The Green Knight versus Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: the 2021 film and its literary source

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Above: Gawain prepares to decapitate the Green Knight in my print series, and below, the poster for David Lowery’s 2021 film

In 2016 I was already partway through a planned fourteen print series exploring the themes of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, when the poet Simon Armitage unexpectedly appeared and asked whether the prints, when completed, might be available to illustrate a forthcoming ‘revision’ of his translation, due out from Faber & Faber in 2018. My print collaborator, Dan Bugg of Penfold Press who was publishing the series, was as keen as I to take this heaven-sent opportunity, even though it meant we’d have to get our skates on, as the original intention had been to publish just two prints a year for seven years. It was Simon Armitage’s 2007 translation that had been our inspiration for the series, and a dog-eared copy of it had been at my side throughout the work completed to that point.

Simon was a thoughtful collaborator. He let me have my head, and although my emphasis in many of the images was different to how he saw things, he was invariably gracious and allowed me leeway. There were aspects of the poem I’d been wayward with in my translations to images. Before the agreement with him and Faber, I’d been freely interpreting the poem as I wished. For reasons too numerous to bore you with here, I’d changed the Pentangle on Gawain’s shield to a Star of David. The print had already been made, showing a six-pointed star rather than the five-pointed one described – at length – in the poem.

Gawain as he appears in the Penfold Print edition, with a six-pointed star on his shield.

Simon listened carefully to my reasons for the change. He said that if I were determined to stick to my guns, he would support me in my decision, but that I should know it would cause problems among academics and readers who would notice. I admired him for that, and without hesitation agreed to make the change. I couldn’t make it to the edition of seventy-five prints already out in the world, but I could digitally adjust the image that appeared in the new book. I say I, but in fact I have no digital skills, and so the work was undertaken as a favour by my friend, digital printmaker, Mark Brown. Mark also re-coloured Gawain’s sash green in another image, where I’d bleached the green in a twilight setting. Simon lobbied for a greener sash, and he got it.

Preparatory drawing for the print: gouache and pencil

David Lowery has taken liberties, too, in his film interpretation of the story. That’s not a bad thing. Artists and directors need to be free to ‘adapt’ literary sources. A poem is far from a film, or even a painting – or a print. The film has to work entirely through its visuals. There are the words too, of course, but the way a film looks is what it will stand or fall by.

Clearly I’m not the only one to have a problem with the colour green. Lowery and his designers have bleached their eponymous Knight to an ashen grey/blue with barely a vestige of green. What works for me when he appears, is less his appearance than the truly spectacular sound editing that so compellingly and viscerally announces his presence. (I can’t recall anything in previous films even close to the artistry achieved with the clop of hooves, creak of leather and the belching breath of the horse in this scene.)

David Lowery directing his Green Knight and Gawain on set

My anxieties about the colour green were all about avoiding any possibility of the Green Knight looking silly. The descriptions of him in the poem are unequivocal. He is both a man:

a fearful form appeared framed in the door: a mountain of a man, immeasurably high, a hulk of a human from head to hips, so long and thick in his loins and limbs I should genuinely judge him to be half giant, or a most massive man, the mightiest of mortals.”

but also, green:

Amazement seized their minds, no soul had ever seen a Knight of such a kind – entirely emerald green.”

So not even plain green, but ’emerald green’, which is a hard thing to pull off in a world where the Jolly Green Giant and the Wicked Witch of the West have set a precedent in bright green that’s common currency today, though would not would have been for the original readers of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in their medieval world.

Lowery’s Green Knight is splendidly filmic, man-shaped, but not in the slightest bit fleshy, more of a mash-up of the Winter King and and the Forest Giants of the Lord of the Rings films. Twiggy and somewhat desiccated, you sense he’d bleed not blood, but sap. This distances us from him. He doesn’t have the vulnerability of a man’s flesh and blood, that too-slender fragile neck-stem of skin, muscle and bone awaiting the decapitating blow of an axe. By turning the Green Knight into a character that appears entirely un-fleshy, the inhumanity of decapitation as a wager is less powerfully repellent than were he a man.

