The Poet Thief


I lift the latch of a blue-painted iron gate under the trellis archway laden with the Rambling Rector rose that was the gift of my sister, and enter the garden past the reading-bench tucked to my left under the umbrella canopy of a weeping crab-apple.

Pausing only briefly to admire the unlikely olive tree that has survived in the shelter of this place, I skirt the trimmed box-bushes now grown to the size of large sea-boulders and the myrtle propagated from a sprig stolen by a Scottish poet from a shrub in the grounds of a royal residence, grown from a sprig pulled from a nosegay given to Queen Victoria in 1845 by Prince Albert’s grandmother, the Dowager Duchess of Saxe Gotha.

The olive tree in the circular bed, with the myrtle grown from a stolen sprig to the right beyond it.

I ascend a grassy bank springy with tussocks and clustered with primroses to the ruins of the myrtle thief’s chair, still at the uppermost part of the garden, where in her last evenings with us she sat in the dusk among the flicker of hunting pipistrelle bats, the glimmer of the illicit Gauloises betraying her secret vice as I anxiously watched for her while washing the supper things.

My beloved friend Catriona Urquhart died early on May Day 2005, at home in Caerleon with her partner Ian, her mother and siblings and nephew and niece around her. I was sitting in the chair at the top of the garden in Aberporth thinking about her when the call came with the news. I’d spent time with her the previous week, squeezed her hand and whispered my goodbyes to her closed, peaceful face. 

Seventeen years have passed, and still she is with me. Here at Ty Isaf the stick-in-a-pot she gave us is now a walnut tree nearly thirty feet high. Her collection of poems with Old Stile Press, The Mares Tale – still available from OSP – continues with its power to make me weep, because I feel as raw and bereft as I did on the day of her departure. But I laugh, too, whenever I see the myrtle, because Catriona was emphatically not a Royalist, and she would positively crow with delight to see the fruit of her thieving doing so well in this west Wales cottage garden.

The Mare’s Tale


Letter to Catriona


Catriona Urquhart, Poet. 1953 -2005

Dearest Catriona

It’s sixteen years since you left us on May Day 2005. I didn’t believe it at the time, and I don’t believe it now. Your voice is as clear and true in my head today as if you were just downstairs and calling me to tea. That morning my friend Susie Savage picked up the phone in Penparc Cottage that I didn’t hear ringing because I was sitting in your chair in the garden, and I knew the moment she appeared at the back door the news she carried, because her face was stricken at what she had to tell me. Everything in life changed at that moment: my chum, confederate-hatcher-of-plans, confidante and muse, companion-gardener, playmate, poet-in-chief and heart-healer, gone.

The stick in a pot that you gave me all those years ago, now planted in a garden to which we came after your time, has grown into a magnificent Walnut tree big enough for us to picnic under its shade. (The photograph here was taken several years ago, since when it has grown a great deal more and we’ve raised its canopy.) I see it every day, from the house and whenever I’m in the garden, and it will always be ‘Catriona’s Tree’ for me.

I never thought there would be other poets after you, but I was wrong. First there was Marly Youmans’ whose poetry carried me on wings of creativity, and with whom I’ve been collaborating for about a decade and a half, making covers and illustrations for her poetry and novels. More recently there has been Simon Armitage, now our Poet Laureate, whose Sir Gawain and the Green Knight I illustrated for the 2018 revision from Faber & Faber, and who I’ve since worked on with two more books: Hansel & Gretel: a Nightmare in Eight Scenes, for which I won the 2020 V&A Illustrated Book Award, and The Owl & the Nightingale, another translation by him from the medieval, due out in October this year. How proud of me you would be for these poet friendships and collaborations. Soon there will be Beauty and Beast, a reinvention of the fairytale and film that you and I talked about so much, shaped by the poet Olivia McCannon into something that’s thrilling to be working on, and it too will be out in October this year.

I think so often of conversations we had, and the conversations we would have now, were you here to have them with. In fact (Shhhh, tell no-one) I do have those conversations, and I hear your answers, and you’re as unexpected and funny now as you ever were in life. But still, still, still I miss you, and I always will.

Did I tell you that little dog Jack died? I can’t remember now whether I did. Three years ago. That connection with you, too, now severed. He’s buried here at Ty Isaf, so we have your tree and Jack in the garden. It’s a marvellous place and you would love it. Yesterday I watched as redstarts dashed back and forward to drink from the birdbath, and laughed at the antics of Mr & Mrs pheasant, the family of jackdaws and the marauding squirrels, all arguing away under the bird-feeder hanging from the big apple tree on the turning circle of the drive. Let’s take a walk later today. I want to share news.

