Dear Catriona

It’s been eleven years since you left us on May Day 2005. I was sitting in your chair at the top of the garden at Penparc Cottage thinking about you when the call came. I heard the phone ringing, heard it stop, picked up by someone inside. Our friends Susie and Michael and their daughters Minnie and Rosie were holidaying at the cottage. I don’t know who picked up the phone, but both Michael and Susie came out to give me the news, and their stricken, caring faces told the whole story before they’d even explained. They didn’t know you, but they knew about you, knew what the news would mean to me, and they were so, so tender. Nevertheless, the physical sensation  was unexpected. The sudden blow to the chest and an emptying, as though heart and guts had burst and were unstoppably flowing away.

Death was expected, of course. You’d been long fading. I’d been with you the day before, to sit and watch while Ian attended to business. I’d held your hand, leaned in and murmured softly to you, not wanting to pull you back through the easeful veil of drugs. You were floating so far away from me that I imagined myself a distant speck in the dreamy landscape beneath your wings. You were peaceful.

You died at a point of change in our lives. We were moving to Aberystwyth, though hadn’t yet found what was to become our home. Peter and I were staying with our friend Pip, who’d loaned us her guest cottage, the Ty Bach. Pip knew I was sad and was as kind as kind can be. But no concern, no matter how beautifully expressed, could pack back what had flowed out at the time of your death. Eleven years on and it’s still missing, like the cavity of a lost tooth that I can’t stop probing with my tongue, expecting the miracle of a return while knowing that it can’t grow back. This is not to say that there isn’t love in my life, because there is. But not your love, and I miss that more than I can express. My friend, confidante, co-conspirator and muse, I miss you every day.

I think that this emptying is what eventually undoes us. Every passing of a loved one pulls out another bit of my stuffing.

This is how it feels. (You’ll like this, Catriona. It’s a story!)

As a child I started out on a walk along a beautiful country lane, surrounded by a loving family. Gradually friends joined the walk, and as I grew, the throng multiplied. It was a merry crew, a constant discovery and delight. There were the older generation still with me, but mostly young and lively people of my own age. The walk was like a party.

Gradually the older ones began to drop back. It was sad, though it seemed natural. After all, they were older. When they stopped I waved goodbye and moved on. I missed them of course, but I was really interested in what lay ahead.

Then some of the ones who were the same age as me began to slow down, falter, stop. First one, and then another and another. And each one stopping in the road diminished my happiness and made me less myself. A bit more stuffing pulled out.

These days the group is slower, and much smaller. Every time I look around there are fewer companions. Now when I turn back I can see many figures dotted along the road travelled, just standing there. I keep walking while they diminish and then disappear in the distance.

Right now I still have enough people around me to remain optimistic. But our numbers decrease all the time and I fear that one day I will be the only one on the road. I’m not at all sure I ever want to become the unaccompanied traveller trudging forward, carrying an emptiness left by absence. But what alternative is there? And I wish… oh how I wish… that you were here so we could talk about it.

Sent with love by Clive to Catriona Urquhart

May Day, 2016

 

Catriona wrote the poetic text to the body of work that started my career as a painter. The Mare’s Tale poems appeared in 2001 in an edition with illustrations by me and published by The Old Stile Press. It’s a beautiful book and is still available from the press, based at Catchmays Court in the Wye Valley. Designed and printed by Nicolas McDowall, it’s a lasting testament to story-telling, friendship, collaboration and Catriona’s artistry with words.

By clicking HERE, you will find other Artlog posts about Catriona.

Beastie Boy 2

Here a flower-crowned mummer decked in a costume appliquéd with, birds, diamonds, hearts and a devil, rides a goat variant of a hobby-horse. Once again the image is a hybrid stitched from disparate elements. But then mumming has always liberally borrowed in order to evolve.

References

Below: portrait of a ‘hobby-horse’ mummer from Weisbach by Axel Hoedt from his book Dusk. The goat is first documented as a mumming figure of this type at the end of the 19th century.

