Seeking Beastliness and Defining Beauty

 

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If you type Beauty and the Beast into your search engine-of-choice today, you’ll get the full, oppressive weight of the Disney empire over-stuffing your screen. But there is so, so much more to the story than the Disney products, and for that you have to search further, and search deeper.

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La Belle et la Bête is a story that has captured imaginations since its first appearance in 1740 in a lengthy version by novelist Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve. Abridged and rewritten in 1756 by  Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont, it was later taken up by Andrew Lang in his Blue Fairy Book, and from that time on it has been constantly retold and redeveloped, spanning novels, short stories, operas, plays, musicals, films, animations and live-action remakes of animations.

Cocteau based his screenplay on the version of La Belle et la Bête by Leprince de Beaumont. I in turn am homaging Cocteau in my current project with Design for Today to take the mood of a film and translate it to the quite different language of a book. 

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It seems strange that such a magnificent subject has so often resulted in unconvincing illustrations, but among the numerous published versions I’ve found there to be a relative few that come close to capturing the strangenesses of the story. Walter Crane created admittedly eye-popping images (below) in which design takes precedence over character and mood, a common failing in versions of Beauty and the Beast. Crane’s Beauty looks not so much alarmed as filled with ennui at the dapper, monocled Beast who shares her sofa at possibly the dullest tea-party in the world. (Routledge, 1874) Perhaps he is both boar and boor!

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Among nineteenth century illustrators, I find myself most drawn to the images of Eleanor Vere Boyle. Her Beauty and the Beast of 1875 (below) has a Beast like a giant beaver crossed with a sabre-toothed tiger, and he is both sinister and majestic. I love the cactus garden Boyle dreamed up as the perfect setting for his first appearance. It’s an unexpected masterstroke of imaginative contribution to the story. And while Beauty is conventionally lovely, at the dining-table she looks trapped, a prisoner both in the too-tight space and in the confining swathes of her gown. All this feels far more in the darker realms of the story than most versions.

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H. J. Ford created a set of images for Andrew Lang’s retelling of the tale in The Blue Fairy Book, with a Beast notable for being a man/boar/elephant mashup.

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Ford’s illustrations are awkward and oddly uneven in style and tonality. The best and the most touching by far is the one in which Beauty returns to find the Beast dying in a grotto.

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Above: Illustrator Peter Thompson

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I particularly like the illustrations of the story by Beauge Bertall. (Above)

The abiding failure of so many illustrators tackling the theme has been one of being wedded to surface allure at the cost of atmosphere and character. Artist after artist gets lost in opulence and graceful whimsy, and Beauty and her Beast sink beneath the weight of it. She becomes a cypher for all things pretty, and he loses his animal nature long before casting it off in that final apotheosis. It seems to me that Beauty has become a prisoner of her name so that artists find it an almost impossible hurdle to clear. She’s defined by the standards and fashions of her times, running the gamut from Pre-Raphaelite goddess to 1920s socialite to sophisticated siren without ever bothering to leave a trace of her character on the page. It’s a conundrum. How do you define beauty? Moreover when you do – if you do – how do you manage to get beyond it?

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Above: Illustrator Jan Brett

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Above: Illustrators Janet and Anne Grahame Johnstone

The Fairy Book - The Best Popular Fairy Stories Selected and Rendered Anew - Illustrated by Warwick GlobeAbove: Illustrator Warwick Goble

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Above: Illustrator Errol le Cain

Angela Barrett’s Illustrations (below) for Max Eilenberg’s 2010 Beauty and the Beast (Walker Books), are are undeniably beautiful and perhaps the most eerily romantic of contemporary versions. She presents dreamy, meticulously painted wide panoramas that invest an almost operatic quality to the undertaking, and if I have a qualm it’s that I can’t escape the feeling that the images have been made with the stage or film in mind, and that is where they’d look their best.

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The illustrations for Beauty and the Beast that I love most, appear in:

Favourite Fairy Tales Told in France

Retold from Charles Perrault and other
French storytellers by Virginia Haviland and Illustrated by Roger Duvoisin. 

Published by Little, Brown and Company, 1959

 

Roger Duvoisin (1900 – 1980) was born in Geneva. He studied at the École National Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, and after graduating tried his hand at a variety of practices, including designing scenery, creating posters and painting murals. In 1925 he married another Swiss national, the artist Louise Fatio. In 1927, while working in Paris in the textile industry, Duvoisin was offered a job designing for a textile company in the USA, and the couple relocated to New York. When the company went bankrupt during the Depression, Duvoisin turned to illustration to support his family.

