The Green Knight versus Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: the 2021 film and its literary source

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Above: Gawain prepares to decapitate the Green Knight in my print series, and below, the poster for David Lowery’s 2021 film

In 2016 I was already partway through a planned fourteen print series exploring the themes of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, when the poet Simon Armitage unexpectedly appeared and asked whether the prints, when completed, might be available to illustrate a forthcoming ‘revision’ of his translation, due out from Faber & Faber in 2018. My print collaborator, Dan Bugg of Penfold Press who was publishing the series, was as keen as I to take this heaven-sent opportunity, even though it meant we’d have to get our skates on, as the original intention had been to publish just two prints a year for seven years. It was Simon Armitage’s 2007 translation that had been our inspiration for the series, and a dog-eared copy of it had been at my side throughout the work completed to that point.

Simon was a thoughtful collaborator. He let me have my head, and although my emphasis in many of the images was different to how he saw things, he was invariably gracious and allowed me leeway. There were aspects of the poem I’d been wayward with in my translations to images. Before the agreement with him and Faber, I’d been freely interpreting the poem as I wished. For reasons too numerous to bore you with here, I’d changed the Pentangle on Gawain’s shield to a Star of David. The print had already been made, showing a six-pointed star rather than the five-pointed one described – at length – in the poem.

Gawain as he appears in the Penfold Print edition, with a six-pointed star on his shield.

Simon listened carefully to my reasons for the change. He said that if I were determined to stick to my guns, he would support me in my decision, but that I should know it would cause problems among academics and readers who would notice. I admired him for that, and without hesitation agreed to make the change. I couldn’t make it to the edition of seventy-five prints already out in the world, but I could digitally adjust the image that appeared in the new book. I say I, but in fact I have no digital skills, and so the work was undertaken as a favour by my friend, digital printmaker, Mark Brown. Mark also re-coloured Gawain’s sash green in another image, where I’d bleached the green in a twilight setting. Simon lobbied for a greener sash, and he got it.

Preparatory drawing for the print: gouache and pencil

David Lowery has taken liberties, too, in his film interpretation of the story. That’s not a bad thing. Artists and directors need to be free to ‘adapt’ literary sources. A poem is far from a film, or even a painting – or a print. The film has to work entirely through its visuals. There are the words too, of course, but the way a film looks is what it will stand or fall by.

Clearly I’m not the only one to have a problem with the colour green. Lowery and his designers have bleached their eponymous Knight to an ashen grey/blue with barely a vestige of green. What works for me when he appears, is less his appearance than the truly spectacular sound editing that so compellingly and viscerally announces his presence. (I can’t recall anything in previous films even close to the artistry achieved with the clop of hooves, creak of leather and the belching breath of the horse in this scene.)

David Lowery directing his Green Knight and Gawain on set

My anxieties about the colour green were all about avoiding any possibility of the Green Knight looking silly. The descriptions of him in the poem are unequivocal. He is both a man:

a fearful form appeared framed in the door: a mountain of a man, immeasurably high, a hulk of a human from head to hips, so long and thick in his loins and limbs I should genuinely judge him to be half giant, or a most massive man, the mightiest of mortals.”

but also, green:

Amazement seized their minds, no soul had ever seen a Knight of such a kind – entirely emerald green.”

So not even plain green, but ’emerald green’, which is a hard thing to pull off in a world where the Jolly Green Giant and the Wicked Witch of the West have set a precedent in bright green that’s common currency today, though would not have been for the original readers of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in their medieval world.

Lowery’s Green Knight is splendidly filmic, man-shaped, but not in the slightest bit fleshy, more of a mash-up of the Winter King and and the Forest Giants of the Lord of the Rings films. Twiggy and somewhat desiccated, you sense he’d bleed not blood, but sap. This distances us from him. He doesn’t have the vulnerability of a man’s flesh and blood, that too-slender fragile neck-stem of skin, muscle and bone awaiting the decapitating blow of an axe. By turning the Green Knight into a character that appears entirely un-fleshy, the inhumanity of decapitation as a wager is less powerfully repellent than were he a man.