A rare survival of a mummer’s costume from Yorkshire. 1829. Linen appliquéd with wool and felt motifs.

I drew on the tradition of the the mummer’s hat decorated with flowers and foliage, seen here beautifully executed by the ‘Green Man of Bankside’.

Below: preliminary sketch.

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Finalised underdrawing.

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Rendering sunflowers and roses in pencil over gouache.

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The colours appear to deepen as the pencil work adds density and richness to them.

The finished artwork

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Beastie Boy

 

DSC07660.jpgThis just popped out of nowhere. Well, not exactly nowhere, as I’ve clearly long been engaged by mumming traditions and the many variations on the ‘hobby-horse’. But this fanciful reveller came rather swiftly and unexpectedly, and now I have a notion to further explore the theme, not in any anthropological way, but by just giving free-rein to my imagination to wander and be playful.

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It could go either of two ways. A series of plausibly costumed performers in trance-like states… as in the present image… or down a more subversive and disturbing route. Odd and unexpected juxtapositions always intrigue me. Which shall it be?

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I’ve worked here in gouache overdrawn with coloured pencils. The paint dries to a  surface in which the brushes have left their striated trails, and the pencil marks on top of them have a wonderful broken and granular quality. Very pleasing in close-up and quite reminiscent of stone lithography.

Feather, Fox and Blackthorn

Yesterday three things I saw caught in my imagination. On each occasion I had no camera, and so writing here will help the memories stick. Having no camera to hand, I have found, makes me remember in ways that are better for my drawing. Of the three I suspect the last will stay with me the longest, and have me reaching for my pencils.

1) AM, through the bathroom window, a chaffinch wrestling with detritus dropped from a jackdaw’s nest. The tiny creature stood on a tangle of horse hair, twigs and fluff, tugging at something caught in it. He was pulling strenuously against his own weight and had stretched the knotted stuff to his full height, looking less like a bird than a piece of feathered chewing-gum. Suddenly the recalcitrant item came free. It was a small, fluffy and entirely unremarkable feather, but the chaffinch flew off to his nest-making triumphantly wearing it like a moustache!

2) In our strip of woodland with Jack, I stumbled across a young fox. Rendered nearly black against the green and blue of the bluebells by a trick of the light, it crashed away noisily through the dry brash of fallen trees. Jack held his ground at my heels, lifting his nose to taste the scent. With all the wisdom of his years, I swear he raised one eyebrow and threw me a look that said, ‘That pup better learn some stealth or he’s not going to last long!’

3) Impaled and crucified in a blackthorn, a young buzzard, rigor mortis-ed in the trajectory of its flight. An awkward, angry death. I wondered whether it had been pursuing prey and made a misjudgment in the excitement of the chase. I’ve watched young buzzards practising their flight-skills in our paddock, and they can be clumsy when inexperienced. They don’t have the dexterity of the small hawks. One once knocked me flying when it cannonballed out of the tree-line like a bin-bag in a gale. We both sat upright in the grass and looked at each other, and I couldn’t say which was the more astonished.

But this one was not so lucky, and the thorns were long and stabbed deeply.

Resurrecting Trevor

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First there was my father, Trevor. In 1999 I was at his bedside as he died. I had to lean in and watch closely, to be sure of the moment. When it came it was as intangible as the faintest wisp of smoke, half-seen out of the corner of my eye. I looked so hard I almost stopped breathing, and then he was gone, his cool, unmoving hand a deadweight in mine.

From 2000 onwards I drew him into my grief, while my friend and his, Catriona Urquhart, watched and wrote what would become the text for my 2001 exhibition and an edition of poems published by The Old Stile Press, under the collective title of The Mare’s Tale.

