In a World of My Own Making

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Hansel & Gretel Toy Theatre for Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop, Covent Garden, 2017.
Above: artwork for the Benjamin Pollock’s Hansel & Gretel Toy Theatre.

I should say up front that I never set out to be a designer or maker of toy theatres. I love the whole idea of toy theatre and I’m an aficionado of the form. I collect toy theatre ephemera and have from earliest memory. My discovery of 19th century toy theatre sheets as a child was a significant influence on getting me to stage school as a young teenager for the training I’d need for a life of theatre, and while there I found my way, of course, to Benjamin Pollock’s Museum and Toyshop in Fitzrovia, which place still thrills over fifty years on.

Above: Benjamin Pollock at his Hoxton shop.
Above: design of a toy theatre proscenium for the Sussex Lustreware range of Harlequinade tableware.
Design for a joint-Penfold Press/Hicks-Jenkins Christmas card. (Well who doesn’t love a pair of birds in top-hats sitting on windmills or a duck on wheels pulling a cart?)

So all of those things link up for me: love of toy theatre, love of theatre and love of Pollock’s. But what I didn’t see coming was that I would occasionally find myself designing toy theatres. That, was a surprise.

Above: Beauty & Beast Toy Theatre, designed in collaboration with David W. Slack for Design for Today. (Photograph of Jennifer Castle courtesy of Ross Boyask.)

As a stage designer in my thirties, my background of toy theatre undoubtedly influenced the way I thought about stages and the way pictures on them were presented to audiences. Always the sense of a frame and what’s seen through it, which is not so very far from looking at a painting in a frame on a wall.

Above: commissioned Toy Theatre for an as-yet-unreleased horror film.
Above: large toy theatre made as a studio aid.
Above: two of my toy theatres at Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop, Covent Garden.
Above: illustration of a toy theatre in Simon Armitage’s Hansel & Gretel: a Nightmare in Eight Scenes for Design for Today, 2019.
Above: backdrop for the Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop Hansel & Gretel Toy Theatre.

Reference and Adaptation in ‘Harlequinade’ for Sussex Lustreware

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When Susan Williams-Ellis of the Portmeirion Pottery designed her Pantomime range in the 1960s, the records indicate she found the images in a book published by Pollock’s. Mention is made of the engravings being too faint to successfully reproduce on china, which may well be true, though by re-drawing them she will also have sidestepped photographic copyright issues. Whatever the full truth of the matter, her ink drawings were dark and sharp, and they reproduced with clarity.

Portmeirion ‘Pantomime’ ware designed by Susan Williams-Ellis

All the reference material for the Sussex Lustreware Harlequinade range of ceramics has come from my own collection of 19th century toy theatre sheets. Because there were so many printmakers producing these – Green, Skelt, Redington, Pollock etc – I did quite a lot of adaptation so that Harlequinade would have the unity of a single visual aesthetic. Some of my drawings stayed fairly close to the original material, but occasionally I ‘improved’ the designs so as to be what I needed to work for the collection, while always staying firmly within the bounds of the toy theatre ‘style’. My collaborator at Sussex Lustreware, Gloria, came up with the idea of using freehand lustre swags to link the transfer-ware vignettes of the audience around the edges of plates.

Susan Williams-Ellis had rendered her ‘Pantomime’ designs in pen and ink. I drew mine in soft black pencil scanned in greyscale to make transfers ready for applying and firing to the earthenware. Neither Susan’s ink drawings made in the 1960s or my pencil drawings made last year mimic the engravings that were our inspirations, but each of us made what we knew would reproduce well on white ceramic. My pencil drawings have the same silvery tone as some of the old engravings, and the results look particularly good when combined with the soft gleam of pink lustre.

The Golden Beehive Inn is a backdrop from Whittington and his Cat or Harlequin Lord Mayor of London, re-printed by Benjamin Pollock from the play originally produced by Green and then Redington. (The origins of plays can be tangled as toy theatre printmakers frequently re-engraved earlier plates, replacing the original makers’ names with their own.) The Whittington engravings are quite crude, though have a pleasing naive boldness and vigour, and the scene of the inn on a harbour is one I liked so much that I kept returning to it. I combined it on a mug with ‘street’ characters from Green’s The Castle of Otranto or Harlequin and the Giant Helmet, including a ‘Postman’ and an ‘Egg-seller’.

The Golden Beehive from Whittington and his Cat
Postman from The Castle of Otranto
Egg Woman from The Castle of Otranto

Occasionally an original engraving required quite a bit of ‘adaptation’ to produce the image I required for Harlequinade. Clown Riding a Donkey was one such, as I wanted an illustration with much cleaner lines and a better definition of the subject matter than provided in the engraving.

Popular poses and groupings of characters from Harlequinades appear repeatedly in 19th century sheets, drawn by different artists for various publishers. Sometimes I adapted from more than one version of a particular design, as in this drawing for Clown and Pantaloon having a tea-party, reproduced on the Sussex Lustreware Harlequinade teapot.

