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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Border Country at the National Eisteddfod

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It’s a sadness not to have been with Peter in Abergavenny for the opening of his exhibition Border Country at the National Eisteddfod. But with time ticking on my forthcoming Gawain exhibition at the Martin Tinney Gallery in September, I had to stay home to work. I’ll see Border Country later this year, when it’s on tour.

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Of the four artists in the exhibition, John Elwyn (whose painting is on the cover of the catalogue above) and Bert Isaac are dead. Joan Baker will be attending the exhibition this week, but Charles Burton and his wife Rosemary, herself a painter, were able to be present for the opening, brought from Cardiff by Dave and Philippa Robbins who live just around the corner from them.

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Rosemary and Charles Burton in front of his painting of a steam train in the south Wales Valleys. (Croeso is the Welsh word for Welcome.)

Peter and I knew John Elwyn, having visited his Winchester home and studio in his latter years. Bert Isaac and his wife Joan were friends, and we visited them frequently in Abergavenny, where they held regular exhibitions of local artists in the ‘orangery’ of their beautiful Georgian house.

We are especially close with Charlie and Rosemary, and when Peter and I lived in Cardiff we saw a lot of them. (We had gallery-visiting holidays together in Paris and Venice, and in Venice we were joined by Liz Sangster, another painter and close friend from my days in the theatre.) That little painting of a steam train usually hangs in the kitchen at Ty Isaf. We purchased it, along with another piece the same size, from a Cardiff antique dealer before we knew the Burtons. In fact it was the acquisition of the paintings that stirred Peter’s interest to trace and then contact Charlie, who had retired from teaching. He was still painting, though not for the most part exhibiting. These days both he and Rosemary show regularly at the Martin Tinney Gallery in Cardiff.

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I love the colour red chosen by Peter as a background to the paintings. Beautiful.

Jonny Hannah’s Songs from the Mermaid Café Jukebox

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Songs from the Mermaid Café Jukebox (2nd edition) is a treat that grew from a suggestion made by Mr Simon Lewin of St Jude’s to artist Mr Jonny Hannah. Mr Hannah thereafter not only curated/compiled the collection, but  went the whole hog by writing and illustrating the booklet of notes that accompanies the disc, together with… not as though they were needed… producing some tasty value-added extras.

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The result is a little package the size of which belies the treats crammed therein. Quite the ‘Lucky-bag’ packed with delights! For your money, you get:

i) the sleeve with Mr Hannah’s artwork, as seductive and more-ish as a bag of old-fashioned mixed boiled sweets

ii) a double-sided title card

iii) a signed-by-Jonny Mon Oncle print, produced by the artist’s shed-at-the-bottom-of-the-garden-Cakes & Ale Press

iv) a densely decorated sixteen page booklet with track notes by the artist

v) the disc itself, slathered with more Hannah artwork and made up of a generous twenty tracks

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Credit is given in the notes to Jonny Trunk of Trunk Records, from whose archive the selection of recordings has been made.

Mr Hannah has a way with the words, as befits the progenitor of the continuing creative adventure that is ‘Darktown’, the artist’s compellingly believable community-of-the-imagination that reeks of brine and liquor, vintage clothing and chandlery bitumen. Sometimes salty and occasionally rhapsodic, I enjoyed his notes quite as much as I enjoyed the tracks! This is he on a mash-up of Ogden Nash, Noel Coward and Saint-Saëns.”

“Quintessential Englishness mixes with a French composer and American words. Dreamlike otherworldly sounds, way down below. A symphony for all fish and drowned lost souls.”

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There’s a crazed and eclectic bunch of musicians and performers gathered at Mr Hannah’s party, and I play the disc in the studio while working on my own St Jude’s project, which is a picture-book of Hansel & Gretel. I think my plucky German protagonists would not be out of place at a gathering that included Mel Torme, Robert Mitchum (yes, the actor), Miles Davies, Art Blakey and the charmingly named Pinky Winters.

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Kudos to Mr Lewin for setting this caravan in motion. It is a pleasure in all its parts!

Available from the St Jude’s website. (But I’m sure not for long. This will be sold out in no time.)

 

Clive Hick-Jenkins

May 2016

Read my review of Jonny Hannah Greetings from Darktown: an illustrator’s miscellany,  HERE

Liz, Zoe and Clive

Sometimes the best things at the Artlog are in the comment boxes. I love the dialogues that emerge there. Some of the names of those who leave messages are close to me in the real world, while others are those with whom close and lasting friendships have developed entirely from the digital world.

