Print N0. 7: Gawain Arrives at Fair Castle

Work has begun on the seventh print in the Gawain and the Green Knight series. Titled Gawain Arrives at Fair Castle, much of the poem’s narrative takes place within the walls of Bertilak de Hautdesert’s sumptuous home. Here Gawain will find rest and succour and be treated as an honoured guest, though his stay is made awkward by the seemingly amorous attentions of Lady Hautdesert. All is not quite as it appears, though he won’t find out until after he’s left the castle what deceptions have been practiced on him.

Here’s a clean drawing laid out ready for me to start in with the colour.


Fair Castle is reinvented here as a gold and enamelled Byzantine citadel. The steep ascent spirals the crag on which Fair Castle perches, and Gawain’s horse, Gringolet, looks uneasy at the prospect of climbing it.



Pollarded trees reference the tattoos of the Green Knight seen in an earlier image.


Above, detail from The Green Knight Arrives.

The Restless Prophet and his Raven

A detail from my painting The Prophet Fed by a Raven is on the cover of the novel Cai by  Eurig Salisbury, awarded the Gold Medal for Prose at last week’s National Eisteddfod. The book is published by Gomer.



Eurig Salisbury, winner of the the Gold Medal for Prose, National Eisteddfod 2016.

Of all the paintings I’ve made, this one has probably been on the most interesting journey. Since it was shown at MoMA Machynlleth in my Saints and Their Beasts exhibition in 2007 it has lived in the home of its owners in the USA, though thanks to their generosity it returned to Wales for my Retrospective in the Gregynog Gallery of the National Library of Wales in the Summer of 2011.


In 2010 the painting had a surprising outing onto the cover of the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases. (This was at the suggestion of a friend who would be embarrassed to be credited for her kindness here, but it must be acknowledged nevertheless, albeit without revealing her identity.) Some time later the painting appeared in a calendar issued by the journal

When in 2013 Oxford University Press published a collection of essays and covers from the EID, The Prophet Fed by a Raven was selected as the cover image.


Back at home in North Carolina it came out of it’s frame to be photographed –


– to generate an image large enough for a display in the exhibition of EID journal covers at the David J. Sencer CDC Museum in Association with the Smithsonian Institution. (More thanks here, this time to the owner of the painting who went to untold troubles to get it to the photographer and back.)


In 2010 it appeared between the covers of a a weighty tome, Biblical Art from Wales, edited by Martin O’Kane and John Morgan-Guy.


Anita Mills, who wrote so thoughtfully about my drawing practice in Clive Hicks-Jenkins: a Monograph (Lund Humphries 2011) presented a swift, entertaining and insightful deconstruction of the painting that completely took me by surprise. Click on THIS link to read  it.

Marly Youmans wrote a beautiful poem in response to The Prophet Fed by a Raven that can be read HERE.

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I like the idea of a painting of mine travelling and having adventures. I’m gratified that people see it who have no idea who I am. For them there is just the prophet, the flaming raven and the scattering of sheep on the Welsh hillside beyond. I don’t think an artist could ask any more of a painting than to be out there and speaking for itself.


For Z.B., M.Y. and A.M., my friends across the ocean.

Gawain and the Green Knight: The Travails

Print No. 6 in the Gawain and the Green Knight series is underway. In the poem Gawain vanquishes a variety of fearsome creatures of the wild while searching for the Green Knight’s Chapel, ogres, wild men and dragons among them.

Sometimes with dragons he wars, and wolves also,
sometimes with wild woodsmen haunting the crags,
with bulls and bears both, and boar other times,
and giants that chased after him on the high fells.

In The Travails I’d intended to have Gawain going head to head with a wild man of the woods. In images contemporary with the poem, wild men, or ‘woodwoses’, are shown lavishly hirsute from head to toe, with snaky locks, abundant beards and their heads garlanded with leaves. In an early rough sketch, the woodwose, wielding a hefty club, has fallen. Gawain pins down the creature with a foot to the chest, grasps its raised arm and spears it through the neck.


However, appealing though the idea of drawing a hairy, leaf-crowned woodwose might have been, in the end I decided on a dragon (a serpent in some translations) because it was a chance to play with a sinuous, non-human form. For this I was able to make use of the dragon maquettes I built some years ago for my Saint George series of paintings.


So here’s Gawain and a dragon in a first sketch. He’s armoured but helmet-less,  because I needed to create some element of boyishness and vulnerability as he squares up to his foe.


And here the dragon is more carefully realised in an underdrawing ready for me to begin painting.


Its claws grasp the shield painted on the reverse with an image of the Virgin which features in the earlier portrait print, The Armouring of Gawain. Had the weapon not struck true, would the shield have been wrenched away leaving Gawain unguarded? Or has the image of the Virgin protected him by rendering the serpent docile? It’s all a mystery.
I eschewed a strong dynamic, electing for a simplicity in Gawain’s stance, standing without fear or even undue tension. (He reminds me of a dancer in perfect poise, about to step from the wings and onto the stage.) I think this makes the image more strange and ritualistic. There is a touch of the Paolo Uccello George and the Dragon about it, in which the monster is led across a flowery mead to its fate, held lightly on a leash by a virgin princess who was supposed to be its dinner.

