Dark Imagination - Part 1
Clive Hicks-Jenkins and writer Ed Carey have become fast friends since working together on These Our Monsters, an anthology of short stories for English Heritage. In the run up to making an illustration to accompany Ed’s contribution to These Our Monsters, Clive acquired a copy of his novel Little, which he read at a headlong pitch and overnight became his biggest fan.
A novel of the French Revolution, Little was described by the Guardian as “a visceral, vivid and moving novel about finding and honouring one’s talent; about searching out where one belongs and who one loves, however strange and politically fraught the result might be.” His new novel The Swallowed Man was published in November 2020 by Gallic Books and described as ‘Profound and delightful. It is a strange and tender parable of two maddening obsessions; parenting and art-making’ by Max Porter.
In some ways the friendship is unlikely. Ed self-illustrates his published works and so his contact with other illustrators is limited. However he so loved the drawing Clive made to accompany his English Heritage story that he wrote asking whether he might have it. A swap was arranged with Ed receiving the drawing in exchange for a sketch of a puppet made for Little.
The two met for the first time early in 2020 just weeks before the first national lockdown in the UK. As the spread of Covid-19 changed the world around us Ed returned to the US and Clive to Wales.
The following eavesdropped conversation between Clive and Ed offers an interesting insights into their processes of producing new work both before and during a period of enforced isolation. The projects they talk about are Clive's latest print, The Tiger’s Bride, and Ed’s newly published novel, The Swallowed Man.
Edward Carey: Hello, Clive in Wales!
Clive Hicks-Jenkins: Hello Ed in Texas!
EC: Clive, I’ve known and loved your work for years and over the last few months it’s been an absolute privilege getting to know you and, before the pandemic took hold, to finally meet you.
What a joy it was to sit with you and talk.
CHJ: I thoroughly enjoyed our couple of hours we spent together in that Bloomsbury coffee shop. Even though some of the current events we were discussing are horrifying and daunting, we told stories and made each other laugh a lot. One of the great pleasures of illustrating These Our Monsters for English Heritage has been the several good friends made in the process.
EC: You inspire my work and make me think in new ways – to communicate directly is such a wonderful thing for me. And so here we are separated by a pandemic and yet, thankfully, still able to communicate.
CHJ: That’s a generous comment. Thank you. The admiration is mutual. The necessity – or so I find it to be – of a solitary life for a writer or artist, is undoubtedly isolating. (And you, Ed, are both!) We hole ourselves up like hibernating bears because we need clarity and silence to function. However, I find the immediacy and creative buzz of being able to bat ideas across great distances with friends and colleagues to be a great joy. It brings solace to what can otherwise be dauntingly lonely. You and I have been showing our projects to each other in e-mails, confident of safely sharing our efforts and misgivings with a creative ‘other’ who understands. It works wonderfully.
EC: I’m wondering what makes a project a Clive Hicks-Jenkins project and what doesn’t? What are you looking for?
CHJ: Narrative. Whether obvious or not, whether culled from a source or invented, narrative is always what draws me in. I am an inveterate storyteller, and that’s always been my foundation, certainly as an artist but even before that, as a choreographer and director.
EC: I'm fascinated that you say narrative is the first thing you look for. I tend to trip myself up because I'm often obsessed with a single image and then spend months trying to find a narrative to fit it.
CHJ: I’m almost never image led. I walk around the great galleries but don’t take photographs. I describe what I see in my notebooks. Words - for me – are better able to capture my feelings about a painting. Much more even than a sketch, and certainly better than any photograph.
The Tiger's Bride, screen print by Clive Hicks-Jenkins. Edition of 75. 2020.
EC: Did The Tiger’s Bride come to you or you to it. How did this all start off?
CHJ: It started with my life-long love of Staffordshire. The strangeness of it appeals to me. It’s a uniquely of these islands combination of folk-art/fairytale/dream-world weirdness that always satisfies/disturbs me. The sheep and dogs are the size of ponies in comparison to the human figures accompanying them. The theatrical fancy-dress makes it seem that the handsome men and pretty women are on a stage. The flowers and the often-cloying sentimentality, the cottages and castles, the follies and exotic beasts, the bright colours on shining white and the sense of sort-of-familiar yet elusive storytelling being played out on a mantelpiece. Then there are the Staffordshire ‘murder cottages’ and the penny-dreadful tendency to celebrate awful events, most notoriously the escaped tiger with a limp baby dangling from its jaws striding over the prone body of the mother from whose arms the child has been torn. My first print with Penfold Press took inspiration from the Staffordshire version of Tipu’s Tiger, in which a beast mouths at a slain man in a uniform. The child-like brightness coupled with horror is unlikely and yet compelling.
EC: I'm so fascinated by this, inspiration that comes from folk tales or dark imagination. And even, and this is very new to me, Staffordshire porcelain.
CHJ: The Staffordshire group titled The Death of the Lion Queen had long been catching my eye, and finally I took the moment to begin researching the story on which it was based. I couldn’t shake it. It lingered, took root and I was away.
In the aftermath of the Gawain series of prints followed by a long stint of exploring the story of Hansel & Gretel across several projects, I began compiling ideas for a print project that would combine several of my interests: vintage and folk art toys, Staffordshire figure groups, historic circus/fairground traditions and my fascination for toy-like buildings, whether Staffordshire follies and cottages or wooden building-blocks. Somehow all this began to tie together with the notion of unspecified fairy stories, and New Folktales was born. The Tiger’s Bride is my riff on Beauty and the Beast, though I didn’t want that title anywhere near it.
EC: I so love what you did with Hansel and Gretel (I think you get them better than anyone, and I teach fairy tales), and Gawain, and your Myths Map for English Heritage is an enormous delight and keeps me very happy as a stranded Englishman living in Texas. I was so pleased to get the commission to write a story for English Heritage, and I chose my subject of the 'Green Children' very quickly. Getting lost in folktale, legends and fairy tales is just about the best thing a writer and illustrator can do. I always both write and illustrate myself. I can't write a character without drawing them. It has become part of the process for me. The illustration you did for my story isperfect. Both ugly and beautiful, and about food and hunger which is the root of so many tales. It's really wonderful and I feel very lucky to have had you read my words and react to them so powerfully. It is actually a very beautiful drawing, and I can see a prejudice in it, but underneath an innocence.