Mapping the Tale: Image Making and the Narrative Tradition by Clive Hicks-Jenkins


The Stain of Sin. Gouache and pencil crayon. Private collection.


Quite early in my career as a painter, I began examining ways to create narratives in my work. To begin with, those developed from my own stories and were essentially biographical. My father’s childhood fears and how they impacted his life and death were the source material of The Mare’s Tale. In many ways, those were mood pieces, with the narratives forming underlying supports to material that for viewers could be interpreted personally and in diverse ways. I think of them now as more like orchestral compositions in which the character of the music carries listeners to their own imaginative spaces. 

Later I painted several Annunciations, drawn by the drama of the New Testament account, and made a series of paintings, The Temptations of Solitude, based on episodes in the Lives of the Desert Fathers: a hermit dwells in a tree, attended and fed by an angelic visitor, and a cruel slave-master pursues a fleeing couple across a wilderness, only to be stalked and devoured by an avenging lioness. I was discovering, perhaps as a legacy of my many years working in the theatre, that the type of paintings that interested me most were ones that told stories.

Outside of the recent Hansel & Gretel illustration project for Design for Today and Benjamin Pollock’s Toy Shop in Covent Garden, the work on Gawain and the Green Knight has been my most comprehensive and complete exploration of a narrative to date. Using the poem as my guide and inspiration, the intention from the beginning was to make fourteen sequential and editioned prints that would tell the story, though for every print to be stand-alone in the sense that I wanted each to work whether viewed as a single artwork, or as a part of the series.

The process of building an image that encodes not just the narrative ‘moment,’ but also has a sense of linkage to what has transpired and what will come after, takes planning and endless trial and error. Every image has to be built from scratch: composition, colour, tone, and mark-making, all serving the narrative. Imagined landscapes, gardens, and castles must be conjured, as well as interior spaces and their furnishings. Characters, shown once or repeatedly, have to be realised, complete with garments, hairstyles, armour, and weaponry. When repeatedly appearing, there has to be a balance between keeping a likeness and yet allowing for physical and psychological change. Arthur, Guinevere, the Lord and Lady of Fair Castle and Morgan le Fay each appear just once in the print series, whereas the Green Knight and Gawain occur repeatedly. In the fourteen prints there are three featuring horses, plus images of hunting birds, a stag, a boar, a fox and several peacocks. Each had to fit within this particular imagined world. Then there is the need to honour the source material, in this case, the 2007 translation by Simon Armitage. I wanted to make a visual response to his text rather than try to represent it illustratively and to do that, I had to steep myself in his words over a long period. The small, hardback Faber & Faber first edition was never out of my pocket. I can recite quite long sections of it, committed to memory by repeated reading.

For me responding to a text is all about finding the spaces between the words and then colonising them. I invest the characters and events with my own imagined detailing, layering invented elements onto what is provided by the text. In this way, the enchantress Morgan le Fay, who is only mentioned in the poem by another character, gets a whole print to herself, while the Gawain of my images sometimes appears in ways not found in the poem. He binds his wound with the green sash given to him by the Lady of Fair Castle, and by the end of the series, his armour has transformed itself with foliate embellishments, while the back of his hand has been marked with a branching stigmata.

Though the prints were not made specifically to accompany the text, I want anyone looking at them while reading it to discover that the words and images are in dialogue. Gawain begins the story as a glittering young knight, unmarked, privileged and unproven. By the end of it, his face is shadowed, his hair is shorn to stubble, and he is all too aware of his shortcomings. It’s all there in the title of the final print: The Stain of Sin.


