The Mare’s Tale redux

Up in the studio, there are new stirrings of The Mare’s Tale

The Mare’s Tale began life as as series of drawings exhibited in my first major public gallery show of that name in 2001. The Mari Lwyd was a central character of a once popular mid-winter mumming tradition of rural Wales, and was represented by a horse’s skull nailed to a stick, the man carrying it hidden beneath a ghost-like shroud.

At Newport Art Gallery, giant black and white drawings of my father and the Mari Lwyd that had been his nemesis throughout his long life, fought a final battle to the accompaniment of Catriona Urquhart’s poetic text, reproduced on large wall-mounted panels. The poems were simultaneously published in a beautiful, limited edition book, designed and printed by Nicolas McDowall of The Old Stile Press, and launched at the opening of the exhibition.

The following year the exhibition appeared at Brecknock Museum and Art Gallery, augmented with new work bringing the series to a conclusion. The last drawing was On the Mountain, in which the Mari, so fearsome throughout the series, was shown broken and dying in a winter landscape of dereliction and leafless branches.

On the Mountain. Conté pencil on Arches paper. 122 x 153 cm

After the two exhibitions, the drawings scattered into private and public collections across Wales and beyond. Stumbles and Cannot Rise to the National Museum of Wales, The Mari Lwyd Awakening to Brecknock Museum and Art Gallery, and The Friends Gather to MoMA Wales, Machynlleth. Some went into the collections of friends. Deposition III to Nicolas and Frances McDowell of the Old Stile Press, where it now hangs in the hallway of Catchmays Court, and Both Fall to Simon Callow, who had championed my work and had written the introduction to my Lund Humphries monograph published in 2011.

Both Fall. Conté pencil on Arches paper. 122 x 153 cm

Tend, a work I found difficult to live with, and yet one I couldn’t quite live without, went to friends Dave and Philippa Robbins, and hangs in their Cardiff home where I get to see it regularly.

Tend. Conté pencil on Arches paper. 122 x 153 cm

After the Newport and Brecon exhibitions, The Mare’s Tale drawings continued to be seen, out on loan from public and private collections. Two were in Dreaming Awake at the Terezín Memorial Gallery, Czech Republic, three were shown in the 2003 Wales Drawing Biennale at Aberystwyth Arts Centre, and that same year one appeared in Eisteddfod Genedlaethol Cymru, Meifod. In 2011 many were gathered together for my 60th birthday Retrospective Exhibition in the Gregynog Gallery of the National Library of Wales.

In 2012, The Mare’s Tale became the visual source material for a new work of that title commissioned by Mid Wales Chamber Orchestra from composer Mark Bowden. Poet Damian Walford Davies, who had several times chosen me as artist for his book covers, was commissioned to write a libretto that drew on key aspects of my father’s experiences of the Mari Lwyd, reworking them into a new and darkly chilling psychological fiction. In 2013 the piece was performed as a work-in-progress to an invited audience at Theatr Brycheiniog in Brecon, with actor Eric Roberts as the Narrator, and with James Slater conducting the Mid Wales Chamber Orchestra. I designed and directed the production, and the assistant director was dramaturge, Helen Cooper.

The production featured puppetry, animation and filmed sequences of landscape models conjuring London in the Blitz, and an un-named, isolated community in rural Wales. The Mari Lwyd itself was brought to life with onstage puppets, and in projected sequences of animation made with my regular collaborator, Pete Telfer of Culture Colony. This rod-puppet features an adapted maquette that I’d made originally as a stop-motion figure for the production.

Damian’s central character of Jane Seyes was played by two puppets, one of them constructed for her transformation from an apparition to the Mari Lwyd.

As the creative team of Mark, Damian, Helen and I continue to discuss and develop new visual ideas toward the premiere of The Mare’s Tale, in the studio I’m using the puppets and the miniature village built for the filmed sequences seen in Brecon, as the models for a new series of paintings inspired by the music and libretto. When I finished On the Mountain in 2001, I’d thought I’d reached the end of my work on The Mare’s Tale. In fact it turned out to be more a case of having got to the end of the beginning.

Above: model for filmed sequences of The Mare’s Tale.

Here are some of the rough sketches made in preparation for the new paintings.

Below: one of the ‘apparition’ puppets from the production…

… used as a model for this preparatory sketch.

Recent Mare’s Tale paintings will be in

Telling Tales: new narrative works by Clive Hicks-Jenkins

Oriel Tegfryn/Tegfryn Gallery

Menai Bridge, Anglesey

Opening May 10th, 2014

9 thoughts on “The Mare’s Tale redux

  1. This is wonderful, Clive. I remember the Mari Lwyd from Susan Cooper’s ‘The Dark is Rising’ series of children’s books, and it was a terrifying yet compelling character to a 13 year old child. I must re-read the book, and also reacquaint myself with the legend. I love the way these things build over the years, layer upon layer of personal experience, new knowledge, and create an utterly compelling and powerful, yet deeply personal, kind of ‘inner’ mythology.

  2. I like the way certain tales of power, like recurring dreams, thread through your work. The stories are always changed by time, the way a story changes as it moves forward through time, subject to fresh fact and dream and outer events.

    • I like too the contributions from other sources, that have shaped and continue to shape the themes running through the material. From Catriona back in 2001, and from Mark Bowden and Damian Walford Davies in 2012 – 2013. I knew back in 2011 how much Damian liked the work that Catriona had done on The Mare’s Tale, when he wrote about her in the monograph, and in many ways it was his appreciation of her work before he ever knew he’d be involved in TMT in a directly creative way, that made me think him the right man for the libretto.

  3. …Where to begin…? This is all so beautiful, and great to observe a journey which has produced some pretty special outcomes.

    Got a bit zoned out watching that projection!

    I am particularly enamoured of your lettering, by the way – so bursting of character, yet never conflicting with its fellows; great balance, always. Nice one.

    • Thank you, Steven, as ever, for your comments. I’m glad this post rang some bells for you, and I’m pleased as punch that you like the lettering for The Mare’s Tale. Nice that you noticed. Typography is something I rather love, and in the past couple of years I’ve got to design the lettering for the covers of some of the books I’ve produced covers for, which has been a real treat.

      • It’s really special. It could easily carry on its own, I think, but, as said before, this makes the cohesion with the imagery that you’ve managed all the more impressive.

        I’ve been enjoying the typography since I got here (if I haven’t already said so). I’ve always loved letterforms – where most young children drew stick men on the walls, I practiced letters – and I particularly love self-cut type; it’s a therapeutic process that gives a great feeling of ownership/signature. Nothing quite like creating your own font.

        • I love the golden age of paperback design, particularly in the Czech and Polish traditions, when lettering was frequently left to the artist producing the overall imagery. But I HATE HATE HATE the current obsession by publishers to cover paperbacks in a semi-matt laminate that has a horrible, slightly greasy feel to it, and the fact that the card covers are too thin, and almost immediately begin to curl. Whenever I purchase old titles, I always look for good vintage edition paperbacks. They’re so much better made.

  4. My dear, this theme has grown and flourished through so many years. Why wouldn’t it continue to find new life in your hands from now on? As long as their reappearances on your work table continue to surprise you, the work will always be a fresh concern. Nothing to do but say, “Well, hello, again!” And carry on! 😉
    xo AM

    • Last year’s re-working by Mark and Damian of the ideas at the heart of TMT gave me a real frisson as I re-examined the theme through the prism of their combined music and text. I knew that once their ideas had properly taken root in my imagination, it would be likely I’d bring them to the easel to explore in new paintings. So here I am, off on another voyage of discovery. ‘Hello again’ indeed!

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