The Serpent’s Bite: a natural history of the witch. Part 1

I loved drawing witches as a child. The idea of them was vivid in my imagination, terrifying as all hell but thrilling too, in the way of all things that were scary/lovely. Besides, I’d seen The Wizard of Oz, so I knew witches could be vanquished if you could get ’em with a bucket of water before they zapped you!

As I grew older and my interests matured, the witches got left behind, along with all the other juvenilia. (Though I kept my green-eyed Pelham ‘Witch’, and she lives with me still.)

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Then a few years ago for no reason I can put my finger on, I started thinking about Hansel & Gretel and what a strange and interesting tale it is. And of course in my mind’s eye, creeping behind the children who were lost in the wood, came that apex-predator, the witch! Before I knew it she was flowing from my pencil, and she’s been flowing pretty much non-stop ever since.

The first image to appear (see below) was intended as a design for puppet. Long, long ago the first glove-puppet I’d ever made had been a witch, and this little sketch springing unexpectedly from the murky depths of childhood’s fears, felt like a desire to get in touch with the old thrill, a conjuring bright and energised, back from when creativity was still a new experience.

I didn’t actually make the glove-puppet, but I pieced together a collage, in order to better see her.

Soon I was making dozens of drawings, obsessively defining and finessing my notions of what a witch should be. Nothing new, but just a recognisable shorthand for a witch. Squat, hook-nosed, spindle legged, sporting either a peasant headscarf or a steeple-hat, incongruously carrying a handbag as she trotted about on short legs, quite mumsy but for her piercing, unnerving stare. But still a joke at this point. Nothing too threatening.

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Sometimes she was German!

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She’d already begun to make public appearances here at the Artlog and at Facebook when Simon Lewin of St. Jude’s enquired about whether I might contribute something to his magazine Random Spectacular. I suggested something on the theme of Hansel & Gretel, perhaps a short story with illustrations. So that’s what I did.

And that’s pretty much where the Hansel & Gretel ‘project’ really took off. On Facebook I wrote that I’d so much enjoyed making the short illustrated piece for Random Spectacular, that I rather fancied producing a more substantial version of it, perhaps even ditching the text and going with the idea of a picturebook. Simon left a message suggesting that we should talk some more, and thereafter we began planning.

In short order I had to make a dummy of how I envisioned the layout of a picturebook, plus a single, worked-up image that would define the look of the illustrations for it. I knew that here was a star vehicle for a witch, but she would need to to be mesmerising in appearance if it were to work. This is the finished drawing I produced: the witch in full attack mode, accompanied by gingerbread henchmen and with sweeties deployed as missiles. The Hansel and Gretel characters as shown were easy to draw quickly and consistently. Bean-shaped and wearing school uniforms, they had short legs that couldn’t out-run a witch in flight. Though the witch’s design evolved further, the children’s remained constant. They stayed the same from this ‘sample’ drawing until the book’s completion.

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As work began in earnest, I was still endlessly toying with notions of who the witch was and what her defining characteristics would be. I created a sort of natural-history for her, as though her evolutionary path had at some point bifurcated from the one on which humans were headed. I had the above drawing as a template, though I kept tinkering with her, rethinking the principles of how she would fit together to do what would be required of her.

She would be short-sighted. Witches in fairytales are often described as short-sighted. In the sample drawing I’d scattered her gown with eyes because I’d had the idea to make good her ocular deficiency with a garment stitched with eyes that could do all the seeing for her. It was based on a gown in a portrait of Queen Elizabeth I, embroidered with eyes and ears as metaphors for her being all-seeing and all-hearing. (A coded message to the world that the queen’s spies were everywhere!)

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The witchy fangs would be those of a carnivore, but like a serpent’s would fold back into grooves in her gums so that she wouldn’t be inconvenienced by their length when speaking! She could pass for a toothless crone until she was ready to feast! Here’s a spread showing her looking toothless in the finished book.

I even made a flat card maquette with a little mechanism that raised/lowered her teeth to  the eating or resting positions, and another that made her eye roll back in its socket as a preparation to feeding. (The eye-rolling-back thing is very creepy, based on apparently what happens when sharks lunch! And though not used in the final book, not wasted either, because all those researched details add depth to the creativity.)

