Clive Hicks-Jenkins: 'Sir Gawain and the Green Knight': a series of fourteen original screenprints published by The Penfold Press
Opens: Thursday October 18th: 6.30pm
This exhibition opens on the official publication date of the new Faber and Faber illustrated edition of Simon Armitage's classic rendering of this epic six hundred-year-old poem which includes all these remarkable works. Nothing is known of the original author though it is thought that he may have been a northerner.
These original screenprints have only been exhibited once before in their entirety, at the Museum of Modern Art Machynlleth and it is a great privilege that we are able to exhibit them at our gallery in Ripon.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Middle English: Sir Gawayn and þe Grene Knyȝt) is a late 14th-century Middle English chivalric romance. It is one of the best known Arthurian stories, with its plot combining two types of folklore motifs, the beheading game and the exchange of winnings. Written in stanzas of alliterative verse, each of which ends in a rhyming bob and wheel, it draws on Welsh, Irish, and English stories, as well as the French chivalric tradition. It is an important example of a chivalric romance, which typically involves a hero who goes on a quest which tests his prowess, and it remains popular to this day in modern English renderings from J. R. R. Tolkien, Simon Armitage, and others, as well as through film and stage adaptations.
It describes how Sir Gawain, a knight of King Arthur's Round Table, accepts a challenge from a mysterious "Green Knight" who challenges any knight to strike him with his axe if he will take a return blow in a year and a day. Gawain accepts and beheads him with his blow, at which the Green Knight stands up, picks up his head and reminds Gawain of the appointed time. In his struggles to keep his bargain, Gawain demonstrates chivalry and loyalty until his honour is called into question by a test involving Lady Bertilak, the lady of the Green Knight's castle.
The poem survives in a single manuscript, the Cotton Nero A.x.
In Camelot on New Year's Day, King Arthur's court is exchanging gifts and waiting for the feasting to start when the king asks first to see or hear of an exciting adventure. A gigantic figure, entirely green in appearance and riding a green horse, rides unexpectedly into the hall. He wears no armour but bears an axe in one hand and a holly bough in the other. Refusing to fight anyone there on the grounds that they are all too weak to take him on, he insists he has come for a friendly "Christmas game": someone is to strike him once with his axe on condition that the Green Knight may return the blow in a year and a day. The splendid axe will belong to whoever takes him on. Arthur himself is prepared to accept the challenge when it appears no other knight will dare, but Sir Gawain, youngest of Arthur's knights and his nephew, begs for the honour instead. The giant bends and bares his neck before him and Gawain neatly beheads him in one stroke. However, the Green Knight neither falls nor falters, but instead reaches out, picks up his severed head and remounts, holding up his bleeding head to Queen Guinevere while its writhing lips remind Gawain that the two must meet again at the Green Chapel. He then rides away. Gawain and Arthur admire the axe, hang it up as a trophy and encourage Guinevere to treat the whole matter lightly.
As the date approaches, Sir Gawain sets off to find the Green Chapel and keep his side of the bargain. Many adventures and battles are alluded to (but not described) until Gawain comes across a splendid castle where he meets Bertilak de Hautdesert, the lord of the castle, and his beautiful wife, who are pleased to have such a renowned guest. Also present is an old and ugly lady, unnamed but treated with great honour by all. Gawain tells them of his New Year's appointment at the Green Chapel and that he only has a few days remaining. Bertilak laughs, explains that the start of the path that will take him to the Green Chapel is less than two miles away and proposes that Gawain rest at the castle till then. Relieved and grateful, Gawain agrees.
Before going hunting the next day Bertilak proposes a bargain: he will give Gawain whatever he catches on the condition that Gawain give him whatever he might gain during the day. Gawain accepts. After Bertilak leaves, Lady Bertilak visits Gawain's bedroom and behaves seductively, but despite her best efforts he yields nothing but a single kiss in his unwillingness to offend her. When Bertilak returns and gives Gawain the deer he has killed, his guest gives a kiss to Bertilak without divulging its source. The next day the lady comes again, Gawain again courteously foils her advances, and later that day there is a similar exchange of a hunted boar for two kisses. She comes once more on the third morning, this time offering Gawain a gold ring as a keepsake. He gently but steadfastly refuses but she pleads that he at least take her belt, a girdle of green and gold silk which, the lady assures him, is charmed and will keep him from all physical harm. Tempted, as he may otherwise die the next day, Gawain accepts it, and they exchange three kisses. That evening, Bertilak returns with a fox, which he exchanges with Gawain for the three kisses – but Gawain says nothing of the girdle.
