It was a wet summer afternoon; the sort of grey afternoon when it feels like all the magic and colour has been drained from the world, diluted by endless cups of tea, the dull hammering of the rain on the window and the tapping of fingers on the keyboard. It was precisely the sort of afternoon that needed a good Feed to inject the fun back into things. In search of inspiration, I set out through the puddles to Poems, Plays and Fairytales, an exhibition of literary-inspired paintings at the Penlee House Gallery.
As I splashed along, I wasn’t sure exactly what I was expecting to find. Waiting for me was an encounter that would open my eyes to the synergy between the arts of writing and painting.
As I entered the gallery, I was at once immersed in a world of vibrant colour. Bold, bright reds and golds leapt off the walls. Cornish landscapes bathed in golden sunlight offered a welcome escape from the greyness outside. Synesthetes sometimes experience colours as physical sensations; on entering this colourful space, the warmth and life of the paintings was palpable.
As the individual paintings came into focus, the work of one artist in particular caught my eye: Elizabeth Adela Forbes, wife of the painter Stanhope Forbes. Both were prominent members of the Newlyn School of artists, the art colony based in the Cornish fishing village of Newlyn.
The two faces of the Pied Piper: artistic intention
The Pied Piper, an Allegory of Spring, Elizabeth Adela Forbes
What I noticed first were Forbes’ two interpretations of the Pied Piper. The Pied Piper, an Allegory of Spring, is a depiction of childhood innocence, of children playing in a freshly ploughed field. The other, The Pied Piper of Hamlin, has a much darker energy. The piper, a dark figure, stands in the woods at the mouth of a cave, as his captive audience of children cling to one another as if fighting against an invisible elemental force that is sucking them toward him.
The Pied Piper of Hamlin, Elizabeth Adela Forbes
These two paintings, inspired by the same work, but very different in their nature, got me thinking about fairytales and folk tales in their various guises and how they have evolved. The Disneyfied, sugar-coated Cinderellas and Snow Whites versus the tales as they appeared in early editions of Grimm – where ugly sisters have their eyes pecked out and Little Red Riding Hood is devoured by the wolf. That was before the Grimm brothers put their editing pens to work on cleaning up and sanitising the tales to make them more palatable for ‘nice’ little girls and boys. Just as Forbes had made the decision to interpret the Pied Piper differently in each of her paintings, every time we sit down to write, we make decisions about our slant on the material, our attitude toward it; decisions which are influenced by who we are, who the audience are and what our intentions are in the writing. Will we cast the Red Riding Hood as a helpless victim or, as Roald Dahl does in Revolting Rhymes, a sassy heroine?
The bigger picture: drafting and editing
This editing process is in evidence in the paintings themselves too. Sketches and studies are displayed alongside the finished works, showing the artists’ works in progress. Drafting and editing is an essential part of the creative process, whatever the medium, be it writing or painting. I look from Thomas Cooper Gotch’s study for Golden Youth to the finished painting. Both show a crowd of onlookers and a parade of children against the backdrop of a Cornish landscape. In the final composition, it is noticeable how the artist has changed the position of the figures in the crowd in relation to one another. In comparison to the study, the finished piece fits together in a way that somehow looks and feels right, even to my untrained eye. Any painting or piece of writing requires each of its constituent elements to be aligned in order to ‘work’. Artistic decisions about structure, tone, light and shade, style, audience – all of these, I realise, apply across disciplines, and are equally important in both painting and writing.
Clothes which were strange to him: lessons in characterisation
The Burgomaster, William John Wainwright
Turning to another painting, this time a portrait, The Burgomaster by William John Wainwright, I am struck by the artist’s power to portray character. It is tempting to say that he conveys character in a few deft strokes, but that’s not the case. When writing fiction, character markers are a shorthand way of conveying information about a character, using details such as clothing to indicate a character’s social status. For example, a man dressed in a suit with dirt under his finger nails might be used to show the reader that this character is a blue-collar worker. Useful enough to quickly sketch in a minor character, but ultimately clichéd and lacking in depth. What was going on here was more subtle. Ostensibly I was looking at a portrait of a man in a ruffled collar, a gold chain of office around his neck; a man of import and standing. However, there was something about his expression – a look in his eye, a tilt to the chin – to tell the viewer that this was a man in costume, playing a part, uncomfortable in these unfamiliar clothes, amused at himself.
In the notes accompanying The Burgomaster, a critic of the time, Walter Turner, commented on the painting: “…possibly the fisherman came into the studio rather self-conscious, in clothes which were strange to him, and as ready to smile at himself as we are to smile at him, and Wainwright was so interested in his mental condition that the picture is charged with emotional quality.” Here we have layers of meaning, a depth of character; all is not as it seems on the surface. We see The Burgomaster (the German equivalent of a Town Mayor) in his chains of office, but behind this mask we also see the model, the self-conscious Newlyn fisherman posing in unfamiliar garb, and we empathise with his predicament and share in his amusement. This is what the painter intended; just as a novelist conveys the veneer a character wishes to project to the world whilst also revealing the true nature of their personality that lies behind that mask. Good characterisation is about layers of meaning and the tension between surface and subtext.
In contrast to this are the paintings of characters from folk tales and fairytales: the beautiful, golden-haired princess, the bold knight. By their nature they are stock characters, one-dimensional, not intended to have the psychological depth of a character in a novel. These paintings, depicting wistful young women wearing the traditional long-sleeved dresses of Medieval romance are not supposed to give us a glimpse into the character of the artist’s model, they are representing a type. Another example of artistic intention at work.
Choose your frame wisely: the importance of constraints
Each type of portrait works within the frame of its artistic or narrative conventions. It reminded me of the importance of constraints within the creative process, the importance of having a frame within which to work. An artist working on a painting inspired by a romantic poem by Keats will have a very different palette to an artist embarking on, say, a work based on a piece of hardboiled detective fiction by Elmore Leonard. Just as Keats’ and Leonard’s own ‘palettes’ of choice – of vocabulary, style, syntax, structure are very different. Knowing the constraints within which you are operating and choosing your tools accordingly is key to the artistic or creative process.
The enduring image of the exhibition for me is Elizabeth Adela Forbes again, this time a charcoal drawing of a boy sitting on a stile at the edge of a wood, looking in to the trees on the other side. In the accompanying notes, Mrs Lionel Birch writes: ‘And in another charcoal drawing of the boy, Myles, gazing from outside the wood into its close and secret depths, one feels the thrill of something akin to awe with which – even when childhood was past – one peeped into the cathedral aisles of a deep and lonely wood, a feeling which keeps the holidaymaker on the wide, beaten track of Epping Forest, avoiding the deeper sylvan haunts with the remark, ‘Something about it makes me afraid’.’
As I emerge back into the wet afternoon, the grey mizzle is no longer dull, but infused with mystery, cloaking the secret depths of woods, which, if not glimpsed, are sensed, through the mist. The image of the boy on the stile stays with me. The thrill and awe and fear of entering the lonely woods are a reminder of the feelings that accompany every foray into the creative process. Sometimes we spend too long on the beaten track of the mundane everyday. Every now and again we all need to venture over the stile and into the woods and the world beyond.