All life is light and shadow and the struggle to hold those two in balance. I know that at the extremes, my preoccupations can seem hard to make sense of. One moment artworks I know viewers can find hard to look at, and the next, animations in which the characters of Victorian Harlequinade spring to joyful life. Night versus day, dusk versus dawn, grief versus joy.
At the private view of my Autumn 2021 Martin Tinney Gallery exhibition, a man I barely knew began quizzing me. Gesturing to the walls teeming with illustrations for Simon Armitage’s about-to-be-published The Owl & the Nightingale, he said “So you don’t paint anymore.” (Note the statement, not a question.) I’m always taken aback when someone is challenging almost from the first sentence. I didn’t want to defend myself to a man putting words into my mouth, so I replied simply, “I paint every day.” He carried on regardless, again gesturing to the walls. “Yeah but not REAL paintings any more, you know…” and here he grappled for words … “… the BIG ones!” Me, fixing his eye. ”I paint the things that I care about, and I always have. And now you’ll excuse me.”
The first subject matter that brought me serious attention as an artist was The Mare’s Tale in 2001. As an exploration of a nightmarish experience in my father’s childhood he carried with him for more than eighty years, the work has often been described by others as ‘the son’s exploration of the father’s trauma’. It was partially that, but it was also grief, not only for my dad, but for the many of my family and friends who had gone.
In Simon Armitage’s extraordinary reworking of Hansel & Gretel, the children’ parents are not the malign mother and weak father of the Grimm Brothers’ original tale. Simon sets the story in an unnamed war-torn country, and the children are not abandoned but in an act of parental desperation, directed away from home and bombings. They’re migrant children. At the end of the story they return home to find their father broken, their home in ruins and their mother, dead and buried in a coffin made from their bomb-splintered beds. When making the illustrations for the book (Design for Today, 2019) I researched, made hundreds of studies and drew on memories that are always with me.
My mother’s health had been catastrophically compromised by childhood meningitis. I think she can only have been in her thirties when she had her first heart attack, and though she lived another three decades, the steady advance of heart and organ failure was unstoppable. She was courageous and fought to be well, and there were times of respite when illness didn’t shadow her so heavily.
But in the end, it got her. In those days visiting hours in hospital were strict. No matter how ill the patient, there were no exceptions to the rules. My mother died alone in a public ward without anyone she loved to hold her hand. It was the end she feared most, and not a damned thing that we could do to stop it. We were called at the crack of dawn and raced to the hospital. It would have been kinder of the nurse to tell us the truth in the phone call. Instead we drove like maniacs only to find my mother icy-cold in her bed, having died hours earlier. My father retreated to a corridor, buried his face in an alcove and howled like a dog. I held my mother’s hand and studied her face, careworn with illness but still beautiful.
All life gets poured into my art. Here she is, recalled in the illustration in Hansel & Gretel of the dead mother in her unlined coffin, tenderly garlanded with flowers.
It’s largely forgotten these days that the actor Ralph Richardson was significant in the preservation of the toy theatre tradition. Benjamin Pollock, the last of the print-making toy theatre sellers, died in 1937. Thereafter his daughters ran the shop in Hoxton Street until damage sustained during the Blitz forced its closure.
Alan Keen, a local bookseller, together with Richardson, picked up the threads of Benjamin Pollock’s business and remaining stock, and together carried forward the tradition, enlisting practitioners of the art of toy theatre, famous artists and renowned actors to assist them. George Speaight was an historian, enthusiast and collector of toy theatre ephemera, who in 1946 published the still unsurpassed textbook of the toy theatre tradition, Toy Theatre, and he was among those Keen and Richardson worked with.
Richardson’s celebrity ensured the added lustre of luminaries such as Laurence Olivier and playwright J. B. Priestly stepping forward to promote the art of toy theatre. Olivier agreed to a toy theatre adaptation of the 1948 film of Hamlet, which he’d directed and starred in. Published by what was now being called ‘Benjamin Pollock Ltd’, the Hamlet toy theatre is a curious thing, quite wan in many ways because the ‘puppets’ are all tinted photographs of the actors from the film, while the sets are sketchy if atmospheric black and white drawings by the film’s production designer Roger Furse.
A far more lavish and full colour affair was The High Toby, with a script by J. B. Priestly and scenery and characters painted by the prominent artist, Doris Zinkeisen.