The Green Knight as a forest spirit

Decapitation is pretty much an unsurmountable problem, for film-makers and artists. In a world where terrorists perform such atrocities for the dark web, execution by decapitation remains the thing that is too dreadful to show on news channels or in documentaries, and rightly so. It can be inept and agonising when performed by hand, far from the swift efficiency of the guillotine. Even in drama, where CGI makes all things possible, decapitations are the events from which, for the most part – the schlockier film-makers aside – the camera averts its implacable eye. I was relieved beyond expression when in the TV adaptation of Wolf Hall/Bring Up the Bodies, the execution of Anne Boleyn was off-screen. Claire Foy’s horror alone was knee-trembling enough to make me lose sleep for nights thereafter. In the poem the axe-blow to the Green Knight is described in detail, as is what follows, when the headless yet still-standing Green Knight retrieves what has been lopped from his shoulders:

For that scalp and skull now swung from his fist; to the noblest at the table he turned the face and it opened its eyelids, stared straight ahead and spoke this speech, which you’ll hear for yourselves:”

So, another element which though fresh in its day, has since been rendered a cliché by every film in which some Viking/Roman/Barbarian/Troll, strides to camera bearing a head swinging by its hair from a clenched fist, and it was one I went twelve times around the block to avoid in my illustration of the moment. This is how, after much trial and error, I showed the Green Knight bearing his own head, counterbalancing him with his caparisoned horse, ears back and eye rolling in terror. The poem describes the great spurt of blood from the wound, but that too felt clichéd when I attempted it, and so I abandoned the description and made instead a strange, unfurling organic blood-cloud, like a fungi springing from his truncated neck.

Preparatory drawing for the print: gouache and pencil

Arthur’s Court, in the poem, is young and vibrant. The rot we know is coming – in later accounts of the Arthurian myth – has yet to get underway:

All these fair folk in their first age, together in the hall: most fortunate under heaven, with Arthur, that man of high will; no bolder hand could ever be found on field or hill.

Gawain is a privileged and yet, up until now, untried youth. We discover he is pure of heart and steeped in the chivalric code of medieval Knights. He is undoubtedly a virgin, and the only woman who has him, body and soul, is the Queen of Heaven to whom he dedicates himself. When armed for his quest, his shield-lining bears an image of the Virgin and Christ child.

Penfold Press print of The Armouring of Gawain

I like the premise in the film, so different to the poem, that the court of Camelot is ageing. Lowery gives us a King bone-weary from a hard life, and a grizzled Guinevere, ramrod straight and glitteringly armoured with tiny metallic talismans worn like a breastplate against harm. Unexpectedly Arthur speaks in dialect. The pair look sick and tired, like weary saints in icons, complete with halo-like devices fastened to their crowns that gleam in the half-light.

When reading from the slip of parchment deposited on the round table by the Green Knight, Guinevere, like a medium channeling the dead, reads out the challenge in a voice not her own. In response, Arthur admits he is too old to face down the Green Knight, and appeals to his court for a champion. Steps forward Gawain, his nephew. Everything to this point is engaging. Afterwards, not so much. When the Green Knight takes the fatal blow, it doesn’t amount to anything, because he’s not really a man, and so there’s no fragility in him and therefore no tragedy. Behind Gawain’s back, the corpse stirs and lurches to its feet, a moment that might make the flesh creep, but doesn’t. There’s no sense of dread, or more critically, of impossibility. Nothing is surprising here, because the Green Knight is so patently unreal.

A year later, Gawain steps out to meet the Green Knight’s challenge, to accept a blow the equal of the one he gave, no matter the consequences. In the poem he’s armoured by the King, magnificently encased in engraved and jewelled plate metal. His trials are not described in detail in the poem, though we know they entail battles with serpents (dragons), ogres and ‘woodwoses’ (wild men). With no ‘squire’ attendant to unfasten him from his elaborate armour, he’s effectively sealed into it, travelling, sleeping, fighting, sweating and steaming in the equivalent of a pressure cooker. In the film he is not so encumbered. Neither is he the lithe and practised fighter of the poem, and when he has run-in with the wonderfully creepy feral-boy, Scavenger (Barry Keoghan pitch-prefect in the role), Gawain comes off the worst, and loses his weapons, his shield, his money and his horse, Gringolet.

Barry Keoghan. mesmerising as the feral Scavenger

There is a GGI fox which mercifully talks only briefly, but departs without leaving any impression on the story. (A real fox would have worked so much better. Foxes are infinitely stranger and more beautiful than anything cooked up in a computer animation programme.)

Eventually Gawain seeks respite from his journey at a sumptuous castle where an un-named Lord and Lady welcome and shower him with affection and favours. The Lady (Alicia Vikander) gets jiggly with Gawain in his bedchamber, and the encounter has none of the almost unendurable sexual tension of the poem, where her verbal duelling with the sleep-befuddled and embarrassed young man is so dazzling that every time I read it I find myself holding my breath in anxiety that her husband might burst in. (Or get wind of the shenanigans.) In the poem Gawain is aware – and ashamed of – his nakedness, covered only by a bedsheet in the presence of the Lady, though he is unaware of his own beauty, described so alluringly by the poet. So we can picture clearly, in imagination, the gulf between her worldliness and sexual teasing, and his vulnerability and confusion. (Mrs Robinson and Benjamin in The Graduate.)

