Russian Bird: the constant muse

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The Russian Bird is a marvel of clockwork ingenuity. Though a little faded from too much sunlight in her youth (we’re more careful with her now) her mechanisms are still strong.

 

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When fully wound she turns her head from side to side, her beak opens and closes, her wings flap, her tail bobs and she sings with considerable brio. Her voice, powered by bellows in her chest, while not the sweetest nonetheless has an impressive vibrato. I always think her more a music-hall artiste than a concert-platform diva. More Vesta Tilley than Dame Kiri te Kanawa!

There’s certainly no point in anyone talking while she’s performing because she drowns out all competition, which is pretty impressive for a lady of her small size and considerable years.

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She moved audiences when projected onto a screen during performances of Hansel & Gretel: a Nightmare in Eight Scenes, beautifully accompanying the music that conjured a forest full of birds. Here’s the sequence, though alas without the live music accompaniment. (She was not best pleased that the composer eschewed her voice, but stepped up to the challenge of conveying her role through the medium of mime like a born silent movie star!)

When the poem by Simon Armitage that had been the libretto of the production was published in an illustrated edition by Design for Today, the Russian Bird was awarded a double page spread, and in it she’s quite the Queen of the Forest surrounded by her retinue of smaller birds, all pecking away at Hansel’s path of scattered crumbs.

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Deeply conscientious about her duties as artist’s muse, she’s a tireless model and will go to any lengths to facilitate whatever’s required of her in the studio. For her forthcoming appearance on the cover of the picture book Bird House for Design for Today, she carried a Byzantine palace knapsack-style on her back, standing unflinchingly for an entire afternoon while I drew her.

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She’s made guest appearances in several galleries and museums. Here at MoMA Machynlleth she takes centre stage on the Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop Hansel & Gretel Toy Theatre that toured the country in the stage production of Hansel & Gretel: a Nightmare in Eight Scenes in 2018.

 

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You can see in these snapshots that she loves demonstrating to an adoring public that she’s the inspiration behind what is clearly – in her opinion – the most important illustration in the book of Hansel & Gretel: a Nightmare in Eight Scenes.

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She’s never slow to be my messenger, and friends are always won over by her bright eyes and sprightly demeanour.

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Below: in a tiny theatre of her own, produced in a small edition for members of the Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop Harlequinade Club.

 

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When not making public appearances, Russian Bird is tirelessly creative in the studio, always game to collaborate with other toys on making scenarios she thinks may offer me new pathways to paintings and illustrations. Here she is in a stunning tableau vivant interpretation of Death and the Maiden.

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Here we catch her giving one of her renowned masterclasses to an eager young student.

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None of us at Ty Isaf knows where we’d be without her.

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From Stage to Page

 

 

 

This short film was made as the Introduction to the Design for Today book launch of Simon Armitage’s Hansel & Gretel: a Nightmare in Eight Scenes at the splendid Artworkers’ Guild in Bloomsbury on the evening of May 22nd, 2019. The film illustrates the journey of the project from stage production to published edition of the poem that was its libretto.

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Live music for the launch event was provided by the splendid Alex Barrow on the accordion. There was a pop-up exhibition assembled by Joe and me of the mid-century Russian illustrated books, tinplate clockwork birds, model theatres and folk-art-inspired toys that had influenced the illustrations and design of the book. The highlight of the evening was Simon Armitage’s reading of his entire poem, proving yet again that he’s a mesmerising presence when presenting his work. It was a ticketed event that quickly sold out, and was a resounding success.

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Above: the Russian clockwork ‘singing’ bird from the stage production, meets her illustrated counterpart in the finished book.

Below: the transition from stage to page.

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 Hansel & Gretel: a Nightmare in Eight Scenes by Simon Armitage is published by Design for Today, and copies may be purchased

HERE

 

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Acknowledgements

My regular collaborator, Pete Telfer, worked with me on all the film and animation footage seen in last year’s stage production of Hansel & Gretel: a Nightmare in Eight Scenes. The clips in the short film to promote the book are courtesy of his Culture Colony archive, and he was cameraman on the new animation that makes up the last third of the film.

