Mary Bullington and the Anglo-Saxon Riddle

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Above: making stencils for The Exchange, No 10 in the Gawain series of prints

The wonderful Mary Bullington contacted me at Facebook offering this Anglo-Saxon riddle as a thrillingly mystical descriptive of what I do as an artist.
Riddle 40 
I saw four things in beautiful fashion
journeying together. Dark were their tracks,
the path very black. Swift was its moving,
faster than birds it flew through the air,
dove under the wave. Labored unresting
the fighting warrior who showed them the way,
all of the four, over plated gold. / Ic seah wrætlice wuhte feower
samed siþian swearte · wæran lastas
swaþu swiþe blacu swift wæs on fore
fulgum framra fleotgan lyfte
deaf under yþe dreag unstille
winnende wiga se him wægas tæcneþ
ofer fæted gold feower eallū

The answer is Quill Pen, and the explanation is as follows.

The ‘four things’ are two fingers, a thumb, and quill, working as a unit. And while it can’t be said that the quill moves ‘faster than birds’, it’s forgivable hyperbole, or perhaps even a humorous reference to the slowness of scribes working with painstaking deliberation. (In which case it’s even more like me, because I crawl over the densely detailed stencils for the Gawain series like a snail on a mission to circumnavigate the globe!) The ‘fighting warrior’ is the guiding arm of the scribe. The ‘plated gold’ is more obscure, and is probably a reference to the gold mount of the ink-horn.

While inks may no longer be dipped from gold-mounted ink-horns, in my mission to create the series of fourteen images to illustrate the magnificent narrative poem of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, I feel the connection across time with the anonymous practitioners celebrated in the riddle.

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Above: completed stack of stencils ready to be sent to Dan Bugg at Penfold Press

Mary is a painter and a friend of Marly Youmans, and we know each other through Marly’s blog and through Facebook. I am so touched that she sent such a lovely thought to me, spurred by an appreciation of what I make. Thank you, Mary.

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The Eight Stencils of ‘The Exchange’

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Seven colours and eight transparent stencils. (There are two black ones.) Here the eight are stacked, held in place by tabs over registration pins. The effect is misleading. The stencils deeper in the stack are rendered milky by the layers over them, whereas in reality the tonality will be evenly distributed across the image. But this dreamy effect is beautiful in its own way. Luckily I checked the last batch of photographs before sealing the package, because I noticed here that the light on dark of the ropes supporting the mast, needed adjustment because they appear to go behind the topmost waves. All corrected now. Today the parcel will be dispatched to Daniel Bugg so that his work can begin.

The Exchange

 

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The Exchange is number ten in the fourteen print Sir Gawain and the Green Knight series I’m making in association with Daniel Bugg of the Penfold Press, and marks the episode from the poem in which on three occasions the Lord of Fair Castle returns from hunting to claim a kiss from his guest. I’ve always found this point in the story to be exciting, though wasn’t at all sure how to set about representing its transgressive nature. (Gawain has to parry the romantic advances of his host’s wife in her husband’s absences, and is made to surrender kisses to the Lord whenever he returns home. It’s as though the young knight is a shuttlecock being batted between the couple.) In the end I made the decision to create an extraordinary encounter, with Bertilak swooping from above to better create the sense of a dizzying erotic charge. I’m currently four stencils into this nine stencil print. Here’s a record of the work so far.

Above and below: preliminary sketches.

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Below: details of the ‘master’ drawing used to guide my work on the print.

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Below: creating the first stencil.

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Below: the dead stag from the first of the three hunts.

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Below: the granular texture of the TruGrain on which the stencils are made is apparent in this detail of the kiss.

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I use a limited palette of red, grey and black to make the stencils, favouring a combination of opaque fibretip pen, greasy lithography crayon, oil-rich black pencil and acrylic paint.

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Below: the colours planned for the print are dull blue, red oxide, dull sand, black, cyan, purple and orange.

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Below: beginning to render the embroidered details of Bertilak’s jerkin.

