These Our Monsters

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This project for English Heritage has been under wraps for months but is now being publicised ahead of launch. It’s been a lovely to work on contemporary stories steeped in the traditions of folklore, myth and legend, inspired by eight sites in the care of English Heritage. I’ve made the cover and sixteen illustrations.

It’s been my great good fortune on These Our Monsters to have Katherine Davey at English Heritage as my editor. We’ve discussed all aspects of the book at every stage, and her unflagging enthusiasm has been a tonic during the occasionally gruelling schedule to get the work completed within the deadline.

The dust wrapper image is of Bram Stoker’s Vlad Dracula, who makes an appearance in Graeme Macrae Burnet’s story The Dark Thread set in and around Whitby. Macrae’s Count references Stoker’s original description in his novel Dracula, which is far from the darkly handsome vampire played Christopher Lee in the glorious Hammer Horror films of the 1960s and 70s. Women willingly surrendered themselves/swooned into the enveloping folds of Lee’s crimson-lined cloak, whereas Stoker’s Count is monstrous without a hint of sex-appeal. However, to make up for his parchment-like skin and dreadfully straggly moustaches, I’ve dressed him with the dandy’s attention to detail in all things sartorial. A high-collared shirt, a well-tied stock and a waistcoat to die for.

The authors and the English Heritage sites they selected are:

Edward Carey: Bury St Edmunds Abbey

Sarah Hall: Castlerigg and other stone circles

Paul Kingsnorth: Stonehenge

Alison MacLeod: Down House

Graeme Macrae Burnet: Whitby Abbey

Sarah Moss: Berwick Castle

Fiona Mozely: Carlisle Castle

Alan Thorpe: Tintagel

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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Hansel & Gretel: the film of the production

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For all those who missed the tour of Hansel & Gretel: a nightmare in eight scenes

CLICK HERE

to see the production, recorded at the London premiere in the Milton Court Concert Hall, Barbican, last October.

The film is by the extraordinary Pete Telfer at Culture Colony. Pete had been cameraman and editor on an animated book-trailer we’d made as a promotion for the original Hansel & Gretel picture-book published by Random Spectacular, and then in 2018 joined the Goldfield Production team to work with me on the filmed and animated footage to be projected onstage during the performances.

Pete followed all stages of the pre-production, chronicling the creative processes and interviewing the team in the lead up to the premiere at last year’s Cheltenham Festival of Music. This documentation was made as a part of his ongoing and ground-breaking initiative at Culture Colony to record significant cultural events with Welsh artists at the heart of them. Without his generosity and tireless effort, there would have been no comprehensive record of the making of ‘Hansel & Gretel’, and all of us associated with it, production company, production staff and performers, owe him a huge debt of gratitude for his outstanding work. Later, Goldfield found a modest budget to underpin Pete’s filming of the Barbican performances, and the film has been edited together from that material.

In 2011 it was Pete Telfer, together with my then partner – and now husband, Peter Wakelin – who encouraged me to diversify my practice as an artist by making some animation tests with my studio maquettes, and my rather clumsy efforts were edited by Pete into a haunting little film with a spoken text by the American poet Marly Youmans. In 2013 he was animation cameraman on ‘The Mare’s Tale’, composed by Mark Bowden to a text by Damian Walford Davies, and premiered in a single, fully-staged production performed by Mid Wales Music Theatre.

When Kate Romano asked me to work with her to create a new Hansel & Gretel for her company Goldfield Productions, Pete Telfer came to the project with me, together with artists Peter Lloyd (papercut puppets), Jan Zalud (puppet-maker), Philip Cooper (scenic design, models and animation assistant), Jonathan Street (animation editor and onstage cameraman), Di Ford (puppeteer) and Oon Cg, (puppet wardrobe). I approached Simon Armitage, who I’d been in conversations with since he’d invited me to contribute illustrations to the Faber & Faber revision of his translation of Sir Gawain & the Green Knight, and he came to meet Kate Romano and me to discuss whether he’d be interested in producing a libretto for music yet to be written by composer Matthew Kaner. Simon agreed, and we were up and away.

There were others who joined the team as the work progressed, but these were the collaborators who were in place from the beginning.

 

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‘Not a sugary dream, but a nightmare in eight scenes: make no bones about poet Simon Armitage’s contemporary retelling of the tale most familiar in the Brothers Grimm version. Hansel and Gretel’s plight becomes that of child refugees, whose parents’ agonising decision is to abandon their offspring to give them their only chance of surviving war. Armitage took his cue from the darkly imaginative illustrations by artist Clive Hicks-Jenkins, who has now translated those original visions into a puppet show with new music by Matthew Kaner. In this premiere performance at the Chelteneham Festival staged by Goldfield Productions, what appeared at first to be a slight, small-scale affair in the end resonated altogether more deeply.

