Simon Armitage and Clive Hicks-Jenkins: the poet and his illuminator

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I offered the term ‘illuminator’ to Marly Youmans some years ago when she asked me how I wanted to be described in terms of making images for her books. I went for the word used for the often anonymous artists who decorated early manuscripts with glowing intensity. I love being Marly’s illuminator, and we’ve been travelling hand-in hand for a long time now. I’ll be decorating her Book of the Red King for Phoenicia Publishing this year. There’s an ease and trust between us that’s creatively liberating.

The same comfort is in place with Damian Walford Davies, for whom I’ve made the covers of his trilogy of narrative poems, Witch, Judas and my yet to be released favourite, the ghost story Docklands. Simon Armitage is proving to be another easeful collaborator, leaving me and the team at Faber to get on with things. Trust, of course, is at the heart of such relationships. It’s either there or it isn’t. It can’t be negotiated or contractually enforced, and it’s at its best when the author knows the images don’t have to illustrate, so much as create a mood in which to set the words. Sometimes the images can even play against the text, without in any way disrupting the flow of meaning. It’s a magic thing, and it either happens or it doesn’t. Like all intuitive creative processes, I’m quite convinced that no practitioner could show precisely how to do it. I always know when I’ve got the idea right, and can move forward in confidence to see a book through to completion, but I find it impossible to explain why.

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I’m not entirely sure what it is that so consistently brings me to work with poets. Saturday’s exhibition opening at MoMA Machynlleth was the culmination of the close-on three year task printmaker Dan Bugg and I set ourselves to make 14 screen prints inspired by Simon Armitage’s 2007 translation of this extraordinary narrative poem, but it was only after the first six images had been editioned and published that Simon saw the work and wrote to me about it. Two years on we’re in the process of adapting the images to Simon’s forthcoming revised edition of the poem, due out from Faber in the Autumn.

After two selling Gawain exhibitions with the Martin Tinney Gallery (Part 1 in 2016 and Part 2 in January this year), MoMA Machynlleth is hosting a three-month-long exhibition of the 14 prints plus preparatory material made over the period of the project, from sketches, maquettes and painted studies, to stage-proofs and the ‘drawings’ made on lithography film that produced the colour separations for the screen prints.

Simon is softly spoken and on Saturday he read from his Gawain translation with deceptive diffidence. Nothing declamatory or overly emphatic in his delivery, but a mesmerising eloquence and intensity that effortlessly bewitched the audience. He gave a masterclass in how to do more with less, and I’ll remember it always.

Below: the most important critics, Dan Bugg’s children, Alfie and Elsie take in the exhibition before the doors open. Both are pretty proficient in the printing studio, and so they have the insiders’ perspective.

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8 thoughts on “Simon Armitage and Clive Hicks-Jenkins: the poet and his illuminator

  1. “I’m not entirely sure what it is that so consistently brings me to work with poets.”

    Well, at a guess, I’d go for your in depth involvement with poets and poetry, to learn, recite and explore from way back. ‘I dream of a place where I long to live always…’ et al. That may/might have something to do with it as well as readings at home before we had the chance to scamper with language, in a vibrant way – ‘Pears from the boughs hung golden…’ – not to mention ‘Bill, the Bard of Stratford’. (I mean the playwrite, not the form at school!)
    Ding, ding, I hear the bell.
    Love as ever and always
    B xxx

    • You’re right, dear old friend. All the pathways lead back to my early days at Monmouthshire Young People’s Theatre and the choral verse speaking lessons there that were such a revelation. I can still recite ‘Do you remember an inn, Miranda, do you remember an inn…’ at breakneck speed and with all the percussiveness of a pair of rocket-fuelled castanets! And yes, the poetry we learned together in the classrooms at Italia Conti, still engraved in my brain cells, still there as a comfort to retreat to when my head becomes too full of things too distressing to live with. Remembered poetry, Shakespeare and passages of prose are the balms that soothe. I’ve always used memory to untangle myself.

      • …and yet,without getting too fanciful,that ‘tangle’ if held onto, may lead through many a labyrinth. You’ve sparked a thread in my brain of, ‘the fleas that tease in the high Pyrannes and the wine that…’ was it ‘tasted of the tar?’
        Clive, at the risk of stating the obvious, the richness and diversity of your life is woven into your art.
        Lovingly
        B xxx

  2. So glad that the story continues in this way. So happy we managed to see the work and meet Dan previously, at the Martin Tinney gallery. There is much depth in the images, and the complexity of colours! Great that people have more opportunity to view. Really needs to be seen in person!

    • Dan Bugg is a sweetheart. The friendship between us – and between our families – has been the glue that made everything stick together even when the deadlines were agonising and the long hours left us weary.

  3. I’m really glad the exhibition opening was a success Clive 🙂

    We’re so looking forward to seeing it when myself and Sarah come to MOMA for the day of talks in June.

    We are staying near Machynlleth for a few days and wondered if we could pop in to see you and Peter, if your schedule allows, and just for an hour or two?

    It would be lovely to see you both and have a catch up over a cup of tea (and a welsh cake?)
    xx

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