On Art and Images

I have never been busier. (I haven’t yet quite worked out why.) I have one-person exhibitions both imminent (September and January) and planned for further ahead. There are promised book covers for several authors and a big, as yet unannounced project for a major publisher. There’s the October exhibition I’m curating for the Royal Cambrian Academy and ongoing work on the stage production of a new chamber music work which I’m to design and direct next year. There have been and continue to be commitments to lecture at various universities and art colleges. Right now the Gawain and the Green Knight project in collaboration with Dan Bugg of Penfold Press is the most pressing occupation, as we have to finish the planned fourteen prints by end of December. I guess I’ve always been an active person in terms of planning ahead, but this… this schedule is extreme, even for me.

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Because of my increasingly busy diary, I have less time to write here at the Artlog. Occasionally I’m halfway through a piece when other matters intrude and I have to turn my attention elsewhere. But this morning I sat down to type a reply to an e-mail addressed to me via my official website, and in the writing of it I expressed something I thought I’d share here. While both unexpected and brief, I realised nevertheless that the simple idea expressed to my correspondent, was massively and personally significant in terms of how I see the world.

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‘As I get older I begin to see that all creative endeavour is linked. I may be first and foremost an easel artist, but I know that books in all their diversity have helped make me the man I am. It’s fitting that in what must by any measure be the last quarter of my working life, I have found myself being given opportunities to work in the field of books, both in the making of covers for writers I love and admire (Marly Youmans, Damian Walford Davies and Mary Ann Constantine), and more recently in the picture book of Hansel & Gretel for Random Spectacular. The book illustrations in my head – and they’re still there, carried since childhood – are as potent as any of the magnificent paintings I experienced in galleries and cathedrals that came later. So Picasso sits companionably alongside Beatrix Potter, Klee alongside Alfred Bestall and George Stubbs alongside Arthur Rackham, and it’s right that they do. My affection for the illustrators has never been displaced by my love of the great artists, and the interior of my head, if you could see in there, bears testament to that truth.’

Picasso

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Potter

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Klee

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Bestall

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Stubbs

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Rackham

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Abergavenny Music

 

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Twenty seven years ago my friend James opened his music shop in Abergavenny. I designed and painted the lettering on the board above the window and on the hanging sign that led shoppers along the street to it, together with the shop’s logo of two wyverns, their tails entwined with a lyre. The signs have been repainted many times since those early days, but though the livery evolved from gold lettering on a turquoise ground to what you see now, the typography and the wyverns have remained unchanged.

For the several years James had a satellite music shop in Castle Arcade, Cardiff, at his generous invitation I set up my studio in the cellar beneath it, a shared space that was also the shop’s staff and stock room. No windows and bitterly cold in the winter, nevertheless in memory it remains the studio I was happiest in. I painted the entire series of ‘The Temptations of Solitude’ in James’ cellar, and my first Annunciation, with pianist Semra Kurutac, who worked part-time in the shop, modelling for the Virgin in her lunch and coffee breaks.

The Castle Arcade shop closed many years ago, before Peter and I moved from Cardiff to west Wales. Now Abergavenny Music, too, has closed its doors. It’s been on the cards for quite a while, though James’ sudden illness has precipitated what had been planned anyway. Life will not be the same in Abergavenny without my friend’s shop, his wonderful staff and his deep knowledge of music, so generously shared.

Peter has written below about the closure of Abergavenny Music.

Abergavenny’s specialist classical music shop, Abergavenny Music, will close on 29 July owing to the illness of the owner and founder, James Joseph. For more than quarter of a century it has been a big part of the lives of Abergavenny and a world-wide community of music enthusiasts.

James established Abergavenny Music 27 years ago. As a talented musician who had worked in production across the UK and Europe, James wanted to create his own perfect music shop, characterised by wonderful stock and expert service. He and his wife, the artist Sarah Thwaites, chose Abergavenny as the place where they wanted to settle down and have a family.

He took premises at 23 Cross Street and made them into a stylish and airy space that became a treasure house of music. The shop sold recordings, videos, sheet music and books, and customers came from far and wide. One of its qualities from the start, set by James’s own quiet and unassuming style, was as a place where people felt welcome to browse for as long as they liked, listening to current recommendations playing through the sound system. The shop felt like a creative space – a focus of chance meetings and a place to make new friendships.

The excellent staff over 27 years have included bright youngsters given their first job opportunities and many professional musicians who were able to supplement their incomes knowing that James would change schedules at short notice if performing opportunities came up. Customers came to expect a service very different from any they would get from HMV or Amazon thanks to the eagerness of James and his colleagues to find answers to obscure questions, research just the right recording or locate scarce scores.

For several years James expanded the operation with a sister shop in Castle Arcade in Cardiff and after that a stand in Ross-on-Wye but the changing landscape of multinational online retailers and downloading has challenged the survival of in-person music retailing everywhere. He kept Abergavenny Music open long after most people would have closed the doors because he loved to be in that calm, music-rich environment and to provide a service.