Your loving friend

C xxx

May Day Letter

Dear Catriona

I awoke this morning thinking about you, as I’ve done on most May Day mornings since your departure on May Day thirteen years ago. Of course you’ve never really gone away, as I still think of you a dozen times every day, recalling our conversations and the times we shared. Your voice, your laughter and your presence are as familiar to me in imagination as ever they were in life, and though I wonder whether one day my recollections of you may start to slip their tethers, right now it feels as though you’ve only just left the room. So here I am again, writing to you to tell you how much I miss you still, holding on and bringing you back by dint of that trick of conjuring a greatly missed presence through the art of remembering and storytelling.


We shared a love of storytelling, you and I. You had great skills for taking histories and weaving them into narratives, including the magnificent feat of reimagining my late father into your suite of poems, The Mare’s Tale. You and Trevor were such friends. Only a friend could have taken his recollections and forged them into something as moving as you crafted to accompany the drawings I made in an outpouring of grief for him. Peter often says that my grasp of facts can be somewhat interpretive, but it can’t be denied that I learned much from you, a master of the art of how to take chaos, to face it down, to order it and bend it into shape until it becomes something fine. And now I do the same, ordering the tangle of memories and loss, until the next time I get caught out and have to start the process all over again. I know now that while I breathe there will always be the imminence of chaos, and the repeated processes of gathering and curating memories into stories, ordering them and making sense. It’s a bit like tidying drawers that have become muddled with too much stuff rattling around!

Jack died a couple of months ago. Another thread broken. He was a young dog thirteen years ago when he lay across your legs while you were quietly dying in your bed, softly calling his name and curling your fingers into his coat for comfort. And just ten days ago, Pip Koppel, who gave Jacket-the-puppy to us, died too, at the home she shared with us for a year while we looked for a house here in west Wales.


When my grieving for you was at its most raw, Peter and I were living with Pip. She often noticed and asked me what was wrong, though I could never explain because at the time I had no words for what I was feeling. So she took me into her pottery workshop and together we threw clay and made things, and sadness was pummelled and beaten and reshaped into vessels.

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With Pip gone, the list of those I miss grows longer. I keep making art. They hold those I’ve loved closer to my heart, these stories, paintings, drawings and reinventions. Chaos into order. Pain into creation. Darkness into light.


I miss you still. With all my love, Clive







Catriona on May Day Morning


I remember my friend Ian telling me that he and Catriona had risen in the dark of May Day and driven from their home in Caerleon to Oxford to be present in time to hear the choristers of Magdalen College choir singing Hymnus Eucharisticus from the Great Tower. The adventure would have been a seed sown by Catriona and made into a reality by Ian, her champion, life companion, lover and organiser. The journey would have been carried out in the spirit of delight and celebration for all things green and renewing. But the weather was not great, and Catriona later recounted that far from the rapturous experience she’d imagined, all youthful voices ringing through the crystalline spring air in the city of dreaming spires, instead a desultory crowd huddled against the damp grey morning, straining to hear the distant, muffled and not terribly enthusiastic account of the music given by the sleepy boys, dragged from their beds and herded up the tower to signally fail to sing out glory. All a bit of a damp squib, she mocked, and hardly worth the bother.

This was the Catriona I loved and admired. She was a romantic in spirit but she wouldn’t make a pretence when things failed to measure up. The notion of the Magdalen Tower tradition, she claimed, was so much better than the event. It was this refusal to pretend that made her such entertaining and bracing company. That said, she would delight in small things, gilding the everyday with insight and her ability to appreciate. While the May Morning recollection made her scornful, she could wonderfully describe her memory of taking a nap in the crogloft of our cottage one peerless summer afternoon, drifting in and out of sleep to the distant sound of children playing and dogs barking on the beach, and stirring herself to the noises of preparation in the kitchen below. She said there was no sound sweeter than waking to the low murmur of voices she loved, and the tinkle of china cups and spoons being laid for tea.


In her final year, when the illness that would take her from us had her in retreat and yet she was still well enough for Ian to bring her to join Peter and me at Aberporth, Catriona and I – plus Jack – would sit on the bench in front of the low, whitewashed cottage, and listen to the birds, observe and greet passers by and wax lyrical over the burgeoning garden, so many plants of which she and Ian had brought to us and planted. Intolerant of puff or any form of self aggrandisement in herself or others – and she could be merciless in her lambast when roused – yet she could make you see the transcendent in ordinary things. The old bathtub at the cottage that I’d determined to change because of a dislike of coloured baths, was forever transformed for me when Catriona cast her eye over it for the first time, exclaiming on the beauty of its pale, washed-away blue, ‘Oh how lovely. Taking a bath in here will be like taking a bath in the sky!’ And so it’s there still, and is still as blue as a sky washed after rain.

Catriona died on May Day 2005. She came into my life when I was lost, and held me fast until the moment had passed. She changed the way I see the world. I miss her still, every day.

