About Clive Hicks-Jenkins

I am a painter and illustrator, born and living in Wales. I show with Martin Tinney in Cardiff and my work can always be found at his gallery. (Click on second link)

A Word From Our Sponsor

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This post was written by my friend and collaborator Gloria, who under the umbrella of her business Sussex Lustreware, has produced the Harlequinade range of lustre-embellished transferware for which I made drawings on the theme of Victorian Toy Theatre.

A post on the subject of theatrical swags – and collaborative sparks!

“With our first collection, the World of Wonders, Clive gave me his beautiful drawings and more or less carte blanche on the production and decoration of the pots, largely leaving me to get on with it as I thought best, a touching display of trust!

With Harlequinade he was creating the artwork especially for them, and greater collaboration on the overall design seemed in order to make the most of it. So over the summer we had some lengthy chats via Instagram, with pictures and ideas flying back and forth between us. And emojis of course! 😀😆👍

As an admirer of Laura Knight’s ‘Circus’ designs for Clarice Cliff in the 1930s I was keen at the chance to use plate rims in a similar way, with an audience and ruched swags suggestive of a night at the theatre.

Laura Knight Circus plate
Laura Knight Circus plate with the audience around the rim


Clive obliged with small groups of spectators, while I tried to work out how best to suggest draped velvet with lines of lustre.

Clive Hicks-Jenkins Post-It with suggestion for swag placement
Above and below: Harlequinade audience

Other influences and inspiration cropped up in conversation, from Hockney’s ‘Rake’s Progress’ Glyndebourne sets, through Rex Whistler interiors, to the trompe l’oeil Austrian curtain wallpaper in my aunt’s C20 Bethnal Green bathroom 🤩.

Rex Whistler ‘swag’
Hockney design for The Rake’s Progress


We decided that a single ellipse was too abstract, that three were too much, and so arrived at two. Plus the trio of embellishments, so that the glamour of the occasion – and our fluency as semioticians – should be in no doubt! 

From a 19th Century Toy Theatre Character Sheet
Reinterpretation + swags

I was so pleased with the results that the swags ended up not just on the plates but festoon the jugs and trinket box too ✨💖

Lustre swags before firing
Trinket-box with with swags


It was really fun working in this way, so I thought you might like to see a few snippets ‘behind the scenes’!”

The Harlequinade Teapot

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Behold the Harlequinade teapot. The wonderful Gloria at Sussex Lustreware has boldly decorated its Falstaffian belly with two scenes featuring Clown, Pantaloon, Harlequin, Columbine and some performing dogs. In addition the spout and lid swarm with vignettes of Cinderella’s slipper, stars, a jovial sun, oak leaves and a jaunty windmill! 

The Harlequinade range celebrates the great Victorian tradition of toy theatre and brims with the characters that would be found in nineteenth century theatre entertainments. Harlequin, Columbine, Clown and Pantaloon were adopted into British pantomime from the Italian Commedia dell’arte, leading a supporting cast of tradesmen and street-sellers forming the backgrounds to their adventures.

There were also assorted fairies, sprites, ogres and demons from the world of faery, together with a mix of gods and goddesses of the Ancient Worlds plus a spattering of historic characters.

Neptune in his shell chariot drawn by seahorses.

The London printmakers who created the toy theatres which became so popular, adapted their scenery and character sheets from live performances, and that’s why the 19th century toy theatres are such an excellent record of what was going on in the real theatres of the times.

Green’s Character sheet for Harlequin and the Giant Helmet.

The actors of Harelquinades were adept at all the performing arts, and we can tell from depictions of them in toy theatre sheets that they were acrobats, dancers and even equestrian performers. In my images for the range of china I’ve represented them in all their diversity of skills.

Below: My drawing of Harlequin, Columbine, Clown and Pantaloon in the ‘pyramid’ arrangement so common in toy theatre representations of the characters.

Harlequin as an equestrian performer.

The photographic record of Harlequinade is very thin, composed of costumed performers in photographers’ studios, because the art of photography at the time was not up to recording them in action on stage. Here in an undated but late-Victorian hand-coloured studio photograph, actors in the roles of Harlequin, Columbine, Clown and Pantaloon pose in all their Pantomime finery:

Toy theatres, by contrast, with their scenery showing all the elaborate transformations and spectacular stage tricks, as well as the wide range of characters, give us an excellent impression of how the live performances looked to an audience of Victorian theatre-goers.

Harlequin & Columbine plate from the Sussex Lustreware Harlequinade range.

