The following essay was written in 2008, and until now has lurked in the more distant recesses of my website. It recounts how the short story Palmyra Jones came to be written by Catriona Urquhart, and how in turn that led to the creative collaboration I went on to enjoy with Nicolas and Frances McDowall at The Old Stile Press. (In addition to Palmyra, four books… including a book of poetry by Catriona… and the covers of the two volumes of The Old Stile Press Bibliography.) The recollection also enables me to post an image of the rather beautiful Jonathan Christie painting that played a crucial role in how things came about, and that Peter and I acquired many years ago at the time when Jonathan and I both showed our work at The Kilvert Gallery.
Above: detail of Girl and Dog: Porthmeor Beach by Jonathan Christie
My friend Catriona Urquhart was a wonderful storyteller. She also had an aptitude for languages… she spoke a number fluently, including Russian… and a gift for dialects and dialogue. However, she she wore her talents lightly, and could only rarely be persuaded to exhibit them publicly. Peter and I encouraged her writing whenever we could. But although she was such good company among close friends, Catriona could be shy in a crowd, and we encouraged her in vain to make her poetry available to others. For Catriona, poetry was principally a private affair, between her and her pen. However in 1997, when she asked Peter what he would like for his birthday, he cunningly replied that he would like a story, and she agreed to write him one.
The weeks passed, and Catriona, whenever we raised the subject, would reply cryptically that she was ‘thinking about it’. We managed to prise two details from her. She had the title, Palmyra Jones, which had just come to her out of the blue, and the fledgling tale was inspired by a painting she loved which hung in our kitchen, Girl and Dog: Porthmeor Beach by Jonathan Christie.
The evening of Peter’s birthday arrived, and I’d arranged a supper party for about ten guests. Catriona arrived early with her partner, Ian. As I took her coat I caught her eye and asked,
‘Did you bring it?’
She looked shifty.
‘I need to go somewhere quiet. May I slip upstairs?’
‘Why? Crikey Catriona, haven’t you finished it ?’
‘Finish be damned, I’ve yet to start it. But don’t worry…’
She flashed a dazzling smile.
‘… it’s all in my head. I just need to get it down. Be a sweetie. Bring me a glass of wine and give me half an hour.’ I left her at the desk in my studio. She’d brought a slim sheaf of A4, and she began writing with great focus, head down, hand swift over the paper.
Half an hour later she walked into the kitchen with several sheets of paper, each densely covered with neat writing. We found later that there wasn’t a single mis-punctuation or crossing out.
After supper we all gathered in the drawing-room for coffee and Catriona, to her evident horror, was asked by us to read the story to the assembled guests. She demurred, but we pressed home our advantage. Everyone present murmured encouragement, and she gave way. Of course she bewitched us, and to this day whenever I read Palmyra Jones, I hear it in her warm, soft, Scottish brogue.
Among the guests were Nicolas and Frances McDowall of The Old Stile Press. Peter and I had met them at an exhibition opening in Abergavenny, and the four of us had gone on to become good friends. Nicolas and Frances were lavish in their congratulations when Catriona had finished her reading, and Nicolas immediately started talking about publishing the story in a small edition. Not a full-fledged Old Stile Press project, but a slender, laser-printed pamphlet, available for a few friends. Even Catriona was enthusiastic, which was unexpected.
It all happened very quickly. I had a few days to do the illustrations, which Nicolas suggested could be in what was my then trademark ‘Neo-romantic’ drawing style of ink and ink wash over wax resist. The story was set in Ireland, a country I’d never visited, and so I fear the landscapes of Palmyra Jones look a deal more like Wales than Ireland.
I made a hand lettered wrap-around cover, which Nicolas printed onto grey paper
In the back of each copy, a reproduction of Jonathan Christie’s lovely painting was ‘tipped in’ as a fold-out.
Catriona went on to do one more book for the Old Stile Press before she died. The Mare’s Tale was the collection of poems she wrote to accompany my first public gallery show at Newport Museum and Art Gallery in 2001. For the second time, a publication of her work by the Old Stile Press was carried out, appropriately enough given the title, at a gallop, driven by Nicolas’ boundless and infectious enthusiasm. The idea came about unexpectedly when his gaze fell upon some copies of the poems scattered over our kitchen table on the occasion of one of his visits. He was delivering the first bound copy of Richard Barnfield’s The Affectionate Shepheard, a book I’d illustrated for the press subsequent to Palmyra Jones, which small volume I now suspect had been Nicolas’ way of ‘testing’ me, before offering the more substantial, and technically difficult Barnfield project. Palmyra had proven to him that I could work reliably, and at speed.