I made many images. First the studies, wrenched out of sadness, and thereafter the giant drawings made on the floor of our dining-room in Plasturton Avenue. I begrimed myself with black Conté pencil that stained the cracks in my fingers and transferred in smears as I wiped my sweaty face. I must have looked like a madman, crawling over the images, buffing their surfaces to a slatey sheen with knees getting stiffer by the month. When finally I came to his likeness, I wept incessantly. It was too painful to make. I’d left it as an absence in the black surface, but with the drawing completed save for his face, the task couldn’t be put off any longer. I repeatedly had to dry the paper out, and so I know there’s hidden salt in the fibre of it. Sometimes I wonder whether one day it’ll emerge, like crusted sadness on the surface, the way salts emerge out of old bricks, and stonework. That would be an interesting one for the paper-conservators, charged with erasing grief from an artwork.

Above: Tend

A decade after I’d completed The Mare’s Tale, I was persuaded to give permission for a ‘performance work’ to be created for a chamber orchestra, inspired by the drawings and what lay behind them. This would require a collaboration with the composer Mark Bowden. I agreed, and elected Damian Walford Davies to be the librettist, because we’d worked together before. He knew my story intimately, and through me my father’s story. He also knew and had written about Catriona’s poems. (She’d died too young in 2005, The Mare’s Tale the only volume of poetry published in her lifetime.) Damian’s narrative was a fiction, a psychological ghost story, though conjured from some of the biographical facts of my father’s life. The title was borrowed from the original series of drawings, as were the ‘secrets’ buried in Trevor’s childhood memories. Two key scenes were lifted directly from my accounts of what had happened to him. Though this was hard-to-negotiate and dark terrain, I felt safe in Damian’s hands, and in Mark’s. Trevor became Morgan, in the new story, and he would be played by the singer Eric Roberts.

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In 2013, a single, fully-staged  performance of the fledgling work was given at Theatr Brycheiniog in Brecon. I designed and directed it. Morgan’s nightmares… my father’s nightmares… were given form though the medium of puppetry and animation. The drama was played out on a set I created to reflect the bleached sepulchres of  the original Mare’s Tale drawings.

From drawing (above) to set (below).

Puppeteers Anne Morris and Diana Ford gave sinister life to the various apparitions, and scale was added by an on-stage video crew filming the effects and streaming them to a screen suspended above the action.

Topographical models were filmed and projected onto the screen, to compass Morgan’s cramped world.

From concept drawing…

… to rehearsal.

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I ruthlessly pared back the turbulence of my drawings from the stage imagery. I wanted the production to be visually stark, to give space to the music and text. Mark and Damian built from their own materials what I had once made out of densely-worked Conté pencil.

Eric Roberts was astounding as Morgan Seyes. In the scene where the character, fevered and enveloped in tangled bedsheets, believed that the Mari Lwyd had returned to claim him, the lines between performance and reality blurred, and Eric/Morgan became Trevor.

I didn’t set out to resurrect my father when I began work on the stage presentation of The Mare’s Tale. In rehearsals, as I began to understand where the last scene was going, it came as a shock. The visceral power of Eric’s performance shook everyone present. Our perceptive dramaturge, Helen Cooper, stepped quietly forward to continue helping, while I retreated to the back of theatre to let her, the music, the text, the lighting and the actor do their work.

 …

Chronology of The Mare’s Tale, 2001 – 2015

2001: The Mare’s Tale opens at Newport Museum and Art Gallery. An illustrated catalogue accompanies the exhibition

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The Old Stile Press publish The Mare’s Tale, their edition of Catriona Urquhart’s poems accompanied by Clive Hicks-Jenkins’ illustrations

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The Contemporary Art Society for Wales purchases Stumbles and Cannot Rise (below) from The Mare’s Tale, and the drawing subsequently enters the collection of Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales

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Brecknock Museum and Art Gallery purchase The Mari Lwyd Approaches (below) from The Mare’s Tale 

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2002: new works in the Mare’s Tale series form an expanded exhibition at Brecknock Museum and Art Gallery under the title The Tower on the Hill

Selected drawings from The Mare’s Tale appear in Dreaming Awake at the Terezín Memorial Gallery, and subsequently tour to four venues in the Czech Republic

2005: Catriona Urquhart dies. Her poetic text for The Mare’s Tale includes Pegasus, in which she reflects on Trevor’s last months and his death. However so apposite is the poem to her own failing health and intimations of mortality, that Clive Hicks-Jenkins reads it at her funeral.

