Into the Wood

From inception to creation, the Dark Movements Toy Theatre stage has been empty save for the settings of a blasted Welsh hill-village, and a threatening forest where trees bristle with thorns. It was started in January, completed a few weeks later, and has since appeared in two of the ten new Dark Movements paintings due to appear in my exhibition, opening next week at the Aberystwyth Arts Centre.

In the painting Pale Horse, a glimmering presence appeared among the trees, though on the stage itself, the forest was empty. Last night, under cover of dark, the arrivals began.







Stage-Curtain and Footlights

Free-standing Set-piece and Ground-row


Above: detail from Veil

Above: detail from Pale Horse

The Mari Arrives

‘Flowering Skin’: from start to finish

Flowering Skin

Acrylic, gouache and oil-based crayon on board. 59 x 84 cms


First explorations


Paint and pencil

Sunlight streams over my work-table as I pencil render

Flowering Skin

Acrylic, gouache and oil-based pencil on board. 59 x 84 cms

Dark Movements: ‘the quickening’

Here I show the early stages of work on the painting The Quickening, currently underway. I’ve included images from other paintings and drawings that I’m referencing into it. You might call this post a combination of mood-board and progress report.

Below: the briefest sketch shapes the composition

before being worked out more completely

Below: key aspects get worked out in more detail

Below: the foliate-patterned ground to my recent cover for Marly Youmans’ new novel, is sticking like a burr to my coat-tails, and is set to be reinvented to play a significant role in the new works…

… as is the rendering of the bird

Last Year’s Hervé and the Wolf series of paintings, set the tone for ‘Dark Movements’

Underdrawing for The Quickening. (detail)


So many things are meeting in these new works: my original drawings for The Mare’s Tale (and my family history that underlies them), the recent collaborations with my model, Jordan Morley, themes of greening and renewal, my love and use of toy theatre in my practice, and of course, that old discipline of mine, long behind me but always present in my mind… and in muscle-memory… the dance.

I am pleased to announce that the composer Peter Byrom-Smith, will be providing a soundtrack of new music to accompany the exhibition, both in the gallery, and as a soundtrack to the animated film Dark Movements that I’m working on with my regular collaborator, film-maker Pete Telfer of Culture Colony. The film will be screened in a dedicated space within the gallery. There will also be new work from the American poet Jeffery Beam, who has been closely watching my progress on Dark Movements, and has produced a poetic text to accompany the recent paintings.

Composer, Peter Byrom-Smith


Poet, Jeffrey Beam

the eroticism of gloves

Occasionally a comment can take work in a new direction. My friend Maria in Spain wrote to me about an aspect of the violet-gloved Jordan Morley maquette that I hadn’t much thought about when I was making it. But when Maria mentioned the gloves, and moreover made an analogy that really grabbed my attention, I was off and away exploring the possibilities of incorporating her idea in the new paintings I’m working on for Dark Movements, for which the ‘gloved’ maquette is a preparation.

Maria wrote to me:

“I love the ‘violet’ gloves, and the way he uses them. Reminds me a bit of a treatise my grandmother gave me, on the use beautiful ladies of her youth made of fans. What they covered, what they showed for a tiny fragment of time, what every movement meant. They used their fans in special coded ways, as a kind of mysterious language.”

I replied:

“The notion of Jordan’s violet gloves being the formal equivalent of ‘fan language’, is an intriguing one. I love the idea of the be-gloved hands hiding and revealing… as they do in my photographs of the maquette… and of them evolving almost into separate entities. I shall have to create an elaborate series of coded gestures for them, just as your grand mamma observed in the beautiful ladies of Spain, executing coquettish displays of allure by means of fans!”

“Maria, I don’t quite know how the gloves have slipped into this work. I don’t, as far as I can remember, have a glove fetish, though I clearly favour partial stages of undress to complete nudity, and I can’t deny the eroticism of Jordan’s semi-nakedness combined with those tightly fitted, vivid gloves. Certainly the jacket and the gloves together produce a fetishistic and homoerotic tone in the images. The maquette is in preparation of a series of paintings for my forthcoming exhibition, ‘Dark Movements’, and I think, Maria, that you have just upped the stakes for me in the way I approach the new works. Thank you!”

We’ll see where all this leads!

The Dark Movements Toy Theatre, from start to finish.

The Dark Movements Toy Theatre is finished.

