With Olivia’s play script for the toy theatre delivered, it was time to consider who might write the music to accompany her lyrics for Beauty’s song ‘Time for a Change of Heart’, performed at the end of the play. Olivia approached her friend, musician Paul Sartin of the group Bellowhead, and to everyone’s delight, he agree to join the team.
Once his music was ready, it was time for graphic designer Laurence Beck to lay out Olivia’s play script, Paul’s arrangement for her lyrics, David’s instructions for constructing the model and my brief histories of toy theatre and the origins of Beauty and the Beast, into the booklet to accompany the model. The 10 construction-cards to cut out and make the toy theatre, scenery and characters of the production, together with the 24 page booklet, were designed to fit into a 23 x 25 cms folder where the scenery, puppets and script could be stored for safe keeping once the theatre was made. All that remained was for the many elements of the toy theatre to be printed and packed ready for sale.
To promote what was about to be published, with Joe’s agreement David and I set about producing an animation video for the Beauty & Beast Toy Theatre, to be shown at YouTube and on various social media platforms. The plan was to offer a condensed visual account of Olivia’s scenario set to music, and as he’d already played such a significant part in creating the toy theatre, David was perfectly placed for making the animated version of it. With the animation prepared, everything was set for launch. We would have our beautiful toy theatre out in good time for the Christmas market.
Still we weren’t through. David and I had been wondering how we might further promote the toy theatre, and what alternatives might be open to us if we weren’t able to have a pre-Christmas live event to which an audience could be invited.
A broadcast film of a performance might be the solution, but even that could be difficult to organise given the current circumstances. So we began to plan a film in which all the contributing creators could work at a distance from each other. The first and most urgent requirement was to find an actor to read Olivia’s play script, and moreover one who would seize the multiple opportunities afforded by it. Here were poetry, humour, menace and crackling atmosphere, and we needed an actor skilled on multiple levels to give a nuanced and mesmerising performance. Luckily I knew who would deliver all that for us in bucketloads, and Jennifer Castle became the final creative talent to join the Beauty & Beast team, alongside Ross Boyask, who undertook to both record the audio tracks of Jennifer’s performance and take the many portrait shots of her that we needed in order to incorporate her into the film.
The work is underway and further announcements will be forthcoming before too long. Here’s a toy theatre that is not just a desirable object, but one that comes with all the online creative encouragement and inspiration that anyone could wish for. I’m enormously proud of the team that made it. My thanks to:
Joe Pearson at Design for Today
David W. Slack
The Design for Today Beauty & Beast Toy Theatre is available
It all began earlier this year with the Hansel & Gretel Toy Theatre I’d designed in 2017 for Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop. David W. Slack and I didn’t know each other, but exchanged a flurry of messages at Instagram about how he was planning to adapt his newly acquired Hansel & Gretel model to include a curved stage-front. Before we knew it we were in regular contact, fuelled by the fact we’re both painters and by our shared passion for Toy Theatre. I was working flat out on the illustrations for my next book with publisher Design for Today, Beauty & Beast, in collaboration with writer Olivia McCanon, and David and I talked about the evolving images for it. In photographs, his finished model of the Pollock’s theatre I’d designed was sharp and meticulous. The man really knew how to cut and construct a toy theatre.
I had a notion to make a very simple toy theatre as a promotion for Beauty & Beast. It would have to be simple because I had no spare time to work on it. Before I tried the idea out on my publisher, Joe, I confided in David about it, casually wondering whether if he had the time he might consider helping me out. As it was going to be a modest project and would hopefully not take up too much of his time, it could be fun. Beyond the sense of ease that made online conversations between us so relaxed, I had the strongest feeling that we needed to collaborate. It was almost an imperative. Luckily he felt the same way and enthusiastically leapt in.
The division of labour evolved with complete ease. I made roughs while David worked confidently to produce the optimum design for the model. Ideas flowed smoothly. We were so attuned that we developed a pattern allowing each of us creative freedom. Once the proscenium arch design had been settled on, David produced prototype toy stages at extraordinary speed, each version improving on the last. By this time he was leading with the design work, briefing me on what I needed to be making. He was drafting scenery, too, often using my completed illustrations made for the book as initial sources. I was having to fit all this between my daily schedule of illustrations for the main book, though things became simpler when David began sending me templates so all I had to do was fill in the shapes with drawing, knowing the ‘fit’ had already been worked out.
David’s enthusiasm for the project meant that he was forever coming up with ideas to ‘improve’ outcomes, which meant the dawning realisation for both of us that it was a rather more complete production than we’d anticipated at the outset. Olivia McCannon was enlisted to write the script, a task she undertook with good grace even though it greatly added to her already overburdened work-load. It wasn’t to be a straight adaptation of her beautiful text for the book, but a clever reinvention of a nineteenth century toy theatre pantomime, ingenious and slightly mad. I broke the news to Joe Pearson with some trepidation that we’d gained more construction pages than originally estimated, and that moreover several of them required printing on both sides, which would require meticulous alignment by the printer. Joe took it all in his stride and began costing.
The script was still being written and so we had no idea how many pages it might fill. We began considering the matter of the binding for the toy theatre book, so as for it to be simple to take apart. I’m pretty certain it was David who first suggested we consider not binding, but offering loose construction sheets in a folder, and Joe who came up with the idea of something like an old-fashioned double-LP cover, with half-wallets inside. These were exciting developments because they meant the toy theatre would be unique in its presentation. Joe felt a separate ‘chapbook’ for the script and instructions would be the way forward, slipped into one of the pockets of the folder. The idea of a script in miniature for toy theatre performances was lovely, and mirrored the toy theatre scripts of the nineteenth century. Everyone was in a frenzy of invention and creativity.
Today I take pleasure in announcing that Jennifer Castle has joined the Beauty & Beast Toy Theatre team, and that we are working together to create a filmed performance of Olivia McCannon’s wonderful play-script with Jennifer giving life to all the roles, accompanied by the toy theatre in action. In a curtain-raiser to all that excitement, Jennifer and I have been in conversation.
Clive: Jennifer, for the past nine months the artwork, model construction, script and graphic design for the Beauty & Beast Toy Theatre have been gently evolving into the product we have today. You’ve come to the project only recently, but from our conversations I’m getting the distinct impression you’ve hit the ground running, and that in part must be to do with the script by Olivia McCannon. What were your feelings when you read it?
Jennifer: Right from the beginning, I suspected that Olivia McCannon and I might be close together in age. So many of what at first glance might seem to be ‘throwaway’ lines resonate deeply with me. For example, Beauty herself, so often portrayed as the noble ingenue, in Olivia’s hands becomes a somewhat exasperated, fully formed young woman cognisant of the ridiculousness of her situation. Her brusque ‘we know why I’m here, let’s not waste time getting up to speed’ attitude, combined with the innocence, intricacy and beauty of the poetry itself delighted me. Yet Beauty remains recognisably the same character we have all come across as children for 300 years. Thanks to Olivia’s writing, I feel free to explore the character of Beauty, all of her anger as well as her inherent goodness, without worrying that she will be unrecognisable to anyone. From a technical point of view, in terms of the actual playscript; it is subtle and wicked, the work of a poet at the very top of her game, and I feel a keen sense of responsibility to do the rhythm of the work justice.
Clive: My friend Simon Callow, who has a fair number of one-man shows under his belt, once told me that the thing he missed most when performing alone, was the camaraderie of the team and the liveliness of a rehearsal room filled with people and ideas. How do you feel about the fact that you’ll be performing all of the roles in this short play?
Jennifer: I will be performing all the roles in the play. So I will play! As a child, I didn’t have any problems holding a doll in each hand and improvising full blown dramatic confrontations that would put a soap opera to shame. It’s been a while, I grant you, but if a toy theatre can’t help me back into the unselfconscious headspace of a child with a couple of Barbies, I think I may be in the wrong profession! Joking aside, I am happy to say that I don’t consider this to be a ‘one-woman show’ at all. I’ll have the beautiful characters written by Olivia, drawn by you, and brought to stunning animated life by David W. Slack right alongside me. When we first spoke on the telephone about this project, you told me that in a previous collaboration with Simon Armitage of Hansel & Gretel, what had impressed you most in a live reading of the piece by him was that he didn’t attempt to ‘do’ voices for each role, but simply read the lines in his own voice and let the characters speak for themselves. I found that really interesting.
Clive: The pandemic has changed the conditions of work for all of us. But because I live in a far- flung corner of west Wales, long before social distancing catapulted just about everyone into working through the mediums of email, messaging and ‘Zoom’, I’d been forging collaborative relationships via social media. My close collaboration with Dan Bugg of the Penfold Press has for the past five years been carried out almost entirely through Facebook and Insta messaging, and although David W. Slack and I have been in extensive daily contact as he designed the Beauty & Beast Toy Theatre model, we’ve never met. (A fact I find hard to believe because we feel very close.) The entertainment industry has been hard hit by Covid, and particularly live theatre which effectively closed down completely. How have things been for you as an actor? Have unexpected ways of working – and unexpected projects – emerged out of all this strangeness?
Jennifer: Can I tell you something? As an actor, the most unexpected thing for me was how I came to view NOT working. When we think of actors, we naturally think of household names. But only 2% of professional actors make a living from the profession and 90% are out of work at any one time! So when the pandemic hit, I suddenly didn’t have to go through the exhausting ritual actors face every time we meet casual acquaintances or family: answering the question “So what are you acting in now?” with a self deprecating shrug and a “well….” It was such a relief. Of course I got fed up of sitting on the balcony reading comics within about 2 weeks, so I and my fellow actor friends soon found each other online and began planning for the moment lockdown ended! I wrote my first script, participated in Zoom script readings for friends and rediscovered a desire to get out there and just DO something that had been waning in the couple of years prior to 2020. Though restrictions are now easing, I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that the future of film and tv castings is going to be ‘self-taped’ auditions, which may sound convenient but instead of getting to meet and connect with a casting director, getting a feel for the room and trying a scene out a few times with feedback, I now have to film myself in a bathroom and hope for the best, which can sometimes be a frustrating experience! But on the whole? I was so happy when productions were allowed to start up again. Remote work can be valuable and productive, but as an actor, NOTHING beats human contact when it comes to creating. What about you? As an artist, do you think that you would still live in ‘far-flung West Wales’ if you didn’t have the internet or would you need to live closer to an artistic hub?
Clive: Moving to Ty Isaf fifteen years ago coincided with the burgeoning of the Internet and the appearance of social media. Facebook was just taking off. Almost from the first week here our connections with the outside world began to grow. Of course the world managed to function perfectly well pre-Internet, but my re-location to a far-flung corner of Wales has been founded from the start on good, strong connections with my collaborators through social media messaging services, e-mails and much later, Zoom. How would I manage without these connections? I suspect not at all well. I love peace and quiet and even isolation in bite-size chunks. But I am collaborative by nature and I’m social by habit, so I need a balance. Before Covid Ty Isaf had been a bit of a creative hub, with my collaborators frequently spending time here so as to be able to work in close contact. We’ve held early brain-storming production meetings on performative works here, and I have a pretty good pop-up animation studio that I can fit into the dining-room when occasion demands.
Although you and I met just the once, several years ago in Cardiff at the home of a mutual friend, you’ve come to this project via a post you made at Facebook (social media, again) that caught my eye and got me thinking.
Jennifer: You have generously omitted the fact that my bad day was caused by my absolutely bombing in an audition that morning! I took to Facebook to admit as such and received a surprisingly sympathetic response. We actors rarely admit our failures because like sharks, theatre folk can smell blood in the water.
Clive: It must have been a slightly strange experience having someone coming at you out of the blue with a hard-to-describe and evolving project after you’d admitted on social media to having had a bad day.
Jennifer: If you were reading a novel, and the protagonist, dejected after yet another failed audition, received a message from a famous artist telling her that he’d like to offer her a chance at a challenging project because her honesty impressed him and she replied “Eh….nah”, how far across the room do you think you would throw the book?
Clive: I take your point. Nevertheless, you took a leap of faith and engaged with me where many would have balked, and I appreciate that.
Jennifer: Gosh that’s interesting that you would say that. Who would balk? Should I have balked? In all seriousness, you not only took a chance on me, you’ve shown nothing but faith in me from the start of this journey. I’m not taking that for granted.
Clive: Are you generally a cautious or adventurous person?
Jennifer: Yes, sometimes cautious and sometimes adventurous.
Clive: David W. Slack and I have a passion for the work of David Firmin and Oliver Postgate, who were the creators at Smallfilms of Clangers, Noggin the Nog and Bagpuss. When I described to you that Bagpuss was an inspiration for the low-tech way in which we hoped to make the film, you yelled with delight and enthusiasm. Did that cinch the deal for you?
