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.

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

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

James and the Book he Never Saw

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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.

Beauty first sets eyes on Beast

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Olivia McCannon’s description of the first encounter:

Beast!

I have no words for what I see                               

appearing from this scenery of

supernatural wealth – must 

process chthonic splendour rigged

with glowing eyes and claws, 

clothed in the violated cosmos                  

spiked with satellites and artificial stars

needing time and having none

I lift beyond my body

leave a dress

On Revision in Illustration

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Work on Beauty and Beast. Text by Olivia McCannon and illustrations by Clive Hicks-Jenkins. To be published by Design for Today in October 2021.

Dissatisfaction is a part of the artist’s armoury of creativity. Without it, how would we ‘grow’ ideas?

To begin with there was nothing tangible, just the notion of making a book that had been rattling around in my head, seemingly forever. There was no text, only a huge admiration for Jean Cocteau’s 1946 film, La Belle et la Bête, shared with the poet and translator Olivia McCannon.

Olivia and I emailed each other for over a year, working out what there might be in terms of a book. Would it be a new translation of Cocteau’s screenplay, a return to the origin tale and a reinvention of it, perhaps in a contemporary setting, or something else entirely? Maybe something with threads running through it in homage to Cocteau’s masterpiece. A hybrid, both new and old, creating a dialogue with Cocteau and his fellow creators.

When I began preparations, there was much research, but as yet no text. Olivia and I were still exploring ideas. I’d been making maquettes and character studies, but everything was still undecided. My maquettes referenced the film, but also changed the characters. They weren’t likenesses of the actors playing the roles.

Early paper maquette of la Bête

As our talks focussed in on the notion of a hybrid creation, I made a single illustration – one I felt confident about as the foundation block – to which another was added, and then another, and another.

The first illustration

I’ve never worked in this way before. My illustration projects have always been responses to an existing text. But on this book I’m working with conversations with the writer as the starting points, and fragments of text still in flux. In illustration, the decisions made at the outset affect everything that follows: the way the characters look and what they wear. The settings – the buildings, rooms, passageways, gardens and landscapes of all the locations of the story. Every detail considered, invented, revised and rendered.

A group of images made out of sequence to the emerging text, grows. New images are added to make connections between them. Gradually a narrative in pictures emerges, but it’s a creation that morphs every day because each new part of it not only adds to what’s gone previously, but changes it. Each emerging section of the text, changes it. My starting point is invariably a scene from the film, which then transforms into a version I believe will work on a page. So a scene in which multiple cuts show Belle, la Bête, a table laid with silverware, crystal and fruit, an overmantel clock chiming, living statues watching from the shadows and a fire-blazing, gets condensed to a single double-page image.

Belle et la Bête in a frame from the film
One of two living stone busts that support the fireplace
Lay-out drawing for a double-page illustration of the scene
Study for a living statue

Illustrations become sandwiched by others that affect them. Sometimes an image is cancelled out and discarded, but more usually changed to better deliver what’s needed at that stage of the story. Things that weren’t issues, become so overnight. An idea I thought was coming over with clarity, becomes muddled because its context has changed.

Illustration underway
Detail of la Bête from the first version of the dining-room
Detail of the fireplace head from the first version
In the second version, the Beast and the stone head have changed
Third and final re-working of La Bête

I try to avoid obviousness when making images to accompany a text. I draw inspiration from Olivia’s emerging narrative, but largely attempt to colonise the spaces between her lines of poetry.

As the book expands, and the passages of text emerge to fit together with the images I’ve already completed, then my revisions begin. Perhaps I see that the adjustment of a character’s glance might better signpost the page-turner’s forward trajectory, or profitably pause it. A new line suddenly makes clear that the image is needed as a bridge to the next page turn, and an adjustment could aid that process. I enjoy the challenges of patching illustrations with newly worked elements, of discovering forgotten aspects and realising on reflection how they work better – or not so well – as I’d originally thought. The revisions don’t show in photographs and won’t show when printed, but the changes will be apparent when the works are exhibited in a gallery in October, when close inspection from oblique angles in bright light will reveal the myriad surgeries. I like the idea that the journey will be visible in the surface of the artworks, like age-lines in a characterful face.

Letter to Catriona

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Catriona Urquhart, Poet. 1953 -2005

Dearest Catriona

It’s sixteen years since you left us on May Day 2005. I didn’t believe it at the time, and I don’t believe it now. Your voice is as clear and true in my head today as if you were just downstairs and calling me to tea. That morning my friend Susie Savage picked up the phone in Penparc Cottage that I didn’t hear ringing because I was sitting in your chair in the garden, and I knew the moment she appeared at the back door the news she carried, because her face was stricken at what she had to tell me. Everything in life changed at that moment: my chum, confederate-hatcher-of-plans, confidante and muse, companion-gardener, playmate, poet-in-chief and heart-healer, gone.