The Green Knight as a forest spirit

Decapitation is pretty much an unsurmountable problem, for film-makers and artists. In a world where terrorists perform such atrocities for the dark web, execution by decapitation remains the thing that is too dreadful to show on news channels or in documentaries, and rightly so. It can be inept and agonising when performed by hand, far from the swift efficiency of the guillotine. Even in drama, where CGI makes all things possible, decapitations are the events from which, for the most part – the schlockier film-makers aside – the camera averts its implacable eye. I was relieved beyond expression when in the TV adaptation of Wolf Hall/Bring Up the Bodies, the execution of Anne Boleyn was off-screen. Claire Foy’s horror alone was knee-trembling enough to make me lose sleep for nights thereafter. In the poem the axe-blow to the Green Knight is described in detail, as is what follows, when the headless yet still-standing Green Knight retrieves what has been lopped from his shoulders:

For that scalp and skull now swung from his fist; to the noblest at the table he turned the face and it opened its eyelids, stared straight ahead and spoke this speech, which you’ll hear for yourselves:”

So, another element which though fresh in its day, has since been rendered a cliché by every film in which some Viking/Roman/Barbarian/Troll, strides to camera bearing a head swinging by its hair from a clenched fist, and it was one I went twelve times around the block to avoid in my illustration of the moment. This is how, after much trial and error, I showed the Green Knight bearing his own head, counterbalancing him with his caparisoned horse, ears back and eye rolling in terror. The poem describes the great spurt of blood from the wound, but that too felt clichéd when I attempted it, and so I abandoned the description and made instead a strange, unfurling organic blood-cloud, like a fungi springing from his truncated neck.

Preparatory drawing for the print: gouache and pencil

Arthur’s Court, in the poem, is young and vibrant. The rot we know is coming – in later accounts of the Arthurian myth – has yet to get underway:

All these fair folk in their first age, together in the hall: most fortunate under heaven, with Arthur, that man of high will; no bolder hand could ever be found on field or hill.

Gawain is a privileged and yet, up until now, untried youth. We discover he is pure of heart and steeped in the chivalric code of medieval Knights. He is undoubtedly a virgin, and the only woman who has him, body and soul, is the Queen of Heaven to whom he dedicates himself. When armed for his quest, his shield-lining bears an image of the Virgin and Christ child.

Penfold Press print of The Armouring of Gawain

I like the premise in the film, so different to the poem, that the court of Camelot is ageing. Lowery gives us a King bone-weary from a hard life, and a grizzled Guinevere, ramrod straight and glitteringly armoured with tiny metallic talismans worn like a breastplate against harm. Unexpectedly Arthur speaks in dialect. The pair look sick and tired, like weary saints in icons, complete with halo-like devices fastened to their crowns that gleam in the half-light.

When reading from the slip of parchment deposited on the round table by the Green Knight, Guinevere, like a medium channeling the dead, delivers the challenge in a voice not her own. In response, Arthur admits he is too old to face down the Green Knight, and appeals to his court for a champion. Steps forward Gawain, his nephew. Everything to this point is engaging. Afterwards, not so much. When the Green Knight takes the fatal blow, it doesn’t amount to anything, because he’s not really a man, and so there’s no fragility in him and therefore no tragedy. Behind Gawain’s back, the corpse stirs and lurches to its feet, a moment that might make the flesh creep, but doesn’t. There’s no sense of dread, or more critically, of impossibility. Nothing is surprising here, because the Green Knight is so patently unreal.

A year later, Gawain steps out to meet the Green Knight’s challenge, to accept a blow the equal of the one he gave, no matter the consequences. In the poem he’s armoured by the King, magnificently encased in engraved and jewelled plate metal. His trials are not described in detail in the poem, though we know they entail battles with serpents (dragons), ogres and ‘woodwoses’ (wild men). With no ‘squire’ attendant to unfasten him from his elaborate armour, he’s effectively sealed into it, travelling, sleeping, fighting, sweating and steaming in the equivalent of a pressure cooker. In the film he is not so encumbered. Neither is he the lithe and practised fighter of the poem, and when he has run-in with the wonderfully creepy feral-boy, Scavenger (Barry Keoghan pitch-prefect in the role), Gawain comes off the worst, and loses his weapons, his shield, his money and his horse, Gringolet.

