Reinventing Beauty

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Yesterday I talked to the students at Hereford College of Arts about my work making a book in ‘homage’ to Jean Cocteau’s film, La Belle et la Bête, a dream project I’m collaborating on with my friend Joe Pearson at Design for Today.

 

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I can quite see that it’s a strange notion to attempt a picture book about another artist’s creation originally made in the form of a film. There are many visual reinventions that are required in order to successfully carry off the trick, especially as my intention has never been to make a scene-by-scene ‘copy’ of the film. I think of what I’m producing as a translation. I’m working to translate, rather than reproduce the actors’ iconic screen appearances into what will work in illustration terms, and the same process is being undertaken with the film’s studio sets and the locations. The canvas, plaster and gauze spaces of the Beast’s chambers, passageways and balconies that the actors performed on, are opening up in my imagination as I transport myself into their world, just as Cocteau described the experience of walking through the constructed rooms in his published Diary of a Film.

Cocteau on the set for Beauty’s bedroom, Saturday the 15th December 1945:

“I’ve never seen a set either in the theatre or in films to appeal as much to me as this one of Beauty’s room where I am working now. The studio hands like it too. Even the waitresses from the restaurant come and see it and are thrilled to pieces.

I’d like to hear this room described by Edgar Allen Poe; for it is, as it were, isolated in space with the remnants of the forest set on one side, and the beginnings of the stream set on the other. With the result that bushes can be seen through its walls of net, suggesting a whole incomprehensible landscape behind it. Its carpet is of grass and its furniture in the magnificent bad taste of Gustave Doré.”

 

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I’m working in colour, which Cocteau wanted to do but was unable to afford in those harsh, post-war days when the French film industry was on its knees in the wake of the Occupation. He describes in his diary the sky blue of Belle’s sumptuous satin gown, worn by Josette Day in the farm garden when Belle returns home, and how beautiful the colour was against the white bed-sheets hanging out to dry, with the black hens scattering in front of her.

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Above: the cast on location at Moulin de Touvois á Rochecorbon in Touraine, the small ‘manor’ that Cocteau chose  for the exteriors of Beauty’s home. From left to right, Josette Day, Marcel André, Nane Germon, Michel Auclair, Jean Marais and Mila Parely.

The fact is that there have been echoes of La Belle et la Bête in much of my work of the last decade. Leonine creatures have appeared in many of my works, and always in them the combination of rage, anguish and yearning that hallmark Jean Marais’ performance as la Bête.

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In the first of a new series of prints titled New Folktales that I’m making with Dan Bugg at Penfold Press, the recurring themes of beauty and beastliness are apparent in both the title and the image of The Tiger’s Bride.

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Above: preparatory drawing for The Tiger’s Bride.

And even in my recent cover for These Our Monsters I can see that I’m toying with ideas for the Beast’s garden, setting serpentine stems and muted, nighttime colours against a velvety black.

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Josette Day and Jean Marais haunt me at the drawing-board and in my dreams. I make and unmake them over and over as I strive to capture an essence of their stateliness and beauty.

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Above: maquettes made preparatory to illustrating the book.

I see the book as being like a bottle of perfume that you unstopper in order to inhale something rich and dark. It’s a fight, but every time I make a small progress, it feels like triumph.

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The Artist in Stiches

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Throughout time artists have used the examples of those who’ve gone before, copying so as to learn, occasionally to pay homage to an admired artist or artwork, and sometimes to steal. Picasso, that ferociously creative innovator of the 20th century who taught us new ways to see, stole with impunity from anywhere and anyone, though his advice was to always ‘steal from the best’. He was a good thief and chose well, often greatly improving in the process. Peter has reminded me that I stole myself, from time to time in my earlier days as an artist, before I knew what I was doing or where I was going, and not always with acknowledgement. So I was circumspect when recently I came upon a design for a toy theatre proscenium that I had made long ago, all over the Insta page of a woman who had taken it, digitally recoloured it and was happily fielding flattering comments about it as though it were her own work. Indeed, worse, had been selling it as a screensaver download! When politely confronted she claimed that she couldn’t find who the artist had been in order to credit. I pointed out that not knowing who had made something doesn’t mean that you own it, or that you can take it and pass it off as your own. She agreed, and forthwith removed the many images of the stolen work from her site

But in the arts we have that wonderful word homage … from the French … which allows for the re-configuring of an idea and taking it in a different direction, while acknowledging the source. Recently some paintings of mine, with my permission,  have been re-interpreted as stitched work. I love the changes that occur when another pair of eyes get to work on an image, examining it and finding ways to express it in a different medium.

Karen Stonestreet contacted me to ask permission to adapt a ‘hare’ vignette made for the recently published Marly Youmans historic novel, Charis in the World of Wonders. Her adaptation of the drawing has given her own work the look of an American primitive, and I relish that translation to something unexpected and lively.

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Note the lovely clouds of tiny stitches around the blossom in Karen’s interpretation of the textured elements in the drawing. In time her plan is to make a quilt using adaptations of the collection of  bird and animal vignette’s made for Charis. The drawings should translate well, as the inspiration for them was my love for early American stitched and quilted work. In another interesting connection, Marly’s husband Mike collects early American patchwork, and I’m told is a wonderful patchwork-maker himself.

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Textile artist Amanda Warren first came to me when she wanted to make a piece based on a still-life painting of mine:

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Using a detail rather than the whole image, I greatly liked what she showed me of the work when it was ‘in progress’. In the still life I’d incorporated a John Maltby ceramic on his ‘Pelican’ theme, and so it could be said that Amanda’s textile interpretation of my painting is an homage of an homage.

Here’s her finished piece. Note that she’s removed the fish hanging from the cruciform Pelican’s wings, and she was right to do so, because in terms of this simpler composition, they would have made the image too congested. She left out too the Scottie Wilson milk-jug with the pattern of swans and cygnets, concentrating instead on the three mackerel with their stripes and iridescence.

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I’m very much attracted by the dualities of roughness and precision in Amanda’s work. There’s something of the rawness of early sketches in her surfaces that can be lost when the artist becomes too concerned with meticulousness. From time to time I have to pull back myself, as a painter, from the allure of the too polished finish, and these landscapes of freehand stitchery, jagged and seemingly improvised, are a good reminder of how exciting mark-making can be when the energy is allowed to flow freely.

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More recently Amanda sent me an image of a textile work based on another of my still life paintings.

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The interpretation has resulted in a piece of work that is both my mine and yet not mine.  It’s allowed me to look at the intensely familiar with new eyes, and that’s been a uniquely interesting and informative experience, which no amount at looking at the original painting could have done for me. I wrote to Amanda:

“I absolutely LOVE this. Love what happens in translation. I very much like the connection to my own work – which is clearly evident – but I love too the points of departure, and that your work has become entirely itself, with its own character and visual language of marks and colours. It’s almost as though I’ve provided a supporting tent-pole, and you’ve put the tent over it.

The mug was made at the Gwili Pottery, and is one in the blue and white ‘seashell’ range they produced. We have a number of them, hence the fact that they tun up in my paintings. At Gwili the artists work freehand with each piece, in the case of the seashell range using a ‘pattern book’ of assorted elements that they then arrange and interpret as the spirit moves them. In this way the range remains consistent overall, while also allowing the artists to be expressive. The artists leave their initials on the base of every piece worked on, and so next time I’m at the cottage I should check the mugs to see if your friend’s initials are among them.

All the objects in my still-life paintings are significant to me. The oval cardboard box had been plain when given to us by a friend, and filled with pralines. When the contents had been eaten I painted the box with a clipper. It sits on the cottage dresser, referred to always as ‘Rex’s Box’ and still smelling of cocoa and almonds when opened. The curtain in the painting is a ‘fake’. The ‘real’ curtains in that window are what were hanging when we purchased the property, and they’re rather chintzy. Pretty enough in their own way, but not right for the painting. So I used a vintage linen tea-towel as a stand-in.”

 

Later, in an online conversation with author Marly Youmans, Amanda wrote this:

“I used several of the textiles in Clive’s photo, natural fabrics, cotton and silk scraps, many hand dyed from my stash. The shadows are made from some strange stuff that was wrapped around a bunch of flowers, definitely synthetic! There is machine and hand stitching, mostly hand, with stranded cotton threads.

Studying the work of other artists is a strange combination of mindlessness and mindfulness. Decisions have to be made about what will be included and what left out, and then there’s the decisions relating to how accurately to translate the painting into textiles, and ultimately, when to stop! The process certainly made me appreciate Clive Hicks-Jenkins’ facility with paint! I think that the reproduction I printed off to work from was, indeed, brighter colours, although not as bright as the materials I selected. I have very much enjoyed delving into Clive’s artlog since this was posted and reading about your Foliate Head work- the Green Man subject is close to my heart, especially in these HS2 times.”

Below: Amanda begins work on interpreting a painting through the medium of textiles.

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On the Passing of a Princess

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Letter to my friend Lizzie in France, on hearing of the death of her cat, Lucy.

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“Christmas week 2018 at La Crabouille, sitting at your kitchen table making preparatory sketches for the unexpected commissioned magazine illustration that had come in via an e-mail and required I begin work immediately in order to meet the deadline. Lucy is outside, peering intently at me through the window pane. She yowls and pats at the window to test whether it’s open. It isn’t. She stares harder at me. More yowls, louder, and in a rising pitch. I get up and cross to the window to unlatch it. In she comes.