Jennifer: I was already enthusiastic at the thought of a toy theatre, but the old stop motion beauty of Bagpuss is timeless and perfect and wonderful. It’s so very British – comforting and sometimes uncomfortable at the same time. I can’t wait to see what we come up with together. I’m excited and nervous, comfortable and pushed beyond my comfort zone – I’m ready to be Bagpussed!
Clive Hicks-Jenkins and Jennifer Castle were in conversation. The top image is by David W. Slack, with special thanks to Ross Boyask for Jennifer Mullen’s portrait shot.
The Design for Today Beauty & Beast Toy Theatre is available:
This post was written by my friend and collaborator Gloria, who under the umbrella of her business Sussex Lustreware, has produced the Harlequinade range of lustre-embellished transferware for which I made drawings on the theme of Victorian Toy Theatre.
A post on the subject of theatrical swags – and collaborative sparks!
“With our first collection, the World of Wonders, Clive gave me his beautiful drawings and more or less carte blanche on the production and decoration of the pots, largely leaving me to get on with it as I thought best, a touching display of trust!
With Harlequinade he was creating the artwork especially for them, and greater collaboration on the overall design seemed in order to make the most of it. So over the summer we had some lengthy chats via Instagram, with pictures and ideas flying back and forth between us. And emojis of course! 😀😆👍
As an admirer of Laura Knight’s ‘Circus’ designs for Clarice Cliff in the 1930s I was keen at the chance to use plate rims in a similar way, with an audience and ruched swags suggestive of a night at the theatre.
Clive obliged with small groups of spectators, while I tried to work out how best to suggest draped velvet with lines of lustre.
Other influences and inspiration cropped up in conversation, from Hockney’s ‘Rake’s Progress’ Glyndebourne sets, through Rex Whistler interiors, to the trompe l’oeil Austrian curtain wallpaper in my aunt’s C20 Bethnal Green bathroom 🤩.
We decided that a single ellipse was too abstract, that three were too much, and so arrived at two. Plus the trio of embellishments, so that the glamour of the occasion – and our fluency as semioticians – should be in no doubt!
I was so pleased with the results that the swags ended up not just on the plates but festoon the jugs and trinket box too ✨💖
It was really fun working in this way, so I thought you might like to see a few snippets ‘behind the scenes’!”
Behold the Harlequinade teapot. The wonderful Gloria at Sussex Lustreware has boldly decorated its Falstaffian belly with two scenes featuring Clown, Pantaloon, Harlequin, Columbine and some performing dogs. In addition the spout and lid swarm with vignettes of Cinderella’s slipper, stars, a jovial sun, oak leaves and a jaunty windmill!
The Harlequinade range celebrates the great Victorian tradition of toy theatre and brims with the characters that would be found in nineteenth century theatre entertainments. Harlequin, Columbine, Clown and Pantaloon were adopted into British pantomime from the Italian Commedia dell’arte, leading a supporting cast of tradesmen and street-sellers forming the backgrounds to their adventures.
There were also assorted fairies, sprites, ogres and demons from the world of faery, together with a mix of gods and goddesses of the Ancient Worlds plus a spattering of historic characters.
The London printmakers who created the toy theatres which became so popular, adapted their scenery and character sheets from live performances, and that’s why the 19th century toy theatres are such an excellent record of what was going on in the real theatres of the times.
The actors of Harelquinades were adept at all the performing arts, and we can tell from depictions of them in toy theatre sheets that they were acrobats, dancers and even equestrian performers. In my images for the range of china I’ve represented them in all their diversity of skills.
Below: My drawing of Harlequin, Columbine, Clown and Pantaloon in the ‘pyramid’ arrangement so common in toy theatre representations of the characters.
The photographic record of Harlequinade is very thin, composed of costumed performers in photographers’ studios, because the art of photography at the time was not up to recording them in action on stage. Here in an undated but late-Victorian hand-coloured studio photograph, actors in the roles of Harlequin, Columbine, Clown and Pantaloon pose in all their Pantomime finery:
Toy theatres, by contrast, with their scenery showing all the elaborate transformations and spectacular stage tricks, as well as the wide range of characters, give us an excellent impression of how the live performances looked to an audience of Victorian theatre-goers.
In 2016 I was already partway through a planned fourteen print series exploring the themes of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, when the poet Simon Armitage unexpectedly appeared and asked whether the prints, when completed, might be available to illustrate a forthcoming ‘revision’ of his translation, due out from Faber & Faber in 2018. My print collaborator, Dan Bugg of Penfold Press who was publishing the series, was as keen as I to take this heaven-sent opportunity, even though it meant we’d have to get our skates on, as the original intention had been to publish just two prints a year for seven years. It was Simon Armitage’s 2007 translation that had been our inspiration for the series, and a dog-eared copy of it had been at my side throughout the work completed to that point.
Simon was a thoughtful collaborator. He let me have my head, and although my emphasis in many of the images was different to how he saw things, he was invariably gracious and allowed me leeway. There were aspects of the poem I’d been wayward with in my translations to images. Before the agreement with him and Faber, I’d been freely interpreting the poem as I wished. For reasons too numerous to bore you with here, I’d changed the Pentangle on Gawain’s shield to a Star of David. The print had already been made, showing a six-pointed star rather than the five-pointed one described – at length – in the poem.
Simon listened carefully to my reasons for the change. He said that if I were determined to stick to my guns, he would support me in my decision, but that I should know it would cause problems among academics and readers who would notice. I admired him for that, and without hesitation agreed to make the change. I couldn’t make it to the edition of seventy-five prints already out in the world, but I could digitally adjust the image that appeared in the new book. I say I, but in fact I have no digital skills, and so the work was undertaken as a favour by my friend, digital printmaker, Mark Brown. Mark also re-coloured Gawain’s sash green in another image, where I’d bleached the green in a twilight setting. Simon lobbied for a greener sash, and he got it.
David Lowery has taken liberties, too, in his film interpretation of the story. That’s not a bad thing. Artists and directors need to be free to ‘adapt’ literary sources. A poem is far from a film, or even a painting – or a print. The film has to work entirely through its visuals. There are the words too, of course, but the way a film looks is what it will stand or fall by.
Clearly I’m not the only one to have a problem with the colour green. Lowery and his designers have bleached their eponymous Knight to an ashen grey/blue with barely a vestige of green. What works for me when he appears, is less his appearance than the truly spectacular sound editing that so compellingly and viscerally announces his presence. (I can’t recall anything in previous films even close to the artistry achieved with the clop of hooves, creak of leather and the belching breath of the horse in this scene.)
My anxieties about the colour green were all about avoiding any possibility of the Green Knight looking silly. The descriptions of him in the poem are unequivocal. He is both a man:
“a fearful form appeared framed in the door: a mountain of a man, immeasurably high, a hulk of a human fromhead to hips, so long and thick in his loins and limbs I should genuinely judge him to be half giant, or a most massive man, the mightiest of mortals.”
but also, green:
“Amazement seized their minds, no soul had ever seen a Knight of such a kind – entirely emerald green.”
So not even plain green, but ’emerald green’, which is a hard thing to pull off in a world where the Jolly Green Giant and the Wicked Witch of the West have set a precedent in bright green that’s common currency today, though would not have been for the original readers of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in their medieval world.
Lowery’s Green Knight is splendidly filmic, man-shaped, but not in the slightest bit fleshy, more of a mash-up of the Winter King and and the Forest Giants of the Lord of the Rings films. Twiggy and somewhat desiccated, you sense he’d bleed not blood, but sap. This distances us from him. He doesn’t have the vulnerability of a man’s flesh and blood, that too-slender fragile neck-stem of skin, muscle and bone awaiting the decapitating blow of an axe. By turning the Green Knight into a character that appears entirely un-fleshy, the inhumanity of decapitation as a wager is less powerfully repellent than were he a man.
Decapitation is pretty much an unsurmountable problem, for film-makers and artists. In a world where terrorists perform such atrocities for the dark web, execution by decapitation remains the thing that is too dreadful to show on news channels or in documentaries, and rightly so. It can be inept and agonising when performed by hand, far from the swift efficiency of the guillotine. Even in drama, where CGI makes all things possible, decapitations are the events from which, for the most part – the schlockier film-makers aside – the camera averts its implacable eye. I was relieved beyond expression when in the TV adaptation of Wolf Hall/Bring Up the Bodies, the execution of Anne Boleyn was off-screen. Claire Foy’s horror alone was knee-trembling enough to make me lose sleep for nights thereafter. In the poem the axe-blow to the Green Knight is described in detail, as is what follows, when the headless yet still-standing Green Knight retrieves what has been lopped from his shoulders:
“For that scalp and skull now swung from his fist; to the noblest at the table he turned the face and it opened its eyelids, stared straight ahead and spoke this speech, which you’ll hear for yourselves:”
So, another element which though fresh in its day, has since been rendered a cliché by every film in which some Viking/Roman/Barbarian/Troll, strides to camera bearing a head swinging by its hair from a clenched fist, and it was one I went twelve times around the block to avoid in my illustration of the moment. This is how, after much trial and error, I showed the Green Knight bearing his own head, counterbalancing him with his caparisoned horse, ears back and eye rolling in terror. The poem describes the great spurt of blood from the wound, but that too felt clichéd when I attempted it, and so I abandoned the description and made instead a strange, unfurling organic blood-cloud, like a fungi springing from his truncated neck.
Arthur’s Court, in the poem, is young and vibrant. The rot we know is coming – in later accounts of the Arthurian myth – has yet to get underway:
“All these fair folk in their first age, together in the hall: most fortunate under heaven, with Arthur, that man of high will; no bolder hand could ever be found on field or hill.”
Gawain is a privileged and yet, up until now, untried youth. We discover he is pure of heart and steeped in the chivalric code of medieval Knights. He is undoubtedly a virgin, and the only woman who has him, body and soul, is the Queen of Heaven to whom he dedicates himself. When armed for his quest, his shield-lining bears an image of the Virgin and Christ child.
I like the premise in the film, so different to the poem, that the court of Camelot is ageing. Lowery gives us a King bone-weary from a hard life, and a grizzled Guinevere, ramrod straight and glitteringly armoured with tiny metallic talismans worn like a breastplate against harm. Unexpectedly Arthur speaks in dialect. The pair look sick and tired, like weary saints in icons, complete with halo-like devices fastened to their crowns that gleam in the half-light.
When reading from the slip of parchment deposited on the round table by the Green Knight, Guinevere, like a medium channeling the dead, delivers the challenge in a voice not her own. In response, Arthur admits he is too old to face down the Green Knight, and appeals to his court for a champion. Steps forward Gawain, his nephew. Everything to this point is engaging. Afterwards, not so much. When the Green Knight takes the fatal blow, it doesn’t amount to anything, because he’s not really a man, and so there’s no fragility in him and therefore no tragedy. Behind Gawain’s back, the corpse stirs and lurches to its feet, a moment that might make the flesh creep, but doesn’t. There’s no sense of dread, or more critically, of impossibility. Nothing is surprising here, because the Green Knight is so patently unreal.
A year later, Gawain steps out to meet the Green Knight’s challenge, to accept a blow the equal of the one he gave, no matter the consequences. In the poem he’s armoured by the King, magnificently encased in engraved and jewelled plate metal. His trials are not described in detail in the poem, though we know they entail battles with serpents (dragons), ogres and ‘woodwoses’ (wild men). With no ‘squire’ attendant to unfasten him from his elaborate armour, he’s effectively sealed into it, travelling, sleeping, fighting, sweating and steaming in the equivalent of a pressure cooker. In the film he is not so encumbered. Neither is he the lithe and practised fighter of the poem, and when he has run-in with the wonderfully creepy feral-boy, Scavenger (Barry Keoghan pitch-prefect in the role), Gawain comes off the worst, and loses his weapons, his shield, his money and his horse, Gringolet.
There is a GGI fox which mercifully talks only briefly, but departs without leaving any impression on the story. (A real fox would have worked so much better. Foxes are infinitely stranger and more beautiful than anything cooked up in a computer animation programme.)
Eventually Gawain seeks respite from his journey at a sumptuous castle where an un-named Lord and Lady welcome and shower him with affection and favours. The Lady (Alicia Vikander) gets jiggly with Gawain in his bedchamber, and the encounter has none of the almost unendurable sexual tension of the poem, where her verbal duelling with the sleep-befuddled and embarrassed young man is so dazzling that every time I read it I find myself holding my breath in anxiety that her husband might burst in. (Or get wind of the shenanigans.) In the poem Gawain is aware – and ashamed of – his nakedness, covered only by a bedsheet in the presence of the Lady, though he is unaware of his own beauty, described so alluringly by the poet. So we can picture clearly, in imagination, the gulf between her worldliness and sexual teasing, and his vulnerability and confusion. (Mrs Robinson and Benjamin in The Graduate.)