Yesterday’s post has generated interesting observations from Liz and Zoe. And so rather than leave them down where they may not be seen or read, here’s a new post, with our conversation foregrounded.

Below: painting by Zoe Blue

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Zoe Blue lives in the USA, and has been a commentor at the Artlog almost since it began. She once asked me for advice in the matter of making maquettes, and thereafter began using the technique as a practice in her work as an artist. I have to say that the student outstripped the teacher, because she got rather better at making and using them than me. Though I consider us to be close friends, we have never met in person.

Zoe Blue on April 2, 2016 at 4:04 pm said:
Even back then, such gorgeous colors. I love these images. Your landscape styles really move me — I wonder, when you see the slides after so much time, does it give you an “instant” feeling of that time period? Once I heard a forgotten recording of a Rachmaninoff concerto I had played, and I actually started crying uncontrollably. It was bizarre. But I wonder if you see the painting and become that person again, temporarily. The feeling of that whole being, I mean. Does that make sense?

Clive Hicks-Jenkins on April 3, 2016 at 7:16 am said: 
At this distance much of my work from back then looks a tad overwrought to me. I seem to have been discovering that painting could reflect my emotional state, and my emotional state was… well, let’s just say, wobbly. I was emerging from a dark place.

I like the three paintings I posted. I can see that there’s a lot of bravura brushwork going on in the first two images, and I like the atmosphere in that last, sombre, slate-blue and ochre Carn Euny night-scape.

For me too, emotion is readily accessed through the medium of music. The other night I watched a documentary about the late Peter Maxwell Davies, whose music I’ve always loved, and particularly ‘An Orkney Wedding’, which had once been the doorway for me to his less accessible work. My late friend Catriona, loved it too, and it was played at her funeral. In the documentary they showed a performance of it at the Proms, with Maxwell Davies conducting. Barely had the first strains of music begun, when the tears started rolling. By half-way through I was sobbing and laughing in equal measure, aware of the ludicrousness of the situation. It wasn’t just re-ignited grief for the loss of Catriona… all these years on I miss her still… or even grief for PMD, but rather that ‘An Orkney Wedding’ immediately opens the sluice-gate behind which deep waters are usually contained.

What do I feel when I look at these early paintings? Mostly I feel surprise that I was able to make these works embody what I was feeling back then, though I don’t think I realised that at the time. And I certainly didn’t realise that many were as good as I now know them to be. I admire the fluency of brushwork. It’s blazingly apparent there’s a kind of dance going on. I can tell from them that in my DNA I was a dancer, and the paintings were dancing for me. I know now I was mourning what I’d lost, but in some fabulous act of alchemy, what flowed from me were not tears, but paint.

Liz King-Sangster and I met in the early 1980s, when she was head of the scenic department at Welsh National Opera and supervised the creation of a set that I’d designed. It was my first job as a designer, and Liz made good the deficiencies that were the result of my lack of experience. Her sound advice so gently offered back then, stayed with me and helped me build the foundations of my subsequent design work in the theatre. She lives in France, where she works as a painter and muralist.

Below: interior by Liz King-Sangster

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Liz King-Sangster on April 3, 2016 at 7:29 am said: 
I love the sheer joy of painting in the first and second images, beautiful gestural brushwork, and the colours in them all. I love the moods you’ve captured. And aren’t we lucky to be living in this age where cataloguing is so simple? It’s great that Peter insisted, because now you have a diary of your own development. I’m afraid I’ve not been so assiduous in keeping track of my earlier paintings. I’m leaving it to future archivists to sort that out, if they are interested enough that is! On the subject of photography, now I have tens of thousands of photos to every one I had in those days. It’s almost too easy now! Love to you both xxxL

Clive Hicks-Jenkins on April 3, 2016 at 7:54 am said: 
Dear Liz, I and many others love your painting. I’ve always admired your fluency, and back when we worked together during your Welsh National Opera days, long before I became an artist, I learned from you that when paint flowed, it could be a vector for energy. Good lesson, that.

None of us can know whether after we’ve departed the room, anyone who cares enough will still be around to sort through our ‘stuff’ and order it. At any given time the fates and reputations of artists hang by the slenderest of threads. There’s serendipity in what survives, what’s seen, what hangs in private and what hangs in public. Some of those trumpeted during their times as ‘great’, fade into obscurity with the passing decades, while occasionally an artist unknown in life, gains the admiration of many after his or her death. I can’t count the number of times I’ve stood dumbfounded in front of some medieval masterpiece of an altarpiece, bearing the label ‘anonymous’, or ‘unknown’. I’d be happy if something of mine survived even unattributed where people could see it and look. The work is the dialogue between the artist and the viewer. Names don’t really matter.

