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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Marly and Me

The English Lion: interior decoration for Marly Youmans’ novel Glimmerglass, due from Mercer University Press in September

Images of my paintings, or details from them, have been chosen for the covers of quite a few poetry collections, novels, plays and textbooks. The usual process is for a publisher to approach me requesting the use of an existing image, and I just have to agree the terms. There’s no creative input on my part because the work is carried out by graphic designers. But while Marly’s The Throne of Psyche (Mercer University Press) carried a detail from one of my paintings, Touch, on its cover, the arrangement wasn’t repeated because thereafter we evolved more collaborative methods of working together.

To date I’ve made covers for Marly’s novel Val/Orson (PS Publishing), the cover and interior decorations for The Foliate Head (Stanza Poetry), the cover and decorations for her epic poem Thaliad (Phoenicia Publishing) and the cover and decorations for her forthcoming novel Glimmerglass (Mercer University Press). In every respect these have been collaborations, as what I do is always a direct response to her writing. I read her manuscripts repeatedly before making any preliminary sketches, annotating their margins with my initial ideas. Marly and I don’t much discuss what will be required for a cover or for the decorations. She and her publishers entrust the visual aspects of her books to me. I think she quite enjoys the surprises that come through this way of working.

Above: artwork for the back cover of The Foliate Head

I never aspire to ‘illustrate’ a Marly Youmans book, preferring my role as provider of a gentle accompaniment to her words. I make an introduction (the cover) and then she sings the melody while I play a few chords in the background (the page decorations).

It’s not the usual way for a writer to have much influence with a publisher over the choice of artist for a cover, and it’s perhaps because Marly elects to work with small, specialist houses, that she’s been able to bring me into the loop. At Stanza Poetry she even arranged for my brother-in-law, Andrew, to be the designer of The Foliate Head, because he and I are so in harmony in the matter of book design.

For Thaliad, the book was meticulously designed by the founder and editor of Phoenicia Publishing, Beth Adams, which made the entire process bespoke, rather than on the design conveyor-belt that is the modus operandi of most big publishing houses.

Increasingly I like to produce not just the image for the cover, but the whole spread with the text incorporated into it. I love the art of lettering, and usually work the titles and authors through the medium of collage. And because adding images to the inside of a book doesn’t add printing costs as long as the designs are in black, Marly and I have been able to persuade publishers to have page decorations in her books.

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Above: chapter-heading for Thaliad

The brutal economics of publishing these days means that there is rarely an illustration fee with a small specialist publishing house. So instead I strike a deal for copies of the book. At the end of the day I own the original artworks, and they can be offered for sale with my dealer. I couldn’t make a living as a book illustrator if this was my only source of income, but as the process of collaborating with Marly is tangental to my career as a painter, I don’t have to rely on it.

I don’t think we ever set out to work together so regularly, this author and her ‘illuminator’. The processes gently evolved, and now there’s a familiarity to them that feels comfortable and ongoing. Marly barely approaches me any more with the outright suggestion that I might do a book with her. It’s more a case of her asking ‘Are you busy?’, followed by ‘Could you possibly make the time?’ And my response is invariably, ‘What’s the deadline?’, followed by ‘Ummmmmm, is there any wriggle-room?’

Above: cover artwork for Glimmerglass in progress

I’m strictly hands-on. I paint, draw and collage my designs together, having had no experience of rendering on a computer.

Above: work-book sketches for Glimmerglass

It’s not that I’d be averse to working on a screen, but I haven’t had the time to teach myself. I’d probably prefer to combine both ways of working, as I don’t like the idea of spending more time in front of a keyboard than I already do.

Above: a dragon for the cover of Glimmerglass

Marly and I had collaborations that preceded our work together on the three ‘decorated’ books. In 2011 it was Marly’s suite of poems celebrating my sixtieth birthday retrospective exhibition that kick-started the anthology The Book of Ystwyth: six poets on the art of Clive Hicks-Jenkins (Grey Mare Press/Carolina Wren Press/National Library of Wales), in which she was joined by Dave Bonta, Callum James, Andrea Selch, Catriona Urquhart and Damian Walford Davies. (The title of her poetry sequence loaned itself to the collection.) Additionally in 2011 she was a contributor to Clive Hicks-Jenkins: a monograph, published by Lund Humphries, with her essay Fire in the Labyrinth exploring my preoccupation with the ‘miraculous’.

There are other projects in the pipeline. I already have an anthology of her poems waiting on my computer desktop, and I have my eye on her forthcoming novel Maze of Blood, because who wouldn’t want to design a book with a title like that?

Marly in Ice-Land

Even when beleaguered with arctic weather and a recalcitrant cold that’s driving her slowly bonkers, Marly Youmans can’t but be the consummate scribe. This is her on the weather right now in Cooperstown.

‘Because I am dreaming of hot weather and a thunderstorm over Lake Otsego instead of ice and ice and blebs and icicles and rimed crystals and simple prisms and stellar or sectored plates and dendrite crystals and triangulars and plate crystals and fernlike stellar dendrites and bullet rosettes and crystal needles and hollow or capped columns and double plates or split plates and snow and snow and did I say ice and snow? Ah, the alien, barely inhabitable realm of Yankee winter with its radiating dendrites–so strange, so insane, so cold-and-virus laden, so ingenious in its complex miseries, so full of barkings like a seal, so many-kleenexed, so white, so starry, so shivery, so interminable, so Narnian, so White Witchian.’