Preparatory drawing for the print: gouache and pencil

Counterpointing these exchanges, verses describing the hunting, killing and butchering of animals by the Lord of the castle add a bloody and steaming physicality, as he too appears to be intent on sexual games, demanding from his young houseguest the gifts (kisses) his wife has elicited from Gawain while he was cornered beneath his flimsy bedsheet. (We’ve witnessed that there was rather more than kisses exchanged, but the film ducks that.) In the poem the episode of the castle where Gawain is wooed is full of unease because he is a sexually innocent and deeply honourable young man endeavouring to be polite in the face of predatory behaviour. By contrast in the film we know him to be sexually experienced, so there’s no tension when Lady Bertilak mounts him in his bed and we get the swift, unnecessary shot of ejaculate on the hand with which he grasps the green belt that’s the token of her ‘affection’.

Penfold Press print of The Exchange

Chivalry is the foundation on which everything in the poem is built. But in the film the codes of chivalry don’t exist, and without them, everything that transpires is meaningless and unanchored. It’s glacial in pace, which initially invests it with a sense of gravitas, though that palls as we realise the meandering narrative is yielding little to keep us engaged. Gawain meets giants plodding in slow motion across a misty landscape, but nothing happens. He has an odd meeting with the ghost of St Winifred, martyred by decapitation but still hanging around asking for her head to be retrieved from a nearby pond/stream/sinkhole and reunited with her decomposed corpse, laid out on a bed. Gawain obliges.

At the Green Chapel we arrive at the encounter toward which the entire trajectory of the narrative has led. The poem gives us another spectacular entrance by the Green Knight, Gawain bowing his head to receive the axe blow to his neck, and all the threads of the tale coming together in the revelation of what underlay the Green Knight’s challenge at Camelot and who was responsible for it. In the film we know from the start that Gawain’s mother conjured the Green Knight, and so all that remains at the chapel is for the challenge to be completed. Gawain discovers his nemesis sleeping, and has to wait patiently for him to revive. It’s deadly dull, a damp squib and ends with an ungainly scrabble of an escape. A cluttered, decades-leaping montage later, we learn that we were not shown all that transpired at the Green Chapel, but by then I’d stopped caring. Odd that in the twenty-first century, this film-maker has produced a second, much-anticipated meeting between Gawain and the Green Knight, that is decidedly less cinematic than the account offered by the medieval poet.

Preparatory drawing for the print: gouache and pencil

My misgivings don’t extend to the performances. Dev Patel, Sean Harris, Alicia Vikander and Barry Keoghan are excellent. (Sean Harris’s King is infinitely more interesting than the Arthur of the poem, who seems a cardboard cut-out by comparison – though of course that was intended by the poet.) If Patel seems to me to be too mature for the role, that’s because I have the fixed view of Gawain as an innocent, physically tough though barely out of boyhood. But that’s what I get from the poem, and it’s not how the character is presented here, where he’s dissolute and an untrustworthy lover from the start of the film. Throughout The Green Knight we’re offered intriguing scenes and visual treats, though there are worrying and atmosphere-destroying errors of judgement. The Lady at the un-named castle inventing the pinhole camera in the Middle Ages, and the Green Knight exiting Camelot cackling like a Disney villain, are frankly wince-making moments.

Jade Healy’s production design is bleak though beguiling, and costume work by Malgosia Turzanska is great right up to the moment when suddenly, at the end, a new character appears who’s a dead-ringer for Padmé Amidala in The Phantom Menace. What impressed me more than anything in this film was the music by Daniel Hart, which will stay with me for a long time, not least because I’ve purchased it and plan to read the poem while listening to it.

The 2018 illustrated edition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

For over three years I was completed immersed in the world of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight as I produced the fourteen prints and the Faber book. I read the poem every working day, often from beginning to end. I knew the characters and their experiences inside out. I made thousands of drawings. Nevertheless I was fully prepared to set all that aside so as to be able to experience a different telling of the tale. I longed for a different version, something I could lose myself in. I love cinema, and an underlying passion for the history of film underpins a lot of my work. (The book I’ve just finished illustrating, Beauty and Beast, is a paean to Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Béte, a film I’ve loved for over fifty years.) But here there was just too much borrowed from the poem, yet without the context that would have made sense of it. The film-makers should have perhaps detached themselves further from the text than they did. I acknowledge that the complex codes of chivalry are not anything a modern audience would understand or have sympathy with, but a simplified expression of them could have better supported the narrative of a knightly quest. Gawain is not everyman. He’s not ‘one of the boys’ who we identify with because he’s just like us. His code of honour drives him, and would make him uneasy company in any age. He has something in common with the character played by Edward Woodward in another film with roots in what’s now known as folk/horror, The Wicker Man, who we discover late in the story is a virgin, which accounts for the way he behaves and places him as an annoyingly principled outsider. The poet’s Gawain is an outsider, too. He may glitter with youth and idealism and the borrowed trappings of jewelled armour, but he is a loner. No-one wins his heart, which is set on higher things. He begins and ends the poem alone, and there seems very little chance of a good outcome for him beyond the conclusion.