The growing cost of the book outstripped Alan Keen’s available funds, and it was done as a Puffin Cut-Out Book ‘in association’ with Benjamin Pollock Ltd. But even with these celebrity contributors, while the book is very pretty, anyone who has tried to offer a performance will know that it’s less satisfactory as a play than one might imagine given who wrote it, and though Zinkeisen’s settings and characters are lavishly detailed, she took no account of how difficult the puppets would be to cut out, massively compromised by fine details like whips, walking-canes, feathers on hats and the slenderest of wrists.
Moreover even when those hurdles had been clambered over, the characters don’t register particularly well against the backdrops, their drawing-room elegance and soft colours legislating against them. Toy theatre needs a robustness not present here, and The High Toby is toy theatre play that looks far better in the imagination, and on its pages, before scissors, paste and card have been brought into play.
Toy theatre is an art, and not just a physical reduction. A long and complex script isn’t the best accompaniment to a toy theatre performance, and scenery cannot simply be a version of what might be seen in a live theatre. There’s something like alchemy in the process of making a successful adaptation of a story to the reduced script and the reduced stage of a toy theatre. The same rules of drama don’t apply, nor do the rules of perspective used on a full-scale stage with breathing actors. The toy theatre requires its own, unique aesthetic. It’s so much better when allowed to be itself, rather than when trying too hard to ape its origins in the live theatre.
When all the components are in place and a toy theatre can be made to work, it works magnificently. But it’s a form fraught with perils, and more get it wrong than right, and always have. English toy theatre – for it was almost uniquely an English form, practiced most successfully in London, that city of many theatres and printmakers – had a period of unrivalled brilliance. When not made overly sophisticated, and when drawing on the lively tradition of the English printmakers’ ‘Actor Portraits’ of the Regency and nineteenth century, toy theatre was at its best, graphically bold and slightly bonkers. Later it became displaced largely because the far more sophisticated toy theatre imports from France and Europe were catching the eye of the public, and the meteoric rise of native toy theatre faltered when comparisons were being made to the enormously elaborate foreign imports. English Toy theatres were not subtle. They had the character of folk art, and were the perfect vehicles for barnstorming melodramas and that most unique theatrical tradition of these islands, the pantomime. (Harlequinade was a hugely popular entertainment of the English stage, and the characters of Clown, Harlequin and Columbine were endlessly reproduced in toy theatre character sheets.)
Marguerite Fawdry acquired the Pollock’s business in the 1960s, afterwards transferring it from Covent Garden to its current address in Fitzrovia, where there was room for a toy museum over the shop and a basement where the Pollock printing press and stock of engraved plates could be stored. The business has continued as a family affair, now helmed by Marguerite’s great grandson, Jack, in whom the toy theatre tradition is still alive and flourishing. There’s a Pollock’s Trust, too, to lend support to the Museum, led by Chairman Alan Powers.
I was commissioned in 2016 by Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop to design the Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop Hansel & Gretel Toy Theatre, which was published in 2017 and is still available from the shop. The project led to others, most significantly a commission to develop a new stage production of Hansel & Gretel, and in 2018 Hansel & Gretel: a Nightmare in Eight Scenes, a stage production for music ensemble, actors and puppets with a score by Matthew Kaner and a poetic text by Simon Armitage, directed by me, premiered at the Cheltenham Festival of Music before embarking on a tour. A performance of the work before an audience was recorded by BBC Radio 3 and broadcast Christmas week 2018.
In 2019 the text of Hansel & Gretel: a Nightmare in Eight Scenes was published by Design for Today in an edition illustrated by me. In 2020 I won the V&A Illustrated Book Award for my work on it.
In November 2021 Design for Today published my new toy theatre, Beauty & Beast, made in collaboration with Olivia McCannon, who wrote the script, and David W. Slack, who assisted me and designed the model.
The Beauty & Beast Toy Theatre is available from Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop in Covent Garden and Pollock’s Museum and Toyshop in Fitzrovia, and also online from:
With Olivia’s play script for the toy theatre delivered, it was time to consider who might write the music to accompany her lyrics for Beauty’s song ‘Time for a Change of Heart’, performed at the end of the play. Olivia approached her friend, musician Paul Sartin of the group Bellowhead, and to everyone’s delight, he agree to join the team.
