Frances and the Paper made of Iris and Reed

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Frances McDowall, who died on Friday morning, has been much on my mind. Twenty years ago Frances played a significant role in bringing the Old Stile Press edition of Richard Barnfield’s The Affectionate Shepherd to fruition. Every time I open my copy of the book Frances is present in it, our work together literally bonded into the pages.

Nicolas McDowall had been taken by examples he’d seen of the printmaking technique known as Heliography, and asked me to produce images for the Barnfield project by those means. He felt the process might be an interesting way to capture much of what he’d been so attracted to in my drawings. As I proceeded with the work I discovered there were endless difficulties that Nicolas hadn’t identified at the outset, and as I struggled to originate drawings by his suggested technique of scratching into emulsion-coated sheets of glass, Frances began the epic task of making the paper for the entire edition of 200 books.

Below: a surviving fragment of a glass plate and the image as it appears in the book.

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Frances was heroic. It took forever to complete the vast amount of papers required and the processes were painstaking and physically exhausting. Later Nicolas too ran into problems at the press, so it might be fair to say that on The Affectionate Shepherd we all three suffered for our arts. (For a couple of years I was never without elastoplasted fingers because the thin glass plates persistently shattered under the pressure of my styluses. By the end of the project I had broken approximately eight glass plates for every one brought to completion.)

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Though the journey was fraught with problems at every stage and it’s a fact that we never again made a book in that particular way, somewhere along the pathways of agonising frustration, wrong turns and undependable techniques, the magic began to happen. Today when I look at the book, Frances’ ravishing sheets, striated and wrinkled and patterned with the marks of the organic ingredients and the drying processes, make a wonderful ground to the meanderings of my lines impressed into their surfaces. In a raking light the marks of my hand and her craft merge into a book the like of which I’ve never seen before or since. Sometimes the ink lines look almost like dark hairs looped and curved and trapped into the paper.

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In the colophon at the back of the book, the paper is described thus – perhaps by Nicolas or perhaps by Frances:

“All the paper used in this edition (including the endpapers) was made by Frances McDowall. The furnish used consisted of a mixture of Abaca and Jute, with an admixture of reeds and irises for the endpapers.”

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It’s a crisp and matter-of-fact account of a process that was fuelled by energy, passion and the overwhelming imperative by all of us to create something beautiful to frame Barnfield’s poem. Published originally in 1594, the only surviving copy of the first edition of The Affectionate Shepherd available in the UK to view is at the British Library, which is where I went at the outset to examine it. ( I had an alarming encounter there that nearly scuppered the entire enterprise and that you can read about here: https://clivehicksjenkins.wordpress.com/…/…/10/birthday-boy/ )

To my knowledge the Old Stile Press book published in 1998 is the only illustrated edition of the poem.

 

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Below: pencil study made in preparation for The Affectionate Shepherd

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‘The odds are high in the making of any book: here the choices entailed a far greater than usual amount of experiment and work by the artist, paper-maker and printer. The result of their collaboration is a triumph.’

Jeremy Greenwood for Parenthesis Magazine.  1998.

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Charis in the World of Wonders

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Back in 2012, at about the time I was just beginning to think about the subject of Hansel & Gretel as the source material for a small project (how little I realised what lay ahead), I began work on making the cover and chapter headings for Marly Youmans‘ epic poem about a group of resourceful children surviving in a post-apocalyptic future.

dsc04523Thaliad (published by Phoenicia, Montreal) is compelling in just about every way imaginable. When first I read the manuscript, the narrative, characters and foundation story of Marly’s creation held me fast. I read it over and over as I made the images. For my inspiration I delved into museum archives for examples of the patchworks, embroideries, silhouette portraits, paper-cuts and Fraktur drawings that seemed to me to be the most likely art survivals in Youmans’ vision of an America torn apart by an undisclosed cataclysm.

