Quite early in my career as a painter I began examining ways to create narratives in my work. To begin with those developed from my own stories and were essentially biographical. My father’s childhood fears and how they impacted his life and death were the source material of The Mare’s Tale. In many ways those were mood pieces, with the narratives forming underlying supports to material that for viewers could be interpreted personally and in diverse ways. I think of them now as more like orchestral compositions in which the character of the music carries listeners to their own imaginative spaces.
Later I painted several Annunciations, drawn by the drama of the New Testament account, and made a series of paintings, The Temptations of Solitude, based on episodes in the Lives of the Desert Fathers: a hermit dwells in a tree, attended and fed by an angelic visitor, and a cruel slave-master pursues a fleeing couple across a wildernesses, only to be stalked and devoured by an avenging lioness. I was discovering, perhaps as a legacy of my many years working in the theatre, that the type of paintings that interested me most were ones that told stories.
The Comfort of Angels Attending the Dying, 2004. Private Collection
Outside of the recent Hansel & Gretel illustration project for St Jude’s and Benjamin Pollock’s Toy Shop in Covent Garden, the work on Gawain and the Green Knight has been my most comprehensive and complete exploration of a narrative to date. Using the poem as my guide and inspiration, the intention from the beginning was to make fourteen sequential and editioned prints that would tell the story, though for every print to be stand-alone in the sense that I wanted each to work whether viewed as a single artwork, or as a part of the series.
The Armouring of Gawain. Screen Print. 2016
The process of building an image that encodes not just the narrative ‘moment’, but also has a sense of linkage to what’s transpired and what will come after, takes planning and endless trial and error. Every image has to be built from scratch: composition, colour, tone, and mark-making all serving the narrative. Imagined landscapes, gardens and castles must be conjured, as well as interior spaces and their furnishings. Characters, shown once or repeatedly have to be realised, complete with garments, hairstyles, armour and weaponry. When appearing repeatedly there has to be a balance between keeping a likeness, and yet allowing for physical and psychological change. Arthur, Guinevere, the Lord and Lady of Fair Castle and Morgan le Fay each appear just once in the print series, whereas the Green Knight and Gawain occur repeatedly. In the fourteen prints there are three featuring horses, plus images of hunting birds, a stag, a boar, a fox and several peacocks. Each had to fit within this particular imagined world. Then there’s the need to honour the source material, in this case the 2007 translation by Simon Armitage. I wanted to make a visual response to his text rather than try to represent it illustratively, and to do that I had to steep myself in his words over a long period. The small, hardback Faber & Faber first edition was never out of my pocket. I can recite quite long sections of it, committed to memory by repeated reading.
Above: building a print with layers of lithography film, each of which will be printed in a single colour.
For me responding to a text is all about finding the spaces between the words and then colonising them. I invest the characters and events with my own imagined detailing, layering invented elements onto what’s provided by the text. In this way the enchantress Morgan le Fay, who’s only mentioned in the poem by another character, gets a whole print to herself, while the Gawain of my images sometimes appears in ways not found in the poem. He binds his wound with the green sash given to him by the Lady of Fair Castle, and by the end of the series his armour has transformed itself with foliate embellishments, while the back of his hand has been marked with a branching stigmata.
Though the prints were not made specifically to accompany the text, I want anyone looking at them while reading it to discover that the words and images are in dialogue. Gawain begins the story as a glittering young knight, unmarked, privileged and unproven. By the end of it his face is shadowed, his hair is shorn to stubble and he is all too aware of his shortcomings. It’s all there in the title of the final print: The Stain of Sin.
Below: the magical transformation of black and white to the luminous, transparent coloured inks of the final print.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Clive Hicks-Jenkins and the Penfold Press
The Martin Tinney Gallery
on January 10th, 6 – 7.30 pm.
Fourteen prints on the theme of the narrative poem, plus paintings and drawings.
Forgive me if this is too fanciful but it strikes me that the old ‘actor’ in you – with that ability to imagine, explore and create truthful characterisations – has morphed through your fingers and mind into your paintbrush, where the cadences of the poet’s words flower in front of you.
Love as ever and always
I don’t think that’s fanciful at all, dear Bern. Strikes me as being firmly on target. I play out the performances at the easel in the same way that long ago, as a young actor, I capered on a stage. (And later, as a director, coaxed performances from others.) The creativity all comes from the same source, though the practice is different. And it’s no accident, I think, that all my favourite subjects come from the written word. Text is everything to me.
Loving words, as you know I do, my mind is now full of some of the many we’ve shared, including never to be forgotten ‘naff’ lyrics mushed, mashed and merged with our fortunate early bathes in Shakespeare.
You were ‘fab’ and very funny in AMSNDream!.
Loved this: “For me responding to a text is all about finding the spaces between the words and then colonising them. I invest the characters and events with my own imagined detailing, layering invented elements onto what’s provided by the text.” There is such a feeling of growth in this series. It’s quite palpable.
Again, a wonderfully detailed description of how things have revealed themselves over time and through hours of work. Would that my own process was as carefully constructed as yours. I love what you create – it has influenced my own work in subtle ways. I too enjoy works that tell a story, even if the story is hidden through abstraction. Mark Rothko comes to mind. Do you see his work as that of an expert story teller? Would love to know the painters who inspire you.
Thank you, Carolyn.
It might be considered an eccentric list, and I could add many to it. I realise there are greater and lesser names, but sometimes it’s possible to learn as much from a lesser artist, as from the greatest one.
I am massively at home in the early Renaissance. I love it when invention is the guiding principle, before perspective has been nailed and before artists begin using optical devices. I prefer what happens twixt the eye and the hand when inner worlds are expressed, as well as observation of the outer one. Naive art and the art of the insane. (The Prinzhorn Collection has been a revelation and a constant source of discovery.)
Pieter Breugel the Elder. Braque of course, and Klee. Picasso. The German Expressionists, particularly Grosz and Dix. Bruno Schulz. George Stubbs has been a lifelong hero of mine. He’s a giant. Beatrix Potter, because despite the dressed animals she is not sentimental and her draftsmanship is staggering. Winifred Nicholson. Ravillious and Bawden. Nash. Leonaora Carrington.
Thank you so much for taking the time to reply in detail, Clive. Some I hadn’t heard of and am currently investigating the work. I have a deep interest in what other artists and have discovered and I’d have to say your list has been my best find to date! I can see why The Prinzhorn Collection takes your breath away.
I agree with Rosie, it’s so interesting, and sounds so complicated! Good luck, let us all know how it goes. Much much love from FrancexxxL
A splendid programme note, and some! Thank you. Good luck with the exhibition.
I so appreciate the explanation you give of your inspiration and techniques. It’s a joy to read.