Finding Beauty

I’m in the throes of preparing number nine in my series of fourteen screenprints for the Penfold Press, inspired by Simon Armitage’s translation of the medieval poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, published by Faber & Faber in 2007.

Gawain, weary from his journey, has come upon the beautiful – and until that moment unknown to him – Fair Castle, where he hopes to find hospitality.

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Above: making stencils for Gawain Arrives at Fair Castle

On entering he’s warmly greeted by the Lord, his Lady and their retainers. The Lord receives Gawain’s story with great interest, and in return is an affectionate and generous host. He calls his visitor by name, though strangely, his own is not offered. Nevertheless his status is clear from the magnificence of his home and household. Fine garments are gifted to Gawain and he’s arrayed like a prince in costly fabrics and furs.

During Gawain’s stay the Lord goes out three times to hunt, though Gawain remains in the Castle. On each occasion the Lady comes early to Gawain’s bed to wake him. She initiates conversations that play on notions of ‘courtly love’, though they’re loaded with flirtatious banter that quickly raise the temperature. The visceral descriptive passages of the three hunts, for stag, boar and fox, are threaded through with the tensions of the Lady’s compromising early-morning visits to her guest’s bed-chamber, during which she presses Gawain for gifts of affection, embraces and kisses, while he valiantly attempts to defend himself from committing any breach of trust against the hospitality of his absent host.

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Above: detail from a colour study for The Three Hunts

Simon Armitage wrote to me of these passages:

‘I can never think about those “bedroom scenes” without the hunted and butchered animals being there in the room, the way they’re interleaved through the text. Not just as Gawain’s suppressed lust, but as his subconscious images of what goes on between the lord and the lady. There’s a sense of Gawain’s inadequacy in those episodes as well, or at least his lack of experience (we assume he’s a virgin) compared with the lord’s victorious masculinity and the lady’s apparent sexual knowing. The lord’s actions are invasive and exposing of all kinds of interiors – Gawain knows only the cortex of life, its rind and its appearance.’

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The bedroom scenes are nerve-racking to read. Gawain is at the mercy of a powerful and practised coquette, and their encounters become a duel in which her desire, pressed upon him, must be skilfully parried in order to avoid compromise or offence. He pretends sleep when she stealthily approaches him – as though that would stop her. Then he pleads for privacy to dress, but she counters:

‘Not so’, beautiful sir,’ the sweet lady said.
‘Bide in your bed – my own plan is better.
I’ll tuck in your covers corner to corner,
then playfully parley with the man I have pinned.’

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Much is made of Gawain’s disadvantage of being in bed. The Lady doesn’t balk at physical affection, despite the fact that the young man is naked under the covers. She presses him for gifts, even though she knows he has little save himself to offer. It’s heated and tension inducing.

‘I come
to learn of love and more,
a lady all alone.
Perform for me before
my husband heads for home.’

 

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The poem is so full of references to the allure of young Gawain and the Lady of Fair Castle that it would be possible in any representation to become overwrought with the flesh on display and the heat under the surfaces. I have to curb my tendency to overly-refine images of beauty and stop before the vitality of an idea becomes compromised by overworking. I’ve tried many different compositional devices with this sequence of the poem, and it’s emerged that when the Lady is foregrounded, I work a tad too hard to capture her. (See the couple of too-sweet images above.)

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But a scrappy thumbnail sketch that placed her as a full-length figure sitting in the upper left of the composition (below) has a dynamic that pleases me –

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– and so I’ve pursued the idea and it’s the one that right now I’m moved to go with. Next I need to work up a full compositional study and see if I feel the same way. But as a precursor to that, here’s a small sketch defining her outline in the available space. I like it because the simplicity eschews the need for detail. Costume can become a burden in images, capturing too much of the energy and distracting attention from the meaning. This little drawing captures the dropped shoulders and tight sleeves of the period, but without feeling ‘historical’. It might be either her gown or her shift.

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The diagonal framing device at the right is where the foreground bed-curtain cuts across, giving me the opportunity to run riot with the decorative patterning that’s become something of a theme in the series, from the Green Knight’s foliate tattoos (an invention that isn’t in the text) to the peacocks and vines embroidered on the caparison of his horse. (More invention.) For the bed-hangings I plan a fevered idyll, all turbulent vegetation and frolicking rabbits.

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Above: detail from the colour study for The Green Knight’s Head Lives

When I began making prints on the theme of the poem I was clear about not getting enmeshed in the descriptive passages. They are so sumptuous and detailed that attempting to reproduce them would be visually overwhelming. Instead my inspiration has been filtered through my familiarity with the text. The prints were intended to capture some of what I feel about Gawain and his Green Knight.

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Above: stencils for The Green Knight Arrives

Occasionally I’ve returned to re-examine a passage of the poem only to discover that I’ve recalled it incorrectly in my image. But that, after all, is the nature of memory, and so I’ve not made revisions on discovering misalignments between what’s written and what I’ve made.

My thanks to Simon Armitage for his insights. The quotes from his translation are by kind permission of Faber & Faber.

 

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