At which point, she posts a snowy chapter heading, one of those I made for Thaliad (see above) that is a good match for the ‘Yankee winter’ she’s lamenting.

Read more from the marvellous Marly at her BLOG. In the United States Thaliad may be found at Phoenicia Publishing, and in the UK would-be-purchasers can order it from good local book shops, or from Amazon. And while on matters ‘Thalian’, if the five-star reviews at Amazon don’t tempt you to open your wallet, then cast an eye over the scrumptious review of it at Tom Cat in the Red Room, which would be enough to make me walk barefoot through snow to my nearest store to get a copy. Fortunately I don’t have to, as I have not one but a little cache of Thaliads on my shelves, a perk of being its cover artist and decorator.

making a cover for Thaliad: the publisher and the artist in e-mail correspondence

Elizabeth Adams to Clive Hicks-Jenkins: 15 June 2012 15:52:42 GMT+01:00

‘Dear Clive, Thaliad will be 6 inches wide by 9 inches high. I haven’t decided yet if we’ll do a hardcover edition as well; I’d like to. The one I did for Dick Jones’ Ancient Lights worked out well, and since this will be a special book — and is, after all, an epic in the long litrary and cultural tradition– collectors might be willing to spring for the hardcover. In that case there will be a jacket with end-flaps, but there’s no possibility within this printing method of doing anything with the endpapers themselves. However, there could be a decoration on the first page, or even an allover pattern if some aspect of your artwork lends itself to that. We don’t need to worry about that at this point, it’s just something to keep in the back of our minds.

Thank you so much for sending the pdf of The Foliate Head. It’s even more gorgeous than I had imagined, and I can’t wait to hold a copy in my hands and see those lovely pages on paper. The typography is very beautiful, and the “heads” are fabulous – each breathes with its own internal energy and spirit. It’s going to be a glorious book.

I’m mailing cheques today, including yours.’

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Clive Hicks-Jenkins to Elizabeth Adams: 16 June 2012 13:19:58 GMT+01:00

‘The cover for Thaliad is well underway. For a couple of days I made drawings that pursued the fatal fight between Samuel and Ran, because it was the episode that most caught at my imagination in graphic terms. Striking, though I was uneasy that it was rather too male and tough. But then suddenly the sense of nature and of knowledge learned and stored that’s at the heart of Thaliad gripped my imagination, and the cover image became something far more life-affirming and mystical. It is a portrait of Thalia, but not as you might imagine!!! More to do with inner worlds than outer ones.

I shan’t send an image yet, as though the idea is strong the single preparatory drawing dashed off is a fragile thing. However I think the finished image will appeal to both of you, and moreover it has a timeless quality and will definitely catch the eye. To me it is overwhelmingly suffused with Marly! Hope to send you a large file in the next few days.’
Clive to Beth: 16 June 2012 17:23:35 GMT+01:00
‘The ground is going to be very dark. Probably a deep blue/green with a couple of puffy clouds. The head is a silhouette in reverse, and so will be white against the dark. Within the outline of the head there will be a riot of foliage and birds in red, blue, green and yellow. Intense and life-affirming colours. A feel of medieval mille-fleurs and early stitch work. The eye will be painterly… not too flat… and collaged in to make the heart of the image.’
Beth to Clive: 16 June 2012 17:23:35 GMT+01:00
‘Clive, I couldn’t be happier. I think you’ve grasped the essence of the book, and I feel confident it will come across here. The foliate “embroidery” reminds of the New England/colonial tradition of crewel-work, and will be a reminder of that period. It goes back to medieval times, but is still very much alive in many people’s homes. And quite an interesting tie to the Farmers Museum/Fenimore House which are so much a part of Cooperstown. I’ll have a look at some links for you. Not something to go into too literally – since we’re in the future — but a reverberating echo.’
 

Clive to Beth and Marly: 20 June 2012 08:24:54 GMT+01:00

‘Beth, Marly, there’s an image of the final paste-up on the Artlog today, though I plan on re-making the Y of Youmans to be a little ‘brighter’. Peter will photograph the artwork under proper lights when he returns tomorrow evening. This has all gone relatively smoothly, hasn’t it? Nothing like the clock ticking to concentrate the mind.

A good time to thank you both for passing this my way. It’s not often these days that artists get the opportunity to make the type of hand-crafted imagery for covers that I so enjoy producing. Photographs and photo-shop seem to have taken over at the big publishing houses, and to my eye the results are too often characterless. I guess I’m a dinosaur here, one of the old brigade.

The back cover artwork will follow later today. Quite simple, with plenty of room for blurb etc.’

Comment from Beth at the Artlog: 19 June 2012 15:17:14 GMT+01:00

‘Clive, we will do our best to make sure the book is indeed beautiful to look at, and does justice to this wonderful artwork. I too despaired of what to put on the cover, because the poem covers such a span of time and change. I had hoped you might settle on a portrait of Thalia, but didn’t suggest it — isn’t it odd how things work out? One of the aspects of the illustration I love the most, and was surprised by this morning, were those bright red lips. For me, they connect with the fruits– for Thalia represents life, and growth: sustenance received and sustenance given — but she also grows from girl to woman. Clive, it’s perfect, thank you so very much!’

Thaliad is available as a paperback or hardback, and may be purchased from the following sites.

Order from the Phoenicia Publishing online store

Order from Amazon.com

Order from Amazon.UK

Order from Amazon Europe