The Green Knight versus Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: the 2021 film and its literary source

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Above: Gawain prepares to decapitate the Green Knight in my print series, and below, the poster for David Lowery’s 2021 film

In 2016 I was already partway through a planned fourteen print series exploring the themes of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, when the poet Simon Armitage unexpectedly appeared and asked whether the prints, when completed, might be available to illustrate a forthcoming ‘revision’ of his translation, due out from Faber & Faber in 2018. My print collaborator, Dan Bugg of Penfold Press who was publishing the series, was as keen as I to take this heaven-sent opportunity, even though it meant we’d have to get our skates on, as the original intention had been to publish just two prints a year for seven years. It was Simon Armitage’s 2007 translation that had been our inspiration for the series, and a dog-eared copy of it had been at my side throughout the work completed to that point.

Simon was a thoughtful collaborator. He let me have my head, and although my emphasis in many of the images was different to how he saw things, he was invariably gracious and allowed me leeway. There were aspects of the poem I’d been wayward with in my translations to images. Before the agreement with him and Faber, I’d been freely interpreting the poem as I wished. For reasons too numerous to bore you with here, I’d changed the Pentangle on Gawain’s shield to a Star of David. The print had already been made, showing a six-pointed star rather than the five-pointed one described – at length – in the poem.

Gawain as he appears in the Penfold Print edition, with a six-pointed star on his shield.

Simon listened carefully to my reasons for the change. He said that if I were determined to stick to my guns, he would support me in my decision, but that I should know it would cause problems among academics and readers who would notice. I admired him for that, and without hesitation agreed to make the change. I couldn’t make it to the edition of seventy-five prints already out in the world, but I could digitally adjust the image that appeared in the new book. I say I, but in fact I have no digital skills, and so the work was undertaken as a favour by my friend, digital printmaker, Mark Brown. Mark also re-coloured Gawain’s sash green in another image, where I’d bleached the green in a twilight setting. Simon lobbied for a greener sash, and he got it.

Preparatory drawing for the print: gouache and pencil

David Lowery has taken liberties, too, in his film interpretation of the story. That’s not a bad thing. Artists and directors need to be free to ‘adapt’ literary sources. A poem is far from a film, or even a painting – or a print. The film has to work entirely through its visuals. There are the words too, of course, but the way a film looks is what it will stand or fall by.

Clearly I’m not the only one to have a problem with the colour green. Lowery and his designers have bleached their eponymous Knight to an ashen grey/blue with barely a vestige of green. What works for me when he appears, is less his appearance than the truly spectacular sound editing that so compellingly and viscerally announces his presence. (I can’t recall anything in previous films even close to the artistry achieved with the clop of hooves, creak of leather and the belching breath of the horse in this scene.)

David Lowery directing his Green Knight and Gawain on set

My anxieties about the colour green were all about avoiding any possibility of the Green Knight looking silly. The descriptions of him in the poem are unequivocal. He is both a man:

a fearful form appeared framed in the door: a mountain of a man, immeasurably high, a hulk of a human from head to hips, so long and thick in his loins and limbs I should genuinely judge him to be half giant, or a most massive man, the mightiest of mortals.”

but also, green:

Amazement seized their minds, no soul had ever seen a Knight of such a kind – entirely emerald green.”

So not even plain green, but ’emerald green’, which is a hard thing to pull off in a world where the Jolly Green Giant and the Wicked Witch of the West have set a precedent in bright green that’s common currency today, though would not have been for the original readers of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in their medieval world.

Lowery’s Green Knight is splendidly filmic, man-shaped, but not in the slightest bit fleshy, more of a mash-up of the Winter King and and the Forest Giants of the Lord of the Rings films. Twiggy and somewhat desiccated, you sense he’d bleed not blood, but sap. This distances us from him. He doesn’t have the vulnerability of a man’s flesh and blood, that too-slender fragile neck-stem of skin, muscle and bone awaiting the decapitating blow of an axe. By turning the Green Knight into a character that appears entirely un-fleshy, the inhumanity of decapitation as a wager is less powerfully repellent than were he a man.

The Green Knight as a forest spirit

Decapitation is pretty much an unsurmountable problem, for film-makers and artists. In a world where terrorists perform such atrocities for the dark web, execution by decapitation remains the thing that is too dreadful to show on news channels or in documentaries, and rightly so. It can be inept and agonising when performed by hand, far from the swift efficiency of the guillotine. Even in drama, where CGI makes all things possible, decapitations are the events from which, for the most part – the schlockier film-makers aside – the camera averts its implacable eye. I was relieved beyond expression when in the TV adaptation of Wolf Hall/Bring Up the Bodies, the execution of Anne Boleyn was off-screen. Claire Foy’s horror alone was knee-trembling enough to make me lose sleep for nights thereafter. In the poem the axe-blow to the Green Knight is described in detail, as is what follows, when the headless yet still-standing Green Knight retrieves what has been lopped from his shoulders:

For that scalp and skull now swung from his fist; to the noblest at the table he turned the face and it opened its eyelids, stared straight ahead and spoke this speech, which you’ll hear for yourselves:”

So, another element which though fresh in its day, has since been rendered a cliché by every film in which some Viking/Roman/Barbarian/Troll, strides to camera bearing a head swinging by its hair from a clenched fist, and it was one I went twelve times around the block to avoid in my illustration of the moment. This is how, after much trial and error, I showed the Green Knight bearing his own head, counterbalancing him with his caparisoned horse, ears back and eye rolling in terror. The poem describes the great spurt of blood from the wound, but that too felt clichéd when I attempted it, and so I abandoned the description and made instead a strange, unfurling organic blood-cloud, like a fungi springing from his truncated neck.

Preparatory drawing for the print: gouache and pencil

Arthur’s Court, in the poem, is young and vibrant. The rot we know is coming – in later accounts of the Arthurian myth – has yet to get underway:

All these fair folk in their first age, together in the hall: most fortunate under heaven, with Arthur, that man of high will; no bolder hand could ever be found on field or hill.

Gawain is a privileged and yet, up until now, untried youth. We discover he is pure of heart and steeped in the chivalric code of medieval Knights. He is undoubtedly a virgin, and the only woman who has him, body and soul, is the Queen of Heaven to whom he dedicates himself. When armed for his quest, his shield-lining bears an image of the Virgin and Christ child.

Penfold Press print of The Armouring of Gawain

I like the premise in the film, so different to the poem, that the court of Camelot is ageing. Lowery gives us a King bone-weary from a hard life, and a grizzled Guinevere, ramrod straight and glitteringly armoured with tiny metallic talismans worn like a breastplate against harm. Unexpectedly Arthur speaks in dialect. The pair look sick and tired, like weary saints in icons, complete with halo-like devices fastened to their crowns that gleam in the half-light.

When reading from the slip of parchment deposited on the round table by the Green Knight, Guinevere, like a medium channeling the dead, delivers the challenge in a voice not her own. In response, Arthur admits he is too old to face down the Green Knight, and appeals to his court for a champion. Steps forward Gawain, his nephew. Everything to this point is engaging. Afterwards, not so much. When the Green Knight takes the fatal blow, it doesn’t amount to anything, because he’s not really a man, and so there’s no fragility in him and therefore no tragedy. Behind Gawain’s back, the corpse stirs and lurches to its feet, a moment that might make the flesh creep, but doesn’t. There’s no sense of dread, or more critically, of impossibility. Nothing is surprising here, because the Green Knight is so patently unreal.

A year later, Gawain steps out to meet the Green Knight’s challenge, to accept a blow the equal of the one he gave, no matter the consequences. In the poem he’s armoured by the King, magnificently encased in engraved and jewelled plate metal. His trials are not described in detail in the poem, though we know they entail battles with serpents (dragons), ogres and ‘woodwoses’ (wild men). With no ‘squire’ attendant to unfasten him from his elaborate armour, he’s effectively sealed into it, travelling, sleeping, fighting, sweating and steaming in the equivalent of a pressure cooker. In the film he is not so encumbered. Neither is he the lithe and practised fighter of the poem, and when he has run-in with the wonderfully creepy feral-boy, Scavenger (Barry Keoghan pitch-prefect in the role), Gawain comes off the worst, and loses his weapons, his shield, his money and his horse, Gringolet.

Barry Keoghan. mesmerising as the feral Scavenger

There is a GGI fox which mercifully talks only briefly, but departs without leaving any impression on the story. (A real fox would have worked so much better. Foxes are infinitely stranger and more beautiful than anything cooked up in a computer animation programme.)

Eventually Gawain seeks respite from his journey at a sumptuous castle where an un-named Lord and Lady welcome and shower him with affection and favours. The Lady (Alicia Vikander) gets jiggly with Gawain in his bedchamber, and the encounter has none of the almost unendurable sexual tension of the poem, where her verbal duelling with the sleep-befuddled and embarrassed young man is so dazzling that every time I read it I find myself holding my breath in anxiety that her husband might burst in. (Or get wind of the shenanigans.) In the poem Gawain is aware – and ashamed of – his nakedness, covered only by a bedsheet in the presence of the Lady, though he is unaware of his own beauty, described so alluringly by the poet. So we can picture clearly, in imagination, the gulf between her worldliness and sexual teasing, and his vulnerability and confusion. (Mrs Robinson and Benjamin in The Graduate.)