But the weirdest aspect of this witch, was that her nose was a prosthetic, used to hide what lurked beneath, which was an arrangement of scent-seeking tentacles to guide her to prey, even in the dark! It was to be the ‘big reveal’ at the dramatic highpoint of the tale, the moment when Gretel would catapult into action to save her brother.

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So when hatted and with artificial nose in place, the witch could pass for human, which is what would work best in terms of her survival. But once the hat and the nose came off, then she was ready for business!

When we made the stop-motion animated trailer to promote the picturebook, I made a three-dimensional model of the witch’s head complete with tentacles, and cameraman Pete Telfer shot it deliberately out-of-focus. It’s seen only for a flash edit of the tentacles ‘flowering’ out of the cavity, but it worked a treat!

 

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Here’s the trailer, complete with models made by Phil Cooper and music by Kate Romano.

The Hansel & Gretel picturebook came in paper covers, published by Random Spectacular in 2016 in a smallish edition. Though it’s quite hard to find because it’s never been distributed much beyond the Random Spectacular online shop, it did what Simon Lewin had offered at the outset, giving me the opportunity to explore a fairytale entirely through the medium of imagery. It also got me working  with colour separations, a technique that would serve me so well later, when I came to collaborate with the Penfold Press.

 

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Click HERE to purchase the Hansel & Gretel picturebook:

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To celebrate having got to the finishing line, master-bookbinder Christopher Shaw made a specially bound and boxed edition for me, and he produced something of such extraordinary artistry that it lifts my heart every time I look at it. Presented within a heavy red leather box tooled in gold with the outline of the pursuing witch, the book has boards covered in mustard-yellow linen, blind-stamped and inlaid with hand drawn oak-leaves placed as though blown across its covers. I love it.

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Next time – The Serpent’s Bite: a natural history of the witch. Part 2: Mr Pollock’s Pantomime

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Christopher Shaw’s Bookbinding for Hansel & Gretel

 

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Hansel & Gretel was published last year by Random Spectacular in paper covers, which had always been the plan. I was enormously pleased with the edition as it was extremely thoughtfully produced.

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Nevertheless, because the project had been a long one – it had taken me two years to produce all the illustrations as I was having to work on them between other projects – I was keen to celebrate the achievement with a ‘special’ binding of the book for my shelves.

Bookbinder Christopher Shaw and I talked about the possibility of a special binding at the Hansel & Gretel book launch in London last September, and then over a period of weeks we discussed ideas in more detail. He sent me samples of cloth for the cover, and I began to make some paper oak leaves that he would apply to the cover after blind stamping shapes into the boards to receive them.

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Oak leaves had appeared in some of the images in the book, and so felt like an appropriate motif for the cover.

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We decided to have them looking as though they’d been blown across the covers.

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Christopher’s beautiful binding for the book has far surpassed any hopes I’d had for it. When I opened the parcel from him today, I was overwhelmed by what he had made. The culmination of a long road of endeavour from the first tiny, dummy copy made for Random Spectacular, through the the many stages of creativity leading to this final, much appreciated keepsake, I find that I can’t stop looking at it and smiling.

Below: the dummy copy of Hansel & Gretel, made in 2014, helped establish the layout of the book.

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Hansel & Gretel Q&A

 

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I did a question & answer for the main newspaper of north Wales, The Daily Post. Peter went to get a haircut at the barber shop in Aberystwyth, and our friends there had very kindly set aside a copy for us. I answered the questions so long ago that I’d almost forgotten what I’d said. Here’s the transcript:

Your name:

Clive Hicks-Jenkins

How old are you?

Sixty-six.

Where are you from?

Newport, Gwent.

Tell us about your family

My father was a wayleaves officer with the South Wales Electricity Board. He was responsible for brokering contracts between SWEB and the landowners/farmers whose acreage needed to be crossed by power lines. But because he was a countryman and loved the landscape, he was an artist when it came to placing them where they’d least be visible, hiding them in valleys and along the edges of woodlands. My mother was a hairdresser. She loved films and from an early age she took me every Saturday afternoon to the cinema. Never to see kids’ films though. She loved more dramatic fare, and so my tastes were quite unusual. I don’t know how she bucked the certificate system. She probably knew the local cinema manager and bargained haircuts against him turning a blind eye to a seven year old watching Bette Davies melodramas!