Gawain appears in subsequent Arthurian stories from other hands, though never again as a central character. Placed at the periphery he is not the hero any longer, but a Knight grown sour with age and disappointment.

Christmas Raffle

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In the lead up to Christmas, Penfold Press is running a competition. Anyone purchasing The Tiger’s Bride via the Penfold website between now and Christmas Day, will automatically be entered into a raffle to win this original study that I made preparatory to the print.

Measuring 20 x 20 cms and made in coloured pencil and ink on paper, the drawing has been mounted ready for framing. It shows an example of the ‘popular art’ so loved by the Victorians, those picturesque castles, follies, houses and cottages mass-produced by Staffordshire factories, their gleaming white brightened with vibrant brushstrokes of colour. Often made as spill-holders, pastille-burners or stands to hold pocket-watches, they embody a decorative charm that despite the fluctuations of times and tastes, has always found favour in people’s homes. Whatever the realities of life, a bit of Staffordshire can lighten the heart and add a splash of fairytale to a dark winter’s day.

The drawing was one of many made prior to my final work for the print. In the finished print I added a painted Polish folk-art bird to the left-hand tower. I love Polish folk-art and have a fairly big collection of these charming little birds, still made in rural areas of Poland.

The winner will be contacted via email. Good luck!

You can go direct to The Tiger’s Bride page of Penfold Press from HERE, and for anyone interested in Polish Folk Art and the little painted birds in the images above, Zara of the online shop Frank & Lusia always has a good selection in stock HERE. (Or has them for as long as the trade deal holds.)

The Tiger’s Bride

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Launched today, my new print edition with Dan Bugg at Penfold Press, The Tiger’s Bride. It marks a return to a theme I explored in my first print with the Penfold Press, Man Slain by a Tiger. The two prints have a common interest in Staffordshire Pottery and in particular their ‘penny-dreadful’ celebration of awful events. Based on the Staffordshire group titled The Death of the Lion Queen, my print draws on the history of Ellen Bright, who in 1850 at Wombwell’s Menagerie entered a cage of mixed big cats for the entertainment of the crowd.

At just seventeen years old Ellen was a relatively inexperienced animal trainer, and on this occasion things did not go well for her. An eyewitness account by a doctor in the audience who attended her after the incident, records that she’d twice set her whip at the face of the tiger who attacked her. The wounds as described by him were catastrophic. She didn’t recover consciousness and he was unable to save her.

Ellen is buried in a grave she shares with her cousin William Wombwell, who the year before her death was killed by an elephant while working at another menagerie in Coventry. Surprisingly, the tiger continued its life as before at Wombwell’s, exhibited as ‘The animal which killed The Lion Queen’. However the law thereafter changed, forbidding women to enter cages with big cats for the purposes of entertainment.

Below: my first print with Penfold Press, Man Slain by a Tiger, 2015

There are several versions of The Lion Queen as portrayed in Staffordshire groups, with and without a title on the base, some with flowered hoops, and some without. The rearing animal is sometimes striped and sometimes spotted, presumably according the painter’s whim.

Ellen’s fate was recorded in broadsheets of the day, accompanied by chilling artist’s impressions of her death. But as a celebrated show person I think she would have preferred the Staffordshire commemorative figure group of a rose-cheeked soubrette in a pretty stage costume, flanked by big cats in thrall to her charms. My print nods to the Staffordshire group, but also to the traditions of the Victorian stage, toy theatre, folk art and my love of birds. And my love of Angela Carter, too, from whose riff on Beauty and the Beast I borrowed my title.

Below: pencil study for The Tiger’s Bride.

In Birdland

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Peter Wakelin will be interviewing Clive Hicks-Jenkins on the 29th September, 19:00 – 20:15. The first in a planned series of online art interviews organised by the Contemporary Art Society for Wales, admission to In Birdland is free. There are 100 places available for the live event which may be viewed around the world, though registration is required.

Click HERE to register.