She sits companionably on a chair next to me. I go the taps to get myself a glass of water, and when I turn back she’s curled up RIGHT IN THE MIDDLE OF MY DRAWING, a scattering of garden ‘bits’ around her. She gives me a stony look, daring me to move her. I pick her up firmly and put her to the floor. Pause. She stalks with stiff-legged hauteur to the kitchen door to be let out, and I oblige her. She exits without so much as an acknowledging glance, an imperious Princess expecting lackeys to clear her way.

Back to work at the table. Not two minutes later Lucy is at the window, again, patting at it. I ignore her. She all but tuts, rearing to her hind legs to emphasise the urgency, patting harder, her claws making little scratching noises, stopping from time to time to pierce me with a stare emphasising her meaning. I get up, cross to the window and let her in. This happens repeatedly throughout the morning. I must have let her in twenty times by the time G passes through the kitchen and says “Just ignore her.” I try to. I really try. But Lucy just thinks up more attention-grabbing strategies. Now she’s putting her shoulder to the panes, and her yowling has passed from urgent to Banshee-shrieks of rage. You come in, Lizzie, and go to the window to let her in, saying as she streaks past “Oh poor Lucy, wouldn’t Clive let you in?”!!! Lucy leaps to table, to stand defiantly in front of me, her nose inches from my face. Very slowly and without unlocking her gaze from mine, she sits on my drawing hand – the pencil still between my fingers – in the middle of my sketchpad!”

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R.I.P. Lucy.

2002 – 2020

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Close of Play

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Today I completed my final work for English Heritage on the year-long Telling Tales project that arrived entirely unexpectedly just before Christmas 2018.

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It began with a commission via English Heritage Magazine to make an illustration of Saint George for a series of articles on English myths, legends and folk tales, and ended today with the last in a group of paintings commissioned as prizes in the five categories of a short story competition for young people, for which I made an illustration for each winning story. 

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One of the winning competition stories tells of an unhappy young Princess who makes friends with a fierce and much reviled fire-breathing beast, so my year with English Heritage began and ended with dragons.

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Throughout it there has been a relentless schedule of deadlines. The first was to conceptualise and then complete all the visuals for an interactive ‘Myths Map’ that required daunting quantities of artwork from me, including producing thirty drawings of EH sites and designing and building the many puppets required for the map’s animation sequences.

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Following that I designed retail products and produced illustrations for EH Magazine, for several educational projects and for the anthology of short stories titled ‘These Our Monsters’.

 

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In November 2019 much of my output was on show in Grand Tour: Works Commissioned from Clive Hicks-Jenkins by English Heritage at Martin Tinney Gallery, Cardiff.

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In some ways producing illustrations as prizes for the Telling Tales short story competition winners was the most challenging part of the project, because there was the added responsibility of wanting the experience for the young writers to be the best.

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Telling Tales was English Heritage’s theme of 2019, designed to promote interest in the many sites around which the project had been built. Had it come a year later things would have turned out quite differently as right now all the sites are closed until future notice, and their retail outlets with them. Most of the EH team I worked with are on furlough. Even so a few weeks ago it was suggested I work on an extension to the project, and while pleased and flattered to be asked, I declined. Any commission is hard work, but this one was particularly challenging because the briefs were demanding and I was answerable to a great many stakeholders over a long period. Sustaining concentration and the energy to deliver to schedule throughout it was exhausting, and while I greatly appreciated being the artist entrusted with the challenges, now feels like the moment to be moving on.

 

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A Tale of Two Covers

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‘These Our Monsters’ is the only book for which I’ve been commissioned to make two covers in order to appeal to different markets. It was soft-launched in November with a cover bearing an image based on Graeme Macrae Burnet‘s Bram Stoker themed story set in Whitby, The Dark Thread, and now bears a cover with a hare from Paul Kingsnorth’s Goibert of the Moon. The two covers were a clever idea by Editor Katherine Davey that, with promotion and in circumstances other than we‘re currently in, would have been eye-catching. But with most English Heritage staff having been furloughed for the duration of the crisis, the change of cover has been slipped out unannounced, and I think the sleight-of-hand is now likely to go un-noticed.

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The first cover was to catch the attention of a readership attracted to the horror genre. There was a lot of anticipation last year at the prospect of the new Mark Gatiss three-part adaptation of Dracula at the BBC, which I hoped our cover with the vampire count might benefit from by dint of zeitgeist. By contrast the second was a subtler mood-drenched image drawing on current interests in Folk Horror Revival that might attract those for whom the more overt grotesquerie of the Dracula cover was not so appealing. (Though look closely and those foliate elements are not as pretty or innocent as they at first appear, and the building on the back cover has been tweaked into the likeness of a skull.)

 

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2020 V&A Illustration Awards shortlist nominee for ‘Hansel & Gretel: a Nightmare in Eight Scenes’

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I’m honoured and thrilled to share here that I’ve been shortlisted for the V&A 2020 Illustration Award in the category of ‘Illustrated Book’ for Simon Armitage’s contemporary re-working of the Brothers Grimm, ‘Hansel & Gretel: a Nightmare in Eight Scenes’.

My thanks to publisher Joe Pearson and designer Laurence Beck at Design for Today for their unflagging belief in this project and the tireless work they put in to make it everything we’d hoped it might be.

The announcements of the award winners will be made in June.

 

‘Putz’, Pastille Burners and Palaces: the making of ‘Bird House’

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When Joe Pearson enquired whether I’d like to produce a title to fit in with his ongoing project of making both selected re-prints and new titles in the old Bantam series of tiny picture-books, I didn’t hesitate for even a moment before saying yes. I’d taken a lot of pleasure in Joe’s reprints of Hilary Stebbing’s two titles for Bantam, The Silly Rabbits and The Animals Went in Two by Two, poring over them repeatedly. I’m a big Stebbing fan but original copies of her books are hard to find these days, so the re-prints were an easily affordable treat.

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There are just fourteen pages per Bantam book plus front and back cover, a constraint that can either focus or defeat the illustrator/author. Stebbing rose magnificently to the challenge with vibrant images that all but leap off the page. The Silly Rabbits reprint has been at my elbow as inspiration throughout the process of working on my own book. If I could capture even a fraction of the vivacity of her approach, then I’d be content.

Joe came straight to the point with his suggestion of a subject: birds. There had been birds of many varieties in our first book together, Simon Armitage’s Hansel & Gretel: a nightmare in eight scenes, and Joe suggested that if time was too short for me to make new work, we might profitably look at some of the unused drawings made for that project.

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But once the idea was in my head, I was off like a rocket to make new work. I thought briefly about whether I’d write or commission a new story, but greedy for all the space I could grab for the illustrations, decided in the end to make a picture-book, pure and simple. I considered producing a sort of nursery primer Guide to British Birds, and began sketching. But the more I sketched, the more I realised that I wanted to make not a book of birds as observed in nature, but something imaginary.

My first thoughts focussed on combining birds with some of the foil crèches I’d collected which are a folk art tradition of the city of Krakow in Poland. Only a few weeks previously I’d been making assemblages for my Instagram page that combined foil crèches and vintage tinplate birds. So out came the clockwork cockerels again and the tiny wooden buildings from the Erzgebirge toy-making region of the Black Forest, and rather strangely it began to feel as though the idea might have been cooking in my head from a time before Joe came to me with the project.

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I began arranging the foil crèches on my work table, combining them with small painted wooden birds, another Polish craft tradition of which I have many examples.

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Below: Polish ‘folk art’ foil nativity from Krakow, to which I’ve added tiny painted wooden birds for the photograph. All things Polish and folk-artish in my collection come from the wonderful online emporium, Frank & Lusia.

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For about a day the title of the new book was to be Palace of Birds. But it changed as soon as I came up with the more direct, Bird House.

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Suddenly the dining-room table, where I’d temporarily set up my work space, was piling high with Polish birds, Russian tinplate chickens and foil crèches. Here a hen stands atop a ‘Head’ by artist Peter Slight.

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There were other possibilities stirring. I’d fairly recently acquired a box full of vintage Chinese chenille birds, and they too came out.

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Below: worktable with the many Polish painted birds that contributed their services to the project. Note the copy of Hilary Stebbing’s The Silly Rabbits.

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Ideas for bird houses developed fast. I researched at the computer, sketchbook in lap, filling it with drawings of Staffordshire pastille-burners in the forms of fanciful castles and follies.

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Below: project-book sketch of a Staffordshire folly and a Polish bird.

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Then there were vintage versions of the glitter-encrusted Christmas decorations known as ‘Putz’, which before World War II had been popular Japanese novelty exports to the US.

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I made many fully worked-up trial images in preparation for beginning my work in earnest. In this one from my project-book you can see how I adapted the Putz House shown above.

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And here – in a detail from the finished illustration – a change of bird strengthens the image.

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Recalling the china pagodas that decorated the goldfish bowls of my childhood, I began trawling for examples that might go nicely with my chenille birds. So many ideas, so little space!

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Below: project-book drawings of Russian clockwork chickens.

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Bird House will be published later this year. Produced in a very small edition, I suggest that if this book appeals and you fancy a copy, then you contact Joe at the Design for Today Instagram page. There you’ll find a post about it where you can leave a comment to notify him of your interest. On this one I fear it will be ‘reserve early to avoid disappointment’.

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Russian Bird: the constant muse

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The Russian Bird is a marvel of clockwork ingenuity. Though a little faded from too much sunlight in her youth (we’re more careful with her now) her mechanisms are still strong.

