Tomorrow will be my sixtieth birthday. I can hardly credit it. There can’t be anyone who knows me unaware of the fact that I’m hitting the big one this year, as the news has been batted about rather a lot in the lead-up to my Retrospective. ‘Clive Hicks-Jenkins at 60’ has become a familiar caption wherever I look! There have been moments when I’ve been rather daunted by the sense of the exhibition as a summing up of a painting career rather shorter than most artists might hope for, because the fact can’t be got away from that I was past forty when I set to work with brushes. However, with good luck and a following wind I expect to be painting for a long time yet. Peter has told me quite firmly that there is no retirement for an artist, so it’s just as well that my mind is full of ideas to be explored in paint. Today however is one for sifting through old boxes of photographs and memorabilia, and I offer a few images here that have caught my eye. The first is a photograph taken in the early 1980s with me, my father Trevor and my mother Dorothy. (That splendidly glittering tie I’m wearing was knitted by my mother especially for the occasion!) It was the evening of a banquet held at the City Hall in Cardiff, something to do I think with the New Theatre, which is where I was working at the time. I like it because we all look so genuinely happy.
I keep this out of date National Library of Wales reader’s card taped to the door of my studio where I see it every day. Peter appears so splendidly Chekhovian in the photograph that there can be little wonder his likeness has become the one most regularly seen in my paintings.
There is a story behind this image. Nicolas and Frances McDowall asked me to produce images for a proposed Old Stile Press edition of The Affectionate Shepherd by Richard Barnfield (1547 – 1627) and they also suggested that Peter might pen an ‘afterword’ to the book. Peter discovered that there was only one original 1594 edition of the poems available to see in the UK, and that was in the British Library. He deemed it a good starting point to the enterprise for us to view the book. He already held a British Library reader’s ticket, and he made arrangements for the book to be ready for us on a given date. I would fill out the necessary forms for a reader’s ticket on the day. We presented ourselves at the British Museum where the Library was housed at that time. Although Peter had been assured that a ticket would be issued to me, there was a dragon on the desk who was of another opinion. She was adamant that I simply could not have one, announcing that I should see about finding an edition of the book at my local library. From the way she behaved you would have thought I’d told her I was looking for a copy of an Agatha Christie novel. My heart sank. I knew there was no original copy available to view other than in the British Library. This really was the only opportunity for me to study the book, and she wasn’t going to let me in to see it! At this point all my resolve wavered in the face of her disdain. She’d caught me out. I wasn’t a scholar worthy of the privilege of a reader’s ticket. I had never been to university. I wasn’t even a proper artist, just someone trying to be one. I stepped back and looked to Peter, ready to tell him to go on ahead. I would wait in the museum coffee shop. He could see the book for both of us. But Peter was having none of that. He moved to the desk, his eyes blacker than I’d ever seen them. I can’t tell you what he said to her because the blood was thundering so loudly in my ears that I couldn’t hear him. His voice was low, his manner implacable, his demeanour glacial. I saw his lips moving as he leaned slightly toward her. I saw her skin mottle and then flush. I saw her bluster, move backwards and then shrivel. He was Saint George slaying the Dragon, and the nasty thing went down with barely a murmur. The form appeared. I filled it in and we went to get a photograph taken in a booth at Tottenham Court Road Underground Station. We came back with everything in order. The dragon processed the application with simmering though mute resentment. She never met my eye throughout.
I have never felt so happy, not before and not since, than when I took possession of that card. I don’t know why it felt such an achievement, but it did. We passed through the great circular reading room and into the labyrinthine darkness of the stacks. From there a Stygian corridor led into a shadowed space the vast size of which was telegraphed by its coolness as we entered. Lofty walls of books surged up on all sides. Green-shaded brass reading lamps glimmered, shedding pools of light over ranks of leather-topped tables. At the desk Peter passed over his letter of authorisation for the book. I remember the boy who dealt with us was as beautiful as any Barnfield Ganymede, but he carelessly tossed the rare-as-a-unicorn artefact toward us as though it were a second-hand paperback in a thrift shop. I heard myself gasp aloud.
So in the photograph above, that look in my eyes is a complicated one. Love for and pride in my partner. Triumph over dragons. Excitement at the task before me and the absolute certainty that I am the right person in the right place, about to embark on a marvellous adventure. The Old Stile Press edition of The Affectionate Shepherd with images by me and an essay by Peter, was published in 1998. Copies of it are in libraries the world over, including:
- New York Public Library
- Victoria & Albert Museum
- National Museums & Galleries of Wales
- National Library of Wales
- Winchester College
- University of London Library
- University of Pennsylvania
- Auckland City Library
- Folger Shakespeare Library Washington DC