Preparatory drawing for the print: gouache and pencil

Counterpointing these exchanges, verses describing the hunting, killing and butchering of animals by the Lord of the castle add a bloody and steaming physicality, as he too appears to be intent on sexual games, demanding from his young houseguest the gifts (kisses) his wife has elicited from Gawain while he was cornered beneath his flimsy bedsheet. (We’ve witnessed that there was rather more than kisses exchanged, but the film ducks that.) In the poem the episode of the castle where Gawain is wooed is full of unease because he is a sexually innocent and deeply honourable young man endeavouring to be polite in the face of predatory behaviour. By contrast in the film we know him to be sexually experienced, so there’s no tension when Lady Bertilak mounts him in his bed and we get the swift, unnecessary shot of ejaculate on the hand with which he grasps the green belt that’s the token of her ‘affection’.

Penfold Press print of The Exchange

Chivalry is the foundation on which everything in the poem is built. But in the film the codes of chivalry don’t exist, and without them, everything that transpires is meaningless and unanchored. It’s glacial in pace, which initially invests it with a sense of gravitas, though that palls as we realise the meandering narrative is yielding little to keep us engaged. Gawain meets giants plodding in slow motion across a misty landscape, but nothing happens. He has an odd meeting with the ghost of St Winifred, martyred by decapitation but still hanging around asking for her head to be retrieved from a nearby pond/stream/sinkhole and reunited with her decomposed corpse, laid out on a bed. Gawain obliges.

At the Green Chapel we arrive at the encounter toward which the entire trajectory of the narrative has led. The poem gives us another spectacular entrance by the Green Knight, Gawain bowing his head to receive the axe blow to his neck, and all the threads of the tale coming together in the revelation of what underlay the Green Knight’s challenge at Camelot and who was responsible for it. In the film we know from the start that Gawain’s mother conjured the Green Knight, and so all that remains at the chapel is for the challenge to be completed. Gawain discovers his nemesis sleeping, and has to wait patiently for him to revive. It’s deadly dull, a damp squib and ends with an ungainly scrabble of an escape. A cluttered, decades-leaping montage later, we learn that we were not shown all that transpired at the Green Chapel, but by then I’d stopped caring. Odd that in the twenty-first century, this film-maker has produced a second, much-anticipated meeting between Gawain and the Green Knight, that is decidedly less cinematic than the account offered by the medieval poet.

Preparatory drawing for the print: gouache and pencil

My misgivings don’t extend to the performances. Dev Patel, Sean Harris, Alicia Vikander and Barry Keoghan are excellent. (Sean Harris’s King is infinitely more interesting than the Arthur of the poem, who seems a cardboard cut-out by comparison – though of course that was intended by the poet.) If Patel seems to me to be too mature for the role, that’s because I have the fixed view of Gawain as an innocent, physically tough though barely out of boyhood. But that’s what I get from the poem, and it’s not how the character is presented here, where he’s dissolute and an untrustworthy lover from the start of the film. Throughout The Green Knight we’re offered intriguing scenes and visual treats, though there are worrying and atmosphere-destroying errors of judgement. The Lady at the un-named castle inventing the pinhole camera in the Middle Ages, and the Green Knight exiting Camelot cackling like a Disney villain, are frankly wince-making moments.

Jade Healy’s production design is bleak though beguiling, and costume work by Malgosia Turzanska is great right up to the moment when suddenly, at the end, a new character appears who’s a dead-ringer for Padmé Amidala in The Phantom Menace. What impressed me more than anything in this film was the music by Daniel Hart, which will stay with me for a long time, not least because I’ve purchased it and plan to read the poem while listening to it.

The 2018 illustrated edition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

For over three years I was completed immersed in the world of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight as I produced the fourteen prints and the Faber book. I read the poem every working day, often from beginning to end. I knew the characters and their experiences inside out. I made thousands of drawings. Nevertheless I was fully prepared to set all that aside so as to be able to experience a different telling of the tale. I longed for a different version, something I could lose myself in. I love cinema, and an underlying passion for the history of film underpins a lot of my work. (The book I’ve just finished illustrating, Beauty and Beast, is a paean to Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Béte, a film I’ve loved for over fifty years.) But here there was just too much borrowed from the poem, yet without the context that would have made sense of it. The film-makers should have perhaps detached themselves further from the text than they did. I acknowledge that the complex codes of chivalry are not anything a modern audience would understand or have sympathy with, but a simplified expression of them could have better supported the narrative of a knightly quest. Gawain is not everyman. He’s not ‘one of the boys’ who we identify with because he’s just like us. His code of honour drives him, and would make him uneasy company in any age. He has something in common with the character played by Edward Woodward in another film with roots in what’s now known as folk/horror, The Wicker Man, who we discover late in the story is a virgin, which accounts for the way he behaves and places him as an annoyingly principled outsider. The poet’s Gawain is an outsider, too. He may glitter with youth and idealism and the borrowed trappings of jewelled armour, but he is a loner. No-one wins his heart, which is set on higher things. He begins and ends the poem alone, and there seems very little chance of a good outcome for him beyond the conclusion.