Groupings of Harlequin characters in a pyramid are enormously popular on toy theatre character sheets, usually with Columbine at the apex.

Above, my drawing for a pyramid of Harlequinade performers, and below, the reference on a sheet by the publisher Skelt. I replaced the two ‘Imps’ with performing dogs.
Sussex Lustreware Teapot with a Harlequinade ‘pyramid’

Pieces from the Harlequinade range may be purchased direct from Sussex Lustreware

HERE

If you can’t see what you want in the shop, then you may order any piece by leaving a request at the contact button.

Woman in a Bunker

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In 2016 Random Spectacular published a picture-book of my dark re-working of the fairy tale Hansel & Gretel. There was no text, save what I hand-lettered into the illustrations.

The following year Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop in Covent Garden commissioned a toy theatre kit from me, based on the book.

In response to the two publications, Goldfield Productions engaged me to direct and design a stage production. Hansel & Gretel: a Nightmare in Eight Scenes with music by Matthew Kaner and a libretto by Simon Armitage, was created for a chamber consort, a narrator/singer and two puppeteers, and it premiered at the 2018 Cheltenham Music Festival followed by a five month tour.

Simon Armitage meets Gretel for the first time at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama.

A matinee at the Barbican was recorded and broadcast by BBC Radio 3 Christmas week 2018.

The following year Design for Today published a hardback edition of Simon Armitage’s libretto that I illustrated, and in 2020 it won me the V&A Illustrated Book Award. 

Bombs destroy the children’s formally idyllic world.

In 2023 there’s to be a major exhibition of my work on the theme of Hansel & Gretel at Oriel Myrddin in Carmarthen. The exhibition is to include original artworks made for the several publications, my project books, maquettes and preparatory works.

Auditions for puppeteers at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama.
Lay-out for an illustration from my project book.

There will be many items from the stage production, including shadow puppets created by Peter Lloyd, set models built by Phil Cooper, vintage toys that I loaned to the production and a huge doll’s house, the inside of which I decorated and filmed to represent the interior of the Witch’s lair.

Peter Lloyd’s shadow puppet for the Witch being animated by me. Photograph by permission of Phil Cooper, who was my wonderful design assistant on the production.

Designer Phillip Cooper animating Lebkuchen he’d made for the production.

One of several animations from the production used to illustrate Hansel and Gretel’s imaginative worlds of play.

My little Russian clockwork singing bird (she was made in St Petersburg) appeared in the stage production, and then in the book published by Design for Today.

Permission for a loan to the gallery of the puppets of Hansel and Gretel designed by me for the production, has been turned down by Goldfield’s Artistic Director, Kate Romano. She gave dislike of me as her reason. Given that the costs of designing and making the puppets had been paid for out of an Arts Council grant, and given the budget was so tight that I personally paid a costume designer to create a wardrobe for them, her decision seems at best ill-judged. As the director of a charitable trust which has been extensively funded from philanthropic organisations, anyone might expect better from her than this. The exhibition will be especially appealing to children, and for a registered charity to deny a ‘museums accredited’ gallery the opportunity to inspire young minds with such beautiful examples of the art of puppet-making, is not merely perplexing, but frankly shameful.

I approached the Chair of the Goldfield Trust, Caroline Clegg, hoping that she might persuade Kate to change her mind and save the company from public scrutiny into a matter that looks very bad for both of them. It would be hard to tell from Caroline’s e-mail that she and I know each other, having both worked on the production for months when she was appointed by Kate as dramaturg to it. Weirdly, both her e-mails to me make it sound as though we’ve never met before. This has added another layer of the surreal to what has frequently felt decidedly strange when dealing with Kate Romano and Caroline Clegg. Here’s Caroline’s second e-mail to me:

Dear Mr Hicks-Jenkins,

In response to your recent request the Trustees of Goldfield Productions support Ms Romano’s decision not to loan the Hansel and Gretel puppets.

Kind regards

Ms Caroline Clegg

as Chair of Goldfield Productions

Why am I writing about all this now, so long after the event? Certainly not to persuade Kate Romano to change her mind about loaning the puppets. Over four years I’ve several times held out a hand of reconciliation in the hope of encouraging her to set aside resentments so we may together protect the legacy of what we made. I was and remain proud of my work on the stage production of Hansel & Gretel, and want to be able to share what was achieved in the exhibition. However everything I’ve written to Kate has gone unacknowledged and unanswered. There’s been not one e-mail reply to any of my attempts to lower the temperature of her antagonism. She is down a bunker in this matter, refusing to engage, and such behaviour in the world the way it is right now, is not a good look for anyone, let alone an arts administrator. Today I’m writing this because many are beginning to ask whether the puppets are going to be in the exhibition. Luckily because we have an ample record of the puppets in drawings, photographs and videos, they will be seen, though not be present.