Above: illustration for Marly Youmans’ Glimmerglass. Mercer University Press, 2014

 

While Youmans is a universal writer in the sense of her understanding of craft and context, there is something so quintessentially American in her creative rhythm, her voice and her vision, that the folk arts of the United States stitched into her DNA have become entangled in mine. After Thaliad I drew on the same resources for her novel Glimmerglass (Mercer University Press), so it’s no surprise that the style of work I’ve evolved for her has become the bedrock of what I’m now more generally known for as an illustrator. After all those practitioners of the early American folk arts – the stitchers, limners and decorators with their European transplanted roots – have a visual tradition I recognise and am at home in. Thinking back, I recall the very first time I set eyes on the arts and crafts defined as Pennsylvania Dutch (and sometimes Pennsylvania German), it was as though I was in the company of old friends.

 

As I begin work on Marly’s latest novel, Charis in the World of Wonders for Ignatius Publishing, once again I’m channelling the artisan, amateur and itinerant folk-artists of Colonial America, and my chapter headings seethe with a bestiary that might have sprung from the pages of a sourcebook for sampler embroidery.

Above: tiny sketch from my Charis in the World of Wonders project-book.

Goodbye Dr Mannsaker

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In 2018 we had to say goodbye to far too many friends. In December, Frances Mannsaker’s was the last death of a cruel year of losses, a distinction that I’m sure would not have been lost on her. Frances had invariably favoured Twelfth Nights for her celebration dinners with close friends, and so she would have wryly smiled to know that her funeral had to be deferred until after the Christmas/New Year holidays. As things turned out I was ill at the time set for the event, laid low with asthma. But her wonderful friend Debs suggested that were I to put down some thoughts about Frances,  she would then arrange for them to be read at the celebratory party afterwards. This she did, and moreover sent me a delightful snippet of film in which my words are spoken by twenty-year-old Daniel, the grandson of Frances’ sister Jill, who delivers them with a charm and eloquence that betters anything I could have delivered in person. I am so greatly obliged to him, and to Debs, for helping me to to share my thoughts about Frances. Here’s what I wrote:

“When first I met Frances, I didn’t put her down as someone I was going to love. Far from it. I thought her a deal too scary for anything much more than neighbourly cordiality. First impressions: small, compact, with sharp, dark eyes that saw everything and probably didn’t think much of most of it. Fiercely direct. This was a woman who might require one to shape up, an interrogator whose questions would demand replies. A sometimes seemingly furious ball of energy. Over the years we lived next door to each other in Cardiff, I grew familiar with the staccato tap of her heels through the walls of our adjoining houses: on her tiled kitchen floor, on the pavement outside, on the path down from her front door, along the garden wall, sharp right and up the path to ours. Frances was the only person during our decade in Cardiff who I recognised by the sound of her approach. Always fast, always with purpose. In those years I never once saw Frances saunter. She was like a heat-seeking missile with a sure trajectory. Wherever she was going, she meant business.