James has received many messages from people who have been grateful for everything the shop has been over the years. Angela, Kaye, Rosie and Lindsey continue there until the doors close for the last time on 29 July.

Peter Wakelin

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‘The Temptations’ stencils, from start to finish

When I began this project to make fourteen prints with Daniel Bugg of the Penfold Press on the theme of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (translated by Simon Armitage, Faber and Faber, 2017), I first made a painting of each image that I could then use as a guide when making the stencils. Seven prints into the fourteen I made the decision to work directly onto stencils, which means ‘holding’ the ideas I have for the colours of a print in my head, rather than referring to a painted study.

Like those for The Three Hunts completed last month, the stencils for The Temptations have been produced in this way. Once I’d mixed the paints for the ‘colour key’ (see below) I made the stencils while imagining how the colours would look once the print was underway The stencils are not rendered in the colours of the finished print, but with a grey, red oxide and black palette allowing me to better see the planned image on the transparent layers of drafting film that Dan will later transfer to the printing screens.

Below: rough sketch for the print.

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A more refined study for the Lady of Fair Castle.

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Gouache samples in the ‘colour key’ indicate to Daniel Bugg the six inks I want mixed for the print, plus black. Every colour requires a separate stencil. Sometimes several stencils of a colour are required so that the inks can be applied with varying tonal effects.

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Here are images of the stencils as they progress.

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Although they have their own allure, the layers of stencils give an entirely deceptive impression of what the print will eventually look like. The more layers added, the hazier the image becomes, as though viewed through a mist. It’s quite a feat, remembering all the colours involved and trying to imagine what they’ll look like when printed over each other. I keep notes to hand, but the process is one that relies entirely on being able to work toward an idea that won’t be revealed until the printer begins to assemble the image from layers of inks mixed to match my colour samples.

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After Dan has transferred the images to the screens, the long slow task begins of mixing inks and proofing. Once all the proofs have been examined, tweaked and finally agreed upon, the editioning of the print can begin.

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The Alien Within

I think I’m St Francis. I’ll pick up anything, sure that I’ll come to no harm. I’ve carefully picked up bees and wasps when I’ve noted their behaviour isn’t aggressive. I usually watch carefully and act accordingly. But last night when something clattered into the water glass at my bedside table as I was getting under the duvet, I didn’t have my spectacles, and so I assumed it was a cranefly and fished it out. I headed for the window with it on the back of my finger, but by the time I’d unlatched and raised the sash, the insect had flown back into the room. I cast about for a bit but couldn’t see it. Found my spectacles, and settled down for a read before sleeping.

 

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Ten minutes later a clattering of wings alerted me to the fact that it had returned and was blundering around inside the shade of the anglepoise lamp. I reached over and cupped the bottom of the shade, and when I felt the insect alight in my palm, closed my fingers to a loose fist to carry it to the window. In an instant there was stab of pain in the soft flesh of the base of my thumb, like a hot needle plunged deep. I yelled loudly and dropped the culprit. It sat on the bedside table looking at me, head turning from side to side like a mantis.

Once antihistamine had been applied, I went to the computer screen to see what I could find that looked like the creature, and after I was satisfied, headed back to bedroom armed with an empty glass and a postcard in order to safely retrieve and deposit it outside.

I’m not sure exactly which type, but it seems it was a Ichneumon wasp. A handsome thing about 3 cms long that looked as though it had been carved from amber. Though the males don’t sting, the females have a blade-like ovipositor used to pierce a living host and deposit eggs, and the procedure can be used defensively when the wasp is threatened.

Any deposited eggs in my hand won’t hatch, dealt wth effectively by my immune system, thank god! The alternative would just be too John Hurt for comfort!

 

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The pain had been considerable but instant, and died away quickly, perhaps indicating no venom. However this morning there’s a residue tingling and vague discomfort and heat, though that might just be my mind playing tricks. When I stretch my palm while theres no swelling, I have a disc of flesh the size of 1p that’s notably white at the site of my alien invasion!

Wasp photograph courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

Hansel & Gretel Pop-Up Card

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From a distance I’ve watched progress on this Hansel & Gretel Pop-Up Card, published by and available exclusively from Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop in Covent Garden. The design, which draws on elements I produced for the Hansel & Gretel Toy Theatre Kit, comes with an envelope for posting. It’s impressively packed with detail and the construction is incredibly clever.

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I’d always hankered for a pop-up project, and so I was pleased when Louise at Pollock’s declared her intention to create a card on the Hansel & Gretel theme. I couldn’t be happier with the result. My congratulations to the team who put in so much hard work to create this.

Finding Beauty

I’m in the throes of preparing number nine in my series of fourteen screenprints for the Penfold Press, inspired by Simon Armitage’s translation of the medieval poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, published by Faber & Faber in 2007.

