the road to beastly passions part 1: origins

When I was a boy I was entranced by the Staffordshire groups ranged on the mantelpieces and dressers of my nan and various elderly relatives. To me the figurines, daubed with colours as vivid and as tempting as the boiled sweets in jars on the corner-shop’s shelves, were the visual equivalents of fairy-tales. Their costumes were fanciful, redolent of Victorian pantomimes and the ‘Juvenile Dramas’ of Benjamin Pollock. A bonneted Scottish shepherd-boy with a sheep the size of a Shetland pony came from the same world as The Tinderbox, in which a soldier climbs down a hollow tree to be confronted by a dog with eyes the size of millstones. Small children clung to the backs of spaniels as big as heifers, and kilted huntsman sat high in the saddles of elegantly prancing steeds straight from a circus ring. I particularly liked the Staffordshire soldiers, broad-shouldered and wasp waisted in scarlet jackets over tight white breeches worn with knee-boots polished to a china glaze. The sailors too, had an allure, with their jaunty straw boaters and ruddy cheeks, ready for a jig or a brawl.

Coming late in my life to painting, I found myself drawn back to the world of the Staffordshire figurines, this time as subject matter for my brushes. To begin with I strove for verisimilitude, teaching myself to capture the shiny glazes on white china, and the soft modelled shapes that were pleasingly challenging to get right. These early works were neo-romantic in feel, with dark, tumultuous skies and Winter-blasted landscapes. Colours were relatively muted. The mood was sombre, troubled even.

Later I began to calm both the mood and the paint surfaces, flattening out shapes and concerning myself less with the lustre and gleam of the pottery than with character embodied in it. The images increasingly referenced the ‘toy theatre’ aspects of Staffordshire that had so charmed me as a child. (The Staffordshire figures frequently bear a startling resemblance to the characters in Regency toy theatre character sheets, another source familiar to me when I was young, having been given a stash of them by an actor-friend of my parents.)


I began reconfiguring Staffordshire groups to better serve what I required compositionally. Often the pieces in the paintings were hybrids, inventions stitched together from several sources, or I changed the proportions and colours of the china to suit my needs.

The final transformation of my ‘Staffordshire’ work saw the paintings pared to a bare minimum of detail as I turned my attentions to the prismatic effects of light on china glaze, and the play of shadows on the soft, chalky walls of the cottage where I was working.

Eventually, and with many paintings of china groups behind me, I was done. I’d been producing works on the Staffordshire theme throughout a period of significant change in my life, and my painting too, and perhaps the way I viewed the world, had transformed. What I was making by the end didn’t bear much resemblance to where I’d started.

I moved away from the subject of Staffordshire figures to pursue other expressions of narrative painting, not expecting to return. And I didn’t until few weeks ago, when out of the blue Ben Elwyn wrote requesting the birthday gift of a postcard… a blank postcard was enclosed with a SAE ready to return to him… decorated on his suggested theme of ‘Gold and Death’. I produced this:

Part 2: penny dreadfuls,  tomorrow.

I’ve written before, and more fully, about my initial flirtations with Neo-romanticism and what followed. You can read about that journey:


9 thoughts on “the road to beastly passions part 1: origins

  1. A brilliant and beautiful post, thank you, it’s so good to see these images together and to read your words about the Staffordshire pieces. There’s a great exhibition right here, and these posts would make a wonderful book too. OK, that’s an exhibition and a book out of this post, that’ll keep somebody busy for a while!

    • You’re a sweet boy. Thank you, Phil. It’s strange, because at the time I was making all this work, I wasn’t really thinking of how it might one day link together. But as time passes and the paintings mount up, I can see the ongoing creative arc, and maybe one day it will make an exhibition. But that must be for someone else to worry about. I’m just going to get on with the paintings. (-;

  2. Whenever I see groupings of your old paintings it makes me really wish I had a time machine handy so I could pop back a decade or two and buy one.

    And because inflation would be working in reverse, by taking the money from ‘today’ with me, it would be worth more in the past (if you see what I mean) so I might even be able to afford a couple of your old paintings.

    • Thank you, Liz. I can hardly believe that the subject has come back to fire me up again, and yet in such a different way to the last time I was inspired to paint some Staffordshire. I love the way ideas re-invent themselves in our heads, when we give them the space to do so.

      Hugs and kisses from Wales.

    • Then you should paint. Just get out the colours and the brushes and work without over-thinking. Let whatever painting that’s within you come out unmediated. Think of it as play. Don’t delay. Just do it! (-;

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