Because we were all enthusiastic to have Catriona’s Mare’s Tale poems in a book available for sale at the exhibition opening (the original plan had been that they would only be printed onto gallery panels positioned around the walls), in double-quick time Nicolas designed and produced a dummy-copy for me to work from. As I recall, I completed all the drawings in one weekend, working right through the Sunday night so they’d be ready for him to collect first thing on the Monday.
Nicolas produced a beautiful edition, printed on vintage paper he had squirreled away for the right project, and bound in the most delicate, dove grey paper, with silver stamps on the spine and ‘vignette’ drawings printed on the front and back covers.
Catriona died of cancer while we were discussing our next project for the Old Stile Press, which was to have been a new translation of the libretto for Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale, a project I’d long dreamed of. The preparatory drawings and some monoprints for this are blu-tacked to my studio wall at Ty Isaf. They’ve followed me everywhere. The book, of course, will never happen, as Catriona had barely begun her work on it. So Palmyra Jones and The Mare’s Tale must stand as her literary legacy, the only works of hers published in her lifetime.
For a long time the original artwork for the cover of Palmyra Jones, hung in the room where Catriona had written the story for Peter. After her death I gave the drawing to Ian, so that he could take it to the home they’d shared at Ferryden in Scotland, a place which she greatly loved, and where we had all spent so many happy times together. Peter gave a beautiful eulogy at Catriona’s funeral. He brought us all to tears, but mixed with laughter too. I read Pegasus from The Mare’s Tale, a poem about death and a life-affirming legacy, which she’d written about my late father, whom she’d loved as if he were her own. The printed words wobbled before me, a combination of shaking hands and hot tears, and so it was just as well that I knew them by heart.
Clive Hicks-Jenkins 2008
Decoration from the half-title page of Palmyra Jones
I recently came across your very thoughtful posting from 2014, related to a dear friend of yours, Catriona. There was also a painting of my Staffordshire pottery, of a girl with a dog. I hadn’t seen the painting before now, and didn’t know your story, and so it was intriguing to see my cherished object, which had been in people’s lives as a painting, but without my knowledge. I still have that same pottery figure as it forms part of my collection and is very personal to me.
As an artist myself, I have always had a passion for decorative ceramics, especially Victorian Staffordshire figures, and have collected them over many decades, since I was an art student. I used to visit Stephen Long’s shop in Fulham, which was a wonderful treasure trove of china and curiosities and you may have also known this little shop in London.
It would be interesting to talk to you as I believe we both have a connection to the Kilvert Gallery, where Liz and Eugene were great friends to us all.
I have sent my email address to you below.
Thank you, and with best wishes,
Thank you for your message, written so long after this piece was posted in 2014. Many times I’ve thought about discontinuing my Blog, but it seems people still find their ways even to its most distant corners, which always reignites my enthusiasm to continue. I’ll reply to the e-mail address you’ve left.
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this is a lovely post, and a beautiful story. thank you!
It was lovely to hear the back story of Palmyra Jones and this reminded me of my own, albeit brief, meetings with Catriona. As many have said, a very special person who I feel taught me, in a Sesame sense, a great deal.
Love shared is never lost.
You’re right, dear friend. It’s never lost.
Occasionally I like to put up a post about Catriona, just to share her with the world now that she’s not here to share herself, though of course I know her work is her best emissary. She’s a constant presence in my life, even when I’m not thinking about her.
As of course are you.
I was mesmerized by this post. Smiles and tears…and how wonderful to have such a legacy of creativity, love and friendship to cherish.
Hello Cous. Lovely to see you here.
Catriona and Ian permeated so much of our lives that there’s always a sense of closeness, even though she’s been gone nine years, and he’s now married and living in Scotland so that we don’t see as much of him as when he and Catriona lived in Caerleon and we in Cardiff. Catriona died before we moved to Ty Isaf, but it’s full of china, books and paintings that she and Ian brought to us. At our cottage we eat from a dining-table that she loaned us, take our tea on a service that was her house-warming gift to us, and snuggle on the vintage Welsh-blanket across the sofa that she brought to make it cosy for Jack. The sunken-garden there was one she helped design and plant, and at the top of the lawn at the edge of the wood, her garden-chair still stands where she liked to enjoy the view of the sea, though it’s getting very wonky and I don’t know how many more seasons it’ll survive.