 

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When fully wound she turns her head from side to side, her beak opens and closes, her wings flap, her tail bobs and she sings with considerable brio. Her voice, powered by bellows in her chest, while not the sweetest nonetheless has an impressive vibrato. I always think her more a music-hall artiste than a concert-platform diva. More Vesta Tilley than Dame Kiri te Kanawa!

There’s certainly no point in anyone talking while she’s performing because she drowns out all competition, which is pretty impressive for a lady of her small size and considerable years.

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She moved audiences when projected onto a screen during performances of Hansel & Gretel: a Nightmare in Eight Scenes, beautifully accompanying the music that conjured a forest full of birds. Here’s the sequence, though alas without the live music accompaniment. (She was not best pleased that the composer eschewed her voice, but stepped up to the challenge of conveying her role through the medium of mime like a born silent movie star!)

When the poem by Simon Armitage that had been the libretto of the production was published in an illustrated edition by Design for Today, the Russian Bird was awarded a double page spread, and in it she’s quite the Queen of the Forest surrounded by her retinue of smaller birds, all pecking away at Hansel’s path of scattered crumbs.

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Deeply conscientious about her duties as artist’s muse, she’s a tireless model and will go to any lengths to facilitate whatever’s required of her in the studio. For her forthcoming appearance on the cover of the picture book Bird House for Design for Today, she carried a Byzantine palace knapsack-style on her back, standing unflinchingly for an entire afternoon while I drew her.

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She’s made guest appearances in several galleries and museums. Here at MoMA Machynlleth she takes centre stage on the Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop Hansel & Gretel Toy Theatre that toured the country in the stage production of Hansel & Gretel: a Nightmare in Eight Scenes in 2018.

 

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You can see in these snapshots that she loves demonstrating to an adoring public that she’s the inspiration behind what is clearly – in her opinion – the most important illustration in the book of Hansel & Gretel: a Nightmare in Eight Scenes.

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She’s never slow to be my messenger, and friends are always won over by her bright eyes and sprightly demeanour.

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Below: in a tiny theatre of her own, produced in a small edition for members of the Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop Harlequinade Club.

 

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When not making public appearances, Russian Bird is tirelessly creative in the studio, always game to collaborate with other toys on making scenarios she thinks may offer me new pathways to paintings and illustrations. Here she is in a stunning tableau vivant interpretation of Death and the Maiden.

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Here we catch her giving one of her renowned masterclasses to an eager young student.

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None of us at Ty Isaf knows where we’d be without her.

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Conversations with Ed Carey: Part 1. the makers and how they make

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Writer Ed Carey and I have become fast friends since being put in contact with each other by Katherine Davey, editor of the These Our Monsters anthology of short stories for English Heritage.

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By way of preparing to make an illustration to accompany Ed’s contribution to These Our Monsters, I also acquired a copy of his novel of the French Revolution, Little, which I read at a headlong pitch and overnight became his biggest fan.

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In some ways the friendship is unlikely. Ed self-illustrates his published works and so his contact with other illustrators is limited. However he so liked the drawing accompanying his English Heritage story that he wrote asking whether he might have it, and so we arranged an exchange: he has my framed drawing of a goblin child above his desk, while I have his drawing of a maquette/puppet made for Little.

 

Below: my drawing for Ed’s story that loaned its title to the These Our Monsters anthology.

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Below: Ed built this life-sized maquette of a woman as preparation for his novel, Little. His original drawing of it that appears in the book, was the exchange made for my drawing of his goblin child.

 

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We met for the first time a few weeks ago at an event celebrating These Our Monsters at Hatchards, Piccadilly, and in order to extend our conversation without the distraction of a crowd, again the following morning, for coffee in Bloomsbury, just before he returned to the US and I to Wales.

Dan Bugg suggested that an eavesdropped conversation between me and Ed might offer interesting insights about our processes of producing new work. The projects we talk about are my in-progress print,  The Tiger’s Bride, and Ed’s forthcoming book, The Swallowed Man.

Ed: Hello, Clive in Wales!
 

Clive: Hello Ed in Texas!

Ed: Clive, I’ve known and loved your work for years and over the last few months it’s been an absolute privilege getting to know you and even, last week, finally meeting you. What a joy to sit with you and talk about the Lewis chessmen for example.

Clive: Ed, I thoroughly enjoyed our couple of hours in a tiny coffee shop off Gt Russell Street last week. Even though some of the current events we were discussing are horrifying and daunting, we told stories and made each other laugh a lot. One of the great pleasures of illustrating These Our Monsters for English Heritage has been the several good friends made in the process: you, Alison MacLeod and the editor Katherine Davey. I arrived fresh to your writing with the project, but as I’d simultaneously set myself to reading your mesmerising novel of the French Revolution, Little, my responses to your English Heritage short story were being deepened by the wider sense of your creativity.

Ed: You inspire my work and make me think in new ways – to communicate directly is such a wonderful thing for me. And so here we are separated by a  pandemic and yet, thankfully, still able to communicate. 

Clive: That’s a generous comment. Thank you. The admiration is mutual. The neccessity –  or so I find it to be – of a solitary life for a writer or artist, is undoubtedly isolating. (And you, Ed, are both!) We hole ourselves up like hibernating bears because we need clarity and silence to function. However I find the immediacy and creative buzz of being able to bat ideas across great distances with friends and colleagues undergoing the same processes, and in an instant, to be a great joy and solace to what can otherwise be dauntingly lonely. Whether as rich as a prolonged joint creative endeavour, or a humorous two-liner to kick-start the morning before bending to the day’s endeavours, as a man who lives at the-well-at-world’s-end, the swift correspondences of e-mail and messaging have been life-changing for me. The entire process of making fourteen Gawain prints with Dan at Penfold Press was carried out through the medium of daily messaging and the exchange of photos made on our smartphones. I could fire images to Dan of a drawn image on a sheet of lithography film and within minutes be correcting it according to his suggestions. It was almost as though we were in the same studio space. You and I have been showing our individual work projects to each other in e-mails, confident of safely sharing our efforts and misgivings with a creative ‘other’ who understands. It works wonderfully.

Ed: I’m wondering, to start with, what would you say makes a project a Clive Hicks-Jenkins project and what doesn’t? What are you looking for? 

Clive: Narrative. Whether obvious or not, whether culled from a source or invented, narrative is always what draws me in. I am an inveterate story teller, and that’s always been my foundation, certainly as an artist but even before that, as a choreographer and director. 

Ed: And, specifically, did The Tiger’s Bride come to you or you to it. How did this all start off?

Clive: It started with my life-long love of Staffordshire. The strangeness of it appeals to me. It’s a uniquely of-these-islands combination of folk-art/fairy-tale/dream-world weirdness that always satisfies/disturbs me. The sheep and dogs the size of ponies in comparison to the human figures accompanying them. The theatrical fancy-dress that makes it seem that the handsome men and pretty women are on a stage. The flowers and the often cloying sentimentality, the cottages and castles, the follies and exotic beasts, the bright colours on shining white and the sense of sort-of-familiar yet elusive storytelling being played out on a mantelpiece. Every time I see a doll-like child perched on a monster-sized spaniel or pug, I think about the dog with ‘eyes the size of mill-stones’ in The Tinderbox. Then there are the Staffordshire ‘murder cottages’ and the penny-dreadful tendency to celebrate awful events, most notoriously the escaped tiger with a limp baby dangling from its jaws striding over the prone body of the mother from whose arms the child has been torn. My first print with Penfold took inspiration from the Staffordshire version of Tipu’s Tiger, in which a beast mouths at a slain man in a uniform. The child-like brightness coupled with horror is unlikely and yet compelling. 

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The Staffordshire group titled The Death of the Lion Queen had long been catching my eye, and finally I took the moment to begin researching the story on which it was based. I couldn’t shake it. It lingered, took root and I was away.

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I like a long-term project. Gawain had been a nearly three year project. It wasn’t what I worked solely on, except during the last six months when Dan and I had to row like galley-slaves to get it to the finishing line in time to meet the Faber & Faber deadlines and the commitment to the Martin Tinney Gallery for the ‘completion’ exhibition. One of the pleasures of a dip-in&dip-out project is that it has the convenience of being easily set aside and yet ready to return to at the drop of a hat. It’s always simmering on the back-ring of the hob, never unappetisingly stone cold. All my projects tend to be worked on for long periods, and there are always several or even many on the go at any given moment. In the aftermath of Gawain I’d been compiling ideas for a print project that would combine several of my interests: vintage and folk art toys, Staffordshire figure groups, historic circus/fairground traditions and my fascination for toy-like buildings, whether Staffordshire follies and cottages, wooden building-blocks, doll’s houses or the foil and tinsel souvenir cathedrals produced in the city of Krakow. Somehow all this began to tie together with the notion of unspecified fairy stories, and New Folktales was born. The Tiger’s Bride is my riff on Beauty and the Beast, though I didn’t want that title anywhere near it. Angela Carter provided the solution. Here’s a piece I posted at Insta about the event underlying the Staffordshire group titled The Death of the Lion Queen, which was my starting point for The Tiger’s Bride.
“This image draws on the tragedy of Ellen Bright, AKA The Lion Queen, who in 1850 at Wombwell’s Menagerie entered a cage of big cats for the entertainment of a paying audience expecting to be thrilled by the spectacle of a girl commanding ferocious beasts. At just seventeen years old, Ellen was celebrated though relatively inexperienced, and it may be that on the day her ambition outstripped her judgement, because a reliable eyewitness in the audience afterward observed that from the moment she entered the cage the tiger displayed unmistakeable aggression toward her. At a sting to its face from her whip, the animal lay down. Ellen turned her attention to the lions, but then – perhaps for good measure, or perhaps because at that moment she intuited the dangerous state of the beast – turned back and stung it for a second time with her whip in its face. The tiger rose, reared and lunged at her head, seizing her in its jaws and bringing her down. 