Gawain, weary from his journey, has come upon the beautiful – and until that moment unknown to him – Fair Castle, where he hopes to find hospitality.

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Above: making stencils for Gawain Arrives at Fair Castle

On entering he’s warmly greeted by the Lord, his Lady and their retainers. The Lord receives Gawain’s story with great interest, and in return is an affectionate and generous host. He calls his visitor by name, though strangely, his own is not offered. Nevertheless his status is clear from the magnificence of his home and household. Fine garments are gifted to Gawain and he’s arrayed like a prince in costly fabrics and furs.

During Gawain’s stay the Lord goes out three times to hunt, though Gawain remains in the Castle. On each occasion the Lady comes early to Gawain’s bed to wake him. She initiates conversations that play on notions of ‘courtly love’, though they’re loaded with flirtatious banter that quickly raise the temperature. The visceral descriptive passages of the three hunts, for stag, boar and fox, are threaded through with the tensions of the Lady’s compromising early-morning visits to her guest’s bed-chamber, during which she presses Gawain for gifts of affection, embraces and kisses, while he valiantly attempts to defend himself from committing any breach of trust against the hospitality of his absent host.

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Above: detail from a colour study for The Three Hunts

Simon Armitage wrote to me of these passages:

‘I can never think about those “bedroom scenes” without the hunted and butchered animals being there in the room, the way they’re interleaved through the text. Not just as Gawain’s suppressed lust, but as his subconscious images of what goes on between the lord and the lady. There’s a sense of Gawain’s inadequacy in those episodes as well, or at least his lack of experience (we assume he’s a virgin) compared with the lord’s victorious masculinity and the lady’s apparent sexual knowing. The lord’s actions are invasive and exposing of all kinds of interiors – Gawain knows only the cortex of life, its rind and its appearance.’

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The bedroom scenes are nerve-racking to read. Gawain is at the mercy of a powerful and practised coquette, and their encounters become a duel in which her desire, pressed upon him, must be skilfully parried in order to avoid compromise or offence. He pretends sleep when she stealthily approaches him – as though that would stop her. Then he pleads for privacy to dress, but she counters:

‘Not so’, beautiful sir,’ the sweet lady said.
‘Bide in your bed – my own plan is better.
I’ll tuck in your covers corner to corner,
then playfully parley with the man I have pinned.’

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Much is made of Gawain’s disadvantage of being in bed. The Lady doesn’t balk at physical affection, despite the fact that the young man is naked under the covers. She presses him for gifts, even though she knows he has little save himself to offer. It’s heated and tension inducing.

‘I come
to learn of love and more,
a lady all alone.
Perform for me before
my husband heads for home.’

 

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The poem is so full of references to the allure of young Gawain and the Lady of Fair Castle that it would be possible in any representation to become overwrought with the flesh on display and the heat under the surfaces. I have to curb my tendency to overly-refine images of beauty and stop before the vitality of an idea becomes compromised by overworking. I’ve tried many different compositional devices with this sequence of the poem, and it’s emerged that when the Lady is foregrounded, I work a tad too hard to capture her. (See the couple of too-sweet images above.)

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But a scrappy thumbnail sketch that placed her as a full-length figure sitting in the upper left of the composition (below) has a dynamic that pleases me –

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– and so I’ve pursued the idea and it’s the one that right now I’m moved to go with. Next I need to work up a full compositional study and see if I feel the same way. But as a precursor to that, here’s a small sketch defining her outline in the available space. I like it because the simplicity eschews the need for detail. Costume can become a burden in images, capturing too much of the energy and distracting attention from the meaning. This little drawing captures the dropped shoulders and tight sleeves of the period, but without feeling ‘historical’. It might be either her gown or her shift.

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The diagonal framing device at the right is where the foreground bed-curtain cuts across, giving me the opportunity to run riot with the decorative patterning that’s become something of a theme in the series, from the Green Knight’s foliate tattoos (an invention that isn’t in the text) to the peacocks and vines embroidered on the caparison of his horse. (More invention.) For the bed-hangings I plan a fevered idyll, all turbulent vegetation and frolicking rabbits.

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Above: detail from the colour study for The Green Knight’s Head Lives

When I began making prints on the theme of the poem I was clear about not getting enmeshed in the descriptive passages. They are so sumptuous and detailed that attempting to reproduce them would be visually overwhelming. Instead my inspiration has been filtered through my familiarity with the text. The prints were intended to capture some of what I feel about Gawain and his Green Knight.

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Above: stencils for The Green Knight Arrives

Occasionally I’ve returned to re-examine a passage of the poem only to discover that I’ve recalled it incorrectly in my image. But that, after all, is the nature of memory, and so I’ve not made revisions on discovering misalignments between what’s written and what I’ve made.

My thanks to Simon Armitage for his insights. The quotes from his translation are by kind permission of Faber & Faber.

 

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