The stick in a pot that you gave me all those years ago, now planted in a garden to which we came after your time, has grown into a magnificent Walnut tree big enough for us to picnic under its shade. (The photograph here was taken several years ago, since when it has grown a great deal more and we’ve raised its canopy.) I see it every day, from the house and whenever I’m in the garden, and it will always be ‘Catriona’s Tree’ for me.

I never thought there would be other poets after you, but I was wrong. First there was Marly Youmans’ whose poetry carried me on wings of creativity, and with whom I’ve been collaborating for about a decade and a half, making covers and illustrations for her poetry and novels. More recently there has been Simon Armitage, now our Poet Laureate, whose Sir Gawain and the Green Knight I illustrated for the 2018 revision from Faber & Faber, and who I’ve since worked on with two more books: Hansel & Gretel: a Nightmare in Eight Scenes, for which I won the 2020 V&A Illustrated Book Award, and The Owl & the Nightingale, another translation by him from the medieval, due out in October this year. How proud of me you would be for these poet friendships and collaborations. Soon there will be Beauty and Beast, a reinvention of the fairytale and film that you and I talked about so much, shaped by the poet Olivia McCannon into something that’s thrilling to be working on, and it too will be out in October this year.

I think so often of conversations we had, and the conversations we would have now, were you here to have them with. In fact (Shhhh, tell no-one) I do have those conversations, and I hear your answers, and you’re as unexpected and funny now as you ever were in life. But still, still, still I miss you, and I always will.

Did I tell you that little dog Jack died? I can’t remember now whether I did. Three years ago. That connection with you, too, now severed. He’s buried here at Ty Isaf, so we have your tree and Jack in the garden. It’s a marvellous place and you would love it. Yesterday I watched as redstarts dashed back and forward to drink from the birdbath, and laughed at the antics of Mr & Mrs pheasant, the family of jackdaws and the marauding squirrels, all arguing away under the bird-feeder hanging from the big apple tree on the turning circle of the drive. Let’s take a walk later today. I want to share news.

Your loving friend

C xxx

Building a Panorama

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I first saw Jean Cocteau’s 1946 film of La Belle et la Bête in the early 1960s. Before the age of video I recollected the film from that first, single viewing, for years running it over and over in my head, remembering, and very likely misremembering it, until the ‘video’ age dawned when everything could be acquired and watched at will. So for most of my life, one way or another, the film has been my companion. I’ve thought about it, watched it scores of times, analysed it and dreamt about it.

Above: my first sketch for Beauty’s bed, and below, a study for it.

Now I’m making a book of the story, with my collaborator, the poet Olivia McCannon. It started out as a full homage to Cocteau’s interpretation, but through development has turned into something quite different: a new, reinvented version of the story, in which together Olivia and I acknowledge the film’s influence while finding our own own creative path.

There are several places in the book in which I want to visually capture my memories of watching sequences of the film when the camera ‘panned’ horizontally to reveal spaces by degrees. Beauty’s bedchamber was chief among these sequences.

Even in her bedchamber, Belle is never alone. Always the eyes of living statues watching her every move.

Cocteau remarks in Diary of a Film how visitors to the studio loved exploring Beauty’s bedroom. Walls made of scrim allowed lights to be shone through them and created dissolving vistas of the garden sets beyond, and I imagine that must have made it a strangely liminal space for the actors to work in, finding themselves un-anchored and floating between worlds. Beauty’s bed, voluptuously draped with fur under its canopy of muslin, seems like a boat in this strange sea, and everywhere the glimmer and sheen of opulence.

It’s heady stuff. But the screen ratio of the time was undoubtedly confining, and so a panorama is suggested rather than attained, with the horizontally moving camera the director’s tool to take the audience on a tour of his creation.

By using a double-page spread, I have a ‘panoramic’ shape in which to set my illustration.

Above: first draft sketch for a double-page illustration of Beauty’s bedchamber.

With no camera point-of-view to slow the reveal of my illustration, I rely on making an image that offers up all its elements slowly, to halt a headlong rush past them. So Beauty’s ‘enchanted’ looking-glass, is not a rectangular, framed mirror on a table, as it is in the film…

… but a full dressing-table with incorporated looking-glass, half veiled in a flimsy sheet, seen below in a detail from the final render. The time it takes to decipher the object, slows down the viewer, who must pause to better understand it.

And because I have no recourse to Georges Auric’s shimmering, orchestral film score, I set imagined breezes through the composition, ruffling the veils and sending leaves skittering, so the image ‘suggests’ a soundtrack where there is none.

Most people read an image left to right, and so we begin with the bed, with its vertically compressed canopy and hangings which stream out to carry the eye further into the composition, to the Caryatid with candles on her head, the veiled dressing-table and shell-backed chair, up to the bowed balcony overlooking the garden with the Beast’s pavilion/treasury shining in the twilight. (Or it might be an empty birdcage, swinging in the window.) Winds feature in the film whenever the strange is present: Beauty’s father is buffeted by a silent wind when he attempts to pour wine from a pitcher at the Beast’s table, and again at the moment when his previously unseen host appears in the garden, enraged by the theft of a rose.)

