Catriona on May Day Morning

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I remember my friend Ian telling me that he and Catriona had risen in the dark of May Day and driven from their home in Caerleon to Oxford to be present in time to hear the choristers of Magdalen College choir singing Hymnus Eucharisticus from the Great Tower. The adventure would have been a seed sown by Catriona and made into a reality by Ian, her champion, life companion, lover and organiser. The journey would have been carried out in the spirit of delight and celebration for all things green and renewing. But the weather was not great, and Catriona later recounted that far from the rapturous experience she’d imagined, all youthful voices ringing through the crystalline spring air in the city of dreaming spires, instead a desultory crowd huddled against the damp grey morning, straining to hear the distant, muffled and not terribly enthusiastic account of the music given by the sleepy boys, dragged from their beds and herded up the tower to signally fail to sing out glory. All a bit of a damp squib, she mocked, and hardly worth the bother.

This was the Catriona I loved and admired. She was a romantic in spirit but she wouldn’t make a pretence when things failed to measure up. The notion of the Magdalen Tower tradition, she claimed, was so much better than the event. It was this refusal to pretend that made her such entertaining and bracing company. That said, she would delight in small things, gilding the everyday with insight and her ability to appreciate. While the May Morning recollection made her scornful, she could wonderfully describe her memory of taking a nap in the crogloft of our cottage one peerless summer afternoon, drifting in and out of sleep to the distant sound of children playing and dogs barking on the beach, and stirring herself to the noises of preparation in the kitchen below. She said there was no sound sweeter than waking to the low murmur of voices she loved, and the tinkle of china cups and spoons being laid for tea.

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In her final year, when the illness that would take her from us had her in retreat and yet she was still well enough for Ian to bring her to join Peter and me at Aberporth, Catriona and I – plus Jack – would sit on the bench in front of the low, whitewashed cottage, and listen to the birds, observe and greet passers by and wax lyrical over the burgeoning garden, so many plants of which she and Ian had brought to us and planted. Intolerant of puff or any form of self aggrandisement in herself or others – and she could be merciless in her lambast when roused – yet she could make you see the transcendent in ordinary things. The old bathtub at the cottage that I’d determined to change because of a dislike of coloured baths, was forever transformed for me when Catriona cast her eye over it for the first time, exclaiming on the beauty of its pale, washed-away blue, ‘Oh how lovely. Taking a bath in here will be like taking a bath in the sky!’ And so it’s there still, and is still as blue as a sky washed after rain.

Catriona died on May Day 2005. She came into my life when I was lost, and held me fast until the moment had passed. She changed the way I see the world. I miss her still, every day.

Catriona Urquhart was the author of The Mare’s Tale, a series of poems that she wrote about my father, Trevor, who she knew and loved in his later life. At the core of the series is Trevor’s childhood encounter with an apparition that terrified and thereafter haunted him intermittently for a lifetime. The book was published in a numbered edition by the Old Stile Press in 2001, designed and printed by Nicolas McDowall and with illustrations by me. It was the only book of poems by the writer published in her lifetime. Copies are still available from the Old Stile Press, signed by us both in pencil on the colophon page. You may find it:

HERE

Catriona Urquhart, 1953 -2005.

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Dear Catriona

It’s been eleven years since you left us on May Day 2005. I was sitting in your chair at the top of the garden at Penparc Cottage thinking about you when the call came. I heard the phone ringing, heard it stop, picked up by someone inside. Our friends Susie and Michael and their daughters Minnie and Rosie were holidaying at the cottage. I don’t know who picked up the phone, but both Michael and Susie came out to give me the news, and their stricken, caring faces told the whole story before they’d even explained. They didn’t know you, but they knew about you, knew what the news would mean to me, and they were so, so tender. Nevertheless, the physical sensation  was unexpected. The sudden blow to the chest and an emptying, as though heart and guts had burst and were unstoppably flowing away.