About this Event

While caged at home for lockdown, Clive Hicks-Jenkins has surrounded himself with birds. His projects have included his miniature picture-book Bird House for Design for Today, a new print of birds and beasts for the Penfold Press and illustrations for Simon Armitage’s translation of the medieval poem The Owl and the Nightingale, forthcoming from Faber & Faber. Birds have appeared often in Clive’s paintings, notably his series on St Kevin and the Blackbird and CASW’s The Virgin of the Goldfinches in Llandaff Cathedral. In this live interview he will talk about how birds weave their way through so much of his work, his inspirations and practices and his collaboration with the Poet Laureate. There will be time allowed at the end for audience questions.

Above: Illustration from Simon Armitage’s The Owl and the Nightingale

Below: St Kevin and the Sunflowers. Private Collection

Below: Startled Peacocks: Private Collection

Below: Illustration from Bird House, due out from Design for Today in November

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Conversations with Ed Carey: Part 1. the makers and how they make

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Writer Ed Carey and I have become fast friends since being put in contact with each other by Katherine Davey, editor of the These Our Monsters anthology of short stories for English Heritage.

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By way of preparing to make an illustration to accompany Ed’s contribution to These Our Monsters, I also acquired a copy of his novel of the French Revolution, Little, which I read at a headlong pitch and overnight became his biggest fan.

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In some ways the friendship is unlikely. Ed self-illustrates his published works and so his contact with other illustrators is limited. However he so liked the drawing accompanying his English Heritage story that he wrote asking whether he might have it, and so we arranged an exchange: he has my framed drawing of a goblin child above his desk, while I have his drawing of a maquette/puppet made for Little.

 

Below: my drawing for Ed’s story that loaned its title to the These Our Monsters anthology.

Illustration for 'These Our Monsters' – Version 2

Below: Ed built this life-sized maquette of a woman as preparation for his novel, Little. His original drawing of it that appears in the book, was the exchange made for my drawing of his goblin child.

 

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We met for the first time a few weeks ago at an event celebrating These Our Monsters at Hatchards, Piccadilly, and in order to extend our conversation without the distraction of a crowd, again the following morning, for coffee in Bloomsbury, just before he returned to the US and I to Wales.

Dan Bugg suggested that an eavesdropped conversation between me and Ed might offer interesting insights about our processes of producing new work. The projects we talk about are my in-progress print,  The Tiger’s Bride, and Ed’s forthcoming book, The Swallowed Man.

Ed: Hello, Clive in Wales!
 

Clive: Hello Ed in Texas!

Ed: Clive, I’ve known and loved your work for years and over the last few months it’s been an absolute privilege getting to know you and even, last week, finally meeting you. What a joy to sit with you and talk about the Lewis chessmen for example.

Clive: Ed, I thoroughly enjoyed our couple of hours in a tiny coffee shop off Gt Russell Street last week. Even though some of the current events we were discussing are horrifying and daunting, we told stories and made each other laugh a lot. One of the great pleasures of illustrating These Our Monsters for English Heritage has been the several good friends made in the process: you, Alison MacLeod and the editor Katherine Davey. I arrived fresh to your writing with the project, but as I’d simultaneously set myself to reading your mesmerising novel of the French Revolution, Little, my responses to your English Heritage short story were being deepened by the wider sense of your creativity.

Ed: You inspire my work and make me think in new ways – to communicate directly is such a wonderful thing for me. And so here we are separated by a  pandemic and yet, thankfully, still able to communicate. 

Clive: That’s a generous comment. Thank you. The admiration is mutual. The neccessity –  or so I find it to be – of a solitary life for a writer or artist, is undoubtedly isolating. (And you, Ed, are both!) We hole ourselves up like hibernating bears because we need clarity and silence to function. However I find the immediacy and creative buzz of being able to bat ideas across great distances with friends and colleagues undergoing the same processes, and in an instant, to be a great joy and solace to what can otherwise be dauntingly lonely. Whether as rich as a prolonged joint creative endeavour, or a humorous two-liner to kick-start the morning before bending to the day’s endeavours, as a man who lives at the-well-at-world’s-end, the swift correspondences of e-mail and messaging have been life-changing for me. The entire process of making fourteen Gawain prints with Dan at Penfold Press was carried out through the medium of daily messaging and the exchange of photos made on our smartphones. I could fire images to Dan of a drawn image on a sheet of lithography film and within minutes be correcting it according to his suggestions. It was almost as though we were in the same studio space. You and I have been showing our individual work projects to each other in e-mails, confident of safely sharing our efforts and misgivings with a creative ‘other’ who understands. It works wonderfully.

