James and the Book he Never Saw

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On Friday our friends Sarah Joseph and her son Sam came to Ty Isaf to be with Peter and me for my birthday. All of us now twice vaccinated yet still super cautious, we sat distanced in the dining room while Sarah and Sam pored over the Beauty and Beast drawings. (Soon to be dismantled from their hard-cover sketchbooks before scanning for the publisher and thereafter framing for the October book launch and Martin Tinney Gallery exhibition.) 

With windows and doors open to a bracingly cool breeze, Sarah and Sam worked with admirable slowness through each of the – to date – forty illustrations. It was something Sarah and I had done regularly with her husband James throughout the long months of creating Hansel & Gretel, the publishing of which by Design for Today we were able to push through before James’ death in 2019, so that he was able to see what he had watched being made.

Before even the first studies had been made for Beauty and Beast, James quizzed me over how long the book might take, as he had plans to lobby his oncologist for more time in order to be able to be with us throughout the project. That was not to be – as he well knew – though he liked to pretend otherwise. 

Long ago, when James had been a stage manager, and I a choreographer, we had been friends and co-workers travelling the world together. In time the habit had grown between us of him being my advisor in all things related to music. His knowledge was encyclopaedic and his skill as a musician ran deep. Throughout the preparations and rehearsals for the music theatre production of Hansel & Gretel that preceded the published edition of Simon Armitage’s libretto, James and I discussed the themes and studied the score together, and his insights brought depth and nuance to my understanding and direction of the piece. Through the incredible determination and support of his family he was even able to be present at the premiere of the work at the 2018 Cheltenham Music Festival, in his wheelchair, and loving every moment of the evening.

Beauty first sets eyes on Beast

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Olivia McCannon’s description of the first encounter:

Beast!

I have no words for what I see                               

appearing from this scenery of

supernatural wealth – must 

process chthonic splendour rigged

with glowing eyes and claws, 

clothed in the violated cosmos                  

spiked with satellites and artificial stars

needing time and having none

I lift beyond my body

leave a dress

On Revision in Illustration

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Work on Beauty and Beast. Text by Olivia McCannon and illustrations by Clive Hicks-Jenkins. To be published by Design for Today in October 2021.

Dissatisfaction is a part of the artist’s armoury of creativity. Without it, how would we ‘grow’ ideas?

To begin with there was nothing tangible, just the notion of making a book that had been rattling around in my head, seemingly forever. There was no text, only a huge admiration for Jean Cocteau’s 1946 film, La Belle et la Bête, shared with the poet and translator Olivia McCannon.

Olivia and I emailed each other for over a year, working out what there might be in terms of a book. Would it be a new translation of Cocteau’s screenplay, a return to the origin tale and a reinvention of it, perhaps in a contemporary setting, or something else entirely? Maybe something with threads running through it in homage to Cocteau’s masterpiece. A hybrid, both new and old, creating a dialogue with Cocteau and his fellow creators.

When I began preparations, there was much research, but as yet no text. Olivia and I were still exploring ideas. I’d been making maquettes and character studies, but everything was still undecided. My maquettes referenced the film, but also changed the characters. They weren’t likenesses of the actors playing the roles.

Early paper maquette of la Bête

As our talks focussed in on the notion of a hybrid creation, I made a single illustration – one I felt confident about as the foundation block – to which another was added, and then another, and another.

The first illustration

I’ve never worked in this way before. My illustration projects have always been responses to an existing text. But on this book I’m working with conversations with the writer as the starting points, and fragments of text still in flux. In illustration, the decisions made at the outset affect everything that follows: the way the characters look and what they wear. The settings – the buildings, rooms, passageways, gardens and landscapes of all the locations of the story. Every detail considered, invented, revised and rendered.

A group of images made out of sequence to the emerging text, grows. New images are added to make connections between them. Gradually a narrative in pictures emerges, but it’s a creation that morphs every day because each new part of it not only adds to what’s gone previously, but changes it. Each emerging section of the text, changes it. My starting point is invariably a scene from the film, which then transforms into a version I believe will work on a page. So a scene in which multiple cuts show Belle, la Bête, a table laid with silverware, crystal and fruit, an overmantel clock chiming, living statues watching from the shadows and a fire-blazing, gets condensed to a single double-page image.

