2020 V&A Illustration Awards shortlist nominee for ‘Hansel & Gretel: a Nightmare in Eight Scenes’

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I’m honoured and thrilled to share here that I’ve been shortlisted for the V&A 2020 Illustration Award in the category of ‘Illustrated Book’ for Simon Armitage’s contemporary re-working of the Brothers Grimm, ‘Hansel & Gretel: a Nightmare in Eight Scenes’.

My thanks to publisher Joe Pearson and designer Laurence Beck at Design for Today for their unflagging belief in this project and the tireless work they put in to make it everything we’d hoped it might be.

The announcements of the award winners will be made in June.

 

‘Putz’, Pastille Burners and Palaces: the making of ‘Bird House’

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When Joe Pearson enquired whether I’d like to produce a title to fit in with his ongoing project of making both selected re-prints and new titles in the old Bantam series of tiny picture-books, I didn’t hesitate for even a moment before saying yes. I’d taken a lot of pleasure in Joe’s reprints of Hilary Stebbing’s two titles for Bantam, The Silly Rabbits and The Animals Went in Two by Two, poring over them repeatedly. I’m a big Stebbing fan but original copies of her books are hard to find these days, so the re-prints were an easily affordable treat.

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There are just fourteen pages per Bantam book plus front and back cover, a constraint that can either focus or defeat the illustrator/author. Stebbing rose magnificently to the challenge with vibrant images that all but leap off the page. The Silly Rabbits reprint has been at my elbow as inspiration throughout the process of working on my own book. If I could capture even a fraction of the vivacity of her approach, then I’d be content.

Joe came straight to the point with his suggestion of a subject: birds. There had been birds of many varieties in our first book together, Simon Armitage’s Hansel & Gretel: a nightmare in eight scenes, and Joe suggested that if time was too short for me to make new work, we might profitably look at some of the unused drawings made for that project.

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But once the idea was in my head, I was off like a rocket to make new work. I thought briefly about whether I’d write or commission a new story, but greedy for all the space I could grab for the illustrations, decided in the end to make a picture-book, pure and simple. I considered producing a sort of nursery primer Guide to British Birds, and began sketching. But the more I sketched, the more I realised that I wanted to make not a book of birds as observed in nature, but something imaginary.

My first thoughts focussed on combining birds with some of the foil crèches I’d collected which are a folk art tradition of the city of Krakow in Poland. Only a few weeks previously I’d been making assemblages for my Instagram page that combined foil crèches and vintage tinplate birds. So out came the clockwork cockerels again and the tiny wooden buildings from the Erzgebirge toy-making region of the Black Forest, and rather strangely it began to feel as though the idea might have been cooking in my head from a time before Joe came to me with the project.

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I began arranging the foil crèches on my work table, combining them with small painted wooden birds, another Polish craft tradition of which I have many examples.

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Below: Polish ‘folk art’ foil nativity from Krakow, to which I’ve added tiny painted wooden birds for the photograph. All things Polish and folk-artish in my collection come from the wonderful online emporium, Frank & Lusia.

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For about a day the title of the new book was to be Palace of Birds. But it changed as soon as I came up with the more direct, Bird House.

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Suddenly the dining-room table, where I’d temporarily set up my work space, was piling high with Polish birds, Russian tinplate chickens and foil crèches. Here a hen stands atop a ‘Head’ by artist Peter Slight.

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There were other possibilities stirring. I’d fairly recently acquired a box full of vintage Chinese chenille birds, and they too came out.

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Below: worktable with the many Polish painted birds that contributed their services to the project. Note the copy of Hilary Stebbing’s The Silly Rabbits.

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Ideas for bird houses developed fast. I researched at the computer, sketchbook in lap, filling it with drawings of Staffordshire pastille-burners in the forms of fanciful castles and follies.

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Below: project-book sketch of a Staffordshire folly and a Polish bird.

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Then there were vintage versions of the glitter-encrusted Christmas decorations known as ‘Putz’, which before World War II had been popular Japanese novelty exports to the US.

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I made many fully worked-up trial images in preparation for beginning my work in earnest. In this one from my project-book you can see how I adapted the Putz House shown above.

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And here – in a detail from the finished illustration – a change of bird strengthens the image.

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Recalling the china pagodas that decorated the goldfish bowls of my childhood, I began trawling for examples that might go nicely with my chenille birds. So many ideas, so little space!

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Below: project-book drawings of Russian clockwork chickens.

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Bird House will be published later this year. Produced in a very small edition, I suggest that if this book appeals and you fancy a copy, then you contact Joe at the Design for Today Instagram page. There you’ll find a post about it where you can leave a comment to notify him of your interest. On this one I fear it will be ‘reserve early to avoid disappointment’.

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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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Publication Day, May 24th!

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After a year in the making, the published edition of Hansel & Gretel: a Nightmare in Eight Scenes, is about to launch. It was a pleasure from beginning to end, made so by the commitment of the small team who worked tirelessly to realise it. We shared an ambition to make something lasting and fine, and I believe we did just that.

My heartfelt thanks to Simon Armitage, who entrusted the project to me, and to publisher Joe Pearson at Design for Today, who unhesitatingly took up the challenge and then didn’t stop until everything was perfect. Thanks and admiration for Laurence Beck at Design for Today, who so beautifully designed the book. Huge thanks too to my regular collaborator Pete Telfer, who has been present at all stages of the Hansel & Gretel adventure, and was my cameraman and editor on the animations and film sequences of the stage production, as well as the book-trailer shown here.

