The Boy Who Made a Map in his Head

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Davenport’s Magic Shop, back in the days when it was in Gt Russell Street.
When I was a kid attending a theatre school in London that didn’t board, I lived with my aunt and her husband in Dulwich Village. Amy and J.L. were busy people who travelled a lot. The upshot was that on many weekends I was left to my own devices, usually alone in the house. But with so much to explore on the doorstep, I never felt at a loss with what to do with my time. I’d catch a train to central London. Once there I walked everywhere, criss-crossing the city to visit my favourite museums and places of historic interest.
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In the process I discovered shops that were survivors of another age. Benjamin Pollock’s in Scala Street, with its museum of toy theatres housed up a rickety stairs that for me was like climbing to heaven, and Cornellisen the ‘artists’ colourmen’ in Gt Russell Street, where the darkly varnished interior was lined in glass jars displaying powdered pigments as rainbow hued as a tropical sea. Davenport’s in Gt Russell Street was conveniently situated opposite the British Museum, and I would save my magic-trick purchasing for a post-museum treat. Hours spent blissfully drawing in the Egyptian galleries followed by an hour at Davenport’s, was for me, Saturday afternoon perfection.
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The Theatre Zoo by John Griffiths for Motif magazine, September 1959
The Theatre Zoo was another of my haunts, where masks crowded the shelves and sticks of hard, waxy Leichner greasepaint, a stage make-up even then almost obsolete in the West End theatres all around, were displayed under the glass-topped counters. (I had a well-stocked Leichner make-up box and was much in demand for transforming friends for a lark, using mortician’s wax, crepe hair and Leichner sticks to create the monsters of old Universal Pictures horror films!) I collected a hit list of eccentric shops in the maze of narrow streets behind Covent Garden, the ones with interiors more like museums. I made a circuit, marked on the A to Z of ‘special places’ stored in my head, that on weekends I would delight in navigating, taking in my favourites. Long before I became a painter I was purchasing French varnishes, mahl-sticks and gilding-papers that I had no use for beyond the fact that I loved the shops I found them in. I relished the sense of ancient crafts, the language of forgotten skills, the scents of resins and rabbit-skin glue and scenic-fireproofing, the graphic loveliness of the packaging of vintage stock. I wandered, a boy in a trance in love with I knew not what.
I took a weekend job in Berman & Nathan’s theatrical outfitters. I’d sit cross-legged on a counter sewing buttons on Pearly King and Queen costumes, or re-stitching worn eyelets that held the laces of corsets worn by ‘doxies’ in musicals. (Ever noticed how many corseted loose women appear in operas, ballets and musicals? Those corsets take a lot of maintenance, and for about a year, I was the boy who spent his Saturdays repairing most of them!) With my pay I’d purchase cheap tickets in the ‘gods’ to see some of the productions I’d earlier delivered costumes to after repairs at the B & N workshops.
There was a shop that sold pens of all types, from mapping-pens to fat and satisfying-to-hold fountain pens. I wish I could remember its name. Concerned with the shop’s slowly diminishing stock of products, I took to saving my pocket money to make purchases. No weekend was complete without carrying off a paper bag of some treasure that had caught my eye because of the old-fashioned graphics on its battered packaging. I was addicted to the old stock of French perfumed inks lining one shelf, produced by the venerable Paris manufacturer, J Herbin. The labels on the the bottles were as tantalising as those on fireworks (I recall a stunner called ‘Lotus Bleu’), and I took to writing my letters home in inks that gave up the unmistakeable scent of flowers. One had the powdery scent of violet cachous, and I can’t imagine what my parents must have thought when envelopes started arriving addressed in the scratchy/spidery scented penmanship of mapping nibs dipped in perfume! My letters must have smelled like the insides of old ladies handbags!
This was the London of the ‘Swinging Sixties’. But I was a tad young for all that, and my heart lay not so much in the trendy emporiums of Carnaby Street, as in the wonderful survivals of a past fast vanishing, though I didn’t know that at the time.
A few weeks ago I had a meeting in London that required an overnight stay with my sister-in-law in Blackheath, and I reserved the following day for a visit to the Pollock’s Museum, still in a corner property on Scala Street. Alas, although I’d checked the business hours, when I arrived mid morning the door marked with an ‘open’ sign was locked, and remained so for the hour I hung around hoping that someone would turn up. After that disappointment I traced the old map, still in my head, of the shops I’d once loved. None of them save Cornellisen and Pollock’s have survived, or at least not in the places they had once been. (I know that Davenport’s Magic Shop is still in the hands of the family, though re-located somewhere close to Trafalgar Square.) The walk felt like I was straddling two realities, the bright and vibrant one in my head, and the lacklustre reality of what the West End and Bloomsbury have become. There’s no room left for the eccentricities and unlikely post-war survivals that I had witnessed the tail-end of. The economics have changed in ways that the old communities could never have envisaged. The dusty shops with ancient stock and courteous proprietors are now only in my memories. I guess that’s where everything ends, eventually, in the realm of ‘once upon a time’.
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Palaces of the Imagination: Part 1. The Globe

