… I found this work dating from 1998, a time when I was obsessed with painting Staffordshire horses and riders.
My late mother rode, but never to my knowledge side-saddle or dressed in such an elaborate riding-habit, hat and veil. It’s a romantic notion that I could summon her memory with this particular Staffordshire figure, but I painted it repeatedly in the struggle to conjure her, and this was the painting that I felt captured something essential, if not of the woman, then of my child’s image of her as a graceful equestrienne. The painting was acquired by my friend Berni as a a gift for her sister Reggie.
I haven’t painted a piece of Staffordshire for a very long time, and I don’t know at this stage whether I’ll return to the subject. The early works are Neo-romantic in tone, mainly painted in acrylic ink. Here’s another, this time of a shepherdess and sheep.
It’s inconceivable that I’d paint such a turbulent Neo-romantic sky now. But there are signs of what was about to develop in my work in the topography of the ‘imagined’ landscape behind the figure. Made up of giant boulder-like hills, one has a portal carved into it, and the other is surmounted by my signature of the time, the tower of Tretower Castle. I say that the landscape was ‘imagined’, but in fact it was ‘borrowed’ from an etching by Graham Sutherland, whose work when he was an early Neo-romantic much influenced me. The earthenware dish to the left was made either by Peter’s mother or father… hard to know which as they had the same initials… and was a piece I used in many early still-life paintings.
While working on the painting the unexpected death occurred of the daughter of a friend, and the feel of it changed as I wove in references to the myth of Euridice. The dark doorway in the hill that may be the gateway to the Underworld, the sense of night overwhelming day in a single image, and the fact that I painted coins to pay the ferryman in the foreground under the dish, all point to my sombre preoccupation. The Staffordshire girl looks on, her scale made ambiguous by her placement in the foreground, and her ostensible gayety… bright dress and plumed hat… rendered elegiac by the tone of the work. (It’s a feature of Staffordshire that the animals are often over-scaled to the children, lending a fairy-tale quality to the juxtapositions. The costumes too are extremely fanciful, but add to the doll-like charm.) All these years on I can see what a strange, haunted painting this is, though it’s a perfect example of how the events of my daily life had begun to slip into my work. Seeing it again fills me with sadness.
In 2002 an image of it was used as the wrap-around cover of Planet magazine. An article in the issue, Clive Hicks-Jenkins and the Demon at the Gate, was written by the painter and art historian Robert Macdonald.
The little shepherdess probably marked the apogee of my full-blown Neo-romantic period. Subsequently things began to change, and tomorrow I’ll post images that marked the transition as I moved toward to a new, more measured pictorial style.