And finally my warmest appreciation to the team on the stage production, whose unfailing creativity and cheer buoyed me up when the waters got very choppy: Di Ford and Lizzie Wort, Jan Zalud, Oonagh Creighton-Griffiths, Jonathan Street, Peter Lloyd and Phil Cooper. Every one of you, a hero in my book!

 

Clive Hicks-Jenkins, May 2019

Old Bus-Ticket Pink!

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I’m on the most wonderful adventure with publisher Joe Pearson and his assistant Laurence at Design for Today, and Simon Armitage’s glittering reinvention of a fairytale favourite has given us the most thrilling material to work with.

Simon’s Hansel & Gretel: a nightmare in eight scenes, formed the text to Matthew Kaner’s music in a production featuring the Goldfield Ensemble, plus actor, puppets and shadow-play, that I directed this year. (A recording of a performance of it given at Barbican is being broadcast by BBC Radio 3 on December 22nd.) In Spring 2019 the text is being published in a beautiful Design for Today edition, masterminded by Joe.

We’re currently tweaking the colours, a muted and atmospheric palette of dusty pinks, blues and yellows that I’ve nicknamed my ‘old bus-ticket’ range. (I think Farrow & Ball should take note!) This is the first ‘colour illustrated’ book I’ve produced for a contemporary text, and the process – thanks to Joe’s meticulous care for the book and our joint ambition to make it truly splendid – is the most fun I’ve ever had on an illustration project. What a great experience our work together over the past few months has been! My thanks to Simon, who came up with the idea of the illustrated edition and asked my help to make it happen, and of course to Joe, who unhesitatingly took up the challenge.

The palette for Hansel & Gretel: a nightmare in eight scenes, draws on the faded colours of old bus tickets.

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Sugar Rush

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Above, the Witch meets a bad end, shoved into a cauldron of molten Foam Shrimps, Jelly Beans, Glacier Mints and Liquorice Allsorts!

My task of illustrating Simon Armitage’s poem Hansel & Gretel: a nightmare in eight scenes, has been completed. It has been the most exciting work, especially coming at the conclusion of rehearsals for the stage production of Hansel & Gretel that I directed for its six month tour with the Goldfield Ensemble..

One of the things about any text presented on a stage, is that there never seems quite enough room within the short duration of a performance – especially one in which the words are set to music – to explore it as thoroughly as can be managed in a book. So the Design for Today edition of the text is my opportunity to really foreground Simon’s magnificent wordplay. A couple of weeks ago I carried all the original artwork in portfolios to London to deliver to Joe Pearson at Design for Today, and everything is currently being scanned, cleaned, layered and coloured by Joe and his assistant, Laurence.

I’m cock-a-hoop with the design for the book, which is just perfect. It’ll be out in the Spring. Stay tuned for updates re. pre-ordering, plus news of the special edition. (Which will come with two additional images printed by Dan Bugg at Penfold Press.)

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Deadline Hell

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Above: rendering of a double-spread endpaper for the new Hansel & Gretel book

Project: illustrating the poem of Hansel & Gretel by Simon Armitage, first commissioned as the ‘libretto’ to composer Matthew Kaner’s music. (The Goldfield Productions stage version of Hansel & Gretel, directed by me, is currently on a national tour.)

Below: the woodcutter and his wife rendered on layers of lithography film

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Publisher: the brilliant Design for Today.

Brief: to make a beautiful illustrated first edition of Simon Armitage’s poem, that while visually referencing the visual aesthetic of the current stage production, is a reading experience in contrast to a listening one.

Below: still from a stop-motion animation sequence that’s projected during performances of the work

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It’s also the opportunity to work with a publisher with whom I share a love of vintage illustration and the art of lithography.

Below: trial image for the book, produced on layers of lithography film

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Technique: images made on paper and lithography film, to be printed in layers of colour.

Deadline: don’t ask.

Below: cavalry-officer rendered on layers of lithography film

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People ask me: “How many illustrations in the book? How many have you completed? How long will it take to finish?” (Do they imagine this helps?) Each day I strike a bit more off the to-do list. I’ve divided the project into quarters, the idea being that it’s marginally less pressurising to look each day at the more manageable goal of a section of the book, than the dauntingly long list of images for the entire damned thing. And I’m working in order of chronology, from the front endpapers and title page through to the acknowledgements and ‘end’ endpapers, to halt the tyranny of vacillating over what to do when I walk into the studio of a morning, and to even out the work process so that I don’t draw all my favourite bits first.

Q: Will it be done in time?

A: Of course.

Q: How is this to be achieved?

A: I don’t know. Magic?

Q: Are you confident that you won’t overshoot the deadline?

A: Absolutely. Pretty much. At least I am when people leave me alone to get on with it, instead of offering unasked for estimations based on how long it takes me to make a single drawing and then multiplying that X 40. Well, 40-ish. At this point I should add that Joe the publisher never asks these questions. Joe is unfailingly supportive and enthusiastic, there when I need him and not in the least pressurising.

Q: Are you pleased with what you’re producing?

A: You bet.

Q: What are you going to do when it’s done?

A: Sleep!

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