgetary constraints dictated his sets could not be spacious and airy. For the most part the interiors, painted black to hide their true proportions in darkness, are conjured by deploying accent features: the architecturally elaborate fireplace supported by living statues, towering stone doorways that dwarf Beauty and the iconic passageway of pale, disembodied arms holding candelabras that magically light when needed. With studio space limited, the bedchamber, while not large, is the most elaborate set in terms of textures, shimmering claustrophobically like a fevered dream. On her bed, swaddled in finery which practically disables her, Beauty appears frozen in the gleam of satin and roped pearls, as the hangings press in suffocatingly.
To mimic something of the character of Cocteau’s vision, an ornate border contains the illustration, compressing and tightening the space, so that it too will press in on whoever enters it. There are birds in the border, but I think of them as being pretty paper-cut decorations, because the Beast’s twilight kingdom in the film has no birds. Not in frame, and not on the soundtrack.
An exhibition of all the original artwork for Beauty & Beast, opens at Martin Tinney Galley, Cardiff, in October.
It was only back in 2019 that I spent a year as artist-in-residence with English Heritage, and yet it seems a lifetime ago. Anyone with the romantic notion that I spent a year motoring around the countryside visiting English Heritage properties in care and making artworks at a leisurely pace, would be way off the mark. It was deadlines from beginning to end, and I spent the entire time pinned to the worktable in my studio, creating images that were the results of my own research. There wasn’t time to visit a single site. Nevertheless there were exciting creations during the year, even when technically and creatively challenging in the allotted time.
The first project was to design and render all the ‘assets’ (artworks, to you and me) for the online, interactive English Heritage ‘Myths Map’ that was produced by the digital agency, Gravitywell, in Bristol. I suggested a cartouche of the type used on historic maps as a portal to the experience, and produced a number of rough designs to kickstart discussions with the Gravitywell and EH teams.
The EH team were very keen to use the iconography of Saint George and the Dragon, which I used to surmount the cartouche. They were also enthusiastic to include an animated element. Because time was incredibly short, I decided to render the image so as to look rather like a paper-cut, as it would have a graphic dynamic and yet be relatively quick to make.
All aspects of the map were initially made in black and white and the colour added later. It was such a complex project that it could have been misleading to decide the palette at the outset. It was much easier to assemble everything and then play with options.
The image had to be flexible enough for it to be adapted to several formats across various EH platforms.
The animated element was a gentle joust between the Saint and the Dragon, and the ‘maquettes’ I designed needed to be very simple as there would be no close-ups. The figures had to work pretty much as reverse silhouettes. I would have preferred to make the animation myself, but Gravitywell wanted to produce it in house, and so made the sequence guided by a thumbnail animation storyboard I created for them.
The puppets were designed and assembled by me and photographed in key positions. I then took them apart, scanned the components and sent the files to the company to be digitally reassembled and animated.
The animation was brief and added a little liveliness to the viewers’ experience. Once through the cartouche and sailing down to the map, there were animated cloud elements and passing flocks of birds to sweeten the interaction. Sea-monsters emerged from waves and a masted ship went down in the tentacles of a Kraken. I’m of the opinion that while tight deadlines and tight budgets are challenges to creativity, they shouldn’t necessarily be impediments.
There was a plan to make a more complex George and the Dragon animation for another EH platform later in the year. I’d made a trial, rough maquette of a dragon in preparation for that, but in the end it was cancelled. A shame as the maquette tests were good.
Work continues on my collaboration with poet Olivia McCannon on a new retelling of Beauty and the Beast, to be published by Design for Today. Working with Olivia is a revelation. Ideas bat back and forward between us in e-mails, and I find the conversations to be revelatory. We both make discoveries through the processes of discussion, exploring connections and explaining new ideas to each other, and I find that the e-mails and all the ideas they contain are as equal a source of the images I’m making as her evolving text. Recently Olivia wrote to me that she believed there was a rich seam to be considered in regard to Cocteau’s casting of the role of the Goddess Diana in the 1946 film, and that’s opened a whole treasury of possibilities about the living statues, which we’ve adopted for our own version of the story, and how their origins might be explored.
In another e-mail she wrote thrillingly of her imagined source of the jewels the Beast bestows on Beauty, and afterwards I could barely sleep for a week with excitement in anticipation of the images that were evolving in my head out of her ideas.