Here it is in detail, from first sketches to completion.

The origins of the toy theatre lie in my Mari Lwyd series begun in 1999, The Mare’s Tale

The world of The Mare’s Tale is one of perpetual night. Landscapes and buildings alike are without foundation. The ground shifts, full of traps for the unwary. In this expressionist realm, everything is fractured and dissolving, the air full of spirits and voices. The Mari itself is a shapeshifting thing of many guises, from a monstrous biped with beast’s skull atop a winding-sheet, stalking a landscape of bone-white mausolea…

… to a supernatural horse streaming through the firmament

Preparatory drawing for the toy theatre

Every theatre must have a curtain, behind which all is hidden until the audience has assembled. When everyone is ready, the lights dim, voices become hushed and the curtain whispers into the darkness so that the mysteries are unveiled.

I wanted there to be a Mari Lwyd to welcome the audience as it gathers, and because this is a toy theatre, I envisaged this aspect of the Mari as being elegant, playful and feminine.

To begin with the proscenium arch is cut from medium density fibreboard

After a couple of coats of gesso and paint, the pencil-rendering begins

First to be completed is the drop-curtain

The proscenium arch contains many references from my recent series of paintings, Borderlands


A tower within its ruined curtain-wall and a discontinued viaduct below…


… a chapel crowned with flames…

… and darkly twisting houses with steep-pitched roofs and high chimneys belching coal-smoke

Candles splutter and curtains billow

This is a restless world.

The Dark Movements Toy Theatre, alongside puppets and scenery for it, will be on show in my Mari Lwyd exhibition

Dark Movements

Aberystwyth Arts Centre

June 6th – July 25th 2015

‘Dark Movements’: building a Mari Lwyd toy theatre

Work has begun in the studio on building a Mari Lwyd toy theatre for my exhibition Dark Movements at the Aberystwyth Arts Centre this summer. I already have a framework for the theatre, and so what remains to be done is to make the proscenium arch, drop-curtain, scenery and puppets.

My first drawing for a proscenium was relatively straight forward, and conformed to a pretty standard toy theatre type.

On to a more elaborate idea, based on the shape of a slate headstone. A cartouche has a Mari Lwyd design in it, and urns carry twin cypress trees. All quite mausoleum-like.

Having warmed up, it’s down to the real work, and a proscenium emerges that contains the iconography of my Mare’s Tale and later Borderlands paintings: a tower standing above a ruined curtain-wall, skewed houses and chapels and a crumbling viaduct. Flames leap from the roof of a chapel.

Below, one of the Borderlands series of paintings.


Everything skews more tortuously in this drawing, and the horizontals of the earlier design are tipped. The world of my Mari Lwyd is invariably chaotic and disorienting.

And finally, the design as it will translate to the model. It rears higher and skews more sharply, and the soft mound has turned craggy in this expressionist world without curves. The drop-curtain… see the small sketch to the left of the tower… has the drapes being swept aside by the monstrous form of the Mari in its ‘horse cadaver’ guise.

Below: Not yet sure whether the curtain will be dark and musty velvet trimmed with tassels, or the Mari’s ghostly winding-sheet.

I’m off to find the jig-saw!


Photographs of the first-stage of the proscenium, cut from medium density fibreboard and awaiting a coat of primer.

The Mare Rises in 2015


An exhibition is currently being planned for 2015 that will draw together many of my 2001/2002 Mare’s Tale drawings from private and public collections, plus stage designs, puppets, models, poster-art and animation sequences produced in 2013 for composer Mark Bowden’s and librettist Damian Walford Davies’ ‘chamber-work with narrator’ that took its inspiration from the drawings. There will also be new designs and animation sequences currently evolving toward a next stage of the project.


Here are a few original Mare’s Tale drawings that haven’t before appeared on the Artlog


Conté pencil on Arches paper. 56 x 76 cm. 2001

Stumbles and Falls

Conté pencil on Arches paper. 56 x 76 cm. 2001

Last Meeting

Conté pencil on Arches paper. 122 x 153 cm. 2002

Detail from Last Meeting

Deposition II

Conté pencil on Arches paper. 56 x 76 cm. 2001

Below: some of the 2013 Mari Lwyd material, produced for the staged chamber-work, that will be in the exhibition

Detail of a Mari Lwyd drawing made for the 2013 staging of The Mare’s Tale at Theatr Brycheiniog

Model used for filmed sequences in The Mare’sTale

Below: puppets used in the production

Actor Eric Roberts rehearsing on my set for The Mare’s Tale

Animation sequences from the production will be screened in the gallery

Poster artwork for The Mare’s Tale

Further announcements about the exhibition, soon.

the mari rises: working the set

Above: the Mari rises

Over at Theatr Brycheiniog it’s not just our actor, Eric Roberts, who must familiarise himself with the set. The puppeteers, too, have to find ways in which to incorporate their performances into the fractured and tip-tilted world suggesting Morgan Seyes’ disconnection as his grip on reality falters.