Ed: I’m wondering, to start with, what would you say makes a project a Clive Hicks-Jenkins project and what doesn’t? What are you looking for? 

Clive: Narrative. Whether obvious or not, whether culled from a source or invented, narrative is always what draws me in. I am an inveterate story teller, and that’s always been my foundation, certainly as an artist but even before that, as a choreographer and director. 

Ed: And, specifically, did The Tiger’s Bride come to you or you to it. How did this all start off?

Clive: It started with my life-long love of Staffordshire. The strangeness of it appeals to me. It’s a uniquely of-these-islands combination of folk-art/fairy-tale/dream-world weirdness that always satisfies/disturbs me. The sheep and dogs the size of ponies in comparison to the human figures accompanying them. The theatrical fancy-dress that makes it seem that the handsome men and pretty women are on a stage. The flowers and the often cloying sentimentality, the cottages and castles, the follies and exotic beasts, the bright colours on shining white and the sense of sort-of-familiar yet elusive storytelling being played out on a mantelpiece. Every time I see a doll-like child perched on a monster-sized spaniel or pug, I think about the dog with ‘eyes the size of mill-stones’ in The Tinderbox. Then there are the Staffordshire ‘murder cottages’ and the penny-dreadful tendency to celebrate awful events, most notoriously the escaped tiger with a limp baby dangling from its jaws striding over the prone body of the mother from whose arms the child has been torn. My first print with Penfold took inspiration from the Staffordshire version of Tipu’s Tiger, in which a beast mouths at a slain man in a uniform. The child-like brightness coupled with horror is unlikely and yet compelling. 

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The Staffordshire group titled The Death of the Lion Queen had long been catching my eye, and finally I took the moment to begin researching the story on which it was based. I couldn’t shake it. It lingered, took root and I was away.

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I like a long-term project. Gawain had been a nearly three year project. It wasn’t what I worked solely on, except during the last six months when Dan and I had to row like galley-slaves to get it to the finishing line in time to meet the Faber & Faber deadlines and the commitment to the Martin Tinney Gallery for the ‘completion’ exhibition. One of the pleasures of a dip-in&dip-out project is that it has the convenience of being easily set aside and yet ready to return to at the drop of a hat. It’s always simmering on the back-ring of the hob, never unappetisingly stone cold. All my projects tend to be worked on for long periods, and there are always several or even many on the go at any given moment. In the aftermath of Gawain I’d been compiling ideas for a print project that would combine several of my interests: vintage and folk art toys, Staffordshire figure groups, historic circus/fairground traditions and my fascination for toy-like buildings, whether Staffordshire follies and cottages, wooden building-blocks, doll’s houses or the foil and tinsel souvenir cathedrals produced in the city of Krakow. Somehow all this began to tie together with the notion of unspecified fairy stories, and New Folktales was born. The Tiger’s Bride is my riff on Beauty and the Beast, though I didn’t want that title anywhere near it. Angela Carter provided the solution. Here’s a piece I posted at Insta about the event underlying the Staffordshire group titled The Death of the Lion Queen, which was my starting point for The Tiger’s Bride.
“This image draws on the tragedy of Ellen Bright, AKA The Lion Queen, who in 1850 at Wombwell’s Menagerie entered a cage of big cats for the entertainment of a paying audience expecting to be thrilled by the spectacle of a girl commanding ferocious beasts. At just seventeen years old, Ellen was celebrated though relatively inexperienced, and it may be that on the day her ambition outstripped her judgement, because a reliable eyewitness in the audience afterward observed that from the moment she entered the cage the tiger displayed unmistakeable aggression toward her. At a sting to its face from her whip, the animal lay down. Ellen turned her attention to the lions, but then – perhaps for good measure, or perhaps because at that moment she intuited the dangerous state of the beast – turned back and stung it for a second time with her whip in its face. The tiger rose, reared and lunged at her head, seizing her in its jaws and bringing her down. 