Gawain appears in subsequent Arthurian stories from other hands, though never again as a central character. Placed at the periphery he is not the hero any longer, but a Knight grown sour with age and disappointment.

Harlequinade Animations

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The past months have seen me pleasurably employed in a second collaboration with Sussex Lustreware designing imagery for their forthcoming range, Harlequinade. This has been a bit of a dream project for me, and one which I suggested to Gloria on the coat-tails of our collaboration earlier this year, when illustrations I’d made as the chapter headings for Marly Youman’s 2020 novel, Charis in the World of Wonders, were re-purposed as lustre-embellished decorations on the Sussex Lustreware World of Wonders range. Gloria and I got used to working around each other on World of Wonders, and on Harlequinade her glorious freehand lustre embellishments suggesting the swags of theatre curtains and the flashes and arabesques that conjure the glitter and tinsel of the stage, are perfect companions.

For the yet to be released Harlequinade range of plates, bowls, trinket-boxes, mugs, jugs and a teapot, I used my life-long love of Victorian Toy Theatre as inspiration, turning to my collection of toy theatre ephemera for inspiration.

Neptune

All design from historic sources requires adaptation, and in order to make images that fit the various available spaces on the china, and to ensure that the designs have consistency across the range, I’ve reworked – and occasionally reinvented – material from many diverse sources. Toy theatres were produced by a host of print publishers over hundreds of years, who all had their favourite artists. Although overall the toy theatre ‘style’ had something of a consistency, close examination shows many different hands at work, and those wrinkles needed to be ironed out for the purposes of re-presenting the characters here, for a new generation to appreciate. Here you will find the stock characters that were originally lifted from the Italian Commedia dell’arté, Harlequin, Columbine, Pantaloon and Clown, together with a handful of interlopers such as the god Neptune, in his shell chariot drawn by mer-horses – because Harlequinades loved to have a good spattering of the mythic/fantastic – and the fairies so essential to Victorian (and contemporary) pantomime.

There are the tradespeople who had their goods filched by Clown, and the performing dogs and circus horses so appreciated by 19th century theatre-goers. (In the age before motor cars, trained horses were so popular that specialised indoor arenas were devoted to equestrian spectacles, and to this day some theatres bear witness to their previous lives in the name, Hippodrome.)

Equestrian Harlequinade
Entrance of the Bower Fairy

My collaborator David W. Slack and I have been busy together making some animations to promote Harlequinade in the run-up to its launch. I draw and David animates, though we could as easily reverse that as David is a wonderful artist as well as an animator, and I too am an artist who also animates. It makes the collaboration particularly pleasurable, as we always understand what the other is doing, and the challenges of the work. Watch this space. There are more on the way.

New Works by Clive Hicks-Jenkins: Adventures in Books

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New works from Clive Hicks-Jenkins: Adventures in Books

7th – 30th Oct, Martin Tinney Gallery, St Andrew’s Crescent, Cardiff CF10 3DD

Opening Hours: Tuesday – Friday 10 – 6, Saturday 10 – 2 Closed Sunday and Monday

In the first six months of Lockdown I turned my attention to several outstanding book projects, including the commission from Faber & Faber to make illustrations for Simon Armitage’s new translation of The Owl & the Nightingale (see image above) and a small picture-book, The Bird House, for Design for Today. With those completed I turned my attention to a subject that had long held fascination for me, and with a commitment to publish from Design for Today, I invited the poet Olivia McCannon to explore with me the fairy tale Beauty & the Beast.

Illustration from Beauty & Beast, published by Design for Today

Olivia and I used many literary and cinematic sources for our work, most significantly Jean Cocteau’s 1946 film of La Belle et la Bête, and the result of what we’ve made together, Beauty & Beast, will be out later this year.

New works from Clive Hicks-Jenkins: Adventures in Books, will showcase my illustration work of the past couple of years, including artworks for The Owl & the Nightingale, Beauty & Beast and the Beauty & Beast Toy Theatre, also published by Design for Today.

The Beauty & Beast Toy Theatre, published by Design for Today

Harlequinade

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I’ve worked over the past months on the designs for a new collection from Sussex Lustreware, which earlier this year produced the World of Wonders range of ceramics. World of Wonders charmingly utilised chapter-head drawings of animals I’d made for Mary Youmans’ novel Charis in the World of Wonders, published in 2020 by Ignatius.