What are you best known for?

Probably my Mari Lwyd-themed series of 2000-2001, The Mare’s Tale. I had an exhibition of that name, and it made quite a splash. There was a book of poetry by the late Catriona Urquhart that accompanied it, and in 2013 the composer Mark Bowden and the poet Damian Walford Davies made a chamber work of the same name, based on the underlying narrative of a psychological haunting.

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Tell us about your exhibition (what’s it called, what’s it on/where is it being held?)

The exhibition is at Oriel Tegfryn, Menai Bridge, and it’s the result of four years of exploration on the theme of Hansel & Gretel.

When is it running from/to?

Sept 1st – Sept 24th.

What can people expect?

Last year the publisher Random Spectacular commissioned a picture book from me that was based on the fairy tale. As my version is very dark it’s been marketed as being more suitable for adults. (It’s been described as ‘George Romero meets the Brothers Grimm!)

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Simultaneously I was commissioned by Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop in Covent Garden to design a toy theatre assembly kit of Hansel & Gretel. This has been quite a thrill. I played with a Benjamin Pollock toy theatre when I was a child, and so it’s a great privilege to be asked to make a new one to bear his name. Published this summer, in contrast to the picture book it’s a sunnier affair, quite suitable for children. Even so I put my own visual spin on it. You won’t have seen a Hansel & Gretel quite like it.

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The Tegfryn Gallery exhibition consists of all the artworks made for the picture book and the toy theatre, plus illustrations for Hansel & Gretel alphabet primers that I made several years ago. Prepare for a Hansel & Gretel Fest!

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Tell us five things which make your exhibition great?

1) Scary and beautiful is an alluring mix!

2) I can guarantee it’s not going to be like anything you’ve ever experienced at Oriel Tegfryn.

3) What’s not to love about art in which family dysfunction, unhealthy appetites and manslaughter are the principal themes? This is a fairytale for the soap generation.

4) There are Liquorice Allsorts deployed as weapons and gingerbread men that bite back!

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5) If you want to know what horrors lie beneath a witch’s prosthetic nose, then this is the exhibition you’ve been waiting for!

Tell us what’s good about the venue

It’s a warm and welcoming gallery with wonderful staff. Visiting Oriel Tegfryn is like calling on friends who are always pleased to see you.

Who is your favourite artist and why?

The ‘who’ is George Stubbs, and the ‘why’ is because he painted animals with unparalleled compassion. His Hambletonian, Rubbing Down may be numbered among the world’s greatest equestrian artworks.

What piece of work are you most proud of and why?

Green George. It’s in a private collection here in Wales. If you type the title and my name into a search engine, you can see it. I paint only for myself and I never think about who might purchase. I made Green George as a painting I’d like to live with, though in fact I never did. It was finished only days before being shipped to the gallery, and it sold immediately. I knew even as I painted it that I was riding the wind. I couldn’t have bettered it.

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Tell us a little known fact about yourself:

I once played Batman’s nemesis, the Riddler, in an American musical.

What are your best and worst habits?

I’m a fiercely loyal and loving friend. But I’m also implacably unforgiving when betrayed. It’s an unattractive trait.

What’s next for you? What are you currently working on, or what do you plan to work on?

I’m on the last lap of a fourteen print series on the theme of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in collaboration with Daniel Bugg at the Penfold Press. The press has been publishing the series sequentially. The art historian James Russell has been writing accompanying texts. It’s been a wonderful experience.  The Martin Tinney Gallery is having an exhibition of the work in January.

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Then I go into rehearsals for a new music theatre work of Hansel & Gretel that I’m designing and directing. The production opens in London before embarking on a year long tour.

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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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Two of Everything

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2017 is my year of Hansel and Gretel. Two projects on the theme are now completed, printed and available for purchase. The picture book published by Random Spectacular is available from the publisher, while the toy theatre kit published by Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop is available both from the shop in Covent Garden and online.