At this stage I can explain no more. While I enjoy sharing the creative processes of making images, in this instance I don’t want to offer them before they’ve been realised and the book published. Suffice to say that this is going to be a version of Beauty and the Beast like no other.
The illustrator Alexander Sorokin was born 1961 in the city of Krasnoyarsk, Siberia. His illustrations for Who’s Carrying its House on its Back were made in 1986, and the book was published two years later. He was a young man at the time of these, in his mid-twenties, and so the achievement was mightily impressive.
The period 1985-1991 was a turbulent one for Soviet/Russian illustrators. Many whose careers had previously been reliant on a state-supported publishing industry, found themselves without work when the state withdrew funding for illustrated books. Sorokin’s images for his book drew on the character of the ‘Lubok’, a popular and affordable folk art print tradition, and it may be that the book would not have been published had it come later, when publishers were struggling to survive. Early Lubok prints were produced from woodblocks, and later lino, but Sorokin’s illustrations for a mass produced book were achieved through the process of gravure, though the effect is that of relief prints made from blocks.
I’ve just acquired a single print from the series. Printed onto lightweight paper with an edition number, it’s likely these were produced as a separate edition of art prints by the artist or his publisher. I love the eastern European illustration tradition, and I also love windmills, so this one ticked all the boxes for me.
I write here about artists and illustrators from around the world who inspire me, out of a wish to see their work better recognised. Some of them are hard to track down, and as I’m neither an academic or a linguist, I’m at a disadvantage when attempting to research Russian practitioners. So I’m enormously obliged to Andrey Keloshateo, who generously provided me with information about Sorokin and this beautiful book.
My current project to make a new illustrated edition of Beauty and the Beast for the publisher Design for Today, has been a strange and challenging one. The starting point had been the 1946 La Belle et la Bête by the artist/playwright/director Jean Cocteau.
It can’t be denied that I’m in thrall to the film, and have been since I saw it in my early teens. But of course being in thrall isn’t the best place from which begin a proper relationship. Thrall paralyses. Like passionate love, it has the power to unhinge and cloud judgement. At the beginning I wanted to respond to the film, but couldn’t find a way to do so without the result turning into a sort of graphic novel version, and I knew that approach was not for me.
When the writer Olivia McCannon accepted my invitation to come on board, the creative conversations she initiated set me on another trajectory, as I knew they would. Words have always been prime motivators in my creative process, and even before any drafts of text emerged, Olivia’s e-mails alone became my sources of inspiration. She returned to the pre-Cocteau fairytales as a preparation to re-examining the film, and that was a huge help in circumnavigating the debilitating awe of Cocteau’s achievement preventing me from making progress. I’ve since learned not to return to the film every time I want to examine an aspect of it, but to recall a sense of how it made me feel after having first experienced it all those years ago. I’ve had to learn the art of translation.
I realise that without videos, DVDs and the Internet, after my cinema viewing of La Belle et la Bête there was a gap of nearly twenty years before I was able to revisit it. Something had flourished in that absence. The love I had for it was of an experience cherished and recalled. It was as much about how I was feeling at that time of first viewing, as it was about the film. In the interim my own creative imaginings had filled in and embellished many missing parts. So now it’s those ideas – the ones that sprang from the first viewing – that I draw on to create images that are both of the film, but also expressions of my dream version of it.
I have to keep working at this phenomenon of ‘recollection’, to ensure I’m in the right place. A technique I use is to sit with a DVD of the film, not watching it but jotting down thoughts in a notebook, prompted by the soundtrack. In this way I’m more able to access deeper memory. It’s the deep memory I need for this work. It gives me more than any studying of the film yields, though of course I’m doing that, too. I study, digest and evaluate. Then I set all that aside and go back further, to the visceral, early response. I read the parts of the text Olivia has offered, and her wonderful notes. Then I set about fitting the jigsaw puzzle together.
I am enormously obliged to Anna Zaranko for the insight of her questions in our interview for the online magazine, Culture.PL. It makes such a big difference when the interview takes you down paths of genuine surprise and interest. Anna wanted to explore the influence of Polish folk-art on my work, and this for me was a first, as no-one has ever asked these questions before, even though I often refer to the Polish influence when I write about my illustration work. To read the piece, Click on the link below:
In the lead up to Christmas, Penfold Press is running a competition. Anyone purchasing The Tiger’s Bride via the Penfold website between now and Christmas Day, will automatically be entered into a raffle to win this original study that I made preparatory to the print.
