Great Pucklands by novelist Alison Alison MacLeod appears in the anthology These Our Monsters, published in 2019 by English Heritage. The story focuses on the close bond between Charles Darwin and his daughter Annie. I found myself deeply bound up in both the story and the history that underlay it. A print-out of what I believe to be the only known photograph of Annie sat on my desk throughout the work, though I had no intention of making a direct likeness of it for the illustration. Somehow that wouldn’t have fitted with what I wanted to convey of Alison’s story. I needed to absorb the mood of the piece and somehow create something that had Annie in it, but transformed. Here’s the drawing.
I loved making it, and I kept all the sketches and studies preparatory to it. The ammonite and trilobite are from my small collection of fossils. Sometimes a story gets under your skin, and you have an imperartive to serve it well and to do it justice. That was the case with this one. But I also wanted to honour the person at the heart of it. This image was made for Annie Darwin, who died aged just ten in 1851, one hundred years before the year I was born.
The photograph we have of Annie Darwin is lovely. In a world where lives are charted every hour of every day, snapped on smartphones and loaded onto social media sites, and when it seems everyone on the planet is photographed incessantly from birth to death, a single, beautifully accomplished portrait of a child who clearly prepared and gravely composed herself for the momentous occasion, tugs at the heartstrings. Annie left behind so little: this photograph, a gravestone and the ‘box’ in which her parents preserved a small handful of mementoes. Perhaps it’s the modesty of what survives her that opens the door to creativity, because it gives the freedom to writers and artists to ‘imagine’ versions of her into life.
On Friday our friends Sarah Joseph and her son Sam came to Ty Isaf to be with Peter and me for my birthday. All of us now twice vaccinated yet still super cautious, we sat distanced in the dining room while Sarah and Sam pored over the Beauty and Beast drawings. (Soon to be dismantled from their hard-cover sketchbooks before scanning for the publisher and thereafter framing for the October book launch and Martin Tinney Gallery exhibition.)
With windows and doors open to a bracingly cool breeze, Sarah and Sam worked with admirable slowness through each of the – to date – forty illustrations. It was something Sarah and I had done regularly with her husband James throughout the long months of creating Hansel & Gretel, the publishing of which by Design for Today we were able to push through before James’ death in 2019, so that he was able to see what he had watched being made.
Before even the first studies had been made for Beauty and Beast, James quizzed me over how long the book might take, as he had plans to lobby his oncologist for more time in order to be able to be with us throughout the project. That was not to be – as he well knew – though he liked to pretend otherwise.
Long ago, when James had been a stage manager, and I a choreographer, we had been friends and co-workers travelling the world together. In time the habit had grown between us of him being my advisor in all things related to music. His knowledge was encyclopaedic and his skill as a musician ran deep. Throughout the preparations and rehearsals for the music theatre production of Hansel & Gretel that preceded the published edition of Simon Armitage’s libretto, James and I discussed the themes and studied the score together, and his insights brought depth and nuance to my understanding and direction of the piece. Through the incredible determination and support of his family he was even able to be present at the premiere of the work at the 2018 Cheltenham Music Festival, in his wheelchair, and loving every moment of the evening.
I’m going to be a little indiscreet here, and I apologise in advance to any of those who were present at the occasion I’m describing and feel uncomfortable about what I’m about to reveal.
Is this how it’s going to be from now on?
On Friday I was seventy. I should say I’ve never had trouble acknowledging the passing of years before now. This time, however, the number choked me. It seems so impossible an age, and not the person I see myself as being. Or perhaps I should say ‘saw’ myself as being, because now, I do. I have to.
