Painting the Enchantress: part 1



Stage snapshots of a gouache and pencil portrait of Morgan le Fay made as a study for a print in my Gawain and the Green Knight series. While she doesn’t appear in person in the poem, the enchantress is referred to by another character as the architect of the magic at the heart of the narrative.








The Pleasure of Pollock’s



Wonderful things may be seen at Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop in Covent Garden. The Hansel & Gretel Toy Theatre features in the Christmas-themed Pollock’s window situated in the Covent Garden precinct, while in the first-floor shop a glass cabinet overflows with the toy theatre, together with a marvellous cast of the inhabitants of Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, iced gingerbread men, assorted Harlequins, Punch and Judy puppets, Russian Dolls, Witch’s cats and just about every treasure any lucky child might wish to find crammed into the toe of a Christmas-stocking! Bliss.


Below: A Covent Garden street lamp sheds golden light to warm the winter chill, while Hansel & Gretel ride safely home on the back of a friendly duck.

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Christopher Shaw’s Bookbinding for Hansel & Gretel



Hansel & Gretel was published last year by Random Spectacular in paper covers, which had always been the plan. I was enormously pleased with the edition as it was extremely thoughtfully produced.

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Nevertheless, because the project had been a long one – it had taken me two years to produce all the illustrations as I was having to work on them between other projects – I was keen to celebrate the achievement with a ‘special’ binding of the book for my shelves.

Bookbinder Christopher Shaw and I talked about the possibility of a special binding at the Hansel & Gretel book launch in London last September, and then over a period of weeks we discussed ideas in more detail. He sent me samples of cloth for the cover, and I began to make some paper oak leaves that he would apply to the cover after blind stamping shapes into the boards to receive them.


Oak leaves had appeared in some of the images in the book, and so felt like an appropriate motif for the cover.

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We decided to have them looking as though they’d been blown across the covers.


Christopher’s beautiful binding for the book has far surpassed any hopes I’d had for it. When I opened the parcel from him today, I was overwhelmed by what he had made. The culmination of a long road of endeavour from the first tiny, dummy copy made for Random Spectacular, through the the many stages of creativity leading to this final, much appreciated keepsake, I find that I can’t stop looking at it and smiling.

Below: the dummy copy of Hansel & Gretel, made in 2014, helped establish the layout of the book.


Print No. 13: The Sorceress

Morgan le Fay is the architect of magic in the poem of Sir Gawain and the Green knight. Here she evolves from drawing through the multiple stencils that will produce the layers of colour in the finished print.

The drawing is made on board and underlies the transparent stencils throughout the process of rendering them, providing me with a guide so that everything aligns. The plastic layers are held in place with alignment pins and punched tabs.


I make textures using a scalpel to cut through lithography crayon.


Opaque red oxide paint is used to create flat areas of colour in the finished print.


The colour samples will guide Daniel Bugg when mixing the inks for printing.


Texturising the beast’s pelt and modelling with shadow.


When overlaid the layers of stencils get very dark. Everything will look completely different when printed in colour.


The outlines of Morgan le Fay, her beast, the flames springing from the beast’s feet and the flowers diapering the composition, have to be carefully drawn around in order to create the background. Because the background is to consist of three layers of colour, the process has to be completed three times, which is both time consuming and a tad boring.



The flames are rendered to lend form.


Here the image has been photographed with just three layers of stencils. There are seven stencils required for the finished print, but when the seven are layered they become so dark that the image doesn’t photograph well.





Print No. 12, as yet untitled

Gawain stands in the Green Chapel. His elaborate armour was cleaned of rust and polished back at Fair Castle, but now it’s further transforming with burgeoning engravings of foliateness and a constellation of stars emerging on his breastplate.


He reaches toward his helmet, removed in order to take the Green Knight’s blow, and out of which greenery is spewing.

IMG_1997Gawain has fulfilled the oath made a year ago in Camelot. He’s knelt before the Green Knight and submitted to his axe, but has escaped with nothing worse than a parting of the flesh at the back of his neck.

He’s staunched the wound with what he had to hand. Throughout the series of images items have fluttered upwards: pennants, cloaks and helmet plumes, and now the girdle secretly gifted to him by the Lady of Fair Castle streams out, an embroidered stand-in for what might so easily have been his life’s blood.



These stencils have been the most complicated to date, mainly because of all the background filigree work, duplicated on four layers. Now I await the first proofs from Daniel Bugg at Penfold Press.

Update on ‘The Exchange’

Back at the beginning of September I made a post about my work on the preparation for number ten in the Sir Gawain and the Green Knight series of prints I’m making in collaboration with Penfold Press. The post charted the progress of The Exchange from first sketches to completed stencils, the latter of which were dispatched to Daniel Bugg for him to begin the long work of transferring them to screens and beginning the proofing.

In my studio the image started as a sketch…


… and ended as a set of stencils.

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Dan made two proofs to show me. While the first carefully matched my seven colours, the second was one of those happy accidents which sometimes occur and that you have to consider very carefully. For the second proof Dan had mixed varnish into one of the colours which then printed with far more transparency than he’d anticipated. While surprised by the effect, both of us loved the result. The jury is still out but I think we’re coming to the conclusion we should go with the flow and attempt to reproduce the accident in the edition. There’s something wonderfully ghostly about it. I particularly love the way it’s impacted the butchered stag on the right of the composition. I won’t show the whole print here. It still needs tweaking. Moreover we never reveal any print in its entirety until the edition is ready for publication. But here’s a detail of it.

