Pretty as a Picture


Over at my Facebook page I decided to put up a lot of Hansel & Gretel images and links. It was a bit of fun to research and post in the evenings after long days working hard on the images for my Hansel & Gretel picture-book. In fact the exercise turned out to be a bit of a revelation, and I now have a much clearer idea of how deeply the iconography of the fairy-tale is embedded in our collective psyche.





Hansel and Gretel, the witch and her gingerbread house are everywhere. There are illustrations, good and bad, and all shades in-between. Most of the imagery is cloyingly awful, though there have been some lovely discoveries among the dross, particularly among the vintage images. I love this one.


And I am adding a recommendation from the always erudite and knowledgeable John Coulthart, who has pointed me toward Albert Weisgerber’s atmospheric 1900 edition of Grimm’s Fairy Tales.


To my knowledge Maurice Sendak left only one Hansel & Gretel image, made for his ravishingly beautiful The Juniper Tree. I can tell you, 20th century illustrations for fairy tales don’t come better than this.

I’ve found two versions of the tale illustrated by Arthur Rackham, and there may be more.



Much attention focusses on the picturesqueness of the gingerbread house, while as might be expected the more unsavoury aspects of cooking and eating small children, and the witch’s death at Gretel’s hands, are sidestepped.


It strikes me that where the iconography becomes an end in itself – and particularly when it’s divorced from its narrative context or used to sell products – the underlying darkness is extinguished, and we’re left with a gazillion images of candy-embellished cottages, lived in by a diversity of old ladies who welcome untold numbers of generic moppets, every one of them plump and rosy-cheeked.


Very few represent the witch’s home for what it is in the fairy tale –  a sugar-encrusted charnel-house. We’ve taken what is truly scary, de-fanged it and rendered it harmless and jaunty.


I’ve discovered images of considerable artistry…


… some that are frankly bizarre…

… and a few that have made me want to poke out my own eyes!

Every now and again an artist, illustrator, photographer or film-maker picks up the tale and deconstructs/reinvents it, which is what Susanne Jannsen has done so imaginatively


My own version is pretty dark, and contains a few surprises! I’m making it for myself, not worrying about the age of those who look at it. Some friends who’ve had a preview have said their children will love the picture-book, while others have blanched at the very idea of exposing their offspring to it. That combination of responses sounds about right to me.

A Dream Come True

Above: Set of Green’s wings from my collection of toy theatre ephemera

When I was a child, I was given a stack of yellowing toy theatre sheets by a friend of my parents, the actor and playwright Bill Meilen. They were mostly scenery, consisting of backdrops, wings and ground-rows. I had no toy theatre stage, and so I made one. (Probably out of a used cereal pack!) Bill encouraged me to cut the sheets, to colour them and use them, and to my everlasting regret as an adult, I did. I wish I wish I wish that I had not, and had stored them away somewhere safe. Instead, I cut and played with them, and there must have been some pretty potent magic in the fragile sheets, because here I am, over fifty years later, still in thrall to the wonders of the toy theatre.

Toy theatre in my studio, made from wooden building-blocks

The gift of Juvenile Drama scenery sheets from Bill, cut and pasted and gracing a toy stage of my own making, vanished, together with the other toys of my childhood, when my parents moved house. They left the rented Edwardian terraced property I’d grown up in, and moved to a small, modern flat. I was away at school in London at the time, and my bedroom in the old house, airy and packed with so many things I treasured, was ‘downsized’ to fit into the box-room that would thereafter be my bedroom in the family home. The theatre and its scenery vanished, alongside much else that I would have wished to keep. They were good parents in so many ways, but they weren’t sentimental about such things.

Yesterday, I made an agreement with Pollock’s Toy Theatre shop in London, to design the next title in their series of model theatres by contemporary artists. I’ll produce Hansel & Gretel to join the two ahead of me, The Snow Queen and the recent Beauty and the Beast. In 2016, not only will I be producing my first picture-book, thanks to Simon Lewin and his Random Spectacular imprint, but I’ll also be producing a model theatre for the shop bearing the name of the man who has been a beacon of creativity for me throughout my life, Benjamin Pollock. More here about this exiting project before too long.

The Bad Mother and the Weak Father

Maquettes  for my project with Simon Lewin of St. Jude’s Prints. Simon has been producing occasional publications under the ‘Random Spectacular’ title for quite a while. However, this year he’s going all out to expand the imprint with a series of exciting projects, one of which is to produce a picture-book that I’ve wanted to make for a long time. ‘Hansel & Gretel’ is going to be quite dark in tone. Definitely not one for the children. As is usually my way with projects, I’ve built maquettes of  the characters to help me create the images. Here are the Bad Mother and the Weak Father. She is as sour as vinegar, and he is careworn to the point of being rendered mute by her vitriol. One day she’s going to push him too far!

The tree is by Johann Rohl, currently working with me in the studio on a collaborative project.

Below: earlier maquettes of The Bad Mother

Things can end badly for bad mothers!

Out of the Woods: part 2

When making a book, once the initial excitement of producing exploratory images and compiling material is over, the hard job is to decide on which of the many ideas are going to be used, before assembling the dummy-copy.

That, for me, is the most difficult part, to put aside many of the ideas made along the way, because the book cannot hold all of them. On Hansel & Gretel I set aside the 1950’s vibe that had the children in school uniforms, and the ‘bad mother’ groomed as though for a day of shopping at Harvey Nicks and her husband for a day at the races. Clearly their priorities when cash became a tad short, did not include being impeded by children!

While it would have been a pleasant enough tipping-of-my hat to the post-war world of my childhood, and undoubted fun to draw formica-topped kitchen tables and Melamine breakfast services, ultimately it would have been too much of a knowing nod to the past. And so that has gone, and the images… and the cast of players… have become stranger and darker.