Kaner’s quintet of players – strings, wind and toy pianos – were arranged on either side of a screen whose animated shadow play featured first the parents and then the ravenous craw of the archaeopteryx-like witch. On the central trestle table were Hansel and Gretel, wooden puppets barely a foot high that were manipulated by Diana Ford and Lizzie Wort. It was the intimacy of tiny gestures offering expressive detail, in turn mirroring Kaner’s musical mood, that spoke volumes. Armitage’s words are the constantly shining white pebbles guiding the piece; his final verbal riff on light and dark will be even better savoured on the published page. Narrator Adey Grummet – twice bursting into sung lines – emphasised the mix of humour and satire with the moments of dystopian horror, making this an all too timely reminder of some children’s living, waking, starving nightmare. (Rian Evans, full review in The Guardian)

 

Pinocchio’s Progeny

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The past twelvemonth has been a time of far too many losses, with loved ones of long-standing fading and falling away. While it’s the time in my life when such things must be expected, 2018 has nevertheless been particularly brutal, and I’ve hated witnessing the cull in my circle.

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Odd therefore that these two little creatures are playing so much on my mind. Perhaps it’s because of the strange alchemy of puppetry that wood, fashioned by a master and in the hands of the most incredible interpreters, can so astonishingly conjure animate life, tugging at our heartstrings and becoming so plausibly, heartrendingly real, that when I saw them being packed away by our producer at the end of the tour, with the hollow sense that I would not see them or hold them again (don’t ask), they somehow became the focus of all the losses of the year.

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I miss them so much, and I wonder how such a thing can be. I suppose it’s because they are, after all, Pinocchio’s progeny, wood transformed into flesh and bone, and sap into blood. In order to believe in them, we make the puppets real, and I, who was one of their creators, find myself grieving over their absence from my life, more than I am comfortable with. That is both the miracle of making life out of nothing, and the curse.

 

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Above: poet/librettist Simon Armitage, meets Gretel for the first time.

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My heartfelt thanks to Jan Zalud (puppet-maker), Di Ford and Lizzie Wort (puppeteers) and Oonagh Creighton-Griffiths (puppet costumier), who shared in equal parts with me the creation of the puppets of Hansel and Gretel.

Old Bus-Ticket Pink!

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I’m on the most wonderful adventure with publisher Joe Pearson and his assistant Laurence at Design for Today, and Simon Armitage’s glittering reinvention of a fairytale favourite has given us the most thrilling material to work with.

Simon’s Hansel & Gretel: a nightmare in eight scenes, formed the text to Matthew Kaner’s music in a production featuring the Goldfield Ensemble, plus actor, puppets and shadow-play, that I directed this year. (A recording of a performance of it given at Barbican is being broadcast by BBC Radio 3 on December 22nd.) In Spring 2019 the text is being published in a beautiful Design for Today edition, masterminded by Joe.

We’re currently tweaking the colours, a muted and atmospheric palette of dusty pinks, blues and yellows that I’ve nicknamed my ‘old bus-ticket’ range. (I think Farrow & Ball should take note!) This is the first ‘colour illustrated’ book I’ve produced for a contemporary text, and the process – thanks to Joe’s meticulous care for the book and our joint ambition to make it truly splendid – is the most fun I’ve ever had on an illustration project. What a great experience our work together over the past few months has been! My thanks to Simon, who came up with the idea of the illustrated edition and asked my help to make it happen, and of course to Joe, who unhesitatingly took up the challenge.

The palette for Hansel & Gretel: a nightmare in eight scenes, draws on the faded colours of old bus tickets.

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Sugar Rush

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Above, the Witch meets a bad end, shoved into a cauldron of molten Foam Shrimps, Jelly Beans, Glacier Mints and Liquorice Allsorts!

My task of illustrating Simon Armitage’s poem Hansel & Gretel: a nightmare in eight scenes, has been completed. It has been the most exciting work, especially coming at the conclusion of rehearsals for the stage production of Hansel & Gretel that I directed for its six month tour with the Goldfield Ensemble..

One of the things about any text presented on a stage, is that there never seems quite enough room within the short duration of a performance – especially one in which the words are set to music – to explore it as thoroughly as can be managed in a book. So the Design for Today edition of the text is my opportunity to really foreground Simon’s magnificent wordplay. A couple of weeks ago I carried all the original artwork in portfolios to London to deliver to Joe Pearson at Design for Today, and everything is currently being scanned, cleaned, layered and coloured by Joe and his assistant, Laurence.

I’m cock-a-hoop with the design for the book, which is just perfect. It’ll be out in the Spring. Stay tuned for updates re. pre-ordering, plus news of the special edition. (Which will come with two additional images printed by Dan Bugg at Penfold Press.)