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On Art and Images

I have never been busier. (I haven’t yet quite worked out why.) I have one-person exhibitions both imminent (September and January) and planned for further ahead. There are promised book covers for several authors and a big, as yet unannounced project for a major publisher. There’s the October exhibition I’m curating for the Royal Cambrian Academy and ongoing work on the stage production of a new chamber music work which I’m to design and direct next year. There have been and continue to be commitments to lecture at various universities and art colleges. Right now the Gawain and the Green Knight project in collaboration with Dan Bugg of Penfold Press is the most pressing occupation, as we have to finish the planned fourteen prints by end of December. I guess I’ve always been an active person in terms of planning ahead, but this… this schedule is extreme, even for me.

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Because of my increasingly busy diary, I have less time to write here at the Artlog. Occasionally I’m halfway through a piece when other matters intrude and I have to turn my attention elsewhere. But this morning I sat down to type a reply to an e-mail addressed to me via my official website, and in the writing of it I expressed something I thought I’d share here. While both unexpected and brief, I realised nevertheless that the simple idea expressed to my correspondent, was massively and personally significant in terms of how I see the world.

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‘As I get older I begin to see that all creative endeavour is linked. I may be first and foremost an easel artist, but I know that books in all their diversity have helped make me the man I am. It’s fitting that in what must by any measure be the last quarter of my working life, I have found myself being given opportunities to work in the field of books, both in the making of covers for writers I love and admire (Marly Youmans, Damian Walford Davies and Mary Ann Constantine), and more recently in the picture book of Hansel & Gretel for Random Spectacular. The book illustrations in my head – and they’re still there, carried since childhood – are as potent as any of the magnificent paintings I experienced in galleries and cathedrals that came later. So Picasso sits companionably alongside Beatrix Potter, Klee alongside Alfred Bestall and George Stubbs alongside Arthur Rackham, and it’s right that they do. My affection for the illustrators has never been displaced by my love of the great artists, and the interior of my head, if you could see in there, bears testament to that truth.’

Picasso

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Potter

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Klee

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Bestall

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Stubbs

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Rackham

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‘The Temptations’ stencils, from start to finish

When I began this project to make fourteen prints with Daniel Bugg of the Penfold Press on the theme of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (translated by Simon Armitage, Faber and Faber, 2017), I first made a painting of each image that I could then use as a guide when making the stencils. Seven prints into the fourteen I made the decision to work directly onto stencils, which means ‘holding’ the ideas I have for the colours of a print in my head, rather than referring to a painted study.

Like those for The Three Hunts completed last month, the stencils for The Temptations have been produced in this way. Once I’d mixed the paints for the ‘colour key’ (see below) I made the stencils while imagining how the colours would look once the print was underway The stencils are not rendered in the colours of the finished print, but with a grey, red oxide and black palette allowing me to better see the planned image on the transparent layers of drafting film that Dan will later transfer to the printing screens.

Below: rough sketch for the print.

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A more refined study for the Lady of Fair Castle.

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Gouache samples in the ‘colour key’ indicate to Daniel Bugg the six inks I want mixed for the print, plus black. Every colour requires a separate stencil. Sometimes several stencils of a colour are required so that the inks can be applied with varying tonal effects.

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Here are images of the stencils as they progress.

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Although they have their own allure, the layers of stencils give an entirely deceptive impression of what the print will eventually look like. The more layers added, the hazier the image becomes, as though viewed through a mist. It’s quite a feat, remembering all the colours involved and trying to imagine what they’ll look like when printed over each other. I keep notes to hand, but the process is one that relies entirely on being able to work toward an idea that won’t be revealed until the printer begins to assemble the image from layers of inks mixed to match my colour samples.

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After Dan has transferred the images to the screens, the long slow task begins of mixing inks and proofing. Once all the proofs have been examined, tweaked and finally agreed upon, the editioning of the print can begin.

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Finding Beauty

I’m in the throes of preparing number nine in my series of fourteen screenprints for the Penfold Press, inspired by Simon Armitage’s translation of the medieval poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, published by Faber & Faber in 2007.