Out went Celia Johnson in the role of the Bad Mother…

…. and in came this hard-eyed substitute.

The Weak Father, with his tache and cap…

… transformed into this enigmatic cypher, his face constructed of empty shells.

Out went the school uniforms…

and in came the bonnet and cap of  ‘Once upon a time…’

And marching in, too, came the first of the maquettes. The Celia Johnson lookalike has shed her plump 1950s cocoon of sleek fox-pelt, pearls and perfect Avon maquillage, and out of it has emerged not a butterfly, but a predatory horror, stick-thin as a mantis and purged of all kindness.

The Bad Mother has arrived!

Watch the Artlog for developments.

Out of the Woods: part 1

Although I made a first pass at the dummy copy of Hansel & Gretel quite a while back, I’ve been re-visiting it and making significant changes. (It always pays to sleep on things for a while.) This is to be a picture-book, and the images have to carry the narrative.

With such an iconic story, there must be a balance between relying on what viewers already know of it, while not taking too much for granted. Plus there is the dream-like element that I envisage, and the surprise twists of the story that need to be conveyed without over-burdening the images with explanation.

I’ve restored the ‘bad mother’ theme. It seems that when the collection became popular, parents were uneasy with such notions, and the Grimm brothers obligingly excised them from subsequent editions.

But it seems to me that in fairy tales, the horrors lie not just in the realm of the unknown outer world, but in the familiar places that should be safe. What could be more horrific than an uncaring mother who puts her children in the way of a predatory cannibal witch?

From my workbook.

There is not enough food to go around.

This mother is implacable, and her meaning is clear.

The father is weak, and says nothing.

The Witch’s cottage has been through many guises, from brutal modernism… a concrete bunker bristling with lollipops… to gingerbread gothic. This is how it looked in the Hansel & Gretel piece I made for Random Spectacular that led to the current project.

More recent images from my workbook.

I envisage it hyper-coloured and sweating sugar-syrup!

I’m constantly paring back and simplifying. This…

… became this. The small format works better with cleaner outlines.

A dried plant stalk, picked on a mountain walk last year, has become a model for trees in the witch’s wood.

A threatening forest also recently appeared in the Dark Movements toy theatre…

… and something like it may well find its way into Hansel & Gretel.

More soon.

evolution of Hansel & Gretel

This project started back in 2012, when I made some drawings of the story of Hansel & Gretel for a project to produce an alphabet primer.

That led to a little project decorating enamelware plates for our kitchen. A nursery service!

And it was while making the nursery service, that I made some mugs with gingerbread men on them that looked a tad threatening…

… and the whole notion of ‘Gingerbread Zombies’ developed, aided and abetted by my friend Phil Cooper, who loved the idea and encouraged me to play with it.

I made some images toying with the idea of Hansel & Gretel as a picture book.

Then Simon Lewin asked me to contribute a piece to Random Spectacular 2, for which I wrote a short version of the fairy tale, adding a new twist to the narrative. (You’ll have to find a copy to see what the ‘twist’ is!)

Above: collage artwork

Below: the printed version

Simon Lewin re-worked the black and white artwork into two-tone images…


… and then sprang the lovely surprise of asking whether I’d like to produce a full, picture-book version of Hansel & Gretel, to be published under the Saint Jude’s Prints Random Spectacular imprint.

Work began in the run-up to Christmas 2014. I produced character sketches…

… including realisations of Gingerbread Zombies!


Then I began some worked up ‘concept’ drawings.


Next I began a small rough dummy of the book…

… before quickly realising that I needed to do more work on the narrative structure.

With the narrative mapped out in the requisite number of pages, I made a to-scale dummy book, with rough drawings throughout.

Once Simon Lewin has signed off the dummy, work on the final drawings and colour separations can begin.

Easy peasy!

(I kid!)

Peter Slight, Gingerbread Zombie fabricator

spideys habitat

The splendid Peter Slight was the curator of last year’s Puppet Challenge here at the Artlog, and can be seen above pointing out the last known whereabouts of his arachnid friend, ‘Spidey’. Peter is in the process of making models of Gingerbread Zombies, inspired by characters from the picture-book of Hansel & Gretel I’m currently working on in collaboration with Simon Lewin at Saint Judes’s Prints. (See drawing below.) Peter’s models will help us promote the book at its launch. (And who knows but that enthusiasts might be able to purchase a Gingerbread Zombie of their very own, if Peter can be persuaded to make some more!) The figure will be finished in an epoxy material, which is how Peter made this Krampus figure for me.)

Here he writes about the process of making.

Progress report so far: 1) I decided to make a paper template of the figure (as though he is lying flat) and then ‘trace’ around its outline with coat-hanger wire. (This seemed like the simplest approach, but will also make the model extremely robust – by my models standards at least.)

2) I was then able to bend the figure into his ‘pose’ and stand him up on a rough tump, to see how it would look. (I left wire trailing from his ‘grounded’ foot to act as a secure fixing point. This also allows him to stand on one leg in a more dynamic pose whilst still be very safely attached to his base)

3) After some adjusting to his pose, I filled in the space/cavity within the wire figure with pieces of polystyrene.

4) After double checking everything fitted into place and filling in some of the larger gaps with smaller pieces of polystyrene. All the polystyrene pieces were glued into place.

After doing my initial sketch by taking elements from several of your designs to create a kind of composite figure, I decided that it looked too much like my own interpretation of the theme and not enough like any of your own designs. So I started a second gingerbread man based on your lumbering ‘karloff’ one, and this will be as close a facsimile to your own sketch as possible.

Since taking the photos, I have started carving the figures and tumps in earnest. They are progressing well. The shape and method of construction has made them surprising easy to make (so far)

Peter Slight January 2015