Little Acorns

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The Toytown Toy Theatre that Daniel Bugg and I made this year as the Penfold Press Christmas card is a tiny thing, though the screen-printed 2 x A4 sheet kit took a lot of planning and producing. Originally we’d intended there to be a third sheet with the instructions. But that would have added significantly to the cost and effort of production, so given the model was quite simple, we decided to let the recipients figure out how to assemble it unaided.

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First of all there were some sketches, then a model or two. I tried various ideas. At one time there was to be a ship at sea with a merman blowing a triton cresting the waves at the stage front. Then I had the notion of a toy-train with steam, and finally, a toy-duck with a top-hat as a steam funnel! Originally the stage front was more of a traditional proscenium.

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I’m not quite sure what prompted me to turn it into a toy town, nor where all the strange creatures that decorate it came from. It’s a bit of a mystery too, that while the roofs of the buildings are crusted with fallen snow, there are spring tulips decorating the front of the stage. Perhaps in Toytown all the seasons come together!

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I rendered the artwork onto film ready for Dan to turn into screens, and finally, the sheets were printed by him at his Penfold Press studio in Barlby.

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Dan sent me a clutch of construction sheets for my own use, and my last job was to snip and glue a theatre so that Peter and I had one for our mantelpiece. It was the centrepiece at Christmas, but long after the other decorations came down, it remained, and it remains there still, wishing anyone who cares to look, Toytown ‘Yuletide Greetings!’

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For my friend Susan, long lost but now found.

I wrote the following in 1998 for the Pelham Puppet Collectors’ Magazine, and it was published in issue No. 10, illustrated with a brush and ink drawing I’d made of my own ‘Bimbo’ puppet.  In 2016, Susan Wilmott contacted me at my Facebook page, over fifty years since we’d last seen each other. I know she has never read what I wrote in 1998, and so here it is, dedicated to her.

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Bimbo

‘In the 1950’s my family lived in an Edwardian terraced house in a suburb of Newport called Maindee. My early years were idyllic, and from the dizzying perspective of middle age, it seems in memory that this childhood realm was a map of delights such as were once found in the endpapers of favourite books. At the bottom is the pocket-handkerchief sized park where I played. To the left is my Nan’s house, bolt-hole and tuck-shop when I was in trouble with my parents. At the top is the wooden shack of the newsagent’s, fragrant with tar and boiled sweets and crammed under the railway bridge like a swallow’s nest glued to the eaves. On Saturdays I’d loiter over selecting comics from the counter, praying that a train would pass over while I was inside so I could experience the thrill of the little building rattling and lurching fit to slip its moorings. At the heart of the map stands our house, red brick and plain, primly aproned with privet at the front though concealing at the back a marvellous and unruly wilderness of cottage garden where rambling roses, honeysuckle and orange blossom tumbled above the massed bedding flowers that were my father’s pride and my mother’s joy. Overlooking the garden, my bedroom, repository of dreams, books, paper theatres, fossils, old bones and Pelham Puppets. On the map this place bears the legend, ‘Here be treasure!’.

My friend Susan Wilmott lived just around the corner. Both in memory and in school photographs she smiles out shyly, forever in summery cotton frocks under pastel cardigans, her fair hair caught back with plastic slides. Like me she collected Pelham Puppets, and whether by accident or plan, we didn’t seem to double up on what we acquired, between us building quite a varied cast of characters. However, there was a puppet of hers I sorely coveted.

Bimbo was the largest puppet in our joint collection, and both his size and design singled him out as being the most handsome. Susan, always generous, allowed me to play with him whenever I visited. We would lift him reverently from his boxed bed of tissue paper before spinning him like a dervish to unwind his strings, his arms and legs flailing wildly. A weighty and beautifully balanced marionette, the extra joint necessitated by a neck separate to his head enormously extended his potential for subtle animation. His vividly painted clown’s mask conjured both humour and melancholy, but we fretted over his mop of orange rug-wool hair, which we were constantly untangling and smoothing down, resulting in it getting a tad grubby. We were therefore alarmed when we discovered that despite all the care we lavished on him, the rabbit-skin glue attaching wool to scalp had become brittle. Underneath his fringe an unsightly crust of adhesive and paint had crazed and come loose, so poor old Bimbo looked as though he had rampant psoriasis of the hairline. From then on we had to take even greater pains with his appearance, combing his increasingly unravelling fringe forward with our fingers to conceal his disfigurement.

