The Pleasure of Pollock’s

 

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Wonderful things may be seen at Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop in Covent Garden. The Hansel & Gretel Toy Theatre features in the Christmas-themed Pollock’s window situated in the Covent Garden precinct, while in the first-floor shop a glass cabinet overflows with the toy theatre, together with a marvellous cast of the inhabitants of Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, iced gingerbread men, assorted Harlequins, Punch and Judy puppets, Russian Dolls, Witch’s cats and just about every treasure any lucky child might wish to find crammed into the toe of a Christmas-stocking! Bliss.

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Below: A Covent Garden street lamp sheds golden light to warm the winter chill, while Hansel & Gretel ride safely home on the back of a friendly duck.

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Two of Everything

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2017 is my year of Hansel and Gretel. Two projects on the theme are now completed, printed and available for purchase. The picture book published by Random Spectacular is available from the publisher, while the toy theatre kit published by Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop is available both from the shop in Covent Garden and online.

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They share common elements, though have separate characters and serve quite different purposes. The Random Spectacular publication was always intended as an ‘artist’s book’. In it I had the freedom to be as dark as I liked in my expression of the story.

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By contrast the Pollock’s project took a more playful approach, inspired by the traditions of the toy theatre as practiced by the great publisher of paper stages and the plays produced for them, Benjamin Pollock.

The two projects developed pretty much in tandem, as the arrangement with Pollock’s followed closely on my discussions about the book with Simon Lewin. And while there was no requirement from either publisher that the book and the toy theatre should in any way link, for my own part I wanted there to be a bridge between the two.

The Pollock’s toy theatre wasn’t conceived as an adaptation of the picture book. Rather my thinking on it was that the children of the picture book had survived their travails and moved on, travelling to London where a theatrical producer with an eye to the main chance had persuaded them to appear in a stage version of their own story. This ‘back-story’ was not something that needed to be stated in the sales material for the theatre, but was more by way of what I needed in order to better serve the subject. Just as an actor needs to create a history for a character in order to better play the role, so I needed to create a plausible route for Hansel and Gretel from the book that recounts their story, to the toy theatre that presents it in a changed form.

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Publisher Simon Lewin was incredibly generous in his support of the picture book. He was patient with the time it took for me to produce the images, nurturing the project to completion without making any compromises on the quality we both saw as being essential to our joint vision. The design of the book required a lot of attention to detail, not least because of the several fold-out pages that had to align exactly when in the closed position. It was essential, too, that the book lay flat when open, so that none of the image details were lost in the ‘gutter’, which is the valley caused by the stapling together of pages.

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At Pollock’s, Louise Heard and her team were equally painstaking in seeing through the production of the toy theatre kit. The project called for meticulous realisation because three of the six construction sheets were illustrated on both sides, which required precise alignment at the printing stage. Although small in scale I had ambitions for the model to be a fully functioning toy theatre, with 6 backcloths, 2 side-wings and all the characters and props necessary for a performance of the play.

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I wrote a script to be included with the model, and painted a theatre poster for the production.

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I know that all this provided considerable challenges for everyone concerned, and yet Louise never for a moment balked at the extra work involved. The little stage had to be proofed and trialled over and over to ensure the instructions were accurate and that every aspect of the model worked.

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As the idea behind the toy theatre was that it should represent a ‘stage’ version of the ‘real’ story as expressed in the picture book, I made the children the same in both, though they’re dressed rather more picturesquely for their stage adventures than the neat school uniforms they wear in the book.

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The book’s angry mother, with her slovenly appearance and her face pulled taut by the too-tightly fastened rollers in her hair, is portrayed on stage by a plump and mumsy peasant in a headscarf, deeply concerned that her children are missing in the wood, while the visceral horror of the cannibal witch with her prosthetic nose that she rips aside to better smell Hansel with her wormy nasal cavity, in the play is a less disturbing, more traditional fairy tale crone.

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I like the idea that the stage version wipes away the nightmare of what the children in reality endured, transforming it with glitter and evasions into an acceptable entertainment.

It’s interesting to compare the imagery. The palette is far more vivid and toy-like in the Pollock’s Hansel & Gretel, whereas the book takes a more delicate approach to colour.

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The Witch’s house is similar in both versions, though the stage version comes garnished with icing-sugar decorations.

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In the book Hansel is thrown into a cage by a lumbering, zombie-like gingerbread monster, and locked in to be fattened up for the cooking-pot. He suffers the same fate in the stage version, though there the gingerbread men are small and distinctly less threatening.

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While the Witch is grotesque in both versions, for the stage she is less extreme.

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The friendly Duck is yellow in the book, and pink in the toy theatre…

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… while the oven turns from blue in the book to red for the stage, and leaves out the skull and flames of the former.

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It’s not possible to get away from the fact that the original Hansel & Gretel by the Grimm Brothers is deeply disturbing. Hansel’s fate is to be cooked and eaten, but opportunist Gretel shoves the cannibal Witch into an oven first, slams the door and leaves her to be burned to cinders. No matter how much you gussy up the tale with gingerbread and icing-sugar, it has murder, or at the very least, manslaughter, at its heart. In the picture book I tinkered with the details and ratcheted up the horror. For the toy theatre version I toned down the monstrousness and conjured a picturesque world more suitable for a plaything. The two nevertheless remain linked, and for those in-the-know, they’re intended as companion pieces.

You may purchase the toy theatre

HERE

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and the book, HERE

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Out of these twin publications, picture-book and toy theatre, a third Hansel & Gretel project has been born that will carry the ideas explored so far into new and exciting territories and collaborations. I’ll write about it here when I am able. But you should know that the story is not over yet!

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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!