Barry Keoghan. mesmerising as the feral Scavenger

There is a GGI fox which mercifully talks only briefly, but departs without leaving any impression on the story. (A real fox would have worked so much better. Foxes are infinitely stranger and more beautiful than anything cooked up in a computer animation programme.)

Eventually Gawain seeks respite from his journey at a sumptuous castle where an un-named Lord and Lady welcome and shower him with affection and favours. The Lady (Alicia Vikander) gets jiggly with Gawain in his bedchamber, and the encounter has none of the almost unendurable sexual tension of the poem, where her verbal duelling with the sleep-befuddled and embarrassed young man is so dazzling that every time I read it I find myself holding my breath in anxiety that her husband might burst in. (Or get wind of the shenanigans.) In the poem Gawain is aware – and ashamed of – his nakedness, covered only by a bedsheet in the presence of the Lady, though he is unaware of his own beauty, described so alluringly by the poet. So we can picture clearly, in imagination, the gulf between her worldliness and sexual teasing, and his vulnerability and confusion. (Mrs Robinson and Benjamin in The Graduate.)

Preparatory drawing for the print: gouache and pencil

Counterpointing these exchanges, verses describing the hunting, killing and butchering of animals by the Lord of the castle add a bloody and steaming physicality, as he too appears to be intent on sexual games, demanding from his young houseguest the gifts (kisses) his wife has elicited from Gawain while he was cornered beneath his flimsy bedsheet. (We’ve witnessed that there was rather more than kisses exchanged, but the film ducks that.) In the poem the episode of the castle where Gawain is wooed is full of unease because he is a sexually innocent and deeply honourable young man endeavouring to be polite in the face of predatory behaviour. By contrast in the film we know him to be sexually experienced, so there’s no tension when Lady Bertilak mounts him in his bed and we get the swift, unnecessary shot of ejaculate on the hand with which he grasps the green belt that’s the token of her ‘affection’.

Penfold Press print of The Exchange

Chivalry is the foundation on which everything in the poem is built. But in the film the codes of chivalry don’t exist, and without them, everything that transpires is meaningless and unanchored. It’s glacial in pace, which initially invests it with a sense of gravitas, though that palls as we realise the meandering narrative is yielding little to keep us engaged. Gawain meets giants plodding in slow motion across a misty landscape, but nothing happens. He has an odd meeting with the ghost of St Winifred, martyred by decapitation but still hanging around asking for her head to be retrieved from a nearby pond/stream/sinkhole and reunited with her decomposed corpse, laid out on a bed. Gawain obliges.

At the Green Chapel we arrive at the encounter toward which the entire trajectory of the narrative has led. The poem gives us another spectacular entrance by the Green Knight, Gawain bowing his head to receive the axe blow to his neck, and all the threads of the tale coming together in the revelation of what underlay the Green Knight’s challenge at Camelot and who was responsible for it. In the film we know from the start that Gawain’s mother conjured the Green Knight, and so all that remains at the chapel is for the challenge to be completed. Gawain discovers his nemesis sleeping, and has to wait patiently for him to revive. It’s deadly dull, a damp squib and ends with an ungainly scrabble of an escape. A cluttered, decades-leaping montage later, we learn that we were not shown all that transpired at the Green Chapel, but by then I’d stopped caring. Odd that in the twenty-first century, this film-maker has produced a second, much-anticipated meeting between Gawain and the Green Knight, that is decidedly less cinematic than the account offered by the medieval poet.

Preparatory drawing for the print: gouache and pencil

My misgivings don’t extend to the performances. Dev Patel, Sean Harris, Alicia Vikander and Barry Keoghan are excellent. (Sean Harris’s King is infinitely more interesting than the Arthur of the poem, who seems a cardboard cut-out by comparison – though of course that was intended by the poet.) If Patel seems to me to be too mature for the role, that’s because I have the fixed view of Gawain as an innocent, physically tough though barely out of boyhood. But that’s what I get from the poem, and it’s not how the character is presented here, where he’s dissolute and an untrustworthy lover from the start of the film. Throughout The Green Knight we’re offered intriguing scenes and visual treats, though there are worrying and atmosphere-destroying errors of judgement. The Lady at the un-named castle inventing the pinhole camera in the Middle Ages, and the Green Knight exiting Camelot cackling like a Disney villain, are frankly wince-making moments.