In 1933 he had great success with his book Donkey, Donkey, and he won the 1948 Caldecott Medal for his illustrations for White Snow, Bright Snow by Alvin Tresselt. In 1954 he collaborated with his wife on The Happy Lion. Fatio wrote the book and Duvoisin illustrated it, and it proved successful enough to extend to a total of ten Happy Lion books which they jointly produced over twenty-six years. He illustrated Favourite Fairy Tales Told in France in 1959, and for me his achievement is a triumph.

The images throughout are fresh and lively, flat and graphic, and while they don’t rely on creating characters in the way we might expect of say Maurice Sendak, they nevertheless make good that deficiency by fizzing with energy and shapely loveliness. With their limited yet vibrantly sunny palette, they are wonderful accompaniments to the tale. I think too that by stripping him down to his natural animal shagginess, Duvoisin rids his Beast of all the pesky trappings of affluence that many other illustrators linger on. This Beast is man, bear and werewolf combined. He fills the space with physicality and presence, and when he roars, he ROARS!!!!

I can see Duvoisin’s origins as a textile designer in these images, and the energy and freedom of the 20th century, wedded to the most artful drawing craft, flows through them. They make me happy. Beauty and the Beast is just one of several tales in the book, and these are the illustrations for it.

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Throughout a long career Duvoisin was an ardent and steadfast collaborator, producing an astonishing nineteen books with Alvin R. Tresselt, five with Mary Calhoun, four with Charlotte Zolotow and three each with Kathleen Morrow Elliott and Adelaide Holl. He also produced a series of books based on his creations Petunia and Veronica, respectively a goose and a hippopotamus. He received a Caldecott Honour in 1962. I leave you with another image from Favourite Fairy Tales Told in France, this one from the story of Puss in Boots. It has to be the best Puss ever!

 

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The Things That Made Me: Part 4

In 2016 I made a three-part post listing things that had been significant accompaniments of my childhood. These were the books, films, TV programmes and toys that had profound effects on me, and in many instances were the signposts to future creativity. On the lists you’ll discover Famous Monsters of Filmland magazines and Mars Attacks collector-cards, the latter so frowned on by my mother when she discovered them in my bedroom that she took them away and destroyed them. There are the Topstone latex rubber ‘horror’ masks that I yearned for and never plucked up the courage to ask for, though I used regularly to haunt the ‘tricks, novelties and carnival masks’ shop that stocked them just up the road from where we lived. This yearning for what I knew to be illicit in terms of maintaining parental approval, made me uncomfortable. Conflicted. They were pleasures tarnished with guilt, and I guess we all know that those are the ones that can be the most thrilling.

Perhaps memory stretches further back the older you get, because more has recently surfaced from the murky depths. The Triang Minic clockwork Jabberocky is one of the unexpectedly ‘recovered memories’ of toys I’d long ago loved and lost, shaken into focus by a dim recollection swiftly followed by a trawl of the Internet.

Some of what’s here undoubtedly comes under the basic descriptive of ‘horror’, though there’s much that’s child-like and simple too. I think perhaps what’s so interesting about the child’s imagination is that it can safely embrace a diversity of ideas, all happily co-habiting. My parents were sometimes alarmed at where my interests settled, but for my own part, and left to my own devices, I was perfectly happy in the strange mix of imaginative realms.

The original idea of the lists was that beyond a few words of introduction, there should just be pictures. I’m sticking to that. I leave it to you to unwrap your recollections, if any, of what’s shown here. Maybe you’ll recognise some of the images taken from films, and you can amuse yourselves trying to recall their titles.

You can read Parts 1, 2 and 3 by clicking below.

Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3

 

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Above: No-one is going to get this!

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The above film is a tricky one, though I fully expect Lorrie Carse-Wilen to nail it!

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On Art and Images

I have never been busier. (I haven’t yet quite worked out why.) I have one-person exhibitions both imminent (September and January) and planned for further ahead. There are promised book covers for several authors and a big, as yet unannounced project for a major publisher. There’s the October exhibition I’m curating for the Royal Cambrian Academy and ongoing work on the stage production of a new chamber music work which I’m to design and direct next year. There have been and continue to be commitments to lecture at various universities and art colleges. Right now the Gawain and the Green Knight project in collaboration with Dan Bugg of Penfold Press is the most pressing occupation, as we have to finish the planned fourteen prints by end of December. I guess I’ve always been an active person in terms of planning ahead, but this… this schedule is extreme, even for me.