There’s no room here for the towering furniture and high ceilings of the Doré engravings that had so influenced Cocteau when he was planning the film. Budgetary constraints dictated his sets could not be spacious and airy. For the most part the interiors, painted black to hide their true proportions in darkness, are conjured by deploying accent features: the architecturally elaborate fireplace supported by living statues, towering stone doorways that dwarf Beauty and the iconic passageway of pale, disembodied arms holding candelabras that magically light when needed. With studio space limited, the bedchamber, while not large, is the most elaborate set in terms of textures, shimmering claustrophobically like a fevered dream. On her bed, swaddled in finery which practically disables her, Beauty appears frozen in the gleam of satin and roped pearls, as the hangings press in suffocatingly.

To mimic something of the character of Cocteau’s vision, an ornate border contains the illustration, compressing and tightening the space, so that it too will press in on whoever enters it. There are birds in the border, but I think of them as being pretty paper-cut decorations, because the Beast’s twilight kingdom in the film has no birds. Not in frame, and not on the soundtrack.

Josette Day and Jean Marais on the tiny balcony of Belle’s bedchamber, from where they view la Bête’s ‘treasury’ in the gardens below.
Above, In another image from the book, Beast carries Beauty in a dead faint to her bedchamber, where her garments magically transform from those of a peasant girl, to a grand lady.

An exhibition of all the original artwork for Beauty & Beast, opens at Martin Tinney Galley, Cardiff, in October.

In the Realm of the Poet

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Work continues on my collaboration with poet Olivia McCannon on a new retelling of Beauty and the Beast, to be published by Design for Today. Working with Olivia is a revelation. Ideas bat back and forward between us in e-mails, and I find the conversations to be revelatory. We both make discoveries through the processes of discussion, exploring connections and explaining new ideas to each other, and I find that the e-mails and all the ideas they contain are as equal a source of the images I’m making as her evolving text. Recently Olivia wrote to me that she believed there was a rich seam to be considered in regard to Cocteau’s casting of the role of the Goddess Diana in the 1946 film, and that’s opened a whole treasury of possibilities about the living statues, which we’ve adopted for our own version of the story, and how their origins might be explored.

In another e-mail she wrote thrillingly of her imagined source of the jewels the Beast bestows on Beauty, and afterwards I could barely sleep for a week with excitement in anticipation of the images that were evolving in my head out of her ideas.

Above: detail of an illustration in progress: the Beast carries the unconscious Beauty to her bedchamber.

At this stage I can explain no more. While I enjoy sharing the creative processes of making images, in this instance I don’t want to offer them before they’ve been realised and the book published. Suffice to say that this is going to be a version of Beauty and the Beast like no other.

On Memory, Love and the Translation of Magic

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My current project to make a new illustrated edition of Beauty and the Beast for the publisher Design for Today, has been a strange and challenging one. The starting point had been the 1946 La Belle et la Bête by the artist/playwright/director Jean Cocteau.

It can’t be denied that I’m in thrall to the film, and have been since I saw it in my early teens. But of course being in thrall isn’t the best place from which begin a proper relationship. Thrall paralyses. Like passionate love, it has the power to unhinge and cloud judgement. At the beginning I wanted to respond to the film, but couldn’t find a way to do so without the result turning into a sort of graphic novel version, and I knew that approach was not for me.

When the writer Olivia McCannon accepted my invitation to come on board, the creative conversations she initiated set me on another trajectory, as I knew they would. Words have always been prime motivators in my creative process, and even before any drafts of text emerged, Olivia’s e-mails alone became my sources of inspiration. She returned to the pre-Cocteau fairytales as a preparation to re-examining the film, and that was a huge help in circumnavigating the debilitating awe of Cocteau’s achievement preventing me from making progress. I’ve since learned not to return to the film every time I want to examine an aspect of it, but to recall a sense of how it made me feel after having first experienced it all those years ago. I’ve had to learn the art of translation.

I realise that without videos, DVDs and the Internet, after my cinema viewing of La Belle et la Bête there was a gap of nearly twenty years before I was able to revisit it. Something had flourished in that absence. The love I had for it was of an experience cherished and recalled. It was as much about how I was feeling at that time of first viewing, as it was about the film. In the interim my own creative imaginings had filled in and embellished many missing parts. So now it’s those ideas – the ones that sprang from the first viewing – that I draw on to create images that are both of the film, but also expressions of my dream version of it.

I have to keep working at this phenomenon of ‘recollection’, to ensure I’m in the right place. A technique I use is to sit with a DVD of the film, not watching it but jotting down thoughts in a notebook, prompted by the soundtrack. In this way I’m more able to access deeper memory. It’s the deep memory I need for this work. It gives me more than any studying of the film yields, though of course I’m doing that, too. I study, digest and evaluate. Then I set all that aside and go back further, to the visceral, early response. I read the parts of the text Olivia has offered, and her wonderful notes. Then I set about fitting the jigsaw puzzle together.