Once his music was ready, it was time for graphic designer Laurence Beck to lay out Olivia’s play script, Paul’s arrangement for her lyrics, David’s instructions for constructing the model and my brief histories of toy theatre and the origins of Beauty and the Beast, into the booklet to accompany the model. The 10 construction-cards to cut out and make the toy theatre, scenery and characters of the production, together with the 24 page booklet, were designed to fit into a 23 x 25 cms folder where the scenery, puppets and script could be stored for safe keeping once the theatre was made. All that remained was for the many elements of the toy theatre to be printed and packed ready for sale.
To promote what was about to be published, with Joe’s agreement David and I set about producing an animation video for the Beauty & Beast Toy Theatre, to be shown at YouTube and on various social media platforms. The plan was to offer a condensed visual account of Olivia’s scenario set to music, and as he’d already played such a significant part in creating the toy theatre, David was perfectly placed for making the animated version of it. With the animation prepared, everything was set for launch. We would have our beautiful toy theatre out in good time for the Christmas market.
Still we weren’t through. David and I had been wondering how we might further promote the toy theatre, and what alternatives might be open to us if we weren’t able to have a pre-Christmas live event to which an audience could be invited.
A broadcast film of a performance might be the solution, but even that could be difficult to organise given the current circumstances. So we began to plan a film in which all the contributing creators could work at a distance from each other. The first and most urgent requirement was to find an actor to read Olivia’s play script, and moreover one who would seize the multiple opportunities afforded by it. Here were poetry, humour, menace and crackling atmosphere, and we needed an actor skilled on multiple levels to give a nuanced and mesmerising performance. Luckily I knew who would deliver all that for us in bucketloads, and Jennifer Castle became the final creative talent to join the Beauty & Beast team, alongside Ross Boyask, who undertook to both record the audio tracks of Jennifer’s performance and take the many portrait shots of her that we needed in order to incorporate her into the film.
The work is underway and further announcements will be forthcoming before too long. Here’s a toy theatre that is not just a desirable object, but one that comes with all the online creative encouragement and inspiration that anyone could wish for. I’m enormously proud of the team that made it. My thanks to:
Joe Pearson at Design for Today
David W. Slack
The Design for Today Beauty & Beast Toy Theatre is available
It all began earlier this year with the Hansel & Gretel Toy Theatre I’d designed in 2017 for Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop. David W. Slack and I didn’t know each other, but exchanged a flurry of messages at Instagram about how he was planning to adapt his newly acquired Hansel & Gretel model to include a curved stage-front. Before we knew it we were in regular contact, fuelled by the fact we’re both painters and by our shared passion for Toy Theatre. I was working flat out on the illustrations for my next book with publisher Design for Today, Beauty & Beast, in collaboration with writer Olivia McCanon, and David and I talked about the evolving images for it. In photographs, his finished model of the Pollock’s theatre I’d designed was sharp and meticulous. The man really knew how to cut and construct a toy theatre.
I had a notion to make a very simple toy theatre as a promotion for Beauty & Beast. It would have to be simple because I had no spare time to work on it. Before I tried the idea out on my publisher, Joe, I confided in David about it, casually wondering whether if he had the time he might consider helping me out. As it was going to be a modest project and would hopefully not take up too much of his time, it could be fun. Beyond the sense of ease that made online conversations between us so relaxed, I had the strongest feeling that we needed to collaborate. It was almost an imperative. Luckily he felt the same way and enthusiastically leapt in.
The division of labour evolved with complete ease. I made roughs while David worked confidently to produce the optimum design for the model. Ideas flowed smoothly. We were so attuned that we developed a pattern allowing each of us creative freedom. Once the proscenium arch design had been settled on, David produced prototype toy stages at extraordinary speed, each version improving on the last. By this time he was leading with the design work, briefing me on what I needed to be making. He was drafting scenery, too, often using my completed illustrations made for the book as initial sources. I was having to fit all this between my daily schedule of illustrations for the main book, though things became simpler when David began sending me templates so all I had to do was fill in the shapes with drawing, knowing the ‘fit’ had already been worked out.
David’s enthusiasm for the project meant that he was forever coming up with ideas to ‘improve’ outcomes, which meant the dawning realisation for both of us that it was a rather more complete production than we’d anticipated at the outset. Olivia McCannon was enlisted to write the script, a task she undertook with good grace even though it greatly added to her already overburdened work-load. It wasn’t to be a straight adaptation of her beautiful text for the book, but a clever reinvention of a nineteenth century toy theatre pantomime, ingenious and slightly mad. I broke the news to Joe Pearson with some trepidation that we’d gained more construction pages than originally estimated, and that moreover several of them required printing on both sides, which would require meticulous alignment by the printer. Joe took it all in his stride and began costing.