In 2019 I was commissioned by a big organisation to lead on a project to design what was to be the major element of their creative theme of the year. The first meeting took place at the offices of the digital render company who would build and launch the project, so we could all talk and get the ball rolling on the design work. There were quite a lot of people around the table, including the digital company’s Managing Director. I was the only old man at the table. Most around it were in their late twenties to mid thirties. The M D looked super cool, a bit of a surfer-boy-turned-exec. He was, if I’m honest, a tad prickly, as he’d lobbied for his company to provide in-house design. Instead he got me. As the creative talk began and ideas flew around the table, I listened carefully before beginning to throw in suggestions that I could see were going down well with the team from the organisation who’d commissioned me. I could see I was making a lot more work for myself, but on the plus side all the thematics of the project were going to play to my strengths. Toward the end the MD turned to me and said that if I found the pace and demands of the project to be too much, his team would be happy to take on any work I wasn’t up to completing. The air around me turned to ice.
The MD was being a twat. But just as I drew a sharp intake of breath before releasing a fusillade, the Art Director of the commissioning organisation stepped in and quite sharply explained to the MD that there would be no designer on the project other than me. And that’s the way it went. I wasn’t yet out of the woods. The Project Manager at the digital company threw deadlines at me throughout the design process that would have daunted a man half my age. I worked through weekends and nights for three weeks. It was a sort of hell, though it was also exciting.
I never missed one of those deadlines, and I’m proud of that. And in the end the project looked damned good. The old man pulled it off.
I’m guessing there’s going to be more of this, as time goes by. People will look at me when I walk into a room, and make assumptions. That bothers me, a lot. Keep watching. I’ll let you know how it all works out.
Work on Beauty and Beast. Textby Olivia McCannon and illustrations by Clive Hicks-Jenkins. To be published by Design for Today in October 2021.
Dissatisfaction is a part of the artist’s armoury of creativity. Without it, how would we ‘grow’ ideas?
To begin with there was nothing tangible, just the notion of making a book that had been rattling around in my head, seemingly forever. There was no text, only a huge admiration for Jean Cocteau’s 1946 film, La Belle et la Bête, shared with the poet and translator Olivia McCannon.
Olivia and I emailed each other for over a year, working out what there might be in terms of a book. Would it be a new translation of Cocteau’s screenplay, a return to the origin tale and a reinvention of it, perhaps in a contemporary setting, or something else entirely? Maybe something with threads running through it in homage to Cocteau’s masterpiece. A hybrid, both new and old, creating a dialogue with Cocteau and his fellow creators.
When I began preparations, there was much research, but as yet no text. Olivia and I were still exploring ideas. I’d been making maquettes and character studies, but everything was still undecided. My maquettes referenced the film, but also changed the characters. They weren’t likenesses of the actors playing the roles.
As our talks focussed in on the notion of a hybrid creation, I made a single illustration – one I felt confident about as the foundation block – to which another was added, and then another, and another.
I’ve never worked in this way before. My illustration projects have always been responses to an existing text. But on this book I’m working with conversations with the writer as the starting points, and fragments of text still in flux. In illustration, the decisions made at the outset affect everything that follows: the way the characters look and what they wear. The settings – the buildings, rooms, passageways, gardens and landscapes of all the locations of the story. Every detail considered, invented, revised and rendered.
A group of images made out of sequence to the emerging text, grows. New images are added to make connections between them. Gradually a narrative in pictures emerges, but it’s a creation that morphs every day because each new part of it not only adds to what’s gone previously, but changes it. Each emerging section of the text, changes it. My starting point is invariably a scene from the film, which then transforms into a version I believe will work on a page. So a scene in which multiple cuts show Belle, la Bête, a table laid with silverware, crystal and fruit, an overmantel clock chiming, living statues watching from the shadows and a fire-blazing, gets condensed to a single double-page image.
Illustrations become sandwiched by others that affect them. Sometimes an image is cancelled out and discarded, but more usually changed to better deliver what’s needed at that stage of the story. Things that weren’t issues, become so overnight. An idea I thought was coming over with clarity, becomes muddled because its context has changed.
I try to avoid obviousness when making images to accompany a text. I draw inspiration from Olivia’s emerging narrative, but largely attempt to colonise the spaces between her lines of poetry.