Below: wonderfully vibrant i-pad sketch by Liz of Jack, made when she was at Ty Isaf last year.

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Zoe’s ‘Blue Cat’ maquette stands sentinel opposite a Welsh dragon on our mantlepiece.

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Clive and Aleksy in conversation

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While I’m eager to share new work here, I agree with Dan at Penfold Press that we need to hold back from full disclosure of preparatory images for the Gawain series until the prints are ready to launch. So here, by way of a compromise, are some details of the paint and pencil study for The Green Knight Takes Gawain’s Blow, shown in black and white rather than in colour. They’re by way of accompaniments to a conversation between me and my friend Aleksy Cichoń in Poland, who has seen this colour study in full, and today has written to me about it

Aleksy: The radiance of colour in this piece is amazing. But I have a question – who is character in base of column? Samson or Atlas?

Clive: He’s a Green Man. Look closely and you’ll see the foliate patterning on his robe. Here, carved in stone, is an early personification of the ancient magic embodied in the Green Knight. And the sepulchre crowned with a winged-lion (above) is also foliate patterned, as though there have been other Green Knights before this one, and the ancient tomb is always waiting for a new occupant. In addition the stone man and lion act as witnesses to the event, as I didn’t want the visual distraction of the King, Queen and courtiers looking on.

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Aleksy: When I’m reading your words about this picture… I’m pretty sure that you’re representative of timeless generation of artists, true artists. What true artists do? They create artificial world based on philosophical rules. Furthermore, the image must be like philosophical treatise – multi-leveled, subtle model of petite universe. Well, you can do it. Gawain and Green Knight as universal figures of eternal drama – I’m shivering when I think about it. It’s good sign.

I’m in love with Green Knight’s melancholic acquiescence of his beheading.

Clive: I’m glad you like the Green Knight’s acquiescence. I find it rather sexy, this mighty presence bowing to the blade.

Aleksy: I’m aware of Knight’s load of sensuality, but melancholy side is the most attractive hue of character. Or maybe I’ve read too many books like ‘The Confusions of Young Törless’ and my outlook is distorted. Might be.

Clive: I agree with you about the ‘melancholy hue’. It is the abiding mood of this drawing.

Gawain is crimson, steeped in the blood of all victims who’ve been slaughtered in the name of faith or their masters’ causes. I wanted him to have a whiff of the Inquisition. He’s presented as flawed/tainted in the poem, though he’s definitely heroic in the terms of the times. But things are not so simple now, and we have better insights into what all these fabulous warriors actually did… the Templars, the Crusaders and the Samurai and their ilk, the Alexanders and Lawrences of history, and the Gawains, Lancelots and Lochinvars of fable. No matter how nobly they may be presented, they’re harbingers of death, albeit wrapped up in the ‘honour’ of whichever variety they subscribe to. I wanted this Gawain to be complicated!

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Clive: I haven’t had time enough to write to you as much as I would like. Up to my eyeballs in work. No doubt you are too.

I really like this spoof by Mallory Ortberg on Gawain and Green Knight . Made me laugh out loud with it’s American youth jargon! It’s pretty brief, yet conveys the story arc remarkably successfully!

Aleksy: The American Green Knight – pretty funny! And it reminded me some Polish experiments made by St. Barańczak – great polish translator of Shakespeare’s. He wants to summarize content of the dramas in short funny rhymes. As I remember, tragedies (like in original) were ending in oceans of blood, so precis was faithful.

Aleksy is responding in drawings to my progress through Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. You can see his first drawing, The Green Knight Arrives, HERE.

My own Green Knight Arrives colour-study for a print can’t yet be revealed, but here’s a detail of the drawing for it.

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Kevin Paulsen’s Desirable Workbook

I have a massive crush on the work of American artist Kevin Paulsen. He’s perhaps best known for his murals and decors for early American houses. But while Paulsen’s schemes reference and honour the work of the naive journeymen painters associated with the period, they simultaneously remain true to his contemporary vision, evidencing the post-modernist’s disposition toward playful reinvention.

It’s a rarity for an artist to be able to pull off this sleight-of-hand, in which the past and present come together in ways unexpected yet plausible. In lesser hands such work would be constrained and rendered staid by the historic requirements, but in Paulsen’s, the results are invigorated by his talent for conjuring the past, while remaining uniquely and creatively himself.