Death was expected, of course. You’d been long fading. I’d been with you the day before, to sit and watch while Ian attended to business. I’d held your hand, leaned in and murmured softly to you, not wanting to pull you back through the easeful veil of drugs. You were floating so far away from me that I imagined myself a distant speck in the dreamy landscape beneath your wings. You were peaceful.

You died at a point of change in our lives. We were moving to Aberystwyth, though hadn’t yet found what was to become our home. Peter and I were staying with our friend Pip, who’d loaned us her guest cottage, the Ty Bach. Pip knew I was sad and was as kind as kind can be. But no concern, no matter how beautifully expressed, could pack back what had flowed out at the time of your death. Eleven years on and it’s still missing, like the cavity of a lost tooth that I can’t stop probing with my tongue, expecting the miracle of a return while knowing that it can’t grow back. This is not to say that there isn’t love in my life, because there is. But not your love, and I miss that more than I can express. My friend, confidante, co-conspirator and muse, I miss you every day.

I think that this emptying is what eventually undoes us. Every passing of a loved one pulls out another bit of my stuffing.

This is how it feels. (You’ll like this, Catriona. It’s a story!)

As a child I started out on a walk along a beautiful country lane, surrounded by a loving family. Gradually friends joined the walk, and as I grew, the throng multiplied. It was a merry crew, a constant discovery and delight. There were the older generation still with me, but mostly young and lively people of my own age. The walk was like a party.

Gradually the older ones began to drop back. It was sad, though it seemed natural. After all, they were older. When they stopped I waved goodbye and moved on. I missed them of course, but I was really interested in what lay ahead.

Then some of the ones who were the same age as me began to slow down, falter, stop. First one, and then another and another. And each one stopping in the road diminished my happiness and made me less myself. A bit more stuffing pulled out.

These days the group is slower, and much smaller. Every time I look around there are fewer companions. Now when I turn back I can see many figures dotted along the road travelled, just standing there. I keep walking while they diminish and then disappear in the distance.

Right now I still have enough people around me to remain optimistic. But our numbers decrease all the time and I fear that one day I will be the only one on the road. I’m not at all sure I ever want to become the unaccompanied traveller trudging forward, carrying an emptiness left by absence. But what alternative is there? And I wish… oh how I wish… that you were here so we could talk about it.

Sent with love by Clive to Catriona Urquhart

May Day, 2016

 

Catriona wrote the poetic text to the body of work that started my career as a painter. The Mare’s Tale poems appeared in 2001 in an edition with illustrations by me and published by The Old Stile Press. It’s a beautiful book and is still available from the press, based at Catchmays Court in the Wye Valley. Designed and printed by Nicolas McDowall, it’s a lasting testament to story-telling, friendship, collaboration and Catriona’s artistry with words.

By clicking HERE, you will find other Artlog posts about Catriona.

From Painting to Printing: part one

Above: early stage drawing for Hansel & Gretel

Hansel & Gretel is my first picture-book, Given that I’m sixty-four, there has to be some likelihood that it’ll be my first and last, and so there’s a great deal tied up in it for me. It’s something I have to get right, because for as long as I can remember I’ve wanted to make a book with the story told in pictures, though I never seriously thought it would happen. Before even the change of career that took me from the stage to the studio aged forty, I’d fantasised about making picture-books, so this is a long-held dream made reality.

Becoming a painter was the biggest surprise to me at the time it began to happen. I’d thought that with luck and a following wind I might become good enough to be able to put brush to canvas without embarrassing myself too much, but I never once thought that things would go the way they did, until I found myself regularly exhibiting and selling. Eventually I realised that my career was shaping in a way that meant I was becoming a ‘gallery’ artist, and that a future of regular exhibitions was going to be the way I made my living. But I never lost my love of illustration, and from time to time I pondered on whether working as a painter might offer opportunities to explore the possibilities of making books.