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Tomorrow I’ll make some adjustments to the stencils that Dan returned to me, and then they’ll head back to him for the editioning to begin.




Disrespecting the Genius of Dan Leno, or how to make a mess of a film out of a damned good book!


When I was a teenager I was obsessed with the music hall clown of the 1880s, Dan Leno. I have no idea where I might first have heard of him, but by the time my friends were collecting bubblegum cards of footballers, I was seeking out photographs of Leno, along with any accounts of him I could lay my hands on.



There was something in his images that struck the deepest chord in me. Let’s face it, no man can have played in pantomime for fifteen years for the Drury Lane producer Augustus Harris, without being a master of his art. Slim as a whip and with the exaggerated, elastic features of a born clown, Leno became for me a performer the like of which I aspired to: mercurial, fleet, funny and yet with comedic foundations firmly planted in the almost ludicrous tragedy of life, his skill was for creating characters that were both ordinary and yet compelling, with all the pathos of the downtrodden airing their hurts and grievances. It seems that like Victoria Wood, Leno had a practice of observing and listening, and then deftly reshaping the material of overheard lives into the monologues of his invented characters. His creations, like all the best clowns, were rooted in ‘everyman/woman’. He wore costumes with the serious actor’s aptitude for being at home in them. Had he been around in the age of television, surely he would have been a stalwart of BBC classic dramas. I can see him as any number of Dickens grotesques, male and female.


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Exhibiton 4



Leno was celebrated, of course. The public adored him. There are postcards of him in costume, postcards of him in civvies, cigarette cards, caricatures, theatre posters, programmes and sheet music covers that indicate his immense popularity.


There were even painted novelty ink-wells made in his likeness, en travesti.



The character of Mother Goose, now a must-play role in any aspiring pantomime Dame’s repertoire, was originally created for Dan Leno.


As a performer and as a young director I worked with several comedians who shared my passion for Leno. Roy Hudd, an enthusiastic historian of pantomime and music hall as well as being a genius performer, who in his salad days bore more than a passing resemblance to Leno, positions Leno and Grimaldi as the most significant antecedents of the British clowning tradition. I once played Dick Whittington’s cat in a pantomime starring Hudd, and we shared our enthusiasm for Leno. Back then Hudd, with his wide mouth, expressive eyes, mobile brows and lithe physical skills, had in abundance the qualities necessary to play Leno. Some years later I directed Ronné Coyles and Kenneth Connor in pantomimes. Alas both of them are now gone, but I recall vividly how their portrayals of Dames, though quite different to each other, consciously honoured Leno’s tenderness for women of slender means and heart wrenching aspirations that were doomed to disappointment.

Leno as Widow Twanky in Aladdin.


Kenneth Connor played Mrs Crusoe for me at Eastbourne. His clown’s insight into the human condition could make audiences laugh and cry simultaneously, a deft and almost impossible to reproduce trick, and one that I know was the result of his admiration for the achievements of Dan Leno. Ronné too had the gift of investing his travesty roles with an underlying pathos, even when he was brassily strutting the stage and playing knowingly to the gallery. In these men’s performances, fragility and and the instinct to survive combined to wonderful effect.

Last night I saw the film The Limehouse Golem, directed by Juan Carlos MedinaThe reviews had been quite reasonable and I was looking forward to seeing it. Moreover I love the 1994 Peter Ackroyd novel on which the film is based, having read it several times, though I should perhaps have been forewarned by the jettisoning of the author’s original title, Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem. It proved not insignificant that my hero’s name had been dumped by the producers. Dan Leno is a central character of the book and remains so in the film. Here then was an opportunity to show something of what made the man the immense star that he was, though it would have taken an insightful script and the right actor to do so. On both these fronts the producers signally fail. The script is lacklustre and the actor doesn’t raise even the most wan ghost of Dan Leno. It’s a dispiriting spectacle for anyone who knows just how vivacious and imaginative the Victorian popular stage was.

When representing the music hall traditions of the 1880s, it would pay dividends to have a sound knowledge of the genre. Moreover it’s simply disrespectful and stupid –  and somewhat cruel – to put an unequipped actor into the role of a music hall star celebrated for his comic genius, musical aptitude and charismatic stage presence. I sat dumbfounded from the beginning of the film at the portrayal of Dan Leno. Things didn’t fare any better in the representation of a fictitious cross-dressing male impersonator of the day. Evidently the film’s producers/makers didn’t feel that specialised performance skills would be vital in order to conjure the world of the nineteenth century stage. The performers, as presented in the film, would have been booed off. Theatre goers back then were rowdy and took no hostages. Dan Leno, who once held audiences in the palm of his hand, must be turning somersaults in his grave.


Leno was born into family of performers and had made a living on the stage from his earliest childhood. His had been a hard life and it had taken a toll. He didn’t make old bones. Like his father before him he became an alcoholic. His latter career was punctuated by outbursts of temper against fellow cast members, perhaps made worse by his increasing deafness and inability to remember lines. Despite his popular success, Leno became disappointed that he was not acknowledged as a legitimate  actor, having harboured aspirations to play in Shakespeare. He’d lobbied for serious roles, but the opportunities had eluded him. He died aged 43 after some years of declining mental health. Max Beerbohm said of Dan Leno’s early death:

“So little and frail a lantern could not long harbour so big a flame.”


George Wild Galvin, known as Dan Leno

20 December 1860 – 31 October 1904