As the book expands, and the passages of text emerge to fit together with the images I’ve already completed, then my revisions begin. Perhaps I see that the adjustment of a character’s glance might better signpost the page-turner’s forward trajectory, or profitably pause it. A new line suddenly makes clear that the image is needed as a bridge to the next page turn, and an adjustment could aid that process. I enjoy the challenges of patching illustrations with newly worked elements, of discovering forgotten aspects and realising on reflection how they work better – or not so well – as I’d originally thought. The revisions don’t show in photographs and won’t show when printed, but the changes will be apparent when the works are exhibited in a gallery in October, when close inspection from oblique angles in bright light will reveal the myriad surgeries. I like the idea that the journey will be visible in the surface of the artworks, like age-lines in a characterful face.
It’s sixteen years since you left us on May Day 2005. I didn’t believe it at the time, and I don’t believe it now. Your voice is as clear and true in my head today as if you were just downstairs and calling me to tea. That morning my friend Susie Savage picked up the phone in Penparc Cottage that I didn’t hear ringing because I was sitting in your chair in the garden, and I knew the moment she appeared at the back door the news she carried, because her face was stricken at what she had to tell me. Everything in life changed at that moment: my chum, confederate-hatcher-of-plans, confidante and muse, companion-gardener, playmate, poet-in-chief and heart-healer, gone.
The stick in a pot that you gave me all those years ago, now planted in a garden to which we came after your time, has grown into a magnificent Walnut tree big enough for us to picnic under its shade. (The photograph here was taken several years ago, since when it has grown a great deal more and we’ve raised its canopy.) I see it every day, from the house and whenever I’m in the garden, and it will always be ‘Catriona’s Tree’ for me.
I never thought there would be other poets after you, but I was wrong. First there was Marly Youmans’ whose poetry carried me on wings of creativity, and with whom I’ve been collaborating for about a decade and a half, making covers and illustrations for her poetry and novels. More recently there has been Simon Armitage, now our Poet Laureate, whose Sir Gawain and the Green Knight I illustrated for the 2018 revision from Faber & Faber, and who I’ve since worked on with two more books: Hansel & Gretel: a Nightmare in Eight Scenes, for which I won the 2020 V&A Illustrated Book Award, and The Owl & the Nightingale, another translation by him from the medieval, due out in October this year. How proud of me you would be for these poet friendships and collaborations. Soon there will be Beauty and Beast, a reinvention of the fairytale and film that you and I talked about so much, shaped by the poet Olivia McCannon into something that’s thrilling to be working on, and it too will be out in October this year.
I think so often of conversations we had, and the conversations we would have now, were you here to have them with. In fact (Shhhh, tell no-one) I do have those conversations, and I hear your answers, and you’re as unexpected and funny now as you ever were in life. But still, still, still I miss you, and I always will.
Did I tell you that little dog Jack died? I can’t remember now whether I did. Three years ago. That connection with you, too, now severed. He’s buried here at Ty Isaf, so we have your tree and Jack in the garden. It’s a marvellous place and you would love it. Yesterday I watched as redstarts dashed back and forward to drink from the birdbath, and laughed at the antics of Mr & Mrs pheasant, the family of jackdaws and the marauding squirrels, all arguing away under the bird-feeder hanging from the big apple tree on the turning circle of the drive. Let’s take a walk later today. I want to share news.
I first saw Jean Cocteau’s 1946 film of La Belle et la Bête in the early 1960s. Before the age of video I recollected the film from that first, single viewing, for years running it over and over in my head, remembering, and very likely misremembering it, until the ‘video’ age dawned when everything could be acquired and watched at will. So for most of my life, one way or another, the film has been my companion. I’ve thought about it, watched it scores of times, analysed it and dreamt about it.
Now I’m making a book of the story, with my collaborator, the poet Olivia McCannon. It started out as a full homage to Cocteau’s interpretation, but through development has turned into something quite different: a new, reinvented version of the story, in which together Olivia and I acknowledge the film’s influence while finding our own own creative path.
There are several places in the book in which I want to visually capture my memories of watching sequences of the film when the camera ‘panned’ horizontally to reveal spaces by degrees. Beauty’s bedchamber was chief among these sequences.