Also at the cottage is a beautiful though fragile old willow-pattern charger, given to me by Amy, who said it came from Oak House in Llanfrechfa, and had belonged to her mother, our great grandmother Bertha. She gave it to me a year or so before she left her house in Dulwich Village.
Please give my love to everyone, but a special hug to your mum.
Such a memorable and heartwarming story about art, storytelling and dear friends!
Three things that I find go together beautifully. Thank you, Marja-Leena
A very beautiful blog post to read at the end of my day. How nice to be able to ask and receive a story as a birthday gift and then have it lead to all the good things that it did. The ink and wax illustrations are haunting and intense.
I brought out Palmyra Jones to photograph for this post, and of course read it again. (I never tire of doing so. I must have read it a hundred times. More, probably.) Not robust even when it was new, the edition is increasingly fragile, handled so much that the flimsy paper has become limp with use. I’ve covered it in a sleeve of cellophane to help support it, as I wouldn’t want the cover to become detached from the pages.
I’d never illustrated a book before and I had no starting point of a developed style. So I adopted the ink-and-wash-over-wax technique I’d admired in the graphic work of the artist John Piper, though it has to be said it wasn’t a great imitation, because I hadn’t fully developed my pictorial skills. The little drawings drifted toward what I’d always found moodily attractive in the work of the Neo-romantics.
Seventeen years on I’ve found my own ways of working. In fact by the time I came to illustrate The Mare’s Tale in 2001, just four years after Palmyra, I’d developed a much more confident and personal way of drawing. But notwithstanding its flaws (mine, not Catriona’s) the book still pleases me, because of the memories bound up in it. At the time it delighted all of us involved with the making of it. Peter and I were thrilled to get Catriona into print, and I know that she too, shy though she was in terms of her writing, was proud of what she’d made.
Very shortly after Pamyra Jones was produced, Nicolas asked me to create decorations for the beautiful edition he planned of The Affectionate Shepheard by the sixteenth century poet Richard Barnfield. For that I had to learn a vast new array of skills, but I had more preparation time to acquire them in.
Good to know. I looked through the other two books you illustrated for The Old Stile Press on their website. Each has a different approach which, after reading your reply, I understand why. But the illustrations in all three books are very emphatic in making their presence felt. They cannot be easily forgotten.
Thank you for that thoughtful response.
When I began illustrating books for The Old Stile Press, I was making discoveries every day, both to do with the practical aspects of the ‘private press’ business… learning how to make glass plates for The Affectionate Shepheard, for instance… but also trying to adapt myself to what I thought the ‘character’ of each book might be. I wasn’t really established as a painter at that point, and I had no illustration experience. It was a very big deal indeed for Nicolas to have entrusted the early projects to me, and I was conscious of the responsibilities. Luckily things turned out quite well.
These days I’ve an established reputation as a painter, and moreover I work with a very few writers who regularly ask me to collaborate with them by making book covers and decorations. Marly Youmans is chief among these, and the writer I’m most associated with as her artist-of-choice. But the poet Damian Walford Davies and I have become friends, and that’s resulted in me making the cover for his narrative sequence of poems, Witch, and we have other projects simmering.
The difference between how I worked in the early days, and how I work now, is that back then I tailored my style to whichever project was in hand, whereas now there’s a consistency of approach that’s all to do with where I am as a painter. There’s an ease of moving between the disciplines of easel-painting and illustration that I enjoy, because they’ve become two sides of the same coin. As a self-taught artist/illustrator I’ve occasionally made things quite hard for myself, but there’s nothing wrong with that. I like to test myself, and push myself hard.
What I love about your work, Priya, is its deceptive simplicity, a quality I know is hard-won. And your images draw the viewer in without bludgeoning with detail. Beautiful.
I would ideally like to have this conversation with you in real life, seated in comfortable armchairs and perhaps over beer of coffee.
The acquisition of a voice or style in painting and drawing is such a wonderful thing. The process takes its time, like growth in nature, and one day when you least expect it, the influences that were once so apparent vanish into undercurrents and a distinctiveness emerges with which the artist is forever associated. Much like handwriting I think. Wonderful stories and poems, good quality printing and friends who have faith in your abilities make the efforts all the more worthwhile.
Your words about my work are incredibly kind and generous. As always, there is a feeling of incredulity when I read them; my moments of confidence about what I do alternate with feelings of inadequacy, but these days I recognize the latter as simply essential in order to move forward.
Coffee/beer and a nice chat in comfortable armchairs sounds great. One day, perhaps.