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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Gentleman Jack

 

Peter and I give our heartfelt gratitude to all the messages of condolence arriving as we mourn the death of Jack, who left us yesterday. There are so many that while I’lll struggle to answer each one personally, we want all who’ve contacted us to know how deeply moved we are by the eloquent and comforting testimonies of how much Jack was loved both those who knew him in person, and through his further reaching appearances on social media. He of course was oblivious of how many hearts he caused to flutter, which was probably for the best. Suffice to say that occasionally, when walking through Aberystwyth with him, I’d hear a distant hailing by someone unknown to me, not of ‘Hello Clive, but a jaunty ‘Hiya Jack!’

Many years ago, when I read Philip Pullman’s magnificent ‘His Dark Materials’ trilogy, I was moved by the author’s conjuring of a world in which every human being is inseparably accompanied throughout life by a ‘daemon familiar’ in the form of an animal. Although a fiction, and a fantastical one, at some essential level it seemed to me – and I’m sure to many others who share their lives with beloved pets- a plausible notion.

For more than half the time Peter and I have been together (twenty-five years this month), Jack has been a part of our lives at an intimate level. Although he was an independent chap and would take himself off around the house and grounds on his own business, his preferred place was as close to me as he could get: in his ‘fleece’ basket next to my easel in the studio, in his blanketed basket next to the Aga (where he could keep an eye on all the food preparations), or wherever I happened to be sitting/going/working/sleeping. When not engaged in activities that required walking or running, his heat next to me, pressed close, has been an almost constant sensation over the fourteen years we’ve been together. So as in the ‘Dark Materials’ universe, his separation from me right now feels like a hole punched clean through my heart. Even as I sit here typing, from the corner of my eye I keep mistaking the crumpled piece of tissue on the sofa for a blaze of the white of his livery, and I feel that’s what life for the foreseeable future will hold for us: the constant seeking for what we know should be there, now absent.

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Abergavenny Music

 

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Twenty seven years ago my friend James opened his music shop in Abergavenny. I designed and painted the lettering on the board above the window and on the hanging sign that led shoppers along the street to it, together with the shop’s logo of two wyverns, their tails entwined with a lyre. The signs have been repainted many times since those early days, but though the livery evolved from gold lettering on a turquoise ground to what you see now, the typography and the wyverns have remained unchanged.

For the several years James had a satellite music shop in Castle Arcade, Cardiff, at his generous invitation I set up my studio in the cellar beneath it, a shared space that was also the shop’s staff and stock room. No windows and bitterly cold in the winter, nevertheless in memory it remains the studio I was happiest in. I painted the entire series of ‘The Temptations of Solitude’ in James’ cellar, and my first Annunciation, with pianist Semra Kurutac, who worked part-time in the shop, modelling for the Virgin in her lunch and coffee breaks.

The Castle Arcade shop closed many years ago, before Peter and I moved from Cardiff to west Wales. Now Abergavenny Music, too, has closed its doors. It’s been on the cards for quite a while, though James’ sudden illness has precipitated what had been planned anyway. Life will not be the same in Abergavenny without my friend’s shop, his wonderful staff and his deep knowledge of music, so generously shared.

Peter has written below about the closure of Abergavenny Music.

Abergavenny’s specialist classical music shop, Abergavenny Music, will close on 29 July owing to the illness of the owner and founder, James Joseph. For more than quarter of a century it has been a big part of the lives of Abergavenny and a world-wide community of music enthusiasts.

James established Abergavenny Music 27 years ago. As a talented musician who had worked in production across the UK and Europe, James wanted to create his own perfect music shop, characterised by wonderful stock and expert service. He and his wife, the artist Sarah Thwaites, chose Abergavenny as the place where they wanted to settle down and have a family.

He took premises at 23 Cross Street and made them into a stylish and airy space that became a treasure house of music. The shop sold recordings, videos, sheet music and books, and customers came from far and wide. One of its qualities from the start, set by James’s own quiet and unassuming style, was as a place where people felt welcome to browse for as long as they liked, listening to current recommendations playing through the sound system. The shop felt like a creative space – a focus of chance meetings and a place to make new friendships.

The excellent staff over 27 years have included bright youngsters given their first job opportunities and many professional musicians who were able to supplement their incomes knowing that James would change schedules at short notice if performing opportunities came up. Customers came to expect a service very different from any they would get from HMV or Amazon thanks to the eagerness of James and his colleagues to find answers to obscure questions, research just the right recording or locate scarce scores.

For several years James expanded the operation with a sister shop in Castle Arcade in Cardiff and after that a stand in Ross-on-Wye but the changing landscape of multinational online retailers and downloading has challenged the survival of in-person music retailing everywhere. He kept Abergavenny Music open long after most people would have closed the doors because he loved to be in that calm, music-rich environment and to provide a service.

James has received many messages from people who have been grateful for everything the shop has been over the years. Angela, Kaye, Rosie and Lindsey continue there until the doors close for the last time on 29 July.

Peter Wakelin

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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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