Jade Healy’s production design is bleak though beguiling, and costume work by Malgosia Turzanska is great right up to the moment when suddenly, at the end, a new character appears who’s a dead-ringer for Padmé Amidala in The Phantom Menace. What impressed me more than anything in this film was the music by Daniel Hart, which will stay with me for a long time, not least because I’ve purchased it and plan to read the poem while listening to it.

The 2018 illustrated edition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

For over three years I was completed immersed in the world of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight as I produced the fourteen prints and the Faber book. I read the poem every working day, often from beginning to end. I knew the characters and their experiences inside out. I made thousands of drawings. Nevertheless I was fully prepared to set all that aside so as to be able to experience a different telling of the tale. I longed for a different version, something I could lose myself in. I love cinema, and an underlying passion for the history of film underpins a lot of my work. (The book I’ve just finished illustrating, Beauty and Beast, is a paean to Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Béte, a film I’ve loved for over fifty years.) But here there was just too much borrowed from the poem, yet without the context that would have made sense of it. The film-makers should have perhaps detached themselves further from the text than they did. I acknowledge that the complex codes of chivalry are not anything a modern audience would understand or have sympathy with, but a simplified expression of them could have better supported the narrative of a knightly quest. Gawain is not everyman. He’s not ‘one of the boys’ who we identify with because he’s just like us. His code of honour drives him, and would make him uneasy company in any age. He has something in common with the character played by Edward Woodward in another film with roots in what’s now known as folk/horror, The Wicker Man, who we discover late in the story is a virgin, which accounts for the way he behaves and places him as an annoyingly principled outsider. The poet’s Gawain is an outsider, too. He may glitter with youth and idealism and the borrowed trappings of jewelled armour, but he is a loner. No-one wins his heart, which is set on higher things. He begins and ends the poem alone, and there seems very little chance of a good outcome for him beyond the conclusion.

Gawain appears in subsequent Arthurian stories from other hands, though never again as a central character. Placed at the periphery he is not the hero any longer, but a Knight grown sour with age and disappointment.

Harlequinade

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I’ve worked over the past months on the designs for a new collection from Sussex Lustreware, which earlier this year produced the World of Wonders range of ceramics. World of Wonders charmingly utilised chapter-head drawings of animals I’d made for Mary Youmans’ novel Charis in the World of Wonders, published in 2020 by Ignatius.

A World of Wonders bowl from Sussex Lustreware, decorated with drawings made as vignettes for Charis in the World of Wonders

For Harlequinade I’ve made all the images specifically for Sussex Lustreware, inspired by the great tradition of Victorian Toy Theatre. In preparation for the launch of the collection, I’ve worked closely with my collaborator, animator David W. Slack, to produce a series of films to promote the range. Here’s the first:

The animations are made up almost entirely of drawings produced for the ceramics, brought to life on a stage which I designed specially for Harlequinade.

The Harlequinade collection is traditional black on white transfer-ware, embellished by hand with pink lustre and occasional splashes of gold. It will consist of plates, jugs, bowls, mugs, trinket-box and teapot. The Autumn launch date has yet to be announced. Watch this space.

Obituary: Nicolas McDowall at Old Stile Press

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Peter Wakelin’s obituary for Nicolas which appeared in yesterday’s Online Guardian ‘Other Lives’ section, was a necessarily reduced version of what he produced. Here is the obituary in full:

Nicolas McDowall Obituary

Nicolas McDowall, who has died aged 84, spent a lifetime creating beautiful books, first in educational publishing and then through the private press he established with his wife Frances, which was at the forefront of the British fine-art press movement. 

Nicolas and Frances worked directly with artists to create between one and five books a year for forty years under their imprint, the Old Stile Press. Among dozens of collaborators were Harry Brockway, Glenys Cour, Natalie d’Arbeloff, John Elwyn, Garrick Palmer and Peter Reddick. Sometimes Nicolas also made books of his own, such as his typographic conceit A Bodoni Charade. They published historical texts and worked with contemporary writers including Ted Hughes, George Mackay Brown and Kevin Crossley-Holland. Such choices reflected their love of the natural world and a humanitarian ethos attuned to Nicolas’s Quaker faith. 