Ellen sustained catastrophic injuries to her lower jaw and throat, and according to a doctor who was in the audience and attended her after the attack, she died within minutes without recovering consciousness. So horrified were the public by the tragedy that thereafter the law was changed, forbidding women to enter cages with big cats for the purposes of entertainment.” 
Below: contemporary illustration reporting the death of Ellen Bright at Wombwell’s Menagerie:
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The Staffordshire pottery workshops quickly produced, or perhaps adapted, an existing ‘Lion Queen’ group in order to commemorate the event, adding the wording ‘Death of the Lion Queen’ to capitalise on the public interest. (Ellen was not the first Lion Queen, as there had been several who’d gone by that title before her.) I’ve referenced elements from several Staffordshire groups of a girl performing with big cats, but have gone my own way in expressing the subject.
Below: early study and final layout-drawing for the print.
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Ellen’s story is tragic, and not just because of how she died, but because large cats in 19th century menageries must have been driven insane by their ill-treatments and confinements. This piece is not about that – though the idea is running beneath it – but is an exploration of the fairytale theme of the beast/groom.
In the same way you’ve taken the novel of Pinocchio and used a lightly-touched-upon back story in it as the foundation of your new novel The Swallowed Man.
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Do you find that using an existing theme/story as the bedrock for a new telling is a good method of creativity for you? Which came first for you here, Jonah and the whale or Pinocchio’s dad/maker? (I feel Pinocchio might profitably be examined in comparison with other ‘man/woman-making’ stories/myths, including Frankenstein and Galatea/Pygmalion.)
 
Clive
Ty Isaf
20/03/20

Leaving

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I made images for what I couldn’t express in words.

 

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At Facebook my friend, artist Ian Whadcock, wrote briefly, simply, poignantly:

“A week of witnessing tears in conversation, voices broken with emotion and goodwill sapped by expectation.
Meanwhile, the parallel world of ambivalence, blind ideology and sheer selfishness, looks away in the belief it has nothing to do with them.
On a station platform, the kindest most unexpected words serve as a reminder that we are not alone.”

Key

The assemblages were made from objects that surround me at Ty Isaf. All things that I love and make me happy, and some that have strong associations because they were gifts from good friends. If the assemblages have a European quality to them, it’s because they’re mash-ups of British and European toys. I am, as a person and artist, a European. The two can’t be separated.

 

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The lettering for all four assemblages was originally created for the credit sequence of the 2013 animated film of The Soldier’s Tale I made to accompany a performance with orchestra at The Hay Festival. The tulips are also from the film.

The foil crèche in Europe Forever is Polish, and this type of work is particularly associated with the city of Krakow.

The small wooden buildings, trees and villagers are from the German toy-making region of Erzgebirge, as is the jaunty yellow carriage and horses in Forever Europe. The beautiful and tiny pull-along duck at the bottom of Rejoin, is also from the Erzebirge region, and came from Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop.

The white archways in Forever Europe and Rejoin were constructed from a beautiful boxed-set of vintage German building-blocks, the gift of my friend Mathijs van Soest.

The set had been played with by generations of children in Mathijs’ family, and he gave it to me with the message that he felt sure I’d use it well. I’ve endeavoured not to disappoint him. It’s appeared many times in animations and artworks, and in 2018 it toured the country in the music theatre work, Hansel & Gretel: a Nightmare in Eight Scenes, and afterwards featured in the endpapers of the published edition of Simon Armitage’s text.

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The two colourful wooden birds in Forever Europe are made by the artist Tadeush Shultz, whose work I discovered at the online shop specialising in Polish folk art, Frank & Lusia. The wooden birds in Rejoin were also sourced at Frank & Lusia, and are by one of my favourite ‘bird’ folk artists, ‘Zak’.

The toy theatre proscenium in Stronger Together was painted by me. The house between two lions is Ty Isaf, my home.

There are three tigers in the assemblages. One is Indian, a gift from my friend Stephen Weeks in Prague, another is a jigsaw-puzzle tiger given to me by my friends Charles and Mary, and the third is very tiny and you will have to search very hard to find it. It’s based on a famous Staffordshire group called The Death of Munrow, but made for a dolls-house. It was a gift from my friend Angela Beaumont, who knew I would love it because I’d made a print of the Staffordshire group with my friend Dan at Penfold Press.

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The assemblages feature a number of lead toys. The two rearing Liberty Horses from Britains’ circus range are favourites of mine. In Rejoin there are two lead horsemen: the soldier on a rocking horse is by the company Wend-al, while the mounted bugler in a red turban I think is by Britains, and was a gift from my friends Sarah and James. There are also figures from Britains’ farm range: a cow, a sheep, lambs and lots of chickens.

The two tinplate cockerels in Europe Forever are Russian.

There are two birds drawn by me: a blue bird in Europe Forever, and small multi-coloured one in Stronger Together and Rejoin, the latter one of three made for the cover-flaps of the soon to be published Charis in the World of Wonders by Marly Youmans.

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The Art of the Cover

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When the race has been run and my brushes and pencils have been set down, my output of book covers is going to be very small in comparison to that of any commercial illustrator. I pick and choose very carefully from the offers that come in, and I spend incalculable amounts of time reading manuscripts and making notes and developmental sketches. I care with a passion about what I make.

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Below: for Charis in the World of Wonders Ignatius took the unusual step of allowing me to design their publishing imprint for the front cover. Interestingly because the imprint is now so integral to the narrative imagery of Charis’s story, it has a much stronger presence on the cover than it might otherwise have had, though the publisher can’t have known that when granting me permission.

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Though things are different now, in the past I underwrote the time it took me to make book covers with the income from my work as an easel artist. I did it because I simply love books. I love the art of the book. I love the way that a cover can reach someone who may never walk into a gallery to look at art.

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I work with publishers I’m comfortable with and who are comfortable with me as we all progress toward the desired conclusion. I don’t make covers for books I don’t like, or for authors I’m not convinced by or for publishers who haven’t taken the trouble to discover how I think and work. I don’t have the time to make those kinds of errors.

To date I’ve made more covers for Marly Youmans than I have for any other author. She was the first to suggest I might come up with a cover image for a book. Until then publishers had asked only for permissions to use my paintings – or details from them –  for covers, and with mixed results. So the idea of making a cover from scratch was an attractive one. The first book for Marly was her novella Val/Orson, and I’ve been been working with her ever since. Thinking about it, I see a pattern emerges, and at the heart of it is the certainty that I don’t want to make banal covers. All the authors I enjoy working with create layers of mysteries and ambiguities in their writings, and those qualities give me the space to grow images that interest me. If I’m not interested, I don’t want to make the cover.

Below: the front and back wrap-cover for Val/Orson (PS Publishing, 2009), before the title and author were added. It was a hardback without a dust-wrapper, which is quite unusual.

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Below: front and back wrap-cover for The Book of the Red King. (Phoenicia Publishing, 2019) After Val/Orson I began to include title and author to the cover artwork of all my books for Marly, the better to integrate words with images. It’s a practice that whenever possible I’ve held to with other authors.

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Since becoming the artist most associated with the published works of Marly Youmans, other writers have approached me with requests to make covers for their books: Damian Walford Davies, Mary-Ann Constantine and most recently Simon Armitage, who wanted not just a cover, but my entire suite of fourteen Penfold Press Sir Gawain and The Green Knight screen prints to illustrate the Faber & Faber revision of his translation of the medieval poem. Simon and I have since produced Hansel & Gretel: a Nightmare in Eight Scenes for Design for Today, and I’m currently working with him on a yet-to-be announced book.

Below: Hansel & Gretel: a Nightmare in Eight Scenes (2018, Design for Today) and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (2018, Faber & Faber)

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I’ve been in love with books all my life. Because as a child I read prolifically and precociously, from the moment I was allowed out by myself I could be found in book shops where wall-to-wall paperback covers offered endless visual stimulation. I was gazing raptly at the covers of novels long before I experienced art in galleries. To begin with it was the covers that led my reading. At best the book cover can be an invitation to a new realm, but it needs to catch your attention or it’ll remain unexplored. When opportunities allow for an image to wrap to the back cover, I enjoy the possibilities of springing a surprise. The front cover for Judas (see below) only offers a part of the picture. The spine runs a centimetre or two to the left of the title, and so it’s only when the book is flipped in the hand that the monstrousness of the distorted animal becomes apparent.

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Whenever I begin making a cover, the guiding principle is to make it catch the eye of a passer by. I will never deceive, but there has to be an element of the sideshow barker calling attention to the tent and the wonders within. All I have to do is get the punter to the tent-flap, to lift it and to look inside. Thereafter it’s all down to the author.

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Charis in the World of Wonders by Marly Youmans and with cover artwork and interior decorations by Clive Hicks-Jenkins, is due out from Ignatius in the US in the Spring of 2020.

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Refuge and Renewal: Migration and British Art

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Above:  a detail from ‘Miracle in the Internment Camp’, 1941 by Martin Bloch (1883–1954). Oil on canvas. © Martin Bloch Trust. Photo credit: Trinity Hall, University of Cambridge.