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I couldn’t have made the stage production of Hansel & Gretel without Pete. He’s the facilitator who gives me the freedom to experiment with film and animation, while keeping a gentle eye on things to stop me from making a complete and utter hash of the job.

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My thanks to Simon Armitage, who wrote the words that became the libretto to the stage production. Thereafter he suggested we make a dedicated illustrated edition of the poem, and then gave me the freedom to figure out the best way to do it.

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Working closely with Simon, first at Faber and then at Design for Today, on two texts so close to my heart, has been the most wonderful experience. I wish I could find better words to express what it’s meant to me, but I hope he knows.

Joe Pearson at Design for Today unhesitatingly agreed to work with Simon and me. His deep knowledge of twentieth century book design and his enthusiasm and passion for the project, saw it through the many stages to the perfect conclusion. He was unstoppable, even in the face of the 2018 New Year’s Eve fire that consumed the Design for Today warehouse and destroyed his entire stock of books. The man is a giant!

My thanks to Laurence Beck, our brilliant designer. Between Joe and Laurence, nothing was overlooked. I have never seen any book go through so many stages to bring it to perfection. No tweak or adjustment I requested was too much trouble. They were inspiring. Meticulous. Tireless.

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Print-maker and toy theatre seller, Benjamin Pollock has been an inspiration throughout my life, and my work over the past few years with Louise Heard at Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop underlies much of what appeared in both the stage production and the book. My thanks to Louise and her team for their unflagging enthusiasm and support for what I make. Louise kindly gave permission for an image of the Hansel & Gretel Toy Theatre I’d designed for Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop, to be used in the stage production, and further permission to adapt the Pollock’s H & G Toy Theatre for the ‘Intermission’ page in the book.

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Before Hansel & Gretel Dan Bugg and I had a three year collaboration making the fourteen-print Penfold Press Sir Gawain and the Green Knight series that was used in the 2018 Faber & Faber illustrated edition of Simon Armitage’s translation of the poem. It was a given we wanted to work together again in some way on  Hansel & Gretel, so Joe Pearson commissioned Dan to produce the two ‘Lebkuchen’ prints that accompany the ‘special edition’ of the book. Dan and I also produced the Penfold Press ‘Gingerbread House’ enamel-pin that celebrates the book’s publication.

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Special thanks to my trusty band of collaborators on last year’s stage production. Puppet-maker Jan Zalud far exceeded my hopes for what Hansel and Gretel might be, and Oonagh Creighton-Griffiths gave the children the tenderest backstories encoded into her beautifully detailed costumes for them.

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Peter Lloyd created magnificently detailed shadow-puppets that were a joy to animate.

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Phil Cooper was associate designer and my second-in-command in terms of the way the production looked.

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I completely trust his eyes and his artistry. He danced effortlessly between his many tasks, creating the ‘building-block’ models seen onstage, painting the filmed backdrops (see above), and designing and ‘baking’ the mad, wonky, witchy ‘Lebkuchen’ biscuits that we later animated in a ‘tribute’ to Hollywood choreographer, Busby Berkeley!

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It was Phil’s bone-white ‘Witch House’, with its incinerator-like chimney, that visually defined the ‘toy building-blocks’ aesthetic I wanted for the stage production, and thereafter his Lebkuchen ‘Gingerbread’ version that I carried forward into my illustrations for the book.

Below: production designer Phil Cooper, puppet costume supervisor Oonagh Creighton-Griffiths, and lead puppeteer for the audition day, Diane Ford.

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As if all that weren’t enough, Phil also assisted me with the animation sequences.

I am indebted to artist/embroideress Chloe Redfern, who later took Phil’s ‘Lebkuchen’ House, and re-booted it into something beautiful and transformative for the conclusion of the book.

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Above, Chloe’s embroidered Lebkuchen Witch House, and below, my translation of it to an illustration.

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I’m particularly indebted to Jonathan Street of the Moth Factory, Bristol, who kept me grounded and focussed during an insanely difficult three-day marathon of film editing. His thoughtful work on Pete Telfer’s gloriously atmospheric ‘Psycho Witch Doll’s House’ footage, was a triumph. Jon was vision-mixer for the tour, and was cameraman of the live footage streamed to a projection screen above the performers.

