the road to beastly passions part 1: origins

When I was a boy I was entranced by the Staffordshire groups ranged on the mantelpieces and dressers of my nan and various elderly relatives. To me the figurines, daubed with colours as vivid and as tempting as the boiled sweets in jars on the corner-shop’s shelves, were the visual equivalents of fairy-tales. Their costumes were fanciful, redolent of Victorian pantomimes and the ‘Juvenile Dramas’ of Benjamin Pollock. A bonneted Scottish shepherd-boy with a sheep the size of a Shetland pony came from the same world as The Tinderbox, in which a soldier climbs down a hollow tree to be confronted by a dog with eyes the size of millstones. Small children clung to the backs of spaniels as big as heifers, and kilted huntsman sat high in the saddles of elegantly prancing steeds straight from a circus ring. I particularly liked the Staffordshire soldiers, broad-shouldered and wasp waisted in scarlet jackets over tight white breeches worn with knee-boots polished to a china glaze. The sailors too, had an allure, with their jaunty straw boaters and ruddy cheeks, ready for a jig or a brawl.

Coming late in my life to painting, I found myself drawn back to the world of the Staffordshire figurines, this time as subject matter for my brushes. To begin with I strove for verisimilitude, teaching myself to capture the shiny glazes on white china, and the soft modelled shapes that were pleasingly challenging to get right. These early works were neo-romantic in feel, with dark, tumultuous skies and Winter-blasted landscapes. Colours were relatively muted. The mood was sombre, troubled even.

Later I began to calm both the mood and the paint surfaces, flattening out shapes and concerning myself less with the lustre and gleam of the pottery than with character embodied in it. The images increasingly referenced the ‘toy theatre’ aspects of Staffordshire that had so charmed me as a child. (The Staffordshire figures frequently bear a startling resemblance to the characters in Regency toy theatre character sheets, another source familiar to me when I was young, having been given a stash of them by an actor-friend of my parents.)


I began reconfiguring Staffordshire groups to better serve what I required compositionally. Often the pieces in the paintings were hybrids, inventions stitched together from several sources, or I changed the proportions and colours of the china to suit my needs.

The final transformation of my ‘Staffordshire’ work saw the paintings pared to a bare minimum of detail as I turned my attentions to the prismatic effects of light on china glaze, and the play of shadows on the soft, chalky walls of the cottage where I was working.

Eventually, and with many paintings of china groups behind me, I was done. I’d been producing works on the Staffordshire theme throughout a period of significant change in my life, and my painting too, and perhaps the way I viewed the world, had transformed. What I was making by the end didn’t bear much resemblance to where I’d started.

I moved away from the subject of Staffordshire figures to pursue other expressions of narrative painting, not expecting to return. And I didn’t until few weeks ago, when out of the blue Ben Elwyn wrote requesting the birthday gift of a postcard… a blank postcard was enclosed with a SAE ready to return to him… decorated on his suggested theme of ‘Gold and Death’. I produced this:

Part 2: penny dreadfuls,  tomorrow.

I’ve written before, and more fully, about my initial flirtations with Neo-romanticism and what followed. You can read about that journey:


Attack of the Cyclops


My friend Jac Hicks has sent me a beautiful, miniature set of French building-blocks that I’ve erected on the bookcase in the upstairs sitting-room. (I’ve been working at the table in there over the summer months on my various illustration projects, as it’s a corner room with a dual aspect and lots of light.) The blocks are keeping company with the Mexican nativity set from Marly Youmans that’s much too handsome to come out only at Christmas, and a rather dog-eared, over-twenty-five-year-old pop-up Christmas card I made of a Punch & Judy booth. The wooden christmas tree was another unexpected gift, one of four toy trees sent to me by Chloe Redfern.

Opposite the building-block archway is the model of the stage-set I designed for last year’s The Mare’s Tale chamber-work, now populated with a very early group of painted lead figures of Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, a christmas gift of many years ago from Peter, who wrapped the figures separately and stuffed them alongside satsumas and foil-covered chocolate coins down the toe of one of his knitted walking-socks! Note that Grumpy has gone off to survey the new building!


Our house is full of such tableaux. I suspect they rearrange themselves after dark!

the evolution of a toy-theatre

Back so long ago that my memories of the event are hazy, I took part in a ‘mail art’ exhibition curated by the late Lizzie Organ at her Kilvert Gallery in Clyro. (Alas, no more.) I decided to make a card that opened to show a garden. I hoped the card might survive the postal system reasonably well, as long as I made it robust enough. (I didn’t want to put it in an envelope.)