So no, not love, to begin with. Respect, of course. A sort of formal getting along, because we were neighbours, and we clearly wanted to be good ones. But slowly, unexpectedly, respectfulness gave way to something warmer. I began to see flashes of merriment that belied the professional carapace, and I grew to relish the moments when her gaze would swivel to mine over the lip of a wine glass as she looked to see whether I too had heard some pomposity across the dinner-table that she was about to skewer, and the glint and spark of an unspoken ‘Watch this!’ flashed to me before she turned back for the kill. I learned that when you knew her, she was wickedly funny. And once I’d got the fuller picture, I liked Frances a great deal. In 2001 at Newport Museum and Art Gallery, at the private-view of my first one-man exhibition, I stood like a rabbit in the headlamps listening to the playwright Julian Mitchell giving his opening speech, not hearing a thing because of the blood thundering in my ears and the chattering of my teeth. I was rigid as a lamppost, hands clasped behind my back because I needed to still my trembling. Suddenly a warm hand slipped into mine, a confederate shoulder leaned conspiratorially against me, and Frances was there, smiling reassurance and staring hard into my eyes, as only she did, to signal that everything was just fine. And it was. The next day I saw her hand was bruised where I’d held it so hard, and she hadn’t even flinched.
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After Frances left Cardiff for her new post of Pro Vice Chancellor at the University of Lincoln, we remained in touch. And when Peter and I left Cardiff and moved to Aberystwyth, the friendship between the three of us continued steady. We visited her at her new home, and she reciprocated. After her son Edward’s early death, we often got together for Easter, Christmas or New Year. We spent time together, catching up over meals and walks, enjoying each other’s stories and adventures. She recounted news of her grandson Seth and his mother Clare. Catch-up with Frances was always a treat. Sometimes we would invite her to stay, and occasionally she would invite herself. She came to my exhibitions, and she collected my work. The woman who I’d first thought of as a neighbour I had better get along with, had become a woman I loved. And with the loving, and the geographical distance, came the missing. When I missed her too much, I’d phone her, or write a long e-mail, and she did likewise. And if too long had passed, she or I would enquire gently if the other were well, and that is the way I discovered last year, that Frances was not.
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But before that, before the time when the lesion on her brain began to make words fall away – though her mind continued sharp – I had an e-mail from her that I treasure. Our dog, Jack, had died. Anyone who knew Frances will know she was not a dog person. However, she suspended her prejudices for Jack, who won her over by being a most courteous chap in her company. She had rather unexpectedly invited us to bring him along when we stayed with her for the first time, and thereafter the invitations to him continued. When Frances heard the news of Jack’s death, she wrote to me:
“I am so sorry to say goodbye to the gentlest, politest and most gentlemanly of all dogs.  You must be cut to the quick entirely, and not quite able to believe it yet.”  
We spoke, as we had many times before, of death and missing. I explained that I felt clumsy, fretting over the loss of a dog to Frances, who had lost a son. She swiftly replied that grief is grief and there can be no degrees or categories of it. For Frances, who knew the depths of loss, there was no difference between her grief and mine. That was so like her, my unexpected friend who crept up on me and then remained to constantly delight, surprise and illuminate. Quickfire, bracing, sharp as needles and intellectually rigorous, yet entirely un-judgemental and warmly inclusive. I always think that friendship should be less about what makes us similar, than an appreciation of our differences. Frances and I were unalike in so many ways, and yet we had an almost secret relish of each other’s characters, both the admirable parts and the flaws. We were beloved friends, battle-worn soldiers and mischievous allies. Since I first met her she has been a vibrant presence in my life, and despite the fact that she has gone, for as long as I am granted a memory, I don’t plan on letting that change. Not one bit.”
Clive Hicks-Jenkins
January 2019

Into the Haunted Doll’s House

On stage, scene 6 of Hansel & Gretel is the most atmospheric yet disturbing in the production. Both the music and the text for it are different in tone to any of the scenes before or after. Gretel has just shoved the witch in her own red-hot cauldron, and though we might expect brother and sister to leg it out of the house as fast as they can, instead Simon Armitage, who has written the poem that is the narrative of our production, leads them, and us, deeper into the heart of darkness. It’s a classic horror-movie scenario of innocents in jeopardy, and I’m reminded of the moment from Silence of the Lambs in which Clarice Starling, played by Jodie Foster, descends into the cellar of the murderer’s lair.

Matt Kaner threads his music sinuously through Simon’s text, and the result is bone-chilling.

House where the dark broods

House where the dark blooms

House where the dark breeds

House where the dark breathes

I began my work on the scene by laying out ideas for the production team about what the visuals might be. Simon had written an evocative ‘stage direction’ for it, though that was more by way of a suggestion of mood rather than anything too specific. He was always clear that he was happy to allow us the freedom to interpret.

To begin with I intended to film footage on location in abandoned and derelict buildings, looking particularly at cellars and rooms without windows. There had been much in the news about men (it always seems to be men) who imprison young women in cellars for decades, fathering children on them and keeping these ‘hidden families’ in isolation. But after long consideration I came to the conclusion that such a stark, documentary-like contrast to all the other visual aspects of the production, would be too great, and gradually the idea of location filming began to be replaced with the idea of a nightmarish doll’s house.