Ellen sustained catastrophic injuries to her lower jaw and throat, and according to a doctor who was in the audience and attended her after the attack, she died within minutes without recovering consciousness. So horrified were the public by the tragedy that thereafter the law was changed, forbidding women to enter cages with big cats for the purposes of entertainment.” 
Below: contemporary illustration reporting the death of Ellen Bright at Wombwell’s Menagerie:
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The Staffordshire pottery workshops quickly produced, or perhaps adapted, an existing ‘Lion Queen’ group in order to commemorate the event, adding the wording ‘Death of the Lion Queen’ to capitalise on the public interest. (Ellen was not the first Lion Queen, as there had been several who’d gone by that title before her.) I’ve referenced elements from several Staffordshire groups of a girl performing with big cats, but have gone my own way in expressing the subject.
Below: early study and final layout-drawing for the print.
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Ellen’s story is tragic, and not just because of how she died, but because large cats in 19th century menageries must have been driven insane by their ill-treatments and confinements. This piece is not about that – though the idea is running beneath it – but is an exploration of the fairytale theme of the beast/groom.
In the same way you’ve taken the novel of Pinocchio and used a lightly-touched-upon back story in it as the foundation of your new novel The Swallowed Man.
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Do you find that using an existing theme/story as the bedrock for a new telling is a good method of creativity for you? Which came first for you here, Jonah and the whale or Pinocchio’s dad/maker? (I feel Pinocchio might profitably be examined in comparison with other ‘man/woman-making’ stories/myths, including Frankenstein and Galatea/Pygmalion.)
 
Clive
Ty Isaf
20/03/20

Reinventing Gawain at the National Library of Wales

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My thanks to the many who on Saturday afternoon filled the lecture theatre at the National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth, to hear me speak. It was the first time since its publication in October that I’ve talked about my collaboration with Simon Armitage to make an illustrated edition of his translation of the medieval poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and it was a happy occasion for me to reminisce at a comfortable distance from all the hard work and exhaustion that went into the project. Good too, to place the lion’s share of credit at the feet of Dan Bugg, who facilitated the entire adventure at his Penfold Press Studio in Selby, Yorkshire, and who guided this artist so completely inexperienced in the alchemy of screen-printing, safely through the labyrinth and back out again.

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My thanks to Stuart Evans of Aberystwyth Printmakers, who arranged the Library event, and to all at the National Library who were warmly welcoming and made the occasion such a pleasure.

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Mapping the Tale: image making and the narrative tradition

Quite early in my career as a painter I began examining ways to create narratives in my work. To begin with those developed from my own stories and were essentially biographical. My father’s childhood fears and how they impacted his life and death were the source material of The Mare’s Tale. In many ways those were mood pieces, with the narratives forming underlying supports to material that for viewers could be interpreted personally and in diverse ways. I think of them now as more like orchestral compositions in which the character of the music carries listeners to their own imaginative spaces.

Tend, 2002. Private Collection

Later I painted several Annunciations, drawn by the drama of the New Testament account, and made a series of paintings, The Temptations of Solitude, based on episodes in the Lives of the Desert Fathers: a hermit dwells in a tree, attended and fed by an angelic visitor, and a cruel slave-master pursues a fleeing couple across a wildernesses, only to be stalked and devoured by an avenging lioness. I was discovering, perhaps as a legacy of my many years working in the theatre, that the type of paintings that interested me most were ones that told stories.

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The Comfort of Angels Attending the Dying, 2004. Private Collection

Outside of the recent Hansel & Gretel illustration project for St Jude’s and Benjamin Pollock’s Toy Shop in Covent Garden, the work on Gawain and the Green Knight has been my most comprehensive and complete exploration of a narrative to date. Using the poem as my guide and inspiration, the intention from the beginning was to make fourteen sequential and editioned prints that would tell the story, though for every print to be stand-alone in the sense that I wanted each to work whether viewed as a single artwork, or as a part of the series.

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The Armouring of Gawain. Screen Print. 2016

The process of building an image that encodes not just the narrative ‘moment’, but also has a sense of linkage to what’s transpired and what will come after, takes planning and endless trial and error. Every image has to be built from scratch: composition, colour, tone, and mark-making all serving the narrative. Imagined landscapes, gardens and castles must be conjured, as well as interior spaces and their furnishings. Characters, shown once or repeatedly have to be realised, complete with garments, hairstyles, armour and weaponry. When appearing repeatedly there has to be a balance between keeping a likeness, and yet allowing for physical and psychological change. Arthur, Guinevere, the Lord and Lady of Fair Castle and Morgan le Fay each appear just once in the print series, whereas the Green Knight and Gawain occur repeatedly. In the fourteen prints there are three featuring horses, plus images of hunting birds, a stag, a boar, a fox and several peacocks. Each had to fit within this particular imagined world. Then there’s the need to honour the source material, in this case the 2007 translation by Simon Armitage. I wanted to make a visual response to his text rather than try to represent it illustratively, and to do that I had to steep myself in his words over a long period. The small, hardback Faber & Faber first edition was never out of my pocket. I can recite quite long sections of it, committed to memory by repeated reading.

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Above: building a print with layers of lithography film, each of which will be printed in a single  colour.

