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. Heavy greasepaint had been formulated to take account of the change from gaslight to more revealing electric light, when performers needed to paint out everything on their faces and then paint it back in again, only more emphatically! 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 drama no longer required the heavy make-ups of the past, my greasepaint 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 Monmouth 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.

Six Significant Objects

Later this month I’m going to Wrexham, where there is to be an exhibition of works from the Methodist Collection of 20th Century Art. This will include my painting Christ Writes in the Dust, which is a depiction of the story of the woman caught in adultery.

As a part of the events arranged to support the exhibition, I’m to have a conversation in front of an audience with curator Meryl Doney, who, borrowing an idea from the wonderful Neil McGreggor, asked me to provide her not with 100 significant objects from my life, but with six. (One for each decade, perhaps.) I could have made entirely different and interesting lists, but I needed to include objects that would lead directly to discussions of my work as a painter.

Here is the list of objects that Meryl will structure our conversation around.

Six Significant Objects

1
This German ‘Fairing’ of a pig washing her baby in a water-trough fashioned from a log, stood above the fireplace of the bedroom my father was born in at Oak House, Llanfrechfa. Then throughout my childhood it stood on my parents bedroom mantel-shelf. Every spring my sister and I would pick violets and primroses and fill the china trough with damp moss to hold them, leaving the gift for our mother to find upon waking. As an object it holds a rich cache of family histories and memories for me.

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My parents purchased my first Pelham Puppet when I was about seven years old. They can’t have known what they’d started. My first job on leaving school was with a professional puppet company, and later I extensively used puppetry arts as a choreographer, stage director and designer. To this day I use a form of puppetry in my practice as a painter, building maquettes that are second cousins to shadow-puppets. This particular puppet is a Pelham version of a character called Mr Turnip, who appeared in a BBC Children’s Hour series of the 1950s called Whirligig. In later life I traced down the puppet-maker who’d created the original Mr Turnip, and interviewed her.

3
The exercise book belongs to my partner Peter, who when he was ten attended a production for children at the Swansea Grand Theatre. It was produced by the Caricature Theatre Company, and was called Back to Square One. Afterwards Peter wrote about the production for a school essay.

When he was in his thirties and I in my forties, we met, and in time became life-partners. We had been together for a couple of years when he showed me the book in which he’d written about the play. Not only had he written about it, but he had done a drawing of one of the actors. Me.

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This book was purchased for me by my mother when I was nine years old. A photographic essay of art of the Amarna Period of Ancient Egypt, it wasn’t at all the kind of book intended for children. But the moment I saw the book I was swept away by the beauty of it, and my mother dug deep into her purse and acquired it for me. It’s been with me ever since. Twenty-odd years ago I had it rebound because it had became so fragile with use.

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This small sculpture is the work of the artist Dick Wakelin, my partner Peter Wakelin’s father. The cross is placed in the top of the cube, though is not fixed. The cube has a space within it that the cross would fit, but of course cannot. I love this notion of inside-out. The sculpture has been significant in my own practice, as I riffed on its shape in my 2001 series of drawings, The Mare’s Tale. I never knew Dick, but I love that his work made a bridge to connect us as artists.

6
Catriona Urquhart wrote the series of poems about my father that provided the gallery text my 2001 exhibition, The Mare’s Tale. The poems were published to coincide with the exhibition in an edition by The Old Stile Press, for which I made the illustrations. It was Catriona’s sole volume of poetry published in her lifetime. Now it holds not only the memories of my father’s life and death, about which she wrote so eloquently and movingly, but also the memories of the deep friendship she and I had. I read her poem about death (my father’s) at her funeral.