It would be easier in many ways just to make a simple excuse for their absences which skates around what’s happened, but I see no reason to do that when Kate Romano and Caroline Clegg should clearly be the ones to explain why they’ve made the decision to hide the puppets from public view.

Puppeteers Di Ford and Lizzie Wort, who brilliantly brought Hansel and Gretel to life.

Simon’s reinvention of the fairy tale, is eerily prescient of what we’re seeing now in Ukraine. The puppets would have meant a great deal to many visitors had Kate Romano found it in her heart to lend them to the gallery, but she did not. The puppets were conceptualised and designed by me, their making supervised by me, in part funded by me and their performances on stage, shaped by me together with puppeteers Di and Lizzie. Kate’s reason for refusing the gallery loan appears to be all about personal enmity, which is troubling in a CEO in the performing arts. Anyone who feels that she made a decision that requires explanation, might take it up with her.

Kate Romano, CEO and Artistic Director of Goldfield Productions (Registered charity: 1173427) and CEO of Stapleford Granary Arts Centre.

The Pollock’s Legacy

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Ralph Richardson added by photographic trickery to a Pollock’s toy theatre stage

It’s largely forgotten these days that the actor Ralph Richardson was significant in the preservation of the toy theatre tradition. Benjamin Pollock, the last of the print-making toy theatre sellers, died in 1937. Thereafter his daughters ran the shop in Hoxton Street until damage sustained during the Blitz forced its closure.

Benjamin Pollock in his Hoxton shop

Alan Keen, a local bookseller, together with Richardson, picked up the threads of Benjamin Pollock’s business and remaining stock, and together carried forward the tradition, enlisting practitioners of the art of toy theatre, famous artists and renowned actors to assist them. George Speaight was an historian, enthusiast and collector of toy theatre ephemera, who in 1946 published the still unsurpassed textbook of the toy theatre tradition, Toy Theatre, and he was among those Keen and Richardson worked with.


Richardson’s celebrity ensured the added lustre of luminaries such as Laurence Olivier and playwright J. B. Priestly stepping forward to promote the art of toy theatre. Olivier agreed to a toy theatre adaptation of the 1948 film of Hamlet, which he’d directed and starred in. Published by what was now being called ‘Benjamin Pollock Ltd’, the Hamlet toy theatre is a curious thing, quite wan in many ways because the ‘puppets’ are all tinted photographs of the actors from the film, while the sets are sketchy if atmospheric black and white drawings by the film’s production designer Roger Furse.

A far more lavish and full colour affair was The High Toby, with a script by J. B. Priestly and scenery and characters painted by the prominent artist, Doris Zinkeisen.

Ralph Richardson with artist Doris Zinkeisen and a Pollock’s toy theatre

The growing cost of the book outstripped Alan Keen’s available funds, and it was done as a Puffin Cut-Out Book ‘in association’ with Benjamin Pollock Ltd. But even with these celebrity contributors, while the book is very pretty, anyone who has tried to offer a performance will know that it’s less satisfactory as a play than one might imagine given who wrote it, and though Zinkeisen’s settings and characters are lavishly detailed, she took no account of how difficult the puppets would be to cut out, massively compromised by fine details like whips, walking-canes, feathers on hats and the slenderest of wrists.

Moreover even when those hurdles had been clambered over, the characters don’t register particularly well against the backdrops, their drawing-room elegance and soft colours legislating against them. Toy theatre needs a robustness not present here, and The High Toby is toy theatre play that looks far better in the imagination, and on its pages, before scissors, paste and card have been brought into play.

Toy theatre is an art, and not just a physical reduction. A long and complex script isn’t the best accompaniment to a toy theatre performance, and scenery cannot simply be a version of what might be seen in a live theatre. There’s something like alchemy in the process of making a successful adaptation of a story to the reduced script and the reduced stage of a toy theatre. The same rules of drama don’t apply, nor do the rules of perspective used on a full-scale stage with breathing actors. The toy theatre requires its own, unique aesthetic. It’s so much better when allowed to be itself, rather than when trying too hard to ape its origins in the live theatre.

When all the components are in place and a toy theatre can be made to work, it works magnificently. But it’s a form fraught with perils, and more get it wrong than right, and always have. English toy theatre – for it was almost uniquely an English form, practiced most successfully in London, that city of many theatres and printmakers – had a period of unrivalled brilliance. When not made overly sophisticated, and when drawing on the lively tradition of the English printmakers’ ‘Actor Portraits’ of the Regency and nineteenth century, toy theatre was at its best, graphically bold and slightly bonkers. Later it became displaced largely because the far more sophisticated toy theatre imports from France and Europe were catching the eye of the public, and the meteoric rise of native toy theatre faltered when comparisons were being made to the enormously elaborate foreign imports. English Toy theatres were not subtle. They had the character of folk art, and were the perfect vehicles for barnstorming melodramas and that most unique theatrical tradition of these islands, the pantomime. (Harlequinade was a hugely popular entertainment of the English stage, and the characters of Clown, Harlequin and Columbine were endlessly reproduced in toy theatre character sheets.)

