the Origins of ‘Startled Peacocks’

CHJ 3a

The painting has its roots in earlier work and interests. I’ve always been drawn to images of animals, and Stubbs is the master. His Horse Attacked by a Lion of 1769 has lodged in my mind since first I saw it, and it stays there still, appalling and sublime.


Stubbs was working from classical models, as artists throughout history have done. The herbivore brought down by a carnivore is a potent metaphor for power unleashed upon the vulnerable, recognised and understood across cultures.




In my painting The Barbarian Brought Down by a Lioness (collection of MoMA Mach), based on an episode drawn from the fragments of a Renaissance altarpiece at Christ Church Picture Gallery depicting the Lives of the Desert Fathers, I showed a man being mauled by a lioness, his limbs broken. Here’s a detail of her claws raking as she embeds her teeth in his abdomen. Her back is knotted with muscles. She’s as elemental as the heaving waves in Amlwch Harbour behind her.


I drew on many models that had caught my eye, particularly Romanesque carved capitals of beasts attacking men.


Lions have featured extensively in my work, though never in terms of studies from life. I’m interested in their forms and how they fill the spaces of compositions, and of course in what they can represent. Here’s a painting titled The Lion in Winter, made when lions were densely populating my imagination and sketchbooks. He stands on a pedestal in a snowbound landscape, the ruins of a Welsh slate mill behind him.


The drawing for Startled Peacocks began with the Stubbs image so deeply etched in my imagination. Those wide jaws clamped down hard, haunt me.


I listened to Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time throughout the process of making the painting. The horror of my subject matter, a metaphor. Beauty and strength (the winged horse) brought down by brute force. Christ scourged and crucified.


I worked by daylight with the large sash-window to my left thrown open, and after dark by lamplight. The images of the work in progress vary in colour because of the light conditions, though the photograph at the top of the post shows the painting as it appears when viewed in person. It was scanned for me in the photography department of the National Library of Wales, and the reproduction of its colour is spot on.



DSC00792 (1).jpg




I enjoy the images of the work in progress in all their variation, from the blue cast loaned by dusk to the gold washed across from the anglepoise  lamp I use after dark. Paintings, once framed and out in the world will be seen in light conditions beyond my control, so I like to see for myself how the effects of light of many types affect the images.



10 thoughts on “the Origins of ‘Startled Peacocks’

  1. I really love this piece–the colors are so amazing, and the composition so full of beautiful detail, i love that it has the feel of a kind of cyclone of beauty. I hope it doesn’t horrify you that i choose to see this cat playing with this horse the way my calico plays with me. Bite she does, and I’m sure a photo of it would look pretty terrifying, but it’s not. 😀
    Sorry. 🙂
    But also, thank you!

    • How could I be horrified? I love the idea of you seeing Calico in the form of the beast in this work. The fact is that it’s only my experience of domestic cats that I have to go on when I make a painting such as this. I have been quite ferociously set about by the odd pet cat, though never, mercifully, by anything bigger. (-;

  2. Fascinating as ever, but for me all I can hear now in my head is the Eleanora tune from ‘that’ film and the scene of the boat on the water with Katherine Hepburn’s erect figure.
    Love from a ‘lion free’ (and at present rain free) Folkestone.
    B xxx

  3. Is that a Gofridus capital from Chauvigny? “Gofridus me fecit!” Sure looks like it. I have a poem about Gofridus…

    And I should have thought of the Stubbs–knew you liked him! The Stubbs image seems to have some relation to the way you have handled the head of the Mari, too.

  4. I almost physically feel the horror of that bite and mauling, It isn’t for the faint-hearted, which is why I didn’t say it was a beautiful painting when commenting on your previous post. (And it IS a beautiful PAINTING. But while there is a certain ironic beauty in the concept of the metaphor, I cannot describe the brutality itself as beautiful.)

    You are courageous in depicting that horror, especially so when working late at night. It must feed your dreams with distressing and disturbing images. While I turn my head and search out the mundane and the comfortable, you confront and face your demons like a gladiator. You are a ferocious fighter and a true artist. xxxxL

    • My sweet Liz, thank you for writing so thoughtfully and insightfully about this. I remember in Venice, when we stood in front of a giant ‘judgement’, with sinners being cast to demons for punishment, you averted your gaze and murmured that you couldn’t look at such cruelty.

      I love your celebrations of the domestic and the everyday. You paint with such tenderness and love. Your paintings are beautiful meditations on the things that make up our lives, and I draw comfort from them. They delight the eye and soothe the troubled breast. Sending love from Wales. xxxxx

      • What a lovely thing to say Clive, thanks. But I think the true and brave artist doesn’t shy away from those realities nor dark imaginings, I cannot let myself go to that dark place, let alone reveal myself to the world; as you know I have long admired you for doing so. Whatever you battle with, as I said before, you emerge victorious having created a wonderful painting. With fondest love from
        La Crabouille xxxxL

  5. I so enjoyed this blog post, Clive. Thanks for taking the time to put this together. Loved reading about how these recent paintings have evolved.

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