On the Passing of a Princess

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Letter to my friend Lizzie in France, on hearing of the death of her cat, Lucy.

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“Christmas week 2018 at La Crabouille, sitting at your kitchen table making preparatory sketches for the unexpected commissioned magazine illustration that had come in via an e-mail and required I begin work immediately in order to meet the deadline. Lucy is outside, peering intently at me through the window pane. She yowls and pats at the window to test whether it’s open. It isn’t. She stares harder at me. More yowls, louder, and in a rising pitch. I get up and cross to the window to unlatch it. In she comes.

She sits companionably on a chair next to me. I go the taps to get myself a glass of water, and when I turn back she’s curled up RIGHT IN THE MIDDLE OF MY DRAWING, a scattering of garden ‘bits’ around her. She gives me a stony look, daring me to move her. I pick her up firmly and put her to the floor. Pause. She stalks with stiff-legged hauteur to the kitchen door to be let out, and I oblige her. She exits without so much as an acknowledging glance, an imperious Princess expecting lackeys to clear her way.

Back to work at the table. Not two minutes later Lucy is at the window, again, patting at it. I ignore her. She all but tuts, rearing to her hind legs to emphasise the urgency, patting harder, her claws making little scratching noises, stopping from time to time to pierce me with a stare emphasising her meaning. I get up, cross to the window and let her in. This happens repeatedly throughout the morning. I must have let her in twenty times by the time G passes through the kitchen and says “Just ignore her.” I try to. I really try. But Lucy just thinks up more attention-grabbing strategies. Now she’s putting her shoulder to the panes, and her yowling has passed from urgent to Banshee-shrieks of rage. You come in, Lizzie, and go to the window to let her in, saying as she streaks past “Oh poor Lucy, wouldn’t Clive let you in?”!!! Lucy leaps to table, to stand defiantly in front of me, her nose inches from my face. Very slowly and without unlocking her gaze from mine, she sits on my drawing hand – the pencil still between my fingers – in the middle of my sketchpad!”

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R.I.P. Lucy.

2002 – 2020

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Conversations with Ed Carey: Part 1. the makers and how they make

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Writer Ed Carey and I have become fast friends since being put in contact with each other by Katherine Davey, editor of the These Our Monsters anthology of short stories for English Heritage.

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By way of preparing to make an illustration to accompany Ed’s contribution to These Our Monsters, I also acquired a copy of his novel of the French Revolution, Little, which I read at a headlong pitch and overnight became his biggest fan.

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In some ways the friendship is unlikely. Ed self-illustrates his published works and so his contact with other illustrators is limited. However he so liked the drawing accompanying his English Heritage story that he wrote asking whether he might have it, and so we arranged an exchange: he has my framed drawing of a goblin child above his desk, while I have his drawing of a maquette/puppet made for Little.

 

Below: my drawing for Ed’s story that loaned its title to the These Our Monsters anthology.

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Below: Ed built this life-sized maquette of a woman as preparation for his novel, Little. His original drawing of it that appears in the book, was the exchange made for my drawing of his goblin child.

 

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We met for the first time a few weeks ago at an event celebrating These Our Monsters at Hatchards, Piccadilly, and in order to extend our conversation without the distraction of a crowd, again the following morning, for coffee in Bloomsbury, just before he returned to the US and I to Wales.

Dan Bugg suggested that an eavesdropped conversation between me and Ed might offer interesting insights about our processes of producing new work. The projects we talk about are my in-progress print,  The Tiger’s Bride, and Ed’s forthcoming book, The Swallowed Man.

Ed: Hello, Clive in Wales!
 

Clive: Hello Ed in Texas!

Ed: Clive, I’ve known and loved your work for years and over the last few months it’s been an absolute privilege getting to know you and even, last week, finally meeting you. What a joy to sit with you and talk about the Lewis chessmen for example.

Clive: Ed, I thoroughly enjoyed our couple of hours in a tiny coffee shop off Gt Russell Street last week. Even though some of the current events we were discussing are horrifying and daunting, we told stories and made each other laugh a lot. One of the great pleasures of illustrating These Our Monsters for English Heritage has been the several good friends made in the process: you, Alison MacLeod and the editor Katherine Davey. I arrived fresh to your writing with the project, but as I’d simultaneously set myself to reading your mesmerising novel of the French Revolution, Little, my responses to your English Heritage short story were being deepened by the wider sense of your creativity.

Ed: You inspire my work and make me think in new ways – to communicate directly is such a wonderful thing for me. And so here we are separated by a  pandemic and yet, thankfully, still able to communicate. 

