Beastly Passions

Early in my  career I made many still-life paintings of Staffordshire pottery groups. This weekend I reignited that old flirtation by making a postcard-sized coloured drawing for my friend Ben, based on the Staffordshire pottery version of Tipu’s Tiger.

Man Slain by a Tiger

I greatly enjoyed making Man Slain by a Tiger, and I now find myself considering further explorations of Staffordshire beastly beasts. I came across this group commemorating the death of sixteen year-old Ellen Bright, an animal trainer who died in 1850 after being mauled by a tiger while performing with Wombell’s Circus!


Then there’s this extraordinary group depicting the body of a woman on which an escaped tiger from a menagerie crouches, a limp, bonneted child dangling from its’ jaws!


I assume the popularity of such groups was driven by a mixture of the Victorian inclination toward sentimentality, coupled with a relish for Penny Dreadful horrors. They are a strange blend of the ghoulish and the picturesque, these vibrant oddities, the ghastliness rendered less visceral by being so toy-like. I have a notion to push the idea a little further, using contemporary expressions of fatalities at the sharp end of nature, but filtered through the prism of the Penny Plain/Tuppence Coloured naiveté of the Staffordshire groups.

I don’t know whether I’ll be able to achieve this with any degree of success, but I know the idea will niggle away at me until I give expression to it. Watch this space.

16 thoughts on “Beastly Passions

  1. Pingback: preparing artwork for a print | Clive Hicks-Jenkins' Artlog:

  2. Almost the only bad thing about frolicking in the mountains with no wifi is that I’m behind on Cliveishness. Of course, the good thing is that I’ll have a heap to sort through later… Like the card and of course the Staffordshire pieces you’ve done in the past. These seem like a great, related subject for art frolics…

    Off to Athens tomorrow, then back here later. I’m hoping to have a wildly-revised thing to send you before I leave.

    • I too have been in my own world, and consequently Marly light, knowing that you were off on your reading tour. I have some catching up to do at The Palace.

      The Staffordshire larks continue. Just when I think I’m through with a subject, the ashes crackle and spark and the fire reignites. I have Staffs-related ideas that will explore quite a dark vein in the British psyche, and I’m quite sure what I plan on making will not be liked by a good many. (Or even any!) But then it’s the job of artists to examine the shadow side.

      Wild revisions welcomed.

      I assume by ‘Athens’ you don’t mean you’re giving a reading at the Parthenon! (Unless I’ve missed more at ‘The Palace’ than I’ve realised.)

  3. Wowsers! these are just crying out to be reinterpreted in 3D too!!

    and I would love to be one of the artists to do that! – i’m up to my ears with other stuff at the moment, but it’s food for thought for sure…hmm….

    If you do get as far as a planned exhibiton for your own versions of them Clive I would definitely be open to the possibility of providing some model versions either of your designs, or my own….

  4. I wasn’t sure for a moment whether you were referring to the pottery or the English when you said ‘They are a strange blend of the ghoulish and the picturesque, these vibrant oddities’. Gruesomely fabulous. An intriguing beginning 🙂

    • Ha ha! Could have been either. One might say the same of the playing-fields of Eton… and indeed of the kind of behaviour they lead to in Prime Minister’s Question Time!

      Well as you know, I meant the pottery, but I think it might equally apply to our collective ‘nature’. The Victorian age during which Staffordshire thrived, was indeed a queasy mix of the prurient and the practical. You have to wonder about a society in which piano legs were deemed so inflaming to the passions of men that they had to be draped for decency, coupled with a level of prostitution on the streets of london that could have qualified the city as a brothel. We’ve always had a smutty side. To this day I find our tabloid newspaper’s attitudes toward sexual matters, both horrifying and juvenile. It seems not at all a surprise to me that we produced the ‘Ooooooh, Matron!’ humour of the Carry On films, which even allowing for any nostalgic affection we might feel for Hattie Jacques and Kenneth Williams, quickly evolved into a pretty grubby and depressing spectacle.

      I knew the Carry On film actor Kenneth Connor quite well. He was a sweet, kindly and incredibly funny man, not only a true clown, but as I found when I directed him on stage, full of professional generosity. I remember a conversation in his dressing-room when he told me with an air of ineffable gloom, that he’d been approached over a project to revive the Carry On franchise with a new film. I smiled brightly, checked my first inclination to look horrified, and asked if he was going to do it! ‘Christ, NO!’, he replied. ‘Why not, Kenny?’, I ventured. ‘Because I hate the damned things, and the thought of being incarcerated on a set trying to flog that long-dead horse into any semblance of life while (name omitted) effs and blinds and makes everybody’s lives sheer bloody misery for the duration, curdles my blood!’ My own blood curdled at his outburst, because I was about to start rehearsals for a pantomime with (name omitted), and learn first-hand what she could be like!

      The franchise was indeed revived… mercifully briefly… in a film called Carry on Columbus, and despite the producers’ attempts to win him round, Kenny wouldn’t agree to appear in it. And neither, as it happened, would (name omitted)! Both were right to steer clear of the project. While I hold little affection for the original films, the spectacle of Carry On Columbus made them seem quite sophisticated and classy!

        • I met Hawtrey only once, and briefly. But for those of us who worked in ‘the business’, the stories about him were legion, and I heard some pretty grim ones over the years. It seems to me that had it not been for the success he’d enjoyed in films, Hawtrey would have been considered quite dysfunctional in ordinary life. But his character on film… and there was only ever one… made people laugh, and not always in a nice way.

          As a young man I intensely disliked his screen persona, because here was yet another example of a plainly homosexual man turning himself into the travesty that an unenlightened society liked to imagine was a mirror of all gay men. It was not good to be growing up a homosexual in the 1950s and 60s while everyone laughed so loudly and so nastily at the likes of Charles Hawtrey. When as a teenager I started to become aware of the drop-dead handsome Derek Jarman, a politicised director and openly homosexual activist, my heart leapt with joy, and I knew the smuttiness of the ‘in-joke’ personified by Hawtree… the gay man everyone could at best pity and at worst, sneer at… was about to end. A good thing too.

          • Indeed! I quite agree. Alas, cinema continues to this day to ill use any minority group. Derek Jarman, the man with the wonderful garden. My husband is a landscape architect and introduced me to it.

            • Prospect Cottage, Dungeness. It changed the way we thought about gardens in the latter part of the 20th century. Jarman was a genius no matter what he turned his hand to. I thought it moving in the extreme that in the last incarnation of his life, when he was not at all well, the bad boy of independent British cinema confounded everyone yet again, and transformed himself into a visionary gardener. What a hero he was, and remains to this day. He showed young gay men how to be fierce and brave, and I will always love him for it.

  5. I get just exactly the same visual tune when seeing your drawing and then seeing the pottery, Clive. The same degree of ‘quasi’ life? It just resonates in the same way.
    That, to my mind, is a vert real achievement. Very, very well done!

    • Thank you, Paul. I get a real charge out of some Staffordshire groups, and enjoy the processes of tailoring them to my needs as a painter. There is the true, earthy-yet-sickly-sweet flavour of the fairy-tale in so many of them, a sense of peculiarities wrapped in shiny-bright coloured cellophane. They sometimes give me the sense of having spotted Death riding a carousel horse!

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