Catriona Urquhart was the author of The Mare’s Tale, a series of poems that she wrote about my father, Trevor, who she knew and loved in his later life. At the core of the series is Trevor’s childhood encounter with an apparition that terrified and thereafter haunted him intermittently for a lifetime. The book was published in a numbered edition by the Old Stile Press in 2001, designed and printed by Nicolas McDowall and with illustrations by me. It was the only book of poems by the writer published in her lifetime. Copies are still available from the Old Stile Press, signed by us both in pencil on the colophon page. You may find it:


Catriona Urquhart, 1953 -2005.

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Dear Catriona

It’s been eleven years since you left us on May Day 2005. I was sitting in your chair at the top of the garden at Penparc Cottage thinking about you when the call came. I heard the phone ringing, heard it stop, picked up by someone inside. Our friends Susie and Michael and their daughters Minnie and Rosie were holidaying at the cottage. I don’t know who picked up the phone, but both Michael and Susie came out to give me the news, and their stricken, caring faces told the whole story before they’d even explained. They didn’t know you, but they knew about you, knew what the news would mean to me, and they were so, so tender. Nevertheless, the physical sensation  was unexpected. The sudden blow to the chest and an emptying, as though heart and guts had burst and were unstoppably flowing away.

Death was expected, of course. You’d been long fading. I’d been with you the day before, to sit and watch while Ian attended to business. I’d held your hand, leaned in and murmured softly to you, not wanting to pull you back through the easeful veil of drugs. You were floating so far away from me that I imagined myself a distant speck in the dreamy landscape beneath your wings. You were peaceful.

You died at a point of change in our lives. We were moving to Aberystwyth, though hadn’t yet found what was to become our home. Peter and I were staying with our friend Pip, who’d loaned us her guest cottage, the Ty Bach. Pip knew I was sad and was as kind as kind can be. But no concern, no matter how beautifully expressed, could pack back what had flowed out at the time of your death. Eleven years on and it’s still missing, like the cavity of a lost tooth that I can’t stop probing with my tongue, expecting the miracle of a return while knowing that it can’t grow back. This is not to say that there isn’t love in my life, because there is. But not your love, and I miss that more than I can express. My friend, confidante, co-conspirator and muse, I miss you every day.

I think that this emptying is what eventually undoes us. Every passing of a loved one pulls out another bit of my stuffing.

This is how it feels. (You’ll like this, Catriona. It’s a story!)

As a child I started out on a walk along a beautiful country lane, surrounded by a loving family. Gradually friends joined the walk, and as I grew, the throng multiplied. It was a merry crew, a constant discovery and delight. There were the older generation still with me, but mostly young and lively people of my own age. The walk was like a party.

Gradually the older ones began to drop back. It was sad, though it seemed natural. After all, they were older. When they stopped I waved goodbye and moved on. I missed them of course, but I was really interested in what lay ahead.

Then some of the ones who were the same age as me began to slow down, falter, stop. First one, and then another and another. And each one stopping in the road diminished my happiness and made me less myself. A bit more stuffing pulled out.

These days the group is slower, and much smaller. Every time I look around there are fewer companions. Now when I turn back I can see many figures dotted along the road travelled, just standing there. I keep walking while they diminish and then disappear in the distance.

Right now I still have enough people around me to remain optimistic. But our numbers decrease all the time and I fear that one day I will be the only one on the road. I’m not at all sure I ever want to become the unaccompanied traveller trudging forward, carrying an emptiness left by absence. But what alternative is there? And I wish… oh how I wish… that you were here so we could talk about it.

Sent with love by Clive to Catriona Urquhart

May Day, 2016


Catriona wrote the poetic text to the body of work that started my career as a painter. The Mare’s Tale poems appeared in 2001 in an edition with illustrations by me and published by The Old Stile Press. It’s a beautiful book and is still available from the press, based at Catchmays Court in the Wye Valley. Designed and printed by Nicolas McDowall, it’s a lasting testament to story-telling, friendship, collaboration and Catriona’s artistry with words.

By clicking HERE, you will find other Artlog posts about Catriona.

‘Dark Movements’

Moving toward Dark Movements


In 2002, when I completed the drawing On the Mountain in the series The Mare’s Tale, I believed it marked the end of my work on the theme of the Mari Lwyd. The series had absorbed me for two years. There had been, in short order, two big exhibitions of the work in Wales, and some of the drawings had thereafter travelled with a mixed exhibition, titled Dreaming Awake, to the Terezín Memorial Gallery in the Czech Republic. The poet Catriona Urquhart and I had collaborated throughout the process of making the drawings, and she wrote a series of poems about my father that became the text of The Mare’s Tale at Newport Museum & Art Gallery in 2001 and an edition for The Old Stile Press which I illustrated.