The action unfolds against a field of blue diapered with a storm of golden oak leaves, harbingers of an encounter with the Green Knight yet to come.


Lizzie Organ, ‘a fairy godmother for artists’


Ashbrook House in the village of Clyro, just outside the book-town of Hay-on-Wye, was where the Reverend Francis Kilvert lived and wrote his famous diaries. Artist Lizzie Organ and her partner, portrait painter Eugene Fisk, acquired the house and commissioned a full scheme of restoration of the external fabric from the architectural practice of Nicholas Keeble Associates. This included complete re-roofing of the house in natural slate, numerous repairs to the original joinery and restoration of the magnificent 100-pane gothic window over the staircase.



A decorative lead-roofed canopy with a gothic balustrade was made locally and added to the stone-stepped front entrance.


When the work was completed, Lizzie opened the ground-floor and cellar rooms as galleries at weekends, and by arrangement on weekdays. The spaces were full of beautiful furniture, paintings and objects, most of them for sale. When the galleries were closed the rooms reverted to Lizzie’s and Eugene’s private use. It was a clever juggling act. Lizzie held several mixed exhibitions a year, with occasional shows for featured artists.

Visitors came as much to see and be inspired by the house as to purchase art. Lizzie’s creation was an exercise in the combination of business and lifestyle. She gave people a glimpse of how they might live. She always did her utmost to persuade artists who had the skills, to make small, beautiful and relatively inexpensive objects for her themed exhibitions, because she said people loved to buy something affordable by an artist they admired, even if that artist’s paintings were too expensive for their pockets. And buy they did.

The Summer and Christmas exhibitions were always a triumph. In this way I was persuaded by Lizzie to make a eight place-mats for her ‘Christmas Dining-Room’ themed exhibition. The set had relief chequerboard patterns, was finished in faux-patinated bronze and it sold in about ten minutes. For her ‘Box of Delights’ show I made a folk-inspired faux-bronze house with the roof as the lid. That went to the USA.


At Christmas the reception-room/shop of the gallery (see above) always had a selection of my tiny hand-painted pantomime toy theatres, each with a single character on the matchbox-sized stage: Priscilla the Goose from ‘Mother Goose’, Dick Whittington’s cat and and a pantomime horse among them.



Lizzie encouraged me to make objects. She believed that painters were the better for extending themselves through the act of making. Thanks to her a foundation was laid for my studio practice that has continually supported my painting with acts of exploration. I still make toy theatres and decorative objects.


From time to time I make ‘postal’ art, as I first did at her request. I made these ‘Fairy-Tale’ envelopes for a Kilvert Gallery postal art exhibition, the paper drenched in black ink and the addresses written with a mapping-pen dipped in bleach! (Apologies for the poor  images, digitised from slightly out-of-focus transparencies.)


I build articulated paper maquettes too, that are models for paintings, but have additionally carried me into the realms of film-making and animation. Lizzie would greatly approve of it all.

When Lizzie neared the end her life, Ashbrook House closed for business. Her funeral in 2009, like the gallery she’d presided over, was an example of creativity in action. At Clyro Church she was arrayed in all her silken finery in an open casket of basketweave, decked in her ‘Barbarian Queen’ jewellery. While the vicar played his violin in the nave, a beautifully groomed and ostrich-plumed horse was led in circuits of the church, high-stepping a stately pavane that ended at the graveside. Peter wrote Lizzie’s obituary for The Guardian. The strap-line read: ‘She traded high society for the Welsh borders to become a fairy godmother for artists.’ And that she did. She was certainly my fairy godmother, kick-starting my career as an artist, and I was not the only one.

Ashbrook House was sold. Without Lizzie at the helm there could be no Kilvert Gallery. These days it’s a private residence.

Lizzie began showing my paintings in mixed exhibitions at the Kilvert Gallery after my partner Peter had shown her a portfolio of my work. In 1996 when she asked me which of her regular artists I’d like to have a two-man show with, I unhesitatingly chose Charles Shearer, whose work I greatly admired.  At the exhibition my paintings were on the ground-floor and Charles’ prints and paintings were in the cellar that opened onto the garden and the brook that ran through it. We’ve been friends ever since.


I was in awe of Charles, but thought the challenge of having a show with him might spur me on to be a better painter. I think it very likely did.

Below: Armistice, painted for my first one-man exhibition at the Kilvert Gallery in 1996.


Border Country at the National Eisteddfod

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It’s a sadness not to have been with Peter in Abergavenny for the opening of his exhibition Border Country at the National Eisteddfod. But with time ticking on my forthcoming Gawain exhibition at the Martin Tinney Gallery in September, I had to stay home to work. I’ll see Border Country later this year, when it’s on tour.

