the Origins of ‘Startled Peacocks’

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The painting has its roots in earlier work and interests. I’ve always been drawn to images of animals, and Stubbs is the master. His Horse Attacked by a Lion of 1769 has lodged in my mind since first I saw it, and it stays there still, appalling and sublime.

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Stubbs was working from classical models, as artists throughout history have done. The herbivore brought down by a carnivore is a potent metaphor for power unleashed upon the vulnerable, recognised and understood across cultures.

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In my painting The Barbarian Brought Down by a Lioness (collection of MoMA Mach), based on an episode drawn from the fragments of a Renaissance altarpiece at Christ Church Picture Gallery depicting the Lives of the Desert Fathers, I showed a man being mauled by a lioness, his limbs broken. Here’s a detail of her claws raking as she embeds her teeth in his abdomen. Her back is knotted with muscles. She’s as elemental as the heaving waves in Amlwch Harbour behind her.

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I drew on many models that had caught my eye, particularly Romanesque carved capitals of beasts attacking men.

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Lions have featured extensively in my work, though never in terms of studies from life. I’m interested in their forms and how they fill the spaces of compositions, and of course in what they can represent. Here’s a painting titled The Lion in Winter, made when lions were densely populating my imagination and sketchbooks. He stands on a pedestal in a snowbound landscape, the ruins of a Welsh slate mill behind him.

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The drawing for Startled Peacocks began with the Stubbs image so deeply etched in my imagination. Those wide jaws clamped down hard, haunt me.

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I listened to Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time throughout the process of making the painting. The horror of my subject matter, a metaphor. Beauty and strength (the winged horse) brought down by brute force. Christ scourged and crucified.

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I worked by daylight with the large sash-window to my left thrown open, and after dark by lamplight. The images of the work in progress vary in colour because of the light conditions, though the photograph at the top of the post shows the painting as it appears when viewed in person. It was scanned for me in the photography department of the National Library of Wales, and the reproduction of its colour is spot on.

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I enjoy the images of the work in progress in all their variation, from the blue cast loaned by dusk to the gold washed across from the anglepoise  lamp I use after dark. Paintings, once framed and out in the world will be seen in light conditions beyond my control, so I like to see for myself how the effects of light of many types affect the images.

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Shellie’s gift.

My friend Shellie Byatt, artist and staunch Artlog supporter, sent this wonderful surprise gift to me, referencing the Beastly Passions project that I’m working on with poet Jeffery Beam. The franking on the stamp shows that this postcard was written and sent in 1904. Amazing that it’s survived in such pristine condition. Someone cared enough for it to have put it somewhere very safe. No fading, no dog-ears, no tears or damage from silverfish. It’s perfect.

Shellie, this is a delight. I love it!

The message is a little difficult to work out, there being nothing by way of sentences or punctuation. This is my transcription, though I’d welcome any other offers. The name of the recipient has defeated me. The franking indicates the postcard was sent from Newmarket, which might account for the reference to ‘winners’.

To Mr A …

Ratcliff College

Leicester

“I think you had better

write after this Situation

it might be a cool 

place this weather

Stockbridge came to find

winner last week”

The Beastly and Mr Beam

I am some degrees beyond excited. Indeed much closer to bursting-with-creativity like a dam about to haemorrhage a torrent. The sublime Jeffery Beam had agreed to be my collaborator on Beastly Passions. We discussed the poetry he might pen to accompany my images, which take as their theme the darker, Penny Dreadful realms of Staffordshire pottery groups, in which unspeakable doings such as murders by brutes and savagings at the sharp-ends of escaped menagerie beasts, were commemorated in naive imagery straight from the world of the Regency toy theatre. I had made a tiny, postcard-size drawing of ‘Tipu’s Tiger’ as a starting point, and Jeffery had been moved by it. He has since written a poem which has my mind spinning into delirium at the sheer, heartrending beauty of it. I cannot share it yet, or indeed any time soon, as this project won’t come to fruition until 2016. But here, to tantalise, a tiny fragment of what Jeffery has today presented to me: That terror could have a pelt so sheened and orange So like a tower at dusk on a precipitous cliff Ocean below rushing to otherwise From The Kiss: Tipu’s Tiger, by Jeffery Beam We are up and away, Mr Beam and I, and the creative riptide is tugging us far out to sea. We may be absent for some time, but we shall return with treasures.