On the Mountain, 2002

On the Mountain, 2002

While The Mare’s Tale was an exploration I needed to undertake, its underlying themes were based on distressing events. A point of emotional weariness came at which I realized it was time to bring the series to an end. Catriona Urquhart’s early death in 2005 seemed to me to draw a line under it.

In 2013, the composer Mark Bowden and poet Damian Walford Davies brought new insights to the subject with a chamber-work for ensemble and performer that was inspired by my drawings and by the poems and biographical events. The libretto was conjured as a new fiction to make a dark and glittering psychological ghost story. I designed and directed the production, also titled The Mare’s Tale. It was extraordinary to watch what had started with my drawings, evolve into a performance for an orchestra and a singer/actor. Eric Roberts played the role of Morgan Seyes, drenched in my late father’s terror of the Mari Lwyd.

That same year a plan evolved for an exhibition of my Mari Lwyd work at Aberystwyth Arts Centre, borrowing from public and private collections and adding the stage-designs, puppets and maquettes I’d made for the performance. I had no plans at that time to make new artworks. The exhibition would be a retrospective.

I’d been drawing an American dancer, Jordan Morley, intending a small series of paintings of him for a group ‘portrait’ exhibition I’d been asked to participate in at a gallery in Barcelona. Jordan and I were evolving processes of working together – in New York he acted out scenarios I suggested to him in e-mails from Wales, capturing them in series of photographs that he downloaded and sent to me. At some point we talked about the forthcoming Arts Centre Mari Lwyd exhibition and he began to steep himself in all the work that had gone before. Unexpectedly he produced a set of photographs of himself playing on the shapes and forms of the drawings I’d made fifteen years ago. Using those I built maquettes of him and arranged them into compositions. Ideas stirred. A title evolved, Dark Movements. For me, once there is a title, the art follows.

From North Carolina the poet Jeffery Beam watched what was developing. We were already working together on another project, but something in Dark Movements spoke to him, and new poems came as a result of what he saw emerging from my studio. Those poems inspired further paintings from me. Collaborations, when they work well, fly back and forth between the participants with increasing energy.

Interested parties watched and contributed to the process through social media. Maria Maestre in Spain left illuminating comments at my blog that carried painter and poet in some unexpected directions. Composer Peter Byrom-Smith in Yorkshire prepared his score for Jane’s Dream – a ‘visual poem’ edited by Pete Telfer and me from footage of puppets we’d filmed in 2013 – by watching animated segments posted at Facebook. (Jane’s Dream is being screened in the gallery throughout Dark Movements.) Sarah Parvin (aka ‘The Curious One’) curated a Dark Movements board at Pinterest, that presents her own take on how the project has drawn together many threads from my past themes.

In 2000, my collaboration with Catriona Urquhart took place around kitchen tables, on long walks in the countryside, and occasionally in phone calls when she would read drafts to me. Today the collaborations of Dark Movements have been conducted with social media, e-mails and selfies. I’d set out with no goal other than to visit the grave where I’d left the Mari in that last drawing fifteen years ago, but the habits of ‘making’ can’t be stilled. New collaborations emerge. New words, fresh paints, dancers, puppets and toy theatres kindle a phoenix-flame under the bones, and suddenly the old girl is up and off again, and at a fair old lick. It seems you can’t keep a good horse down, not even after it’s been buried.

Clive Hicks-Jenkins

May 2015

May Day Morning Thoughts

I have been working with poets and writers for fifteen years. The first was Catriona Urquhart, my friend and  collaborator. I had read poetry throughout my life, and it was probably no accident that when we met Catriona and I became friends, because poetry was one of our many shared enthusiasms. Later we worked together. It wasn’t so much a plan… at which she would have balked… as an evolution. The creative dialogue we enjoyed – poems, drawings and ideas, batted between us like shuttlecocks – set the pattern in me for what came later, with other writers after she had gone. Catriona had been writing poetry since she was able to hold a pen. But she was secretive about it, hiding away the results in boxes and drawers. Though it was as plain as day she had a wonderful way with words, it wasn’t until my partner Peter Wakelin cornered her into writing him a story for his birthday (she had perhaps unwisely asked him what he wanted most) that she produced Palmyra Jones, a book later published in a small edition by Nicolas and Frances McDowall at The Old Stile Press. (You can read how it all unfolded, HERE.)