Below: an Old Stile Press image I made for The Sonnets of Richard Barnfield

The first books I produced images for came as a result of an invitation from Nicolas and Frances McDowall at The Old Stile Press. The McDowalls make limited edition hand-printed and hand-bound books, collaborating closely with artists and printmakers. At the time I started working with Nicolas, I was not a printmaker (I  was barely established as an artist) and so it was a great leap of faith on Nicolas’ and Frances’ part to invite me to work with them. Moreover they understood me as a painter, because almost from the beginning of my career as an artist, they had collected my work. As I see it my apprenticeship in book-making was thanks to them, and to date I’ve made a number of books for the Old Stile Press, the last of which was the illustrated edition of Peter Shaffer’s play Equus.

Below: Frontispiece image of Equus

It’s a matter of great pride to me that I illustrated the covers of the two volumes of The Old Stile Press Bibliography.

I remember once telling my partner Peter that I’d really feel like a painter when someone came along and put a work of mine on the cover of a book. Oddly enough, when that happened and an ink drawing I’d made of a Mari Lwyd on paper was put onto a paperback volume of poetry, the result was disappointing. The image was reversed, the colour was digitally stained so that it looked as though it had been pinned to the wall of a room where people had smoked for forty years, and the title and author letterings were lamentable.

In time I began to see that though reproductions of paintings on book covers could occasionally work, they too often didn’t. More often than I was comfortable with, the reproduction, the cropping and the design and lettering let the whole thing down. Having your work on the cover of a book, I learned, is only satisfying when the design is beautifully executed. Sometimes that happened, as when Anita Mills designed the cover of a book for the Carolina Wren Press that featured a painting of mine, and she did it so beautifully that I loved the result. For the front cover of Yvonne C. Murphy’s volume of poetry, Aviaries, for the Carolina Wren Press, Anita cropped the image to a detail, but then added a smaller illustration of the full painting on the back of the book, which I thought worked wonderfully.

Below: the full picture. It’s titled, Paper Theatre.

When time allowed and opportunities came my way, I began to make book cover images for some of my friends, the chief  among them being Marly Youmans, who because of her reputation as a writer was able to persuade one of her publishers to employ me. For The Foliate Head she even persuaded the publisher to take on my brother-in-law, Andrew Wakelin, as the designer, and he produced a splendid book-cover and ensured the layout inside was handsome. It was The Foliate Head that also established my regular practice of making page-division images and vignettes for Marly’s books.

Above: cover of The Foliate Head, and below, vignette for the book.

Marly’s books at Mercer University Press are designed by Mary-Frances Glover-Burt. I trust Mary-Frances. We regularly work together and she is a rock.

These days, while I wouldn’t lay claim to being an illustrator, I balance my ‘easel’ work with graphic projects that interest me. I continue to make book covers for Marly, and I make covers, too for Damian Walford Davies, at the Welsh publishing house of Seren.

For Seren I also recently produced a cover for Mary-Ann Constantine’s forthcoming novel, Star-Shot, together with vignette drawings for the interior.

After having produced some Hansel & Gretel images for Simon Lewin’s second edition of his fund-raising-for-charity periodical, Random Spectacular, he suggested that we work together on expanding the collaboration into a full-blown ‘picture-book’.

Below: a Hansel & Gretel spread from Simon Lewin’s Random Spectacular Two

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This is a dream project for me. It’s been a long time coming, and I’m going about it with a huge amount of pleasure. It’s interesting that at the same time I’ve been preparing H & G, I’ve been forging a friendship and partnership with printmaker Daniel Bugg of the Penfold Press, producing with his help my first screen-print, Man Slain by a Tiger. I’m enjoying bringing my experience as an ‘easl’ artist to these new fields of making images for the medium of print.

Part Two coming soon.

equus revisted: part three

Part three of my Afterword to the 2009 Old Stile Press illustrated edition of Peter Shaffer’s Equus.

Frontispiece

Gradually I pared down the characters to just Strang and Dysart and, of course, Nugget and his stable companions. By using a radically limited cast, I could better produce images that felt like ideas. For these I had to invent a visual language: the back view of a naked youth can stand for Alan, while the bearded profile and dark gaze will summon Dysart.

