Simon Armitage and Clive Hicks-Jenkins: the poet and his illuminator


I offered the term ‘illuminator’ to Marly Youmans some years ago when she asked me how I wanted to be described in terms of making images for her books. I went for the word used for the often anonymous artists who decorated early manuscripts with glowing intensity. I love being Marly’s illuminator, and we’ve been travelling hand-in hand for a long time now. I’ll be decorating her Book of the Red King for Phoenicia Publishing this year. There’s an ease and trust between us that’s creatively liberating.

The same comfort is in place with Damian Walford Davies, for whom I’ve made the covers of his trilogy of narrative poems, Witch, Judas and my yet to be released favourite, the ghost story Docklands. Simon Armitage is proving to be another easeful collaborator, leaving me and the team at Faber to get on with things. Trust, of course, is at the heart of such relationships. It’s either there or it isn’t. It can’t be negotiated or contractually enforced, and it’s at its best when the author knows the images don’t have to illustrate, so much as create a mood in which to set the words. Sometimes the images can even play against the text, without in any way disrupting the flow of meaning. It’s a magic thing, and it either happens or it doesn’t. Like all intuitive creative processes, I’m quite convinced that no practitioner could show precisely how to do it. I always know when I’ve got the idea right, and can move forward in confidence to see a book through to completion, but I find it impossible to explain why.


I’m not entirely sure what it is that so consistently brings me to work with poets. Saturday’s exhibition opening at MoMA Machynlleth was the culmination of the close-on three year task printmaker Dan Bugg and I set ourselves to make 14 screen prints inspired by Simon Armitage’s 2007 translation of this extraordinary narrative poem, but it was only after the first six images had been editioned and published that Simon saw the work and wrote to me about it. Two years on we’re in the process of adapting the images to Simon’s forthcoming revised edition of the poem, due out from Faber in the Autumn.

After two selling Gawain exhibitions with the Martin Tinney Gallery (Part 1 in 2016 and Part 2 in January this year), MoMA Machynlleth is hosting a three-month-long exhibition of the 14 prints plus preparatory material made over the period of the project, from sketches, maquettes and painted studies, to stage-proofs and the ‘drawings’ made on lithography film that produced the colour separations for the screen prints.

Simon is softly spoken and on Saturday he read from his Gawain translation with deceptive diffidence. Nothing declamatory or overly emphatic in his delivery, but a mesmerising eloquence and intensity that effortlessly bewitched the audience. He gave a masterclass in how to do more with less, and I’ll remember it always.

Below: the most important critics, Dan Bugg’s children, Alfie and Elsie take in the exhibition before the doors open. Both are pretty proficient in the printing studio, and so they have the insiders’ perspective.




Sir Gawain and the Green Knight at MoMA Mach

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The Temptations. 2017. Screenprint. Edition of 75.

Please join us for the official opening by

Simon Armitage


Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: 14 prints on the theme of a poem

at MoMA Machynlleth 

Saturday 24th March at 12.00

Celebrating the collaboration between Clive Hicks-Jenkins and The Penfold Press to make a series of 14 prints inspired by the Faber & Faber 2007 edition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight translated by Simon Armitage, who will be opening the exhibition and reading from the poem.

Included in the exhibition will be sketches, maquettes, proofs and studies for the series, alongside the 14 prints. An illustrated catalogue with a text by the art historian and curator, James Russell, has been published to celebrate the completion of the project.

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Romancing Wales


John Piper, (1903 -1992) Llanthony Abbey, 1941, oil on panel, National Library of Wales © Estate of John Piper / DACS

My partner, Peter Wakelin, is the guest curator for the forthcoming exhibition, Romanticism in the Welsh Landscape, at MOMA Machynlleth. The exhibition will run from 19 March to 18 June.


John Elwyn, (1916 – 1997), The Stillness of Roots, 1946, private collection.

With over 60 works on the theme of Romantic and Neo-Romantic landscape dating from the late eighteenth century to the present, it’s the most substantial exhibition MOMA has yet produced. For close to a year Peter has been tracking down works in public and private collections across the UK, and with the assistance of the MOMA team has arranged the extensive loans that have been brought together at Machynlleth for Romanticism in the Welsh Landscape. He has also been able to draw on MOMA’s substantial holdings of paintings by Welsh artists and artists working in Wales.


Thomas Jones (1742-1803), The Southern Extremity of Carnedde Mountain in Radnorshire, 1795, LLGC/NLW


Charles Shearer (1956— ), Towards Snowdon from Penbryn Quarries, 2016, gouache on paper, courtesy of the artist


During a painting trip to Wales, Charles Shearer puts finishing touches to Towards Snowdon from Penbryn Quarries while staying with Peter and me at Ty Isaf.


Eleri Mills, (1955— ), Tirlun II – Landscape II, paint, hand stitching and appliqué on fabric, private collection.

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Clive Hicks-Jenkins, (1951 – ), The Barbarian Brought Down by a Lioness from The Temptations of Solitude series, 2003, Tabernacle Collection, MOMA Machynlleth.

There is a publication, Romancing Wales, written to accompany the exhibition, in which Peter emphasises the key role the landscapes of Wales have played in the Romantic and Neo-Romantic traditions, a phenomenon largely ignored in what’s previously been claimed as an English movement, but that he convincingly posits should more rightly be seen as a British one. He writes:

‘I love Welsh landscapes, and I love landscape-based art, so it was a pleasure to come up with ideas about how to approach a show with something fresh to say. The idea the Lamberts and Richard Mayou liked best was an exploration that I had been mulling over for some years of the role of the Welsh landscape in the development of Romanticism in visual art. While I was Director of Collections at Amgueddfa Cymru-National Museum Wales Nick Thornton curated the impressive Wales Visitation: Poetry, Romanticism and Myth in Art, but I was sure there was plenty still to explore. Romanticism in the Welsh Landscape, as we have called the MOMA exhibition, develops an argument that Wales has had a key role to play in Romantic landscape art. It’s a story worth telling both in its own right and as a corrective to the over-emphasis on Englishness and English artists in the history of British landscape painting.’

Romanticism in the Welsh Landscape

MOMA Machynlleth from 19 March to 18 June 2016. Open Monday–Saturday, 10am–4pm, admission free.

The accompanying publication, Romancing Wales by Peter Wakelin, is available from the gallery.