Belle et la Bête in a frame from the film
One of two living stone busts that support the fireplace
Lay-out drawing for a double-page illustration of the scene
Study for a living statue

Illustrations become sandwiched by others that affect them. Sometimes an image is cancelled out and discarded, but more usually changed to better deliver what’s needed at that stage of the story. Things that weren’t issues, become so overnight. An idea I thought was coming over with clarity, becomes muddled because its context has changed.

Illustration underway
Detail of la Bête from the first version of the dining-room
Detail of the fireplace head from the first version
In the second version, the Beast and the stone head have changed
Third and final re-working of La Bête

I try to avoid obviousness when making images to accompany a text. I draw inspiration from Olivia’s emerging narrative, but largely attempt to colonise the spaces between her lines of poetry.

As the book expands, and the passages of text emerge to fit together with the images I’ve already completed, then my revisions begin. Perhaps I see that the adjustment of a character’s glance might better signpost the page-turner’s forward trajectory, or profitably pause it. A new line suddenly makes clear that the image is needed as a bridge to the next page turn, and an adjustment could aid that process. I enjoy the challenges of patching illustrations with newly worked elements, of discovering forgotten aspects and realising on reflection how they work better – or not so well – as I’d originally thought. The revisions don’t show in photographs and won’t show when printed, but the changes will be apparent when the works are exhibited in a gallery in October, when close inspection from oblique angles in bright light will reveal the myriad surgeries. I like the idea that the journey will be visible in the surface of the artworks, like age-lines in a characterful face.

Building a Panorama

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I first saw Jean Cocteau’s 1946 film of La Belle et la Bête in the early 1960s. Before the age of video I recollected the film from that first, single viewing, for years running it over and over in my head, remembering, and very likely misremembering it, until the ‘video’ age dawned when everything could be acquired and watched at will. So for most of my life, one way or another, the film has been my companion. I’ve thought about it, watched it scores of times, analysed it and dreamt about it.

Above: my first sketch for Beauty’s bed, and below, a study for it.

Now I’m making a book of the story, with my collaborator, the poet Olivia McCannon. It started out as a full homage to Cocteau’s interpretation, but through development has turned into something quite different: a new, reinvented version of the story, in which together Olivia and I acknowledge the film’s influence while finding our own own creative path.

There are several places in the book in which I want to visually capture my memories of watching sequences of the film when the camera ‘panned’ horizontally to reveal spaces by degrees. Beauty’s bedchamber was chief among these sequences.

Even in her bedchamber, Belle is never alone. Always the eyes of living statues watching her every move.

Cocteau remarks in Diary of a Film how visitors to the studio loved exploring Beauty’s bedroom. Walls made of scrim allowed lights to be shone through them and created dissolving vistas of the garden sets beyond, and I imagine that must have made it a strangely liminal space for the actors to work in, finding themselves un-anchored and floating between worlds. Beauty’s bed, voluptuously draped with fur under its canopy of muslin, seems like a boat in this strange sea, and everywhere the glimmer and sheen of opulence.

It’s heady stuff. But the screen ratio of the time was undoubtedly confining, and so a panorama is suggested rather than attained, with the horizontally moving camera the director’s tool to take the audience on a tour of his creation.

By using a double-page spread, I have a ‘panoramic’ shape in which to set my illustration.

Above: first draft sketch for a double-page illustration of Beauty’s bedchamber.

With no camera point-of-view to slow the reveal of my illustration, I rely on making an image that offers up all its elements slowly, to halt a headlong rush past them. So Beauty’s ‘enchanted’ looking-glass, is not a rectangular, framed mirror on a table, as it is in the film…

… but a full dressing-table with incorporated looking-glass, half veiled in a flimsy sheet, seen below in a detail from the final render. The time it takes to decipher the object, slows down the viewer, who must pause to better understand it.

And because I have no recourse to Georges Auric’s shimmering, orchestral film score, I set imagined breezes through the composition, ruffling the veils and sending leaves skittering, so the image ‘suggests’ a soundtrack where there is none.