Measuring 20 x 20 cms and made in coloured pencil and ink on paper, the drawing has been mounted ready for framing. It shows an example of the ‘popular art’ so loved by the Victorians, those picturesque castles, follies, houses and cottages mass-produced by Staffordshire factories, their gleaming white brightened with vibrant brushstrokes of colour. Often made as spill-holders, pastille-burners or stands to hold pocket-watches, they embody a decorative charm that despite the fluctuations of times and tastes, has always found favour in people’s homes. Whatever the realities of life, a bit of Staffordshire can lighten the heart and add a splash of fairytale to a dark winter’s day.
The drawing was one of many made prior to my final work for the print. In the finished print I added a painted Polish folk-art bird to the left-hand tower. I love Polish folk-art and have a fairly big collection of these charming little birds, still made in rural areas of Poland.
The winner will be contacted via email. Good luck!
You can go direct to The Tiger’s Bride page of Penfold Press from HERE, and for anyone interested in Polish Folk Art and the little painted birds in the images above, Zara of the online shop Frank & Lusia always has a good selection in stock HERE. (Or has them for as long as the trade deal holds.)
Beauty & Beast, my dream-project with poet Olivia McCannon and publisher Joe Pearson at Design for Today, is my Winter 2020-to-Summer 2021 project. With all other commitments completed or slightly shifted, I can give it my full attention. This is one that’s so challenging and demanding that I need to go at it at a headlong tilt. It can’t be done in stages and set aside between times.
La Chasse is an idea I’d been thinking on as a double-page spread for a year or more. The hunt in the 1946 film isn’t witnessed. There’s a glimpse of a dead animal, and then the unforgettable scene in the corridor outside Belle’s room in which she finds la Bête, his dress disordered and blood-splattered and his hands smoking, as though he’s burning from within. It’s the one moment in the film where Belle looks disgusted by his appearance/condition. Her face twists into ugliness as she throws her flimsy scarf at him, commanding him to clean himself up. It’s hard to watch, given his evident distress.
What we know (well, what some of us know) is that this curse strips humanity from him with every act of beastliness, and like the person with dementia heartrendingly aware of the memories being stolen by the progress of the disease, so la Bête is in a state of bodily horror as his shape and nature shift until he’ll reach a point where he will have no recall of his former self.
Cocteau may have averted his camera gaze from the hunt and kill for technical reasons. Jean Marais as la Bête and Josette Day as Belle were both weighed down by elaborate costumes that while gorgeous, dictated that their scenes together be conducted as a dream-like and stately Pavane. Marais was athletically built and fit, but his costume and make-up were not made for running. We see him make a brave dash for the undergrowth, and that’s that.
These days CGI would step in to render him as fleet and lithe as Spiderman, and we wouldn’t be any better off for it. But as an artist/illustrator, the moment of the kill is one I can’t turn away from, and so for months I’ve played with visual ideas to bring the moment to life.
The sequences in the Beast’s gardens were stitched together from film-footage made at locations, particularly at the Chateau of Raray. The gate above, now stripped of the ivy and undergrowth that made it so picturesque when Cocteau turned his camera on it, became an architectural anchor for the illustration, though I simplified it considerably so as not to imbalance the composition.
I also reinvented the flanking Caryatids into more enigmatically watchful Sphinx-like creatures, as an interesting distaff to the living male statues that flank the fireplace and breathe out plumes of smoke in the Beast’s dining-room.
A fully worked up study for the illustration (see detail above) experimented with textures and shapes. But in the end I decided to reverse the Beast so that he attacks the animal from the front, disabling it the way a big cat hunts, by blocking its prey’s windpipe. It also made the image read better, as Western readers have an eye-direction that moves left to right.
Here’s the image in the final render.
The iconic lace, stand-up collar has come undone. It’s a slightly strange and abstract shape that works in context because readers will already be familiar with the collar from previous images. The trailing sleeves are still in place, but the breeches are gone, and one powerfully taloned foot has now become too distorted to fit into the single, elegant, lace-cuffed Chevalier’s boot that remains. The Beast’s fashionably slashed sleeves mirror the injuries made by those meat-hook claws that lock into flesh to hold the creature steady.
Dozens of drawings, from the briefest of sketches to fully-worked-up paintings and detailed maquettes have helped me get from idea to illustration.