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Because of my increasingly busy diary, I have less time to write here at the Artlog. Occasionally I’m halfway through a piece when other matters intrude and I have to turn my attention elsewhere. But this morning I sat down to type a reply to an e-mail addressed to me via my official website, and in the writing of it I expressed something I thought I’d share here. While both unexpected and brief, I realised nevertheless that the simple idea expressed to my correspondent, was massively and personally significant in terms of how I see the world.

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‘As I get older I begin to see that all creative endeavour is linked. I may be first and foremost an easel artist, but I know that books in all their diversity have helped make me the man I am. It’s fitting that in what must by any measure be the last quarter of my working life, I have found myself being given opportunities to work in the field of books, both in the making of covers for writers I love and admire (Marly Youmans, Damian Walford Davies and Mary Ann Constantine), and more recently in the picture book of Hansel & Gretel for Random Spectacular. The book illustrations in my head – and they’re still there, carried since childhood – are as potent as any of the magnificent paintings I experienced in galleries and cathedrals that came later. So Picasso sits companionably alongside Beatrix Potter, Klee alongside Alfred Bestall and George Stubbs alongside Arthur Rackham, and it’s right that they do. My affection for the illustrators has never been displaced by my love of the great artists, and the interior of my head, if you could see in there, bears testament to that truth.’

Picasso

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Potter

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Klee

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Bestall

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Stubbs

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Rackham

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What I’m not

I’m often asked what kind of art I make. I know my face clouds over when the question comes, because the answer isn’t simple. Easier, perhaps, to say what I’m not.

I’m not a landscape or a still-life artist …

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… though earlier in my career I painted both.

I’m not a portrait painter and never have been, though everyone tells me they recognise Peter in my drawing and paintings.

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I’m not an abstract painter, though I love abstraction.

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My painting doesn’t aspire to realism, but rather to inner truth.

I’m not an illustrator though I make covers for novels and poetry.

Recently I’ve made my first picture book, though it’s not a children’s picture book.

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I’m not a print-maker, though I’m currently making a fourteen print series of screenprints with Dan Bugg of Penfold Press on the theme of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. (Based on the translation by Simon Armitage.)

Penfold C cmyk-2While I’m an atheist, my work often explores biblical and faith based themes.

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I’m not an animator, though I made the animations for the 2013 stage production of The Mare’s Tale (composer Mark Bowden and librettist Damian Walford Davies)…

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… I was commissioned to make an animated film to accompany a performance of Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale at the 2013 Hay Festival…

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…. and last year in collaboration with artist/model-maker Phil Cooper, film-maker Pete Telfer and composer Kate Romano, I created an animation as the online trailer for my picture book Hansel & Gretel. (Published by Random Spectacular.)

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Sometimes it’s not possible to make a simple answer.

 

 

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Illuminations

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Peter is in Edinburgh, where he’s to give the keynote address at the symposium Shaping the View: Understanding Landscape through Illustration, organised by Desdemona McCannon. Before he left we had several discussions about illustration, looking at definitions of the word.

il·lus·tra·tion (ĭl′ə-strā′shən)
n.
1. The act of illustrating or the state of being illustrated: concepts that would benefit from illustration; an idea that lends itself to illustration.
2. A picture or image that is used to decorate or clarify a text.
3. An example that is used to clarify or explain something. 
4. Obsolete Illumination.

It’s a tricky one to pin down, ‘illustrative’ having been used in modern times as a pejorative deployed by a curatorial elite set on defining boundaries that put ‘illustrators’ further down the pecking order of arts practices.

But tucked away at the foot of the list, I like the ‘obsolete’ definition, illumination. When my friend, the writer Marly Youmans asked me how I’d define myself in relation to my collaborations with her, I unhesitatingly wrote back, partly in fun, ‘illuminator’.

When growing up in the 1950s, my home, though full of books and music, had little on the walls that might be defined as art. There were mirrors and wall-lamps, and even pictures – if you include the rather unlikely though jaunty wallpaper of palm trees and desert islands that decorated our back parlour. But there were no paintings. So looking back, I begin to realise that my earliest experiences of the world as expressed in images, were through the pages of my childhood books.

