Looking at my shelves I realise how fortunate I’ve been as an artist to have collaborated on a good many interesting book projects. At the start of my career as a painter, Nicolas and Frances McDowall of Old Stile Press gave me multiple opportunities with their invitations to collaborate on volumes of poetry, plus the covers of two bibliographies. For them I made two volumes of works by the sixteenth century poet Richard Barnfield, The Affectionate Shepherd and the Barnfield Sonnets, plus The Mare’s Tale by Catriona Urquhart, an anthology of poems which memorialised the life of her late friend – and my father – Trevor.
At Old Stile I produced an illustrated edition of Peter Shaffer’s iconic play, Equus, which led to a commission from Penguin Classics to contribute an image for the cover of a new edition of the play in 2006, still in print today.
While at OSP I learned craft on the projects Nicolas chose for me, it would be fair to say it was in the books springing from my creative enthusiasms as an artist, that I’d find the most satisfying experiences. Simon Armitage’s 2018 revision of his translation of the medieval poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight for Faber & Faber gave the opportunity to use the fourteen-print series on the theme I’d made with Dan Bugg at Penfold Press, edited into illustrations for the edition. That led to a second collaboration with Simon of a much-loved fairytale for publisher Design for Today, Hansel & Gretel: a Nightmare in Eight Scenes, which won me the 2020 V&A Illustrated Book Award.
Next came a second book at Faber with Simon, by now appointed Poet Laureate. The Owl and the Nightingale was conceived as a companion volume to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and like its predecessor was a ‘translation’ of a medieval text.
Joe Pearson at Design for Today makes extraordinarily beautiful books which honour the great traditions of illustration, and after Hansel & Gretel in 2019, he invited me to make a child-size ‘pamphlet’ book, The Bird House, which enabled me to indulge my love of toy birds and toy buildings. No text with this one, just page after page of pictures.
Throughout the pandemic lockdowns I worked on my second ‘fairytale’ project for Design for Today, Beauty & Beast, in a reinvention by poet Olivia McCannon. Our starting points had been the eighteenth century French novella of the fairytale and the 1946 film La Belle et la Bête by poet/artist/director Jean Cocteau. However in Olivia’s hands the source materials were thrillingly transformed, underpinned by 21st century concerns about global warming and the destruction of environment.
For fifteen years I’ve been producing cover artwork and page decorations for the American poet and novelist, Marly Youmans. My most recent work for her has been a collection of poems under the title The Book of the Red King, and her novella-length narrative poem, Seren of the Wildwood.
This year I produced my second cover for Penguin, an edition of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, working with Penguin/Random House art director, Suzanne Dean.
Over the years I haven’t seen myself as being an illustrator so much as an artist with a wide range of interests, among which books are admittedly a bit of an obsession. Some of the book projects have been ones I’ve instigated and brought to completion with the help of others. Joe at Design for Today has been my major facilitator for the most significant ones, while others have come via publishing commissions. But however made, the books produced in collaboration with writers I greatly admire, such as Marly, Olivia and Simon, often thereafter cast their influences further into my practices as an artist. I have been majorly influenced and fuelled by poetry. It’s a persistent thread throughout my work at the easel, on the stage and in books. The past year has seen me working for Folio Society on a new illustrated edition of Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf, due out this summer. The project just dropped into my lap, brought to me by Folio Society art editor Raquel Leis Allion. I’d long wanted to work with the text, so it’s been a bit of a dream come true.
It’s with huge delight that I can reveal, at last, that my current big project is the commission to illustrate a new Beowulf for The Folio Society, in the acclaimed translation by Seamus Heaney. The illustrations must remain shrouded in secrecy until the book is ready for launch, and I won’t be showing work in progress. Suffice to say that I’m already deeply bedded in the project, awakening every morning excited to be in the thick of it and enormously enjoying the many discussions and planning sessions with my wonderful Folio Society art director, Raquel Leis Allion. But this little vignette is all you’re going to see before the book is published, because we’re keeping the images under lock and key.
I’ve greatly enjoyed the notion of ‘the monster’, whether in novels, in film/tv or in folklore and mythology. Aged eight I was sold on the idea of the ‘Gorgon’ from the first moment I read about her, and the Hydra, too, and the three-headed Cerberus, guard-dog of Hades. As a child, when too young to actually see X-rated films, I pored over imported copies of Famous Monsters of Filmland, so I knew all about the Universal Studios monsters – which were vintage even back in the fifties when they were being given lush spreads in the magazine – long before I ever saw the films themselves. I thrilled to the images of Lon Chaney being unmasked in The Phantom of the Opera, of Bela Lugosi curling back his lips in a pasty-faced vampiric leer, and Karloff sitting in Jack Pierce’s makeup chair being transformed into one of the most iconic monsters of cinema history.