Marguerite Fawdry acquired the Pollock’s business in the 1960s, afterwards transferring it from Covent Garden to its current address in Fitzrovia, where there was room for a toy museum over the shop and a basement where the Pollock printing press and stock of engraved plates could be stored. The business has continued as a family affair, now helmed by Marguerite’s great grandson, Jack, in whom the toy theatre tradition is still alive and flourishing. There’s a Pollock’s Trust, too, to lend support to the Museum, led by Chairman Alan Powers.

I was commissioned in 2016 by Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop to design the Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop Hansel & Gretel Toy Theatre, which was published in 2017 and is still available from the shop. The project led to others, most significantly a commission to develop a new stage production of Hansel & Gretel, and in 2018 Hansel & Gretel: a Nightmare in Eight Scenes, a stage production for music ensemble, actors and puppets with a score by Matthew Kaner and a poetic text by Simon Armitage, directed by me, premiered at the Cheltenham Festival of Music before embarking on a tour. A performance of the work before an audience was recorded by BBC Radio 3 and broadcast Christmas week 2018.

In 2019 the text of Hansel & Gretel: a Nightmare in Eight Scenes was published by Design for Today in an edition illustrated by me. In 2020 I won the V&A Illustrated Book Award for my work on it.

In November 2021 Design for Today published my new toy theatre, Beauty & Beast, made in collaboration with Olivia McCannon, who wrote the script, and David W. Slack, who assisted me and designed the model.

The Beauty & Beast Toy Theatre is available from Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop in Covent Garden and Pollock’s Museum and Toyshop in Fitzrovia, and also online from:

Design for Today

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David W. Slack and I are currently making an animated film of Olivia’s play script, with actor Jennifer Castle performing the text.

Clive and David’s Big Adventure: Part 1

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It all began earlier this year with the Hansel & Gretel Toy Theatre I’d designed in 2017 for Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop. David W. Slack and I didn’t know each other, but exchanged a flurry of messages at Instagram about how he was planning to adapt his newly acquired Hansel & Gretel model to include a curved stage-front. Before we knew it we were in regular contact, fuelled by the fact we’re both painters and by our shared passion for Toy Theatre. I was working flat out on the illustrations for my next book with publisher Design for Today, Beauty & Beast, in collaboration with writer Olivia McCanon, and David and I talked about the evolving images for it. In photographs, his finished model of the Pollock’s theatre I’d designed was sharp and meticulous. The man really knew how to cut and construct a toy theatre.

I had a notion to make a very simple toy theatre as a promotion for Beauty & Beast. It would have to be simple because I had no spare time to work on it. Before I tried the idea out on my publisher, Joe, I confided in David about it, casually wondering whether if he had the time he might consider helping me out. As it was going to be a modest project and would hopefully not take up too much of his time, it could be fun. Beyond the sense of ease that made online conversations between us so relaxed, I had the strongest feeling that we needed to collaborate. It was almost an imperative. Luckily he felt the same way and enthusiastically leapt in.

Puppets for a toy theatre

The division of labour evolved with complete ease. I made roughs while David worked confidently to produce the optimum design for the model. Ideas flowed smoothly. We were so attuned that we developed a pattern allowing each of us creative freedom. Once the proscenium arch design had been settled on, David produced prototype toy stages at extraordinary speed, each version improving on the last. By this time he was leading with the design work, briefing me on what I needed to be making. He was drafting scenery, too, often using my completed illustrations made for the book as initial sources. I was having to fit all this between my daily schedule of illustrations for the main book, though things became simpler when David began sending me templates so all I had to do was fill in the shapes with drawing, knowing the ‘fit’ had already been worked out.

David’s prototype toy stages

David’s enthusiasm for the project meant that he was forever coming up with ideas to ‘improve’ outcomes, which meant the dawning realisation for both of us that it was a rather more complete production than we’d anticipated at the outset. Olivia McCannon was enlisted to write the script, a task she undertook with good grace even though it greatly added to her already overburdened work-load. It wasn’t to be a straight adaptation of her beautiful text for the book, but a clever reinvention of a nineteenth century toy theatre pantomime, ingenious and slightly mad. I broke the news to Joe Pearson with some trepidation that we’d gained more construction pages than originally estimated, and that moreover several of them required printing on both sides, which would require meticulous alignment by the printer. Joe took it all in his stride and began costing.

