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.

2015 Christmas Card in progress

Last year’s e-Christmas card (see above) was a big success, and so this year, with my usual last-minute haste, I’ve embarked on a design that uses the same characters in different guises. (They are my ‘actors’, and the Christmas cards the stages upon which they play. The lady and gentleman who graced the 2014 card were inspired by some eighteenth century gingerbread moulds. This years nods its cap to the great tradition of Regency toy theatre, sometime know as the ‘Juvenile Drama’. When I was a boy I was given a set of fragile, Regency lay sheets by the actor Bill Meilen. They were wonderful, though I fear I cut them up to make toy scenery that has long since vanished. But the splendour of those magical sheets lives on in my memory, and here I’m paying tribute to the sense of theatrical delight they opened up for me. I used this image from George Speaight’s History of the Toy Theatre as my compositional inspiration for this year’s card.

My sketches of the characters, show actors rather less wasp-waisted than those shown on Redington’s title-page of The Mistletoe Bough…

… and here they are in worked-up drawings at full scale. He’s gained a dog, and she a Fairy Queen’s wings and wand.

The scenery has changed too, from a castle, to a pair of rustic artisan’s cottages in a wood.

The base areas of colour are laid down., a combination of acrylic and gouache.

Then the rendering begins.

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The characters I designed for last year’s Christmas card, emerged for a second time in my exhibition at Oriel Tegfryn, titled Telling Tales. For that they played the roles of Oberon and Titania, and by then I was really in the swing of inventing back storied for them:

  • ‘Of course these are not supposed to represent the real Fairy King and Queen, but are ‘theatrical portraits’ of a rather grand though over-the-hill thespian couple. They’ve been treading the boards for nearly half the nineteenth century with their own company of touring players, he an actor-manager of the old school, producing, directing and playing all the plum-roles in the Shakespeare repertoire. The glory days of ‘standing room only’ at Drury Lane are far behind them, and their increasingly threadbare productions have been reduced to playing the more ramshackle regional theatres.’
  • ‘She was a passing good ingenue in her day, but time has rendered her stouter than might be wished for the role of the Queen of the Fairies. She’s been busy behind the scenes to rise to the challenge, with some judicial clamping and stretching devices hidden under her wig. She’s also invested in a set of replacement teeth carved by a retired seaman from Whitstable. They’re a tad startling when she smiles, not least because of a slight mis-fit, and the vestiges of scrimshaw that he wasn’t quite able to polish out. In a good light you can see the upper parts of a large-breasted mermaid on her right incisor, and the tattooed bicep of a Jolly Jack Tar on her left. But she’s skilled with the fan, and deploys it with aplomb to ward off too-close scrutiny of her briny gnashers!’ Thus equipped, and with the aid of greasepaint, tinsel and and a peachy glow from the footlights, she gamely mounts her moth-eaten guinea-fowl and sallies forth to enchant her lord and master, and hopefully the more short-sighted in the audience.’

the road to beastly passions part 2: penny dreadfuls

There is something in the British psyche that is drawn to both the prurient and the ghastly. UK tabloid newspapers have long evidenced an interest in both, and it’s not a recent phenomenon, as a history of such things predates the twentieth century.

The Victorians had a vision of an industrialised economy that would drive innovation, and anyone casting an eye over the staggering technical discoveries of the nineteenth century can’t but be impressed at how we led by example. Iron forged in the south Wales valleys was exported the world over. It made not only our own railway systems, but the ones that bridged the vast reaches of the United States. The period threw up the engineering geniuses Thomas Telford and Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who between them changed the face of Britain with canal systems, bridges, dockyards, roads, harbours and tunnels.

But in the middle of all this brilliance, there were other industries running like dark veins through our great cities, fuelled by poverty and a lack of any social welfare. Prostitution was rife, and of many varieties to suit all tastes. While the glittering new world was being raised by the celebrated civil engineers, Jack-the-Ripper stalked the sheets of Whitechapel, predating on the poorest and most vulnerable sex-workers.

The Illustrated Police News was one of the earliest British tabloids. It launched in 1864 and ran right through to 1938. Needless to say it made much of the Ripper murders, bad news being good for circulation, and the IPN got very good indeed at plastering its front pages with horrors as a spur to sales. Wherever misfortunes were to be found, the newspaper’s journalists would lay them out for the public to feast upon. The more dreadful the stories, the better everyone liked them.

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There was a precedent for this interest in the grotesque. Pre-dating The Illustrated Police News with its tales of real-life horrors, there had been the Penny Dreadfuls, cheaply published novels specialising in murder and mayhem, often with supernatural overtones.

 

And before the Penny Dreadfuls, the great engraver Hogarth had titillated our relish for comeuppance in his series The Rake’s Progress.

With such a native appetite for the lurid, it comes as no surprise that the Staffordshire potteries occasionally proffered equivalent horrors, such as the tableau of a mother slain by a tiger escaped from a menagerie, her baby pathetically flailing in the beast’s jaws. Who knows what tragedy this was based on… I can find no specific source for it… but whether true or invented, it’s a strange subject to have produced in jaunty glazed pottery to decorate a dresser. Perhaps it was deemed as ‘cautionary’, to warn little children not to step too close to the bars of the animal cages in the ‘zoological gardens’.

The notorious slaying in 1827 of young Maria Marten, shot and buried in a barn by her lover William Corder, was commemorated with bucolic Staffordshire groups belying the violence of the event. (See top of post and below)

Even the toy theatres that gained popularity in the Regency were not averse to a touch of Penny Dreadful, as the surviving play-lists show. Jonathan Bradford, or The Murdered Guest was available as a toy theatre melodrama, as was a dramatised version of Bluebeard, the serial wife-killer of fairy-tale. Then there was The Mistletoe Bough, or The Fatal Chest, the story of a bride who dies when trapped in a heavy coffer during a coy game of hide and seek with her groom.

The toy-like naiveté overlaying lurid melodrama in the Staffordshire groups commemorating tragic events, make for oddly unsettling pieces of popular-art. Looking at them I began to wonder what would happen if instead of making paintings of existing examples… like the one I made for my friend Ben Elwyn’s birthday…

… I invented versions based on contemporary tabloid front-page reports. The idea for Beastly Passions came about when I began to imagine what today’s headlines might look like re-imagined as though through the prism of Staffordshire pottery groups. Dreadful events, it seems to me, would carry an unexpected and perhaps more tender charge, if wrapped like brightly coloured boiled-sweets in shiny cellophane.

The research is already underway and the first drawings are emerging. I’ll be posting about this project when I’ve more to show.