La Bête and the Sin-Eater

La Bête is just about done. He is not as I expected. His costume has been simplified, made as a single garment painted with the elements from the original design that barely register other than as pleasingly abstract shapes. The starched collar and cuffs were made though have been left off, as the painted canvas costume is already rather stiff and the extra elements unnecessarily impeded the movement of head and hands. So he looks rather less the dandy prince in bejewelled doublet, lace and trailing sleeves, and more the alchemist in fusty, pentangled robes.

The puppet has the proportions of a Bunraku figure, with a small head and broad, bulky shoulders atop a long body. Haven’t yet decided whether to add some legs for a second puppeteer to operate. They’re not strictly necessary, but would add versatility. His articulation is extremely good. I’m particularly pleased with the head. He can turn it from side to side, look up and down and it can shrink down onto the shoulders as if in recoil. My direct control of it from inside the body cavity makes the movement remarkably subtle. While the robes seem almost sculpted because of the paint-on-heavy-canvas construction, the unyielding, hieratic quality, works in favour of the puppet’s character.

Behind the puppet is a painting by Welsh coal-miner-turned-artist, the late Nick Evans. It shows the old tradition of a ‘sin-eater’ visiting a bereaved household to eat food set on the coffin-lid, taking upon himself the sins of the deceased in an example of sympathetic magic ‘transference’.

Please excuse this image. It’s a poorly-cropped illustration from a book about Evans, and the head of the raven that sits on the sin-eater’s staff is missing from it. The painting itself is too big for me to get a good photograph without setting it up with arc lamps and the tripod camera, and I don’t have time for that today. But there are some good images further down of details I photographed myself.

In this example of the tradition, the coffin is open and the food is recognisably a plate of ‘Welsh’ cakes, laid out on the dead man’s chest. Nick Evans never observed this first hand as the custom had died out before his time, but he painted it from the description given by his mother, who as a child had witnessed a ‘sin-eating’. Sin-eaters were both reviled and yet clearly useful, and they carried out their work for a fee.

Peter and I disagreed about the acquisition of this painting at auction. (I wanted it and he didn’t.) So my friend Catriona purchased it for me, and then pretended that it was her idea!!! I only confessed the deceit to Peter after her death!

Above: the sin-eater with a ‘Welsh’ cake at his lips and his crow on his staff.

Nick Evans worked exclusively in black oil paint on a white ground, eschewing brushes and using only his fingers and some rags as tools. He is best known for his paintings of the south Wales mining communities, the colliers and pit-ponies working underground, and the families above. Peter would have preferred a good example of an Evans painting showing miners at their work, but I loved this one, with the community gathered around the coffin and the children straining on tip-toe to peek inside it. It’s four foot square, and I can imagine it wouldn’t be to everyone’s tastes, this representation of a corpse, gaunt with age/illness and swaddled for the grave, but I love it.

Above: children peer into the coffin, a mourner stands with hands clasped to head, and one of the sin-eater’s two attendants bears the bell that sounded their approach. How dramatic and forboding they must have been, arriving after dark and bearing their candle-lantern, robed like druids amid the clamouring of bell and crow!

21 thoughts on “La Bête and the Sin-Eater

  1. Clive, thank you, I have not come across the tradition of the ‘Sin-Eater’ before, and it’s truly fascinating, and I suspect has parallels all over the world. I find that juxtaposition/tension between something or someone who is necessary, even sacred in a way, yet also feared and reviled because of the very nature of what they do, really interesting. And I love your Beast. I have a ‘Beauty and the Beast’ thing going too, something I’ve been working on and mulling over for about 3 years now. I’m interested in the nature of wildness, and why Beauty might fall for him, and why (I think!) she might be horribly disappointed when he turns back into a man. It’s an ongoing journey!

    • Although Jean Cocteau is frequently criticised for the appearance of his Beast-transformed-into-a-preening-prince at the end of La Belle et la Bête, for me he captures the sense that outside the enchanted world of the Beast’s castle… and beyond the reach of the curse laid upon the prince that transformed him into a beast… any ‘ordinary’ outcome, even if it’s along the lines of marrying into a royal family (and we all know how well that sometimes works out) is bound to be disappointing. Have you ever read the Angela Carter collection of short fairytale-based stories, The Bloody Chamber? There are two ‘Beauty and the Beast’-based stories in it, The Tiger’s Bride and The Courtship of Mr Lyon. In the former the outcome of the tale is a lot more to my own taste, and I suspect to yours! I recommend it.