A World of Wonders bowl from Sussex Lustreware, decorated with drawings made as vignettes for Charis in the World of Wonders

For Harlequinade I’ve made all the images specifically for Sussex Lustreware, inspired by the great tradition of Victorian Toy Theatre. In preparation for the launch of the collection, I’ve worked closely with my collaborator, animator David W. Slack, to produce a series of films to promote the range. Here’s the first:

The animations are made up almost entirely of drawings produced for the ceramics, brought to life on a stage which I designed specially for Harlequinade.

The Harlequinade collection is traditional black on white transfer-ware, embellished by hand with pink lustre and occasional splashes of gold. It will consist of plates, jugs, bowls, mugs, trinket-box and teapot. The Autumn launch date has yet to be announced. Watch this space.

The Allure of Toy Theatre

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Nineteenth century Redington backdrop for Charles II, professionally hand coloured

I first came across Toy Theatre sheets in the 1960s, when as a boy I was given a stack of them by the actor and playwright, Bill Meilen, who thought I might enjoy them. The sheets were a mix from a great many ‘plays’, the quaint titles of which printed along the top edges were all unknown to me. There were a gratifying variety of backdrops, cut cloths, headers, ground-rows and wings, few of which matched up, depicting rural idylls, dense pine forests, mountain passes ripe for bandit attacks, raging storms at sea and buildings that ranged from rustic hovels to fanciful palaces. There were no scripts, no theatre in which to hang the scenes, and no characters either, but I was a resourceful child and deft with my pencils and paints, so the omissions were just challenges I found stimulating. I built myself a toy theatre, and made the characters to fit the scenes.

Some time later, when I left my home in Wales to attend a school in London, I discovered Benjamin Pollock’s Museum and Toyshop, and thereafter I was lost. The toy theatre disease was in my blood, and it was incurable. All my pocket money was spent in the Pollock’s shop, and later theatre became my profession. As a theatre director and designer I was forever making model stages, because that’s how full-size sets are designed. And later, when I began to work as an artist, I returned to that early love of toy theatres, making them as a part of my practice, but also just for pleasure.

Title-page character sheet for Green’s Wapping Old Stairs

Toy theatres are much on my mind right now as I have two shortly-to-be-announced toy theatre-related projects nearing completion. (And I must first offer my apologies for having to hold back on revealing them for a little while longer.) But while clearing my desk in preparation for the next project, I came across a photocopied reference-set of all the characters and scenes for Green’s production of Wapping Old Stairs, published originally in 1845. Lingering over the loose sheets as I numerically ordered them ready to be put away, I had a sudden pang of the old joy and anticipation that came upon me all those decades ago, when first I held sheets of 19th century toy theatre scenery and tried to figure out exactly how to cut and colour and assemble it all into a three dimensional setting just waiting to be filled with the characters I planned to create.

Victorian toy theatre sheets didn’t come with instructions. The scripts, printed and gathered into chapbooks, gave the order of scenes, but the would-be toy theatre producer had to use imagination and ingenuity to get the stage into a performable state, and it’s a fact that for most, the visions in their heads of how the production would look, were infinitely more splendid before clumsiness and impatience had rendered the results disappointing. Colouring the sheets alone was a minefield, as the clarity of black and white became muddied with the inept application of watercolours. The dreams of how wonderful a scene would look when expertly painted and assembled, were what kept me going, the perfect example of optimism overriding past experiences.

The art of Toy Theatre reached magnificent heights in the 19th century. The sheets sold by the print shops and toy-sellers were so beautiful in their pristine states, that any child confronted with hundreds of them pegged out for inspection, must have been incoherent with the agonies of choice and the calculations of how far their pennies would stretch. Characters and scenery for entire plays, including scripts, could be had by those whose pockets were deep. There were even professionally hand-coloured sets available, for those with no skill with watercolours and brushes. For the rest, the productions had to be purchased in plain black and white, a sheet at a time, with each purchase carrying the producer a little closer to the goal of a full production.

Here, in a microcosm of the problems that have historically made toy theatres a challenge for their builders, I show the components of a single scene from Wapping Old Stairs that illustrates how bewilderingly complicated the matter of interpretation can be, and how any misjudgements would almost certainly result in disappointment. On the title-page character-sheet can be found a small vignette of how Scene 3 of the play might look on the stage. Here’s an enlargement of it:

Enlarged decorative vignette of Scene 3 from Wapping Old Stairs

Below, the backdrop itself. It’s different in many details from the vignette. Most notable at even a cursory glance, is that the buildings of the vignette are much more elegant, whereas they’re undeniably stolid and lumpen in the backdrop. Moreover the outside edges of the buildings are visible in the vignette, whereas they’ve been cropped in the backdrop. I wonder which came first, vignette or backdrop. Whichever the order, the sketch above is so sure, and so lively and fresh that I’m certain it’s not by the same hand as the backdrop. (I do have a warm affection for the rather foursquare, naive style of British toy theatre scenery, quite different in character to what was appearing in European toy theatres of the time, so it’s perhaps unfair to draw comparisons between the deftness of the above sketch – which would be a perfect illustration in a book – and the toy theatre backdrop below, which also serves the purpose for which it was made.)