Gawain, weary from his journey, has come upon the beautiful – and until that moment unknown to him – Fair Castle, where he hopes to find hospitality.

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Above: making stencils for Gawain Arrives at Fair Castle

On entering he’s warmly greeted by the Lord, his Lady and their retainers. The Lord receives Gawain’s story with great interest, and in return is an affectionate and generous host. He calls his visitor by name, though strangely, his own is not offered. Nevertheless his status is clear from the magnificence of his home and household. Fine garments are gifted to Gawain and he’s arrayed like a prince in costly fabrics and furs.

During Gawain’s stay the Lord goes out three times to hunt, though Gawain remains in the Castle. On each occasion the Lady comes early to Gawain’s bed to wake him. She initiates conversations that play on notions of ‘courtly love’, though they’re loaded with flirtatious banter that quickly raise the temperature. The visceral descriptive passages of the three hunts, for stag, boar and fox, are threaded through with the tensions of the Lady’s compromising early-morning visits to her guest’s bed-chamber, during which she presses Gawain for gifts of affection, embraces and kisses, while he valiantly attempts to defend himself from committing any breach of trust against the hospitality of his absent host.

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Above: detail from a colour study for The Three Hunts

Simon Armitage wrote to me of these passages:

‘I can never think about those “bedroom scenes” without the hunted and butchered animals being there in the room, the way they’re interleaved through the text. Not just as Gawain’s suppressed lust, but as his subconscious images of what goes on between the lord and the lady. There’s a sense of Gawain’s inadequacy in those episodes as well, or at least his lack of experience (we assume he’s a virgin) compared with the lord’s victorious masculinity and the lady’s apparent sexual knowing. The lord’s actions are invasive and exposing of all kinds of interiors – Gawain knows only the cortex of life, its rind and its appearance.’

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The bedroom scenes are nerve-racking to read. Gawain is at the mercy of a powerful and practised coquette, and their encounters become a duel in which her desire, pressed upon him, must be skilfully parried in order to avoid compromise or offence. He pretends sleep when she stealthily approaches him – as though that would stop her. Then he pleads for privacy to dress, but she counters:

‘Not so’, beautiful sir,’ the sweet lady said.
‘Bide in your bed – my own plan is better.
I’ll tuck in your covers corner to corner,
then playfully parley with the man I have pinned.’

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Much is made of Gawain’s disadvantage of being in bed. The Lady doesn’t balk at physical affection, despite the fact that the young man is naked under the covers. She presses him for gifts, even though she knows he has little save himself to offer. It’s heated and tension inducing.

‘I come
to learn of love and more,
a lady all alone.
Perform for me before
my husband heads for home.’

 

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The poem is so full of references to the allure of young Gawain and the Lady of Fair Castle that it would be possible in any representation to become overwrought with the flesh on display and the heat under the surfaces. I have to curb my tendency to overly-refine images of beauty and stop before the vitality of an idea becomes compromised by overworking. I’ve tried many different compositional devices with this sequence of the poem, and it’s emerged that when the Lady is foregrounded, I work a tad too hard to capture her. (See the couple of too-sweet images above.)

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But a scrappy thumbnail sketch that placed her as a full-length figure sitting in the upper left of the composition (below) has a dynamic that pleases me –

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– and so I’ve pursued the idea and it’s the one that right now I’m moved to go with. Next I need to work up a full compositional study and see if I feel the same way. But as a precursor to that, here’s a small sketch defining her outline in the available space. I like it because the simplicity eschews the need for detail. Costume can become a burden in images, capturing too much of the energy and distracting attention from the meaning. This little drawing captures the dropped shoulders and tight sleeves of the period, but without feeling ‘historical’. It might be either her gown or her shift.

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The diagonal framing device at the right is where the foreground bed-curtain cuts across, giving me the opportunity to run riot with the decorative patterning that’s become something of a theme in the series, from the Green Knight’s foliate tattoos (an invention that isn’t in the text) to the peacocks and vines embroidered on the caparison of his horse. (More invention.) For the bed-hangings I plan a fevered idyll, all turbulent vegetation and frolicking rabbits.