I’m not a fan of all ‘horror’ – in extreme form I find it distasteful – but when makers are creative in producing something that nails you to your seat, the ride can be thrilling. I particularly love it when the scary bits are not too in-your-face. One of the greatest strengths of Alien, is that it pre-dated CGI, and so the fully-grown creature is half-shadowed and all the more alarming for it. I think the best scares in Jurassic Park are in the kitchen where a pair of Velociraptors hunt down the children, because most of what you see is staggeringly clever animatronics and puppetry, made even better by masterful editing. When the monster is actually there, in close contact with the actors, and not just a man in green wielding a ball-on-a-stick to cue their eye-lines for special effects to be added later, there are worlds of difference in the performances.
I’ve particularly enjoyed it when I’ve been given illustration opportunities to engage with old-school classic creatures. For the cover of These Our Monsters (2019, English Heritage), I was able to trace back to Bram Stoker’s account of Vlad Dracula, which was quite an eye-opener because the original descriptions are not remotely like any of the character’s film incarnations. (The cover image here is for The Dark Thread by Graeme Macrae Burnet, who sets his troubling and elegiac short story in Whitby at a time when the mentally fragile Stoker has returned to confront his own creation.)
There were entirely new monsters in the book, too, and I loved creating what Sarah Hall only suggests in The Hand Under the Stone, which is about as close as I’ve ever come to making a monster inhabiting a similar ‘between-worlds’ plane of existence to those found in the ghost stories of M. R. James which I love so much.
I’ve made several varieties of Witch for two quite different books on the theme of Hansel & Gretel, for a stage production in which she was presented via shadow-puppetry, and for a toy theatre for Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop.
My first Hansel & Gretel book was a more or less textless picture-book for St Jude’s in which there was a Witch scary enough to require a warning for more sensitive readers. I made her glaucous-eyed and short-sighted – as witches traditionally were in some folk and fairy-tales, the Grimm Brothers telling of Hansel & Gretel included – but I dressed her in a garment embroidered with eyes to send out a different kind of message. (I stole the idea from a portrait of the first Queen Elizabeth in a gown embroidered with eyes and ears, as a coded message to her subjects – and more particularly her enemies – that the monarch saw all and heard all!)
For the Simon Armitage version of the tale, Hansel & Gretel, a Nightmare in Eight Scenes, I collaborated with paper-cut artist Peter Lloyd, providing him with rough drawings that he then transferred into elaborate stop-motion shadow-puppets. To begin with Hansel and Gretel saw only a crone in a bonnet and cloak, but when the cloak came off, the full horror of a spiny crab-like carapace was revealed, reverse-joint legs – like a bird – and a tail with a stinger that snaked into view and coiled and thrashed about.
When Simon Armitage’s libretto for the stage production was published in 2019 as an illustrated book by Design for Today, I made a monstrous Witch – seen below as she’s turned into a gobstopper when Gretel pushes her into a cauldron of sweets boiled down into molten sugar – and a monstrous personification of the haunted forest, too, wonderfully described by the poet in a text that’s an illustrator’s dream.
Beowulf is jam-packed with the eponymous hero’s encounters with monsters of many varieties. There’s a deep-sea-creature that drags him to watery depths, a dragon he slays – though he becomes fatally wounded in the process – and that arch-monster of literature and father of all horrors that came after him, Grendel, who is of a sufficient size to stuff thirty human corpses into a bag and make off with them. Beowulf tears off Grendel’s arm as a trophy, and the fatally wounded monster slinks away to die ‘off-stage’. We then discover there’s worse waiting in the wings, for Grendel has a mother, and she’s as wrathful as a nest of Asian Hornets on the warpath when she sets out to avenge her son’s death. (And you thought the vengeful mother was invented by the makers of the second Alien film. Turns out that she goes back to Anglo-Saxon literature, and before that to even more ancient mythologies and tales.)
So I am thrilled to be making images of these archetypal monsters, and hopefully in ways that will be unexpected and visceral enough to raise a few hairs at the nape of the neck. But in a good way, of course.