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His outsized composition hands and feet made that wonderfully satisfying clonking noise that I’ll always associate with Pelham puppets, and when I finally acquired a Bimbo of my own a couple of years ago, it was after rejecting many of the later models, which have smaller plastic hands, a change that crucially unbalanced the character’s proportions. Another cost-cutting exercise was the introduction of nylon yarn for his hair, and although Bimbo long remained one of Pelham’s most popular puppets, such parings at quality undoubtedly diminished the charm of later versions for those who remembered how magnificent he’d been in his salad days!

The puppet now in my collection is a ringer for the one owned by Susan. He arrived by post, and when I first glimpse him, cradled in tissue wrapping, my heart lurched and I hurtled back through the years to the perpetual summer of childhood. He had mislaid his bow-tie somewhere, and the sharp-eyed Pelham experts among you will have noticed that I replaced it with one made of a checked fabric, instead of a striped one. That apart he is as pristine as the day he left the Marlborough factory all those years ago, and I wonder what became of the child who once owned and cared for him so well. Whoever he or she was, I’m grateful that Bimbo was clearly cherished. He doesn’t have so much as a knot in his strings.

Clive Hicks-Jenkins.’

Yesterday Susan sent me a photograph I can’t recall having ever seen. It’s dated 1961 and was taken in the playground of the school we attended in Maindee, Newport. Susan is second from the left in the front row, holding marionettes of Bimbo and Gretel, and I’m next to her with my puppet of Pinocchio. Just over my shoulder our friend Vivienne holds Hansel.

It was a sunny day, and many of us are squinting against the sun or have eyes downcast. Look how clean and tidy we are, all pressed pleats, short trousers, cardigans and pullovers. Jayne Venn, second from the right at the back, with her neat, glossy ‘Louise Brooks’ bobbed hair. David Russell in red at the back just behind Vivienne. I remember him as solid, dependable and kindly. Penny Stark, who I had a crush on, directly behind Susan Wilmott. Behind me, head cocked, Susan Hill. Still living in Newport, Susan Hill provided most of the names that I’d forgotten. I was in awe of her because she was so clever. But who’s the boy on the right in the front, wearing a striped sweater and holding a Pelham Ballerina in his left hand? Can’t recall, though I remember his face so well.

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The Toy Town Theatre

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It’s been a long year. For me, and for my partner Peter too, our various projects have kept us hard at work. Peter curated two exhibitions and wrote the catalogues to go with them. Moreover he’s just delivered his manuscript to the publisher on the art of Roger Cecil, and there will be an exhibition next year.

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For me 2016 was largely taken up with three projects: the ongoing series of prints on the theme of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, made in association with Dan Bugg of the the Penfold Press, the halfway point of which was celebrated with an exhibition at the Martin Tinney Gallery earlier this year. There was the publication of Hansel & Gretel (Random Spectacular), which had been two years in the planning and making, and the completion of my work on a forthcoming toy theatre being produced by Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop.

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2017 promises to be just as busy, with a yet to be announced project for the stage – which for the present time I must keep to myself – and the continuation of the Gawain project, due for completion in March 2018.

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For now, and in the sprit of the season’s greetings, the images in this post are of the Toy Town Theatre that Dan Bugg and I produced as a Christmas card for the Penfold Press. Working with Dan has been one of the great pleasures of 2016, and though there were times when we both thought we’d never make our deadlines, of course in the end we did. In the coming year there will be more Gawain work, plus a few surprises, forthcoming from the Penfold Press. Watch this space.

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Hansel & Gretel Toy Theatre

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My work on the forthcoming Pollock’s Toy Theatre of Hansel & Gretel is all but done. Yesterday I packed the nine boards of original artwork in a stout card box and dispatched them via Parcelforce to Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop in Covent Garden. When scanned, printed and packaged as an assembly kit, this third in the series of Pollock’s ‘artist designed’ model theatres will comprise of six A4 cards in a pretty, embossed Pollock’s folder, complete with detailed construction notes.

There’s a proscenium arch and everything needed to build the stage, two ‘house-curtains’ (one for the beginning and another for the curtain-call), backdrops and cut-cloths for the six scenes that make up the play I’ve written to go with the theatre, and twelve characters to bring the story to life. Standing at some ten inches high when constructed, while not a miniature it certainly qualifies as small, though I hope the attention to detail in it will make this toy theatre feel big in spirit.