Below: preparatory sketch for Beastly Pleasures. Woman slain by an escaped tiger and her baby eaten.

the road to beastly passions part 2: penny dreadfuls

There is something in the British psyche that is drawn to both the prurient and the ghastly. UK tabloid newspapers have long evidenced an interest in both, and it’s not a recent phenomenon, as a history of such things predates the twentieth century.

The Victorians had a vision of an industrialised economy that would drive innovation, and anyone casting an eye over the staggering technical discoveries of the nineteenth century can’t but be impressed at how we led by example. Iron forged in the south Wales valleys was exported the world over. It made not only our own railway systems, but the ones that bridged the vast reaches of the United States. The period threw up the engineering geniuses Thomas Telford and Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who between them changed the face of Britain with canal systems, bridges, dockyards, roads, harbours and tunnels.

But in the middle of all this brilliance, there were other industries running like dark veins through our great cities, fuelled by poverty and a lack of any social welfare. Prostitution was rife, and of many varieties to suit all tastes. While the glittering new world was being raised by the celebrated civil engineers, Jack-the-Ripper stalked the sheets of Whitechapel, predating on the poorest and most vulnerable sex-workers.

The Illustrated Police News was one of the earliest British tabloids. It launched in 1864 and ran right through to 1938. Needless to say it made much of the Ripper murders, bad news being good for circulation, and the IPN got very good indeed at plastering its front pages with horrors as a spur to sales. Wherever misfortunes were to be found, the newspaper’s journalists would lay them out for the public to feast upon. The more dreadful the stories, the better everyone liked them.

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There was a precedent for this interest in the grotesque. Pre-dating The Illustrated Police News with its tales of real-life horrors, there had been the Penny Dreadfuls, cheaply published novels specialising in murder and mayhem, often with supernatural overtones.

 

And before the Penny Dreadfuls, the great engraver Hogarth had titillated our relish for comeuppance in his series The Rake’s Progress.

With such a native appetite for the lurid, it comes as no surprise that the Staffordshire potteries occasionally proffered equivalent horrors, such as the tableau of a mother slain by a tiger escaped from a menagerie, her baby pathetically flailing in the beast’s jaws. Who knows what tragedy this was based on… I can find no specific source for it… but whether true or invented, it’s a strange subject to have produced in jaunty glazed pottery to decorate a dresser. Perhaps it was deemed as ‘cautionary’, to warn little children not to step too close to the bars of the animal cages in the ‘zoological gardens’.

The notorious slaying in 1827 of young Maria Marten, shot and buried in a barn by her lover William Corder, was commemorated with bucolic Staffordshire groups belying the violence of the event. (See top of post and below)

Even the toy theatres that gained popularity in the Regency were not averse to a touch of Penny Dreadful, as the surviving play-lists show. Jonathan Bradford, or The Murdered Guest was available as a toy theatre melodrama, as was a dramatised version of Bluebeard, the serial wife-killer of fairy-tale. Then there was The Mistletoe Bough, or The Fatal Chest, the story of a bride who dies when trapped in a heavy coffer during a coy game of hide and seek with her groom.

The toy-like naiveté overlaying lurid melodrama in the Staffordshire groups commemorating tragic events, make for oddly unsettling pieces of popular-art. Looking at them I began to wonder what would happen if instead of making paintings of existing examples… like the one I made for my friend Ben Elwyn’s birthday…

… I invented versions based on contemporary tabloid front-page reports. The idea for Beastly Passions came about when I began to imagine what today’s headlines might look like re-imagined as though through the prism of Staffordshire pottery groups. Dreadful events, it seems to me, would carry an unexpected and perhaps more tender charge, if wrapped like brightly coloured boiled-sweets in shiny cellophane.

The research is already underway and the first drawings are emerging. I’ll be posting about this project when I’ve more to show.