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Of the four artists in the exhibition, John Elwyn (whose painting is on the cover of the catalogue above) and Bert Isaac are dead. Joan Baker will be attending the exhibition this week, but Charles Burton and his wife Rosemary, herself a painter, were able to be present for the opening, brought from Cardiff by Dave and Philippa Robbins who live just around the corner from them.


Rosemary and Charles Burton in front of his painting of a steam train in the south Wales Valleys. (Croeso is the Welsh word for Welcome.)

Peter and I knew John Elwyn, having visited his Winchester home and studio in his latter years. Bert Isaac and his wife Joan were friends, and we visited them frequently in Abergavenny, where they held regular exhibitions of local artists in the ‘orangery’ of their beautiful Georgian house.

We are especially close with Charlie and Rosemary, and when Peter and I lived in Cardiff we saw a lot of them. (We had gallery-visiting holidays together in Paris and Venice, and in Venice we were joined by Liz Sangster, another painter and close friend from my days in the theatre.) That little painting of a steam train usually hangs in the kitchen at Ty Isaf. We purchased it, along with another piece the same size, from a Cardiff antique dealer before we knew the Burtons. In fact it was the acquisition of the paintings that stirred Peter’s interest to trace and then contact Charlie, who had retired from teaching. He was still painting, though not for the most part exhibiting. These days both he and Rosemary show regularly at the Martin Tinney Gallery in Cardiff.



I love the colour red chosen by Peter as a background to the paintings. Beautiful.

Beneath the Greasepaint


Back in the London of the 1960s when I was a pupil at the Italia Conti Stage School, I used to haunt the shop called Theatre Zoo in the West End. I was drawn to the papier mâché ‘Big-Heads’ ranged on high shelves around the showroom, and fascinated by the theatrical animal suits for hire, the front-and-back pantomime horses and cows that required two actors to fill them.

I remember the shop’s displays of Leichner stage-greasepaint, the hard, obliterating sticks of colour that were fast becoming obsolete as theatre modernised and actors presented themselves more naturally. Heavy greasepaint had been formulated to take account of the change from gaslight to more revealing electric light, when performers needed to paint out everything on their faces and then paint it back in again, only more emphatically! Because I’d belonged to a young people’s drama group in Wales, by the time I arrived in London I already had a well-stocked enamel make-up box, and though contemporary drama no longer required the heavy make-ups of the past, my greasepaint kit stayed with me through my teens and early twenties, not least because I gravitated to the transformative roles that required a lot of disguising. (I LOVED being cast as assorted villains and Demon Kings in pantomime. And then there were the animals. I played, many, many animals! The old stage-arts have always beguiled me! I was born out of my time, really.) I learned my make-up skills from the Leichner charts, old even by the time I acquired them, and by watching black and white Lon Chaney films!

Not my make-up box, though it looked a lot like this, only with more stuff!


The Leichner charts in the photo at the top of this page are not mine either – those have long vanished – but are from an old e-bay auction. However they, and many more from the series, were the ones that initially guided me into the world of greasepaint and flim-flam!


I remember too, Harlequinade, the long-since-departed London puppet shop that specialised in vintage Pelham marionettes, and of course the old Pollock’s Toy Theatre Shop in Monmouth Street, with the sales counter on the ground-floor and the museum above accessed up narrow flights of rickety-stairs.  There, when I was a schoolboy, I purchased stacks of penny-plain toy theatre sheets and plays that were old-stock even then.

They were such eccentricities, these creaky survivals whose owners made losses to keep the doors open. But for me, a boy entranced by the archaic worlds of old-time theatrical magic, they were repositories of wonders.

The Armouring of Gawain: thoughts on print No. 5

All the images are preparatory studies for The Armouring of Gawain, or details from stencils prepared for the print.

Gawain must seek out the Green Knight’s chapel, where he is oath-bound to submit to a blow from an axe that will very likely kill him. Everyone at the court witnessed the challenge from the Green Knight that led to this pass, and no-one believes that Gawain will return. So the acquitting of him in fine armour is a bit of a hollow pretence, a show of largesse from a King gilding the sacrificial lamb. (It was Arthur the Green Knight had in his sights, but young Gawain stepped in to be his champion.) Clad in chased and burnished gold, radiating light like Apollo, the young man’s gaze turns to the image of the Virgin he’s had painted onto the lining of his shield. She alone must steel him for the travails ahead.

In the distance Camelot, compromised by the moral bankruptcy that will one day see it fall, is already dark, as though light has departed with the last good man.


A savage wind has tugged locks of Gawain’s hair from his helmet and set them streaming with his dancing crest of plumes. He’s locked in this metal suit, living and perhaps dying in it unless he reaches a trusted place where others may be relied upon to uncase him. Shining and jewelled, the armour is both protection and prison. He must cook or freeze in it as the weather dictates.



Below, the application of greasy, lithography crayon and opaque fibre-tip pens on layers of granulated Trugrain.

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