A sheet of 4 x wing-pieces carries the information that they can be used for several of Green’s productions, including Wapping Old Stairs. Confusingly wing sheets didn’t offer the numbers of the scenes they were intended for. It was a question of trial and error and putting them where they best fitted.

So how can we be sure that the wings were meant to accompany this particular scene in Wapping Old Stairs? It’s because, helpfully, an illustration was included with the set of sheets that was intended to convey the full splendour of the scenery when set up on the toy theatre stage, complete with a tableau of the characters in the closing moments of the play, and two of the wings from the sheet of four are flanking the stage.

However the artist has stretched the scene well beyond the edges of the backdrop as provided, and indeed this ‘panorama’ format is not at all representative of the proportions of most British toy theatres, which offered a much more compressed image, side to side.

Enlargement of the ‘panoramic’ scene

In the illustration the wing pieces allow the audience to see the full width of the backdrop, whereas in reality on a stage of the proportions for which this play was designed, even one set of wings would substantially close down the audience’s view of the backdrop. So neither of the two images – not the vignette and not the panorama – may be relied upon as indicators of how the scene will look on the stage, though they’d almost certainly be regarded as reliable by anyone cutting and pasting away and hoping the result would look as good as it does in the illustrations.

So back in the nineteenth century making toy theatres from the sheets sold by print-shops was always a perilous activity, fraught with the anxieties that the results would be disappointing. These days we have the wonders of inkjet so we don’t have to cut up anything irreplaceable, but there is still the business of getting it right, and making something that matches, at least in part, the wonderful dream that we have in our heads of the perfect production.

Nineteenth century toy theatre sheet with original hand colouring

The Giant Horse or The Siege of Troy

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In 1985 Pollock’s Toy Theatres Ltd published a facsimile of one of the most ravishingly beautiful of Orlando Hodgson’s plays for the toy theatre, The Giant Horse or The Siege of Troy. Hodgson’s sheets were published in 1833, engraved from original ink and watercolour drawings by Robert Cruikshank (1789 – 1856), caricaturist and lesser known brother of George.

Robert Cruikshank drawing for Orlando Hodgson’s Giant Horse of Troy

Pollock’s Toy Theatres Ltd used a copy of the the play from the V&A Theatre Collection, producing it in an edition of 500, of which mine is numbered 456. The original ten sheets were enlarged so as to fit Pollock’s Redington stage front, and the edition included the original script and a leaflet of the history of the production, packed into a large paper and card envelope.

Pollock’s 1985 reproduction of The Giant Horse of Troy

Hodgson & Co had been a forceful presence in the world of printing for the toy theatre, producing between 1821 and 1825 close on seventy titles. But perhaps the pace and ambition had over-extended the business, because it then passed into other hands.

Robert Cruikshank drawing for Orlando Hodgson’s Giant Horse of Troy

Enter Orlando Hodgson, who emerged to relaunch the family business and reputation. After a slow start as a printer of ‘fancy stationary’, he reverted to the family tradition of publishing sheets for the toy theatre, and between 1831 and 1835 produced full productions of Aladdin, Chevy Chase, The Miller and his Men, The Maid and the Magpie, The Giant Horse and The Forty Thieves.

Robert Cruikshank drawing for Orlando Hodgson’s Giant Horse of Troy

The beauty of Orlando Hodgson’s toy theatre sheets notwithstanding, the rough and tumble of a trade in which others undercut and undermined his business by producing prints that were smaller and cheaper, were discouragements he couldn’t live with, and The Forty Thieves was his last title.

It’s sometimes said that the printmaker West, who came after Hodgson, surpassed him in terms of artistic merit, and that might be engagingly debated. He certainly made more of a success of his business. But for me, the Hodgson sheets have a delirious extravagance that remains hard to beat, and the Cruikshank drawings for The Giant Horse are proof of the lengths to which Hodgson went to ensure that the translation from drawings to printed sheets, were meticulously done.

Robert Cruikshank drawing for Orlando Hodgson’s Giant Horse of Troy

Obituary: Nicolas McDowall at Old Stile Press

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Peter Wakelin’s obituary for Nicolas which appeared in yesterday’s Online Guardian ‘Other Lives’ section, was a necessarily reduced version of what he produced. Here is the obituary in full:

Nicolas McDowall Obituary

Nicolas McDowall, who has died aged 84, spent a lifetime creating beautiful books, first in educational publishing and then through the private press he established with his wife Frances, which was at the forefront of the British fine-art press movement. 