Counterpointing these exchanges, verses describing the hunting, killing and butchering of animals by the Lord of the castle add a bloody and steaming physicality, as he too appears to be intent on sexual games, demanding from his young houseguest the gifts (kisses) his wife has elicited from Gawain while he was cornered beneath his flimsy bedsheet. (We’ve witnessed that there was rather more than kisses exchanged, but the film ducks that.) In the poem the episode of the castle where Gawain is wooed is full of unease because he is a sexually innocent and deeply honourable young man endeavouring to be polite in the face of predatory behaviour. By contrast in the film we know him to be sexually experienced, so there’s no tension when Lady Bertilak mounts him in his bed and we get the swift, unnecessary shot of ejaculate on the hand with which he grasps the green belt that’s the token of her ‘affection’.
Chivalry is the foundation on which everything in the poem is built. But in the film the codes of chivalry don’t exist, and without them, everything that transpires is meaningless and unanchored. It’s glacial in pace, which initially invests it with a sense of gravitas, though that palls as we realise the meandering narrative is yielding little to keep us engaged. Gawain meets giants plodding in slow motion across a misty landscape, but nothing happens. He has an odd meeting with the ghost of St Winifred, martyred by decapitation but still hanging around asking for her head to be retrieved from a nearby pond/stream/sinkhole and reunited with her decomposed corpse, laid out on a bed. Gawain obliges.
At the Green Chapel we arrive at the encounter toward which the entire trajectory of the narrative has led. The poem gives us another spectacular entrance by the Green Knight, Gawain bowing his head to receive the axe blow to his neck, and all the threads of the tale coming together in the revelation of what underlay the Green Knight’s challenge at Camelot and who was responsible for it. In the film we know from the start that Gawain’s mother conjured the Green Knight, and so all that remains at the chapel is for the challenge to be completed. Gawain discovers his nemesis sleeping, and has to wait patiently for him to revive. It’s deadly dull, a damp squib and ends with an ungainly scrabble of an escape. A cluttered, decades-leaping montage later, we learn that we were not shown all that transpired at the Green Chapel, but by then I’d stopped caring. Odd that in the twenty-first century, this film-maker has produced a second, much-anticipated meeting between Gawain and the Green Knight, that is decidedly less cinematic than the account offered by the medieval poet.
My misgivings don’t extend to the performances. Dev Patel, Sean Harris, Alicia Vikander and Barry Keoghan are excellent. (Sean Harris’s King is infinitely more interesting than the Arthur of the poem, who seems a cardboard cut-out by comparison – though of course that was intended by the poet.) If Patel seems to me to be too mature for the role, that’s because I have the fixed view of Gawain as an innocent, physically tough though barely out of boyhood. But that’s what I get from the poem, and it’s not how the character is presented here, where he’s dissolute and an untrustworthy lover from the start of the film. Throughout The Green Knight we’re offered intriguing scenes and visual treats, though there are worrying and atmosphere-destroying errors of judgement. The Lady at the un-named castle inventing the pinhole camera in the Middle Ages, and the Green Knight exiting Camelot cackling like a Disney villain, are frankly wince-making moments.
Jade Healy’s production design is bleak though beguiling, and costume work by Malgosia Turzanska is great right up to the moment when suddenly, at the end, a new character appears who’s a dead-ringer for Padmé Amidala in The Phantom Menace. What impressed me more than anything in this film was the music by Daniel Hart, which will stay with me for a long time, not least because I’ve purchased it and plan to read the poem while listening to it.
For over three years I was completed immersed in the world of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight as I produced the fourteen prints and the Faber book. I read the poem every working day, often from beginning to end. I knew the characters and their experiences inside out. I made thousands of drawings. Nevertheless I was fully prepared to set all that aside so as to be able to experience a different telling of the tale. I longed for a different version, something I could lose myself in. I love cinema, and an underlying passion for the history of film underpins a lot of my work. (The book I’ve just finished illustrating, Beauty and Beast, is a paean to Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Béte, a film I’ve loved for over fifty years.) But here there was just too much borrowed from the poem, yet without the context that would have made sense of it. The film-makers should have perhaps detached themselves further from the text than they did. I acknowledge that the complex codes of chivalry are not anything a modern audience would understand or have sympathy with, but a simplified expression of them could have better supported the narrative of a knightly quest. Gawain is not everyman. He’s not ‘one of the boys’ who we identify with because he’s just like us. His code of honour drives him, and would make him uneasy company in any age. He has something in common with the character played by Edward Woodward in another film with roots in what’s now known as folk/horror, The Wicker Man, who we discover late in the story is a virgin, which accounts for the way he behaves and places him as an annoyingly principled outsider. The poet’s Gawain is an outsider, too. He may glitter with youth and idealism and the borrowed trappings of jewelled armour, but he is a loner. No-one wins his heart, which is set on higher things. He begins and ends the poem alone, and there seems very little chance of a good outcome for him beyond the conclusion.
Gawain appears in subsequent Arthurian stories from other hands, though never again as a central character. Placed at the periphery he is not the hero any longer, but a Knight grown sour with age and disappointment.
The past months have seen me pleasurably employed in a second collaboration with Sussex Lustreware designing imagery for their forthcoming range, Harlequinade. This has been a bit of a dream project for me, and one which I suggested to Gloria on the coat-tails of our collaboration earlier this year, when illustrations I’d made as the chapter headings for Marly Youman’s 2020 novel, Charis in the World of Wonders, were re-purposed as lustre-embellished decorations on the Sussex Lustreware World of Wonders range. Gloria and I got used to working around each other on World of Wonders, and on Harlequinade her glorious freehand lustre embellishments suggesting the swags of theatre curtains and the flashes and arabesques that conjure the glitter and tinsel of the stage, are perfect companions.
For the yet to be released Harlequinade range of plates, bowls, trinket-boxes, mugs, jugs and a teapot, I used my life-long love of Victorian Toy Theatre as inspiration, turning to my collection of toy theatre ephemera for inspiration.
All design from historic sources requires adaptation, and in order to make images that fit the various available spaces on the china, and to ensure that the designs have consistency across the range, I’ve reworked – and occasionally reinvented – material from many diverse sources. Toy theatres were produced by a host of print publishers over hundreds of years, who all had their favourite artists. Although overall the toy theatre ‘style’ had something of a consistency, close examination shows many different hands at work, and those wrinkles needed to be ironed out for the purposes of re-presenting the characters here, for a new generation to appreciate. Here you will find the stock characters that were originally lifted from the Italian Commedia dell’arté, Harlequin, Columbine, Pantaloon and Clown, together with a handful of interlopers such as the god Neptune, in his shell chariot drawn by mer-horses – because Harlequinades loved to have a good spattering of the mythic/fantastic – and the fairies so essential to Victorian (and contemporary) pantomime.
There are the tradespeople who had their goods filched by Clown, and the performing dogs and circus horses so appreciated by 19th century theatre-goers. (In the age before motor cars, trained horses were so popular that specialised indoor arenas were devoted to equestrian spectacles, and to this day some theatres bear witness to their previous lives in the name, Hippodrome.)
My collaborator David W. Slack and I have been busy together making some animations to promote Harlequinade in the run-up to its launch. I draw and David animates, though we could as easily reverse that as David is a wonderful artist as well as an animator, and I too am an artist who also animates. It makes the collaboration particularly pleasurable, as we always understand what the other is doing, and the challenges of the work. Watch this space. There are more on the way.
In the first six months of Lockdown I turned my attention to several outstanding book projects, including the commission from Faber & Faber to make illustrations for Simon Armitage’s new translation of The Owl & the Nightingale (see image above) and a small picture-book, The Bird House, for Design for Today. With those completed I turned my attention to a subject that had long held fascination for me, and with a commitment to publish from Design for Today, I invited the poet Olivia McCannon to explore with me the fairy tale Beauty & the Beast.
Olivia and I used many literary and cinematic sources for our work, most significantly Jean Cocteau’s 1946 film of La Belle et la Bête, and the result of what we’ve made together, Beauty & Beast, will be out later this year.
New works from Clive Hicks-Jenkins: Adventures in Books, will showcase my illustration work of the past couple of years, including artworks for The Owl & the Nightingale, Beauty & Beast and the Beauty & Beast Toy Theatre, also published by Design for Today.
I’ve worked over the past months on the designs for a new collection from Sussex Lustreware, which earlier this year produced the World of Wonders range of ceramics. World of Wonders charmingly utilised chapter-head drawings of animals I’d made for Mary Youmans’ novel Charis in the World of Wonders, published in 2020 by Ignatius.
For Harlequinade I’ve made all the images specifically for Sussex Lustreware, inspired by the great tradition of Victorian Toy Theatre. In preparation for the launch of the collection, I’ve worked closely with my collaborator, animator David W. Slack, to produce a series of films to promote the range. Here’s the first:
The animations are made up almost entirely of drawings produced for the ceramics, brought to life on a stage which I designed specially for Harlequinade.
The Harlequinade collection is traditional black on white transfer-ware, embellished by hand with pink lustre and occasional splashes of gold. It will consist of plates, jugs, bowls, mugs, trinket-box and teapot. The Autumn launch date has yet to be announced. Watch this space.
I first came across Toy Theatre sheets in the 1960s, when as a boy I was given a stack of them by the actor and playwright, Bill Meilen, who thought I might enjoy them. The sheets were a mix from a great many ‘plays’, the quaint titles of which printed along the top edges were all unknown to me. There were a gratifying variety of backdrops, cut cloths, headers, ground-rows and wings, few of which matched up, depicting rural idylls, dense pine forests, mountain passes ripe for bandit attacks, raging storms at sea and buildings that ranged from rustic hovels to fanciful palaces. There were no scripts, no theatre in which to hang the scenes, and no characters either, but I was a resourceful child and deft with my pencils and paints, so the omissions were just challenges I found stimulating. I built myself a toy theatre, and made the characters to fit the scenes.
Some time later, when I left my home in Wales to attend a school in London, I discovered Benjamin Pollock’s Museum and Toyshop, and thereafter I was lost. The toy theatre disease was in my blood, and it was incurable. All my pocket money was spent in the Pollock’s shop, and later theatre became my profession. As a theatre director and designer I was forever making model stages, because that’s how full-size sets are designed. And later, when I began to work as an artist, I returned to that early love of toy theatres, making them as a part of my practice, but also just for pleasure.
Toy theatres are much on my mind right now as I have two shortly-to-be-announced toy theatre-related projects nearing completion. (And I must first offer my apologies for having to hold back on revealing them for a little while longer.) But while clearing my desk in preparation for the next project, I came across a photocopied reference-set of all the characters and scenes for Green’s production of Wapping Old Stairs, published originally in 1845. Lingering over the loose sheets as I numerically ordered them ready to be put away, I had a sudden pang of the old joy and anticipation that came upon me all those decades ago, when first I held sheets of 19th century toy theatre scenery and tried to figure out exactly how to cut and colour and assemble it all into a three dimensional setting just waiting to be filled with the characters I planned to create.
Victorian toy theatre sheets didn’t come with instructions. The scripts, printed and gathered into chapbooks, gave the order of scenes, but the would-be toy theatre producer had to use imagination and ingenuity to get the stage into a performable state, and it’s a fact that for most, the visions in their heads of how the production would look, were infinitely more splendid before clumsiness and impatience had rendered the results disappointing. Colouring the sheets alone was a minefield, as the clarity of black and white became muddied with the inept application of watercolours. The dreams of how wonderful a scene would look when expertly painted and assembled, were what kept me going, the perfect example of optimism overriding past experiences.
The art of Toy Theatre reached magnificent heights in the 19th century. The sheets sold by the print shops and toy-sellers were so beautiful in their pristine states, that any child confronted with hundreds of them pegged out for inspection, must have been incoherent with the agonies of choice and the calculations of how far their pennies would stretch. Characters and scenery for entire plays, including scripts, could be had by those whose pockets were deep. There were even professionally hand-coloured sets available, for those with no skill with watercolours and brushes. For the rest, the productions had to be purchased in plain black and white, a sheet at a time, with each purchase carrying the producer a little closer to the goal of a full production.