2011: the artist’s sixtieth birthday is celebrated with a major retrospective in the Gregynog Gallery of the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth. Many of The Mare’s Tale drawings are gathered for the occasion from private collections and institutions

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Lund Humphries publish Clive Hicks-Jenkins, a monograph. Montserrat Prat contributes an essay titled Metamorphosis of a Folk Tradition, in which she explores the drawings of The Mare’s Tale

2012: The Mare’s Tale, a work for chamber-orchestra and actor, is commissioned by the Mid Wales Chamber Orchestra from composer Mark Bowden and librettist Damian Walford Davies. The piece takes its inspiration and its title from the 2001 series of Mari Lwyd drawings by Clive Hicks-Jenkins

2013: a fully staged performance of the chamber-work The Mare’s Tale, is given by the Mid Wales Chamber Orchestra at Theatr Brycheiniog in Brecon. It is designed and directed by Clive Hicks-Jenkins. Helen Cooper is the Dramaturge. The role of Morgan Seyes is played by Eric Roberts

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2015: Eric Roberts and Damian Walford Davies read extracts from the libretto of The Mare’s Tale at a special event held during Clive Hicks-Jenkins most recent explorations of the Mari Lwyd theme in Dark Movements at Aberystwyth Arts Centre. At the event Mary-Ann Constantine reads from Catriona Urquhart’s collection of Mare’s Tale poems.

Below: Eric Roberts reads at the Aberystwyth Arts Centre

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Jane’s Dream, a film by Clive Hicks-Jenkins and Pete Telfer based loosely on Damian Walford Davies’ libretto for The Mare’s Tale, is screened in the gallery throughout the Dark Movements exhibition. Original music for Jane’s Dream is by composer Peter Byrom Smith

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The Dryden Plates

A friend who had seen my Hansel & Gretel enamelware tea-service made four years ago…

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… enquired whether I’d be up for a commission to make a plate to celebrate his wife’s birthday.

We began discussing the notion of a pair of eighteenth century-style commemorative plates, possibly featuring the characters that I’d created for my Christmas cards of recent years.

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I suggested he might select a text, and he opted for a quote from John Dryden, divided between the two plates.

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Pains of love be sweeter far
Than all other pleasures are.

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The plates were dispatched today, just in time for her birthday.

Liz, Zoe and Clive

Sometimes the best things at the Artlog are in the comment boxes. I love the dialogues that emerge there. Some of the names of those who leave messages are close to me in the real world, while others are those with whom close and lasting friendships have developed entirely from the digital world.

Yesterday’s post has generated interesting observations from Liz and Zoe. And so rather than leave them down where they may not be seen or read, here’s a new post, with our conversation foregrounded.

Below: painting by Zoe Blue

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Zoe Blue lives in the USA, and has been a commentor at the Artlog almost since it began. She once asked me for advice in the matter of making maquettes, and thereafter began using the technique as a practice in her work as an artist. I have to say that the student outstripped the teacher, because she got rather better at making and using them than me. Though I consider us to be close friends, we have never met in person.

Zoe Blue on April 2, 2016 at 4:04 pm said:
Even back then, such gorgeous colors. I love these images. Your landscape styles really move me — I wonder, when you see the slides after so much time, does it give you an “instant” feeling of that time period? Once I heard a forgotten recording of a Rachmaninoff concerto I had played, and I actually started crying uncontrollably. It was bizarre. But I wonder if you see the painting and become that person again, temporarily. The feeling of that whole being, I mean. Does that make sense?

