Sunday, 27 March 2011

I am a draper mad with love

I’ve been reading a lot of Dylan Thomas recently. What happened to the Melville binge? Slight detour – sorry Herman, I’ll get back to you.

My current read is Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog, a book of semi-autobiographical short stories, tales of Thomas’s early life in Swansea, as beautifully written as his poetry; but it’s Under Milk Wood, Thomas’s play for voices, that I really want to talk about. It must surely be one of the most beautifully lyrical things ever written in the English language. Just the tumbling, twisting word-play alone is enough but I love the vivid character studies, bawdy black humour - ‘bombazine black’ – and the whole imbued with a wistful melancholy that makes it ripe for illustration. There are images spilling from every page.

Here’s a passage which epitomises Thomas’s expressive character descriptions, lyricism and observance of human relationships: the first exchange between the draper Mog Edwards and his inamorata Miss Myfanwy Price. Their passion for each other, declared through letters, flames with what could be though they have never met.

‘From where you are you can hear in Cockle Row in the spring,
moonless night, Miss Price, dressmaker and sweetshop-keeper,
dream of her lover, tall as the town clock tower, Samsonsyrup-gold-maned,
whacking thighed and piping hot, thunderbolt-bass'd and
barnacle-breasted, flailing up the cockles with his eyes

like blowlamps and scooping low over her lonely loving
hotwaterbottled body.


Myfanwy Price!


Mr Mog Edwards!


I am a draper mad with love. I love you more than all the
flannelette and calico, candlewick, dimity, crash and merino,
tussore, cretonne, crepon, muslin, poplin, ticking and twill
in the whole Cloth Hall of the world. I have come to take
you away to my Emporium on the hill, where the change hums
on wires. Throw away your little bedsocks and your Welsh
wool knitted jacket, I will warm the sheets like an electric

toaster, I will lie by your side like the Sunday roast.


I will knit you a wallet of forget-me-not blue, for the
money, to be comfy. I will warm your heart by the fire so
that you can slip it in under your vest when the shop is


Myfanwy, Myfanwy, before the mice gnaw at your bottom drawer
will you say


Yes, Mog, yes, Mog, yes, yes, yes.


And all the bells of the tills of the town shall ring for
our wedding.

[Noise of money-tills and chapel bells]’

What a joyful celebration of the English language Under Milk Wood is! And hearing it is even better than reading it so have a listen to the first part here. Enjoy.

Saturday, 26 March 2011

The joys of teaching

It’s all go art-wise at the moment with teaching, two exhibitions coming up and an etching workshop with master printmaker Andrew Baldwin, he of the BIG etching ground, next weekend.

My recent teaching was fun. I taught a group of experienced etchers how to use pine resin (otherwise known as rosin, colophony or Greek Pitch – splendid name!) as an aquatint; a first for me and the workshop.

It made me think particularly about the difference between teaching beginners and experienced printmakers. There’s a lot more process with beginners whereas with those who are coming to a technique with some experience already, it’s much more about the image; critiquing and problem-solving the composition etc. Both are fun and challenging but require different skills I think.

The course was fully booked and went very well, despite a slightly tense start to the day. The power went off half an hour before everyone was due to arrive but it was just a switch tripped fortunately. My students produced some interesting images and certainly kept me on my toes all day; felt quite pooped when I got home! In a good way of course. I love teaching.

top - Beatrice Caniggia, pine resin and drypoint print
bottom - Ruth Barratt-Danes, pine resin and drypoint print

Saturday, 5 March 2011

The Passages of Herman Melville

I’ve just finished reading The Passages of Herman Melville by Jay Parini; a satisfying and entertaining read. This is a novel, not a literary biography, in which Melville’s life and thoughts are laid out in alternating chapters, one narrated in the third person and the other by his wife Lizzie. The narrative isn’t chronological which I found a bit confusing at first, but once used to the form, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Parini is at pains to remind the reader that this is a novel. He has played with what facts are known about Melville, rearranging, surmising and embellishing here and there to forge a rollicking good tale of seafaring, cannibalism, homoeroticism and creative angst. Of Elizabeth Shaw Melville, the author writes, ‘I should add that very little is known about Lizzie Melville, so I made her up.’ Quite tantalising really; Parini’s Lizzie is an opinionated woman who isn’t afraid to tell her allegedly violent husband when she doesn’t think much of his work. An educated and well-read young woman, captivated by Dickens (she met him when he paid a visit to her father), it’s hardly surprising she was swept away by the hirsute Melville, romantic sailor-cum-writer full of fresh tales of the South Seas. According to the author anyway - one has to keep reminding oneself that this is a novel.

The ending is rather sentimental but not so overdone as to please Dickens. And you kind of want Melville’s story to end as benignly as it can. It’s a sad fact that in his lifetime, he just wasn’t appreciated for the great writer he is. I can’t help feeling the book could do with some pictures though; one can never have too many pictures.

I am no book reviewer so have a look at Phillip Hoare’s review in the Guardian for the views of someone who knows what’s what in these matters. And read the book yourself.

Herman Melville is one of those writers who keeps popping up for me. I greatly admire his work though I’m ashamed to say that I’ve only read Moby-Dick and his short stories. It’s daft really because I’ve certainly appreciated what I’ve read. And it has inspired some of my images. The characters and stories are entertaining and intriguing, sometimes downright befuddling (take Bartleby for instance), but for me, it’s the language that really does it. It’s so vivid and poetically put together, but not in a flowery way. A line that comes to mind is one from Moby-Dick where Ishmael is describing death by whaling as ‘a speechlessly quick chaotic bundling of a man into Eternity’.

Melville appeals to all the senses as this passage from Redburn shows. The young Wellingborough Redburn muses on one of his father’s paintings.

‘Then we had several oil-paintings and rare old engravings of my father’s, which he himself had bought in Paris, hanging up in the dining-room.

Two of these were sea-pieces. One represented a fat-looking, smoky fishing-boat, with three whiskerandoes in red caps, and their trowsers legs rolled up, hauling in a seine. There was high French-like land in one corner, and a tumble-down gray lighthouse surmounting it. The waves were toasted brown, and the whole picture looked mellow and old. I used to think a piece of it might taste good.’

I can almost taste that chocolaty painting as I read the passage… Or is it toffee?

2011 started out as the Year of The House owing to the large number of domestic challenges to be faced. I think I’m going to add to that the task of becoming much better acquainted with Melville’s work. Here’s to 2011 – my own personal Year of Herman Melville.