Refuge and Renewal: Migration and British Art

The Royal West of England Academy, Bristol
Sat, 14 Dec 2019 – Sun, 1 Mar 20 2020

The migration of creative individuals and groups has always been a source of innovation and cultural cross-fertilisation. The exhibition Refuge and Renewal curated by Dr Peter Wakelin, explores the work and stories artists who have found refuge in Britain during the past hundred and fifty years, escaping dispossession, torture, intellectual oppression or war. Their arrival frequently enriched art in Britain.

Following the isolation of most émigrés in the First World War, artists who escaped Nazism in the 1930s became part of art communities in places as far apart as Hampstead, Glasgow, Merthyr Tydfil, the Swansea valley and St Ives. Gabo and Mondrian influenced Nicholson, Hepworth and Lanyon, while younger artists were inspired by the radical ideas of Kurt Schwitters and John Heartfield and by the Expressionists Bloch, Herman, Kokoschka and Koppel. Lotte Reiniger brought innovations in animation and Bill Brandt and Felix H. Man showed the potential of documentary photography. Refugees have come since from China, Eastern Europe, Latin America, Africa and the Middle East.

The experiences of artist refugees have followed many patterns. Some stayed a short time and moved on, some made their lives in Britain, teaching, exhibiting and inspiring. In the 1940s, refugees contributed to the war effort and the defeat of fascism. The stories of later refugees’ contributions to British art are still unfolding.

Among others, there are works in the exhibition by: Camille Pissarro, Joan Eardley, Naum Gabo, Ben Nicholson, Humberto Gatica-Leyton, Mona Hatoum, Barbara Hepworth, Lotte Reiniger, Josef Herman, Samira Kitman, Josef Koudelka, Hanaa Malallah, Zory Shahrokhi, Kurt Schwitters and Walid Siti.

 About the curator:  Peter Wakelin is a writer and curator. He was formerly director of collections at the National Museum of Wales. He has contributed to Art Review, The Burlington Magazine, The Guardian and Modern Painters. His exhibitions have included Romanticism in the Welsh Landscape at MOMA Machynlleth, Four Painters in Raymond Williams’ Border Country at the National Eisteddfod of Wales and the 80th anniversary retrospective of the Contemporary Art Society for Wales. He lives near Aberystwyth.

 

Refuge and Renewal is a part of the 2019 Insiders/Outsiders nationwide arts festival celebrating refugees from Nazi Europe and their contribution to British culture.

 

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A substantial book by Peter Wakelin, published by Sansom & Co. accompanies the exhibition and is available from the galley, by order from bookshops or direct from the publisher.

Gentle Charis and her Friends at Ignatius Publishing

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We live in a world where there is so much by way of argumentative dialogues, endless competitiveness, jostling for pole positions, public crowing and an unwillingness to listen to others, that when creative endeavours are conducted with kindness and gentleness, it’s a blessed relief from what we’ve all had to become more accustomed to.

Marly Youmans and I have long been friends who like to collaborate. She is a wonderful friend, but also a poet and novelist greatly admired. I first came across Marly when I saw her name signed to a comment on a blog where she was defending me as an artist, though we’d never met or had any previous contact. I wrote to thank her and we became e-correspondents. Later she came to Wales to stay with us at Ty Isaf. She’s the narrator of a short documentary about my maquettes, a contributing author to the 2011 Lund Humpries monograph about my work and she was present at the Gregynog Gallery of The National Library of Wales for the opening of my sixtieth birthday retrospective of paintings. We’ve been working together almost from the start of our friendship. I make her book covers and when time and budget allow, the chapter headings and decorations too.

In part Marly moved from her previous publisher because of me. I’d decided I no longer wanted to work there, though I hadn’t expected my leaving would precipitate Marly’s departure. I had thought there would simply be a change to another artist, but I had not taken into account that though Marly is the gentlest woman, she is nonetheless stubborn about the things that matter most and her loyalties are fierce. I was rather shaken by the events, but though I repeatedly said that she should stay, she quietly went about doing things her own way.

Ignatius are the publishers of Charis in the World of Wonders. Marly gently brokered an arrangement that her editor there would look at my work, and if the Ignatius team were confident that Marly and I were a good match, then we would all proceed together. From the outset the mood has been collegiate. Everything discussed with thoughtfulness, everyone with eyes on the goal to make a beautiful book. I doff my cap to Roxanne Lum who guided me through the way things are done at Ignatius and who was so receptive to my ideas, and to Diane Erikson who has worked so hard to make Charis in the World of Wonders the lovely edition that it is going to be.

This week Marly and I saw the almost finished page layouts, with my drawings in place making the announcements to the eleven chapters. The matching of images to chapters was done at Ignatius. I offered no guidance and as it happened neither did Marly. Both of us agree that whoever made the matches did so with great care. Marly writes:

“Diane,
Well, I shall let Clive be the arbiter of images! But we are both entirely pleased with the care for clarity and detail, as well as the beautiful spacing that really gives the pictures so much more presence. And I have to say that I’m happy that Ignatius is so responsive and also so polite in working with a visual artist. That made me glad, as Clive is dear to me.
Just now I went through the list, and I do suspect that somebody has thought carefully about placement, where possible. It is absolutely right that the horse begins and the ewe (so many good symbolic sheep associations) ends the story. I especially liked the amusing placement of the rabbit for Wedlock (preceded by the ancient emblem of married constancy, the swan), the owl for a chapter of wild wanderings, and the open-mouthed dog for the “frampled” household chapter. Some were logical, like the bird at a chapter with birds, or the various domestic animals scattered in chapters set in villages. Somehow I really like the luminous peacock–the most mystical thing in the group–as an image representing “Path in the Dark.” The squirrel with his little acorn bag (I know it’s not that, really, but it looks that way, accompanied by Far-faring!) is another that amuses me. And the cockerel crowing out the news of the epilogue…
So yes, I do think that we are happy and content. Thanks to all who helped to make us feel so pleased with the way the book-to-be appears: well dressed and lovely.
In good cheer,
Marly”
(Forgive me Marly for sharing the e-mail. I think it illuminating to show how well things may be done when a team toward the best outcome. This has been the most positive experience. I’ve been extremely lucky with all my book commissions throughout 2019, for Design for Today, English Heritage and Phoenicia Publishing, every one of which has been a pleasure.)
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Above: sketch from my project book of the Ignatius imprint for the cover.

The Laurel Prize

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I’m both honoured and very happy to have been asked by Simon Armitage to create the logo of his ‘Laurel Prize’ for eco-poetry, an annual award that’s been launched today by Sally Carruthers, executive director of the Poetry School.

My early sketches had included a stash of drawings of an ark, its rainbow replaced with arching branches of laurel.

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But at the last minute I roughed out a single sketch of a paper boat adrift on rough water. Simon wrote back:

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“A strange synchronicity for me: I’ve often described the act of writing a poem being like making a paper boat and putting it into the river – you don’t know if it will make it across the ocean or sink before the first bend. 
To me it symbolises hope, fragile hope, the traditional art of writing and doing so against rising sea levels. I also think it’s no bad thing to move away from the direct “ark” idea since the ark is more particularly connected with the olive tree, as far as my memory of bible stories tells. So in a sense we’re creating our own symbolism. S”

So the paper boat was given the go-ahead by the organising team and several trial versions later –

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– the finished render was agreed that has become the symbol of the new award.

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Simon writes in today’s Guardian newspaper:

Ted Hughes was often seen as being unfashionable for his nature writing and it was something he doggedly persevered with, to the point where he was a campaigner as well at low levels. It’s interesting to me that poetry has been able to swing back in the direction of nature; it didn’t fit in with a lot of the psychologies of the 60s and 70s and 80s, it wasn’t metropolitan, and maybe attached itself to the Romantics – Wordworth and Coleridge and particularly John Clare. Now nature has very much come back into the centre of what poetry can, and should, be dealing with.”

Afterword

Sometimes here at the Artlog, the most interesting things get written not in the posts but in the comments. ‘Keviniz’ wrote to me: “Love seeing the development of your finished piece. Thinking through your changes was like choosing words and images in poetry. Wonderful!”

I replied:

“Kevin, it was a happy process. These days Simon is a busy man but he nevertheless found time to answer questions and offer observations. To me it was crucial that the image should have personal resonance for him. We’ve worked together quite a bit now and I figured he’d asked me because he believed I’d have connection and insight. But it also had to be a masthead that made sense to anyone coming to The Laurel Prize for the first time.

Logos are sometimes abstract, more of a visual aesthetic than a figurative representation of a product or organisation. The Laurel Prize logo, while stylised, is figurative. It offers clues as to what idea it represents. During my research I looked at examples of icons that have lasted the test of time and have been robust and flexible inasmuch as they’ve been regularly re-designed without losing their recognition factors. The Lloyds Bank ‘black horse’ and Penguin’s penguin have magnificently lasted the course. Because Simon’s brainchild is The Laurel Award, we had to work out how ‘the laurel’ might figure in it. The difficulty is that the intact ‘laurel wreath’ has become the signifier of excellence for film, and so I almost immediately discarded any notion of a laurel crown. For the longest time I toyed with an open book to represent poetry, and I tried in every way to incorporate it to the point where I had it transforming into other elements.