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The Penylan was a cinema in Albany Road, Cardiff, that opened in 1914 showing silent films. On conversion to ‘Talkies’ in 1931, its name was changed to the Globe.  It was demolished in 1985.

The building though small – it sat 500 – was presented in a pretty, neo-classical style. It was surmounted by a dome that could be opened on fine evenings to let out the patrons’ smoke. By the time I went there in the 1960s, it showed mainly art-house films, and was the cinema of choice for Cardiff’s student population. I remember the elegance of the narrow auditorium, the slender, gravity-defying balcony and the loveliness of the gilt plasterwork. It was faded and peeling, but it had all the allure of a building that though built-to-purpose as a cinema, had its roots in the traditions of the old theatres and music-halls.

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At some point in my early teens I was taken to the Globe by a young man I’d met at drama club. Gareth was about six years older than me and had a car, and it was exciting to be picked up by him from my home in Newport and whisked away to Cardiff for an adventure. There was a heady whiff of romance in the air, though I wasn’t quite sure what that might entail. He had written poetry for me, which was unexpected and head-spinning, and to this day I have an art book that he brought to me as a gift, with an inscription and his name on the title page.

We saw a double Jean Cocteau programme. Orphée (1950) and La Belle et la Bête ( 1946). The experience was revelatory. Everything on the screen left me weak at the knees. This was the single defining moment of what I would later reach toward creatively, though of course I didn’t know that at the time. I don’t mean by this that I came away from the experience yearning to be a film director. At that point I was still unclear about what I’d be, in all senses. But the seed was planted, the desire to build worlds of my own that had the power to hold and enrapture, as I had been held and enraptured by the experience of the films. Watching Cocteau’s masterpieces shimmering in the darkness of that palace of the imagination, left me yearning to be a maker.

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Beneath the Greasepaint

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Back in the London of the 1960s when I was a pupil at the Italia Conti Stage School, I used to haunt the shop called Theatre Zoo in the West End. I was drawn to the papier mâché ‘Big-Heads’ ranged on high shelves around the showroom, and fascinated by the theatrical animal suits for hire, the front-and-back pantomime horses and cows that required two actors to fill them.

I remember the shop’s displays of Leichner stage-greasepaint, the hard, obliterating sticks of colour that were fast becoming obsolete as theatre modernised and actors presented themselves more naturally. Greasepaint had been formulated for an age when theatrical lighting required that the actors’ faces be much emphasised with heavy make-up. (Just look at Moira Shearer in her ‘ballet make-up’ for The Red Shoes. Densely whitened skin, eyes startlingly lined in black punctuated with red dots in the inner corners, her face a mask applied for the stage.) Because I’d belonged to a young people’s drama group in Wales, by the time I arrived in London I already had a well-stocked enamel make-up box, and though contemporary electric lighting in theatres no longer required the grease-based make-ups of the past, my Leichner kit stayed with me through my teens and early twenties, not least because I gravitated to the transformative roles that required a lot of disguising. (I LOVED being cast as assorted villains and Demon Kings in pantomime. And then there were the animals. I played, many, many animals! The old stage-arts have always beguiled me! I was born out of my time, really.) I learned my make-up skills from the Leichner charts, old even by the time I acquired them, and by watching black and white Lon Chaney films!