The next day, Gawain binds the belt twice around his waist. He finds the Green Knight sharpening an axe and, as promised, Gawain bends his bared neck to receive his blow. At the first swing Gawain flinches slightly and the Green Knight belittles him for it. Ashamed of himself, Gawain doesn’t flinch with the second swing; but again the Green Knight withholds the full force of his blow. The knight explains he was testing Gawain's nerve. Angrily Gawain tells him to deliver his blow and so the knight does, causing only a slight wound on Gawain's neck. The game is over. Gawain seizes his sword, helmet and shield, but the Green Knight, laughing, reveals himself to be the lord of the castle, Bertilak de Hautdesert, transformed by magic. He explains that the entire adventure was a trick of the 'elderly lady' Gawain saw at the castle, who is actually the sorceress Morgan le Fay, Arthur's sister, who intended to test Arthur's knights and frighten Guinevere to death. Gawain is ashamed to have behaved deceitfully but the Green Knight laughs and professes him the most blameless knight in all the land. The two part on cordial terms. Gawain returns to Camelot wearing the girdle as a token of his failure to keep his promise. The Knights of the Round Table absolve him of blame and decide that henceforth that they will wear a green sash in recognition of Gawain's adventure and as a reminder to be always honest.
Clive Hicks-Jenkins was born in Newport, south Wales, in 1951. The early part of his career was as a choreographer and stage director. In the 1990s he turned away from theatre to concentrate on painting. He has been praised by critics in The Independent, Modern Painters and Art Review. Simon Callow has called him ‘one of the most individual and complete artists of our time' and Nicholas Usherwood in Galleries has described his work as ‘reflective, expressive painting of the highest order.’
He shows regularly with the Martin Tinney Gallery in Cardiff and the Tegfryn Gallery in Menai Bridge, and has had solo exhibitions at Christ Church Picture Gallery in Oxford, the Museum of Modern Art Machynlleth, Newport Museum & Art Gallery, Anthony Hepworth Fine Art, Brecknock Museum, the National Library of Wales and Aberyswyth Arts Centre. His paintings, prints and private press books are in numerous public collections, including the National Museum of Wales, the Glynn Vivian Art Gallery, MoMA Machynlleth, the Contemporary Art Society for Wales, Llandaff Cathedral, Pallant House Gallery and the Methodist Church Collection of Modern Art, as well as private collections and libraries around the world. He is a Royal Cambrian Academician and an Honorary Fellow of Aberystwyth University School of Art. In 2017 he was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Arts by Southampton Solent University.
In 2016 Random Spectacular published Hick's-Jenkins dark reworking of Hansel & Gretel into a picture book, and the following year Benjamin Pollock's Toyshop in Covent Garden commissioned a Hansel & Gretel toy theatre kit based on it. In response to the two publications, Goldfield Productions engaged the artist, to direct and design a new version of Hansel & Gretel with music by Matthew Kaner and a libretto by the poet Simon Armitage. Performed by a chamber consort, a narrator/singer and two puppeteers, it premiered at the Cheltenham Music Festival in July 2018, earning a four-star review from The Guardian before beginning a five month national tour. Simon Armitage's Hansel & Gretel poem/libretto is due out in the Autumn of 2018, published by Design for Today with illustrations by Hicks-Jenkins, The year also marks the completion of his fourteen print series inspired by Simon Armitage's translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, made in collaboration with and published by Penfold Press. Autumn 2008 sees the publication by Faber & Faber of Armitage's revision of his Gawain translation, illustrated throughout with images by the artist.
Hicks-Jenkins is gaining an increasing reputation for making theatrical and works set to music. In 2014 Composer Mark Bowden and poet Damian Walford Davies wrote The Mare's Tale, a work for actor/singer and chamber consort inspired by the artist's series of drawings of the same title, and for the past five years, his animated film of Stravinsky's The Soldier's Tale has been screened by orchestras around the world as an accompaniment to their performances.
The monograph Clive Hicks-Jenkins was published by Lund Humphries in 2011.
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