Each book was a beautiful object that brought word, image, type, paper, binding and slipcase into a creative unity. Values of design were fundamental; Nicolas balanced type and imagery and sought a satisfying negative space on each spread. The guiding spirit was a neo-romanticism that melded traditional qualities with modernist inventiveness, underpinned by Nicolas’s enjoyment from an early age of William Blake, the Kelmscott Chaucer and the contemporary artists then showing in the London galleries. He explored techniques unfazed by the sensitivities of purist bibliophiles but he loved the age-old feel of words and images impressed in paper. Like autographic prints, the books often used artists’ blocks directly and were numbered in a signed limited edition. They ranged from miniatures and pamphlets to a folio of Philip Sutton’s woodcuts nearly half a metre square and the full script of Peter Shaffer’s play Equus with images by Clive Hicks-Jenkins.

Nicolas was born on 22 May 1937 at Emsworth in Hampshire. His father, Toby McDowall, was a GP and consultant psychiatrist and his mother Nell (née Kewley) was a full-time mother to their three children. His education at Winchester College was excellent but he was deeply unhappy. Studying Philosophy at the University of St Andrews was a joyous contrast and it was there that he met his future wife Frances Pickering, daughter of the Fleet Street editor Sir Edward Pickering, who was reading English and Music. They married in 1964, by which time both were working in publishing, Frances at OUP and Nicolas at Edward Arnold. He began as a sales rep touring schools before moving into management at the Mayfair offices. He became a commissioning editor, head of the education department and finally a director. His creativity came to the fore promoting bold typography and graphics in books for schools, exemplified in the poetry anthology Dragonsteeth, which used a strikingly wide format with a stark silhouette of Stonehenge on the cover. 

In the 1970s Nicolas took classes in typesetting and bookbinding and began printing letterpress in a studio in their back garden at Blackheath. The first Old Stile Press book appeared in 1981, by which time Robin and Heather Tanner had become crucial friends and mentors. As the press had been named after a country stile Robin designed a pressmark based on the flared ‘squeeze-belly’ examples found in Wiltshire. Nicolas went part-time at Edward Arnold so as to concentrate on the new venture and in the late 1980s, once their children Daniel and Cressida had left school, they moved to a spot beside the River Wye upstream of Tintern Abbey and he took the opportunity of redundancy. 

A big, powerful man, Nicolas was nevertheless reticent and spoke in a mellow voice with a slight stammer; he hated public speaking and business lunches and avoided exhibition openings and literary events unless duty compelled. The peace, natural surroundings and creative work of the decades after they moved to Monmouthshire were a tonic to the debilitating depression he had suffered periodically since his schooldays; while Frances toured the international book fairs he enjoyed the therapeutic routine of day after day working at his presses and roaming a garden that stretched from river to woods. He designed each book and printed every sheet by hand while Frances ran the business operation, commissioned bindings and made paper in the basement.

Their Arcadian idyll was shared by like-minded visiting artists and writers (I was one of them) who spent happy days talking and planning projects over the dining table, experiencing a unique atmosphere of kindness and encouragement that enabled both youthful and established talents to flourish. Visitors were fascinated by the works of British neo-romantic artists that surrounded them: Nicolas said that he aimed to stretch his resources to minor works by the major artists and major works by the minor artists. He and Frances were keen to share their enthusiasm with others: they loaned works freely and an exhibition from the collection toured public galleries. 

Nicolas died of cancer on 31 July after a short illness. Frances died in 2019. They are survived by their son Daniel McDowall and daughter Cressida Maher, grandchildren Luke, Toby, Oliver, Imogen, Willow and Fenn and Nicolas’s younger siblings Julian and Christabel. The books of the Old Stile Press are in public and private collections across the world and its archive has been acquired by the University of Indiana.