Below: backdrop for Inside the Witch’s House

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It’s been a tremendous honour to be chosen for the project. The theatre curtain of the model bears Benjamin Pollock’s name, a responsibility that has made me occasionally blanch at the thought of the weight of his reputation on my shoulders. At every stage of the journey – it’s been over eighteen months since I received the commission to create the Hansel & Gretel theatre – I’ve worked to make this contemporary contribution to the Pollock’s aesthetic one that I would be happy to lay before him. I feel as though I’ve achieved this entirely personal goal, though ultimately that will be for others to judge.

Hansel & Gretel

coming soon to

Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop

Covent Garden

Silence in the Woods

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Forgive the silence at the Artlog. The reason is simple. Right now I am consumed with completing the Hansel & Gretel Toy Theatre Kit for Benjamin Pollock’s Toy Shop in Covent Garden. It’s quite a complicated job, designing something not only beautiful, but that also works in terms of being relatively simple to cut out and make. This morning I’ve been writing the assembly instructions and I don’t think in my life I’ve felt quite such a burden of responsibility for making words clearly convey meaning. (I recall all those cut-out toys of my childhood that went horribly wrong because the instructions misdirected me!)

But the silence is largely due to being unable to share the images I’m producing, because the people at Pollock’s understandably want to keep the design under wraps until the launch. Everything has to be a secret until then.

But I can tell you that there will be plenty of scenery by way of back-cloths and cut-cloths, with kuchen-cottages, gloomy kitchens, blazing ovens, haunted woods and confectionary galore. Moreover this production should satisfy the most ardent toy theatre enthusiasts with the number of characters I’ve managed to fit in into a small space, including – apart from the usual suspects – the Witch’s Cat, a friendly Duck, some Gingerbread Men and a couple of Monster Trees.

Scissors and glue at the ready!

Lizzie Organ, ‘a fairy godmother for artists’

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Ashbrook House in the village of Clyro, just outside the book-town of Hay-on-Wye, was where the Reverend Francis Kilvert lived and wrote his famous diaries. Artist Lizzie Organ and her partner, portrait painter Eugene Fisk, acquired the house and commissioned a full scheme of restoration of the external fabric from the architectural practice of Nicholas Keeble Associates. This included complete re-roofing of the house in natural slate, numerous repairs to the original joinery and restoration of the magnificent 100-pane gothic window over the staircase.

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A decorative lead-roofed canopy with a gothic balustrade was made locally and added to the stone-stepped front entrance.

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When the work was completed, Lizzie opened the ground-floor and cellar rooms as galleries at weekends, and by arrangement on weekdays. The spaces were full of beautiful furniture, paintings and objects, most of them for sale. When the galleries were closed the rooms reverted to Lizzie’s and Eugene’s private use. It was a clever juggling act. Lizzie held several mixed exhibitions a year, with occasional shows for featured artists.

Visitors came as much to see and be inspired by the house as to purchase art. Lizzie’s creation was an exercise in the combination of business and lifestyle. She gave people a glimpse of how they might live. She always did her utmost to persuade artists who had the skills, to make small, beautiful and relatively inexpensive objects for her themed exhibitions, because she said people loved to buy something affordable by an artist they admired, even if that artist’s paintings were too expensive for their pockets. And buy they did.

The Summer and Christmas exhibitions were always a triumph. In this way I was persuaded by Lizzie to make a eight place-mats for her ‘Christmas Dining-Room’ themed exhibition. The set had relief chequerboard patterns, was finished in faux-patinated bronze and it sold in about ten minutes. For her ‘Box of Delights’ show I made a folk-inspired faux-bronze house with the roof as the lid. That went to the USA.

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At Christmas the reception-room/shop of the gallery (see above) always had a selection of my tiny hand-painted pantomime toy theatres, each with a single character on the matchbox-sized stage: Priscilla the Goose from ‘Mother Goose’, Dick Whittington’s cat and and a pantomime horse among them.

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Lizzie encouraged me to make objects. She believed that painters were the better for extending themselves through the act of making. Thanks to her a foundation was laid for my studio practice that has continually supported my painting with acts of exploration. I still make toy theatres and decorative objects.

