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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Flow

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Progress on my painting based on the movement Louang à l’immortalité de Jesus from Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time. However, for the purposes of exhibiting the work in a gallery, I’m titling it Flow.

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The work is on paper that isn’t absolutely flat, and is consequently almost impossible to photograph well. On Wednesday I’m taking the painting to be scanned, after which I’ll be able to post a full image of it here.

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‘l’Ange qui annonce la fin du Temps’

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Sequential images of a drawing in progress, one of three that will accompany a concert of Oliver Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time at the 2017 Música en Segura festival in Andalusia. In this one an angel with a trumpet is carried by a winged lion.

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“And I saw another mighty angel come down from heaven, clothed with a cloud: and a rainbow was upon his head, and his face was as it were the sun, and his feet as pillars of fire.”

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My thanks to festival director, Daniel Broncano Aguilera, for this fascinating and challenging commission.

Drawing the Music: preparing for Messiaen’s ‘Quatuor de la Fin du Temps’

 

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This Summer at Música en Segura in Andalusia, a performance of Oliver Messiaen’s Quatuor de la Fin du Temps (Quartet for the End of Time) will be given, accompanied by some projected images that festival director, Daniel Broncano, has commissioned me to make.

In June 1940 Messiaen was captured by the German army and imprisoned in the prisoner of war camp, Stalag VIII-A. Some sketches for Quartet for the End of Time had been begun before the composer was incarcerated, but the work was completed during his captivity, and rehearsed and performed in front of an audience of about 400 inmates and guards on 15 January 1941. The instruments were poor and rain fell on the musicians and the audience. The composer later recalled: “Never was I listened to with such rapt attention and comprehension”.

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Messiaen wrote in the Preface to the score that the work was inspired by a text from The Book of Revelation (Rev 10:1–2, 5–7, King James Version):

“And I saw another mighty angel come down from heaven, clothed with a cloud: and a rainbow was upon his head, and his face was as it were the sun, and his feet as pillars of fire … and he set his right foot upon the sea, and his left foot on the earth …. And the angel which I saw stand upon the sea and upon the earth lifted up his hand to heaven, and sware by him that liveth for ever and ever … that there should be time no longer: But in the days of the voice of the seventh angel, when he shall begin to sound, the mystery of God should be finished ….”

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The eight movements are:

i) Liturgie de cristal

ii) Vocalise pour l’Ange qui annonce la fin du Temps

iii) Abîme des oiseaux

iv) Interméde

v) Louange à l’Éternité de Jésus

vi) Danse de la fureur pour les sept trompettes

vii) Fouillis d’arcs-en-ciel pour l’Ange qui annonce la fin du Temps

viii) Louange à l’Immortalité de Jésus

Daniel and I first had conversations about the use of some of my existing work from the Mari Lwyd series. But as the conversations went on it became apparent that he favoured the idea of me producing new paintings, using Messiaen’s notes on the work as a guide.

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Daniel wrote in an e-mail to me:

“Messiaen was a notable synesthetic composer. Sound triggered colour in his mind. He often mentions colours on his scores and was an admirer of stained glass church windows.

In the preface of the work he lists the birds, angels, rainbows, Jesus, trumpets, and also blue-orange chords in the 2nd movement.”

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Daniel requested four artworks, images of which will be projected alongside four photographs of the Stalag VIII camp. My iconography for the compositions draws on the traditions of Romanesque art and has been boiled down to images of birds, foliate scrolling, a fight between mythic animals, the Angel who announces The End of Time and a portrait of Jesus Christ. The latter, a traditional representation, is a first for me. I’ve only painted Christ once before, and then the image was contemporary. Here I’ve immersed myself in something I would usually balk at: marks of the scourge, crucifixion and spear wounds, thorn perforations and death’s lividity.

The images are formal, densely patterned, intended to be contemplative. I’m at the drawing stage as I wanted to complete the four compositions before beginning to paint, the better to work quickly with my brushes. Time is short.

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Nick’s Ink

 

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I’ve had a long-standing plan to work with a number of collaborators who’d agreed to be tattooed with images produced by me from ideas supplied by them. The original plan was to make an exhibition of my scale-drawings, together with ‘selfies’ of the collaborators being inked. The final part of the exhibition was to be a series of small, intense portraits I planned to paint of my subjects and their completed tattoos.

The exhibition was always going to be a logistic nightmare of scheduling, in part because of the number of subjects and the availability of the ink artists. It was to be down to each ‘collaborator’ to research and then book an ink artist of his or her choice and to manage the process of the inking. As it became increasingly clear to me that it was going to be almost impossible to make a stab at a project completion date in order to bring on board a gallery committed to an exhibition, I found myself drifting away to other, less problematic subjects. In time I realised that, good idea though it had been, I’d effectively ‘set aside’ the exhibition, moving it into the lumber room at the back of my mind labelled ‘Future Projects’.