I have clumsy sketches in my project book of an ark with its pitched roof formed from a book. There are drawings of an open book beneath an ark, and others where the shape of the upward facing open book is one of the waves keeping the ark afloat. The more you try to pull off these weird transformations, the further away you get from a simple, graphic solution. Nevertheless you have to try many ideas just to be sure of what works and what doesn’t. The book in one form or another stayed in my drawings for a long time, first with the ark and afterwards with the paper boat, before it gradually dawned on the team that in terms of meaning, it had become redundant to the image. We went at a stroke from four elements – a book, a paper-boat, water and laurel sprigs, to three. And that’s how it stayed to the conclusion. We had storm-tossed seas and calm seas, a placidly sailing paper boat and one being thrown about in a tempest. Laurel sprigs arced like rainbows or arose sparkling from the water like Esther Williams in one of those super-kitsch Hollywood musicals. In one of my favourite drawings a pair of laurel sprigs curved upwards either side of the paper boat like unfurling wings. But in the end we wanted the dynamic of movement, too, and so the laurels were detached from boat and waves to be added as sprigs blowing around to suggest blustery weather. Climate change is implied, though without turning the image into anything overly apocalyptic.

In a way I had to very thoroughly over-think the brief before coming back to something so simple that it doesn’t seem as though much thought at all has gone into it. But that’s probably the way many simple solutions are arrived at. The destination is not so very far from the starting-point, but we travel to it not as the crow flies, directly, but by a tortuously circuitous route that ensures we take in all the landmarks along the way. Just in case any one of them might give us the solution.

I filled a project book exploring ideas for The Laurel Prize, and then made ten fully finished versions for the team to select from. It was quite an adventure and makes me appreciate even more than I usually do the convoluted processes that have to be gone through to arrive at an effective, simple result.”

Bernie wrote: Wonderful, it also reminded me of the points of a star.
B xxx

 

I replied:

“I keep on thinking what a nice animation might one day be made showing the wind of climate change tearing the pages from an open notebook, one of which blows through an open window and onto the desk of a poet who writes a poem on it that gets snatched away by a thieving magpie before dropping onto a beach where it’s found, folded into a paper boat and set upon the waves by a child!”

Conversations with Ursula

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I was one of three artists selected by Ursula as her ‘inspirations’ on her GSCE course. (The others were Degas and the sculptor Nic Fiddian-Green.) Questions and answers were through the medium of e-mails and came about when our mutual friend Christopher Hammond-Davies put us in touch. By the time we began writing Ursula had evidently done quite a lot of research on my work. Her questions were well-prepared and insightful and made me think quite hard about working practices developed over such a long period that I sometimes forget I had to invent them in order to be the artist I aspired to.
Ursula and I have never met. I didn’t include her own images here because I felt I should first seek her permission, something I have yet to do.
Dear Mr Hicks-Jenkins
I have attached some pieces of my work! The drawing is just a picture my mum thought had emotion. The others are some prints, landscapes and drawings of my ponies in the field.
Here are my questions. Thank you so much for letting me ask your these.
1) You often have horses in your compositions. I know from your Artlog that your grandfather was thought to have done rather romantic things with horses. What do they represent for you?

I think horses – and horse riding – represented freedom for me when, in so many other respects, my life was governed by the tyranny of dance classes and rehearsals. I loved my chosen work, but riding was a wonderful release from it.

I remember being on a horse – probably at my grandfather’s – before I remember walking. I always preferred riding without a saddle.
2) Are you a fearless rider?

I was, once, long ago. But at sixty-seven I no longer ride and I don’t have a horse, though I live in the countryside and have land and a stable.

However my time is so consumed with being an artist, that there’s not enough of it left for what it would take to keep a riding horse. Success brings all sorts of things in its wake but time is not one of them. My diary is packed with exhibition and illustration commitments. My husband, Peter, works too, as a curator, and it’s already a challenge, finding the time to do things together. He doesn’t ride, and so it’s not an activity we could share.

3) Your inspiration is often from myth. Your pictures tell stories, but they are full of emotion. Can you say how you get so much feeling in them?
Right, that’s a tough one. When I began painting I was always striving for technique and proficiency. Emotion wasn’t a part of the equation at that early stage. But then I began to notice that I only became fully engaged with a subject when it triggered an emotional response in me, and that response was more reliably to be found when I felt deeply about the idea behind the painting.
The starting point for me was still-life, and I began to make better still-life painting when I used items with family – and therefore emotional – connections .
So now I use that technique to invest all of my paintings with maximum emotional content. The viewers don’t have to know how I do it, or even recognise the elements. But for me, they have to be present.
4) Do you know what the result will be when you begin a picture?
Yes and no. The starting point of any composition will always be a series of rough drawings. I don’t worry at this stage about anything other than working out the mechanics, and the drawings are sometimes robust and confident, though sometimes quite fugitive and wispy. And I often make many of them. In them I’m feeling my way with three principal elements:
 
i) likenesses
ii)  shapes
ii) arrangements
By these I mean: 
i) how the objects/people/animals/places will look
ii) what shapes they will make
iii) how those shapes will be placed in relation to each other
My main concerns at this stage are composition and positive and negative space. Colour and tone come later.
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In these respects, the works are definitely ‘planned’, whether as easel paintings for a gallery or as illustrations. But when the business of painting begins – when the brushes and/or pencils get busy on the work itself – although I may have very strong ideas, often the image will start to go its own way. I’ve learned not to become too fixed on how the final work will shape up, because there have to be elements that surprise me and perhaps even carry it in an unexpected direction. When this happens I don’t try to force things back into where I think they should be going. I follow where the painting is leading me. If at the conclusion I believe that the painting is good, if not quite what I intended, then I’ll set it aside to come back and look at again later, when I can view it freshly. I may finish there, and go no further. 
Here’s an Artlog post about making a painting, start to finish. I didn’t use a maquette for this one, but relied on the memory of a man I’d glimpsed at a fish market. It was the ‘memory’ that was crucial. It helped me make the mood of the painting.
I find that if I have a really good subject, then I return to it over and over again, because there is no single, definitive way to depict an idea. I learned that from Picasso, who would paint a composition multiple times and each version was compelling as a stand alone image. But he’d make it over and over, and it would become a series, and the whole series was as satisfying as any of the individual paintings, drawings or prints.
5) Do you have ‘happy accidents’ when the paint seems to do it itself?

Yes. But I also ‘play’ a lot with materials. (Accidents, while great, can be useful tools if they can be repeated.) Each type of material requires a different skill-set and mastery, and playing helps me become practiced and fluent. Acrylic inks work in this way, oil paints in that. Primed canvas has these advantages, but gesso on board suits me better. Watercolour requires one set of disciplines, and acrylic tube-paint, another. This dry pastel fixes well, and this one changes colour when sprayed. The same pigment (colour) will behave differently in different brands of paint, because there are different versions of a pigment, some ’true’ and some ‘manufactured’. (The word ‘hue’ usually means a manufactured substitute of a natural pigment that may itself be too expensive. You have to read the information on the tubes really carefully.) I make up notebooks of working techniques and some of the earlier ones have been my companions for twenty years or more. You think you’ll remember everything, but you won’t. When something works well, I make a note on which brand and how the colour was mixed, or exactly which viscosity allowed for me to scratch through a layer of wet paint with the end of my brush. (A technique called sgraffito.) Materials are chemicals, and you need to understand how they work. I researched coloured pencils for over a year because I discovered that though it didn’t say so on the tins, most were wax-based while only a very few were wax and oil-based, and the latter were better because they didn’t ‘bloom’ when used heavily. Blooming happens when waxes mixed with the pigments manifest as a fine, white, disfiguring dust on the surface of the artwork. When it occurs some time after the work has been put under glass it’s as though white mould has set in. But the manufacturers are often not keen to show-and-tell what their products are made of, and so I had to extensively research to get the information I required, and that took determination. I phoned around the companies tracking down people who would talk to me and eventually I found the perfect coloured pencil brand for my purposes. (Faber-Castell Polychromos.) On another occasion I was dissatisfied with the way shellac-based aerosol fixatives affected the surfaces of my works in dry pastel, so researched until I found a casein-based product that came in pump activated misting dispensers. Sometimes being an artist requires the perspicacity and insight of a Hercule Poirot! 

Of course none of this matters a fig to the man or woman standing in the gallery looking at the work. But the knowledge is a big part of my discipline as a painter, because it enables me to be better at what I make across many disciplines of media. When I have an idea it’s reassuring that I can pick and choose exactly how I might go about making it a reality.  

6) Do you sometimes struggle to get the right gestures in horses and humans? I like that you prefer Stubb’s observations over Munnings’ photorealism.

Yes, I do struggle. This is where maquettes come into play for me. They help with that. But I think too that I should explain my attitude toward the life model. I like having a life model from time to time. It’s a great discipline. But I never make finished paintings directly from models because I’m not looking for those levels of reality. I make life studies for eye-to hand practice, and for information. But after the model has gone, I use the studies done from the model to make maquettes, and it’s those I use to make my compositional sketches. The maquettes free me from all sorts of levels of distraction that come with the life model. 

With the model I’m so busy looking and representing that I can’t focus on what I have in my head for a painting. The maquettes help free me of those distractions, and they help me better find what I’m searching for. In an entirely practical way, they focus me. 

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7) Do you think you need specific talents to be an artist, such as drawing, or is it enough to want to make things?

My methods are particular to my experience. I came to art very late. I was having a mid-life crisis when at forty I began painting, and because of my circumstances (I had to make a living) I didn’t go to art school as a mature student. I am self-taught. To begin with I taught myself in in an academic manner, by observation and painting from life. I improved my drawing. I taught myself by practice, landscape, still life and figure painting, and from books I learned perspective and colour theory. 