It’s constructed from very thick card, hinged at both sides with strips of linen to two flaps that close centrally. The front is painted with the proscenium arch and the curtains of a theatre. For its Royal Mail journey there were narrow silk ribbons tied and secured with sealing wax to keep the flaps closed. When I think about it it’s staggering that such a fragile construction survived the postal system intact. The remains of the ribbons, stained with the residue of red wax, had to be cut to open the card, but remain attached at the hinges.

The back of the card was painted with a decorative cartouche containing the address of the gallery. I underestimated the space the stamps and ‘Special Delivery’ sticker would take up. It’s a shame that the former cover the architecture of the cartouche, and the latter the swagging at the bottom of it, but then again, that’s all a part of the history of the piece.

When opened, the card reveals a simple, three dimensional paper-engineered garden, with windows and an arch cut through a dark hedge, and a view beyond of cypress trees, a path and a wrought-iron gate.

Many years later, I produced a still-life, using the paper-engineered card as a model, all angles and straight edges to contrast with the curves of a pecking-hens toy. But I radically altered the design of the card for the painting, replacing the gate with a view of a simple house, and adding topiary elements as ‘wings’ to the scene.

After that came a second depiction of the card, this time as a still-life prop for the foreground of a painting of Saint Kevin and the Blackbird, and with the house now turned into Ty Isaf, our home in the Ystwyth Valley.

The last incarnation of the visual theme developed in card and paintings, came in this toy theatre, made in 2011 for my retrospective at the Gregynog Gallery of the National Library of Wales. 

Later I added gates, and a wolf to prowl the grounds.

The ‘Ty Isaf’ theatre has yet to appear in a painting. But it undoubtedly will. One day.

drawing: the artist as interpreter

Rootling through some studio box-files, I found the sketches for a still-life with possibly the longest title I’ve given a work.

Painting for a Child’s Bedroom: Still Life with Toy Theatre and Glass of Fennel/Oxwich Castle and Columbarium. 2005

Here are the drawings. Scraps, really, but they were the only preparations made.

I kept them, of course. It’s often the roughest little sketches that give me what I need the most. They have an almost unmediated sense of directness and urgency. Relatively unspecific, too, and with little detail to distract from ‘shape’, there’s no diminishment in their power to inspire and energise me almost a decade after their making. I could happily pin them to the easel today and come up with a painting entirely different in character to the one they outlined for me the first time around. A drawing can do that. I simply wouldn’t get any of the things gifted by these scraps, from a photograph.

For all the details and facts a photograph can offer, it is mediating a reality that I want to interpret first-hand with my own eyes. More significantly, I find photographs as studio aids to be a distraction, taking far more than they give. When it comes to making reference material for a painting, I’ll take a scrap of a drawing any day over what a camera can offer. There are never any reference photographs pinned to my easel. On the rare occasion I use a photograph, I won’t copy it, but learn the information in it by heart, like an actor committing lines to memory. Then I’ll put the photograph away and use what I can recall from it to make some drawings. It’s a process that I have to go through to distance myself from the camera’s ‘mechanical eye’.

None of this is to say that photography is not an art-form. Clearly it is. But for me it is not my choice of medium as an aide-memoire at the easel. It cannot tell me what a place smells like, or how light passes over skin, or how I feel in the presence of an object, a building, a landscape or an animal. I need all my senses to capture what I feel about the world, and I won’t relinquish the job to a snapshot taken in lieu of pencil, paper and the hand-to-eye daily practice of drawing.

the artist remembers

Today, two small, still-life paintings of Staffordshire figures, made at Penparc Cottage in 2004. A bonneted Highland shepherd-boy with a ram, and a girl perched sideways on what must be a spaniel the size of a Saint Bernard. I’m not at all sure where the paintings are now… sold I’m quite sure, though I’ve no idea to whom… and I don’t think they’ve ever appeared on the Artlog… or anywhere else for that matter… before today.

I like their roughness and the way the paint becomes something tangible and almost separate to the paintings themselves. I’d been looking at Bonnard and at Winifred Nicholson, both painters I greatly admire. (In the early days I taught myself ‘colour theory’ armed with a catalogue of Winifred Nicholson’s work!)

Here’s a second painting of the Highland shepherd, one I’ve shown on the Artlog before. It was painted at the same time, and clearly I was working a theme. The painting belongs to the artist and curator Frances Woodley, and it’s to appear in an exhibition she’s preparing for Bay Arts in Cardiff later this year, titled All Coherence Gone: Historical currents in contemporary still life.

