dragons and their vanquishers

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I keep this out of date National Library of Wales reader’s card taped to the door of my studio where I see it every day.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
And of course, most satisfyingly of all given how I very nearly didn’t get my reader’s card, there is a copy too in the British Library!

25 thoughts on “dragons and their vanquishers

  1. Pingback: Frances and the Paper made of Iris and Reed | Clive Hicks-Jenkins' Artlog:

  2. Dear dear Clive, sorry to be late with birthday wishes but they are no less heartfelt for being belated! Several of my most favorite people, including my mother, grandmother, and father-in-law, were born on either side of you in June, so it’s a time I always feel grateful and celebratory. Plus it is THE most glorious in the garden – as if nature is putting on its best show just for you. I hope it was a happy day and that you will be successful in ignoring numbers forthwith! xxoos from across the pond

  3. Oh, I was off doing a reading off at the West Chester poetry conference in Pennsylvania on the day of your birthday and so missed this post. But I did remember it in a way because one of the poems I read was “Puck in Spring.” And I did say that it was for you, you former Puck! I hope you had a lovely day on your 60th birthday, without a whisper of regret for such a heap of swept-up years… May you have many more years in which to paint and to rejoice.

    Like Dave, I am a librarian’s child and disapprove of such officious dragons.

    And I can imagine quailing before the wrath of a bright, enraged Wakelin… In fact, in case one should ever be wroth with me in the future, I hereby register my membership in Quaildom-before-Wakelins. I hope that will disarm them all from any such possibility!

    • Rather like the Queen, I feel as though I’ve had two birthdays this year. The one done for public purposes on the day of the garden party, and the calendar birthday celebrated more privately long after the first event. I intended the latter to be a quiet affair, but Peter had been busy busy busy and the whole weekend was full of encounters and events that he’d successfully hidden from me.

      The officious dragon didn’t get things her own way. Peter may be softly spoken, but he can be implacable wherever injustice rears its ugly head!

      I can’t imagine that Dr Wakelin will ever be wroth with Marly. But should the occasion ever arise, I can tell you that he is terribly ticklish, which is a sure way to disarm fearsomeness!

  4. What a marvellous story, almost a mini-play. Now I have to know exactly what Peter said to that battleaxe?
    I’ve seen The Affectionate Shepherd, in the flesh, at the Old Stile Press – it’s another triumph, for you and the McDowalls.
    The photo of you and your parents is full of love and joy and those old library cards exude a warm nostalgia. Altogether fitting mementos to celebrate your birthday – have a very happy one, Clive, and many more painting days to come.

  5. A very, very happy birthday to you dear Clive! We’ve got to dash off to Whitstable in a minute so sadly I don’t have time to read everyone’s comments. And add my tuppence hapenny worth of pithy insight!!
    Have a truly wonderful day with those you love and who love you all about. We are there with you in heart, mind and spirit!
    Much love, Paul xx

    • Dear Bev, Zoe, Paul, Lucy, Dave, Natalie and Nick

      I’m so touched by your collective good wishes. We’re just back from the mystery tour that Peter arranged for my birthday weekend. There have been many wonderful surprises and some memorable meals. At every turn there were friends that I hadn’t expected to see. We seem to have fitted a great deal into a very short time, and I’m now so far beyond tired that if I don’t go to my bed pretty soon I shall fall asleep at the laptop! I send my love to all of you. Thank you so much for thinking of me.

  6. What a beautifully told and emotive tale, Clive! I could feel Peter’s resolve on your behalf, hear the thunder of your own frustration as you stood disenfranchised and disheartened… Well, you have done great justice to the story, and it’s a marvelously warm story to read. I’m just sorry the librarian had been less than amicable to begin with. As one who loves libraries as much as he needs oxygen, I’m not sure how I would have reacted to such a predicament, so I envy you your cool demeanor under the circumstances.

    And though a wee bit early–by hours anyway: I wish you a cheerfully wondrous and delightfully merry birthday, dearest Clive! I do so hope all your wishes come true. All my love…

    • Clearly the woman on the desk that day was on a power trip! Luckily she didn’t prevail and I got my British Library reader’s ticket, thanks to Peter.

      Lovely to hear from you again Jason, and thank you for your good wishes.

  7. No doubt your thoughts of how “demons” ought to be painted were formed that day, too. So, the old bitch did you a double service! Really, whatever Peter said to her, was too kind. I wouldn’t have stopped until she was standing in the unemployment office.

    PS… in honor of YOUR birthday, I took my father fishing today… the first time in 40 years we have fished together. ; )

  8. As a librarian’s son I take extreme umbrage at the notion of a librarian acting as a gate-keeper rather than a guide to knowledge. Of course, I was spoiled: Dad happened to work at one of the few very large research libraries with completely open stacks. And as with most state university libraries in the U.S., any resident of the state can get a library card (and you don’t need a library card to view non-circulating books in the Special Collections section, just a valid form of photo i.d., I think). So much of my education, spotty as it is, is the consequence of discoveries made whilst browsing in the Penn State library stacks from the age of 10 on.

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