Below: cameraman Pete Telfer begins to shape the ‘haunted’ doll’s house with lighting rigs. His work on the sequence is immaculate.

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Most of my visual references stemmed from German Expressionist films of the 1910s – 1930s, with a spattering of American Gothic (most significantly Hitchcock’s Psycho) thrown in. The model is a complete four-story building with eight rooms leading off the spine of four sizeable hallways/landings through which the twisting stairways rise. In the event only just over half of the house was prepared for the camera, as the rest of the space was required for the lighting-rigs. (But I’m going to complete the as yet undecorated spaces shortly, and also paint the exterior of the house.)

The rooms were furnished with commercially available doll’s house furniture, much of which I carefully broke before texturising and painting. (Texture was grit gathered from the floor of my attic-studio, mixed into gouache and applied to rooms and furnishings in layers of ashy grey.)

Cameraman Pete Telfer produced wonderfully elegant and atmospheric gliding shots by panning a camera secured on a tripod, contrasting with the jerky, nervy ‘point-of-view’ footage achieved with a tiny hand-held cam the size of a golf ball. When edited together, the dual techniques were less destabilising for an audience than had we used a shaky hand-held throughout.

The making of the doll’s house is an extraordinary story for another time, though for now this post is the acknowledgement that without Simon Coupland, Jana Wagenkenecht and Stephanie Davies, it simply wouldn’t have happened. They were heroes, key to the whole endeavour and their part in it will be fully acknowledged and described at the Artlog later this year. (They know the reasons why I’m deferring the moment.)

An honourable mention, too, for Jon Street of The Moth Factory, Bristol, who guided me so unerringly through the film editing process, and contributed so generously at every stage of it. Everything, in the end, is collaboration.

Final word. Audiences have not see the last of the haunted doll’s house. Watch this space.

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Broken furniture piled high in the haunted doll’s house.

House where the light peeps

House where the dark leaks

House where the light bleeds

House where the dark weeps

 

Extracts are from the poem Hansel & Gretel by Simon Armitage.

 

May Day Letter

Dear Catriona

I awoke this morning thinking about you, as I’ve done on most May Day mornings since your departure on May Day thirteen years ago. Of course you’ve never really gone away, as I still think of you a dozen times every day, recalling our conversations and the times we shared. Your voice, your laughter and your presence are as familiar to me in imagination as ever they were in life, and though I wonder whether one day my recollections of you may start to slip their tethers, right now it feels as though you’ve only just left the room. So here I am again, writing to you to tell you how much I miss you still, holding on and bringing you back by dint of that trick of conjuring a greatly missed presence through the art of remembering and storytelling.

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We shared a love of storytelling, you and I. You had great skills for taking histories and weaving them into narratives, including the magnificent feat of reimagining my late father into your suite of poems, The Mare’s Tale. You and Trevor were such friends. Only a friend could have taken his recollections and forged them into something as moving as you crafted to accompany the drawings I made in an outpouring of grief for him. Peter often says that my grasp of facts can be somewhat interpretive, but it can’t be denied that I learned much from you, a master of the art of how to take chaos, to face it down, to order it and bend it into shape until it becomes something fine. And now I do the same, ordering the tangle of memories and loss, until the next time I get caught out and have to start the process all over again. I know now that while I breathe there will always be the imminence of chaos, and the repeated processes of gathering and curating memories into stories, ordering them and making sense. It’s a bit like tidying drawers that have become muddled with too much stuff rattling around!

Jack died a couple of months ago. Another thread broken. He was a young dog thirteen years ago when he lay across your legs while you were quietly dying in your bed, softly calling his name and curling your fingers into his coat for comfort. And just ten days ago, Pip Koppel, who gave Jacket-the-puppy to us, died too, at the home she shared with us for a year while we looked for a house here in west Wales.