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From time to time I make ‘postal’ art, as I first did at her request. I made these ‘Fairy-Tale’ envelopes for a Kilvert Gallery postal art exhibition, the paper drenched in black ink and the addresses written with a mapping-pen dipped in bleach! (Apologies for the poor  images, digitised from slightly out-of-focus transparencies.)

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I build articulated paper maquettes too, that are models for paintings, but have additionally carried me into the realms of film-making and animation. Lizzie would greatly approve of it all.

When Lizzie neared the end her life, Ashbrook House closed for business. Her funeral in 2009, like the gallery she’d presided over, was an example of creativity in action. At Clyro Church she was arrayed in all her silken finery in an open casket of basketweave, decked in her ‘Barbarian Queen’ jewellery. While the vicar played his violin in the nave, a beautifully groomed and ostrich-plumed horse was led in circuits of the church, high-stepping a stately pavane that ended at the graveside. Peter wrote Lizzie’s obituary for The Guardian. The strap-line read: ‘She traded high society for the Welsh borders to become a fairy godmother for artists.’ And that she did. She was certainly my fairy godmother, kick-starting my career as an artist, and I was not the only one.

Ashbrook House was sold. Without Lizzie at the helm there could be no Kilvert Gallery. These days it’s a private residence.

Lizzie began showing my paintings in mixed exhibitions at the Kilvert Gallery after my partner Peter had shown her a portfolio of my work. In 1996 when she asked me which of her regular artists I’d like to have a two-man show with, I unhesitatingly chose Charles Shearer, whose work I greatly admired.  At the exhibition my paintings were on the ground-floor and Charles’ prints and paintings were in the cellar that opened onto the garden and the brook that ran through it. We’ve been friends ever since.

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I was in awe of Charles, but thought the challenge of having a show with him might spur me on to be a better painter. I think it very likely did.

Below: Armistice, painted for my first one-man exhibition at the Kilvert Gallery in 1996.

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Resurrecting Trevor

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First there was my father, Trevor. In 1999 I was at his bedside as he died. I had to lean in and watch closely, to be sure of the moment. When it came it was as intangible as the faintest wisp of smoke, half-seen out of the corner of my eye. I looked so hard I almost stopped breathing, and then he was gone, his cool, unmoving hand a deadweight in mine.

From 2000 onwards I drew him into my grief, while my friend and his, Catriona Urquhart, watched and wrote what would become the text for my 2001 exhibition and an edition of poems published by The Old Stile Press, under the collective title of The Mare’s Tale.

I made many images. First the studies, wrenched out of sadness, and thereafter the giant drawings made on the floor of our dining-room in Plasturton Avenue. I begrimed myself with black Conté pencil that stained the cracks in my fingers and transferred in smears as I wiped my sweaty face. I must have looked like a madman, crawling over the images, buffing their surfaces to a slatey sheen with knees getting stiffer by the month. When finally I came to his likeness, I wept incessantly. It was too painful to make. I’d left it as an absence in the black surface, but with the drawing completed save for his face, the task couldn’t be put off any longer. I repeatedly had to dry the paper out, and so I know there’s hidden salt in the fibre of it. Sometimes I wonder whether one day it’ll emerge, like crusted sadness on the surface, the way salts emerge out of old bricks, and stonework. That would be an interesting one for the paper-conservators, charged with erasing grief from an artwork.

Above: Tend

A decade after I’d completed The Mare’s Tale, I was persuaded to give permission for a ‘performance work’ to be created for a chamber orchestra, inspired by the drawings and what lay behind them. This would require a collaboration with the composer Mark Bowden. I agreed, and elected Damian Walford Davies to be the librettist, because we’d worked together before. He knew my story intimately, and through me my father’s story. He also knew and had written about Catriona’s poems. (She’d died too young in 2005, The Mare’s Tale the only volume of poetry published in her lifetime.) Damian’s narrative was a fiction, a psychological ghost story, though conjured from some of the biographical facts of my father’s life. The title was borrowed from the original series of drawings, as were the ‘secrets’ buried in Trevor’s childhood memories. Two key scenes were lifted directly from my accounts of what had happened to him. Though this was hard-to-negotiate and dark terrain, I felt safe in Damian’s hands, and in Mark’s. Trevor became Morgan, in the new story, and he would be played by the singer Eric Roberts.