The script was still being written and so we had no idea how many pages it might fill. We began considering the matter of the binding for the toy theatre book, so as for it to be simple to take apart. I’m pretty certain it was David who first suggested we consider not binding, but offering loose construction sheets in a folder, and Joe who came up with the idea of something like an old-fashioned double-LP cover, with half-wallets inside. These were exciting developments because they meant the toy theatre would be unique in its presentation. Joe felt a separate ‘chapbook’ for the script and instructions would be the way forward, slipped into one of the pockets of the folder. The idea of a script in miniature for toy theatre performances was lovely, and mirrored the toy theatre scripts of the nineteenth century. Everyone was in a frenzy of invention and creativity.
Today I take pleasure in announcing that Jennifer Castle has joined the Beauty & Beast Toy Theatre team, and that we are working together to create a filmed performance of Olivia McCannon’s wonderful play-script with Jennifer giving life to all the roles, accompanied by the toy theatre in action. In a curtain-raiser to all that excitement, Jennifer and I have been in conversation.
Clive: Jennifer, for the past nine months the artwork, model construction, script and graphic design for the Beauty & Beast Toy Theatre have been gently evolving into the product we have today. You’ve come to the project only recently, but from our conversations I’m getting the distinct impression you’ve hit the ground running, and that in part must be to do with the script by Olivia McCannon. What were your feelings when you read it?
Jennifer: Right from the beginning, I suspected that Olivia McCannon and I might be close together in age. So many of what at first glance might seem to be ‘throwaway’ lines resonate deeply with me. For example, Beauty herself, so often portrayed as the noble ingenue, in Olivia’s hands becomes a somewhat exasperated, fully formed young woman cognisant of the ridiculousness of her situation. Her brusque ‘we know why I’m here, let’s not waste time getting up to speed’ attitude, combined with the innocence, intricacy and beauty of the poetry itself delighted me. Yet Beauty remains recognisably the same character we have all come across as children for 300 years. Thanks to Olivia’s writing, I feel free to explore the character of Beauty, all of her anger as well as her inherent goodness, without worrying that she will be unrecognisable to anyone. From a technical point of view, in terms of the actual playscript; it is subtle and wicked, the work of a poet at the very top of her game, and I feel a keen sense of responsibility to do the rhythm of the work justice.
Clive: My friend Simon Callow, who has a fair number of one-man shows under his belt, once told me that the thing he missed most when performing alone, was the camaraderie of the team and the liveliness of a rehearsal room filled with people and ideas. How do you feel about the fact that you’ll be performing all of the roles in this short play?
Jennifer: I will be performing all the roles in the play. So I will play! As a child, I didn’t have any problems holding a doll in each hand and improvising full blown dramatic confrontations that would put a soap opera to shame. It’s been a while, I grant you, but if a toy theatre can’t help me back into the unselfconscious headspace of a child with a couple of Barbies, I think I may be in the wrong profession! Joking aside, I am happy to say that I don’t consider this to be a ‘one-woman show’ at all. I’ll have the beautiful characters written by Olivia, drawn by you, and brought to stunning animated life by David W. Slack right alongside me. When we first spoke on the telephone about this project, you told me that in a previous collaboration with Simon Armitage of Hansel & Gretel, what had impressed you most in a live reading of the piece by him was that he didn’t attempt to ‘do’ voices for each role, but simply read the lines in his own voice and let the characters speak for themselves. I found that really interesting.
Clive: The pandemic has changed the conditions of work for all of us. But because I live in a far- flung corner of west Wales, long before social distancing catapulted just about everyone into working through the mediums of email, messaging and ‘Zoom’, I’d been forging collaborative relationships via social media. My close collaboration with Dan Bugg of the Penfold Press has for the past five years been carried out almost entirely through Facebook and Insta messaging, and although David W. Slack and I have been in extensive daily contact as he designed the Beauty & Beast Toy Theatre model, we’ve never met. (A fact I find hard to believe because we feel very close.) The entertainment industry has been hard hit by Covid, and particularly live theatre which effectively closed down completely. How have things been for you as an actor? Have unexpected ways of working – and unexpected projects – emerged out of all this strangeness?