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Page opening

In my sketch books the horses developed in ways I hadn’t anticipated, as though demanding fresh transformations from page to page. These metamorphoses had something to do with time: I noted that every scene where Nugget appears is either recalled or imagined, never in the present. Alan describes past events, as do his parents, but other characters, particularly Dysart, imagine them. Therein lay clues to the way the book might develop. Face to face with this troubled young man, anyone might feel the presences of his crime and his victims.

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Page opening

 The fourth and final part of the Equus Afterword tomorrow.

equus revisited: part two

Part two of my Afterword to the 2009 Old Stile Press illustrated edition of Peter Shaffer’s Equus.

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Two decades on, an unfinished circle drew closer to completion when Nicolas McDowall suggested that I collaborate with the Old Stile Press on an edition of Equus ‘with images’. Here was an opportunity to bring together the experiences of both my former vocation and my present one. The idea had come about when Callum Jones, himself a maker of books, met Nicolas at a book fair in London and whispered the words ‘Equus‘ and Clive Hicks-Jenkins’ in his ear. According to Nicolas, his first response was ‘It’s obvious! Why didn’t I think of that?’ The idea took root in his imagination, and after extensive enquiries and negotiations by Frances, permissions were secured.

Double-page spread

Page opening (my favourite ‘decoration’ in the book)

During the ensuing eighteen months I discovered that making images to accompany the text of a play was a more challenging task than decorating a volume of poems. Poetry supports allusion, as I had previously found when working on Old Stile Press editions of the work of Richard Barnfield and Catriona Urquhart. Vignettes of mossy gravestones under country spires have decorated many poetic meditations on the transience of life and have been interpreted as metaphors, enriching the words without overwhelming them. Thomas Bewick was a master of the vignette and, no doubt, that is why so many volumes of poetry have come decorated with wood-engravings by him or his followers.

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But the meaning of a contemporary play text is usually more explicit. There are characters who come with histories, events dramatic and mundane, stage directions, numbered scenes and dialogue. In the book I knew my images would sit next to Shaffer’s words. I wanted to avoid describing too closely the dramatic action of the play, which would result in overstatement. Moreover Equus came freighted with the imaginative inventions of its original designer, John Napier. I needed to create my own universe for this new expression of Shaffer’s story. Meditations and inventions, rather than recollections of past productions, were my aim.

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Page opening

Part three of the Equus Afterword tomorrow.

equus revisited: part one

The Old Stile Press illustrated edition of Peter Shaffer’s Equus was published in 2009. A forthcoming Penguin Classics edition of the play in new livery and with cover artwork by me will be out later this year. Right now I’m up to my knees in Mari Lwyd imagery again, as I embark on the Mid Wales Chamber Orchestra project for which composer Mark Bowden and writer Damian Walford Davies have been commissioned to create a new music/theatre piece, The Mare’s Tale, inspired by my 2001 series of drawings for which that title was coined.

I’ve been trawling through the horse-related material I’ve produced over the past twenty years, and find there is plenty of it. Here, to kick-start what promises to be my ‘year of the horse’, is the ‘afterword’ I wrote for the OSP edition of Equus, together with some of my illustrations for the book. It was edited by my friend Marly Youmans, who kindly cast her writer’s eye over it for me and made numerous helpful suggestions.

The cover of Equus

Afterword by Clive Hicks-Jenkins.

In the mid 1980s I was asked to direct a murder mystery play by Anthony Shaffer. Whodunnit was an opportunity to work with an interesting cast on a national tour, and I accepted the offer. However, I also harboured a faint hope that in so doing I might meet the playwright’s twin brother Peter and, by dint of the wonderful work I planned to do, convince him I would be the perfect director for a new production of his great play Equus. Anthony declared himself delighted with the production, but I never met Peter and I never directed Equus. A few years later I left my career in the theatre to concentrate on painting.

The illustrated lining of the folding slip-case

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Title page of my own copy inscribed by the playwright to the illustrator

Part two of the Equus Afterword tomorrow.