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In 2013, a single, fully-staged  performance of the fledgling work was given at Theatr Brycheiniog in Brecon. I designed and directed it. Morgan’s nightmares… my father’s nightmares… were given form though the medium of puppetry and animation. The drama was played out on a set I created to reflect the bleached sepulchres of  the original Mare’s Tale drawings.

From drawing (above) to set (below).

Puppeteers Anne Morris and Diana Ford gave sinister life to the various apparitions, and scale was added by an on-stage video crew filming the effects and streaming them to a screen suspended above the action.

Topographical models were filmed and projected onto the screen, to compass Morgan’s cramped world.

From concept drawing…

… to rehearsal.

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I ruthlessly pared back the turbulence of my drawings from the stage imagery. I wanted the production to be visually stark, to give space to the music and text. Mark and Damian built from their own materials what I had once made out of densely-worked Conté pencil.

Eric Roberts was astounding as Morgan Seyes. In the scene where the character, fevered and enveloped in tangled bedsheets, believed that the Mari Lwyd had returned to claim him, the lines between performance and reality blurred, and Eric/Morgan became Trevor.

I didn’t set out to resurrect my father when I began work on the stage presentation of The Mare’s Tale. In rehearsals, as I began to understand where the last scene was going, it came as a shock. The visceral power of Eric’s performance shook everyone present. Our perceptive dramaturge, Helen Cooper, stepped quietly forward to continue helping, while I retreated to the back of theatre to let her, the music, the text, the lighting and the actor do their work.

 …

Chronology of The Mare’s Tale, 2001 – 2015

2001: The Mare’s Tale opens at Newport Museum and Art Gallery. An illustrated catalogue accompanies the exhibition

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The Old Stile Press publish The Mare’s Tale, their edition of Catriona Urquhart’s poems accompanied by Clive Hicks-Jenkins’ illustrations

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The Contemporary Art Society for Wales purchases Stumbles and Cannot Rise (below) from The Mare’s Tale, and the drawing subsequently enters the collection of Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales

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Brecknock Museum and Art Gallery purchase The Mari Lwyd Approaches (below) from The Mare’s Tale 

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2002: new works in the Mare’s Tale series form an expanded exhibition at Brecknock Museum and Art Gallery under the title The Tower on the Hill

Selected drawings from The Mare’s Tale appear in Dreaming Awake at the Terezín Memorial Gallery, and subsequently tour to four venues in the Czech Republic

2005: Catriona Urquhart dies. Her poetic text for The Mare’s Tale includes Pegasus, in which she reflects on Trevor’s last months and his death. However so apposite is the poem to her own failing health and intimations of mortality, that Clive Hicks-Jenkins reads it at her funeral.

2011: the artist’s sixtieth birthday is celebrated with a major retrospective in the Gregynog Gallery of the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth. Many of The Mare’s Tale drawings are gathered for the occasion from private collections and institutions

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Lund Humphries publish Clive Hicks-Jenkins, a monograph. Montserrat Prat contributes an essay titled Metamorphosis of a Folk Tradition, in which she explores the drawings of The Mare’s Tale

2012: The Mare’s Tale, a work for chamber-orchestra and actor, is commissioned by the Mid Wales Chamber Orchestra from composer Mark Bowden and librettist Damian Walford Davies. The piece takes its inspiration and its title from the 2001 series of Mari Lwyd drawings by Clive Hicks-Jenkins

2013: a fully staged performance of the chamber-work The Mare’s Tale, is given by the Mid Wales Chamber Orchestra at Theatr Brycheiniog in Brecon. It is designed and directed by Clive Hicks-Jenkins. Helen Cooper is the Dramaturge. The role of Morgan Seyes is played by Eric Roberts

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2015: Eric Roberts and Damian Walford Davies read extracts from the libretto of The Mare’s Tale at a special event held during Clive Hicks-Jenkins most recent explorations of the Mari Lwyd theme in Dark Movements at Aberystwyth Arts Centre. At the event Mary-Ann Constantine reads from Catriona Urquhart’s collection of Mare’s Tale poems.

Below: Eric Roberts reads at the Aberystwyth Arts Centre

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Jane’s Dream, a film by Clive Hicks-Jenkins and Pete Telfer based loosely on Damian Walford Davies’ libretto for The Mare’s Tale, is screened in the gallery throughout the Dark Movements exhibition. Original music for Jane’s Dream is by composer Peter Byrom Smith

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