Wood craft you can smell…

Pyrography!  It sounds a bit like pyromania, or pirate studies, but luckily its just a very constructive way of burning wood.  You use a small hand held tool rather like a soldering iron, with a heating element on the tip, to burn marks onto wood.  Various shaped tips are available to screw onto the element, the one I like best being a straight chisel end.  Just as in italic calligraphy, hold it turned at a roughly 45 degree angle and you have a lovely variety of line, beloved of scribes and old fashioned cartoonists like me.
Pyrography art by Jim Kavanagh
Though when I say variety, there’s a lot of unpredictable variety, as the hot metal burns over differences in the wood surface, cools, re-heats and refuses to behave like a nice, clean pen nib.  Its the most awkward and uncooperative drawing instrument I’ve ever encountered!  But along with the random nature of re-cycled pieces of wood, thats all part of the uniqueness, every time…
It helps if you like the smell of wood smoke, as well.

Norfolk Folk Tales for Children

I’m thrilled – The History Press have used my whole design & typography for this book jacket, and not just my illustrations.  I wanted jacket and title page to reflect the style of my work inside, so I did the whole thing, and all they had to do was drop in their blurb and barcode box in the spaces I’d left.  Which they did, excellent!
As most books are sold online these days, the strong, simple style of the two figures will remain clear even when reduced to tiny thumbnail sizes on screens (as you can see here).
This is where you must anticipate your jacket competing for attention now, not just on the bookshop shelves anymore.

There are 30 black & white illustrations inside the book, and the tales range over a period from the 800s up to the 1930s.   So I had to put much thought into creating a style which would be suitable for such a spread of time.
Besides, Dave Tonge is not only the finest teller in Norwich, he’s my brother in the telling of tales, so I wanted this book to be extra special!
So, thank you History Press, and the book is released out into the wide world on 3 September.
Norfolk Folk Tales for Children illustrated by Jim Kavanagh

Worstead Festival 2018

I’ve just finished this year’s Worstead Festival.   I love this gig, I get my own tent, in a great spot not far from where the huge shire horses do their thing.  I set up my easel, and have time in between tales to make drawings for the next one.  I do special tales, local tales, for local people.
Such as how The Devil (who is, remember, a Master of Disguise) once came to King’s Lynn.  It requires two drawings, a Before and After

Its a true tale, of course, including photographic proof for the skeptical at the end!
Another completely true tale is even more local, and explains how North Walsham Church ended up with its half ruined tower – nothing to do with excessive bell ringing at all, heavens no.
I had people from Holland, New York and Rome, which means as usual I got to learn things as well, such as that there were two William(s) of Orange, and the spot where Julius Caesar got stabbed to death is now a dog rescue shelter.  Does Brutus know, I wonder…

More Heritage Open Days larks

In which I follow a grand mediaeval illumination tradition, but certainly not in miniature…

One of the historical characters you could meet if you were following my Heritage Hunt map was Anne Marchand, a Norman woman from the late 1200s. By then Norwich was bustling with trade and wealthy folk, and Anne was one of them, a merchant dealing with European contacts.
Her place on the Hunt trail was to be in the middle of The Forum atrium, in all it’s Saturday hustle & bustle.

The-Forum-Norwich-by-Jim-KavanaghHistorically thats pretty good positioning – this part of the city was The French Quarter, where the Norman incomers had settled on ground overlooking their newly established Market. So Anne may well have had a fine, stone built house, within a stones throw of where she would really be on the day.
The Forum folk realised that she would need something extra to suggest she belonged to the late 1200s, and asked if I could make a backdrop image, something to suggest the Norman city of that time. It would be printed on three 1m x 2m panels, so would be a decent size.
Well, after all these years of reading, researching and imagining what the city would look like in many different periods, I was just the fella to ask…

The Norman lady herself asked if I could make sure Norwich Castle keep was in the picture, as this would be part of what she talked about.
I decided to keep the composition simple – not a distracting vista of Norman Norwich, but a back drop for a presenter. The majority of it would be behind Anne and her props, but the Castle still needed to be easily visible and, crucially, instantly recognisable.

So I had the idea of a window, which would (a) say “Norman” by its unmistakable Romanesque architecture and (b) show the Castle in practically the same view as it really is from the Forum – no chance of anybody not knowing what that was supposed to be!
Of course it wasn’t just that easy – I had to make the battlements be more like the (conjectured) original ones, not the great chunky monsters placed there in the 19th century.  A picture, you see, can say a thousand words, but just as easily the wrong ones as the right ones.

To be really smarty-arty here, is there not also something familiar about the image of a wealthy mediaeval woman, sitting indoors, with rich architecture and a view through a window…? Those mediaeval illuminators loved the “window on the world” thing, so why not.
Veni, Vidi, I Copied…


Heritage Open Days and a darn tricky little job…

From 7-10 September, The Fine City of Norwich will be busy as a bag of frogs.
People will be running around historic buildings, gasping with wonder at the fascinating past which has been hidden in plain sight before their very eyes.
Because it will be Heritage Open Days!