It was a long process, and I was still learning when I began to exhibit. But then, as I became more fluent in my disciplines, I realise that wasn’t the kind of artist I wanted to be. I wanted a more visceral, more ‘felt’ approach in my painting. I preferred the art of the early Renaissance, before the rules of perspective had been set. I liked the awkwardness when things looked slightly wrong. I loved ‘outsider’ art. And so I began inventing methods to pull myself away from academic discipline, evolving a practice of working with substitutes: wooden building blocks, constructed paper landscapes, found objects and maquettes. It was like learning the theoretic rules of music, before beginning to deconstruct. So the route was not straight forward, and I can’t say whether it would be right for anyone else. But it was right for me. In retrospect, though I can’t know what may have been had things been otherwise, from where I stand now I am very, very glad that I didn’t start painting earlier in my life, and that I didn’t go to art school. I think I would have been a quite different artist had I done so, and not necessarily a better one. It has been quite a lonely journey, but a really focussed one. I enjoy the challenges of finding solutions to my own problems.
Maquettes of Gawain and his horse Gringolet made in preparation for work on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
I do believe that drawing is the heart of everything. But not necessarily academic drawing. Expressive drawing is the thing I admire and am moved by, and that can be many things. Awkward, clumsy, questing, delicate, unsure or rough as hell, drawing is the heart and soul, and to do it well, you need to be in touch with your heart. It’s not just about looking, it’s about feeling.

8) I really enjoyed working with a horse made of individual paper pieces, an idea borrowed from your Gawain and Gringolet. Do you develop an idea using a range of techniques in an organised way, or is it different every time?

 

Maquette of Gringolet under construction. I work in paper when creating the pattern, and then transfer to more robust card that I can work on in paint and pencils.

I takes time to build maquettes, and I’m always looking for different outcomes and improvements. The earliest ones were utterly simple and they served me well. Now they’re much more complex because I’m always looking to make them more flexible and articulate. These days there are all sorts of things going on behind them. Sliding bars and swivel joints allow me to reconfigure the maquettes so as to be more useful as compositional tools. Essential pivot points are no longer fixed, but can move around. Where once I had a half dozen maquettes, I now have many, boxes and boxes of them, ranging through animals, mythic beasts, saints, angels and knights in armour. I make new ones for every project. They’re my actors.

 

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Moreover sometimes they become tools for other disciplines, and over the past years I’ve used sets of maquettes to produce animated films.

 

 

An animated film to accompany orchestras playing Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale, is performed all over the world, and more recently, I used shadow-puppet maquette sequences in the Goldfield Ensemble production of Hansel & Gretel.

 

But inspiration can come from many places. I have a particular love of German Expressionist cinema, and that too spilled over into Hansel & Gretel:
(I add these into my answers, because for me being an artist embraces many disciplines, including those of stage director and designer.)
Right, I think that’s it. But I’ll happily expand if there’s anything I haven’t answered clearly enough. Just tell me what you want. And I have yet to make a list of outsider artists for you, but I promise I will.
Very Best
Clive

Hans Poelzig’s and Marlene Moeschke’s work on Paul Wegener’s 1920 film of ‘The Golem’

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I’ve long held a passion for Paul Wegener’s 1920 film of The Golem, based on the Jewish legend of the biddable man made by Rabbi Loew out of clay. (Though of course things don’t go quite as intended and the creature conjured into life develops a mind of its own.)

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Wegener recruited architect Hans Poelzig as set designer for what would turn out to be the most extraordinary depiction of a Jewish ghetto made in the style that’s now described as ‘Plastic Expressionism’ after the modelled shapes and textured surfaces of the sets, as opposed to the previous ‘German Expressionism’ used by historian’s for films such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari in which the sets were flat surface constructions with all elements, from the skewed architecture to the angled shadows and shafts of light, painted onto them.

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Poelzig’s atmospheric sketches from his Golem project-book were translated into a Prague Ghetto of perspective-defying labyrinthine streets, alleyways and courtyards where high gables and witch’s hat rooftops twist out of true over buildings that slouch and slump under the weight. Wegener filled it with roiling rivers of extras in a horrifying crush of humanity and it’s hard to believe the crammed effects were achieved with any degree of safety for the participants.

 

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Below: a meandering street of the Jewish ghetto seen here under construction. As the director’s fixed position cameras would be set up to film from carefully selected angles, the buildings could be created as thin facades over scaffolds.

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Below: this image demonstrates the wonderful textures of plasterwork on the sets for The Golem as carried out by the UFA scenic department.

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For the interiors Poelzig turned to a sculptor – and later wife – Marlene Moeschke, who shaped rooms for The Golem resembling the ribbed and arcing interior forms of seashells.

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Above: Moeschke’s model for the Rabbi’s laboratory, and below, the set.

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The laboratory was a particular triumph when meticulously recreated at full scale for the filming. Though it’s been over half a century since I first saw fragments of  The Golem as a teenager, the images still make the hairs at the nape of my neck stand on end. Marlene Moeschke’s contribution to the film has rather too often been overshadowed by Poelzig’s, so it was heartening to see her acknowledged and her models foregrounded in the excellent 2016 exhibition ‘Golem’ at the Jewish Museum Berlin.

 

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Reinventing Count Dracula

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On the cover of the myths and legends-inspired short story anthology These Our Monsters just out from English Heritage, I depicted Dracula because both the undead Count and his creator, Irish author Bram Stoker, appear in Graeme Macrae Burnet’s The Dark Thread. Burnet’s brief Whitby-set conjuring of Dracula as imagined by his author sent me to my bookshelves to take a look at how the Count is described by Stoker in the 1897 novel. In films Dracula has been depicted as darkly handsome with a deadly allure and sensuality. But that’s simply not the way Stoker introduced him:

Below: the first ‘Dracula’ sketch in my These Our Monsters project-book

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“His face was very strong, aquiline, with high bridge of the thin nose and peculiarly arched nostrils, with lofty domed forehead, and hair growing scantily round the temples but profusely elsewhere. His eyebrows were very massive, almost meeting over the nose, and with bushy hair that seemed to curl in its own profusion. The mouth, so far as I could see it under the heavy moustache, was fixed and rather cruel-looking, with peculiarly sharp white teeth.”

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From Christopher Lee in the 1958 – 1973 Hammer franchise to Gary Oldman in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (Francis Ford Coppola, 1992) via Frank Langella reprising his Broadway success as the Count in a Dracula (John Badham, 1979) with a distinctly erotic charge, the ‘Prince of Vampire’s’ cinematic appearances have been constantly in flux, endlessly reinvented to suit the tastes of the age. But the bushy eyebrows and the mouth-obscuring moustache were left between the pages of the original novel, film-makers preferring the undead to be smooth-faced. (Gary Oldman sported a trim moustache and goatee with shoulder-length curls as he pursued Winona Ryder throughout much of Coppola’s film, more dreamy musketeer than vampire Count, so she understandably buckled at the knees when he swooped in for a lick!)

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The changes wrought in translation are understandable. A film is not a book and an illustration doesn’t have to follow to the letter the text that underlies it. For my own Dracula I invented an ancient-parchment complexion, criss-crossed with lines. I ditched Stoker’s description of pointed ears (too Spock-like for a post-Star-Trek generation) but stuck with the straggly moustache because I liked the idea of the unholy trailing and dripping mess it would make when the vampire fed. I retained the unibrow, though replaced Stoker’s description of the Count’s sombre dark garments with the dandy’s delight in exuberant colour. My sartorial Dracula has a very fancy waistcoat!

Below: the cover art underway. Whitby Abbey is just an outline at this stage.

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Stoker can’t have known and couldn’t possibly have imagined the popularity of his monster reinvented into a plethora of iterations, and that’s not including the Dracula-inspired inventions that go by other names in cinema and fiction, starting with director F. W. Murnau’s 1922 silent film Nosferatu which unwisely drew on the novel without acquiring permissions from the author’s widow. First she lobbied the producer with demands for compensation, but when it turned out there was no money to be had, gained a court order requiring that all the prints of the film be destroyed. Today there would be no Nosferatu had a few prints not slipped through the net.

The Count from Transylvania has stuck like a burr in the imaginations of creators and audiences. We can’t get enough of him. I loved honouring the tale on the cover of  These Our Monsters. I read not only Burnet’s story in order to make the cover, but Stoker’s novel too. (Twice.) I’d illustrate it in a heartbeat were the offer to come my way.

Below: my first version of the cover, with the lettering given more space and the EH logo placed bottom left.

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Below: wrap around dust-jacket in a storm of my trademark oak leaves.

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Frances and the Paper made of Iris and Reed

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Frances McDowall, who died on Friday morning, has been much on my mind. Twenty years ago Frances played a significant role in bringing the Old Stile Press edition of Richard Barnfield’s The Affectionate Shepherd to fruition. Every time I open my copy of the book Frances is present in it, our work together literally bonded into the pages.

Nicolas McDowall had been taken by examples he’d seen of the printmaking technique known as Heliography, and asked me to produce images for the Barnfield project by those means. He felt the process might be an interesting way to capture much of what he’d been so attracted to in my drawings. As I proceeded with the work I discovered there were endless difficulties that Nicolas hadn’t identified at the outset, and as I struggled to originate drawings by his suggested technique of scratching into emulsion-coated sheets of glass, Frances began the epic task of making the paper for the entire edition of 200 books.

Below: a surviving fragment of a glass plate and the image as it appears in the book.

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Frances was heroic. It took forever to complete the vast amount of papers required and the processes were painstaking and physically exhausting. Later Nicolas too ran into problems at the press, so it might be fair to say that on The Affectionate Shepherd we all three suffered for our arts. (For a couple of years I was never without elastoplasted fingers because the thin glass plates persistently shattered under the pressure of my styluses. By the end of the project I had broken approximately eight glass plates for every one brought to completion.)

