“blood unfurling, not gushing”


The Green Knight’s Head Speaks.

Final pencil study awaiting paint.

So here I am at the moment of the drama when the game changes, all the rules of the natural world broken. The blade has descended, flesh has parted and the head has rolled. But this giant of a man doesn’t lie down, even though separated from his seat of reason, and he strides off to retrieve it from where it’s rolled and rested. Arthur’s knights, unknightly-like, have kicked it for sport, making a football of the thing. Little wonder Camelot will one day fall.

The decapitated Green Knight, head in hands, turns to face the throng. Is the event to be shown from the front, or from the side, from a distance or in close-up? On horseback or off? More importantly, how is the severed head to be held? The territory is ripe for clichés. Somehow I must avoid them. Swinging the head by its hair is not an option, or it will look like every other scene in Game of Thrones.

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I explore the alternatives.




Having tried it all ways I resolve to show it grasped and held aloft in both hands, tilted to an angle with eyes sliding sideways from under half-closed lids while beard and hair stream and snap like pennants in the wind. But this is indoors, so is the wind a supernatural unsettling, or an earthly one, racing through a doorway left gaping after the Green Knight’s arrival? It doesn’t matter. We can’t see  anything of the space anyway. And there’s no wound for us to gawp at either, as I don’t want to distract with bleeding stumps. Nevertheless the head is off, no doubt about that, absent from where it should be and present where it should not, held high and cradled in strong hands.


There’s blood, or what passes for it with old magic at work. Dense with flow, not kinetic, but hieratic, spouting, fountaining frozen, blossoming atop a frilled column. This is blood unfurling, not gushing. My reference is a fungus I once found bursting through the black plastic of a neighbour’s bale of hay. It was huge. I broke away a grapefruit-sized part of it and brought it home to photograph and draw. I’ve lost the drawings, but a photograph of it survives, fluted like cathedral fan-vaulting and flowing in overlapping scallop-shapes. It will make a strangeness in the composition rendering the event not just supernatural, but beautiful. There’s beauty too in the horse’s embroidered caparison, which will swarm with foliate meanderings and flighty birds.


A significant element in the composition is the animal’s wildly rolling eye and fearful expression. The human observers are out of frame, and so it stands in for them in the matter of a response to what’s happening, its astonishment more meaningful than anything we might expect from those loutish, head-kicking bully-boys pissed on Christmas wine.

Above, reference photo of fungi, and below, beginning to create the embroidered patterning of the horse’s caparison.


7 thoughts on ““blood unfurling, not gushing”

  1. Oh my god!! You have made such poetry of this! From the title of the post to the very end, I am so excited to have this shown in another way. I think I might have cried if you’d gone with Game of Thrones. 😀
    I want to wear that caparison, it’s fantastic! Your birds are pure magic 🙂
    Thank you, Clive!!!

  2. Ay, there’s the rub….the decisions to be made from a myriad of options! Distilling the final view from all the possibles is the work of the image-maker…and it has delight & freedom as well as the nerve-wracking need to make the final decision – it’s a delight to see someone else’s working out of this! I’m very touched by the horse being the bearer of response to the human behaviour…a truthful statement of the disgraceful barbarity with which we treat other species…the underbelly of how we treat other human beings. So many layers to experience….thank you Clive xx

  3. It’s always so exciting seeing your preparatory drawings Clive, observing the process that leads to the magic of the final image. And your drawings are always so, so beautiful in themselves.

    And the composition you’ve arrived at is looking unique and powerful already; the energy between the severed head, the horse’s head and the blossoming fountain of blood is electric.

    PS: I’ve been fortunate enough to see your The Green Knight Arrives print in the flesh recently and I’m absolutely in love with it!

  4. I agree with Rosie and Liz that it is always fascinating to witness your artistic process in action, Clive. I can imagine that beheading scenes and severed heads are not easy to translate into a picture that the viewer finds beautiful, even though you undoubtedly have a rich, albeit grisly (!), tradition of the “grotesque” in Western art to use for inspiration.

    There is a compelling fusion of the primitive, the medieval and the modern in your interpretation of this story. As the tale unfolds before our eyes, it is becoming more and more apparent that we are being led on a fantastic journey into deep time, but this is made all the more intriguing by the way you are encouraging us to engage with Sir Gawain and the Green Knight on a psychological level, which is a fascination of the modern age. This exploration of what lies beneath is something that I have rarely encountered in the illustration of the Arthurian romances and your approach is making me connect with the story in a much more meaningful way.

    I really like the choices you are making with ‘The Green Knight’s Head Speaks’. Severed heads have been a feature of religion since the earliest times, with both representations of heads – and actual human skulls – being found at sacred sites across Britain, especially watery ones. Several of the holy wells of Wales are said to have sprung from the blood that flowed after beheadings took place at these sites. Given that scholars have identified the Arthurian legends as “a repository of pagan memories”, it is not hard for me to imagine the Green Knight you depict here as a guardian from this ancient world, holding his severed head aloft in a strange echo of a ritual sacrifice.

    I also love how you have chosen the Green Knight’s horse to provide the sole response to this supernatural occurence. A man on horseback has been an icon in art for thousands of years, such are the enduring bonds of this relationship, so who better to help us understand the reaction of the onlookers to this viscerally unsettling scene than the heart of this ancient pairing?

  5. That rings a bell, of an archaic pose, on battlements?
    May be Trojan wars.
    Anticipation, such fun
    B xxx

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