The Angel in the Coral Leather Sandals


There have been conversations over at my Facebook page about favourite Annunciations. My friend, author Midori Snyder, has put in her vote for Botticelli’s. I could offer a good many, each with different qualities, but I always return to the Giovanni Bellini at the Accademia in Venice, because of its strangeness, and because of the Angel’s footwear.

This is a passage from my notebook, written in the Accademia in May 2003 while standing in front of the painting.

“The angel seems frozen in the moment of entering the room. The door could barely have contained him. There is an awkwardness in the painting of the raised hand of benediction, but I like the feet enormously, harnessed unforgettably in a fetishist’s skin-tight, coral leather. His robes are arranged in oddly stiff folds, as though the artist has composed a still life in the studio from an empty garment and then painted the result onto the figure.”

“The lily the angel carries cuts a silhouette through the bright light reflected from a window-shutter. I love the formality of the room: the tiled floor with the asymmetric vanishing point, and the dream-like landscape beyond. But the beauty of the painting for me lies in Gabriel’s turbulent, headlong rush into the soundless vacuum of the room where Mary waits in stillness. It’s the captured moment before his wings unfurl, after which the air will be filled with feathers, cool, billowing satin and flying golden hair. And nothing will ever be the same again.”

I returned from Venice to paint this, my first Annunciation.

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thoughts on The Virgin of the Goldfinches

My painting of The Virgin of the Goldfinches, purchased by the Contemporary Art Society for Wales, hangs permanently in the Saint Dyfrig Chapel of Llandaff Cathedral, Cardiff. Earlier this year I was asked by Alan Torjussen to write an account of why I chose to paint the subject in the way I did.

‘Well, it’s Wales of course, though the Wales of imagination. On the horizon is Mwnt, a place I love, with the waters of Cardigan Bay sweeping to a golden sky. The house is a construct, a thing of the imagination. That lapidary blue sings to me, though the building is fortress-like… almost brutally so… to protect the prize, the Virgin closeted within. I think of her as the precious jewel in the jewellery box. But no matter how closely something is guarded, security in this life is not ensured. She’s risen early from sleep, gathered her bed-coverlet as a mantle against the morning chill and walked out alone into the garden. Up the hill to where saxifrage and sweet Cheddar Pink and fragrant Lily-of-the-Valley grow, perhaps to feed the goldfinches with a pinch of seed. The goldfinches were serendipitous, the birds that gathered at the feeder in my garden the morning I went out to paint whatever was around. But goldfinches are associated with Christ, their brave, cardinal-red caps significant of him in folkloric terms.

People sometimes wonder why Gabriel is red, and I reply, why would he not be? I balk at those pale, blonde, sexless angels in white Victorian nightgowns. For me an angel must be fierce and dazzling and bright with colour, and I look to the angels of the Romanesque with their sweeping black brows, dark eyes and wings like parrots, barred and striped and emblazoned with peacock eyes. And here he comes, swooping down, outrider goldfinches before him, and after this, nothing in the world will ever be the same again.

I’m asked if I have faith. I was asked it repeatedly by the clergy at Llandaff before the painting was hung. I do not. None. But I do love the stories, and think we are the better for them, because they are full of splendour and poetry and essential truths. Moreover, it’s a strange thing that though I profess no religious belief, I find I believe the things that I’m painting. Like an actor inhabiting a role, I too inhabit the worlds and scenarios I’m depicting.

The American poet and novelist Marly Youmans, pointed out that the maze is positioned as though to stand in for the Virgin’s halo. That surprised me at the time because it wasn’t a conscious placing in those terms, though it may well have been subconscious. And she spoke too of the maze as being emblematic of the womb, with the solitary sheep the seed planted at heart of it. I love the poetry of that. I think that paintings should have such elements of mystery within them. Nothing laid on too heavily, but placed lightly to nourish repeated viewings. At the time I made the painting I didn’t know it would hang in a church. Once I’d got used to the idea, it appealed to me that people might see it regularly and that the painting might grow on them and become associated with moments of quietness and contemplation. I would like that for visitors and worshippers it shouldn’t matter who made the painting, but just that it exists.’

Clive Hicks-Jenkins 2013

capturing peter

From the moment I began to paint, my partner Peter’s likeness has been present in my work. Occasionally I’ve been unconscious of using him, and it was friends who first pointed out he was there in the wrestling angel of The Temptations of Solitude, though burlier in the paintings than in life, and shaved bald. Peter has never subscribed to the theory that the angel is him, but whatever was going on in my head when I was making the paintings, it’s clear it’s him.

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The Comfort of Angels Attending the Dying.

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The Man Who Lived in a Tree.


He was the model for Bluebeard when I was compiling an early illustration portfolio, painstakingly made as a pointillist drawing with a rapidograph pen. This time I reinvented him as darkly sensualist, a Russian oligarch in furs and silk cravat.