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When my grieving for you was at its most raw, Peter and I were living with Pip. She often noticed and asked me what was wrong, though I could never explain because at the time I had no words for what I was feeling. So she took me into her pottery workshop and together we threw clay and made things, and sadness was pummelled and beaten and reshaped into vessels.

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With Pip gone, the list of those I miss grows longer. I keep making art. They hold those I’ve loved closer to my heart, these stories, paintings, drawings and reinventions. Chaos into order. Pain into creation. Darkness into light.

 

I miss you still. With all my love, Clive

 

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Missing

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I Miss

I miss you in the kitchen, my constant companion throughout the preparation of meals.

I miss you sitting watchfully at the table, taking as much interest in the chopping of peppers for Ratatouille as you did in going for a walk or having a game of fetch.

I miss your eyes on me, and your paw, gently reaching up to tap a reassurance to both of us.

I miss you waiting patiently for your portion of the food served. I miss walking from the room knowing you wouldn’t touch any morsels left on the table as I prepared a meal, not even a tasty piece of fish, or a scrap of cheese tantalisingly in reach.

I miss the pride I always felt when any guest noticed you could be trusted in this way, and the warmth of affection when I watched you take proffered tidbits from visitors with gentleness, never snapping or wolfing down. Always gentlemanly and reticent.

I miss the way you’d lock on my eyes, watching for any small expression of encouragement. A tiny nod would bring you to my hand, a tilt of the head would alert you to step back.

I miss the chatter between us, me in words and you in the soft vocalisations you used to express your feelings. You did it more as you got older, and perhaps as you got more deaf.

I miss the kitchen door banging open when you arrived to join me. Closed doors were never an impediment to you.

I miss you massaging my back. Was there ever a dog who did such a thing? You were extraordinary.

 

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I miss you, all the time.

Sir Jack and the Green Knight

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Jack was my companion in the studio throughout the long process of making the 14 prints of the Sir Gawain and the Green Knight series. He kept vigil in his basket beneath my work table every working day of the project. There would be occasional forays downstairs to discover what was going on elsewhere, to greet the postman, check up on Peter and see if anything interesting – or promising – was going on in the kitchen. But afterwards he’d always return to take up his post with me, and he’d stay until it was time for his walk, and again after that, until the day’s work was done. Whenever I was overtired I’d stretch out for a nap on the studio floor, my head resting on the pillow of his flank, and he’d tuck his head into my neck and sigh deeply with contentment as we both drifted off in the dust and sunshine.

For the many years we’ve attended exhibition openings at MoMA Machynlleth, Jack has always accompanied us.  Weather allowing he would sit patiently in the courtyard while Peter and I were off viewing art, though I’d regularly check on him from the window up in the Owen Owen Room, from where I could see who’d decided to keep him company. There was always someone, and often a queue of admirers, children and adults, proffering tidbits of sausage-rolls and ham sandwiches from the buffet. Jack never went short of food at a MoMA opening and rarely needed super after one. However, willing courtyard dog-minders notwithstanding, this year, with the weather so cold and Jack feeling it more than when he was a youngster, I’d determined he was coming in for the Gawain event. I knew it wasn’t permitted for dogs to enter the building, but as my studio companion throughout the two and a half years of preparation for the exhibition, I was determined Jack would have his place in the spotlight on the big day. (And I strongly suspect Richard and Ruth Lambert would have allowed it!)

But in the end, though he made it to the completion of the fourteenth print, Jack didn’t manage to stay long enough for the exhibition. On Saturday, in memory of him, I shall fasten his leash into a belt-loop at my waist, the way I always did whenever we were out and about together. Jack eschewed a lead at social occasions, always behaving impeccably when off it. So although I’ll be without him, I’ll feel better for having his leash at my side, the way it has been for so many years.

Below: my birthday supper at La Cuina in Cardiff, June 2016, with Philipa and Dave Robbins, Peter, Richard Edwards, and of course, Jack, who had a bit of everything on offer! I’m behind the camera.

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