The Birds

A comment by Anita Mills on yesterday’s post was a reminder that over the years, birds have featured significantly in my work. (Anita calls it a ‘pantheon’!) For the fun of it I made a compilation of them. Most shown here are details from larger paintings, though there are few complete works included, particularly where birds are the subjects of them or feature in their titles. Some of the images are of paintings-in-process, hence the areas of red-oxide under-paint.


Swallows (Detail from Flight of Swallows Over the Field of Gold)




(Detail from Tender Blackbird)

Goldfinches (Detail from The Virgin of the Goldfinches)

Heron (Detail from The Congregation of Birds ‘in process’)

Canada Goose (Detail from The Congregation of Birds ‘in process’)

Chaffinch (Detail from The Congregation of Birds ‘in process’)

Doves and Ducks (Detail from My Dream Farm)

I hadn’t really given much thought to this. The above are just a few of the images, but I could fill the Artlog for a month with ‘avians’ in my paintings, in drawings and the images I’ve made for books. Then there are those produced in ceramic when I worked in Pip Koppel’s pottery studio, cockerel figurines and a salt-kit in the form of an owl. Even the block for my book-plate is cut with the image of a bird. Clearly there’s a theme going on.

‘Saint Kevin and the Blackbird’s Nest’

Completed  18/04/14

Saint Kevin and the Blackbird’s Nest 
Acrylic on gessoed panel. 60 x 81 cm. 2014

Lots of sgraffito here, used to enliven the the surface of the painting and add sparkle to the trees and bushes. As I’ve always loved painting water, the river has been a particular pleasure to work on. (It’s the river Wye, running past Catchmay’s Court at Llandogo, home of The Old Stile Press and our friends Nicolas and Frances.)

This marks my return to the subject of Saint Kevin after a long absence. Seamus Heaney’s poem has for many years been the source of inspiration for my work on the theme, and indeed I’ve made enough paintings to merit a whole Kevin and the Blackbird section in the Artlog archive. (Check it out in the ‘Topics’ box at top right.)

Kevin and the Blackbird’s Nest will be in:

Telling Tales: new narrative works from Clive Hicks-Jenkins

Tegfryn Gallery/Oriel Tegfryn

Menai Bridge


Opens May 10th

the saint’s landscape

Day seven, and the appearance of some sheep.

The landscape draws on work I did for the cover image for the second volume of The Old Stile Press Bibliography. Below Catchmays Court a gate leads from the garden through a hedge and into a field where balsamic poplars line the river bank, and sheep picturesquely graze. It seems the most perfect setting for this saint-in-the-making who turned his back on the world, an anchorite meditating in the wilderness. (But a slightly tamed wilderness here, with gates and fences.)

I’m cock-a-hoop that the great Ronnie Burkett popped by my Facebook page and clicked a ‘like’ on today’s Saint Kevin and the Blackbird image. I’ve admired his puppet artistry for so long. The man is a genius.

the suit of many colours

Day four at the easel has been spent finishing Saint Kevin’s jacket, complete with embroidered stars and appliquéd hearts and diamonds. I’ve particularly enjoyed painting the frilled edge to the velvet collar. In his hand (not shown here) the egg-laden nest is without the hen. I guess she’s left the saint as egg-sitter while she’s away feeding! But she’s nevertheless present in the appliqué of his jacket, lying over his heart.

As I paint I can hear the blackbirds in the garden.

capturing peter

From the moment I began to paint, my partner Peter’s likeness has been present in my work. Occasionally I’ve been unconscious of using him, and it was friends who first pointed out he was there in the wrestling angel of The Temptations of Solitude, though burlier in the paintings than in life, and shaved bald. Peter has never subscribed to the theory that the angel is him, but whatever was going on in my head when I was making the paintings, it’s clear it’s him.

hicks-jenkins 012_2

The Comfort of Angels Attending the Dying.

hicks-jenkins 013

The Man Who Lived in a Tree.


He was the model for Bluebeard when I was compiling an early illustration portfolio, painstakingly made as a pointillist drawing with a rapidograph pen. This time I reinvented him as darkly sensualist, a Russian oligarch in furs and silk cravat.

When I illustrated Equus for the Old Stile Press edition of the play (2009) I cast Peter as the psychiatrist Dysart, though for the longest time he had no idea I was using his likeness as I somehow neglected to tell him. It came as a bit of a surprise for  him when he found out, and it has to be said he wasn’t at all comfortable with the idea.

Above: a lost study of Peter made for Equus. I have no idea where it is, which is a shame as I think it rather good. I like the faint image of a ghostly horse looking over his shoulder.

Above: two studies of Peter as Dysart, referencing the psychiatrist’s dream that he’s trapped in a horse’s head, bridled with a bit clamped between his teeth.