Jennifer: Can I tell you something? As an actor, the most unexpected thing for me was how I came to view NOT working. When we think of actors, we naturally think of household names. But only 2% of professional actors make a living from the profession and 90% are out of work at any one time! So when the pandemic hit, I suddenly didn’t have to go through the exhausting ritual actors face every time we meet casual acquaintances or family: answering the question “So what are you acting in now?” with a self deprecating shrug and a “well….” It was such a relief. Of course I got fed up of sitting on the balcony reading comics within about 2 weeks, so I and my fellow actor friends soon found each other online and began planning for the moment lockdown ended! I wrote my first script, participated in Zoom script readings for friends and rediscovered a desire to get out there and just DO something that had been waning in the couple of years prior to 2020. Though restrictions are now easing, I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that the future of film and tv castings is going to be ‘self-taped’ auditions, which may sound convenient but instead of getting to meet and connect with a casting director, getting a feel for the room and trying a scene out a few times with feedback, I now have to film myself in a bathroom and hope for the best, which can sometimes be a frustrating experience! But on the whole? I was so happy when productions were allowed to start up again. Remote work can be valuable and productive, but as an actor, NOTHING beats human contact when it comes to creating. What about you? As an artist, do you think that you would still live in ‘far-flung West Wales’ if you didn’t have the internet or would you need to live closer to an artistic hub?
Clive: Moving to Ty Isaf fifteen years ago coincided with the burgeoning of the Internet and the appearance of social media. Facebook was just taking off. Almost from the first week here our connections with the outside world began to grow. Of course the world managed to function perfectly well pre-Internet, but my re-location to a far-flung corner of Wales has been founded from the start on good, strong connections with my collaborators through social media messaging services, e-mails and much later, Zoom. How would I manage without these connections? I suspect not at all well. I love peace and quiet and even isolation in bite-size chunks. But I am collaborative by nature and I’m social by habit, so I need a balance. Before Covid Ty Isaf had been a bit of a creative hub, with my collaborators frequently spending time here so as to be able to work in close contact. We’ve held early brain-storming production meetings on performative works here, and I have a pretty good pop-up animation studio that I can fit into the dining-room when occasion demands.
Although you and I met just the once, several years ago in Cardiff at the home of a mutual friend, you’ve come to this project via a post you made at Facebook (social media, again) that caught my eye and got me thinking.
Jennifer: You have generously omitted the fact that my bad day was caused by my absolutely bombing in an audition that morning! I took to Facebook to admit as such and received a surprisingly sympathetic response. We actors rarely admit our failures because like sharks, theatre folk can smell blood in the water.
Clive: It must have been a slightly strange experience having someone coming at you out of the blue with a hard-to-describe and evolving project after you’d admitted on social media to having had a bad day.
Jennifer: If you were reading a novel, and the protagonist, dejected after yet another failed audition, received a message from a famous artist telling her that he’d like to offer her a chance at a challenging project because her honesty impressed him and she replied “Eh….nah”, how far across the room do you think you would throw the book?
Clive: I take your point. Nevertheless, you took a leap of faith and engaged with me where many would have balked, and I appreciate that.
Jennifer: Gosh that’s interesting that you would say that. Who would balk? Should I have balked? In all seriousness, you not only took a chance on me, you’ve shown nothing but faith in me from the start of this journey. I’m not taking that for granted.
Clive: Are you generally a cautious or adventurous person?
Jennifer: Yes, sometimes cautious and sometimes adventurous.
Clive: David W. Slack and I have a passion for the work of David Firmin and Oliver Postgate, who were the creators at Smallfilms of Clangers, Noggin the Nog and Bagpuss. When I described to you that Bagpuss was an inspiration for the low-tech way in which we hoped to make the film, you yelled with delight and enthusiasm. Did that cinch the deal for you?
Jennifer: I was already enthusiastic at the thought of a toy theatre, but the old stop motion beauty of Bagpuss is timeless and perfect and wonderful. It’s so very British – comforting and sometimes uncomfortable at the same time. I can’t wait to see what we come up with together. I’m excited and nervous, comfortable and pushed beyond my comfort zone – I’m ready to be Bagpussed!
Clive Hicks-Jenkins and Jennifer Castle were in conversation. The top image is by David W. Slack, with special thanks to Ross Boyask for Jennifer Mullen’s portrait shot.
The Design for Today Beauty & Beast Toy Theatre is available:
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.
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.
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.)
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 fromhead 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.