Here, in a microcosm of the problems that have historically made toy theatres a challenge for their builders, I show the components of a single scene from Wapping Old Stairs that illustrates how bewilderingly complicated the matter of interpretation can be, and how any misjudgements would almost certainly result in disappointment. On the title-page character-sheet can be found a small vignette of how Scene 3 of the play might look on the stage. Here’s an enlargement of it:
Below, the backdrop itself. It’s different in many details from the vignette. Most notable at even a cursory glance, is that the buildings of the vignette are much more elegant, whereas they’re undeniably stolid and lumpen in the backdrop. Moreover the outside edges of the buildings are visible in the vignette, whereas they’ve been cropped in the backdrop. I wonder which came first, vignette or backdrop. Whichever the order, the sketch above is so sure, and so lively and fresh that I’m certain it’s not by the same hand as the backdrop. (I do have a warm affection for the rather foursquare, naive style of British toy theatre scenery, quite different in character to what was appearing in European toy theatres of the time, so it’s perhaps unfair to draw comparisons between the deftness of the above sketch – which would be a perfect illustration in a book – and the toy theatre backdrop below, which also serves the purpose for which it was made.)
A sheet of 4 x wing-pieces carries the information that they can be used for several of Green’s productions, including Wapping Old Stairs. Confusingly wing sheets didn’t offer the numbers of the scenes they were intended for. It was a question of trial and error and putting them where they best fitted.
So how can we be sure that the wings were meant to accompany this particular scene in Wapping Old Stairs? It’s because, helpfully, an illustration was included with the set of sheets that was intended to convey the full splendour of the scenery when set up on the toy theatre stage, complete with a tableau of the characters in the closing moments of the play, and two of the wings from the sheet of four are flanking the stage.
However the artist has stretched the scene well beyond the edges of the backdrop as provided, and indeed this ‘panorama’ format is not at all representative of the proportions of most British toy theatres, which offered a much more compressed image, side to side.
In the illustration the wing pieces allow the audience to see the full width of the backdrop, whereas in reality on a stage of the proportions for which this play was designed, even one set of wings would substantially close down the audience’s view of the backdrop. So neither of the two images – not the vignette and not the panorama – may be relied upon as indicators of how the scene will look on the stage, though they’d almost certainly be regarded as reliable by anyone cutting and pasting away and hoping the result would look as good as it does in the illustrations.
So back in the nineteenth century making toy theatres from the sheets sold by print-shops was always a perilous activity, fraught with the anxieties that the results would be disappointing. These days we have the wonders of inkjet so we don’t have to cut up anything irreplaceable, but there is still the business of getting it right, and making something that matches, at least in part, the wonderful dream that we have in our heads of the perfect production.
In 1985 Pollock’s Toy Theatres Ltd published a facsimile of one of the most ravishingly beautiful of Orlando Hodgson’s plays for the toy theatre, The Giant Horse or The Siege of Troy. Hodgson’s sheets were published in 1833, engraved from original ink and watercolour drawings by Robert Cruikshank (1789 – 1856), caricaturist and lesser known brother of George.
Robert Cruikshank drawing for Orlando Hodgson’s Giant Horse of Troy
Pollock’s Toy Theatres Ltd used a copy of the the play from the V&A Theatre Collection, producing it in an edition of 500, of which mine is numbered 456. The original ten sheets were enlarged so as to fit Pollock’s Redington stage front, and the edition included the original script and a leaflet of the history of the production, packed into a large paper and card envelope.
Pollock’s 1985 reproduction of The Giant Horse of Troy
Hodgson & Co had been a forceful presence in the world of printing for the toy theatre, producing between 1821 and 1825 close on seventy titles. But perhaps the pace and ambition had over-extended the business, because it then passed into other hands.
Robert Cruikshank drawing for Orlando Hodgson’s Giant Horse of Troy
Enter Orlando Hodgson, who emerged to relaunch the family business and reputation. After a slow start as a printer of ‘fancy stationary’, he reverted to the family tradition of publishing sheets for the toy theatre, and between 1831 and 1835 produced full productions of Aladdin, Chevy Chase, The Miller and his Men, The Maid and the Magpie, The Giant Horse and The Forty Thieves.
Robert Cruikshank drawing for Orlando Hodgson’s Giant Horse of Troy
The beauty of Orlando Hodgson’s toy theatre sheets notwithstanding, the rough and tumble of a trade in which others undercut and undermined his business by producing prints that were smaller and cheaper, were discouragements he couldn’t live with, and The Forty Thieves was his last title.
It’s sometimes said that the printmaker West, who came after Hodgson, surpassed him in terms of artistic merit, and that might be engagingly debated. He certainly made more of a success of his business. But for me, the Hodgson sheets have a delirious extravagance that remains hard to beat, and the Cruikshank drawings for The Giant Horse are proof of the lengths to which Hodgson went to ensure that the translation from drawings to printed sheets, were meticulously done.
Robert Cruikshank drawing for Orlando Hodgson’s Giant Horse of Troy
Peter Wakelin’s obituary for Nicolas which appeared in yesterday’s Online Guardian ‘Other Lives’ section, was a necessarily reduced version of what he produced. Here is the obituary in full:
Nicolas McDowall Obituary
Nicolas McDowall, who has died aged 84, spent a lifetime creating beautiful books, first in educational publishing and then through the private press he established with his wife Frances, which was at the forefront of the British fine-art press movement.
Nicolas and Frances worked directly with artists to create between one and five books a year for forty years under their imprint, the Old Stile Press. Among dozens of collaborators were Harry Brockway, Glenys Cour, Natalie d’Arbeloff, John Elwyn, Garrick Palmer and Peter Reddick. Sometimes Nicolas also made books of his own, such as his typographic conceit A Bodoni Charade. They published historical texts and worked with contemporary writers including Ted Hughes, George Mackay Brown and Kevin Crossley-Holland. Such choices reflected their love of the natural world and a humanitarian ethos attuned to Nicolas’s Quaker faith.
Each book was a beautiful object that brought word, image, type, paper, binding and slipcase into a creative unity. Values of design were fundamental; Nicolas balanced type and imagery and sought a satisfying negative space on each spread. The guiding spirit was a neo-romanticism that melded traditional qualities with modernist inventiveness, underpinned by Nicolas’s enjoyment from an early age of William Blake, the Kelmscott Chaucer and the contemporary artists then showing in the London galleries. He explored techniques unfazed by the sensitivities of purist bibliophiles but he loved the age-old feel of words and images impressed in paper. Like autographic prints, the books often used artists’ blocks directly and were numbered in a signed limited edition. They ranged from miniatures and pamphlets to a folio of Philip Sutton’s woodcuts nearly half a metre square and the full script of Peter Shaffer’s play Equus with images by Clive Hicks-Jenkins.
Nicolas was born on 22 May 1937 at Emsworth in Hampshire. His father, Toby McDowall, was a GP and consultant psychiatrist and his mother Nell (née Kewley) was a full-time mother to their three children. His education at Winchester College was excellent but he was deeply unhappy. Studying Philosophy at the University of St Andrews was a joyous contrast and it was there that he met his future wife Frances Pickering, daughter of the Fleet Street editor Sir Edward Pickering, who was reading English and Music. They married in 1964, by which time both were working in publishing, Frances at OUP and Nicolas at Edward Arnold. He began as a sales rep touring schools before moving into management at the Mayfair offices. He became a commissioning editor, head of the education department and finally a director. His creativity came to the fore promoting bold typography and graphics in books for schools, exemplified in the poetry anthology Dragonsteeth, which used a strikingly wide format with a stark silhouette of Stonehenge on the cover.
In the 1970s Nicolas took classes in typesetting and bookbinding and began printing letterpress in a studio in their back garden at Blackheath. The first Old Stile Press book appeared in 1981, by which time Robin and Heather Tanner had become crucial friends and mentors. As the press had been named after a country stile Robin designed a pressmark based on the flared ‘squeeze-belly’ examples found in Wiltshire. Nicolas went part-time at Edward Arnold so as to concentrate on the new venture and in the late 1980s, once their children Daniel and Cressida had left school, they moved to a spot beside the River Wye upstream of Tintern Abbey and he took the opportunity of redundancy.
A big, powerful man, Nicolas was nevertheless reticent and spoke in a mellow voice with a slight stammer; he hated public speaking and business lunches and avoided exhibition openings and literary events unless duty compelled. The peace, natural surroundings and creative work of the decades after they moved to Monmouthshire were a tonic to the debilitating depression he had suffered periodically since his schooldays; while Frances toured the international book fairs he enjoyed the therapeutic routine of day after day working at his presses and roaming a garden that stretched from river to woods. He designed each book and printed every sheet by hand while Frances ran the business operation, commissioned bindings and made paper in the basement.
Their Arcadian idyll was shared by like-minded visiting artists and writers (I was one of them) who spent happy days talking and planning projects over the dining table, experiencing a unique atmosphere of kindness and encouragement that enabled both youthful and established talents to flourish. Visitors were fascinated by the works of British neo-romantic artists that surrounded them: Nicolas said that he aimed to stretch his resources to minor works by the major artists and major works by the minor artists. He and Frances were keen to share their enthusiasm with others: they loaned works freely and an exhibition from the collection toured public galleries.
Nicolas died of cancer on 31 July after a short illness. Frances died in 2019. They are survived by their son Daniel McDowall and daughter Cressida Maher, grandchildren Luke, Toby, Oliver, Imogen, Willow and Fenn and Nicolas’s younger siblings Julian and Christabel. The books of the Old Stile Press are in public and private collections across the world and its archive has been acquired by the University of Indiana.
Great Pucklands by novelist Alison Alison MacLeod appears in the anthology These Our Monsters, published in 2019 by English Heritage. The story focuses on the close bond between Charles Darwin and his daughter Annie. I found myself deeply bound up in both the story and the history that underlay it. A print-out of what I believe to be the only known photograph of Annie sat on my desk throughout the work, though I had no intention of making a direct likeness of it for the illustration. Somehow that wouldn’t have fitted with what I wanted to convey of Alison’s story. I needed to absorb the mood of the piece and somehow create something that had Annie in it, but transformed. Here’s the drawing.
I loved making it, and I kept all the sketches and studies preparatory to it. The ammonite and trilobite are from my small collection of fossils. Sometimes a story gets under your skin, and you have an imperartive to serve it well and to do it justice. That was the case with this one. But I also wanted to honour the person at the heart of it. This image was made for Annie Darwin, who died aged just ten in 1851, one hundred years before the year I was born.
The only image of Annie is a lovely one captured in a daguerrotype. In a world where lives are charted every hour of every day, snapped on smartphones and loaded onto social media sites, and when it seems everyone on the planet is photographed incessantly from birth to death, a single, beautifully accomplished portrait of a child who clearly prepared and gravely composed herself for the momentous occasion, tugs at the heartstrings. Annie left behind so little: this photograph, a gravestone and the ‘box’ in which her parents preserved a small handful of mementoes. Perhaps it’s the modesty of what survives her that opens the door to creativity, because it gives the freedom to writers and artists to ‘imagine’ versions of her into life.
On Friday our friends Sarah Joseph and her son Sam came to Ty Isaf to be with Peter and me for my birthday. All of us now twice vaccinated yet still super cautious, we sat distanced in the dining room while Sarah and Sam pored over the Beauty and Beast drawings. (Soon to be dismantled from their hard-cover sketchbooks before scanning for the publisher and thereafter framing for the October book launch and Martin Tinney Gallery exhibition.)
With windows and doors open to a bracingly cool breeze, Sarah and Sam worked with admirable slowness through each of the – to date – forty illustrations. It was something Sarah and I had done regularly with her husband James throughout the long months of creating Hansel & Gretel, the publishing of which by Design for Today we were able to push through before James’ death in 2019, so that he was able to see what he had watched being made.
Before even the first studies had been made for Beauty and Beast, James quizzed me over how long the book might take, as he had plans to lobby his oncologist for more time in order to be able to be with us throughout the project. That was not to be – as he well knew – though he liked to pretend otherwise.
Long ago, when James had been a stage manager, and I a choreographer, we had been friends and co-workers travelling the world together. In time the habit had grown between us of him being my advisor in all things related to music. His knowledge was encyclopaedic and his skill as a musician ran deep. Throughout the preparations and rehearsals for the music theatre production of Hansel & Gretel that preceded the published edition of Simon Armitage’s libretto, James and I discussed the themes and studied the score together, and his insights brought depth and nuance to my understanding and direction of the piece. Through the incredible determination and support of his family he was even able to be present at the premiere of the work at the 2018 Cheltenham Music Festival, in his wheelchair, and loving every moment of the evening.
I’m going to be a little indiscreet here, and I apologise in advance to any of those who were present at the occasion I’m describing and feel uncomfortable about what I’m about to reveal.
Is this how it’s going to be from now on?