Above: the image as it finally appeared in the book.

Many studies of Peter were made using conté pencil against  a red oxide ground. Some of the original drawings were included as ‘extras’ in the special boxed-editions of the book, of which there were ten produced.

Above: Peter on his old National Library of Wales identity card. I didn’t know him when the photograph was taken, though I’ve  conjured something of his appearance at that time for many paintings. Even the pudding-basin haircuts of the following images are based on the fact that his hair was cut in the style when he played King Henry V in a school play.

Saint Kevin

Saint Kevin

Saint Francis (Detail)

Angel Gabriel (Detail)

Quite a lot of mileage out of a single model!

questions and answers

Flowering Nest

Occasionally a question posed in a private correspondence provokes an explanation about how I present my work. Rebecca Verity, who lives in the States, owns a preparatory Saint Kevin drawing I made. She asked me what I meant by the term ‘curator speak’, used disparagingly in an earlier e-mail to her, and I answered the question, though I shan’t share my reply here. But this led me on to the matter of my titles and the lack of explanations in them, and how I see their function in relation to my work.

Rebecca. ‘What is this curator-speak which you so despise?  Is it (I ask in a very small voice) when the curator tells you all about a piece, the stories behind it and such?  Because (I say in a still smaller voice) I really like that.  Having been raised culturally illiterate, I love learning about paintings and the artists who created them.  Camille on Her Death Bed, for instance – is just weird and unnerving, until you know the story of Monet and his wife, and hear his account of painting it, and then it is still perhaps unnerving, but also heartbreaking and perplexing and challenging.’

And I always go and research your saints; the stories of their lives make the paintings so much more thought provoking then if they’re just unknown figures.  

Clive. Never fear, what you’re talking about is a quite different thing to the despised ‘curator speak’, and of course can be helpful, though with my paintings I prefer explanatory text panels to be placed some distance away, because I want eyes on the images and not on any words. But the fact that when confronted with one of my paintings you go off to do some research, is heartening to me, because that’s exactly the kind of curiosity I aspire to provoke. When my ‘saints paintings’ appear in galleries, often with their slightly elusive titles that don’t explain the events depicted, the absence is because my job is to ask questions, not to provide immediate explanations. My hope is that the susceptible viewer  will go away and think on what’s been represented, perhaps to look for answers elsewhere. The important thing when seeing a painting for the first time is not the specific, as in ‘this is a representation of the Irish Saint Kevin in his cell with the blackbird of legend’, but rather the sense of a non-specific, universal encounter between man and beast that has a mystery at its heart. In many ways it’s unimportant who is represented or what event is described in the image. What matters is that the viewer be allowed to think and then draw a conclusion, and afterwards to explore elsewhere if moved to do so. The work is intended to be the first crumb in a trail that leads away to other, and perhaps even more interesting discoveries.’
I should add that there is an exception with regard to my aversion to text panels in proximity to my paintings, inasmuch that when a panel holds a poem, then the proximity is a good thing. I don’t see poems as being ‘explanations’, but companion works.
Postscript: Sometimes the comment boxes at the Artlog get to be more interesting than the posts.  That’s proved to be the case with this one, and so if you’ve the time, do scamper along to see if there’s anything to interest you down there.


Kevin and the Sunflowers

2009 – Acrylic on Panel – 62 x 59 cm

Private Collection

I’ve long been making works about Saint Kevin and the Blackbird, and though I regularly set aside the theme as others take priority at the easel, I have yet to feel that I’m done with the subject. Kevin haunts me and there’s no getting away from him. Over the past weeks new ideas about the anchorite saint and the trusting little hen-blackbird have again been absorbing me. I’ll be posting shortly about new paintings that are in development, and in preparation for those, today I’ve compiled a series of images by other artists and illustrators… found during a trawl of Google…  who’ve been drawn to the story.  Wherever possible I’ve attributed the artists.

Saint Kevin and the Blackbird in a 13th century manuscript.

Saint Kevin’s Bird by Leo Higgins.

Artist unknown.

Artist unknown.

Two images of Saint Kevin by printmaker Catherine Ryan.

Illustration by Doug Montross.

Aviaries by Yvonne C. Murphy, with a cover image taken from my Saint Kevin and the Blackbird painting Paper Garden.

Paper Garden

2011 – Acrylic on Panel – 31 x 63 cms

Private Collection

the animalarium

I suspect that most illustrators who occasionally  visit  here will know Laura Ottina’s magnificent online source of visual reference regarding all things zoological in the world of art and design. Her Animalarium is my first port of call whenever I feel the urge to see what’s best in book illustration and graphic design, and so I feel it a great honour for my work to have been included in her November post on the subject of Friends and Feathers. Do take a look at her site but be prepared to linger and to explore. I never get away from there in a hurry!