The China-Room

At the back of the hallway at Ty Isaf, a low, half-glazed door leads to the china-room. It’s little more than a cupboard really, made out of a section of what was once a servants’ passageway running the width of the house. Decorated in a glowing pinky-red chalk emulsion and fitted with a dresser-rack of black-painted shelves, it’s a combination cabinet-of-curiosities and china repository. There are clockwork tin toys, artists’ ceramics, toy farm animals made of painted lead, fossils and tacky souvenirs. Bits of model sets from my years as a stage designer, hand-crafted gifts from talented friends, a fine bone-china ‘blue dragon’ tea-service, found objects, plastic toys and family heirlooms.

Small children love it, as do I.

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Man Slain by a Tiger

Man Slain by a Tiger. Screen-print. 56 x 56 cms.

Image by Clive Hicks-Jenkins, printed in an edition of 35 by Daniel Bugg at Penfold Press.

Last weekend print-maker Daniel Bugg arrived at Ty Isaf with a brown paper parcel containing proofs and prints of my first screen-print project with the Penfold Press, Man Slain by a Tiger. (You can read about the genesis of the print HERE.) Dan has made a wonderful job of the image, and it was a pleasure to sit down with him at the dining-table on Saturday morning to number and sign the edition of thirty-five prints.

In a fortnight I’ll be making the stencils for the first image in our fourteen print series based on the medieval poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. I’m using the Simon Armitage translation/reworking for my inspiration, which is the version I like best. The print will be launched in time for Christmas.

A day at Penparc Cottage

Artworks left at the cottage by artists Steffan Jones-Hughs and Jeanette Orrell, who stayed there last week. Steffan made the painting of the cottage viewed from the back garden, and Jeanette made two studies of plants.

The Cottage

Beautiful, soft sea-light on old plaster and tongue and groove.

Ceramics

Vintage charger painted by me in cold enamel.

Foliate head serving-dish that I made in the ceramic workshop of Pip Koppel.

Plate thrown by Pip Koppel and slip-decorated by me with a nautilus.

Jack-on-the-Beach

A happy day!

preparing artwork for a print

Dan Bugg at Penfold Press and I are collaborating on an editioned series of screenprints on the theme of the medieval poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. But because I’ve never before done work of this type, I’m taking a tilt at the process by making artwork for a trial print unrelated to Gawain, using a drawing of a Staffordshire group of a man being slain by a tiger. The original postcard-sized drawing was made as a birthday present for my friend Ben Koppel.  I’m re-working it as a print at a much larger scale, which means I can include the ornate pedestal that I had no room for in the postcard version.

The original, postcard-sized pencil drawing

Pencil on paper enlargement, made as a guide

Working in greasy lithographic crayon on a sheet of True Grain

Adding Tusche Waterproof to define the negative space of the composition.

The True Grain is secured with registration pins over the guide drawing. What is painted red here, will be black in the final print.

Rendering the detail

I’ll be posting about this project as it progresses.

the collector’s eye

We’ve just enjoyed the company of our friends Dave and Philippa Roberts, here at Ty Isaf for a weekend of walks with Jack, reading in front of the blazing wood-burning stove, good conversation and meals prepared while chatting and quaffing wine in the cosy warmth of our kitchen.

Philippa took the above shot of the small china store-room at the back of our hall, where we keep a collection of ceramics, tin toys, fossils and various curiosities. Among them there’s an alabaster cosmetics jar from a tomb of the Ptolemaic dynasty, a clutch of Meri Wells porcelain beasts, a curious seedpod picked up in a Barcelona park and a tiny, obelisk-shaped throne made for the set model of a stage production of ‘Robin Hood’ I designed decades ago. (You can see it silhouetted against the light plate on the left of the top shelf.) Later Philippa sent me photographs taken on a trip she and Dave had made to Mexico, and I post them here to illustrate the collecting/curatorial aesthetic that fuels mankind’s need to put similar objects together.

the road to beastly passions part 2: penny dreadfuls

There is something in the British psyche that is drawn to both the prurient and the ghastly. UK tabloid newspapers have long evidenced an interest in both, and it’s not a recent phenomenon, as a history of such things predates the twentieth century.

The Victorians had a vision of an industrialised economy that would drive innovation, and anyone casting an eye over the staggering technical discoveries of the nineteenth century can’t but be impressed at how we led by example. Iron forged in the south Wales valleys was exported the world over. It made not only our own railway systems, but the ones that bridged the vast reaches of the United States. The period threw up the engineering geniuses Thomas Telford and Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who between them changed the face of Britain with canal systems, bridges, dockyards, roads, harbours and tunnels.