On Friday I was seventy. I should say I’ve never had trouble acknowledging the passing of years before now. This time, however, the number choked me. It seems so impossible an age, and not the person I see myself as being. Or perhaps I should say ‘saw’ myself as being, because now, I do. I have to.
In 2019 I was commissioned by a big organisation to lead on a project to design what was to be the major element of their creative theme of the year. The first meeting took place at the offices of the digital render company who would build and launch the project, so we could all talk and get the ball rolling on the design work. There were quite a lot of people around the table, including the digital company’s Managing Director. I was the only old man at the table. Most around it were in their late twenties to mid thirties. The M D looked super cool, a bit of a surfer-boy-turned-exec. He was, if I’m honest, a tad prickly, as he’d lobbied for his company to provide in-house design. Instead he got me. As the creative talk began and ideas flew around the table, I listened carefully before beginning to throw in suggestions that I could see were going down well with the team from the organisation who’d commissioned me. I could see I was making a lot more work for myself, but on the plus side all the thematics of the project were going to play to my strengths. Toward the end the MD turned to me and said that if I found the pace and demands of the project to be too much, his team would be happy to take on any work I wasn’t up to completing. The air around me turned to ice.
The MD was being a twat. But just as I drew a sharp intake of breath before releasing a fusillade, the Art Director of the commissioning organisation stepped in and quite sharply explained to the MD that there would be no designer on the project other than me. And that’s the way it went. I wasn’t yet out of the woods. The Project Manager at the digital company threw deadlines at me throughout the design process that would have daunted a man half my age. I worked through weekends and nights for three weeks. It was a sort of hell, though it was also exciting.
I never missed one of those deadlines, and I’m proud of that. And in the end the project looked damned good. The old man pulled it off.
I’m guessing there’s going to be more of this, as time goes by. People will look at me when I walk into a room, and make assumptions. That bothers me, a lot. Keep watching. I’ll let you know how it all works out.
Work on Beauty and Beast. Textby Olivia McCannon and illustrations by Clive Hicks-Jenkins. To be published by Design for Today in October 2021.
Dissatisfaction is a part of the artist’s armoury of creativity. Without it, how would we ‘grow’ ideas?
To begin with there was nothing tangible, just the notion of making a book that had been rattling around in my head, seemingly forever. There was no text, only a huge admiration for Jean Cocteau’s 1946 film, La Belle et la Bête, shared with the poet and translator Olivia McCannon.
Olivia and I emailed each other for over a year, working out what there might be in terms of a book. Would it be a new translation of Cocteau’s screenplay, a return to the origin tale and a reinvention of it, perhaps in a contemporary setting, or something else entirely? Maybe something with threads running through it in homage to Cocteau’s masterpiece. A hybrid, both new and old, creating a dialogue with Cocteau and his fellow creators.
When I began preparations, there was much research, but as yet no text. Olivia and I were still exploring ideas. I’d been making maquettes and character studies, but everything was still undecided. My maquettes referenced the film, but also changed the characters. They weren’t likenesses of the actors playing the roles.
As our talks focussed in on the notion of a hybrid creation, I made a single illustration – one I felt confident about as the foundation block – to which another was added, and then another, and another.
I’ve never worked in this way before. My illustration projects have always been responses to an existing text. But on this book I’m working with conversations with the writer as the starting points, and fragments of text still in flux. In illustration, the decisions made at the outset affect everything that follows: the way the characters look and what they wear. The settings – the buildings, rooms, passageways, gardens and landscapes of all the locations of the story. Every detail considered, invented, revised and rendered.
A group of images made out of sequence to the emerging text, grows. New images are added to make connections between them. Gradually a narrative in pictures emerges, but it’s a creation that morphs every day because each new part of it not only adds to what’s gone previously, but changes it. Each emerging section of the text, changes it. My starting point is invariably a scene from the film, which then transforms into a version I believe will work on a page. So a scene in which multiple cuts show Belle, la Bête, a table laid with silverware, crystal and fruit, an overmantel clock chiming, living statues watching from the shadows and a fire-blazing, gets condensed to a single double-page image.
Illustrations become sandwiched by others that affect them. Sometimes an image is cancelled out and discarded, but more usually changed to better deliver what’s needed at that stage of the story. Things that weren’t issues, become so overnight. An idea I thought was coming over with clarity, becomes muddled because its context has changed.
I try to avoid obviousness when making images to accompany a text. I draw inspiration from Olivia’s emerging narrative, but largely attempt to colonise the spaces between her lines of poetry.
As the book expands, and the passages of text emerge to fit together with the images I’ve already completed, then my revisions begin. Perhaps I see that the adjustment of a character’s glance might better signpost the page-turner’s forward trajectory, or profitably pause it. A new line suddenly makes clear that the image is needed as a bridge to the next page turn, and an adjustment could aid that process. I enjoy the challenges of patching illustrations with newly worked elements, of discovering forgotten aspects and realising on reflection how they work better – or not so well – as I’d originally thought. The revisions don’t show in photographs and won’t show when printed, but the changes will be apparent when the works are exhibited in a gallery in October, when close inspection from oblique angles in bright light will reveal the myriad surgeries. I like the idea that the journey will be visible in the surface of the artworks, like age-lines in a characterful face.
It’s sixteen years since you left us on May Day 2005. I didn’t believe it at the time, and I don’t believe it now. Your voice is as clear and true in my head today as if you were just downstairs and calling me to tea. That morning my friend Susie Savage picked up the phone in Penparc Cottage that I didn’t hear ringing because I was sitting in your chair in the garden, and I knew the moment she appeared at the back door the news she carried, because her face was stricken at what she had to tell me. Everything in life changed at that moment: my chum, confederate-hatcher-of-plans, confidante and muse, companion-gardener, playmate, poet-in-chief and heart-healer, gone.
The stick in a pot that you gave me all those years ago, now planted in a garden to which we came after your time, has grown into a magnificent Walnut tree big enough for us to picnic under its shade. (The photograph here was taken several years ago, since when it has grown a great deal more and we’ve raised its canopy.) I see it every day, from the house and whenever I’m in the garden, and it will always be ‘Catriona’s Tree’ for me.
I never thought there would be other poets after you, but I was wrong. First there was Marly Youmans’ whose poetry carried me on wings of creativity, and with whom I’ve been collaborating for about a decade and a half, making covers and illustrations for her poetry and novels. More recently there has been Simon Armitage, now our Poet Laureate, whose Sir Gawain and the Green Knight I illustrated for the 2018 revision from Faber & Faber, and who I’ve since worked on with two more books: Hansel & Gretel: a Nightmare in Eight Scenes, for which I won the 2020 V&A Illustrated Book Award, and The Owl & the Nightingale, another translation by him from the medieval, due out in October this year. How proud of me you would be for these poet friendships and collaborations. Soon there will be Beauty and Beast, a reinvention of the fairytale and film that you and I talked about so much, shaped by the poet Olivia McCannon into something that’s thrilling to be working on, and it too will be out in October this year.
I think so often of conversations we had, and the conversations we would have now, were you here to have them with. In fact (Shhhh, tell no-one) I do have those conversations, and I hear your answers, and you’re as unexpected and funny now as you ever were in life. But still, still, still I miss you, and I always will.
Did I tell you that little dog Jack died? I can’t remember now whether I did. Three years ago. That connection with you, too, now severed. He’s buried here at Ty Isaf, so we have your tree and Jack in the garden. It’s a marvellous place and you would love it. Yesterday I watched as redstarts dashed back and forward to drink from the birdbath, and laughed at the antics of Mr & Mrs pheasant, the family of jackdaws and the marauding squirrels, all arguing away under the bird-feeder hanging from the big apple tree on the turning circle of the drive. Let’s take a walk later today. I want to share news.
I first saw Jean Cocteau’s 1946 film of La Belle et la Bête in the early 1960s. Before the age of video I recollected the film from that first, single viewing, for years running it over and over in my head, remembering, and very likely misremembering it, until the ‘video’ age dawned when everything could be acquired and watched at will. So for most of my life, one way or another, the film has been my companion. I’ve thought about it, watched it scores of times, analysed it and dreamt about it.
Now I’m making a book of the story, with my collaborator, the poet Olivia McCannon. It started out as a full homage to Cocteau’s interpretation, but through development has turned into something quite different: a new, reinvented version of the story, in which together Olivia and I acknowledge the film’s influence while finding our own own creative path.
There are several places in the book in which I want to visually capture my memories of watching sequences of the film when the camera ‘panned’ horizontally to reveal spaces by degrees. Beauty’s bedchamber was chief among these sequences.
Cocteau remarks in Diary of a Film how visitors to the studio loved exploring Beauty’s bedroom. Walls made of scrim allowed lights to be shone through them and created dissolving vistas of the garden sets beyond, and I imagine that must have made it a strangely liminal space for the actors to work in, finding themselves un-anchored and floating between worlds. Beauty’s bed, voluptuously draped with fur under its canopy of muslin, seems like a boat in this strange sea, and everywhere the glimmer and sheen of opulence.
It’s heady stuff. But the screen ratio of the time was undoubtedly confining, and so a panorama is suggested rather than attained, with the horizontally moving camera the director’s tool to take the audience on a tour of his creation.
By using a double-page spread, I have a ‘panoramic’ shape in which to set my illustration.
With no camera point-of-view to slow the reveal of my illustration, I rely on making an image that offers up all its elements slowly, to halt a headlong rush past them. So Beauty’s ‘enchanted’ looking-glass, is not a rectangular, framed mirror on a table, as it is in the film…
… but a full dressing-table with incorporated looking-glass, half veiled in a flimsy sheet, seen below in a detail from the final render. The time it takes to decipher the object, slows down the viewer, who must pause to better understand it.
And because I have no recourse to Georges Auric’s shimmering, orchestral film score, I set imagined breezes through the composition, ruffling the veils and sending leaves skittering, so the image ‘suggests’ a soundtrack where there is none.
Most people read an image left to right, and so we begin with the bed, with its vertically compressed canopy and hangings which stream out to carry the eye further into the composition, to the Caryatid with candles on her head, the veiled dressing-table and shell-backed chair, up to the bowed balcony overlooking the garden with the Beast’s pavilion/treasury shining in the twilight. (Or it might be an empty birdcage, swinging in the window.) Winds feature in the film whenever the strange is present: Beauty’s father is buffeted by a silent wind when he attempts to pour wine from a pitcher at the Beast’s table, and again at the moment when his previously unseen host appears in the garden, enraged by the theft of a rose.)
There’s no room here for the towering furniture and high ceilings of the Doré engravings that had so influenced Cocteau when he was planning the film. Budgetary constraints dictated his sets could not be spacious and airy. For the most part the interiors, painted black to hide their true proportions in darkness, are conjured by deploying accent features: the architecturally elaborate fireplace supported by living statues, towering stone doorways that dwarf Beauty and the iconic passageway of pale, disembodied arms holding candelabras that magically light when needed. With studio space limited, the bedchamber, while not large, is the most elaborate set in terms of textures, shimmering claustrophobically like a fevered dream. On her bed, swaddled in finery which practically disables her, Beauty appears frozen in the gleam of satin and roped pearls, as the hangings press in suffocatingly.
To mimic something of the character of Cocteau’s vision, an ornate border contains the illustration, compressing and tightening the space, so that it too will press in on whoever enters it. There are birds in the border, but I think of them as being pretty paper-cut decorations, because the Beast’s twilight kingdom in the film has no birds. Not in frame, and not on the soundtrack.
An exhibition of all the original artwork for Beauty & Beast, opens at Martin Tinney Galley, Cardiff, in October.
It was only back in 2019 that I spent a year as artist-in-residence with English Heritage, and yet it seems a lifetime ago. Anyone with the romantic notion that I spent a year motoring around the countryside visiting English Heritage properties in care and making artworks at a leisurely pace, would be way off the mark. It was deadlines from beginning to end, and I spent the entire time pinned to the worktable in my studio, creating images that were the results of my own research. There wasn’t time to visit a single site. Nevertheless there were exciting creations during the year, even when technically and creatively challenging in the allotted time.
The first project was to design and render all the ‘assets’ (artworks, to you and me) for the online, interactive English Heritage ‘Myths Map’ that was produced by the digital agency, Gravitywell, in Bristol. I suggested a cartouche of the type used on historic maps as a portal to the experience, and produced a number of rough designs to kickstart discussions with the Gravitywell and EH teams.
The EH team were very keen to use the iconography of Saint George and the Dragon, which I used to surmount the cartouche. They were also enthusiastic to include an animated element. Because time was incredibly short, I decided to render the image so as to look rather like a paper-cut, as it would have a graphic dynamic and yet be relatively quick to make.