After the publication of Palmyra Jones, Catriona was encouraged to the point that she suggested the way forward for our next collaboration. She had grown to know and love my father Trevor in his last years. They had become friends and confederates, hatching plans and going off on adventures. (I later found out they’d regularly headed off in Trevor’s car for lunches at his favourite Monmouthshire pubs.) Catriona loved stories of family histories, and Trevor’s long, rich life was full of them. Catriona had encouraged him to share his memories with her, and she’d soaked up his accounts like a sponge. At the time I used to joke that she held more of my family history in her head than any other living person. She pieced together the genealogies and understood the connections better than I ever had. To me it was all just a muddle of quaint names and his half-remembered accounts, but she made sense of it all, and joined the dots to make coherent histories. in 2000, the year after his death, Catriona saw the drawings that I was producing based on Trevor’s childhood experience of the Mari Lwyd, the mid-Winter mumming tradition still practiced in the rural Wales he grew up in. She suggested writing a poetic text to accompany the planned exhibition at Newport Museum and Art Gallery, and the work began. Just a few weeks before the exhibition was due to open, Nicolas chanced to see drafts of Catriona’s poems on our kitchen table, and what had been intended as an accompanying text on wall panels throughout the gallery, became in addition a hastily planned though beautifully conceived and executed Old Stile Press edition of her poems, going by the same name as the exhibition, The Mare’s Tale. I made the illustrations to meet Nicolas’ incredibly tight deadline, working an all-nighter one Sunday in order to have them ready for him to collect on the Monday morning.

Catriona died on May Day 2005. Palmyra Jones… which had been little more than a pamphlet… and her volume of Mare’s Tale poems, were the only works published in her lifetime, a fact ensured by the fact that the poems we had known to be hidden in drawers before her death, were not to be found after it. Her partner Ian believes that she may have destroyed what she considered to be ‘juvenilia’. It fell to Peter, who had so encouraged Catriona as a writer, to produce the eulogy for her funeral. It’s a fine piece, and catches as well as anything I know the mercurial, dazzling girl I have missed every day of the past ten years.

Golden Catriona

Witten and read by Peter Wakelin at Catriona’s funeral.

“We have carried with us for years now fears that we would one day lose Catriona; but still, when the news came, it was impossible to believe.

So many friends have talked about the special, golden glow Catriona emanated. We all bathed in it. Catriona was one of the great ‘appreciators’ – especially of good company, gardens, the seaside, books, old china, poetry read aloud, paintings, and thoughtfully-prepared food, which we were always sharing. She adored to give gifts, her generosity leading her to spend days potting cuttings for other people’s gardens or seeking out the perfect book. She received gifts with infectious enthusiasm, too. When things were right, her pleasures seemed amplified far beyond those most of us can feel. Every time one discovered something beautiful, it was the reaction to think, ‘Ah, we must show Catriona this!’, ‘We must bring Catriona here!’ And so, until we learn to remember rather than grieve, every taste and every pleasure seems to turn to charcoal in our mouths, because she is not here to share them.

She seemed sometimes to know everything – the origins of words, the name of every rose, the biographies of writers, even the history of one’s own family. If she had bothered to go on Mastermind with these as special subjects she would have been a champion. She possessed the strong opinions and the disarming insights of the brilliant mind. She could dissect the frailties and foibles of everyone she met, whilst cherishing them as part of the rich and piebald world we all inhabit.

She had talent falling from her fingertips; though she wore it so carelessly that many never realised. She was an affecting singer and musician, though there are few recordings. She was strong and sporting. One of her father’s ciné films of his young family preserves an image of her fleet as an amazon, golden hair flying, leading out her sibling tribe; and she told us how she used to run with utter confidence the terrifying sheeptrack over ‘the elephant’, a rocky promontory near Ferryden that had us sinking to our knees with vertigo. She was a star at school and university. Her teacher the Nobel Prize winner Seamus Heaney told her always to keep in touch and come and stay; but she never liked to bother him.

We knew that she had once been good at languages. With hesitation, we introduced her to Julia, a Russian girl working here who was all-at-sea and lonely through her lack of English. We believed Catriona could speak a little Russian, which might be nice. Within a minute they were chattering away like old friends in a Moscow restaurant, Julia laughing and smiling for what seemed to be the first time in all her visit. Catriona picked up languages like most of us pick up colds, recently gaining fluent Portuguese on two visits to Brazil.

She told stories with such vividness and ease that I badgered her to write them down. She said for months that she was writing a story for me. Finally, she announced that it would be my birthday present, and it was nearly finished. When she and Ian arrived for dinner, there was just the little problem that she had not put pen to paper! Trina locked herself away, and an hour later, there the story was, without so much as a crossing-out, perfectly formed in her head and transcribed unhesitatingly. What a gift she gave me; and what a gift she had! She was persuaded to read it out, and I will always hear it in her honeyed singer’s voice and Scottish accent (even though the narrator in the story was in fact an Irish seaman). Like Alan Bennett, Catriona was the exception to prove the rule that authors are poor readers of their work. Among those rapt by her magic that birthday evening were Nicolas and Frances McDowall, who later published the story, Palmyra Jones, at The Old Stile Press, and later still her cycle of poems, The Mare’s Tale.

There were short-lived times when ill-health took away Catriona’s ability to be the things she was, but she fought back courageously. She used every ounce of concentration to write her Mare’s Tale poems through a haze of anxiety and depression. They are masterpieces.