But in the middle of all this brilliance, there were other industries running like dark veins through our great cities, fuelled by poverty and a lack of any social welfare. Prostitution was rife, and of many varieties to suit all tastes. While the glittering new world was being raised by the celebrated civil engineers, Jack-the-Ripper stalked the sheets of Whitechapel, predating on the poorest and most vulnerable sex-workers.

The Illustrated Police News was one of the earliest British tabloids. It launched in 1864 and ran right through to 1938. Needless to say it made much of the Ripper murders, bad news being good for circulation, and the IPN got very good indeed at plastering its front pages with horrors as a spur to sales. Wherever misfortunes were to be found, the newspaper’s journalists would lay them out for the public to feast upon. The more dreadful the stories, the better everyone liked them.

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There was a precedent for this interest in the grotesque. Pre-dating The Illustrated Police News with its tales of real-life horrors, there had been the Penny Dreadfuls, cheaply published novels specialising in murder and mayhem, often with supernatural overtones.

 

And before the Penny Dreadfuls, the great engraver Hogarth had titillated our relish for comeuppance in his series The Rake’s Progress.

With such a native appetite for the lurid, it comes as no surprise that the Staffordshire potteries occasionally proffered equivalent horrors, such as the tableau of a mother slain by a tiger escaped from a menagerie, her baby pathetically flailing in the beast’s jaws. Who knows what tragedy this was based on… I can find no specific source for it… but whether true or invented, it’s a strange subject to have produced in jaunty glazed pottery to decorate a dresser. Perhaps it was deemed as ‘cautionary’, to warn little children not to step too close to the bars of the animal cages in the ‘zoological gardens’.

The notorious slaying in 1827 of young Maria Marten, shot and buried in a barn by her lover William Corder, was commemorated with bucolic Staffordshire groups belying the violence of the event. (See top of post and below)

Even the toy theatres that gained popularity in the Regency were not averse to a touch of Penny Dreadful, as the surviving play-lists show. Jonathan Bradford, or The Murdered Guest was available as a toy theatre melodrama, as was a dramatised version of Bluebeard, the serial wife-killer of fairy-tale. Then there was The Mistletoe Bough, or The Fatal Chest, the story of a bride who dies when trapped in a heavy coffer during a coy game of hide and seek with her groom.

The toy-like naiveté overlaying lurid melodrama in the Staffordshire groups commemorating tragic events, make for oddly unsettling pieces of popular-art. Looking at them I began to wonder what would happen if instead of making paintings of existing examples… like the one I made for my friend Ben Elwyn’s birthday…

… I invented versions based on contemporary tabloid front-page reports. The idea for Beastly Passions came about when I began to imagine what today’s headlines might look like re-imagined as though through the prism of Staffordshire pottery groups. Dreadful events, it seems to me, would carry an unexpected and perhaps more tender charge, if wrapped like brightly coloured boiled-sweets in shiny cellophane.

The research is already underway and the first drawings are emerging. I’ll be posting about this project when I’ve more to show.

Beastly Passions

Early in my  career I made many still-life paintings of Staffordshire pottery groups. This weekend I reignited that old flirtation by making a postcard-sized coloured drawing for my friend Ben, based on the Staffordshire pottery version of Tipu’s Tiger.

Man Slain by a Tiger

I greatly enjoyed making Man Slain by a Tiger, and I now find myself considering further explorations of Staffordshire beastly beasts. I came across this group commemorating the death of sixteen year-old Ellen Bright, an animal trainer who died in 1850 after being mauled by a tiger while performing with Wombell’s Circus!

 

Then there’s this extraordinary group depicting the body of a woman on which an escaped tiger from a menagerie crouches, a limp, bonneted child dangling from its’ jaws!

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I assume the popularity of such groups was driven by a mixture of the Victorian inclination toward sentimentality, coupled with a relish for Penny Dreadful horrors. They are a strange blend of the ghoulish and the picturesque, these vibrant oddities, the ghastliness rendered less visceral by being so toy-like. I have a notion to push the idea a little further, using contemporary expressions of fatalities at the sharp end of nature, but filtered through the prism of the Penny Plain/Tuppence Coloured naiveté of the Staffordshire groups.

I don’t know whether I’ll be able to achieve this with any degree of success, but I know the idea will niggle away at me until I give expression to it. Watch this space.