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Above: detail from the colour study for The Green Knight’s Head Lives

When I began making prints on the theme of the poem I was clear about not getting enmeshed in the descriptive passages. They are so sumptuous and detailed that attempting to reproduce them would be visually overwhelming. Instead my inspiration has been filtered through my familiarity with the text. The prints were intended to capture some of what I feel about Gawain and his Green Knight.

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Above: stencils for The Green Knight Arrives

Occasionally I’ve returned to re-examine a passage of the poem only to discover that I’ve recalled it incorrectly in my image. But that, after all, is the nature of memory, and so I’ve not made revisions on discovering misalignments between what’s written and what I’ve made.

My thanks to Simon Armitage for his insights. The quotes from his translation are by kind permission of Faber & Faber.

 

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Catriona on May Day Morning

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I remember my friend Ian telling me that he and Catriona had risen in the dark of May Day and driven from their home in Caerleon to Oxford to be present in time to hear the choristers of Magdalen College choir singing Hymnus Eucharisticus from the Great Tower. The adventure would have been a seed sown by Catriona and made into a reality by Ian, her champion, life companion, lover and organiser. The journey would have been carried out in the spirit of delight and celebration for all things green and renewing. But the weather was not great, and Catriona later recounted that far from the rapturous experience she’d imagined, all youthful voices ringing through the crystalline spring air in the city of dreaming spires, instead a desultory crowd huddled against the damp grey morning, straining to hear the distant, muffled and not terribly enthusiastic account of the music given by the sleepy boys, dragged from their beds and herded up the tower to signally fail to sing out glory. All a bit of a damp squib, she mocked, and hardly worth the bother.

This was the Catriona I loved and admired. She was a romantic in spirit but she wouldn’t make a pretence when things failed to measure up. The notion of the Magdalen Tower tradition, she claimed, was so much better than the event. It was this refusal to pretend that made her such entertaining and bracing company. That said, she would delight in small things, gilding the everyday with insight and her ability to appreciate. While the May Morning recollection made her scornful, she could wonderfully describe her memory of taking a nap in the crogloft of our cottage one peerless summer afternoon, drifting in and out of sleep to the distant sound of children playing and dogs barking on the beach, and stirring herself to the noises of preparation in the kitchen below. She said there was no sound sweeter than waking to the low murmur of voices she loved, and the tinkle of china cups and spoons being laid for tea.

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In her final year, when the illness that would take her from us had her in retreat and yet she was still well enough for Ian to bring her to join Peter and me at Aberporth, Catriona and I – plus Jack – would sit on the bench in front of the low, whitewashed cottage, and listen to the birds, observe and greet passers by and wax lyrical over the burgeoning garden, so many plants of which she and Ian had brought to us and planted. Intolerant of puff or any form of self aggrandisement in herself or others – and she could be merciless in her lambast when roused – yet she could make you see the transcendent in ordinary things. The old bathtub at the cottage that I’d determined to change because of a dislike of coloured baths, was forever transformed for me when Catriona cast her eye over it for the first time, exclaiming on the beauty of its pale, washed-away blue, ‘Oh how lovely. Taking a bath in here will be like taking a bath in the sky!’ And so it’s there still, and is still as blue as a sky washed after rain.

Catriona died on May Day 2005. She came into my life when I was lost, and held me fast until the moment had passed. She changed the way I see the world. I miss her still, every day.

Catriona Urquhart was the author of The Mare’s Tale, a series of poems that she wrote about my father, Trevor, who she knew and loved in his later life. At the core of the series is Trevor’s childhood encounter with an apparition that terrified and thereafter haunted him intermittently for a lifetime. The book was published in a numbered edition by the Old Stile Press in 2001, designed and printed by Nicolas McDowall and with illustrations by me. It was the only book of poems by the writer published in her lifetime. Copies are still available from the Old Stile Press, signed by us both in pencil on the colophon page. You may find it:

HERE

Catriona Urquhart, 1953 -2005.

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