Clive Hicks-Jenkins and Sir Gawain
Hi Clive, when did your fascination with Sir Gawain first begin?
I’d once read a retelling-for-children of the tale, the only bit of which that had stuck with me, unsurprisingly, being the spectacular beheading of the Green Knight at the beginning of it. It wasn’t until the publication in 2007 of Simon Armitage’s fresh-as-paint translation - which I found to be wonderful beyond my capacity to describe - that I began to make images. That first Faber & Faber hardback edition was compact, so I took to carrying it around in my pocket. From the beginning I was annotating the pages and underlining passages, but I certainly didn’t have any idea of what a significant inspiration and influence the translation was going to be in terms of my work. I felt I was just exploring something that fascinated me. The dust wrapper of the edition was elegant and sober - nothing to complain about - but I found myself heartsore that it hadn’t been me who’d been asked to make an image for it.
I always find the Green Knight himself to be such an unsettling presence. What is your interpretation of his character?
He’s certainly an enigma. We’re asked to believe that he evolves from supernatural being to trickster-human twixt the first and third acts, and to be candid, I’m not entirely persuaded by the change of tone in the ‘explanation’ offered at the Green Chapel. My sense is that though Bertilak explains away the 'beheading game' as an illusion conjured by the sorceress Morgan le Fay, my personal sense of the Green Chapel scene is that there’s still trickery afoot, and that the Green Knight/Berilak are two sides of the same supernatural coin. A double bluff. My thoughts are that were Gawain to head back to Bertilak’s castle at the end of the adventure, instead of returning to Camelot, then he’d not find it. Or perhaps he’d find it there still, though as an ivy-clad ruin. There’s just too much that feels straight from the world of faerie in that glorious episode of a castle described as being like something out of the Belles Heures of Jean de Berry, populated by a shining throng of beautiful people all devoted to praising the stranger, Gawain, entertaining and lavishing attention on him.
After reading the poem for the first time was the idea always to produce a series of prints?
No, not at all. I was happy just to be exploring the subject and making paintings and drawings. But beyond that I had no plan.
How did you approach making the prints?
Luckily Dan and I had a warm-up to the Gawain series with the print Man Slain by a Tiger. In making that we established work strategies we were able to carry forward into the bigger project. There was no masterplan in terms of how we might make the collaboration work. We just started by using smartphone cameras and messaging throughout each working day, so though we weren’t in the same space, we knew at all times what the other was doing.
How did you find the printmaking process?
It was daunting to begin with. I had no experience at all of screen printing. On Dan’s first trip to my studio he gave a very good account of how the process worked, and for the time he was with me I felt relatively confident. But the moment he left it was just as though he’d told me some kind of magic spell that had made sense on his lips when he was in front of me, but completely evaporated when I tried to translate it into practice. The most perplexing part was having to make images in many separate layers, and without colour. Frankly it was only when he showed me stage proofs of Man Slain by a Tiger that the penny began to drop. Even so it was a giant learning curve for me. So many layers of decisions were made between what I produced, and what Dan then created in the print studio. Undoubtedly he understood what I was doing a great deal better than I was able to understand how he’d translate my separations into prints. But as the collaboration grew, so did the friendship and the trust, and so even when I was comprehensively muddled, I felt secure because I knew he wouldn’t let me make a fool of myself.
There were plenty of surprises. As an example, during the making of The Exchange Dan produced two proofs. While the first carefully matched my seven colours, the second was one of those accidents which sometimes occur during complex, multi-stage procedures. Dan had mixed varnish into a colour which then printed with far more transparency than he’d anticipated. Though surprised by the result, both of us loved it and felt it added a great deal to the image. Most accidents and errors have to be corrected, but now and again something occurs which works in your favour. In this instance the error added something wonderfully dream-like to the print.
At what point did Simon Armitage become aware of the project?
Almost from the start Dan and I had discussed how we might approach Simon Armitage. However I’d balked at doing anything about initiating contact because I couldn’t bear the thought of him not liking the prints. Whichever way you looked at it, any want of enthusiasm on his part would have been a massive disincentive to our continuing the work of making the series, given we’d set out on the project because we’d so admired his translation. I delayed any decision, hoping the problem might solve itself. And in a way, it did.
We were less that halfway through the project at the point when we had an exhibition of the existing prints at the Martin Tinney Gallery in Cardiff, together with preparatory drawings and paintings. At the private view I was introduced to the artist Katherine Sheers, who during a chat suggested I show the prints to Simon Armitage. I explained my unwillingness several times over and my reasons for it, but she reiterated her belief that he would be bound to like them. At some point in the conversation it became clear that Katherine knew him, which made me even more nervous! She was adamant that he should be made aware of what Dan and I were doing, and offered to contact him to explain. I can’t say I was entirely happy, but she was persuasive and I reluctantly agreed. The following day having returned to my home in west Wales, I turned on the computer to find an e-mail from Simon. Katherine, true to her word, had contacted him and shown him images of the prints. In his e-mail he was full of praise for them. I have no words to explain the relief! And of course Dan and I will be forever grateful to Katherine Sheers for showing Simon our work.