The script was still being written and so we had no idea how many pages it might fill. We began considering the matter of the binding for the toy theatre book, so as for it to be simple to take apart. I’m pretty certain it was David who first suggested we consider not binding, but offering loose construction sheets in a folder, and Joe who came up with the idea of something like an old-fashioned double-LP cover, with half-wallets inside. These were exciting developments because they meant the toy theatre would be unique in its presentation. Joe felt a separate ‘chapbook’ for the script and instructions would be the way forward, slipped into one of the pockets of the folder. The idea of a script in miniature for toy theatre performances was lovely, and mirrored the toy theatre scripts of the nineteenth century. Everyone was in a frenzy of invention and creativity.

Design for the gates to Beast’s Castle

The Allure of Toy Theatre

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Nineteenth century Redington backdrop for Charles II, professionally hand coloured

I first came across Toy Theatre sheets in the 1960s, when as a boy I was given a stack of them by the actor and playwright, Bill Meilen, who thought I might enjoy them. The sheets were a mix from a great many ‘plays’, the quaint titles of which printed along the top edges were all unknown to me. There were a gratifying variety of backdrops, cut cloths, headers, ground-rows and wings, few of which matched up, depicting rural idylls, dense pine forests, mountain passes ripe for bandit attacks, raging storms at sea and buildings that ranged from rustic hovels to fanciful palaces. There were no scripts, no theatre in which to hang the scenes, and no characters either, but I was a resourceful child and deft with my pencils and paints, so the omissions were just challenges I found stimulating. I built myself a toy theatre, and made the characters to fit the scenes.

Some time later, when I left my home in Wales to attend a school in London, I discovered Benjamin Pollock’s Museum and Toyshop, and thereafter I was lost. The toy theatre disease was in my blood, and it was incurable. All my pocket money was spent in the Pollock’s shop, and later theatre became my profession. As a theatre director and designer I was forever making model stages, because that’s how full-size sets are designed. And later, when I began to work as an artist, I returned to that early love of toy theatres, making them as a part of my practice, but also just for pleasure.

Title-page character sheet for Green’s Wapping Old Stairs

Toy theatres are much on my mind right now as I have two shortly-to-be-announced toy theatre-related projects nearing completion. (And I must first offer my apologies for having to hold back on revealing them for a little while longer.) But while clearing my desk in preparation for the next project, I came across a photocopied reference-set of all the characters and scenes for Green’s production of Wapping Old Stairs, published originally in 1845. Lingering over the loose sheets as I numerically ordered them ready to be put away, I had a sudden pang of the old joy and anticipation that came upon me all those decades ago, when first I held sheets of 19th century toy theatre scenery and tried to figure out exactly how to cut and colour and assemble it all into a three dimensional setting just waiting to be filled with the characters I planned to create.

Victorian toy theatre sheets didn’t come with instructions. The scripts, printed and gathered into chapbooks, gave the order of scenes, but the would-be toy theatre producer had to use imagination and ingenuity to get the stage into a performable state, and it’s a fact that for most, the visions in their heads of how the production would look, were infinitely more splendid before clumsiness and impatience had rendered the results disappointing. Colouring the sheets alone was a minefield, as the clarity of black and white became muddied with the inept application of watercolours. The dreams of how wonderful a scene would look when expertly painted and assembled, were what kept me going, the perfect example of optimism overriding past experiences.

The art of Toy Theatre reached magnificent heights in the 19th century. The sheets sold by the print shops and toy-sellers were so beautiful in their pristine states, that any child confronted with hundreds of them pegged out for inspection, must have been incoherent with the agonies of choice and the calculations of how far their pennies would stretch. Characters and scenery for entire plays, including scripts, could be had by those whose pockets were deep. There were even professionally hand-coloured sets available, for those with no skill with watercolours and brushes. For the rest, the productions had to be purchased in plain black and white, a sheet at a time, with each purchase carrying the producer a little closer to the goal of a full production.

Here, in a microcosm of the problems that have historically made toy theatres a challenge for their builders, I show the components of a single scene from Wapping Old Stairs that illustrates how bewilderingly complicated the matter of interpretation can be, and how any misjudgements would almost certainly result in disappointment. On the title-page character-sheet can be found a small vignette of how Scene 3 of the play might look on the stage. Here’s an enlargement of it:

Enlarged decorative vignette of Scene 3 from Wapping Old Stairs

Below, the backdrop itself. It’s different in many details from the vignette. Most notable at even a cursory glance, is that the buildings of the vignette are much more elegant, whereas they’re undeniably stolid and lumpen in the backdrop. Moreover the outside edges of the buildings are visible in the vignette, whereas they’ve been cropped in the backdrop. I wonder which came first, vignette or backdrop. Whichever the order, the sketch above is so sure, and so lively and fresh that I’m certain it’s not by the same hand as the backdrop. (I do have a warm affection for the rather foursquare, naive style of British toy theatre scenery, quite different in character to what was appearing in European toy theatres of the time, so it’s perhaps unfair to draw comparisons between the deftness of the above sketch – which would be a perfect illustration in a book – and the toy theatre backdrop below, which also serves the purpose for which it was made.)