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My warmest thanks to puppeteers Diana Ford and Lizzie Wort. They were not only massively contributive creative geniuses on the production, following me fearlessly into sometimes choppy waters, but they are also damned fine people to be around. The three of us work hard but laugh a lot! In the photographs below you see them at the Cheltenham Music Festival for the May 2018 premiere of Hansel & Gretel: a Nightmare in Eight Scenes, and then at the May 2019 London launch of the Design for Today illustrated edition of the book. They topped and tailed the stage-production-to-book journey, and I couldn’t have had better company on the adventure

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Jan, Oonagh, Peter, Phil, Jonathan, Diana, Lizzie and later Chloe, whether they knew it or not, helped light the path for me from stage production to book. Their visual creativity was always present while I worked alone in my studio conjuring images out of Simon’s words. I’m the book’s named illustrator, but their influences are scattered like fireflies throughout its pages.

My love and gratitude in equal measure to my manager in all theatre matters, Susan James. We’ve known each other since we were teenagers, and I count myself fortunate to have had her wisdom and patience to guide and steady me. Hers are the eyes in the back of my head. She’s fearless, riding shotgun and being wing-man, seeing the bigger picture and the smallest details, talking me down whenever the frustrations of getting a production to the finishing-line catapult me into stratospheres of frustration. I doff my cap and bend my knee to her. She is ‘The Guv’nor’!

And finally, my love and thanks to Peter Wakelin, for his unstinting support throughout the long and occasionally rocky Hansel & Gretel journey, and to my friends James and Sarah Joseph. (They know why.)

 

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The Serpent’s Bite: a natural history of the witch. Part 2

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The picturebook of Hansel & Gretel was only partway finished when Louise Heard of Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop and I began to have discussions about the adaptation of it into a toy theatre kit. However, when Louise saw the full extent of the graphic horrors on display in my illustrations for the fairytale, she thought them too dark for the Pollock’s style, and so I went off to try and figure how to adapt the imagery for her. There were no doubts that my original witch with her wormy nasal cavity, would have to to be toned down!

As a preparation to the job ahead, I invented a ‘back-story’ for the toy theatre design. In the picturebook the children, having survived their run-in with the carnivorous and predatory witch, return home to discover that in their absence their father has murdered their mother with an axe! (The book ends with the grisly truth revealed in an image of the ghost of the mother turning up with the father’s axe still embedded in her spine!)

The prequel to the toy theatre design is that the children have run off to the big city to fall in with a disreputable troupe of actors. Persuaded by an unscrupulous producer to sign over to him the stage, film and publishing rights to their story, Hansel and Gretel end up in ‘Victorian’ costumes playing themselves in a pantomime version of their adventures sweetened and given a good dusting of showbiz glitter! Their feckless father and cruel mother are reshaped by the script as being poor though caring, while the role of the witch is given to a ‘character’ actor better known for playing demon kings and therefore well experienced in eliciting boos and hisses from the crowd!

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The re-shaping of the picturebook witch for the the cut-out-and-assemble toy theatre, was really just a matter of simplification, dressing her in red for maximum impact and giving her a striped cat. However the pointed artificial nose of her picturebook predecessor remained, though as a part of the actor’s ‘make-up’ rather than the prosthetic that disguised something unspeakable beneath! The Pollock’s witch neither flies nor grows fangs, but she rants and raves and stomps about to great effect, and just as in the original Grimm Brothers’ version of the story, imprisons the children and prepares to cook them, though of course it’s her who ends up in the oven!

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The Benjamin Pollock’s Hansel & Gretel Toy Theatre Kit, may be purchased

HERE

There is also a delightful Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop pop-up Hansel & Gretel card available, based on the toy theatre design and available

HERE

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By kind permission of  Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop, The Hansel & Gretel Toy Theatre makes a brief guest appearance in the current music/theatre touring production of Hansel & Gretel, with words by Simon Armitage and music by Matthew Kaner played by the Goldfield Ensemble. I supervised the designs, working closely with Phil Cooper (models and scenic painting), Peter Lloyd (shadow puppets) and Jan Zalud (puppet maker), and I directed the production.