  • Dear Ursula

    Thank you so much for your reading and appreciation of the Penfold Press suite of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight prints. It’s a fact that I’ve loved Simon Armitage’s translation since I read it on publication in 2007. My first edition hardback was always by my side throughout the long process of making the prints, increasingly shabby and ruinously dense with with pencilled notes. (Though perhaps somewhat less ruinously, signed by the poet when we began working together on the the planned revised and illustrated 2018 edition of his translation.) I love your quote from Bachelard, revised from ‘reading’ to ‘looking’. If I had an ambition for the images, it was that they might carry those who came to the story via my interpretations, onwards to the text (or back to the text if they knew it already) that had been my inspiration. Because I hadn’t an inkling that the series would be used to illustrate a new edition until I was six prints into the fourteen, I felt a certain freedom of interpretation, and to his credit Simon supported that I continue that way right up to the conclusion. There are aspects of the images that some might consider wayward because they spring out of my feelings about the poem, but even so the ideas were always reached from the point of study and appreciation of it, even when I was eschewing being literal. In that way I felt like an actor searching between the lines to find unexpected routes to truth.

    I’m so touched by what you’ve written. We cast our messages sealed in bottles into the waters, never certain whether anyone will find or read them. It’s extremely heartening to know that occasionally, they find the people they were meant for.

    Clive Hicks-Jenkins
  • Discovering Clive Hicks Jenkins’ Sir Gawain and the Green Knight pictures coincided for me, with reading Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, and both encounters have been life-changing. For me the pictures are not distillations of the text, they are physical apprehensions of the poem – acts of intentional consciousness, to use the language of phenomenology. And their poetic freedom to go beyond the text puts us, too, in a state of emergence.

    We can’t fail to be awakened by the physicality of the images. When Gawain raises the axe blade over the Green Knight’s head, he takes on the form of the blade himself, in his helmet, the fall of his robes and mail, the features of his face. He is huge with the physical prowess of his youth and the unmediated simplicity of his obedience to duty. But he is locked into his gesture. He can’t see the Green Knight’s face, which we can see, serene and glowing is his gorgeous green beauty, so we must bear the weight of this décalage – the tragic misalignment of his act with its object. In the final picture, Gawain is transformed in every respect. The hot iridescent red of his courtly garment is dulled. Where before there were innocent decorative motifs which spoke of calm domesticity, there is now an almost febrile chaos of new markings – a strident new geometry of squares, crosses, stars, oak leaves and the beginnings of the tracery of branches which we saw in the powerful arm of the Green Knight. He is re-born in complexity. His eyes are closed, but the new shape of his experience is revealed to us.

    There is a beautiful unfolding of depth in Gawain’s eyes. So clear and sharp and focused when he stands to give the axe blow. And when he sets out, a year later, his eyes are changed, shadowed by a wonderfully expressive ‘bruising’ of the face, as he is cast over with both fear and resolve. When he lies tenderly naked and asleep in his bed, the weight of his destiny is already in his brow. In the final picture, his face is closed over, while he is in a world of pain, shadow and remove. I heard Stephen Fry say recently that music is like a blanket, taking the shape of the person it is thrown over. I think this image helps to see why Gawain’s closed eyes are so powerful here – they have the blanket’s weight and drape, taking the form of the things beneath that can’t be directly expressed.

    The more you look, the more you can see how the Gawain is himself becoming the Green Knight. Even from the beginning there are similarities in their faces, and when Gawain offers himself truly to the Green Knight’s axe blow, his face has the features of an inner life which we would previously have associated with the wiser Knight . So this is an important mise-en-abyme for us, because when we look at the pictures, we are becoming Gawain ourselves.

    Bachelard says all this so well in relation to poetry. I am changing the word ‘reading’, here, to ‘looking’: ‘After the sketchiness of the first looking comes the creative work of looking. We must then know the problem that confronted the artist. The second, then the third looking, give us, little by little, the solution of this problem. Imperceptibly, we give ourselves the illusion that both the problem and the solution are ours.’

    Art, like poetry, is a phenomenology of the soul, not the mind. The pictures are not echoes of the poem but they initiate their own reverberations which bring about a change in our being. As we look at the image, we become immersed in it, or as Bachelard says ‘at the level of the poetic image, the duality of subject and object is iridescent, shimmering, unceasingly active in its inversions’. And that is how I feel about the Gawain pictures. They possess us entirely.

    Ursula Jeakins
  • Clive, I loved this. Thank you.

    Jean McMullen

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published