A sheet of 4 x wing-pieces carries the information that they can be used for several of Green’s productions, including Wapping Old Stairs. Confusingly wing sheets didn’t offer the numbers of the scenes they were intended for. It was a question of trial and error and putting them where they best fitted.

So how can we be sure that the wings were meant to accompany this particular scene in Wapping Old Stairs? It’s because, helpfully, an illustration was included with the set of sheets that was intended to convey the full splendour of the scenery when set up on the toy theatre stage, complete with a tableau of the characters in the closing moments of the play, and two of the wings from the sheet of four are flanking the stage.

However the artist has stretched the scene well beyond the edges of the backdrop as provided, and indeed this ‘panorama’ format is not at all representative of the proportions of most British toy theatres, which offered a much more compressed image, side to side.

Enlargement of the ‘panoramic’ scene

In the illustration the wing pieces allow the audience to see the full width of the backdrop, whereas in reality on a stage of the proportions for which this play was designed, even one set of wings would substantially close down the audience’s view of the backdrop. So neither of the two images – not the vignette and not the panorama – may be relied upon as indicators of how the scene will look on the stage, though they’d almost certainly be regarded as reliable by anyone cutting and pasting away and hoping the result would look as good as it does in the illustrations.

So back in the nineteenth century making toy theatres from the sheets sold by print-shops was always a perilous activity, fraught with the anxieties that the results would be disappointing. These days we have the wonders of inkjet so we don’t have to cut up anything irreplaceable, but there is still the business of getting it right, and making something that matches, at least in part, the wonderful dream that we have in our heads of the perfect production.

Nineteenth century toy theatre sheet with original hand colouring

Interview on winning the V&A illustrated Book Award

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Jayne Paddington of Southampton Solent University interviews me:

 

JP: Tell us about the book illustrations you created.

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The book had an unusual beginning. As an artist with a background in theatre, in 2017 I’d been commissioned by a music ensemble to helm a new production of Hansel & Gretel. The producer had seen and been impressed by the Hansel & Gretel Toy Theatre I’d designed for Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop (see above) and wanted to capitalise on the success of that. She’d begun talking with the composer she had in mind for the project, and as I was already collaborating with Simon Armitage on the revised and illustrated edition of his Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Faber & Faber, 2018), I suggested he join us as the librettist/writer.

 

Simon titled his re-working of the fairy tale, Hansel & Gretel: a Nightmare in Eight Scenes, and it previewed at the Cheltenham Music Festival in 2018 before a national tour and a London premiere at the Barbican. A recording of the piece was broadcast by BBC Radio 3 during Christmas week, 2018.

 

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At some point during the pre-production of the show Simon suggested we might work together to produce an illustrated book of his libretto/poem. We discussed the options for publishing and  I recommended we speak with Joe Pearson at Design for Today. When Joe agreed to undertake publication, work on the book began in earnest.

 

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Set in a war zone, Simon’s version of the fairy tale took a completely different tone to the original by the Grimm Brothers by changing the impetus for Hansel and Gretel’s journey from that of abandonment by feckless parents, to an agonised decision by a loving father and mother to send their children away from the bombings.

 

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By this simple change the story became one of love and sacrifice, rather than of duplicity and abandonment. He was very clever too at conveying the degrees to which children mis-hear and misconstrue, and his text is full of moments when the siblings’ actions are based on their misunderstanding of events.

 

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With regard to how the images were made, the overall intention was to capture something of the golden age of lithography printing that both Joe Pearson and I greatly admire. One of the hallmarks of the process is that the images are reproduced on uncoated paper and have a matt finish.

 

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Above: work underway on an illustration, and below: as it appears in the book.

 

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I made the drawings in black pencil, some on paper and some on granular lithography film, with occasional use of collaged textures that I produced myself by various means. I made separate ‘stencils’ in crayons and paints on lithography film for the colours. The layers of drawings and stencils were assembled digitally by the book’s designer, Laurence Beck, which was the point at which the colour was added.

 

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Below: detail of the image as it appears in the book.

 

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Another attractive hallmark of old-school lithography can be the slight mis-registration of the various colours. This is something I’d intentionally cultivated in my artwork for the book, and Laurence was very careful to reproduce the effect in the finished images.

 

JP: How did it feel to win? What will happen now as a result of winning?

 

It’s been a strange time to receive my V&A Illustration Award in a summer when the building has been closed. The event was originally to have taken place at the museum in June, but was indefinitely postponed at the time of lockdown. There was to have been an exhibition of the artwork at the V&A, and that too was cancelled.  I heard about the announcement not from the museum, but from a press release they put out. While it’s very exciting to have been honoured in this way, it can’t be denied that reading about it in an unexpected online press release has not had the excitement factor that an event would have brought to it. I’m guessing they will either hold a smaller event later in the year, or failing that I guess the trophy will be delivered in the post.