Peter Wakelin

Photographs by Bernard Mitchell and Peter Wakelin

Annie Darwin

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Great Pucklands by novelist Alison Alison MacLeod appears in the anthology These Our Monsters, published in 2019 by English Heritage. The story focuses on the close bond between Charles Darwin and his daughter Annie. I found myself deeply bound up in both the story and the history that underlay it. A print-out of what I believe to be the only known photograph of Annie sat on my desk throughout the work, though I had no intention of making a direct likeness of it for the illustration. Somehow that wouldn’t have fitted with what I wanted to convey of Alison’s story. I needed to absorb the mood of the piece and somehow create something that had Annie in it, but transformed. Here’s the drawing.

I loved making it, and I kept all the sketches and studies preparatory to it. The ammonite and trilobite are from my small collection of fossils. Sometimes a story gets under your skin, and you have an imperartive to serve it well and to do it justice. That was the case with this one. But I also wanted to honour the person at the heart of it. This image was made for Annie Darwin, who died aged just ten in 1851, one hundred years before the year I was born.

The only image of Annie is a lovely one captured in a daguerrotype. In a world where lives are charted every hour of every day, snapped on smartphones and loaded onto social media sites, and when it seems everyone on the planet is photographed incessantly from birth to death, a single, beautifully accomplished portrait of a child who clearly prepared and gravely composed herself for the momentous occasion, tugs at the heartstrings. Annie left behind so little: this photograph, a gravestone and the ‘box’ in which her parents preserved a small handful of mementoes. Perhaps it’s the modesty of what survives her that opens the door to creativity, because it gives the freedom to writers and artists to ‘imagine’ versions of her into life.

‘Who’s Carrying Its House on Its Own Back? (A Book of Folk Riddles’)

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The illustrator Alexander Sorokin was born 1961 in the city of Krasnoyarsk, Siberia. His illustrations for Who’s Carrying its House on its Back were made in 1986, and the book was published two years later. He was a young man at the time of these, in his mid-twenties, and so the achievement was mightily impressive. 

The period 1985-1991 was a turbulent one for Soviet/Russian illustrators. Many whose careers had previously been reliant on a state-supported publishing industry, found themselves without work when the state withdrew funding for illustrated books. Sorokin’s images for his book drew on the character of the ‘Lubok’, a popular and affordable folk art print tradition, and it may be that the book would not have been published had it come later, when publishers were struggling to survive. Early Lubok prints were produced from woodblocks, and later lino, but Sorokin’s illustrations for a mass produced book were achieved through the process of gravure, though the effect is that of relief prints made from blocks.

I’ve just acquired a single print from the series. Printed onto lightweight paper with an edition number, it’s likely these were produced as a separate edition of art prints by the artist or his publisher. I love the eastern European illustration tradition, and I also love windmills, so this one ticked all the boxes for me.

I write here about artists and illustrators from around the world who inspire me, out of a wish to see their work better recognised. Some of them are hard to track down, and as I’m neither an academic or a linguist, I’m at a disadvantage when attempting to research Russian practitioners. So I’m enormously obliged to Andrey Keloshateo, who generously provided me with information about Sorokin and this beautiful book.

In Birdland

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Peter Wakelin will be interviewing Clive Hicks-Jenkins on the 29th September, 19:00 – 20:15. The first in a planned series of online art interviews organised by the Contemporary Art Society for Wales, admission to In Birdland is free. There are 100 places available for the live event which may be viewed around the world, though registration is required.

Click HERE to register.

About this Event

While caged at home for lockdown, Clive Hicks-Jenkins has surrounded himself with birds. His projects have included his miniature picture-book Bird House for Design for Today, a new print of birds and beasts for the Penfold Press and illustrations for Simon Armitage’s translation of the medieval poem The Owl and the Nightingale, forthcoming from Faber & Faber. Birds have appeared often in Clive’s paintings, notably his series on St Kevin and the Blackbird and CASW’s The Virgin of the Goldfinches in Llandaff Cathedral. In this live interview he will talk about how birds weave their way through so much of his work, his inspirations and practices and his collaboration with the Poet Laureate. There will be time allowed at the end for audience questions.

Above: Illustration from Simon Armitage’s The Owl and the Nightingale

Below: St Kevin and the Sunflowers. Private Collection

Below: Startled Peacocks: Private Collection

Below: Illustration from Bird House, due out from Design for Today in November

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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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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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