Not my make-up box, though it looked a lot like this, only with more stuff!

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The Leichner charts in the photo at the top of this page are not mine either – those have long vanished – but are from an old e-bay auction. However they, and many more from the series, were the ones that initially guided me into the world of greasepaint and flim-flam!

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I remember too, Harlequinade, the long-since-departed London puppet shop that specialised in vintage Pelham marionettes, and of course the old Pollock’s Toy Theatre Shop in Scala Street, with the sales counter on the ground-floor and the museum above accessed up narrow flights of rickety-stairs.  There, when I was a schoolboy, I purchased stacks of penny-plain toy theatre sheets and plays that were old-stock even then.

They were such eccentricities, these creaky survivals whose owners made losses to keep the doors open. But for me, a boy entranced by the archaic worlds of old-time theatrical magic, they were repositories of wonders.

The Things That Made Me: part 3

Part 3, and I think the last of my posts on the films, TV programmes, books, comics and toys that had profound effects on me when I was a boy. I’ve left the stills without captions, so as not to spoil the fun of you figuring out which films they come from.

Click on these links for parts 1 and 2.

I’ve avoided descriptions as I want the images to speak for themselves, though I will say of the model of Boadicea that until I came upon the online image of it while searching for something else, I’d completely forgotten I’d ever had one exactly like it. The sight of it brought the memories and the pleasure flooding back, including how much I loved racing the chariot on the crazy-paving path that ran between the flowerbed and lawn of our back-garden, and the feel of the chariot’s relief decoration under my fingers.

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The Things That Made Me: part 2

Here’s my second list. All the things on it have been significant to my development. They were the accompaniments to my finding myself.

The castle and farmyard are not ones I own, but are the doubles of those I had as a child. I remember the flimsiness of the castle, and my anxiety that the thin plastic might break as I snapped the pieces together. But the farm,… oh that farm… was my pride and joy. One day it was gone. My parents quickly got rid of things they thought I’d grown out of. But I hadn’t grown out of the farm, and haven’t still. The one pictured was sold on e-bay before I spotted it. It’s listed as having been ‘Made in Sweden’. I didn’t know that, though as an adult I’d figured it was unlikely to have been British, on account of the windmill.

Just in case anyone was wondering, my big sister used to get me into X-rated films. I wore my dad’s flat-cap and car-coat, but I doubt the disguise fooled anyone!

No more words or explanations. Just the pictures. I leave it to you to put titles to the films represented by photographs.

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The Things That Made Me: part 1

Here’s my list. It may appear random, but all the things on it have been significant to me. They were the accompaniments to my finding myself, the books, films, TV programmes and objects that had profound effects on me when I was a child. (And in some cases, the allure of what I yearned for but never got, like a Topstone latex rubber mask!) Some of what’s here you might expect to see, and much of it, probably not. It’s also my ‘coming out’ list, inasmuch as there are items here that my parents didn’t approve of. The horror magazines and the Mars Attacks collector-cards were frowned on by my mother, and I quickly learned to put them away where she wouldn’t see them. This made me uncomfortable. Conflicted. They were pleasures tarnished with guilt.

I’ve been conflicted most of my life about the things I’ve loved that might be considered lowbrow. Next month I’ll be six-five. A nicely rounded figure, though inconceivably high. It’s time I got over being troubled about what made me who I am. There’s nothing wrong with any of the things that thrilled me in those formative years. Time to celebrate them. Time to own up!