JP: Where do you find inspiration for your illustrations?

 

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When you’re working to a text by the poet laureate, you don’t have to look any further than the words. I knew Hansel & Gretel inside out because I’d already designed and directed it for the stage, so I had a very good starting point for the project. Nonetheless, the moment the stage tour was over I began from scratch again with the text, dividing it up and making a very rough dummy copy that set out lines-per-page and earmarked where the images might go. And because the publisher and I had considered that first dummy very carefully, though the details sometimes changed over the period of illustrating, the overall shape and number of pages remained pretty much as we set out at the beginning.

 

The next stage was to make a huge project-book in which I began the process of designing every visual element I intended to show: human characters and what they wear, settings and the moods generated by them, objects, animals and events.

 

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It was exhaustive and stretched to several hundreds of images. (Enough for three books really.) Even if something appeared only once – such as the ‘imagined’ hyena that appears early on – I drew it dozens of times to work out what the image would bring to the book.

 

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For a bridge described by the author as ‘arched like a hissing cat’, I made more than fifty drawings of arch-backed cats, hump-backed-bridges, cat/bridges and bridge/cats, gradually finding the hissing cat/bridge hybrid that best conjured the mood of the scene.

 

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Simon is an incredibly enriching poet to collaborate with, and to do justice to him I find ways of accompanying his texts in ways that will take the reader by surprise. I  begin with the words of course, but often the places most profitable for illustration are the spaces between them.

 

JP: What advice would you give to our students wanting to one day follow in your footsteps?

 

Well they can’t follow in my footsteps, and shouldn’t want to. They should find their own ways, and travel by routes of their own devising. My careers have been various. I didn’t start as an artist, but as a choreographer and director, so I came late to the easel and even later to illustration. My experience is that the wider your interests, the better you’ll be at whatever you do. I don’t go around thinking about illustration all of the time. I read (voraciously) listen to music, study history, try to understand the world, try to understand people and stash away everything I learn in the place marked ‘material to be be used on some future project!’ I study art of all varieties and periods. I collect art, vintage toys (particularly wooden building blocks), textiles, puppets, masks, comics, fossils and books. I’ve collected all my life, whenever I’ve had a bit of spare cash. Some of the things I’ve collected ended up in the stage production of Hansel & Gretel, and migrated from that to the book.

 

Below: from the shelves of my tinplate toy bird cabinet…

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… to the stage production of Hansel & Gretel 

 

… to a double-page spread in the book:

 

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This little cavalryman migrated from my sitting room…

 

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… to an animated sequence in the stage production …

 

 

… to a preparatory drawing for the book …

 

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… to full render separations on paper and lithography film …

 

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… to the final colour book illustration. (Detail)

 

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All my collections fuel my work. I never have to start from scratch with any illustration project. Somewhere in my collection, there will be a starting-point ready made. I just wander around looking at what I have until I find it. It’s a more organic process than trying to conjure something out of nothing.

 

Here’s a link to a little film about the making of Hansel & Gretel.

 

http://www.designfortoday.co.uk/hansel-gretel

 

Clive Hicks-Jenkins, 2020.

 

Hansel & Gretel: a Nightmare in Eight Scenes

Author: Simon Armitage

Illustrator: Clive Hicks-Jenkins

Designer: Laurence Beck

Publisher: Design for Today

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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Hansel & Gretel at Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop

Hansel & Gretel update from the Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop website:

‘NEW! This utterly bewitching illustrated toy theatre recreates the scary story of Hansel & Gretel, tempted into the Wicked Witch’s beautiful gingerbread house. Clive Hicks-Jenkins’ uniquely expressive painterly style evokes the story’s darker undercurrents, yet is peppered with delicious sweets and candies. This fully playable toy theatre comes complete with a proscenium, stage, six backclothes, two side wings, 14 characters/props and Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop curtain. The eerie, somewhat grisly tale is told in an entertaining scipt written by the artist, accompanied by an additional mini theatre poster for ‘Jury Lane’. The theatre requires cutting and sticking to set up using scissors or a craft knife for maximum precision.’

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The toyshop has also produced a pop-up card based on the Hansel & Gretel Toy Theatre.

‘Good enough to eat although we don’t recommend it! Send a pop-up version of our Hansel & Gretel Toy Theatre through the post as it comes flat and through the marvels of paper engineering opens up into a tableaux of Clive Hicks-Jenkins exclusive design for Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop.’

 

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A newly released game of Pelminism is based on the Hansel & Gretel Toy Theatre designs.

‘Warning: Do not play while hungry. This delicious game of Pairs otherwise know as Pelminism will help train your memory, so perfect for all the family to play together. Match Biscuits and Sweets from Hansel & Gretel beautifully illustrated by artist Clive Hicks-Jenkins and watch out for that witch! 32 card discs with instructions in a box.’