Alone of all the collaborators, Nick Yarr was the one who persistently enquired about his design and when it would be finished. Perhaps this was to do with the fact that we’re friends and see each other regularly, so the subject has often come up in conversations. I’m afraid I kept him waiting a long time because of other commitments, though I can’t discount my hesitation as being in part down to the anxiety that whatever I produced could not, once transferred to Nick’s skin, be walked away from in the same way as he might walk away from a painting that he grew tired of. I guess that ink artists are familiar with the responsibilities inherent in their practice. But for me all this is new, and it has made me slow. Though the design has been on the go for some time, it’s now been finished, making it my first completed work of 2017.

Nick wants a full-sleeve inking. He’d requested a design featuring a clematis ‘orientalis’. It’s a beautiful plant that I’ve painted several times, and Nick and his partner Martin own a small still-life featuring an orientalis that I made in 2006.

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Here, then, a detail of Nick’s design, with the the bell-shaped flowers and silky, fronded seedheads of clematis orientalis and a scattering of oak leaves blowing through. The drawing references the stylised, foliate diapering of Elizabethan embroidery and the botanical decorations found in Books of Hours. I’ve laboured long over it. I wanted the drawing to be as beautiful as I could make it.

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I’ve heavily shadowed the design to add illusory depth to the intentional flatness. To make sure my made-to-scale drawing would exactly fit when transferred to his body, I instructed Nick to bandage his arm with kitchen wrap until a flexible shell was formed. The shell was sliced through in order to remove it, then boxed and delivered to me. Flattened out, it’s provided the template on which to create the design. (See image at top of post.) Nick did the work well. I guess what I requested was a little like plastering a broken arm, and so as a GP he was well placed for making a neat job of it!

Nick will now take the design to the tattoo artist of his choice so that the process of inking can begin. I’ve frequently been asked to design tattoos, but to my knowledge, this will be the first artwork of mine to make it onto skin! The responsibility weighs heavily and I don’t expect my underlying anxiety to let up until the work of inking has been completed to everyone’s satisfaction.

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Of course there’s some possibility this might reinvigorate the tattoo project. Some of the original collaborators may return, or new ones emerge. But I think that I’d defer commitment to an exhibition until a group of the designs had been completed and executed, and in this way remove the scheduling pressures that had dogged the project in its earlier incarnation.

A Feast of Marshmallows

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My  book of Hansel & Gretel, published by Random Spectacular, has been beautifully produced under the watchful eye of Simon Lewin at St Jude’s. The scans by Saxon Digital and the printing by Swallowtail, both in Norwich, are perfect. Every etched line and fleck of the original drawings, meticulously reproduced. The book’s six colours plus black have been created as Pantone separations, consistent in colour throughout and printed onto a matt paper that is so much more pleasing for being without the sheen of many illustrated books. The covers are a slightly heavier card than the pages, and the construction of the book cleverly ensures that every double-page spread opens flat, so that no part of any illustration can become lost in or distorted by the ‘gutter’.

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There are four, three-leaf fold-out spreads scattered throughout the book, and these took a lot of effort to get right in the early design stages. In the finished book the illustrations across each closed fold-out are perfectly aligned, which can have been no easy task for the printers.

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Technically this is just about the most accomplished book I’ve set myself the task of making. I told the story with little recourse to text, and such words as I allowed myself had to be woven through the images as though a part of them. I worked in a technique of colour separation that is relatively new to me. Indeed I was already over halfway through the project when I began learning from Dan Bugg of the Penfold Press the process of producing colour separations.

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I am unapologetically proud of this achievement. I have always believed that inexpensiveness should be no impediment to producing a commercial book with all of the attention to detail that might be expected from an expensive private press edition. I love the art of paperback covers – particularly in Czech and Poland – and have collected vintage and contemporary European children’s illustrated books for more than forty years. While Hansel & Gretel is not intended as a children’s book – it’s a tad too dark for that market – it nevertheless honours the traditions of the children’s book illustrators who have given me so much pleasure over a lifetime. I can hardly believe that at sixty-five, I have finally made my first illustrated book!

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Poet Damian Walford Davies writes of Hansel & Gretel:

‘Just amazing. Beautiful, terrifying. What a piece of work. The blues and pinks and whites have the smell and texture of marshmallow, which is fitting. ‘Eat and get fat’ might be the epigraph for the reader, too, who will verily feast.’

Artist Ed Kluz writes:

‘I pored over your Hansel and Gretel last night – such a wonderful and wicked piece of work. The drawings are at the same time lush and cruel.’

Purchase Hansel & Gretel HERE

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Hansel & Gretel

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My picture book of Hansel & Gretel is now available for pre-ordering at St Jude’s. It’s being launched at the St Jude’s in the City exhibition at the Bankside Gallery (next to Tate Modern) on November 23rd, and orders will begin shipping the first week of December. Click on the link below for details .

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