  2. Hello Clive, I don’t know what to say about all this. I can see La Bête moving even in the stillness of the photograph. And then this Evans…painting with his hands and telling the story of “Sin Eaters”… and you have it in your house. Thats like having an A.P. Ryder painting in your house I think.

    • Even as I was posting this, it struck me how much the linear aspect of the Evans’ work might appeal to you.

      I didn’t know the work of Albert Pinkham Ryder until I went searching for it after reading your comment, and I’m obliged for the tip-off. I’d be happy living with one of those! Love his brushwork and the boldness of his almost abstract compositions. Seacoast in Moonlight, 1890, really rings my bells. I even like the crazing and darkness and ruinous condition of some of his paintings, inasmuch that it makes them fragile yet deeply potent objects.

  3. Such an interesting painting, and I love the juxtapositioning of your beast with the corpse’s head. I know enough about you and your artlog to know that there are no accidents or coincidences. So – do you see your beast as a sineater or as one whose sins have been eaten, or what? The lines and style of the painting and your puppet’s face are beautifully similar.


    • Ha ha! Well-spotted, Linda. And you’re right, ultimately there are no coincidences, at least not by the time we get to this stage.

      I’m fascinated by the fairy-tale of Beauty and the Beast on multiple levels. I think it no accident that Cocteau’s interpretation of the tale became the most powerfully iconic of his films with the extravagantly handsome Jean Marais, who was the director’s muse and lover at the point of its making. To me it it’s deeply significant that Marais’ famed beauty is for the most part hidden beneath the Beast’s pelt, and the discomfort, isolation and frustration the actor reportedly felt, add indescribable layers of tragedy to his performance.

      As for my own Beast, the most important thing was for me to escape too close a representation of the animal/groom conjured by Cocteau the artist and his actor muse, even though every frame of the film has long been engraved on my heart. I thought the black and white Nick Evans painting was in keeping with the cinematic inspiration of the puppet, and I was attracted to the parallel notions of the sin-eater as feared and reviled, standing outside the community by dint of his otherness, just as the Beast is an outsider because of a curse placed upon him. Both are damned in the eyes of the world, and both must live in exile. Who can say how such circumstances might curdle the soul, but the dramatic implications are exciting for this story-led artist!

    • I kept looking at the original design I made for the puppet, and blanching at the amount of time I’d have to spend making La Bête’s costume. It would have been fun, but I’d have to set aside a week to pull it off, maybe more.

      Casting around for ways to simplify, I got to thinking about the tricks I used back in the day when I designed for the stage, and how I’d paint scenic grade canvas to mimic unaffordable, rich brocades. So out came my long-unused bolt of of linen purchased when I thought that would be my ground-of-choice as a painter (it turned out not to be), and I swiftly chalked the pattern of a simple shift and cut it out. While still in pieces I painted it quite roughly in black and grey acrylic, and when dry I stitched the whole thing together and fitted it onto the puppet. To begin with the garment felt unwieldy, moving in a solid lump. But it just needed a combination of securing to the neck plate of the puppet and a bit of beating into submission. Once the textile had been handled to the point where the stiffness diminished, everything began to work. It’s always going to be a tad stiff, but I rather like its sculptural quality. Quite dream-like. If ever the right stage-design project came along, I’d work this idea more thoroughly. The technique would look fantastic on ‘big’ costumes with panniered skirts and balloon sleeves!

      So you see, Caroline, you could get a bolt of calico and ‘paint’ yourself a handsome garment. It would make a beautiful frock-coat, or waistcoat, or one of those wonderful long coats with flying skirts that you see cowboys wearing in ‘Westerns’!

      Hands! When I was a puppeteer… and yes, it does sometimes seem that I’ve been everything at one time or another… I always found that if the hands were eloquent, then the puppet worked. Designers would spend far more time thinking about the heads than the hands. For me, as an occasional puppet-maker, I know that getting the hands right is vital. In the case of this beast, they give a tension to his stance. In the absence of mirrors… and I think he would not want mirrors around him… they’d remind him of his beastliness. In performance I would have him look at them in wonder, dread and shame.

      • I really think I would have to save up lots of money and get you to paint me a dress to have one that looked that good. You have reminded me that I made a painted canvas puppet once upon a time, I will have to see if I can find it. I would have never thought of wearing it and am fascinated by the idea of the stiff and sculptural quality of painted cloth and would love to make some clothing experimenting with this, if only there were more hours in the day!
        I am also picturing the surreal image of a flying skirt!

  4. Well done Clive! You have created a real original Beast, not easy to do with all your inspirations/influences running round your head. He is marvellous!

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