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They share common elements, though have separate characters and serve quite different purposes. The Random Spectacular publication was always intended as an ‘artist’s book’. In it I had the freedom to be as dark as I liked in my expression of the story.

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By contrast the Pollock’s project took a more playful approach, inspired by the traditions of the toy theatre as practiced by the great publisher of paper stages and the plays produced for them, Benjamin Pollock.

The two projects developed pretty much in tandem, as the arrangement with Pollock’s followed closely on my discussions about the book with Simon Lewin. And while there was no requirement from either publisher that the book and the toy theatre should in any way link, for my own part I wanted there to be a bridge between the two.

The Pollock’s toy theatre wasn’t conceived as an adaptation of the picture book. Rather my thinking on it was that the children of the picture book had survived their travails and moved on, travelling to London where a theatrical producer with an eye to the main chance had persuaded them to appear in a stage version of their own story. This ‘back-story’ was not something that needed to be stated in the sales material for the theatre, but was more by way of what I needed in order to better serve the subject. Just as an actor needs to create a history for a character in order to better play the role, so I needed to create a plausible route for Hansel and Gretel from the book that recounts their story, to the toy theatre that presents it in a changed form.

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Publisher Simon Lewin was incredibly generous in his support of the picture book. He was patient with the time it took for me to produce the images, nurturing the project to completion without making any compromises on the quality we both saw as being essential to our joint vision. The design of the book required a lot of attention to detail, not least because of the several fold-out pages that had to align exactly when in the closed position. It was essential, too, that the book lay flat when open, so that none of the image details were lost in the ‘gutter’, which is the valley caused by the stapling together of pages.

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At Pollock’s, Louise Heard and her team were equally painstaking in seeing through the production of the toy theatre kit. The project called for meticulous realisation because three of the six construction sheets were illustrated on both sides, which required precise alignment at the printing stage. Although small in scale I had ambitions for the model to be a fully functioning toy theatre, with 6 backcloths, 2 side-wings and all the characters and props necessary for a performance of the play.

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I wrote a script to be included with the model, and painted a theatre poster for the production.

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I know that all this provided considerable challenges for everyone concerned, and yet Louise never for a moment balked at the extra work involved. The little stage had to be proofed and trialled over and over to ensure the instructions were accurate and that every aspect of the model worked.

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As the idea behind the toy theatre was that it should represent a ‘stage’ version of the ‘real’ story as expressed in the picture book, I made the children the same in both, though they’re dressed rather more picturesquely for their stage adventures than the neat school uniforms they wear in the book.

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The book’s angry mother, with her slovenly appearance and her face pulled taut by the too-tightly fastened rollers in her hair, is portrayed on stage by a plump and mumsy peasant in a headscarf, deeply concerned that her children are missing in the wood, while the visceral horror of the cannibal witch with her prosthetic nose that she rips aside to better smell Hansel with her wormy nasal cavity, in the play is a less disturbing, more traditional fairy tale crone.

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I like the idea that the stage version wipes away the nightmare of what the children in reality endured, transforming it with glitter and evasions into an acceptable entertainment.

It’s interesting to compare the imagery. The palette is far more vivid and toy-like in the Pollock’s Hansel & Gretel, whereas the book takes a more delicate approach to colour.

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The Witch’s house is similar in both versions, though the stage version comes garnished with icing-sugar decorations.

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In the book Hansel is thrown into a cage by a lumbering, zombie-like gingerbread monster, and locked in to be fattened up for the cooking-pot. He suffers the same fate in the stage version, though there the gingerbread men are small and distinctly less threatening.

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While the Witch is grotesque in both versions, for the stage she is less extreme.

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The friendly Duck is yellow in the book, and pink in the toy theatre…

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… while the oven turns from blue in the book to red for the stage, and leaves out the skull and flames of the former.