Catriona was unforgiving of the second-rate, the lazy and the puffed-up. Perhaps she avoided writing because she knew how gruelling it is to achieve real quality, but that excellence was how you showed proper generosity in giving things to others. I for one was influenced by Catriona to try harder, not to take the easy route. And I believe many of us will go on to seek the best in everything – propagating all the best plants in the garden for our friends, caring for each other, and sharing around a table food that warms the cockles of the heart.

Sometimes Catriona loved to be the princess, served by those who brought her flowers and sweetmeats, answered her whims, made her comfortable. For nearly thirty years Ian was her hero, her young Lochinvar. He undertook quests for her, fought monsters, brought back treasures: commissioning an alteration to the alterations to the house, buying an old piece of furniture that needed her to love it, or taking her on a journey literally to the other side of the world. Of course she was no princess at heart, and she cared for Ian and others in return, especially her friends and family, and her nephews and nieces, whom she adored. But in her last illness she accepted care with calm contentment. Her family wrapped around her like a warm blanket of love. It was heart-rending to watch her brother Roddy gently cradling her head in his strong hands, Ishbel, face swollen with tears, leaping on her bed with cheerful cry of ‘Hi Trina’, and all of them at her side – Alasdair, Rhona, Cathy, the partners and the children. Catriona floated above the houseful, as she always liked to do in the bedroom at Ferryden or the croglofft at Penparc, knowing all was well, listening to the gentle tinkle of the tea-cups, raising an ironic eyebrow to things overheard, dozing, dreaming, waking with a smile to those who visited.

This will be a cruel summer, seeing Catriona’s flowers bloom – in many different gardens. People passing by will wonder, ‘Why is he sobbing at that beautiful new iris? Why does she look so sad amid that bower of roses?’ We all come to our ends, every one of us, and some die much younger than Catriona. But there were so many things we wanted still to do together. She would have been an exceptional old lady – wise, surprising, generous, a keeper of traditions but subversive. She had so much more to give, and I suspect she would have found the best age to give it.

We must follow Catriona’s guiding light. She showed the joy there is in life. Even in her death, she tells us life is not for ever, and we should do the things that count, particularly those that cherish one another and the world around us. We will still hear her laugh sometimes – that irrepressible, mischievous, clear laugh; and we will still think often, ‘Ah, Catriona would love this!’

She will be strong in our memories. And she knew better than anyone that memories turn into stories. Stories sometimes transform to myths. And one day in future I know Catriona will be just that – the myth of she who glowed with love and wonder at the world and taught others to appreciate it: “Golden Catriona”. I think she will rather like that.”

Peter Wakelin 11 May 2005

Page decoration from Palmyra Jones

Catriona on May Day


It’s May Day 2014, and the ninth anniversary of the death of my friend Catriona Urquhart. May Day was significant to her in so many ways. She once phoned me from Oxford at the crack of a May Day dawn, to relay the sound of the Magdalen choristers singing the Hymnus Eucharisticus from the top of Great Tower. So it came as no surprise to anyone that Catrona waited until a May Day morning to die.

Catriona was the writer of the original accompanying poetic text to The Mare’s Tale, a body of my work that has unexpectedly had a life beyond the period of its making, and indeed beyond her passing. (In 2012 another poet, Damian Walford Davies, was invited to write the libretto of the chamber work of The Mare’s Tale, working with the composer Mark Bowden and using my Mare’s Tale drawings… and I suspect, some ideas floating up from Catriona’s poems… as his source materials. He created something entirely new, a dark and glittering psychodrama, which I know Catriona would have heartily approved of.)


In 2012 I wrote here about her garden chair at Penparc Cottage, and how I’d found it some years after her death being hoisted into the tree canopy by brambles. Two years on the poor old thing is even more rickety than it was, and I now have to think about whether to rescue if from total dissolution, or to let it crumble in situ. We hang on to the fragments of the past, but I know too that it was the romantic idea of the ascending chair that appealed, rather than the corporeal remains. She’s not there. I don’t feel her in any more intense way when I sit in it, or recall her better when I look at the view she surveyed from it. She’s in my heart, and that’s really all that matters. Nine years on I can recall her voice as vividly as if she were calling me from the next room.

Here she is, ventriloquising me (that’s the kind of clever thing she did) in an extract from her poem The Lie of the Land. 

We mark each pole we pass and climb the hill.
We shoulder, each, another kind of weight.
Astride the stile, I look from where we’ve come
and sense the power of land to generate,
to interweave with what once was
and what has now become,
to yield:

as gently
and as easily
as field on folded field.

Standing now, I make a survey
of what it was
I thought I knew.
I’m different too, of course,
I’m not as tall.
Neccesarily, I take a different view.

Catriona Urquhart. 1953 – 2005


The Mare’s Tale, with poems by Catriona Urquhart and illustrations by me, is available from The Old Stile Press.