Most people read an image left to right, and so we begin with the bed, with its vertically compressed canopy and hangings which stream out to carry the eye further into the composition, to the Caryatid with candles on her head, the veiled dressing-table and shell-backed chair, up to the bowed balcony overlooking the garden with the Beast’s pavilion/treasury shining in the twilight. (Or it might be an empty birdcage, swinging in the window.) Winds feature in the film whenever the strange is present: Beauty’s father is buffeted by a silent wind when he attempts to pour wine from a pitcher at the Beast’s table, and again at the moment when his previously unseen host appears in the garden, enraged by the theft of a rose.)

There’s no room here for the towering furniture and high ceilings of the Doré engravings that had so influenced Cocteau when he was planning the film. Budgetary constraints dictated his sets could not be spacious and airy. For the most part the interiors, painted black to hide their true proportions in darkness, are conjured by deploying accent features: the architecturally elaborate fireplace supported by living statues, towering stone doorways that dwarf Beauty and the iconic passageway of pale, disembodied arms holding candelabras that magically light when needed. With studio space limited, the bedchamber, while not large, is the most elaborate set in terms of textures, shimmering claustrophobically like a fevered dream. On her bed, swaddled in finery which practically disables her, Beauty appears frozen in the gleam of satin and roped pearls, as the hangings press in suffocatingly.

To mimic something of the character of Cocteau’s vision, an ornate border contains the illustration, compressing and tightening the space, so that it too will press in on whoever enters it. There are birds in the border, but I think of them as being pretty paper-cut decorations, because the Beast’s twilight kingdom in the film has no birds. Not in frame, and not on the soundtrack.

Josette Day and Jean Marais on the tiny balcony of Belle’s bedchamber, from where they view la Bête’s ‘treasury’ in the gardens below.
Above, In another image from the book, Beast carries Beauty in a dead faint to her bedchamber, where her garments magically transform from those of a peasant girl, to a grand lady.

An exhibition of all the original artwork for Beauty & Beast, opens at Martin Tinney Galley, Cardiff, in October.

In the Realm of the Poet

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Work continues on my collaboration with poet Olivia McCannon on a new retelling of Beauty and the Beast, to be published by Design for Today. Working with Olivia is a revelation. Ideas bat back and forward between us in e-mails, and I find the conversations to be revelatory. We both make discoveries through the processes of discussion, exploring connections and explaining new ideas to each other, and I find that the e-mails and all the ideas they contain are as equal a source of the images I’m making as her evolving text. Recently Olivia wrote to me that she believed there was a rich seam to be considered in regard to Cocteau’s casting of the role of the Goddess Diana in the 1946 film, and that’s opened a whole treasury of possibilities about the living statues, which we’ve adopted for our own version of the story, and how their origins might be explored.

In another e-mail she wrote thrillingly of her imagined source of the jewels the Beast bestows on Beauty, and afterwards I could barely sleep for a week with excitement in anticipation of the images that were evolving in my head out of her ideas.

Above: detail of an illustration in progress: the Beast carries the unconscious Beauty to her bedchamber.

At this stage I can explain no more. While I enjoy sharing the creative processes of making images, in this instance I don’t want to offer them before they’ve been realised and the book published. Suffice to say that this is going to be a version of Beauty and the Beast like no other.

On Memory, Love and the Translation of Magic

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My current project to make a new illustrated edition of Beauty and the Beast for the publisher Design for Today, has been a strange and challenging one. The starting point had been the 1946 La Belle et la Bête by the artist/playwright/director Jean Cocteau.

It can’t be denied that I’m in thrall to the film, and have been since I saw it in my early teens. But of course being in thrall isn’t the best place from which begin a proper relationship. Thrall paralyses. Like passionate love, it has the power to unhinge and cloud judgement. At the beginning I wanted to respond to the film, but couldn’t find a way to do so without the result turning into a sort of graphic novel version, and I knew that approach was not for me.

When the writer Olivia McCannon accepted my invitation to come on board, the creative conversations she initiated set me on another trajectory, as I knew they would. Words have always been prime motivators in my creative process, and even before any drafts of text emerged, Olivia’s e-mails alone became my sources of inspiration. She returned to the pre-Cocteau fairytales as a preparation to re-examining the film, and that was a huge help in circumnavigating the debilitating awe of Cocteau’s achievement preventing me from making progress. I’ve since learned not to return to the film every time I want to examine an aspect of it, but to recall a sense of how it made me feel after having first experienced it all those years ago. I’ve had to learn the art of translation.