Clive Hicks-Jenkins on April 3, 2016 at 7:16 am said: 
At this distance much of my work from back then looks a tad overwrought to me. I seem to have been discovering that painting could reflect my emotional state, and my emotional state was… well, let’s just say, wobbly. I was emerging from a dark place.

I like the three paintings I posted. I can see that there’s a lot of bravura brushwork going on in the first two images, and I like the atmosphere in that last, sombre, slate-blue and ochre Carn Euny night-scape.

For me too, emotion is readily accessed through the medium of music. The other night I watched a documentary about the late Peter Maxwell Davies, whose music I’ve always loved, and particularly ‘An Orkney Wedding’, which had once been the doorway for me to his less accessible work. My late friend Catriona, loved it too, and it was played at her funeral. In the documentary they showed a performance of it at the Proms, with Maxwell Davies conducting. Barely had the first strains of music begun, when the tears started rolling. By half-way through I was sobbing and laughing in equal measure, aware of the ludicrousness of the situation. It wasn’t just re-ignited grief for the loss of Catriona… all these years on I miss her still… or even grief for PMD, but rather that ‘An Orkney Wedding’ immediately opens the sluice-gate behind which deep waters are usually contained.

What do I feel when I look at these early paintings? Mostly I feel surprise that I was able to make these works embody what I was feeling back then, though I don’t think I realised that at the time. And I certainly didn’t realise that many were as good as I now know them to be. I admire the fluency of brushwork. It’s blazingly apparent there’s a kind of dance going on. I can tell from them that in my DNA I was a dancer, and the paintings were dancing for me. I know now I was mourning what I’d lost, but in some fabulous act of alchemy, what flowed from me were not tears, but paint.

Liz King-Sangster and I met in the early 1980s, when she was head of the scenic department at Welsh National Opera and supervised the creation of a set that I’d designed. It was my first job as a designer, and Liz made good the deficiencies that were the result of my lack of experience. Her sound advice so gently offered back then, stayed with me and helped me build the foundations of my subsequent design work in the theatre. She lives in France, where she works as a painter and muralist.

Below: interior by Liz King-Sangster

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Liz King-Sangster on April 3, 2016 at 7:29 am said: 
I love the sheer joy of painting in the first and second images, beautiful gestural brushwork, and the colours in them all. I love the moods you’ve captured. And aren’t we lucky to be living in this age where cataloguing is so simple? It’s great that Peter insisted, because now you have a diary of your own development. I’m afraid I’ve not been so assiduous in keeping track of my earlier paintings. I’m leaving it to future archivists to sort that out, if they are interested enough that is! On the subject of photography, now I have tens of thousands of photos to every one I had in those days. It’s almost too easy now! Love to you both xxxL

Clive Hicks-Jenkins on April 3, 2016 at 7:54 am said: 
Dear Liz, I and many others love your painting. I’ve always admired your fluency, and back when we worked together during your Welsh National Opera days, long before I became an artist, I learned from you that when paint flowed, it could be a vector for energy. Good lesson, that.

None of us can know whether after we’ve departed the room, anyone who cares enough will still be around to sort through our ‘stuff’ and order it. At any given time the fates and reputations of artists hang by the slenderest of threads. There’s serendipity in what survives, what’s seen, what hangs in private and what hangs in public. Some of those trumpeted during their times as ‘great’, fade into obscurity with the passing decades, while occasionally an artist unknown in life, gains the admiration of many after his or her death. I can’t count the number of times I’ve stood dumbfounded in front of some medieval masterpiece of an altarpiece, bearing the label ‘anonymous’, or ‘unknown’. I’d be happy if something of mine survived even unattributed where people could see it and look. The work is the dialogue between the artist and the viewer. Names don’t really matter.

Below: wonderfully vibrant i-pad sketch by Liz of Jack, made when she was at Ty Isaf last year.

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Zoe’s ‘Blue Cat’ maquette stands sentinel opposite a Welsh dragon on our mantlepiece.

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