I didn’t own the figurines, and they weren’t even present at the time of painting save in brief sketches I’d made of them earlier. Interesting that they look so plausibly present in their environment. I did place a stand-in Staffordshire figure on the table, just to get the sense of what the light from behind did to the glaze and colour. But really, although they don’t look it, each of these three paintings was an ‘imagined’ still-life. Not even the striped curtain was real. At that time there were still the rather fussy floral-print curtains left up from the previous owners of the cottage. I painted a notional curtain that I imagined made-up from a fabric I once used for a stage costume. It was gauzily transparent with satin stripes running through it, and I always thought it lovely. Perfect for being ruffled by a warm sea breeze through an open window. Whatever paintings may be for the people who love them, purchase them and live with them, for the artist, or at least this artist, they’re repositories of moments of remembered delight.

Below: from my design portfolio of 1982, textile samples pinned to a costume-fitting photograph taken at the wardrobe workshop of the Bristol Old Vic.

Gown of pale pink on white toile with a satin-striped-gauze-over-silk underskirt, the memory of which surfaced in the painting at the top of this page. The costume was for dancer Sandy Hamilton, who worked regularly with me throughout my career as a choreographer, though this was not her at the costume-fitting, but a maker from the wardrobe department standing in for her. The genius of a wardrobe supervisor working with me at the time was Terry Parr of the Welsh National Opera, who I adored. It was she who taught me this trick of layering transparent fabrics over silks and satins, so that when the dancer pirouetted her skirts would fly and the slippery layers slide against each other to create shimmering effects of light and movement. Later, when I went to Theatr Clwyd to direct and stage-design for the company, Terry came with me to be my costume designer.

penparc cottage still-life drawings

This is by way of a follow-up to yesterday’s post of drawings I made last week of the garden at Penparc Cottage. From the archive I’ve trawled these images of work made at the cottage when I was preparing for an exhibition of still-life paintings. They were made in a frenzy of creativity. Time was short and the many drawings were swift. Pages and pages of them. I love working like this, when the energy flows and there’s barely time to think. Nothing studied or laboured over, but just speed and the impulse firing twixt eye and hand. I don’t know where the drawings are now. Quite a lot sold, so I’m glad we photographed them.

new still-life underway

Working backwards from how things look at the end of the third day at the easel. One more session should see the hellebore added and the painting completed.

Lots to think about with this one. The original drawing was swift and sure and the paint is going down fast. I need to get in the detail without destroying the strong architecture.

I changed the bold black on white design of my Scottie Wilson jug because as soon as I’d painted in the shadow to the right of each object, I realised I didn’t want anything else in the composition to be that dark. The sea is relatively simple with a fresh feel to the wet-on-wet mark-making. I must add the planned hellebores without obscuring too much of what’s already looking good. The whole thing is a juggling-act. Let’s hope I don’t drop any balls.

still-life from the archive


Above: still-life painted on Heinz Koppel’s easel in 2006. This is the same foliate-head jug I recently painted in Arenig.

I’ve been producing still-life intermittently almost from the beginning of my career as a painter. I have little flurries of activity when the genre completely absorbs me for a while, and then I stop until the next time. In the beginning it was a way to absorb biographical elements of my life… and of the lives of those close to me… into my painting. Later I began to paint still-life because I loved the formality, the arrangements of shapes almost always placed against a landscape. I find the process calms me. When we moved to Aberystwyth and stayed for a year with our friend Pip Koppel while we looked for a house, she and I worked in her pottery studio with clay, making earthenware for the kitchen of the house Peter and I would eventually purchase, Ty Isaf. Later Pip loaned me the studio of her late husband, Heinz Koppel, and for a few months at his easel I produced paintings of the earthenware I’d made in her workshop. I had to be really careful not to get any of my paint on the easel, which was tough because I am such a messy worker!


Today I’ve been trawling the archive for still-life images, and I’ve posted a good many of them on one of my Pinterest boards, HERE.

John Maltby and Scottie Wilson


Two recurring pieces in my still-life paintings are the John Maltby pelican with pendant fish on its outstretched wings, and a milk-jug by the outsider artist, Scottie Wilson. (I have the coffee-pot and sugar-bowl too, though I’ve only painted those a couple of times.)

Today I started a new work at the easel in which both appear, together with a cowrie-shell and a bunch of hellebores for the jug. (I shan’t cut and bring the flowers to the studio until I’ve laid in the background paint over which they’ll be added. Beth Adams at Phoenicia Publishing particularly requested the hellebores, of which many varieties grow here at Ty Isaf.)

Pencil on gessoed panel

Here are some past paintings in which the Maltby pelican and the Wilson milk-jug have appeared, occasionally together. For me they are like characters in an ever unfolding drama, and I never tire of painting them.