Clive: That’s a generous comment. Thank you. The admiration is mutual. The neccessity –  or so I find it to be – of a solitary life for a writer or artist, is undoubtedly isolating. (And you, Ed, are both!) We hole ourselves up like hibernating bears because we need clarity and silence to function. However I find the immediacy and creative buzz of being able to bat ideas across great distances with friends and colleagues undergoing the same processes, and in an instant, to be a great joy and solace to what can otherwise be dauntingly lonely. Whether as rich as a prolonged joint creative endeavour, or a humorous two-liner to kick-start the morning before bending to the day’s endeavours, as a man who lives at the-well-at-world’s-end, the swift correspondences of e-mail and messaging have been life-changing for me. The entire process of making fourteen Gawain prints with Dan at Penfold Press was carried out through the medium of daily messaging and the exchange of photos made on our smartphones. I could fire images to Dan of a drawn image on a sheet of lithography film and within minutes be correcting it according to his suggestions. It was almost as though we were in the same studio space. You and I have been showing our individual work projects to each other in e-mails, confident of safely sharing our efforts and misgivings with a creative ‘other’ who understands. It works wonderfully.

Ed: I’m wondering, to start with, what would you say makes a project a Clive Hicks-Jenkins project and what doesn’t? What are you looking for? 

Clive: Narrative. Whether obvious or not, whether culled from a source or invented, narrative is always what draws me in. I am an inveterate story teller, and that’s always been my foundation, certainly as an artist but even before that, as a choreographer and director. 

Ed: And, specifically, did The Tiger’s Bride come to you or you to it. How did this all start off?

Clive: It started with my life-long love of Staffordshire. The strangeness of it appeals to me. It’s a uniquely of-these-islands combination of folk-art/fairy-tale/dream-world weirdness that always satisfies/disturbs me. The sheep and dogs the size of ponies in comparison to the human figures accompanying them. The theatrical fancy-dress that makes it seem that the handsome men and pretty women are on a stage. The flowers and the often cloying sentimentality, the cottages and castles, the follies and exotic beasts, the bright colours on shining white and the sense of sort-of-familiar yet elusive storytelling being played out on a mantelpiece. Every time I see a doll-like child perched on a monster-sized spaniel or pug, I think about the dog with ‘eyes the size of mill-stones’ in The Tinderbox. Then there are the Staffordshire ‘murder cottages’ and the penny-dreadful tendency to celebrate awful events, most notoriously the escaped tiger with a limp baby dangling from its jaws striding over the prone body of the mother from whose arms the child has been torn. My first print with Penfold took inspiration from the Staffordshire version of Tipu’s Tiger, in which a beast mouths at a slain man in a uniform. The child-like brightness coupled with horror is unlikely and yet compelling. 

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The Staffordshire group titled The Death of the Lion Queen had long been catching my eye, and finally I took the moment to begin researching the story on which it was based. I couldn’t shake it. It lingered, took root and I was away.

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I like a long-term project. Gawain had been a nearly three year project. It wasn’t what I worked solely on, except during the last six months when Dan and I had to row like galley-slaves to get it to the finishing line in time to meet the Faber & Faber deadlines and the commitment to the Martin Tinney Gallery for the ‘completion’ exhibition. One of the pleasures of a dip-in&dip-out project is that it has the convenience of being easily set aside and yet ready to return to at the drop of a hat. It’s always simmering on the back-ring of the hob, never unappetisingly stone cold. All my projects tend to be worked on for long periods, and there are always several or even many on the go at any given moment. In the aftermath of Gawain I’d been compiling ideas for a print project that would combine several of my interests: vintage and folk art toys, Staffordshire figure groups, historic circus/fairground traditions and my fascination for toy-like buildings, whether Staffordshire follies and cottages, wooden building-blocks, doll’s houses or the foil and tinsel souvenir cathedrals produced in the city of Krakow. Somehow all this began to tie together with the notion of unspecified fairy stories, and New Folktales was born. The Tiger’s Bride is my riff on Beauty and the Beast, though I didn’t want that title anywhere near it. Angela Carter provided the solution. Here’s a piece I posted at Insta about the event underlying the Staffordshire group titled The Death of the Lion Queen, which was my starting point for The Tiger’s Bride.
“This image draws on the tragedy of Ellen Bright, AKA The Lion Queen, who in 1850 at Wombwell’s Menagerie entered a cage of big cats for the entertainment of a paying audience expecting to be thrilled by the spectacle of a girl commanding ferocious beasts. At just seventeen years old, Ellen was celebrated though relatively inexperienced, and it may be that on the day her ambition outstripped her judgement, because a reliable eyewitness in the audience afterward observed that from the moment she entered the cage the tiger displayed unmistakeable aggression toward her. At a sting to its face from her whip, the animal lay down. Ellen turned her attention to the lions, but then – perhaps for good measure, or perhaps because at that moment she intuited the dangerous state of the beast – turned back and stung it for a second time with her whip in its face. The tiger rose, reared and lunged at her head, seizing her in its jaws and bringing her down. 