Cocteau remarks in Diary of a Film how visitors to the studio loved exploring Beauty’s bedroom. Walls made of scrim allowed lights to be shone through them and created dissolving vistas of the garden sets beyond, and I imagine that must have made it a strangely liminal space for the actors to work in, finding themselves un-anchored and floating between worlds. Beauty’s bed, voluptuously draped with fur under its canopy of muslin, seems like a boat in this strange sea, and everywhere the glimmer and sheen of opulence.
It’s heady stuff. But the screen ratio of the time was undoubtedly confining, and so a panorama is suggested rather than attained, with the horizontally moving camera the director’s tool to take the audience on a tour of his creation.
By using a double-page spread, I have a ‘panoramic’ shape in which to set my illustration.
With no camera point-of-view to slow the reveal of my illustration, I rely on making an image that offers up all its elements slowly, to halt a headlong rush past them. So Beauty’s ‘enchanted’ looking-glass, is not a rectangular, framed mirror on a table, as it is in the film…
… but a full dressing-table with incorporated looking-glass, half veiled in a flimsy sheet, seen below in a detail from the final render. The time it takes to decipher the object, slows down the viewer, who must pause to better understand it.
And because I have no recourse to Georges Auric’s shimmering, orchestral film score, I set imagined breezes through the composition, ruffling the veils and sending leaves skittering, so the image ‘suggests’ a soundtrack where there is none.
Most people read an image left to right, and so we begin with the bed, with its vertically compressed canopy and hangings which stream out to carry the eye further into the composition, to the Caryatid with candles on her head, the veiled dressing-table and shell-backed chair, up to the bowed balcony overlooking the garden with the Beast’s pavilion/treasury shining in the twilight. (Or it might be an empty birdcage, swinging in the window.) Winds feature in the film whenever the strange is present: Beauty’s father is buffeted by a silent wind when he attempts to pour wine from a pitcher at the Beast’s table, and again at the moment when his previously unseen host appears in the garden, enraged by the theft of a rose.)
There’s no room here for the towering furniture and high ceilings of the Doré engravings that had so influenced Cocteau when he was planning the film. Budgetary constraints dictated his sets could not be spacious and airy. For the most part the interiors, painted black to hide their true proportions in darkness, are conjured by deploying accent features: the architecturally elaborate fireplace supported by living statues, towering stone doorways that dwarf Beauty and the iconic passageway of pale, disembodied arms holding candelabras that magically light when needed. With studio space limited, the bedchamber, while not large, is the most elaborate set in terms of textures, shimmering claustrophobically like a fevered dream. On her bed, swaddled in finery which practically disables her, Beauty appears frozen in the gleam of satin and roped pearls, as the hangings press in suffocatingly.
To mimic something of the character of Cocteau’s vision, an ornate border contains the illustration, compressing and tightening the space, so that it too will press in on whoever enters it. There are birds in the border, but I think of them as being pretty paper-cut decorations, because the Beast’s twilight kingdom in the film has no birds. Not in frame, and not on the soundtrack.
An exhibition of all the original artwork for Beauty & Beast, opens at Martin Tinney Galley, Cardiff, in October.
It was only back in 2019 that I spent a year as artist-in-residence with English Heritage, and yet it seems a lifetime ago. Anyone with the romantic notion that I spent a year motoring around the countryside visiting English Heritage properties in care and making artworks at a leisurely pace, would be way off the mark. It was deadlines from beginning to end, and I spent the entire time pinned to the worktable in my studio, creating images that were the results of my own research. There wasn’t time to visit a single site. Nevertheless there were exciting creations during the year, even when technically and creatively challenging in the allotted time.
The first project was to design and render all the ‘assets’ (artworks, to you and me) for the online, interactive English Heritage ‘Myths Map’ that was produced by the digital agency, Gravitywell, in Bristol. I suggested a cartouche of the type used on historic maps as a portal to the experience, and produced a number of rough designs to kickstart discussions with the Gravitywell and EH teams.