When I illustrated Equus for the Old Stile Press edition of the play (2009) I cast Peter as the psychiatrist Dysart, though for the longest time he had no idea I was using his likeness as I somehow neglected to tell him. It came as a bit of a surprise for  him when he found out, and it has to be said he wasn’t at all comfortable with the idea.

Above: a lost study of Peter made for Equus. I have no idea where it is, which is a shame as I think it rather good. I like the faint image of a ghostly horse looking over his shoulder.

Above: two studies of Peter as Dysart, referencing the psychiatrist’s dream that he’s trapped in a horse’s head, bridled with a bit clamped between his teeth.

Above: the image as it finally appeared in the book.

Many studies of Peter were made using conté pencil against  a red oxide ground. Some of the original drawings were included as ‘extras’ in the special boxed-editions of the book, of which there were ten produced.

Above: Peter on his old National Library of Wales identity card. I didn’t know him when the photograph was taken, though I’ve  conjured something of his appearance at that time for many paintings. Even the pudding-basin haircuts of the following images are based on the fact that his hair was cut in the style when he played King Henry V in a school play.

Saint Kevin

Saint Kevin

Saint Francis (Detail)

Angel Gabriel (Detail)

Quite a lot of mileage out of a single model!

images of hortus conclusus at the mission gallery

Keith’s exhibition opening at the Mission Gallery in the Maritime Quarter of Swansea was well attended, despite Wales being awash with icy rain. During the drive from Aberystwyth we were beset with sleet, snow and heavy mist, but we prevailed and arrived in time for me to have about forty minutes to take in this beautiful exhibition before the crowds arrived and I had to address them. Below are some images of the lovely figures Keith has conjured. Made from the thinnest shells of tissue paper as delicate and as light as dried leaves, they trembled in the drafts from the many people moving around them and shimmered with the tinselly gleam of gold-leaf. I came very close to purchasing the pair of feather embellished feet, but in the end acquired an angelic head emerging from a box because I knew just where it would one day live at Ty Isaf.

Cast from layers of tissue paper laid into plaster moulds, Keith has pieced together the two halves of this figure with no attempt to disguise the resulting seams. That decision makes evident his process of work in a way that I find oddly touching. The painting is so delicate that it feels as though the stains of pink are blushes on white skin.

The briefest diadem extends gilded rays, almost as though the sun is rising from her face.

The Mission Gallery was once a chapel, and here the Annunciation dove bearing its un-scrolling message hovers against the curving, whitewashed  plaster of the apse.

These angels have no wings that we can see, though the pair of feet with tiny pearly toenails has ankles fringed with feathers, perhaps referencing an earlier heavenly being who delivered messages from Olympian gods to mortals.

One artist in praise of another.

the virgin of the goldfinches in the saint dyfrig chapel

After many months of preparation, The Virgin of the Goldfinches has finally been hung in the Saint Dyfrig Chapel of Llandaff Cathedral. Yesterday I posted some slightly out of focus images of the space on the Artlog. But today Philippa Robbins went to the cathedral and took much better photographs, for which kindness I’m much obliged.

The painting hangs just inside the entrance to the chapel. The best view of it comes when visitors turn from the altar to leave, at which point the work takes centre stage during the long walk back. It’s been ‘floated’ on hidden brackets passing through the the inky blue velvet curtain that’s been hung to provide a dark background and bring out the colours.

The chapel is full of the most beautiful tombs, though the one above of a decaying body is a tad macabre.

Many people have been instrumental in bringing The Virgin of the Goldfinches to Llandaff, and now would be a good time to name and thank them. The Contemporary Art Society for Wales funded the purchase. The selector was William Gibbs, who reserved the work for CASW when it was still only a drawing on panel in my studio. His belief in it helped me bring the painting to a conclusion. The Very Reverend John T. Lewis, M.A., Dean of Llandaff, first saw the painting when William presented it to the CASW membership in 2009. Thereafter negotiations took place  for the painting to be housed in the cathedral, and Bryan Hibbard of CASW dealt meticulously with all the contractual matters. In the cathedral Michael Turk and Philippa Hallinan have been endlessly helpful and encouraging. Special thanks must go to Philippa who worked tirelessly to ensure a happy conclusion to the project. The Gibbs Family Trust generously funded the acquisition of velvet for the curtain, and Philippa made it beautifully. The curtain was installed by Tony Vearncombe, who then heroically stayed on to contribute his skill and ingenuity to improvising a set of brackets to mount the painting so that it appears to float on the surface of the velvet. The result is better than I had dared hope for. Bryan and Elizabeth Hibbard have been wonderful hosts during my many trips to Llandaff. Elizabeth is a genius of a cook, and moreover she’s looked after Jack for me whenever I’ve spent long hours at the cathedral. Bryan and Elizabeth have a beautiful garden of which Jack is most appreciative, even though he fell in their goldfish pond today! Last but not least I thank my friend Philippa Robbins, for more kindnesses than I can possibly list here. I presume too much on her generous spirit. Philippa, you’re the best!

annunciation news

It’s all Annunciation matters today. First of all here are some rather good details Peter took of  Touched, just before the painting went off to the framers. You can click on the lower one to see a large version.