The ones that stuck fast and have stayed with me over the years, are the Rupert Bear and Toby Twirl annuals. I learned to read on my father’s lap as he helped me make sense of the words under the pictures showing Rupert’s adventures with his pals. The speed with which I progressed was entirely down to wanting to know what happened next in the stories!

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The bucolic loveliness depicted by the illustrators of Rupert’s and Toby’s worlds, was simultaneously observed from life and imagined. Observed with enough tenderness and precision for me to recognise types of rural settings – my father was a wayleaves officer for the South Wales Electricity Board and often took me with him on field trips – and yet subtley different enough to open up imagination. The pine forests of the Rupert books were exactly like those I’d visited with my father, though with the added allure of being portals to other, more exciting realms, accessed by the simple means of climbing the trees, just as Jack had clambered up a beanstalk to find himself somewhere unexpected.

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Both the boy bear and the boy pig had the freedom to scamper about on their own business, and both were secure in the knowledge that ‘mum’ would have tea on the table when they returned, no matter how outlandish their adventures out of range of parental disapproval. I lived in the annuals, and later in the comics of my day, and after those in books that had no illustrations, excepting for those on their covers. Illustrations led me gently, naturally, persuasively to literature.

Landscape for me has always been where I’ve retreated to recover myself. So when my life in the theatre became too chaotic to endure, I bolted to the countryside. It was the natural place of healing, and it was where I took up brushes and began to translate my out-of-control feelings, into the painted worlds I felt safer in.

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I see now, though didn’t at the time, that the sense of comfort and balance I was trying to recapture, had its roots in those early experiences of discovering the world through the illustrations of Alfred Bestall, Sheila Hodgetts and others. And later, after I moved from landscape painting to explore further options, I came to understand enough of where my emotional responses to landscape had originated, to be able to reference the books of my childhood in paintings that openly acknowledged them. My Dream Farm is one of them.

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Perceived divisions between art and illustration are ones I’ve come to disregard. For me, the two are the same. There’s good and bad that flows from easel painters (for want of a better definition) and illustrators alike. The banal is bad regardless of whether found between the covers of a book or on the walls of a gallery, while the great is always illuminating, whether springing from the pens and brushes of Potter and Sendak, or from Hockney at his most sublime and painterly. (A man who excels at everything.) High and low are definitions I’m unmoved by. There is only excellence, and it all comes from the same source.

My picture book, Hansel & Gretel, is due out later this month. It’s taken a long time to make a book that has its roots so firmly in what I grew to love and trust as a child. The last page bears this text:

Clive Hicks-Jenkins is a painter who occasionally makes images for the covers of novels, poetry collections and plays. He has always wanted to make a picture book, and this is it.

The Boy/Pig, the Handsome Chaps and the Scary Witch

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The Toby Twirl Story Book was published in 1947. I was born in 1951, and so perhaps the copy I read had been handed down to me from my older sister, Jacqui.

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Not only did the stories and images in the book capture my imagination, but the feel of it under my fingers, too. Printed simply in two colours per spread on heavy, absorbent paper, it was my love for The Toby Twirl Storybook that underpinned my approach to the illustrated edition of The Sonnets of Richard Barnfield, made in 2001 with Nicolas McDowell at The Old Stile Press.

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It was a long stretch from the adventurous Toby and his friends, to the lustrous boys of Barnfield’s homoerotic sonnets first published in 1595, but the idea of borrowing from The Toby Twirl Story Book was so fully formed in my head from the moment Nicolas suggested the project, that the edition didn’t so much as evolve, as explode with the swiftness of a Demon King in a puff of smoke out of a star-trap!

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The book took time to make, of course, as all beautiful things do, but the idea for it came to me in a moment, and I never swerved from my vision for it.

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And it would seem that the influence of The Toby Twirl Storybook in my work goes on, because it can be no accident that my first artist’s picture-book, due out this year from Random Spectacular, is to be a darkling version of that grimmest of the Grimms, Hansel & Gretel. The steeple-hatted witch of E. Jeffrey’s illustrations has always stayed with me, lurking in wait to scare another generation. She is the the stuff of my nightmares and dreams, and has clearly been biding her time, waiting for me to be ready for her re-launch!

She’s a little scarier this time around, and meaner too.