The EH team were very keen to use the iconography of Saint George and the Dragon, which I used to surmount the cartouche. They were also enthusiastic to include an animated element. Because time was incredibly short, I decided to render the image so as to look rather like a paper-cut, as it would have a graphic dynamic and yet be relatively quick to make.
All aspects of the map were initially made in black and white and the colour added later. It was such a complex project that it could have been misleading to decide the palette at the outset. It was much easier to assemble everything and then play with options.
The image had to be flexible enough for it to be adapted to several formats across various EH platforms.
The animated element was a gentle joust between the Saint and the Dragon, and the ‘maquettes’ I designed needed to be very simple as there would be no close-ups. The figures had to work pretty much as reverse silhouettes. I would have preferred to make the animation myself, but Gravitywell wanted to produce it in house, and so made the sequence guided by a thumbnail animation storyboard I created for them.
The puppets were designed and assembled by me and photographed in key positions. I then took them apart, scanned the components and sent the files to the company to be digitally reassembled and animated.
The animation was brief and added a little liveliness to the viewers’ experience. Once through the cartouche and sailing down to the map, there were animated cloud elements and passing flocks of birds to sweeten the interaction. Sea-monsters emerged from waves and a masted ship went down in the tentacles of a Kraken. I’m of the opinion that while tight deadlines and tight budgets are challenges to creativity, they shouldn’t necessarily be impediments.
There was a plan to make a more complex George and the Dragon animation for another EH platform later in the year. I’d made a trial, rough maquette of a dragon in preparation for that, but in the end it was cancelled. A shame as the maquette tests were good.
Work continues on my collaboration with poet Olivia McCannon on a new retelling of Beauty and the Beast, to be published by Design for Today. Working with Olivia is a revelation. Ideas bat back and forward between us in e-mails, and I find the conversations to be revelatory. We both make discoveries through the processes of discussion, exploring connections and explaining new ideas to each other, and I find that the e-mails and all the ideas they contain are as equal a source of the images I’m making as her evolving text. Recently Olivia wrote to me that she believed there was a rich seam to be considered in regard to Cocteau’s casting of the role of the Goddess Diana in the 1946 film, and that’s opened a whole treasury of possibilities about the living statues, which we’ve adopted for our own version of the story, and how their origins might be explored.
In another e-mail she wrote thrillingly of her imagined source of the jewels the Beast bestows on Beauty, and afterwards I could barely sleep for a week with excitement in anticipation of the images that were evolving in my head out of her ideas.
At this stage I can explain no more. While I enjoy sharing the creative processes of making images, in this instance I don’t want to offer them before they’ve been realised and the book published. Suffice to say that this is going to be a version of Beauty and the Beast like no other.
The illustrator Alexander Sorokin was born 1961 in the city of Krasnoyarsk, Siberia. His illustrations for Who’s Carrying its House on its Back were made in 1986, and the book was published two years later. He was a young man at the time of these, in his mid-twenties, and so the achievement was mightily impressive.
The period 1985-1991 was a turbulent one for Soviet/Russian illustrators. Many whose careers had previously been reliant on a state-supported publishing industry, found themselves without work when the state withdrew funding for illustrated books. Sorokin’s images for his book drew on the character of the ‘Lubok’, a popular and affordable folk art print tradition, and it may be that the book would not have been published had it come later, when publishers were struggling to survive. Early Lubok prints were produced from woodblocks, and later lino, but Sorokin’s illustrations for a mass produced book were achieved through the process of gravure, though the effect is that of relief prints made from blocks.
I’ve just acquired a single print from the series. Printed onto lightweight paper with an edition number, it’s likely these were produced as a separate edition of art prints by the artist or his publisher. I love the eastern European illustration tradition, and I also love windmills, so this one ticked all the boxes for me.
I write here about artists and illustrators from around the world who inspire me, out of a wish to see their work better recognised. Some of them are hard to track down, and as I’m neither an academic or a linguist, I’m at a disadvantage when attempting to research Russian practitioners. So I’m enormously obliged to Andrey Keloshateo, who generously provided me with information about Sorokin and this beautiful book.