All aspects of the map were initially made in black and white and the colour added later. It was such a complex project that it could have been misleading to decide the palette at the outset. It was much easier to assemble everything and then play with options.
The image had to be flexible enough for it to be adapted to several formats across various EH platforms.
The animated element was a gentle joust between the Saint and the Dragon, and the ‘maquettes’ I designed needed to be very simple as there would be no close-ups. The figures had to work pretty much as reverse silhouettes. I would have preferred to make the animation myself, but Gravitywell wanted to produce it in house, and so made the sequence guided by a thumbnail animation storyboard I created for them.
The puppets were designed and assembled by me and photographed in key positions. I then took them apart, scanned the components and sent the files to the company to be digitally reassembled and animated.
The animation was brief and added a little liveliness to the viewers’ experience. Once through the cartouche and sailing down to the map, there were animated cloud elements and passing flocks of birds to sweeten the interaction. Sea-monsters emerged from waves and a masted ship went down in the tentacles of a Kraken. I’m of the opinion that while tight deadlines and tight budgets are challenges to creativity, they shouldn’t necessarily be impediments.
There was a plan to make a more complex George and the Dragon animation for another EH platform later in the year. I’d made a trial, rough maquette of a dragon in preparation for that, but in the end it was cancelled. A shame as the maquette tests were good.
Work continues on my collaboration with poet Olivia McCannon on a new retelling of Beauty and the Beast, to be published by Design for Today. Working with Olivia is a revelation. Ideas bat back and forward between us in e-mails, and I find the conversations to be revelatory. We both make discoveries through the processes of discussion, exploring connections and explaining new ideas to each other, and I find that the e-mails and all the ideas they contain are as equal a source of the images I’m making as her evolving text. Recently Olivia wrote to me that she believed there was a rich seam to be considered in regard to Cocteau’s casting of the role of the Goddess Diana in the 1946 film, and that’s opened a whole treasury of possibilities about the living statues, which we’ve adopted for our own version of the story, and how their origins might be explored.
In another e-mail she wrote thrillingly of her imagined source of the jewels the Beast bestows on Beauty, and afterwards I could barely sleep for a week with excitement in anticipation of the images that were evolving in my head out of her ideas.
At this stage I can explain no more. While I enjoy sharing the creative processes of making images, in this instance I don’t want to offer them before they’ve been realised and the book published. Suffice to say that this is going to be a version of Beauty and the Beast like no other.
The illustrator Alexander Sorokin was born 1961 in the city of Krasnoyarsk, Siberia. His illustrations for Who’s Carrying its House on its Back were made in 1986, and the book was published two years later. He was a young man at the time of these, in his mid-twenties, and so the achievement was mightily impressive.
The period 1985-1991 was a turbulent one for Soviet/Russian illustrators. Many whose careers had previously been reliant on a state-supported publishing industry, found themselves without work when the state withdrew funding for illustrated books. Sorokin’s images for his book drew on the character of the ‘Lubok’, a popular and affordable folk art print tradition, and it may be that the book would not have been published had it come later, when publishers were struggling to survive. Early Lubok prints were produced from woodblocks, and later lino, but Sorokin’s illustrations for a mass produced book were achieved through the process of gravure, though the effect is that of relief prints made from blocks.
I’ve just acquired a single print from the series. Printed onto lightweight paper with an edition number, it’s likely these were produced as a separate edition of art prints by the artist or his publisher. I love the eastern European illustration tradition, and I also love windmills, so this one ticked all the boxes for me.
I write here about artists and illustrators from around the world who inspire me, out of a wish to see their work better recognised. Some of them are hard to track down, and as I’m neither an academic or a linguist, I’m at a disadvantage when attempting to research Russian practitioners. So I’m enormously obliged to Andrey Keloshateo, who generously provided me with information about Sorokin and this beautiful book.
My current project to make a new illustrated edition of Beauty and the Beast for the publisher Design for Today, has been a strange and challenging one. The starting point had been the 1946 La Belle et la Bête by the artist/playwright/director Jean Cocteau.
It can’t be denied that I’m in thrall to the film, and have been since I saw it in my early teens. But of course being in thrall isn’t the best place from which begin a proper relationship. Thrall paralyses. Like passionate love, it has the power to unhinge and cloud judgement. At the beginning I wanted to respond to the film, but couldn’t find a way to do so without the result turning into a sort of graphic novel version, and I knew that approach was not for me.
When the writer Olivia McCannon accepted my invitation to come on board, the creative conversations she initiated set me on another trajectory, as I knew they would. Words have always been prime motivators in my creative process, and even before any drafts of text emerged, Olivia’s e-mails alone became my sources of inspiration. She returned to the pre-Cocteau fairytales as a preparation to re-examining the film, and that was a huge help in circumnavigating the debilitating awe of Cocteau’s achievement preventing me from making progress. I’ve since learned not to return to the film every time I want to examine an aspect of it, but to recall a sense of how it made me feel after having first experienced it all those years ago. I’ve had to learn the art of translation.
I realise that without videos, DVDs and the Internet, after my cinema viewing of La Belle et la Bête there was a gap of nearly twenty years before I was able to revisit it. Something had flourished in that absence. The love I had for it was of an experience cherished and recalled. It was as much about how I was feeling at that time of first viewing, as it was about the film. In the interim my own creative imaginings had filled in and embellished many missing parts. So now it’s those ideas – the ones that sprang from the first viewing – that I draw on to create images that are both of the film, but also expressions of my dream version of it.
I have to keep working at this phenomenon of ‘recollection’, to ensure I’m in the right place. A technique I use is to sit with a DVD of the film, not watching it but jotting down thoughts in a notebook, prompted by the soundtrack. In this way I’m more able to access deeper memory. It’s the deep memory I need for this work. It gives me more than any studying of the film yields, though of course I’m doing that, too. I study, digest and evaluate. Then I set all that aside and go back further, to the visceral, early response. I read the parts of the text Olivia has offered, and her wonderful notes. Then I set about fitting the jigsaw puzzle together.
I am enormously obliged to Anna Zaranko for the insight of her questions in our interview for the online magazine, Culture.PL. It makes such a big difference when the interview takes you down paths of genuine surprise and interest. Anna wanted to explore the influence of Polish folk-art on my work, and this for me was a first, as no-one has ever asked these questions before, even though I often refer to the Polish influence when I write about my illustration work. To read the piece, Click on the link below:
In the lead up to Christmas, Penfold Press is running a competition. Anyone purchasing The Tiger’s Bride via the Penfold website between now and Christmas Day, will automatically be entered into a raffle to win this original study that I made preparatory to the print.
Measuring 20 x 20 cms and made in coloured pencil and ink on paper, the drawing has been mounted ready for framing. It shows an example of the ‘popular art’ so loved by the Victorians, those picturesque castles, follies, houses and cottages mass-produced by Staffordshire factories, their gleaming white brightened with vibrant brushstrokes of colour. Often made as spill-holders, pastille-burners or stands to hold pocket-watches, they embody a decorative charm that despite the fluctuations of times and tastes, has always found favour in people’s homes. Whatever the realities of life, a bit of Staffordshire can lighten the heart and add a splash of fairytale to a dark winter’s day.
The drawing was one of many made prior to my final work for the print. In the finished print I added a painted Polish folk-art bird to the left-hand tower. I love Polish folk-art and have a fairly big collection of these charming little birds, still made in rural areas of Poland.
The winner will be contacted via email. Good luck!
You can go direct to The Tiger’s Bride page of Penfold Press from HERE, and for anyone interested in Polish Folk Art and the little painted birds in the images above, Zara of the online shop Frank & Lusia always has a good selection in stock HERE. (Or has them for as long as the trade deal holds.)
Beauty & Beast, my dream-project with poet Olivia McCannon and publisher Joe Pearson at Design for Today, is my Winter 2020-to-Summer 2021 project. With all other commitments completed or slightly shifted, I can give it my full attention. This is one that’s so challenging and demanding that I need to go at it at a headlong tilt. It can’t be done in stages and set aside between times.
La Chasse is an idea I’d been thinking on as a double-page spread for a year or more. The hunt in the 1946 film isn’t witnessed. There’s a glimpse of a dead animal, and then the unforgettable scene in the corridor outside Belle’s room in which she finds la Bête, his dress disordered and blood-splattered and his hands smoking, as though he’s burning from within. It’s the one moment in the film where Belle looks disgusted by his appearance/condition. Her face twists into ugliness as she throws her flimsy scarf at him, commanding him to clean himself up. It’s hard to watch, given his evident distress.
What we know (well, what some of us know) is that this curse strips humanity from him with every act of beastliness, and like the person with dementia heartrendingly aware of the memories being stolen by the progress of the disease, so la Bête is in a state of bodily horror as his shape and nature shift until he’ll reach a point where he will have no recall of his former self.
Cocteau may have averted his camera gaze from the hunt and kill for technical reasons. Jean Marais as la Bête and Josette Day as Belle were both weighed down by elaborate costumes that while gorgeous, dictated that their scenes together be conducted as a dream-like and stately Pavane. Marais was athletically built and fit, but his costume and make-up were not made for running. We see him make a brave dash for the undergrowth, and that’s that.
These days CGI would step in to render him as fleet and lithe as Spiderman, and we wouldn’t be any better off for it. But as an artist/illustrator, the moment of the kill is one I can’t turn away from, and so for months I’ve played with visual ideas to bring the moment to life.
The sequences in the Beast’s gardens were stitched together from film-footage made at locations, particularly at the Chateau of Raray. The gate above, now stripped of the ivy and undergrowth that made it so picturesque when Cocteau turned his camera on it, became an architectural anchor for the illustration, though I simplified it considerably so as not to imbalance the composition.
I also reinvented the flanking Caryatids into more enigmatically watchful Sphinx-like creatures, as an interesting distaff to the living male statues that flank the fireplace and breathe out plumes of smoke in the Beast’s dining-room.
A fully worked up study for the illustration (see detail above) experimented with textures and shapes. But in the end I decided to reverse the Beast so that he attacks the animal from the front, disabling it the way a big cat hunts, by blocking its prey’s windpipe. It also made the image read better, as Western readers have an eye-direction that moves left to right.
Here’s the image in the final render.
The iconic lace, stand-up collar has come undone. It’s a slightly strange and abstract shape that works in context because readers will already be familiar with the collar from previous images. The trailing sleeves are still in place, but the breeches are gone, and one powerfully taloned foot has now become too distorted to fit into the single, elegant, lace-cuffed Chevalier’s boot that remains. The Beast’s fashionably slashed sleeves mirror the injuries made by those meat-hook claws that lock into flesh to hold the creature steady.
Dozens of drawings, from the briefest of sketches to fully-worked-up paintings and detailed maquettes have helped me get from idea to illustration.
From an Instagram conversation with artist, Dinny Pocock
Dinny: It’s fascinating to see these (sketchbook) pages. By the naming of the characters it would seem – on the surface – ‘easier’ to portray the nature of the beast, but you give Belle such strength and expression. It’s overwhelming.
Clive: Finding the hearts of the characters has been quite the journey of discovery on this project. The Beast’s appearance occupied me more at the start, because there is an undoubted allure in creating a ‘monster’. I found that what worked wonderfully in the 1946 film with an actor in an ingenious makeup, didn’t translate well to the page. When I stuck too closely to portraying Jean Marais’ Beast, mine looked worryingly like a teddy bear with fangs. So a lot of effort went into finding a balance that referenced the Marais/Cocteau creation, but took it where it needed to go in order to work on paper. I had to reconfigure the face, de-humanise the eyes and create an underlying carnivorous ferocity, all while holding on to a sense of the noble. I studied big cats, but far more profitably in terms of inspiration, hyenas. As for finding Beauty, that’s been in nearly every way, the harder task. I knew that to make this work it wouldn’t be enough to portray physical loveliness. Crucially the important things are what underpin the surface of the character. She’s fearful, conflicted, uncertain and unanchored. That’s a lot to suggest. I’m pleased you find the studies of her to be moving. It’s what I hope for in the book.
Below: stages of the character design process begin with studying and making drawings of the the film, but then move on to many sketches and maquettes:
I’m happy to make the formal announcement that Olivia McCannon and I are currently collaborating on our exploration of the fairy tale Beauty and the Beast, which will be published by Joe Pearson at Design for Today. The project began with Jean Cocteau’s 1946 film La Belle et la Bête, though while inspired by that masterwork of cinema, our version is increasingly evolving its own character. I sometimes say that it’s not so much a version of Cocteau’s film, than a dream we’ve had of it. (I’ve been dreaming about La Belle et la Bête a lot recently.)