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It’s not possible to get away from the fact that the original Hansel & Gretel by the Grimm Brothers is deeply disturbing. Hansel’s fate is to be cooked and eaten, but opportunist Gretel shoves the cannibal Witch into an oven first, slams the door and leaves her to be burned to cinders. No matter how much you gussy up the tale with gingerbread and icing-sugar, it has murder, or at the very least, manslaughter, at its heart. In the picture book I tinkered with the details and ratcheted up the horror. For the toy theatre version I toned down the monstrousness and conjured a picturesque world more suitable for a plaything. The two nevertheless remain linked, and for those in-the-know, they’re intended as companion pieces.

You may purchase the toy theatre

HERE

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and the book, HERE

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Out of these twin publications, picture-book and toy theatre, a third Hansel & Gretel project has been born that will carry the ideas explored so far into new and exciting territories and collaborations. I’ll write about it here when I am able. But you should know that the story is not over yet!

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The Toy Town Theatre

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It’s been a long year. For me, and for my partner Peter too, our various projects have kept us hard at work. Peter curated two exhibitions and wrote the catalogues to go with them. Moreover he’s just delivered his manuscript to the publisher on the art of Roger Cecil, and there will be an exhibition next year.

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For me 2016 was largely taken up with three projects: the ongoing series of prints on the theme of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, made in association with Dan Bugg of the the Penfold Press, the halfway point of which was celebrated with an exhibition at the Martin Tinney Gallery earlier this year. There was the publication of Hansel & Gretel (Random Spectacular), which had been two years in the planning and making, and the completion of my work on a forthcoming toy theatre being produced by Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop.

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2017 promises to be just as busy, with a yet to be announced project for the stage – which for the present time I must keep to myself – and the continuation of the Gawain project, due for completion in March 2018.

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For now, and in the sprit of the season’s greetings, the images in this post are of the Toy Town Theatre that Dan Bugg and I produced as a Christmas card for the Penfold Press. Working with Dan has been one of the great pleasures of 2016, and though there were times when we both thought we’d never make our deadlines, of course in the end we did. In the coming year there will be more Gawain work, plus a few surprises, forthcoming from the Penfold Press. Watch this space.

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A Feast of Marshmallows

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My  book of Hansel & Gretel, published by Random Spectacular, has been beautifully produced under the watchful eye of Simon Lewin at St Jude’s. The scans by Saxon Digital and the printing by Swallowtail, both in Norwich, are perfect. Every etched line and fleck of the original drawings, meticulously reproduced. The book’s six colours plus black have been created as Pantone separations, consistent in colour throughout and printed onto a matt paper that is so much more pleasing for being without the sheen of many illustrated books. The covers are a slightly heavier card than the pages, and the construction of the book cleverly ensures that every double-page spread opens flat, so that no part of any illustration can become lost in or distorted by the ‘gutter’.

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There are four, three-leaf fold-out spreads scattered throughout the book, and these took a lot of effort to get right in the early design stages. In the finished book the illustrations across each closed fold-out are perfectly aligned, which can have been no easy task for the printers.

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Technically this is just about the most accomplished book I’ve set myself the task of making. I told the story with little recourse to text, and such words as I allowed myself had to be woven through the images as though a part of them. I worked in a technique of colour separation that is relatively new to me. Indeed I was already over halfway through the project when I began learning from Dan Bugg of the Penfold Press the process of producing colour separations.

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I am unapologetically proud of this achievement. I have always believed that inexpensiveness should be no impediment to producing a commercial book with all of the attention to detail that might be expected from an expensive private press edition. I love the art of paperback covers – particularly in Czech and Poland – and have collected vintage and contemporary European children’s illustrated books for more than forty years. While Hansel & Gretel is not intended as a children’s book – it’s a tad too dark for that market – it nevertheless honours the traditions of the children’s book illustrators who have given me so much pleasure over a lifetime. I can hardly believe that at sixty-five, I have finally made my first illustrated book!

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Poet Damian Walford Davies writes of Hansel & Gretel:

‘Just amazing. Beautiful, terrifying. What a piece of work. The blues and pinks and whites have the smell and texture of marshmallow, which is fitting. ‘Eat and get fat’ might be the epigraph for the reader, too, who will verily feast.’

Artist Ed Kluz writes:

‘I pored over your Hansel and Gretel last night – such a wonderful and wicked piece of work. The drawings are at the same time lush and cruel.’

Purchase Hansel & Gretel HERE

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