I realise that without videos, DVDs and the Internet, after my cinema viewing of La Belle et la Bête there was a gap of nearly twenty years before I was able to revisit it. Something had flourished in that absence. The love I had for it was of an experience cherished and recalled. It was as much about how I was feeling at that time of first viewing, as it was about the film. In the interim my own creative imaginings had filled in and embellished many missing parts. So now it’s those ideas – the ones that sprang from the first viewing – that I draw on to create images that are both of the film, but also expressions of my dream version of it.

I have to keep working at this phenomenon of ‘recollection’, to ensure I’m in the right place. A technique I use is to sit with a DVD of the film, not watching it but jotting down thoughts in a notebook, prompted by the soundtrack. In this way I’m more able to access deeper memory. It’s the deep memory I need for this work. It gives me more than any studying of the film yields, though of course I’m doing that, too. I study, digest and evaluate. Then I set all that aside and go back further, to the visceral, early response. I read the parts of the text Olivia has offered, and her wonderful notes. Then I set about fitting the jigsaw puzzle together.

La Chasse

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Beauty & Beast, my dream-project with poet Olivia McCannon and publisher Joe Pearson at Design for Today, is my Winter 2020-to-Summer 2021 project. With all other commitments completed or slightly shifted, I can give it my full attention. This is one that’s so challenging and demanding that I need to go at it at a headlong tilt. It can’t be done in stages and set aside between times.

La Chasse is an idea I’d been thinking on as a double-page spread for a year or more. The hunt in the 1946 film isn’t witnessed. There’s a glimpse of a dead animal, and then the unforgettable scene in the corridor outside Belle’s room in which she finds la Bête, his dress disordered and blood-splattered and his hands smoking, as though he’s burning from within. It’s the one moment in the film where Belle looks disgusted by his appearance/condition. Her face twists into ugliness as she throws her flimsy scarf at him, commanding him to clean himself up. It’s hard to watch, given his evident distress.

What we know (well, what some of us know) is that this curse strips humanity from him with every act of beastliness, and like the person with dementia heartrendingly aware of the memories being stolen by the progress of the disease, so la Bête is in a state of bodily horror as his shape and nature shift until he’ll reach a point where he will have no recall of his former self.

Cocteau may have averted his camera gaze from the hunt and kill for technical reasons. Jean Marais as la Bête and Josette Day as Belle were both weighed down by elaborate costumes that while gorgeous, dictated that their scenes together be conducted as a dream-like and stately Pavane. Marais was athletically built and fit, but his costume and make-up were not made for running. We see him make a brave dash for the undergrowth, and that’s that.

Above: Belle calls after La Bête as his animal nature gets the better of him when he catches scent of prey.

These days CGI would step in to render him as fleet and lithe as Spiderman, and we wouldn’t be any better off for it. But as an artist/illustrator, the moment of the kill is one I can’t turn away from, and so for months I’ve played with visual ideas to bring the moment to life.

The sequences in the Beast’s gardens were stitched together from film-footage made at locations, particularly at the Chateau of Raray. The gate above, now stripped of the ivy and undergrowth that made it so picturesque when Cocteau turned his camera on it, became an architectural anchor for the illustration, though I simplified it considerably so as not to imbalance the composition.

I also reinvented the flanking Caryatids into more enigmatically watchful Sphinx-like creatures, as an interesting distaff to the living male statues that flank the fireplace and breathe out plumes of smoke in the Beast’s dining-room.

Above: from my Beauty and Beast project book.
Above: the Raray Gateway simplified and reinvented into an illustration.

A fully worked up study for the illustration (see detail above) experimented with textures and shapes. But in the end I decided to reverse the Beast so that he attacks the animal from the front, disabling it the way a big cat hunts, by blocking its prey’s windpipe. It also made the image read better, as Western readers have an eye-direction that moves left to right.

Here’s the image in the final render.