Olivia McCannon is a poet and translator. Her collection Exactly My Own Length (Carcanet) won the Fenton Aldeburgh Prize and was shortlisted for the Seamus Heaney Prize. A new collection, Z, is forthcoming. She has translated the poetry of Louise Labé and Ariane Dreyfus, and a Balzac novel (Penguin Classics). Her doctoral research at Newcastle University (Northern Bridge/AHRC-funded) considers the potential of poetry and translation as ‘arts of living on a damaged planet’. She is currently collaborating with Clive Hicks-Jenkins on an illustrated Beauty and Beast that is both a response to Jean Cocteau’s 1946 film of La Belle et la Bête and a poetic regeneration of the story’s sources.
Clive Hicks-Jenkins has developed a reputation as an artist who works with poets. For over a decade he’s collaborated closely with the American poet Marly Youmans, producing book-jackets and page decorations for her anthologies and novels. His illustrations will accompany Simon Armitage’s new translation of the medieval poem The Owl and the Nightingale, to be published by Faber next year. Beauty and Beast will be Clive Hicks-Jenkins third collaboration with publisher Joe Pearson at Design for Today, and his first with Olivia McCannon.
In 2019 Design for Today published Simon Armitage’s Hansel & Gretel: a Nightmare in Eight Scenes with illustrations by Clive Hicks-Jenkins. Armitage and Hicks-Jenkins had worked previously on the Faber & Faber 2018 illustrated edition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, but it was the illustrations for their second book collaboration, Hansel & Gretel, that caught the attention of the judges of the V&A Illustration Awards, resulting in the artist being named the winner of the 2020 V&A Illustrated Book Award. Design for Today has just published Clive Hicks-Jenkins’ picture book The Bird House in their ‘Bantam’ series.
The March Lockdown put an end to the proposed V&A exhibition of works by the several categories of Illustration Award winners. There is be no V&A 2021 Illustration Award, and the current plan – all being well – is to re-schedule the postponed 2020 winner’s exhibition for next year.
I was so pleased to be asked to take part in the V&A interview. It enabled me to credit all those who brought Simon Armitage’s text to the page. Particularly the publisher, Joe Pearson, who I hold in the highest esteem, and Laurence Beck, who meticulously ‘cleaned up’ and colourised my drawings ready for printing. (I put him through so many palette variations, and yet he remained unruffled and good humoured throughout.) The book was a team effort, and everyone worked tirelessly to get it to the finishing line.
My thanks to all at the V&A, especially to Rebecca Law, my contact throughout, who asked interesting questions in the interview. (link at top of page)
I’ve loved Jean Cocteau’s 1946 film of La Belle et la Bête since first I saw it. Loved it, been thrilled, haunted and in thrall to it. I never tire of watching it, sometimes quipping that it’s the film to throw in my coffin to keep me company in the afterlife I don’t believe in.
For the longest time I’d been wondering how best to honour and homage the film. To begin with I toyed with the idea of making a series of paintings, but then together with Joe Pearson at Design for Today – who published Hansel & Gretel last year – hatched a plan to produce an illustrated book in collaboration with the poet Olivia McCannon, who I’d been longing to work with. Joe, Olivia and I are in agreement that neither a straight adaptation of the screenplay nor a picture book version of the film could do justice to our ambitions. We’ve opted instead for what we’re referring to as a reinvention of Cocteau’s masterpiece characterised less as a translation, than a ‘dream’ of the film.
I’ve filled drawing books with preparatory material. Characters and places have been exhaustively explored in order to find versions that will work to best advantage in illustrations. Iconic visual aspects of Cocteau’s Beauty and her Beast In their Christian Bérard costumes have been pored over, their shapes, textures and design characteristics examined, simplified and reconfigured so as to work graphically on the page. I’ve built maquettes and three-dimensional model sets to help with my compositions.
With the groundwork done, I begin the real work of construction. There’s no dummy yet, but I estimate forty illustrations. Time to get busy!
Launched today, my new print edition with Dan Bugg at Penfold Press, The Tiger’s Bride. It marks a return to a theme I explored in my first print with the Penfold Press, Man Slain by a Tiger. The two prints have a common interest in Staffordshire Pottery and in particular their ‘penny-dreadful’ celebration of awful events. Based on the Staffordshire group titled The Death of the Lion Queen, my print draws on the history of Ellen Bright, who in 1850 at Wombwell’s Menagerie entered a cage of mixed big cats for the entertainment of the crowd.
At just seventeen years old Ellen was a relatively inexperienced animal trainer, and on this occasion things did not go well for her. An eyewitness account by a doctor in the audience who attended her after the incident, records that she’d twice set her whip at the face of the tiger who attacked her. The wounds as described by him were catastrophic. She didn’t recover consciousness and he was unable to save her.
Ellen is buried in a grave she shares with her cousin William Wombwell, who the year before her death was killed by an elephant while working at another menagerie in Coventry. Surprisingly, the tiger continued its life as before at Wombwell’s, exhibited as ‘The animal which killed The Lion Queen’. However the law thereafter changed, forbidding women to enter cages with big cats for the purposes of entertainment.
Below: my first print with Penfold Press, Man Slain by a Tiger, 2015
There are several versions of The Lion Queen as portrayed in Staffordshire groups, with and without a title on the base, some with flowered hoops, and some without. The rearing animal is sometimes striped and sometimes spotted, presumably according the painter’s whim.
Ellen’s fate was recorded in broadsheets of the day, accompanied by chilling artist’s impressions of her death. But as a celebrated show person I think she would have preferred the Staffordshire commemorative figure group of a rose-cheeked soubrette in a pretty stage costume, flanked by big cats in thrall to her charms. My print nods to the Staffordshire group, but also to the traditions of the Victorian stage, toy theatre, folk art and my love of birds. And my love of Angela Carter, too, from whose riff on Beauty and the Beast I borrowed my title.
Creating the characters for the Simon Armitage re-invention of the story of Hansel & Gretel, proved a long process of development. To begin with the visualisations were for the stage. Only later did I have to think about the translation of the stage characters to the book published by Design for Today.
In the case of the mother – who in Simon’s Hansel & Gretel: a Nightmare in Eight Scenes is a loving and protective one, far from the wicked mother/stepmother of the original story as told by the Grimm brothers – I created the basic idea of the character as she’d be presented on stage in a shadow-puppet form. My very simple design defined her overall look, though without too much detail.
Once the initial design was established and agreed between me and Peter Lloyd, he further developed it into an elaborate, articulated shadow-puppet, ready to be used in animation sequences for projection onto a screen during the live performances. It went through several stages.
As finally seen on stage, the shadow-puppet version of the mother was an extraordinary creation by Peter, stout of form and with a ruined, almost bovine peasant face deeply scored by hardship. But the careworn appearance belied her character, because when animated for the camera she transformed. Dainty on her feet and with expressive hands and a bobbing, bird-like demeanour, her anxiety for her children’s safety, became her defining characteristic.
Animating Peter’s shadow puppets was a pleasure, because they were so beautifully conceived and executed. My animation assistant was Phil Cooper, who also designed the sets for the stage production.
When the time came to re-examine the characters for the illustrated book, I had to think again about the mother.
In illustration form, without the medium of animation to more fully express her character, after trialling some images I felt weren’t working (see the two above) I decided to made her less stolidly shapeless than in her shadow-puppet form. Though my work retained clear vestiges of Peter Lloyd’s weary, middle-aged shadow-puppet mother in all of her paper-cut, filigree complexity, in one image I was able to carry her back to when she was a young and expectant first-time mother. Sometimes lines of text which in a live performance flash past, in a book may be paused at and reflected upon in an accompanying image The physical act of reading, looking and turning pages, imposes its own, slower pace.
Creativity has fluid boundaries. I would have loved to show more aspects of the mother in the book, but in the end it’s important to be rigorous when deciding on which visual ideas will best express the story, and which need to be trimmed away. So she appears just three times: at the beginning, in the company of her husband, in an image showing her pregnant with her daughter (inspired by Chagall), and at the end of the book, in an image that shows her fate.
Scores, possibly hundreds of sketches, from thumbnails to fully worked maquettes and illustrations, were made in order to arrive at the three images of the mother in the published edition of Simon Armitage’s text. But if tomorrow I had to illustrate a story in which she made a reappearance, I could portray her with no hesitation. I could draw her as a child, as a young woman, or as a woman for whom life was quite different to the version in our book. I could draw her in a heartbeat, because I know her so well.
The Design for Today edition of Hansel & Gretel: a Nightmare in Eight Scenes, is the winner of the 2020 V&A Illustrated Book Award. Copies may be purchased:
Peter Wakelin will be interviewing Clive Hicks-Jenkins on the 29th September, 19:00 – 20:15. The first in a planned series of online art interviews organised by the Contemporary Art Society for Wales, admission to In Birdland is free. There are 100 places available for the live event which may be viewed around the world, though registration is required.
While caged at home for lockdown, Clive Hicks-Jenkins has surrounded himself with birds. His projects have included his miniature picture-book Bird House for Design for Today, a new print of birds and beasts for the Penfold Press and illustrations for Simon Armitage’s translation of the medieval poem The Owl and the Nightingale, forthcoming from Faber & Faber. Birds have appeared often in Clive’s paintings, notably his series on St Kevin and the Blackbird and CASW’s The Virgin of the Goldfinches in Llandaff Cathedral. In this live interview he will talk about how birds weave their way through so much of his work, his inspirations and practices and his collaboration with the Poet Laureate. There will be time allowed at the end for audience questions.
Above: Illustration from Simon Armitage’s The Owl and the Nightingale
Below: St Kevin and the Sunflowers. Private Collection
Below: Startled Peacocks: Private Collection
Below: Illustration from Bird House, due out from Design for Today in November
The 2019 English Heritage Story-Telling Competition
In 2019, while I was artist-in-residence for English Heritage, one of the briefs suggested to me was that I might create illustrations as prizes for the winners of the five categories of an English Heritage story telling competition. It was a new experience to consider, inasmuch that I’d have to agree to be involved from the start so that the announcement could be made at the launch of the competition. This meant that I’d be committed to the project before getting to read any of the stories, which is not my usual way of working. But because I thought the idea had the potential to be stimulating for the young writers, I accepted.
The 5-7 category winner was Sophie from the Midlands with her story of The Dragon and the Princess, set at Kenilworth Castle. Most of the stories submitted for the five categories were based on history, but Sophie had written one in which she had a protagonist who appeared to be channeling her inner Daenerys Targaryen – though without the attendant carnage.
I thought the story charming, and believed I could contribute something to it. In an ideal world I would have enjoyed having dialogues with the winners so that I could exchange ideas with them and have a sense of what they wanted for their stories, the way I would when illustrating a commercial publication. But this was deemed by English Heritage to be too complicated, and so I worked using only the winning texts as my guides and inspirations.
Below: developmental drawings toward the illustration for The Dragon and the Princess:
There were so many directions I could have taken with the illustration, and it felt limiting to produce only one when I could see so many possibilities. (I loved the idea that Perdita ‘torched’ the castle before setting off for her new life with Dennis, presumably so that there was no chance of her being forced to return!)
All five illustrations for the competition winners were started and completed during lockdown, framed and then collected by a specialised art-carrying service that delivered them to the recipients. There was no contact between any of us. But then quite unexpectedly Sophie’s mother messaged me at Facebook.
“Hi Clive, I’m the mum of one of the English Heritage short story winners that has received your wonderful Illustration of her story. She is absolutely thrilled with it – you have bought her story to life and she couldn’t be happier! Thank you so much for a wonderful bit of art that will stay with my daughter – and with us as a family – for ever!”
Later she added:
“Sophie would love to see the process you took, as would we. Her headteacher is very excited to see the illustration too, and so it is going into school on Monday to be shown in a full school assembly, albeit via Zoom ‘beamed’ into each classroom, but the excitement is still valid!“
Above: Sophie, the Age 5 -7 Category Winner of the English Heritage Storytelling Competition, with her prize of an illustration of Dennis the Dragon and Princess Perdita.
The Dragon and the Princess
Once upon a time, a king called Titon lived in Kenilworth Castle. The knights of the castle were fearless, the guards were strong, and the castle was expertly built. The king wanted it this way because of his big secret: his daughter, Princess Perdita. King Titon loved Perdita so much that he would have kept her in a little jewellery box if he could have! But he did not realise that this was bad for Perdita. She was lonely because her father wouldn’t let her do anything.