In 2016 Random Spectacular published a picture-book of my dark re-working of the fairy tale Hansel & Gretel. There was no text, save what I hand-lettered into the illustrations.
The following year Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop in Covent Garden commissioned a toy theatre kit from me, based on the book.
In response to the two publications, Goldfield Productions engaged me to direct and design a stage production. Hansel & Gretel: a Nightmare in Eight Scenes with music by Matthew Kaner and a libretto by Simon Armitage, was created for a chamber consort, a narrator/singer and two puppeteers, and it premiered at the 2018 Cheltenham Music Festival followed by a five month tour.
A matinee at the Barbican was recorded and broadcast by BBC Radio 3 Christmas week 2018.
The following year Design for Today published a hardback edition of Simon Armitage’s libretto that I illustrated, and in 2020 it won me the V&A Illustrated Book Award.
In 2023 there’s to be a major exhibition of my work on the theme of Hansel & Gretel at Oriel Myrddin in Carmarthen. The exhibition is to include original artworks made for the several publications, my project books, maquettes and preparatory works.
There will be many items from the stage production, including shadow puppets created by Peter Lloyd, set models built by Phil Cooper, vintage toys that I loaned to the production and a huge doll’s house, the inside of which I decorated and filmed to represent the interior of the Witch’s lair.
Permission for a loan to the gallery of the puppets of Hansel and Gretel designed by me for the production, has been turned down by Goldfield’s Artistic Director, Kate Romano. She gave dislike of me as her reason. Given that the costs of designing and making the puppets had been paid for out of an Arts Council grant, and given the budget was so tight that I personally paid a costume designer to create a wardrobe for them, her decision seems at best ill-judged. As the director of a charitable trust which has been extensively funded from philanthropic organisations, anyone might expect better from her than this. The exhibition will be especially appealing to children, and for a registered charity to deny a ‘museums accredited’ gallery the opportunity to inspire young minds with such beautiful examples of the art of puppet-making, is not merely perplexing, but frankly shameful.
I approached the Chair of the Goldfield Trust, Caroline Clegg, hoping that she might persuade Kate to change her mind and save the company from public scrutiny into a matter that looks very bad for both of them. It would be hard to tell from Caroline’s e-mail that she and I know each other, having both worked on the production for months when she was appointed by Kate as dramaturg to it. Weirdly, both her e-mails to me make it sound as though we’ve never met before. This has added another layer of the surreal to what has frequently felt decidedly strange when dealing with Kate Romano and Caroline Clegg. Here’s Caroline’s second e-mail to me:
Dear Mr Hicks-Jenkins,
In response to your recent request the Trustees of Goldfield Productions support Ms Romano’s decision not to loan the Hansel and Gretel puppets.
Ms Caroline Clegg
as Chair of Goldfield Productions
Why am I writing about all this now, so long after the event? Certainly not to persuade Kate Romano to change her mind about loaning the puppets. Over four years I’ve several times held out a hand of reconciliation in the hope of encouraging her to set aside resentments so we may together protect the legacy of what we made. I was and remain proud of my work on the stage production of Hansel & Gretel, and want to be able to share what was achieved in the exhibition. However everything I’ve written to Kate has gone unacknowledged and unanswered. There’s been not one e-mail reply to any of my attempts to lower the temperature of her antagonism. She is down a bunker in this matter, refusing to engage, and such behaviour in the world the way it is right now, is not a good look for anyone, let alone an arts administrator. Today I’m writing this because many are beginning to ask whether the puppets are going to be in the exhibition. Luckily because we have an ample record of the puppets in drawings, photographs and videos, they will be seen, though not be present.
It would be easier in many ways just to make a simple excuse for their absences which skates around what’s happened, but I see no reason to do that when Kate Romano and Caroline Clegg should clearly be the ones to explain why they’ve made the decision to hide the puppets from public view.
Simon’s reinvention of the fairy tale, is eerily prescient of what we’re seeing now in Ukraine. The puppets would have meant a great deal to many visitors had Kate Romano found it in her heart to lend them to the gallery, but she did not. The puppets were conceptualised and designed by me, their making supervised by me, in part funded by me and their performances on stage, shaped by me together with puppeteers Di and Lizzie. Kate’s reason for refusing the gallery loan appears to be all about personal enmity, which is troubling in a CEO in the performing arts. Anyone who feels that she made a decision that requires explanation, might take it up with her.