Palmyra Jones

The following essay was written in 2008, and until now has lurked in the more distant recesses of my website. It recounts how the short story Palmyra Jones came to be written by Catriona Urquhart, and how in turn that led to the creative collaboration I went on to enjoy with Nicolas and Frances McDowall at The Old Stile Press. (In addition to Palmyra, four books… including a book of poetry by Catriona… and the covers of the two volumes of The Old Stile Press Bibliography.) The recollection also enables me to post an image of the rather beautiful Jonathan Christie painting that played a crucial role in how things came about, and that Peter and I acquired many years ago at the time when Jonathan and I both showed our work at The Kilvert Gallery.

Above: detail of Girl and Dog: Porthmeor Beach by Jonathan Christie

My friend Catriona Urquhart was a wonderful storyteller. She also had an aptitude for languages… she spoke a number fluently, including Russian… and a gift for dialects and dialogue. However, she she wore her talents lightly, and could only rarely be persuaded to exhibit them publicly. Peter and I encouraged her writing whenever we could. But although she was such good company among close friends, Catriona could be shy in a crowd, and we encouraged her in vain to make her poetry available to others. For Catriona, poetry was principally a private affair, between her and her pen. However in 1997, when she asked Peter what he would like for his birthday, he cunningly replied that he would like a story, and she agreed to write him one.

The weeks passed, and Catriona, whenever we raised the subject, would reply cryptically that she was ‘thinking about it’. We managed to prise two details from her. She had the title, Palmyra Jones, which had just come to her out of the blue, and the fledgling tale was inspired by a painting she loved which hung in our kitchen, Girl and Dog: Porthmeor Beach by Jonathan Christie.

The evening of Peter’s birthday arrived, and I’d arranged a supper party for about ten guests. Catriona arrived early with her partner, Ian. As I took her coat I caught her eye and asked,

‘Did you bring it?’

She looked shifty.

‘I need to go somewhere quiet. May I slip upstairs?’

‘Why? Crikey Catriona, haven’t you finished it ?’

‘Finish be damned, I’ve yet to start it. But don’t worry…’

She flashed a dazzling smile.

‘… it’s all in my head. I just need to get it down. Be a sweetie. Bring me a glass of wine and give me half an hour.’ I left her at the desk in my studio. She’d brought a slim sheaf of A4, and she began writing with great focus, head down, hand swift over the paper.

Half an hour later she walked into the kitchen with several sheets of paper, each densely covered with neat writing.  We found later that there wasn’t a single mis-punctuation or crossing out.

After supper we all gathered in the drawing-room for coffee and Catriona, to her evident horror, was asked by us to read the story to the assembled guests.  She demurred, but we pressed home our advantage.  Everyone present murmured encouragement, and she gave way. Of course she bewitched us, and to this day whenever I read Palmyra Jones, I hear it in her warm, soft, Scottish brogue.

Among the guests were Nicolas and Frances McDowall of The Old Stile Press. Peter and I had met them at an exhibition opening in Abergavenny, and the four of us had gone on to become good friends. Nicolas and Frances were lavish in their congratulations when Catriona had finished her reading, and Nicolas immediately started talking about publishing the story in a small edition. Not a full-fledged Old Stile Press project, but a slender, laser-printed pamphlet, available for a few friends. Even Catriona was enthusiastic, which was unexpected.

It all happened very quickly. I had a few days to do the illustrations, which Nicolas suggested could be in what was my then trademark ‘Neo-romantic’ drawing style of ink and ink wash over wax resist. The story was set in Ireland, a country I’d never visited, and so I fear the landscapes of Palmyra Jones look a deal more like Wales than Ireland.

I made a hand lettered wrap-around cover, which Nicolas printed onto grey paper

In the back of each copy, a reproduction of Jonathan Christie’s lovely painting was ‘tipped in’ as a fold-out.

Catriona went on to do one more book for the Old Stile Press before she died. The Mare’s Tale was the collection of poems she wrote to accompany my first public gallery show at Newport Museum and Art Gallery in 2001. For the second time, a publication of her work by the Old Stile Press was carried out, appropriately enough given the title, at a gallop, driven by Nicolas’ boundless and infectious enthusiasm. The idea came about unexpectedly when his gaze fell upon some copies of the poems scattered over our kitchen table on the occasion of one of his visits. He was delivering the first bound copy of Richard Barnfield’s The Affectionate Shepheard, a book I’d illustrated for the press subsequent to Palmyra Jones, which small volume I now suspect had been Nicolas’ way of ‘testing’ me, before offering the more substantial, and technically difficult Barnfield project. Palmyra had proven to him that I could work reliably, and at speed.

