catriona urquhart and ‘the mare’s tale’

Some anniversaries pass by un-noticed because our lives are such a hustle and bustle of  work, play, duty, deadlines and all-sorts. One passed me by yesterday, so deep into preparations was I for the forthcoming presentation of The Soldier’s Tale with Mid Wales Chamber Orchestra at the Hay Festival. Odd that I missed it, because in so many ways an unease underlay the day for me, and I realise that while on the surface I may have been pushing away the recollection of a loss, at a deeper and unconscious level, something was definitely playing out.

On May Day 2005 my close friend Catriona Urquhart died, and with her went a large chunk of my heart. In 2001 The Old Stile Press had published The Mare’s Tale, a sequence of poems Catriona had written examining my father’s early experience of the Welsh Mari Lwyd mumming tradition. It was not a happy recollection for him, but all that has been examined elsewhere both by me and by several more eloquent writers, and so I won’t recap here. Suffice to say that Catriona, after his death, produced her poems from accounts my father had shared with her of growing up in rural Monmouthshire, of his terrifying childhood encounter with a Mari and how he carried the experience with him throughout a long life.

Catriona’s poems and my large Conté drawings were shown together at my 2001 Newport Museum and Art Gallery exhibition The Mare’s Tale, and though the artworks have now separated into many public and private collections, and the Old Stile Press book… which I illustrated… stands alone as Catriona’s sole published collection of poems in her lifetime, I think no-one would deny that to a significant extent the poems and drawings have become inseperable from each other.

In 2012 the artistic director of Mid Wales Chamber Orchestra, James Slater brought together composer Mark Bowden and librettist Damian Walford Davies to create a new chamber work inspired by my Mare’s Tale drawings. My only stipulation at the start of the project, had been that without Catriona present to collaborate on any examination of the themes, the libretto would have to be a new text,  based on the drawings alone with no direct reference by name to my father or his experiences. This was not in any way, as far as I was concerned, to be a biographical exploration of what underlay the Mari Lwyd drawings, but a fresh approach using them as the starting point of a narrative structure for Mark Bowden’s music.

Above: a drawing of my father made for the original Mare’s Tale series.

And that’s exactly what Damian has delivered. A new tale as dark and terrifying as the source material, though constructed  as a fiction steeped in the literary tradition of recovered memory as the catalyst of a central character’s psychological disintegration. But Damian is a great admirer of the poems, as was clear from his chapter in the 2011 Lund Humphries monograph about my work, and I can see a number of echoes from them in the libretto, layered in to enrich it.

Mari Lwyd puppet

Mari Lwyd maquette/puppet

Out of the old springs something new, and as an artist I must follow it. The drawings that were the origins of this have been set aside as I create fresh ideas tailor-made for the emerging creation. (See the two images above.)

Long ago I thought I was done with this subject, but it would seem not. The Mare’s Tale as realised in my drawings and Catriona’s poems, and The Mare’s Tale as it now evolves into a new chamber-work for ensemble, while separate, seem to me conjoined in a way that will be quite unique in terms of creativity. The same seeds grew them and the same title unites them, and yet they are separate. I find that strangely haunting and complete as an idea.

4 thoughts on “catriona urquhart and ‘the mare’s tale’

  1. Such a wonderful post to read, tracing the different manifestations of the Mari in your work and your life, your recollections of Catriona and your father and the new work for The Mare’s Tale weave together a fascinating story that seems to be growing richer and richer as time goes on. That drawing of your father is, well I can’t find the words to describe how marvellous it is

    • Thank you Phil. I made drawings of my father from memory after his death, as studies for his likenesses in the large works. The few weeks of his illness saw him unravel. He’d always been so well-turned out that it came as a shock to see him dishevelled. I did what I could to spruce him up in hospital, shaving him and curling his moustaches and combing his hair. He had beautiful skin, right up to the end. As soft as a baby’s.

      I find it quite hard to look at those drawings now.

  2. Who knows what yet may come of those ideas in your strange and lovely garden, as Catriona and your father are not gone from your heart?

    Have enjoyed whisking through the recent maquette work. The show will be splendid!

    • The Soldier’s Tale, yes. Making good progress with that.

      Thank you for the description of my ‘strange and lovely garden’. That made me smile. Over the years people have been fascinated by the Mari Lwyd series of work, but I think the description ‘lovely’ has never been applied. I’m glad you think it so, Marly. I believe it to be.


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