The Owl and the Nightingale will be performed as a reading at the Royal Court Theatre, Jerwood Theatre Downstairs.
In a new translation by the Poet Laureate Simon Armitage, this witty and enchanting edition of the medieval debate poem will be directed by John Tiffany and read by Maxine Peake and Meera Syal with Simon Armitage.
Following his acclaimed translations of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Pearl, Simon Armitage shines a light on another jewel of Middle English verse. The disputed issues within the piece still resonate – concerning identity, cultural attitudes, class distinctions and the right to be heard.
Following the performance there will be a book signing in the Balcony Bar.
The Owl and the Nightingale reading is supported by The Institute of Digital Archaeology.
All life is light and shadow and the struggle to hold those two in balance. I know that at the extremes, my preoccupations can seem hard to make sense of. One moment artworks I know viewers can find hard to look at, and the next, animations in which the characters of Victorian Harlequinade spring to joyful life. Night versus day, dusk versus dawn, grief versus joy.
At the private view of my Autumn 2021 Martin Tinney Gallery exhibition, a man I barely knew began quizzing me. Gesturing to the walls teeming with illustrations for Simon Armitage’s about-to-be-published The Owl & the Nightingale, he said “So you don’t paint anymore.” (Note the statement, not a question.) I’m always taken aback when someone is challenging almost from the first sentence. I didn’t want to defend myself to a man putting words into my mouth, so I replied simply, “I paint every day.” He carried on regardless, again gesturing to the walls. “Yeah but not REAL paintings any more, you know…” and here he grappled for words … “… the BIG ones!” Me, fixing his eye. ”I paint the things that I care about, and I always have. And now you’ll excuse me.”
The first subject matter that brought me serious attention as an artist was The Mare’s Tale in 2001. As an exploration of a nightmarish experience in my father’s childhood he carried with him for more than eighty years, the work has often been described by others as ‘the son’s exploration of the father’s trauma’. It was partially that, but it was also grief, not only for my dad, but for the many of my family and friends who had gone.
In Simon Armitage’s extraordinary reworking of Hansel & Gretel, the children’s parents are not the malign mother and weak father of the Grimm Brothers’ original tale. Simon sets the story in an unnamed war-torn country, and the children are not abandoned but in an act of parental desperation, directed away from home and bombings. They’re migrant children. At the end of the story they return home to find their father broken, their home in ruins and their mother, dead and buried in a coffin made from their bomb-splintered beds. When making the illustrations for the book (Design for Today, 2019) I researched, made hundreds of studies and drew on memories that are always with me.
My mother’s health had been catastrophically compromised by childhood meningitis. I think she can only have been in her thirties when she had her first heart attack, and though she lived another three decades, the steady advance of heart and organ failure was unstoppable. She was courageous and fought to be well, and there were times of respite when illness didn’t shadow her so heavily.
But in the end, it got her. In those days visiting hours in hospital were strict. No matter how ill the patient, there were no exceptions to the rules. My mother died alone in a public ward without anyone she loved to hold her hand. It was the end she feared most, and not a damned thing that we could do to stop it. We were called at the crack of dawn and raced to the hospital. It would have been kinder of the nurse to tell us the truth in the phone call. Instead we drove like maniacs only to find my mother icy-cold in her bed, having died hours earlier. My father retreated to a corridor, buried his face in an alcove and howled like a dog. I held my mother’s hand and studied her face, careworn with illness but still beautiful.
All life gets poured into my art. Here she is, recalled in the illustration in Hansel & Gretel of the dead mother in her unlined coffin, tenderly garlanded with flowers.
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.
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.
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.)
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 fromhead 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 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.
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.
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.
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, delivers 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.
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.)
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’.
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.
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.
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.
The March Lockdown put an end to the proposed V&A exhibition of works by the several categories of Illustration Award winners. There is be no V&A 2021 Illustration Award, and the current plan – all being well – is to re-schedule the postponed 2020 winner’s exhibition for next year.
I was so pleased to be asked to take part in the V&A interview. It enabled me to credit all those who brought Simon Armitage’s text to the page. Particularly the publisher, Joe Pearson, who I hold in the highest esteem, and Laurence Beck, who meticulously ‘cleaned up’ and colourised my drawings ready for printing. (I put him through so many palette variations, and yet he remained unruffled and good humoured throughout.) The book was a team effort, and everyone worked tirelessly to get it to the finishing line.