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Though the journey was fraught with problems at every stage and it’s a fact that we never again made a book in that particular way, somewhere along the pathways of agonising frustration, wrong turns and undependable techniques, the magic began to happen. Today when I look at the book, Frances’ ravishing sheets, striated and wrinkled and patterned with the marks of the organic ingredients and the drying processes, make a wonderful ground to the meanderings of my lines impressed into their surfaces. In a raking light the marks of my hand and her craft merge into a book the like of which I’ve never seen before or since. Sometimes the ink lines look almost like dark hairs looped and curved and trapped into the paper.

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In the colophon at the back of the book, the paper is described thus – perhaps by Nicolas or perhaps by Frances:

“All the paper used in this edition (including the endpapers) was made by Frances McDowall. The furnish used consisted of a mixture of Abaca and Jute, with an admixture of reeds and irises for the endpapers.”

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It’s a crisp and matter-of-fact account of a process that was fuelled by energy, passion and the overwhelming imperative by all of us to create something beautiful to frame Barnfield’s poem. Published originally in 1594, the only surviving copy of the first edition of The Affectionate Shepherd available in the UK to view is at the British Library, which is where I went at the outset to examine it. ( I had an alarming encounter there that nearly scuppered the entire enterprise and that you can read about here: https://clivehicksjenkins.wordpress.com/…/…/10/birthday-boy/ )

To my knowledge the Old Stile Press book published in 1998 is the only illustrated edition of the poem.

 

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Below: pencil study made in preparation for The Affectionate Shepherd

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‘The odds are high in the making of any book: here the choices entailed a far greater than usual amount of experiment and work by the artist, paper-maker and printer. The result of their collaboration is a triumph.’

Jeremy Greenwood for Parenthesis Magazine.  1998.

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Edward Carey’s ‘Little’

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Among the contributors to the short story anthology that’s being published by English Heritage this month, is Edward Carey. When I saw his name on the list of writers responding to some of the English Heritage sites with mythic/folkloric associations, I recalled reading a glowing review for his novel Little. I duly acquired a copy and read it.

Edward is both a writer and an artist. He makes images to accompany his novels. Little, illustrated throughout with many drawings, is a staggering feat of research married to imagination, a compelling, page-turning history of Anne Marie Grosholtz, better known today – thanks to waxworks attractions around the globe bearing her name – as Madame Tussaud.

The book nailed my attention. Here was a writer who’d uncannily entered the mind of a known eighteenth century woman, channeling her into a first person account with her character fully formed and vibrant throughout the narrative. The Marie of Carey’s Little feels utterly real and present. Moreover he magnificently and dreadfully sets her down in that bloodiest period of civil unrest, the Revolution. A clammy sense of dread pervades the second half of the book as Paris sinks into malign chaos. The aristocrats and their supporters may have been the first to be rounded up and executed, but in the ensuing upheavals of rival factions, civil dissolution and score-settling, you could go to the guillotine at the whim of a jealous neighbour because you’d violated a dress-code. The world had turned in on itself and gone mad.

It’s been said that in later life – and with her waxworks a famous attraction in London – Marie Tussaud’s published account of her early life may have stretched the facts to better make a story. She claimed to have been a teacher of art to the King’s young sister Elizabeth, living for nine years by invitation of the royal family in the palace of Versailles. She claimed to have known the King and Queen. Later, back in Paris in the cataclysmic turmoil of ‘la Terreur’, the story goes that she was forced to take plaster casts from the decapitated heads of people she had once known in order to make wax effigies of them to be displayed and ridiculed. Whatever the truth of that, Carey makes the idea viscerally plausible, and his accounts of what it must have been like to carry out such grim work are convincingly and startlingly detailed. If Marie Tussaud – a great show-woman and self-promoter – did partially manufacture her history, adding a darker lustre to justify the more outrageous elements of her waxworks attraction, then Carey has done a magnificent job of adding flesh to the bones. She owes him a huge debt of gratitude, because she’s now going to be better known as the Marie of Little, than as the Madame Tussaud of her biography. He’s even made her portrait for the book in a pastiche of her times, which will now be the one I feel most truly represents her.

 

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Ed’s short story for the English Heritage collection gave me wonderful inspiration for the illustration I made to accompany it. A few weeks after I’d completed and submitted it, the editor Katherine Davey told me that he’d asked her to pass on how much he liked the image, and enquire whether I’d agree to be contacted by him. We started e-mailing each other almost immediately, and we’ve been e-mailing ever since. We’ve exchanged drawings. I’m now the owner of a delicate pencil image he made for Little, one of many in the book which are supposed to be the work of Marie’s hand. By way of exchange Ed has the drawing of a ‘goblin child’ I made for his title story of the English Heritage anthology, These Our Monsters.

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It’s a wonderful swop. I particularly like that the drawing I have is of a model of Marie created – in the novel – by the young man she loves. It’s a rather grotesque wooden doll that could be mistaken for Mr Punch’s Judy, so it couldn’t have been better chosen for me given my passion for puppets. What a happy experience working on this project has been, and what a lovely drawing transaction.

 

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Charis in the World of Wonders

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Back in 2012, at about the time I was just beginning to think about the subject of Hansel & Gretel as the source material for a small project (how little I realised what lay ahead), I began work on making the cover and chapter headings for Marly Youmans‘ epic poem about a group of resourceful children surviving in a post-apocalyptic future.

dsc04523Thaliad (published by Phoenicia, Montreal) is compelling in just about every way imaginable. When first I read the manuscript, the narrative, characters and foundation story of Marly’s creation held me fast. I read it over and over as I made the images. For my inspiration I delved into museum archives for examples of the patchworks, embroideries, silhouette portraits, paper-cuts and Fraktur drawings that seemed to me to be the most likely art survivals in Youmans’ vision of an America torn apart by an undisclosed cataclysm.

Above: illustration for Marly Youmans’ Glimmerglass. Mercer University Press, 2014

 

While Youmans is a universal writer in the sense of her understanding of craft and context, there is something so quintessentially American in her creative rhythm, her voice and her vision, that the folk arts of the United States stitched into her DNA have become entangled in mine. After Thaliad I drew on the same resources for her novel Glimmerglass (Mercer University Press), so it’s no surprise that the style of work I’ve evolved for her has become the bedrock of what I’m now more generally known for as an illustrator. After all those practitioners of the early American folk arts – the stitchers, limners and decorators with their European transplanted roots – have a visual tradition I recognise and am at home in. Thinking back, I recall the very first time I set eyes on the arts and crafts defined as Pennsylvania Dutch (and sometimes Pennsylvania German), it was as though I was in the company of old friends.

 

As I begin work on Marly’s latest novel, Charis in the World of Wonders for Ignatius Publishing, once again I’m channelling the artisan, amateur and itinerant folk-artists of Colonial America, and my chapter headings seethe with a bestiary that might have sprung from the pages of a sourcebook for sampler embroidery.

Above: tiny sketch from my Charis in the World of Wonders project-book.

Kevin and the Blackbird

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This screen-print of Kevin and the Blackbird was begun back when Dan Bugg of Penfold Press and I were galloping to the finishing line of our fourteen-print series of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in time for it to be used to illustrate the 2018 Faber & Faber edition of Simon Armitage’s translation of the poem. As a result we set Kevin aside and agreed to return to the print when time allowed. It took two years, but now it’s done.

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Kevin and the Blackbird

Screenprint signed by the artist. Edition size: 90, print size: 35 x 35cm, paper size: 45 x 44cm. 

This week Dan and I met up at the halfway geographical point between his home in Yorkshire and mine in Wales in order for me to sign and number the edition. Kevin and the Blackbird is available, either directly from the Penfold Press online store, or if you’d like to see it in person before deciding, there are copies at the Martin Tinney Gallery in Cardiff available for viewing and purchase.

 

These Our Monsters

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This project for English Heritage has been under wraps for months but is now being publicised ahead of launch. It’s been a lovely to work on contemporary stories steeped in the traditions of folklore, myth and legend, inspired by eight sites in the care of English Heritage. I’ve made the cover and sixteen illustrations.

It’s been my great good fortune on These Our Monsters to have Katherine Davey at English Heritage as my editor. We’ve discussed all aspects of the book at every stage, and her unflagging enthusiasm has been a tonic during the occasionally gruelling schedule to get the work completed within the deadline.

The dust wrapper image is of Bram Stoker’s Vlad Dracula, who makes an appearance in Graeme Macrae Burnet’s story The Dark Thread set in and around Whitby. Macrae’s Count references Stoker’s original description in his novel Dracula, which is far from the darkly handsome vampire played Christopher Lee in the glorious Hammer Horror films of the 1960s and 70s. Women willingly surrendered themselves/swooned into the enveloping folds of Lee’s crimson-lined cloak, whereas Stoker’s Count is monstrous without a hint of sex-appeal. However, to make up for his parchment-like skin and dreadfully straggly moustaches, I’ve dressed him with the dandy’s attention to detail in all things sartorial. A high-collared shirt, a well-tied stock and a waistcoat to die for.

The authors and the English Heritage sites they selected are:

Edward Carey: Bury St Edmunds Abbey

Sarah Hall: Castlerigg and other stone circles

Paul Kingsnorth: Stonehenge

Alison MacLeod: Down House

Graeme Macrae Burnet: Whitby Abbey

Sarah Moss: Berwick Castle

Fiona Mozely: Carlisle Castle

Alan Thorpe: Tintagel