One day a fierce dragon by the name of Dennis came to the castle. He breathed out fire in rage as if he were in a terrible tantrum. Everyone in the castle was scared so the knights and guards started to fight Dennis. They fired arrows at him and tried to cut him with their swords, but Dennis was too strong and too fast. What they didn’t know was that Dennis was only angry because everyone he met was scared of him and he was sad because he was friendless.
The last few knights and guards fled, and they took the king with them. When they came to take Perdita too, she hid from the guards in a wardrobe. Princess Perdita looked out of the window and saw the last few guards and her father leave. She knew what it felt like to be lonely and understood Dennis’s feelings, so she ran downstairs and outside to meet him. Dennis went up to her, but he wasn’t angry anymore.
Princess Perdita bravely walked right up close and looked straight at him. “Hello, I’m Perdita. Would you like to be my friend?” she asked.
Dennis couldn’t believe his ears. “Yes, please!” he roared with a big smile on his face. “I’m Dennis. Pleased to meet you.”
Then Princess Perdita had an idea. She asked Dennis if he could breathe fire over the whole castle because she didn’t want to be a princess anymore. She would rather be a dragon’s best friend and fly on his back all over the kingdom. Dennis was so happy to finally have a friend he agreed at once. And that is how Kenilworth Castle fell into ruins.
Jayne Paddington of Southampton Solent University interviews me:
JP: Tell us about the book illustrations you created.
The book had an unusual beginning. As an artist with a background in theatre, in 2017 I’d been commissioned by a music ensemble to helm a new production of Hansel & Gretel. The producer had seen and been impressed by the Hansel & Gretel Toy Theatre I’d designed for Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop (see above) and wanted to capitalise on the success of that. She’d begun talking with the composer she had in mind for the project, and as I was already collaborating with Simon Armitage on the revised and illustrated edition of his Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Faber & Faber, 2018), I suggested he join us as the librettist/writer.
Simon titled his re-working of the fairy tale, Hansel & Gretel: a Nightmare in Eight Scenes, and it previewed at the Cheltenham Music Festival in 2018 before a national tour and a London premiere at the Barbican. A recording of the piece was broadcast by BBC Radio 3 during Christmas week, 2018.
At some point during the pre-production of the show Simon suggested we might work together to produce an illustrated book of his libretto/poem. We discussed the options for publishing and I recommended we speak with Joe Pearson at Design for Today. When Joe agreed to undertake publication, work on the book began in earnest.
Set in a war zone, Simon’s version of the fairy tale took a completely different tone to the original by the Grimm Brothers by changing the impetus for Hansel and Gretel’s journey from that of abandonment by feckless parents, to an agonised decision by a loving father and mother to send their children away from the bombings.
By this simple change the story became one of love and sacrifice, rather than of duplicity and abandonment. He was very clever too at conveying the degrees to which children mis-hear and misconstrue, and his text is full of moments when the siblings’ actions are based on their misunderstanding of events.
With regard to how the images were made, the overall intention was to capture something of the golden age of lithography printing that both Joe Pearson and I greatly admire. One of the hallmarks of the process is that the images are reproduced on uncoated paper and have a matt finish.
Above: work underway on an illustration, and below: as it appears in the book.
I made the drawings in black pencil, some on paper and some on granular lithography film, with occasional use of collaged textures that I produced myself by various means. I made separate ‘stencils’ in crayons and paints on lithography film for the colours. The layers of drawings and stencils were assembled digitally by the book’s designer, Laurence Beck, which was the point at which the colour was added.
Below: detail of the image as it appears in the book.
Another attractive hallmark of old-school lithography can be the slight mis-registration of the various colours. This is something I’d intentionally cultivated in my artwork for the book, and Laurence was very careful to reproduce the effect in the finished images.
JP: How did it feel to win? What will happen now as a result of winning?
It’s been a strange time to receive my V&A Illustration Award in a summer when the building has been closed. The event was originally to have taken place at the museum in June, but was indefinitely postponed at the time of lockdown. There was to have been an exhibition of the artwork at the V&A, and that too was cancelled. I heard about the announcement not from the museum, but from a press release they put out. While it’s very exciting to have been honoured in this way, it can’t be denied that reading about it in an unexpected online press release has not had the excitement factor that an event would have brought to it. I’m guessing they will either hold a smaller event later in the year, or failing that I guess the trophy will be delivered in the post.
JP: Where do you find inspiration for your illustrations?
When you’re working to a text by the poet laureate, you don’t have to look any further than the words. I knew Hansel & Gretel inside out because I’d already designed and directed it for the stage, so I had a very good starting point for the project. Nonetheless, the moment the stage tour was over I began from scratch again with the text, dividing it up and making a very rough dummy copy that set out lines-per-page and earmarked where the images might go. And because the publisher and I had considered that first dummy very carefully, though the details sometimes changed over the period of illustrating, the overall shape and number of pages remained pretty much as we set out at the beginning.
The next stage was to make a huge project-book in which I began the process of designing every visual element I intended to show: human characters and what they wear, settings and the moods generated by them, objects, animals and events.
It was exhaustive and stretched to several hundreds of images. (Enough for three books really.) Even if something appeared only once – such as the ‘imagined’ hyena that appears early on – I drew it dozens of times to work out what the image would bring to the book.
For a bridge described by the author as ‘arched like a hissing cat’, I made more than fifty drawings of arch-backed cats, hump-backed-bridges, cat/bridges and bridge/cats, gradually finding the hissing cat/bridge hybrid that best conjured the mood of the scene.
Simon is an incredibly enriching poet to collaborate with, and to do justice to him I find ways of accompanying his texts in ways that will take the reader by surprise. I begin with the words of course, but often the places most profitable for illustration are the spaces between them.
JP: What advice would you give to our students wanting to one day follow in your footsteps?
Well they can’t follow in my footsteps, and shouldn’t want to. They should find their own ways, and travel by routes of their own devising. My careers have been various. I didn’t start as an artist, but as a choreographer and director, so I came late to the easel and even later to illustration. My experience is that the wider your interests, the better you’ll be at whatever you do. I don’t go around thinking about illustration all of the time. I read (voraciously) listen to music, study history, try to understand the world, try to understand people and stash away everything I learn in the place marked ‘material to be be used on some future project!’ I study art of all varieties and periods. I collect art, vintage toys (particularly wooden building blocks), textiles, puppets, masks, comics, fossils and books. I’ve collected all my life, whenever I’ve had a bit of spare cash. Some of the things I’ve collected ended up in the stage production of Hansel & Gretel, and migrated from that to the book.
Below: from the shelves of my tinplate toy bird cabinet…
… to the stage production of Hansel & Gretel …
… to a double-page spread in the book:
This little cavalryman migrated from my sitting room…
… to an animated sequence in the stage production …
… to a preparatory drawing for the book …
… to full render separations on paper and lithography film …
… to the final colour book illustration. (Detail)
All my collections fuel my work. I never have to start from scratch with any illustration project. Somewhere in my collection, there will be a starting-point ready made. I just wander around looking at what I have until I find it. It’s a more organic process than trying to conjure something out of nothing.
Here’s a link to a little film about the making of Hansel & Gretel.
Daisy Wynter wrote to me at Instagram re. Hansel & Gretel:a Nightmare in Eight Scenes:
“I love your work so much, I can’t stop looking at it and the wonderful textures you produce. Is it colour pencil or some kind of printing technique for these images?”
“The drawings were made in black Faber Castell pencil on either paper or lithography film, with occasional use of collaged textures that I produced myself by various means.
I made separate ‘stencils’ in crayons and paints on lithography film for the colours. The layers of drawings and stencils were assembled digitally by the book’s designer Laurence Beck, which is the point at which the colour was added.
We did it this way so that we could experiment with the colour palette, and this turned out to be a great advantage because along the way we radically changed our ideas to those we’d set out with.
The overall intention was to capture something of the golden age of lithography printing. I’m not keen on illustrations that are essentially photographs of painted artwork reproduced on coated art paper. We planned on uncoated paper and a matt finish throughout the book, and the slight mis-registration that can be one of the delights of lithography and screen printing.
The images and text feel integrated in this way, especially as we added colour to some of the text to denote which characters are speaking.”
Below: several layers of pencil and crayon on lithography film. These were separately scanned and assembled in the computer…
The results of the V&A Illustration Awards have been announced, and I’m happy to share here that I’ve won the 2020 V&A Book Illustration Award for Hansel & Gretel: A Nightmare in Eight Scenes by the poet laureate, Simon Armitage, published by Design for Today (Joe Pearson) with book design by Laurence Beck.
It’s a wonderful outcome for a project that started back in 2017 when Simon wrote a reinvention of the fairy tale as the text/libretto for a music theatre production commissioned by the Goldfield Ensemble that I directed.
Set in a war zone, the story took a completely different tone to the original by the Grimm Brothers when Simon changed the impetus for Hansel and Gretel’s journey from that of abandonment by feckless parents, to an agonised decision by a loving father and mother to send their children away from the bombings. Even before the premiere at the 2018 Cheltenham Music Festival I’d begun work preparing images for the illustrated edition of the poem, which was published in 2019. The beautiful book that resulted from the collaboration with Simon, Joe and Laurence was ample reward for the hard work, but the V&A award is the cherry on the cake.
Copies of the book may be purchased from Design for Today,
Above: worked-up study from a project book, and below, the preparatory drawing for it:
I’m in the thick of my third project of lockdown, which is to illustrate Simon Armitage’s translation of the medieval poem The Owl and the Nightingale, due out next year from Faber & Faber.
My project book for this is full of preparatory work exploring the themes of the poem, and I’m already well into final renders. I absolutely love the early stages when drawings are flowing freely without consideration or hinderance. No page measurements to worry about and a disregard for anything other than letting the creativity have its head. Everything conducted at a gallop.
But all artists face the dilemmas that come when the rough needs to give way to the smooth, and this project is no different from any other I’ve worked on in that respect. In the project book a single idea is drawn ten times… or twenty or more… and no finished artwork can ever contain all those ideas and all that unfettered energy. Whatever emerges when a hundred ideas have been distilled into one image, is going to be a different thing to where the whole thing kicked off.
The poem is set in an anthropomorphic universe in which the poet presents the exchanges between rival birds as a dizzying display of one-upmanship and smug self-regard. Accusations fly like missiles in the squabbles. Feathers ruffle and subside and are preened back into good order in preparation for the next salvo. There are moments when the rancour feels extraordinarily contemporary with anything found in the Big Brother household or at Facebook.
The drawings to accompany the poem could have gone in any number of directions from rambunctiously satiric to Thomas Bewick-like lyricism. At the outset Simon suggested I look for inspiration to illuminated manuscripts contemporary with the original writing, and to borrow and rework what I’d find most useful in them. I’d frame the translation with a contemporary response to historic images, just as Simon had reworked the poem in a way to speak to a modern reader. So words and images together dance in a territory somewhere between past and present, nodding to established traditions while building new ones.
It’s not commonplace in today’s publishing world to be given opportunities to illustrate poetic texts as densely as I’ve been fortunate enough to do, first with Simon’s Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, then with Hansel & Gretel at Design for Today and now with The Owl and the Nightingale. I’m enormously obliged to the poet and his publishing team at Faber & Faber, and to Joe Pearson at @designfortoday, all of whom have been enormously supportive and patient in our undertakings together. Thanks too to Dan Bugg at @penfoldpress and @sirgawainscreenprints, and to Laurence Beck at @laurencebeckdesign.
I also owe a debt of gratitude to Mark Brown, who generously came to my help when digital adjustments needed to be made to some of the Gawain images prior to publication.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Textile artist Amanda Warren first came to me when she wanted to make a piece based on a still-life painting of mine:
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.
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.
More recently Amanda sent me an image of a textile work based on another of my still life paintings.
The interpretation has resulted in a piece of work that is both 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.
Letter to my friend Lizzie in France, on hearing of the death of her cat, Lucy.
“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!”
Today I completed my final work for English Heritage on the year-long Telling Tales project that arrived entirely unexpectedly just before Christmas 2018.
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.
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.
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.
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’.
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.
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.
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.
‘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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
There were other possibilities stirring. I’d fairly recently acquired a box full of vintage Chinese chenille birds, and they too came out.
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.
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.
Below: project-book sketch of a Staffordshire folly and a Polish bird.
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.
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.
And here – in a detail from the finished illustration – a change of bird strengthens the image.
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!
Below: project-book drawings of Russian clockwork chickens.
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
She’s never slow to be my messenger, and friends are always won over by her bright eyes and sprightly demeanour.
Below: in a tiny theatre of her own, produced in a small edition for members of the Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop Harlequinade Club.
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.
Here we catch her giving one of her renowned masterclasses to an eager young student.
None of us at Ty Isaf knows where we’d be without her.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 weirdne