No words and no explanations. Just the pictures. I leave it to you to put titles to the films represented by photographs.

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out of the analogue past

Above: an image originally stored as a transparency, now transferred to digital. It’s of Carn Euny in Cornwall. I forgot to add details to the slide label, but judging from the style, I figure it was made in 1997. If so, then I haven’t seen this painting in the nearly twenty years since it was made, exhibited and sold.

Before digital, images of my work were recorded and stored as small transparencies. Peter took the photographs, and it was my job to check the contact-sheets when they returned from the laboratory, using a light-box and magnifier. The rejected images… out-of-focus, wonky or colour-imbalanced… were thrown away. The rest were snipped and inserted into plastic holders. Then began the arduous task of labelling before storing them in fat ring-binder files.

The information had to fit into a tiny space on each slide. Sometimes I wrote on slivers of gummed paper, and sometimes I wrote directly onto the plastic with a mapping pen and indian ink. Neither technique was foolproof. The paper labels could drop off, and the indian ink, even when set, would sometimes stick to the insides of the polyurethane slide-holder sleeves, and would require a wrestling-match to get them out.

Each tiny slide would have to contain:

my name, a unique studio ref number, title, date, measurements and media.

This for every painting, study, drawing, print and preliminary thumbnail that I produced. A red dot denoted that the work had been sold. Other colours denoted ‘out for exhibition’, or ‘on loan’. It was an unwieldy system, and time-consuming and difficult to keep up to date. But it was the only way.

Above: transparency transferred to digital. This one is of Tretower Castle, where I once worked.

It was boring and damnably fiddly work, and I hated it. But if I didn’t do it regularly, the backlogs became massive and disheartening. Occasionally I’d spend two or three days working non-stop to get everything up to date. I always resented the time spent on it, but Peter was insistent. (He was, of course, right.) The worst thing was when I’d get the top-copies ordered into the ‘archive’ ring-binders, and the duplicates for ‘sending off’ into even bigger ring-binders, before discovering that I’d missed a pile of slides. Then I’d have to move all the images in the transparency sleeves to get the missed ones into the right numerical places, which could mean moving on hundreds of slides.

Then the ring-binders had to be carefully stored. If they weren’t, and light got to them, then the colours of the slides would quickly fade or turn yellow.

There was also the inconvenience that nothing could be ‘touched-up’. Today, with everything digitally recorded and edited in i-photo, images can be ‘tidied’: trimmed and levelled, errant specks of dust or hair removed and the colour adjusted to better represent the original works. It was not so back in the days of slides. Daylight could colour-cast images too blue, and electric light too yellow. It was a constant struggle to accurately record, and the results were often too ‘approximate’ for comfort. Black and white were hell to get right. Blacks, no matter how dense in reality, would look grey in the slides, and white could just look… well, not white. If I added up the hours, I think I’d find that Peter and I have very likely spent months of our lives trying to generate and then store good images of my work.

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The duplicates were the slides for sending to galleries, publications, competitions etc. I always put in stamped SAEs for them to be returned, which meant a fiddle at the post-office getting the SAEs weighed with the slides in, before packaging the entire thing in another envelope to the recipient. My trips to the post-office always included taking packaging-tape and scissors with me. Every part of the process was time-consuming. At the end of all this, I probably got one set of slides returned in every fifty that I sent. Somewhere in the world there’s a landfill-site where my transparencies went to die. But the ones I kept are still with me, filling a chest of drawers in the studio.

Very few have been transferred to digital. To do all of them would be weeks or more likely months of work. But this week Peter did a little clutch, and I shall shortly make some posts of them for the Artlog. The fact is that there are hundreds of images of work made, sold and gone from my life so long ago that I look at them now with wonder, barely remembering having made them.

Above: the detritus of a defunct system, piled higgledy-piggledy into studio chests of drawers.

Below: analogue to digital transfer of an image. The painting is of Carn Euny, and probably dates back to 1997.