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