Because we were all enthusiastic to have Catriona’s Mare’s Tale poems in a book available for sale at the exhibition opening (the original plan had been that they would only be printed onto gallery panels positioned around the walls), in double-quick time Nicolas designed and produced a dummy-copy for me to work from. As I recall, I completed all the drawings in one weekend, working right through the Sunday night so they’d be ready for him to collect first thing on the Monday.

Nicolas produced a beautiful edition, printed on vintage paper he had squirreled away for the right project, and bound in the most delicate, dove grey paper, with silver stamps on the spine and ‘vignette’ drawings printed on the front and back covers.

Catriona died of cancer while we were discussing our next project for the Old Stile Press, which was to have been a new translation of the libretto for Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale, a project I’d long dreamed of. The preparatory drawings and some monoprints for this are blu-tacked to my studio wall at Ty Isaf. They’ve followed me everywhere. The book, of course, will never happen, as Catriona had barely begun her work on it. So Palmyra Jones and The Mare’s Tale must stand as her literary legacy, the only works of hers published in her lifetime.

For a long time the original artwork for the cover of Palmyra Jones, hung in the room where Catriona had written the story for Peter. After her death I gave the drawing to Ian, so that he could take it to the home they’d shared at Ferryden in Scotland, a place which she greatly loved, and where we had all spent so many happy times together. Peter gave a beautiful eulogy at Catriona’s funeral. He brought us all to tears, but mixed with laughter too. I read Pegasus from The Mare’s Tale, a poem about death and a life-affirming legacy, which she’d written about my late father, whom she’d loved as if he were her own. The printed words wobbled before me, a combination of shaking hands and hot tears, and so it was just as well that I knew them by heart.

Clive Hicks-Jenkins 2008

Decoration from the half-title page of Palmyra Jones

catriona urquhart and ‘the mare’s tale’

Some anniversaries pass by un-noticed because our lives are such a hustle and bustle of  work, play, duty, deadlines and all-sorts. One passed me by yesterday, so deep into preparations was I for the forthcoming presentation of The Soldier’s Tale with Mid Wales Chamber Orchestra at the Hay Festival. Odd that I missed it, because in so many ways an unease underlay the day for me, and I realise that while on the surface I may have been pushing away the recollection of a loss, at a deeper and unconscious level, something was definitely playing out.

On May Day 2005 my close friend Catriona Urquhart died, and with her went a large chunk of my heart. In 2001 The Old Stile Press had published The Mare’s Tale, a sequence of poems Catriona had written examining my father’s early experience of the Welsh Mari Lwyd mumming tradition. It was not a happy recollection for him, but all that has been examined elsewhere both by me and by several more eloquent writers, and so I won’t recap here. Suffice to say that Catriona, after his death, produced her poems from accounts my father had shared with her of growing up in rural Monmouthshire, of his terrifying childhood encounter with a Mari and how he carried the experience with him throughout a long life.

Catriona’s poems and my large Conté drawings were shown together at my 2001 Newport Museum and Art Gallery exhibition The Mare’s Tale, and though the artworks have now separated into many public and private collections, and the Old Stile Press book… which I illustrated… stands alone as Catriona’s sole published collection of poems in her lifetime, I think no-one would deny that to a significant extent the poems and drawings have become inseperable from each other.

In 2012 the artistic director of Mid Wales Chamber Orchestra, James Slater brought together composer Mark Bowden and librettist Damian Walford Davies to create a new chamber work inspired by my Mare’s Tale drawings. My only stipulation at the start of the project, had been that without Catriona present to collaborate on any examination of the themes, the libretto would have to be a new text,  based on the drawings alone with no direct reference by name to my father or his experiences. This was not in any way, as far as I was concerned, to be a biographical exploration of what underlay the Mari Lwyd drawings, but a fresh approach using them as the starting point of a narrative structure for Mark Bowden’s music.

Above: a drawing of my father made for the original Mare’s Tale series.

And that’s exactly what Damian has delivered. A new tale as dark and terrifying as the source material, though constructed  as a fiction steeped in the literary tradition of recovered memory as the catalyst of a central character’s psychological disintegration. But Damian is a great admirer of the poems, as was clear from his chapter in the 2011 Lund Humphries monograph about my work, and I can see a number of echoes from them in the libretto, layered in to enrich it.

Mari Lwyd puppet

Mari Lwyd maquette/puppet

Out of the old springs something new, and as an artist I must follow it. The drawings that were the origins of this have been set aside as I create fresh ideas tailor-made for the emerging creation. (See the two images above.)

Long ago I thought I was done with this subject, but it would seem not. The Mare’s Tale as realised in my drawings and Catriona’s poems, and The Mare’s Tale as it now evolves into a new chamber-work for ensemble, while separate, seem to me conjoined in a way that will be quite unique in terms of creativity. The same seeds grew them and the same title unites them, and yet they are separate. I find that strangely haunting and complete as an idea.