Ellen sustained catastrophic injuries to her lower jaw and throat, and according to a doctor who was in the audience and attended her after the attack, she died within minutes without recovering consciousness. So horrified were the public by the tragedy that thereafter the law was changed, forbidding women to enter cages with big cats for the purposes of entertainment.” 
Below: contemporary illustration reporting the death of Ellen Bright at Wombwell’s Menagerie:
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The Staffordshire pottery workshops quickly produced, or perhaps adapted, an existing ‘Lion Queen’ group in order to commemorate the event, adding the wording ‘Death of the Lion Queen’ to capitalise on the public interest. (Ellen was not the first Lion Queen, as there had been several who’d gone by that title before her.) I’ve referenced elements from several Staffordshire groups of a girl performing with big cats, but have gone my own way in expressing the subject.
Below: early study and final layout-drawing for the print.
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Ellen’s story is tragic, and not just because of how she died, but because large cats in 19th century menageries must have been driven insane by their ill-treatments and confinements. This piece is not about that – though the idea is running beneath it – but is an exploration of the fairytale theme of the beast/groom.
In the same way you’ve taken the novel of Pinocchio and used a lightly-touched-upon back story in it as the foundation of your new novel The Swallowed Man.
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Do you find that using an existing theme/story as the bedrock for a new telling is a good method of creativity for you? Which came first for you here, Jonah and the whale or Pinocchio’s dad/maker? (I feel Pinocchio might profitably be examined in comparison with other ‘man/woman-making’ stories/myths, including Frankenstein and Galatea/Pygmalion.)
 
Clive
Ty Isaf
20/03/20

Leaving

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I made images for what I couldn’t express in words.

 

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At Facebook my friend, artist Ian Whadcock, wrote briefly, simply, poignantly:

“A week of witnessing tears in conversation, voices broken with emotion and goodwill sapped by expectation.
Meanwhile, the parallel world of ambivalence, blind ideology and sheer selfishness, looks away in the belief it has nothing to do with them.
On a station platform, the kindest most unexpected words serve as a reminder that we are not alone.”

Key

The assemblages were made from objects that surround me at Ty Isaf. All things that I love and make me happy, and some that have strong associations because they were gifts from good friends. If the assemblages have a European quality to them, it’s because they’re mash-ups of British and European toys. I am, as a person and artist, a European. The two can’t be separated.

 

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The lettering for all four assemblages was originally created for the credit sequence of the 2013 animated film of The Soldier’s Tale I made to accompany a performance with orchestra at The Hay Festival. The tulips are also from the film.

The foil crèche in Europe Forever is Polish, and this type of work is particularly associated with the city of Krakow.

The small wooden buildings, trees and villagers are from the German toy-making region of Erzgebirge, as is the jaunty yellow carriage and horses in Forever Europe. The beautiful and tiny pull-along duck at the bottom of Rejoin, is also from the Erzebirge region, and came from Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop.

The white archways in Forever Europe and Rejoin were constructed from a beautiful boxed-set of vintage German building-blocks, the gift of my friend Mathijs van Soest.

The set had been played with by generations of children in Mathijs’ family, and he gave it to me with the message that he felt sure I’d use it well. I’ve endeavoured not to disappoint him. It’s appeared many times in animations and artworks, and in 2018 it toured the country in the music theatre work, Hansel & Gretel: a Nightmare in Eight Scenes, and afterwards featured in the endpapers of the published edition of Simon Armitage’s text.

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The two colourful wooden birds in Forever Europe are made by the artist Tadeush Shultz, whose work I discovered at the online shop specialising in Polish folk art, Frank & Lusia. The wooden birds in Rejoin were also sourced at Frank & Lusia, and are by one of my favourite ‘bird’ folk artists, ‘Zak’.

The toy theatre proscenium in Stronger Together was painted by me. The house between two lions is Ty Isaf, my home.

There are three tigers in the assemblages. One is Indian, a gift from my friend Stephen Weeks in Prague, another is a jigsaw-puzzle tiger given to me by my friends Charles and Mary, and the third is very tiny and you will have to search very hard to find it. It’s based on a famous Staffordshire group called The Death of Munrow, but made for a dolls-house. It was a gift from my friend Angela Beaumont, who knew I would love it because I’d made a print of the Staffordshire group with my friend Dan at Penfold Press.

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The assemblages feature a number of lead toys. The two rearing Liberty Horses from Britains’ circus range are favourites of mine. In Rejoin there are two lead horsemen: the soldier on a rocking horse is by the company Wend-al, while the mounted bugler in a red turban I think is by Britains, and was a gift from my friends Sarah and James. There are also figures from Britains’ farm range: a cow, a sheep, lambs and lots of chickens.

The two tinplate cockerels in Europe Forever are Russian.

There are two birds drawn by me: a blue bird in Europe Forever, and small multi-coloured one in Stronger Together and Rejoin, the latter one of three made for the cover-flaps of the soon to be published Charis in the World of Wonders by Marly Youmans.

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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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