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Finally, there are Hansel & Gretel wooden spinning-tops in assorted colours.

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All the above may be found at the newly launched, redesigned Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop website.

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Hansel & Gretel Q&A

 

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I did a question & answer for the main newspaper of north Wales, The Daily Post. Peter went to get a haircut at the barber shop in Aberystwyth, and our friends there had very kindly set aside a copy for us. I answered the questions so long ago that I’d almost forgotten what I’d said. Here’s the transcript:

Your name:

Clive Hicks-Jenkins

How old are you?

Sixty-six.

Where are you from?

Newport, Gwent.

Tell us about your family

My father was a wayleaves officer with the South Wales Electricity Board. He was responsible for brokering contracts between SWEB and the landowners/farmers whose acreage needed to be crossed by power lines. But because he was a countryman and loved the landscape, he was an artist when it came to placing them where they’d least be visible, hiding them in valleys and along the edges of woodlands. My mother was a hairdresser. She loved films and from an early age she took me every Saturday afternoon to the cinema. Never to see kids’ films though. She loved more dramatic fare, and so my tastes were quite unusual. I don’t know how she bucked the certificate system. She probably knew the local cinema manager and bargained haircuts against him turning a blind eye to a seven year old watching Bette Davies melodramas!

What are you best known for?

Probably my Mari Lwyd-themed series of 2000-2001, The Mare’s Tale. I had an exhibition of that name, and it made quite a splash. There was a book of poetry by the late Catriona Urquhart that accompanied it, and in 2013 the composer Mark Bowden and the poet Damian Walford Davies made a chamber work of the same name, based on the underlying narrative of a psychological haunting.

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Tell us about your exhibition (what’s it called, what’s it on/where is it being held?)

The exhibition is at Oriel Tegfryn, Menai Bridge, and it’s the result of four years of exploration on the theme of Hansel & Gretel.

When is it running from/to?

Sept 1st – Sept 24th.

What can people expect?

Last year the publisher Random Spectacular commissioned a picture book from me that was based on the fairy tale. As my version is very dark it’s been marketed as being more suitable for adults. (It’s been described as ‘George Romero meets the Brothers Grimm!)

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Simultaneously I was commissioned by Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop in Covent Garden to design a toy theatre assembly kit of Hansel & Gretel. This has been quite a thrill. I played with a Benjamin Pollock toy theatre when I was a child, and so it’s a great privilege to be asked to make a new one to bear his name. Published this summer, in contrast to the picture book it’s a sunnier affair, quite suitable for children. Even so I put my own visual spin on it. You won’t have seen a Hansel & Gretel quite like it.

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The Tegfryn Gallery exhibition consists of all the artworks made for the picture book and the toy theatre, plus illustrations for Hansel & Gretel alphabet primers that I made several years ago. Prepare for a Hansel & Gretel Fest!

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Tell us five things which make your exhibition great?

1) Scary and beautiful is an alluring mix!

2) I can guarantee it’s not going to be like anything you’ve ever experienced at Oriel Tegfryn.

3) What’s not to love about art in which family dysfunction, unhealthy appetites and manslaughter are the principal themes? This is a fairytale for the soap generation.

4) There are Liquorice Allsorts deployed as weapons and gingerbread men that bite back!

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5) If you want to know what horrors lie beneath a witch’s prosthetic nose, then this is the exhibition you’ve been waiting for!

Tell us what’s good about the venue

It’s a warm and welcoming gallery with wonderful staff. Visiting Oriel Tegfryn is like calling on friends who are always pleased to see you.

Who is your favourite artist and why?

The ‘who’ is George Stubbs, and the ‘why’ is because he painted animals with unparalleled compassion. His Hambletonian, Rubbing Down may be numbered among the world’s greatest equestrian artworks.

What piece of work are you most proud of and why?

Green George. It’s in a private collection here in Wales. If you type the title and my name into a search engine, you can see it. I paint only for myself and I never think about who might purchase. I made Green George as a painting I’d like to live with, though in fact I never did. It was finished only days before being shipped to the gallery, and it sold immediately. I knew even as I painted it that I was riding the wind. I couldn’t have bettered it.

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Tell us a little known fact about yourself:

I once played Batman’s nemesis, the Riddler, in an American musical.

What are your best and worst habits?

I’m a fiercely loyal and loving friend. But I’m also implacably unforgiving when betrayed. It’s an unattractive trait.

What’s next for you? What are you currently working on, or what do you plan to work on?

I’m on the last lap of a fourteen print series on the theme of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in collaboration with Daniel Bugg at the Penfold Press. The press has been publishing the series sequentially. The art historian James Russell has been writing accompanying texts. It’s been a wonderful experience.  The Martin Tinney Gallery is having an exhibition of the work in January.

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Then I go into rehearsals for a new music theatre work of Hansel & Gretel that I’m designing and directing. The production opens in London before embarking on a year long tour.

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