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First Appearances

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It’s always been my custom to share day-to-day design progress with the team during pre-production, not because I’m seeking comment or contribution, but because by the time we get to the rehearsal room I want everyone to understand how the visuals have evolved. The idea is to give everyone a chance to see the ingredients before we begin to cook the meal! Nevertheless, sharing design work-in-progress can create problems, and it’s a fact that the shadow-puppets of the Mother and Father that were being prepared for the stage production of Hansel & Gretel, caused consternation in my producer when first she saw them.

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Peter Lloyd, our genius paper-cutter, had been ‘briefed’ with loose sketches I’d provided to define the ‘characters’ of the parents. Illustrated above are a couple I made of the Mother.

I told him that within the basic framework of the character design, he was free to develop and elaborate as he wished. And that’s exactly what he did. When he sent me snapshots of the paper-cut puppets under construction, I knew I’d been right to choose him for our team.

 

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Some minor changes were made to her mouth in order to better define it, and later, transparent swivelling bars were added to facilitate easier animation of her eyes.

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Everything in the stage version of Hansel & Gretel, is as seen/imagined by the children. They use the contents of their toy box to act out and reinvent a chaotic world into one they can better understand and control. While the children are beautiful creations by master-carver, Jan Zalud, brought to life by onstage puppeteers, the baker/Mother, woodcutter/Father and forest-dwelling Witch are shown only as animated silhouettes projected onto a large screen.

 

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From the moment I read Simon Armitage’s script I knew that the parents needed initially to be as unfathomable to an audience as they clearly are to their children. Gretel in particular constantly mis-hears both eavesdropped conversations and what people say directly to her. (I do even wonder whether she’s perhaps a little deaf.) This results in the children misconstruing their parents concern for the family’s safety in a war-zone, into a more sinister plot to be rid of them.

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Above: at the shadow-screen, assistant animator, Phil Cooper, makes minute changes of position to the articulated puppets between shots.

In order to ensure the viewpoints of audiences would align with those of the children, the parents needed to be unconventional, strange and unreadable. On the surface they’d appear as peasants, almost bovine with their expressionless faces and physical stolidness. Peter Lloyd caught this completely. The stoutness and the mask-like, weathered faces are off-putting, but nonetheless arrest us and make us pay attention. And gradually, we begin to see these people for what they more truly are, which is careworn and deeply loving. In this case, first appearances have been misleading.

Peter Lloyd’s remarkable skill as a paper-cutter gave me everything – and much more – that I needed in terms of appearance. But having meticulously reproduced the fixed  attachment points of the tiny arms and legs I’d indicated in the first drawings, those limitations severely hampered expressive movement, a fact immediately apparent once I had the puppets in my hands and could play with them. So I spent a day re-configuring the joints using transparent plastic to make swivelling and elbowed bars allowing a much wider range of movement, and by the time the pair went in front of the camera, they were flexible and up for anything. Walking is always an indicator of how well a shadow puppet is performing, and the test shot of the Mother walking from edge of frame to centre, illustrates her dainty gait. (See it at the foot of this post.)

For the illustrated book of Simon Armitage’s Hansel & Gretel poem that I’m currently working on, due for publication by Design for Today in Spring 2019, I began with a trial image that was a fairly close adaptation of the shadow-puppet Mother. She even retained the articulation points of a shadow-puppet.

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But as I came to grips with fitting together images and narrative in print, I realised that with only three appearances scattered through the book, I’d need to express everything about the Mother in some kind of shorthand: one image to introduce and establish her, a second to demonstrate her tenderness toward her daughter, and a third in which she’s dead and in her coffin. To this end, the design evolved for a third and final time, and the Mother became slighter and more youthful, though still retaining the strangenesses – bifurcated nose, cheeks oddly marked with the outlines of scallop shells and a heavy Kahlo-esque monobrow – that had defined her in the animations for the stage production. Here she is in a rough sketch, recalling her first pregnancy. (There’s no indication in Simon’s text, but I’ve always sensed that Gretel is the elder by about a year.)

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And here the finished illustration, though minus the colour.

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The book’s final image of the Mother shows her shroud-wrapped and in her coffin. It was a hard one to pull off, because it had to be shocking and yet tender. This is the coffin illustration in the process of being made, together with some preparatory thumbnail sketches.

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To her credit, Kate our producer revised her initial response to the shadow-puppet, and in the end grew to love and be moved by Peter Lloyd’s interpretation of the character. The shadow-puppet gets quite a lot of screen time in the production, and in the last scene, appears not as a corpse – as she does in the book – but as a fretful, glimmering ghost. I too have grown to love her in both her forms of shadow-presence and illustration.

 

 

 

Animation made for Hansel & Gretel.

Shadow-puppet: Peter Lloyd

Animation: Clive Hicks-Jenkins and Phil Cooper

Camera: Pete Telfer of Culture Colony