And another Annunciation painting, The Virgin of the Goldfinches, is to be hung in Llandaff Cathedral in Cardiff in time for Easter. I’ll post photographs of it in situ once it’s gone up.

annunciation diary day fourteen: naming the painting

The votes for the title of the Annunciation have divided pretty equally between Annunciation with Sunflowers and Plummet. I liked them both for different reasons. Beth was persuasive in favour of the former and Philippa made a really good argument for the latter. Marly Youmans felt that both were good and either would serve well, but then offered her husband Mike’s suggested title of  Overshadowed. And so Overshadowed it was going to be, until Peter came down to breakfast this morning and said…

“Why don’t you just call it Touched?”


… and that’s just what I did. I hope no one is too disappointed. Thank you so much for taking such a lively interest in the painting, and for entering into the spirit of  naming it. Given that the exhibition is called Touch, the title of the painting will now put it at the heart of  things, which seems to me be to be right.

Tobias and the Angel is up on the easel. I’ve made progress today but I’m too tired right now to know whether I’ll be able pull this last one off in time to deliver it to the framer in Cardiff next week. If I can then that will be great. But if I can’t I’m not going to beat myself up about it. I’ll have done my best and that must suffice.

Today the Artlog has beaten its previous record for hits. Moreover … and quite coincidentally… Peter has just pointed out  that this is my hundredth post on the site. I started it as an experiment, not at all sure whether it was something I either  had time for or particularly wanted to do. It was certainly only ever intended to be a temporary glimpse into the studio to show some work in process. A ‘pop-up’ blog.

However  in practise it’s been illuminating for me too. Your  encouraging comments and thoughtful questions have made it all far more lively and enjoyable than I’d anticipated. The upshot is that I intend to continue with it. I’ll be keeping things going with daily posts up until and including Monday. After that I’ll be taking a break for a few days until after the Private View of  Touch. But then it will be business as usual in the studio as I get working on a commission to paint The Woman Taken in Adultery for the Methodist Art Collection, produce an altarpiece for Saint David’s Cathedral as part of my residency for the Music Festival there this Summer, complete a body of work for my dealer to take to the 20/21 Art Fair at the Royal College of Art in the Autumn and make a suite of lino-prints for a volume of poetry by Dave Bonta. And paint two book covers for Marly Youmans. Not to mention all that has yet to be done for my sixtieth birthday retrospective at the National Library of Wales next year. Work in the studio is not about to let up. So please do keep dropping by to see how it all unfolds.


annunciation diary day thirteen: finding the title

Tomorrow should see the completion of the painting. Then comes the final important decision as to what the title will be. I have two in mind, quite different from each other. Should any readers feel moved to prefer one above the other, then your comments may contribute to the outcome. The two titles are:

Annunciation with Sunflowers

… and Plummet.

Your views will be most welcome. So will any suggestions alternative to my own. (Might this be turning into a competition?)

annunciation diary days eleven and twelve: sunflowers

Gradually the Annunciation garden takes shape. I started planning sunflowers for this painting when I was working on the earlier Kevin and the Sunflowers. (We had one giant sunflower appear in the garden here last year, the result of an escaped seed from the bird feeders I would hazard. All the drawings done in preparation for the two paintings were made throughout the life stages of that single specimen.) By clicking on the image you get a higher resolution version, and clicking on that will give you a highly detailed close-up. The heart of the flower at bottom right is achieved using a technique of sgraffito, scratching through the top layer of paint when dry to reveal under-painting. A different quality can be achieved by scratching through the top layer of paint while still wet.

annunciation diary day ten: dressing the virgin

Her clothes are only partially painted in and require much more work before I’ll be happy. The idea is that she’s risen from her bed early in the morning and pulled the coverlet around her before stepping outside. A dense enclosure of interlacing branches rears up to make this a private garden. But no matter how high a wall of leaves may be, it can’t keep out what has come plummeting from above.

At every stage adjustments have to be made. I may yet soften the massed patterning of leaves and branches. Perhaps I’ll put a few grazing sheep on the distant hills rising to the upper edge of the painting, and some low mounds of rock plants in the mid-ground just behind her spread mantle. The painting evolves and becomes dense with shape and patterning, darkness and light, colour and tone. It’s a balancing act.

There remains much be done. I haven’t even started the sunflowers that it’s always been my intention to bank around her. And the question remains whether to embroider the mantle/coverlet with birds and plants, modelled on a beautiful Indian marriage quilt given to us by our friend William Gibbs.

The clock ticks. I have another week to finish this.  Then four or five days to complete Tobias and the Angel. No panic yet. Everything seems to be moving along the way it should.