The iconic lace, stand-up collar has come undone. It’s a slightly strange and abstract shape that works in context because readers will already be familiar with the collar from previous images. The trailing sleeves are still in place, but the breeches are gone, and one powerfully taloned foot has now become too distorted to fit into the single, elegant, lace-cuffed Chevalier’s boot that remains. The Beast’s fashionably slashed sleeves mirror the injuries made by those meat-hook claws that lock into flesh to hold the creature steady.

Dozens of drawings, from the briefest of sketches to fully-worked-up paintings and detailed maquettes have helped me get from idea to illustration.

Beauty and Beast

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I’m happy to make the formal announcement that Olivia McCannon and I are currently collaborating on our exploration of the fairy tale Beauty and the Beast, which will be published by Joe Pearson at Design for Today. The project began with Jean Cocteau’s 1946 film La Belle et la Bête, though while inspired by that masterwork of cinema, our version is increasingly evolving its own character. I sometimes say that it’s not so much a version of Cocteau’s film, than a dream we’ve had of it. (I’ve been dreaming about La Belle et la Bête a lot recently.)

Olivia McCannon is a poet and translator. Her collection Exactly My Own Length (Carcanet) won the Fenton Aldeburgh Prize and was shortlisted for the Seamus Heaney Prize. A new collection, Z, is forthcoming. She has translated the poetry of Louise Labé and Ariane Dreyfus, and a Balzac novel (Penguin Classics). Her doctoral research at Newcastle University (Northern Bridge/AHRC-funded) considers the potential of poetry and translation as ‘arts of living on a damaged planet’. She is currently collaborating with Clive Hicks-Jenkins on an illustrated Beauty and Beast that is both a response to Jean Cocteau’s 1946 film of La Belle et la Bête and a poetic regeneration of the story’s sources. 

Clive Hicks-Jenkins has developed a reputation as an artist who works with poets. For over a decade he’s collaborated closely with the American poet Marly Youmans, producing book-jackets and page decorations for her anthologies and novels. His illustrations will accompany Simon Armitage’s new translation of the medieval poem The Owl and the Nightingale, to be published by Faber next year. Beauty and Beast will be Clive Hicks-Jenkins third collaboration with publisher Joe Pearson at Design for Today, and his first with Olivia McCannon.

In 2019 Design for Today published Simon Armitage’s Hansel & Gretel: a Nightmare in Eight Scenes with illustrations by Clive Hicks-JenkinsArmitage and Hicks-Jenkins had worked previously on the Faber & Faber 2018 illustrated edition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, but it was the illustrations for their second book collaboration, Hansel & Gretel, that caught the attention of the judges of the V&A Illustration Awards, resulting in the artist being named the winner of the 2020 V&A Illustrated Book Award. Design for Today has just published Clive Hicks-Jenkins’ picture book The Bird House in their ‘Bantam’ series.

The Big New Adventure

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I’ve loved Jean Cocteau’s 1946 film of La Belle et la Bête since first I saw it. Loved it, been thrilled, haunted and in thrall to it. I never tire of watching it, sometimes quipping that it’s the film to throw in my coffin to keep me company in the afterlife I don’t believe in.

Above: preparatory drawing for an illustration

For the longest time I’d been wondering how best to honour and homage the film. To begin with I toyed with the idea of making a series of paintings, but then together with Joe Pearson at Design for Today – who published Hansel & Gretel last year – hatched a plan to produce an illustrated book in collaboration with the poet Olivia McCannon, who I’d been longing to work with. Joe, Olivia and I are in agreement that neither a straight adaptation of the screenplay nor a picture book version of the film could do justice to our ambitions. We’ve opted instead for what we’re referring to as a reinvention of Cocteau’s masterpiece characterised less as a translation, than a ‘dream’ of the film.

Above: my portrait of La Bête, the first image made for the book

I’ve filled drawing books with preparatory material. Characters and places have been exhaustively explored in order to find versions that will work to best advantage in illustrations. Iconic visual aspects of Cocteau’s Beauty and her Beast In their Christian Bérard costumes have been pored over, their shapes, textures and design characteristics examined, simplified and reconfigured so as to work graphically on the page. I’ve built maquettes and three-dimensional model sets to help with my compositions.

Above: maquettes under construction

With the groundwork done, I begin the real work of construction. There’s no dummy yet, but I estimate forty illustrations. Time to get busy!

Above: Jean Cocteau’s handwriting in the film’s opening credits