Morgan’s visits to the churchyard become a daily obsession, until it’s the only place he wants to be.  But not even his habit of sleeping on his wife’s grave can bring relief from grief, as fears awakened from the distant past begin to dog his dreams.

All the puppetry for The Mare’s Tale is being done on a small scale. The reasons for this are multiple, and though a restrictive budget was the starting point of our realisation that we wouldn’t be able to work with ‘life-sized’ puppets, it also made us think more creatively about how we’d bring to life the buried memory at the heart of Morgan’s fears. One of the bonuses of a largely darkened stage, is that size becomes more difficult to judge, so that small puppets can look as though they may be large figures placed further away.

The figure central to the Mari Lwyd mumming tradition, was the ‘Grey Mare’ itself, always represented by a horse’s skull fastened to a pole, carried by a man hidden under a white sheet attached to the crown of the construct. (It’s a hobby-horse of the ‘mast’ tradition, and in fact a type of puppet.) But for Morgan, childhood trauma means his fears of the beast have transformed it into something more dreadful than the lurching hobby-horse of an ale-fuelled, knockabout tradition. For him the Mari has become a shape-shifting chimera, rising like a spectre from childhood memory to hunt him down.

In the early stages of rehearsal I’d imagined the puppeteers and puppets would be at a table to one side of the stage, in full view of the audience. A camera would record the puppet performances, and the images would be streamed to a projection screen to create the apparitions of Morgan’s nightmares. But when we started exploring the possibilities of the set, it became much more interesting to incorporate the Mari puppets into the environment. The puppets are still recorded by a roving camera-operator… in this case, Harriet, who during rehearsals has been following Ann, Diana and the Mari puppets around… but the original plan of confining the puppets to a single location has long since been abandoned. In the photograph above, Morgan Seyes lies sleeping on Jane’s grave, while in the earth beneath him, something white and predatory begins to stir.

My apologies to Ann and Diana, crammed into a tight space that is incredibly uncomfortable because it is both hard on the knees, and pitched at an angle that makes them slide about. Ann and I have known each other since we were puppeteers together over forty years ago. I promised this time I’d put her sedately at a table, working puppets that wold be so simple and easy to manipulate that she could perform with them in her sleep. And here she is again, stuffed into a hole and grazing her knees and elbows as I ask her to create the stage-magic. Gracefully, she says she knew this would happen. With puppets, it always does!

The actor and his director: Eric and Clive at Theatr Brycheiniog

Below: left to right, the writer, the stage manager, the composer, the director, the actor and the dramaturge/assistant director.

the puppets of The Mare’s Tale

Back in February at the first production meeting for The Mare’s Tale, the notion of puppets was discussed as a means to visually express some of the ideas that would be explored in the libretto and the music. Work began on them while we awaited Damian Walford Davies’s text and Mark Bowden’s score.  Now, with both complete, the project is fast moving toward rehearsals, and I’m preparing the last few puppets for the production. Ann Prior and Diana Ford will be bringing them to on-stage life. At last the ideas of artist, librettist, composer and conductor/producer will be coming together to form a new narrated chamber work performed by Eric Roberts and the musicians of the Mid Wales Chamber Orchestra under the baton of James Slater. This has been quite an adventure.

Above: Mari Lwyd Mk I

Below: Mari Lwyd Mk II, reconfigured after a filmed test

Above and below: portraits of the most recent puppet added to the cast.

Above and below: Mari Lwyd  maquettes that will be operated as both rod puppets and stop-motion animations.

Above: I don’t yet have a good image of the ‘transparent’ Mari Lwyd puppet, and so this snapshot taken with a lot of clutter behind it must suffice. Just visible behind the Mari is an original shadow-puppet design by the great Jan Svankmejer.