My thanks to all at the V&A, especially to Rebecca Law, my contact throughout, who asked interesting questions in the interview. (link at top of page)
Creating the characters for the Simon Armitage re-invention of the story of Hansel & Gretel, proved a long process of development. To begin with the visualisations were for the stage. Only later did I have to think about the translation of the stage characters to the book published by Design for Today.
In the case of the mother – who in Simon’s Hansel & Gretel: a Nightmare in Eight Scenes is a loving and protective one, far from the wicked mother/stepmother of the original story as told by the Grimm brothers – I created the basic idea of the character as she’d be presented on stage in a shadow-puppet form. My very simple design defined her overall look, though without too much detail.
Once the initial design was established and agreed between me and Peter Lloyd, he further developed it into an elaborate, articulated shadow-puppet, ready to be used in animation sequences for projection onto a screen during the live performances. It went through several stages.
As finally seen on stage, the shadow-puppet version of the mother was an extraordinary creation by Peter, stout of form and with a ruined, almost bovine peasant face deeply scored by hardship. But the careworn appearance belied her character, because when animated for the camera she transformed. Dainty on her feet and with expressive hands and a bobbing, bird-like demeanour, her anxiety for her children’s safety, became her defining characteristic.
Animating Peter’s shadow puppets was a pleasure, because they were so beautifully conceived and executed. My animation assistant was Phil Cooper, who also designed the sets for the stage production.
When the time came to re-examine the characters for the illustrated book, I had to think again about the mother.
In illustration form, without the medium of animation to more fully express her character, after trialling some images I felt weren’t working (see the two above) I decided to made her less stolidly shapeless than in her shadow-puppet form. Though my work retained clear vestiges of Peter Lloyd’s weary, middle-aged shadow-puppet mother in all of her paper-cut, filigree complexity, in one image I was able to carry her back to when she was a young and expectant first-time mother. Sometimes lines of text which in a live performance flash past, in a book may be paused at and reflected upon in an accompanying image The physical act of reading, looking and turning pages, imposes its own, slower pace.
Creativity has fluid boundaries. I would have loved to show more aspects of the mother in the book, but in the end it’s important to be rigorous when deciding on which visual ideas will best express the story, and which need to be trimmed away. So she appears just three times: at the beginning, in the company of her husband, in an image showing her pregnant with her daughter (inspired by Chagall), and at the end of the book, in an image that shows her fate.
Scores, possibly hundreds of sketches, from thumbnails to fully worked maquettes and illustrations, were made in order to arrive at the three images of the mother in the published edition of Simon Armitage’s text. But if tomorrow I had to illustrate a story in which she made a reappearance, I could portray her with no hesitation. I could draw her as a child, as a young woman, or as a woman for whom life was quite different to the version in our book. I could draw her in a heartbeat, because I know her so well.
The Design for Today edition of Hansel & Gretel: a Nightmare in Eight Scenes, is the winner of the 2020 V&A Illustrated Book Award. Copies may be purchased:
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.
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
Jayne Paddington of Southampton Solent University interviews me:
JP: Tell us about the book illustrations you created.
The book had an unusual beginning. As an artist with a background in theatre, in 2017 I’d been commissioned by a music ensemble to helm a new production of Hansel & Gretel. The producer had seen and been impressed by the Hansel & Gretel Toy Theatre I’d designed for Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop (see above) and wanted to capitalise on the success of that. She’d begun talking with the composer she had in mind for the project, and as I was already collaborating with Simon Armitage on the revised and illustrated edition of his Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Faber & Faber, 2018), I suggested he join us as the librettist/writer.
Simon titled his re-working of the fairy tale, Hansel & Gretel: a Nightmare in Eight Scenes, and it previewed at the Cheltenham Music Festival in 2018 before a national tour and a London premiere at the Barbican. A recording of the piece was broadcast by BBC Radio 3 during Christmas week, 2018.
At some point during the pre-production of the show Simon suggested we might work together to produce an illustrated book of his libretto/poem. We discussed the options for publishing and I recommended we speak with Joe Pearson at Design for Today. When Joe agreed to undertake publication, work on the book began in earnest.
Set in a war zone, Simon’s version of the fairy tale took a completely different tone to the original by the Grimm Brothers by changing the impetus for Hansel and Gretel’s journey from that of abandonment by feckless parents, to an agonised decision by a loving father and mother to send their children away from the bombings.
By this simple change the story became one of love and sacrifice, rather than of duplicity and abandonment. He was very clever too at conveying the degrees to which children mis-hear and misconstrue, and his text is full of moments when the siblings’ actions are based on their misunderstanding of events.