For me responding to a text is all about finding the spaces between the words and then colonising them. I invest the characters and events with my own imagined detailing, layering invented elements onto what’s provided by the text. In this way the enchantress Morgan le Fay, who’s only mentioned in the poem by another character, gets a whole print to herself, while the Gawain of my images sometimes appears in ways not found in the poem. He binds his wound with the green sash given to him by the Lady of Fair Castle, and by the end of the series his armour has transformed itself with foliate embellishments, while the back of his hand has been marked with a branching stigmata.

Though the prints were not made specifically to accompany the text, I want anyone looking at them while reading it to discover that the words and images are in dialogue. Gawain begins the story as a glittering young knight, unmarked, privileged and unproven. By the end of it his face is shadowed, his hair is shorn to stubble and he is all too aware of his shortcomings. It’s all there in the title of the final print: The Stain of Sin.

Below: the magical transformation of black and white to the luminous, transparent coloured inks of the final print.

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Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Clive Hicks-Jenkins and the Penfold Press

opens at

The Martin Tinney Gallery

on January 10th, 6 – 7.30 pm.

Fourteen prints on the theme of the narrative poem, plus paintings and drawings.

 

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Update on ‘The Exchange’

Back at the beginning of September I made a post about my work on the preparation for number ten in the Sir Gawain and the Green Knight series of prints I’m making in collaboration with Penfold Press. The post charted the progress of The Exchange from first sketches to completed stencils, the latter of which were dispatched to Daniel Bugg for him to begin the long work of transferring them to screens and beginning the proofing.

In my studio the image started as a sketch…

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… and ended as a set of stencils.

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Dan made two proofs to show me. While the first carefully matched my seven colours, the second was one of those happy accidents which sometimes occur and that you have to consider very carefully. For the second proof Dan had mixed varnish into one of the colours which then printed with far more transparency than he’d anticipated. While surprised by the effect, both of us loved the result. The jury is still out but I think we’re coming to the conclusion we should go with the flow and attempt to reproduce the accident in the edition. There’s something wonderfully ghostly about it. I particularly love the way it’s impacted the butchered stag on the right of the composition. I won’t show the whole print here. It still needs tweaking. Moreover we never reveal any print in its entirety until the edition is ready for publication. But here’s a detail of it.

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Tomorrow I’ll make some adjustments to the stencils that Dan returned to me, and then they’ll head back to him for the editioning to begin.

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Development of the Stencils for ‘The Green Chapel’

Guide Drawing

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Stencils are made on transparent film, one per eventual colour in the print, and so some impression of the image may be had as the layers build, though of course the colour is missing. The drawing lying underneath the stencils is the template of the image throughout the process.

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The sample colours at the side of the stencils, indicate to the printer the colours required at the printing stage. This print will consist of five colours.

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As the density of the render increases with each stencil, I occasionally have to remove layers to better see what’s going on. The crayons, pencils, inks and paints used are not transparent, and so each new layer begins to obscure what lies underneath. The printing inks by contrast are largely transparent, allowing the many layers to show in the finished print.

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Using an improvised etching needle to break up the heavy lithography crayon with sgraffito and create what will eventually be a more tonal layer of ink.

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In the image below the sketches in the margin were made as I worked out the composition.

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In the image below, the scratches catching the light on the surface of the plastic stencil, in the print will create an area of softer tone

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Below, tonal stencils will underlie the stencils on which the details of the image are rendered.

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What I’m not

I’m often asked what kind of art I make. I know my face clouds over when the question comes, because the answer isn’t simple. Easier, perhaps, to say what I’m not.

I’m not a landscape or a still-life artist …

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… though earlier in my career I painted both.

I’m not a portrait painter and never have been, though everyone tells me they recognise Peter in my drawing and paintings.

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I’m not an abstract painter, though I love abstraction.

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My painting doesn’t aspire to realism, but rather to inner truth.

I’m not an illustrator though I make covers for novels and poetry.

Recently I’ve made my first picture book, though it’s not a children’s picture book.

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I’m not a print-maker, though I’m currently making a fourteen print series of screenprints with Dan Bugg of Penfold Press on the theme of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. (Based on the translation by Simon Armitage.)

Penfold C cmyk-2While I’m an atheist, my work often explores biblical and faith based themes.

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I’m not an animator, though I made the animations for the 2013 stage production of The Mare’s Tale (composer Mark Bowden and librettist Damian Walford Davies)…

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… I was commissioned to make an animated film to accompany a performance of Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale at the 2013 Hay Festival…

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…. and last year in collaboration with artist/model-maker Phil Cooper, film-maker Pete Telfer and composer Kate Romano, I created an animation as the online trailer for my picture book Hansel & Gretel. (Published by Random Spectacular.)

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Sometimes it’s not possible to make a simple answer.

 

 

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