Not a new drawing today, but a story.
I first saw a statue of a monk in the company of what I took to be a ferocious dog, over twenty years ago while touring France with my friend Robin. I recall a good intention to research what the statue might represent, but then completely forgot about it. In 2005, by now a painter and exploring the story of the prophet Elijah and the raven that fed him as part of my series The Temptations of Solitude, I started to cast my net wider to find other examples of miraculous liaisons between men and animals. The hooded man and the ravening beast I’d been so intrigued by in France was scratching away at my imagination, and two decades after my first brush with him, I found the stories about Hervé. Various legends mark the blind-from-birth saint as possessing a special empathy with animals. One has a wolf slay Hervé’s ox, leaving him without any means by which to till the land. The wolf, chastised by Hervé, meekly submits to the yoke, pulling the plough in place of the ox. But it was a simpler tale that captivated me, one in which the wolf eats the saint’s dog and thereafter in demonstration of contrition, sacrifices its freedom and wild nature to become Hervé’s lifetime companion.
In 2005 I was part-way into a first painting of Hervé and the wolf. At the time I was working from the basement of a Cardiff music shop where I had my studio. Not yet completely in command of my subject matter, things weren’t going particularly well at the easel. Jack, then still only about eight months old, accompanied me to the studio every day. After work we would walk back home through the large park that stretches from Cardiff Castle to Llandaff.
One evening I was late finishing and the park gates were locked by the time we reached them. Jack liked to run free on the way home, something not possible on the cycle path, but safe to do in the wide spaces of the park. No-one was about. The lights of the city centre gave an amber glow to the horizon, though the dazzle from this made the shrubby arboretum seem even darker. I climbed over the gate and Jack, used to this ‘game’, squeezed through the bars. We headed off across a foot-bridge spanning the River Taff, and turned left toward home. Rough woodland made a wide border between us and the river bank, and we took a path hugging the tree-line on one side, and the featureless sward of empty sports fields on the other. Dusk gave way to darkness, but I was confident that the footpath under my feet meant we were on the right course. As we drew closer to the slender footbridge that would lead us back across the river to join the cycle path again, the sports fields gave way to woodland so that we were hemmed in on both sides by trees.
Suddenly Jack stopped dead. I could see the faint glimmer of his coat as he held his ground, turned now to face the woods at our left. He began to growl, a puppy’s attempt to sound fierce, though not like when we had games of play-fighting, but a serious, bass rumbling. I crouched and put my hand between his shoulder-blades to calm him, and felt him tense and press closer to the ground, ears back, chest vibrating. He started to manoeuvre backwards on his belly, and the hairs at the back of my neck began to rise. I clipped the dog-lead into the ring on his harness, all the while staring hard into the woodland, willing my eyes to make sense of the darkness. We stayed there for some time. I felt safer close to the ground in connection with the puppy, though I didn’t know why. Crouching there my eyes began to grow more accustomed to the dark. Moreover I focussed on one spot, because like Jack I knew with certainty that we were being watched. In the shrubbery, about thirty feet from us, I made out a large animal sitting on its haunches, triangular head tipped down as though it had pressed chin into chest. Twin gleams widely spaced and forward looking, gathering the available light as the eyes of predators do at night. Jack continued to creep backwards, his growling getting more frantic. There was a sudden soft movement behind the animal, a shifting and gathering of shadows. I could see the outline of a man, I think wearing a hooded top because there wasn’t even a suggestion of light on skin. The animal didn’t shift. I rose up, gathered Jack into my chest and walked toward the bridge, keeping an awkward sideways gait so the watchers remained in my sight. The animal’s head followed us, though whether the man turned too I couldn’t tell. At some point I emerged into the open and crossed the footbridge to the cycle path, back toward the comforting lights of Cathedral Road and home.
The most likely explanation is that I saw some gay guy cruising while out walking his Siberian Husky. But because I was so preoccupied with Hervé, my dreams that week were pretty fevered, while by day I attacked the painting fuelled by a fierce inspiration. To this day Hervé and his wolf walk with me, always close by, vivid presences in my imaginative life. Indeed when I’m in one of my more fanciful moods, I can almost believe something extraordinary happened that evening in the park, and that it was no accident.
The painting I was struggling with at the time, became this.