I’ve been taken by a series of recent sketches from one of his workbooks. As far as I can tell they’re rendered in black marker-pens, with colour rubbed in with dry pastel and tonal accents worked in pencil. The workbook has gridded pages, and I don’t know whether the artist favours the ‘marked’ paper because it subverts any sense of the precious, therefore enabling him to work more freely, or because it makes drawings easier to scale-up at a later stage, should they be needed for large paintings or murals. For me the paper adds another layer of interest, with its rigid geometries cutting through the artist’s imaginary landscapes.

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The first drawings are squarish in format, and have a rather sentimental, antebellum tone to them. Here, ruined neo-classical architecture is counterpointed with weeping-willow and poplar trees, against a shimmering sun-scape.

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And below, the European Grand Tour is conjured in an erupting volcano, its fiery discharge reflected in the water. These could be stills from a Lotte Reiniger film, or I could see them being snipped as lacy black papercuts laid against foil backgrounds.

The fisherman is a motif that the artist repeatedly returns to examine. He riffs energetically on diverse themes. One day it may be elaborate, tented pavilions with bunting, the next, masted ships in formal, dance-like  arrangements, their rigging a-flutter with flags. Paulsen loves pennants and flags.

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I recognise what’s going on in the images, as I plunder the past myself. First I make the observed studies to get into the zone, and then comes the flow and invention. Paulsen does the same. These meanderings through romantic landscapes are engaging enough, though they feel as though the artist is just flexing and stretching in preparation for a sprint. They’re the equivalent of what a dancer does at the barre!

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And quite suddenly, he’s away. The frame compresses into a wide landscape format. The mark-making becomes swift, the drawing angular and the perspective foreshortens as elements distort and pile up through the compositions. Swagged from above with elaborate drapes, the drawings take on the feel of scenes for toy theatres, or ballet sequences from The Red Shoes. The architectural elements shift, bend and reconfigure. They’re halfway to being something you know, yet remain slippery, easily sidestepping categorisation. I’m reminded of the book decorations of the British neo-romantic artist and illustrator John Craxton. He’d have loved the riot of shapes that form a crazed proscenium arch to this image.

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Back to neo-classicism again, but with subversion. Is the stovepipe-hatted man affectionately cradling his beloved, or is he a killer about to dispose of his prey by dumping her in the sea?

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Paulsen has the knack of making landscapes that I want to walk around. I skirt the church with tiled roof, take a cliff-path to the acropolis and admire the long-shadowed poplars marching across the horizon. The outsized column with a toy-town urn is weirdly space-age in appearance, like London’s Post-Office Tower, with its revolving restaurant perched at the top. And there, like a pelmet above a window, the swags of a stage-curtain, be-tasselled with berries, reminding us that everything is artifice, a gorgeous film-flam of painted canvas and limelight.

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The theatricality prevails as actors on a stage perform, with us the audience witnessing the play. In the distance what in any known culture would be a bridge, its parapets clustered with houses and shops, here has become a promontory/pier leading to nowhere. It’s mad, and inventive and delightful, and I love it.

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Here two men have a tryst…

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… and here, lovers clasp hands, while behind a pillar a man pisses.

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There are compliments aplenty I could lavish on these. Suffice to say that I wish that I had made them. They are shot through with delights. There’s delight in their invention, their execution, and in their promise of adventure. I could write a story for them, and it would be full of exotic locations, unfathomable mysteries, confusing plot devices and heart-lurching melodrama, peopled with identical twins that deceive, duplicitous lawyers, love-letter-carrying duennas and barrel-chested heroes in stove-pipe hats. I’ve already told Kevin that I’m thinking of getting on a plane to the States to stalk him and steal them. He thinks I’m joking!

All photographs by Kevin Paulsen.

Gone Boy

Johann Rohl has returned to his home in Yorkshire, and the studio has reverted to being my solitary realm. For a month we’ve been working here together, conjuring images we were commissioned to make collaboratively. There’s been a lot of hard work going on, but it’s also been loads of fun.

Detail of a collaborative painting of an enclosed garden. Both artists’ hands at work in this image.

He also made progress with some of his own work, including his projects Hercules and Pomona.

I’ve greatly enjoyed Johann’s company, and the space now feels quite empty without him. I’ll take some adjustment getting used to being here by myself again. I could have quite happily continued sharing, but he needs to re-establish himself back in Leeds, having had two month-long placements through the summer, first in Scotland and then in Wales. He’s been living out of a suitcase for rather too long.

Peter, Johann and Jack on a chill Mwnt overlooking Cardigan Bay during a weekend in Aberporth.

River stones (for frottage drawing) and pebbles collected and left on his bedroom windowsill.

Love affair!

Vacated work-table in the studio.

”’

Gone Boy