With regard to how the images were made, the overall intention was to capture something of the golden age of lithography printing that both Joe Pearson and I greatly admire. One of the hallmarks of the process is that the images are reproduced on uncoated paper and have a matt finish.
Above: work underway on an illustration, and below: as it appears in the book.
I made the drawings in black pencil, some on paper and some on granular lithography film, with occasional use of collaged textures that I produced myself by various means. I made separate ‘stencils’ in crayons and paints on lithography film for the colours. The layers of drawings and stencils were assembled digitally by the book’s designer, Laurence Beck, which was the point at which the colour was added.
Below: detail of the image as it appears in the book.
Another attractive hallmark of old-school lithography can be the slight mis-registration of the various colours. This is something I’d intentionally cultivated in my artwork for the book, and Laurence was very careful to reproduce the effect in the finished images.
JP: How did it feel to win? What will happen now as a result of winning?
It’s been a strange time to receive my V&A Illustration Award in a summer when the building has been closed. The event was originally to have taken place at the museum in June, but was indefinitely postponed at the time of lockdown. There was to have been an exhibition of the artwork at the V&A, and that too was cancelled. I heard about the announcement not from the museum, but from a press release they put out. While it’s very exciting to have been honoured in this way, it can’t be denied that reading about it in an unexpected online press release has not had the excitement factor that an event would have brought to it. I’m guessing they will either hold a smaller event later in the year, or failing that I guess the trophy will be delivered in the post.
JP: Where do you find inspiration for your illustrations?
When you’re working to a text by the poet laureate, you don’t have to look any further than the words. I knew Hansel & Gretel inside out because I’d already designed and directed it for the stage, so I had a very good starting point for the project. Nonetheless, the moment the stage tour was over I began from scratch again with the text, dividing it up and making a very rough dummy copy that set out lines-per-page and earmarked where the images might go. And because the publisher and I had considered that first dummy very carefully, though the details sometimes changed over the period of illustrating, the overall shape and number of pages remained pretty much as we set out at the beginning.
The next stage was to make a huge project-book in which I began the process of designing every visual element I intended to show: human characters and what they wear, settings and the moods generated by them, objects, animals and events.
It was exhaustive and stretched to several hundreds of images. (Enough for three books really.) Even if something appeared only once – such as the ‘imagined’ hyena that appears early on – I drew it dozens of times to work out what the image would bring to the book.
For a bridge described by the author as ‘arched like a hissing cat’, I made more than fifty drawings of arch-backed cats, hump-backed-bridges, cat/bridges and bridge/cats, gradually finding the hissing cat/bridge hybrid that best conjured the mood of the scene.
Simon is an incredibly enriching poet to collaborate with, and to do justice to him I find ways of accompanying his texts in ways that will take the reader by surprise. I begin with the words of course, but often the places most profitable for illustration are the spaces between them.
JP: What advice would you give to our students wanting to one day follow in your footsteps?
Well they can’t follow in my footsteps, and shouldn’t want to. They should find their own ways, and travel by routes of their own devising. My careers have been various. I didn’t start as an artist, but as a choreographer and director, so I came late to the easel and even later to illustration. My experience is that the wider your interests, the better you’ll be at whatever you do. I don’t go around thinking about illustration all of the time. I read (voraciously) listen to music, study history, try to understand the world, try to understand people and stash away everything I learn in the place marked ‘material to be be used on some future project!’ I study art of all varieties and periods. I collect art, vintage toys (particularly wooden building blocks), textiles, puppets, masks, comics, fossils and books. I’ve collected all my life, whenever I’ve had a bit of spare cash. Some of the things I’ve collected ended up in the stage production of Hansel & Gretel, and migrated from that to the book.
Below: from the shelves of my tinplate toy bird cabinet…
… to the stage production of Hansel & Gretel …
… to a double-page spread in the book:
This little cavalryman migrated from my sitting room…
… to an animated sequence in the stage production …
… to a preparatory drawing for the book …
… to full render separations on paper and lithography film …
… to the final colour book illustration. (Detail)
All my collections fuel my work. I never have to start from scratch with any illustration project. Somewhere in my collection, there will be a starting-point ready made. I just wander around looking at what I have until I find it. It’s a more organic process than trying to conjure something out of nothing.
Here’s a link to a little film about the making of Hansel & Gretel.