Nicolas and Frances worked directly with artists to create between one and five books a year for forty years under their imprint, the Old Stile Press. Among dozens of collaborators were Harry Brockway, Glenys Cour, Natalie d’Arbeloff, John Elwyn, Garrick Palmer and Peter Reddick. Sometimes Nicolas also made books of his own, such as his typographic conceit A Bodoni Charade. They published historical texts and worked with contemporary writers including Ted Hughes, George Mackay Brown and Kevin Crossley-Holland. Such choices reflected their love of the natural world and a humanitarian ethos attuned to Nicolas’s Quaker faith. 

Each book was a beautiful object that brought word, image, type, paper, binding and slipcase into a creative unity. Values of design were fundamental; Nicolas balanced type and imagery and sought a satisfying negative space on each spread. The guiding spirit was a neo-romanticism that melded traditional qualities with modernist inventiveness, underpinned by Nicolas’s enjoyment from an early age of William Blake, the Kelmscott Chaucer and the contemporary artists then showing in the London galleries. He explored techniques unfazed by the sensitivities of purist bibliophiles but he loved the age-old feel of words and images impressed in paper. Like autographic prints, the books often used artists’ blocks directly and were numbered in a signed limited edition. They ranged from miniatures and pamphlets to a folio of Philip Sutton’s woodcuts nearly half a metre square and the full script of Peter Shaffer’s play Equus with images by Clive Hicks-Jenkins.

Nicolas was born on 22 May 1937 at Emsworth in Hampshire. His father, Toby McDowall, was a GP and consultant psychiatrist and his mother Nell (née Kewley) was a full-time mother to their three children. His education at Winchester College was excellent but he was deeply unhappy. Studying Philosophy at the University of St Andrews was a joyous contrast and it was there that he met his future wife Frances Pickering, daughter of the Fleet Street editor Sir Edward Pickering, who was reading English and Music. They married in 1964, by which time both were working in publishing, Frances at OUP and Nicolas at Edward Arnold. He began as a sales rep touring schools before moving into management at the Mayfair offices. He became a commissioning editor, head of the education department and finally a director. His creativity came to the fore promoting bold typography and graphics in books for schools, exemplified in the poetry anthology Dragonsteeth, which used a strikingly wide format with a stark silhouette of Stonehenge on the cover. 

In the 1970s Nicolas took classes in typesetting and bookbinding and began printing letterpress in a studio in their back garden at Blackheath. The first Old Stile Press book appeared in 1981, by which time Robin and Heather Tanner had become crucial friends and mentors. As the press had been named after a country stile Robin designed a pressmark based on the flared ‘squeeze-belly’ examples found in Wiltshire. Nicolas went part-time at Edward Arnold so as to concentrate on the new venture and in the late 1980s, once their children Daniel and Cressida had left school, they moved to a spot beside the River Wye upstream of Tintern Abbey and he took the opportunity of redundancy. 

A big, powerful man, Nicolas was nevertheless reticent and spoke in a mellow voice with a slight stammer; he hated public speaking and business lunches and avoided exhibition openings and literary events unless duty compelled. The peace, natural surroundings and creative work of the decades after they moved to Monmouthshire were a tonic to the debilitating depression he had suffered periodically since his schooldays; while Frances toured the international book fairs he enjoyed the therapeutic routine of day after day working at his presses and roaming a garden that stretched from river to woods. He designed each book and printed every sheet by hand while Frances ran the business operation, commissioned bindings and made paper in the basement.

Their Arcadian idyll was shared by like-minded visiting artists and writers (I was one of them) who spent happy days talking and planning projects over the dining table, experiencing a unique atmosphere of kindness and encouragement that enabled both youthful and established talents to flourish. Visitors were fascinated by the works of British neo-romantic artists that surrounded them: Nicolas said that he aimed to stretch his resources to minor works by the major artists and major works by the minor artists. He and Frances were keen to share their enthusiasm with others: they loaned works freely and an exhibition from the collection toured public galleries. 

Nicolas died of cancer on 31 July after a short illness. Frances died in 2019. They are survived by their son Daniel McDowall and daughter Cressida Maher, grandchildren Luke, Toby, Oliver, Imogen, Willow and Fenn and Nicolas’s younger siblings Julian and Christabel. The books of the Old Stile Press are in public and private collections across the world and its archive has been acquired by the University of Indiana.

Peter Wakelin

Photographs by Bernard Mitchell and Peter Wakelin

Annie Darwin

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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 only image of Annie is a lovely one captured in a daguerrotype. 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.