An annual celebration of local history, where a vast number of places open freely to all to explore and discover that multi faceted mirror to our lives we call The Past.
I’m pleased to say a lot of these people will get the benefit of my latest bit of graphic work, ahem, when they follow The Norwich Heritage Hunt.
I have designed, illustrated and written the leaflet, which will guide them from The Forum to the Cathedral, on a short walk taking in five places where they can meet costumed characters with a strong connection to those locations.

Its A4, introduction and information on one side, and this specially created street map on the other.
I must say, this map has been quite a job. It has to be simple and clear to lead everyone safely, both local folk and strangers, through the streets of the busy city centre.  There are small, important details which not even all the locals know, such as the tiny St John’s Alley, which goes actually underneath a church tower.


Sir Thomas Erpingham, he led the English archers at Agincourt

And which of the magnificent gates into the Cathedral Close is the Erpingham Gate – choose the wrong one and you will miss meeting the great Sir Thomas himself.

So I had to think carefully what streets to leave out, and what useful landmarks to squeeze in, without it getting too busy.
And I had to suggest a fun element, give you some idea of what to expect, by showing the characters. But fitting them in around the street guide – tricky!  Needless to say, it isn’t to any actual scale, c’est impossible!

The Hunt should be fun; for example you can find
Elizabeth Sotherton, a Mediaeval merchant wife, in St Peter Hungate Church.  Living nearby, she would have known it well.  Her hubby is an important man in the city, but she is absolutely minted from her own business dealings, let alone his.


Will Kempe

You can meet Will Kempe, Shakespeare’s most well known comedy actor, at the Maddermarket Theatre.  Though by rights he should be a bit puffed, having just danced all the way from London to Norwich in just nine days.  He finished the dance (done for a bet, so its said) just about where the Theatre is today.

Its being printed now, this is the front fold.  I can’t wait to see it, and more importantly hear about whether it works for people!   After all, not even most locals are Norwich history nerds like moi…

The Last Maharaja

Little Duleep Singh, aged five, had the misfortune to become the Maharaja of the Punjab, India, just at the time when Queen Victoria, her government and the East India Company were deciding on how to acquire the Punjab for themselves.
Get rid of this kid, they reckoned, and this rich slice of India is ours for the taking!   And thus did it come to pass, around about 1850.  Duleep was 11-12 when he was persuaded to come to England, where he was carefully molded into becoming a strikingly attractive, wealthy English gentleman.  Who never returned to his people, his culture or his rule.
The other day I found myself explaining this piece of history to some very young children.  Its a complex tale, and not much fun.  But I found one moment with which to engage them, where the little Maharaja was presented to the Sikh army by his uncle, on an elephant.  So I drew this for them, letting them guess which animal it would turn out to be as the drawing grew.

Yes yes, I know this isn’t the real way an Indian ruler would have ridden an elephant, but it worked for them.  Later, when I was looking at this photo of the drawing on my phone, I suddenly remembered that many years ago I once had occasion to draw a cartoon on British India… After a long rummage, I dug it up, and blew the dust off – here it is below.
Put them together, and what do you know, another example of the notion that a picture can say a thousand words.
If the one above describes in simple terms what was going on in the Punjab before Duleep’s short reign, then the one below describes what happened after: British rule, for the next hundred years or so.  Cartoons – the grain of truth is always there somewhere…


Wives n’ Trolls

If you’re old enough, you might just remember when trolls were not miserable, wretched bullies on the internet.
A troll was a large, scary person with a bad temper, and an irregular lifestyle. In the Ladybird book of Three billy Goats Gruff, the troll lived actually underneath the bridge which he haunted. This led to much pondering on my part about his sleeping arrangements, furniture and general comfort.

Sometimes, as in The Hobbit, trolls can be conveniently turned to stone by daylight, but I wouldn’t rely on that.
Should you decide on some troll spotting, you will find yourself heading north, into the dramatic, misty mountains & stunning fjords of Scandinavian folklore, which is where they begin. Not far at all from frost giants, rainbow bridges and that lot we call the Vikings.
A troll is very definitely a northern European citizen. There are no olive skinned, beach loving equivalents in Mediterranean or African folklore. Which may indeed be the most fascinating fact about trolls of all, but that must be left for another tale.
I’m fond of trolls, partly because they feature in one of my favourite tales. Its a true tale, of course, with proof, though you do have to go and check out the completely verifiable facts for yourself afterwards.

troll-wife-2-by-jim-kavanaghThus I have recently pondered what a troll should look like, or rather she, as this is a lady troll – described in the tale as a “troll wife”.  Sadly, even in the mists of northern European mythology, it seems a woman’s status in life is defined by her relationship to some bloke. Same old, same old…
So here I explore two approaches to depicting these lovely specimens.
The first is the more usual style I would work with, straightforward line drawing with colour added. The average client prefers that sort of look to this second one:

Here, I “grew” the drawing in a sketchy, exploratory way – lots of fine lines, building up a form without a clear, predetermined plan.  And the colours are more subservient to the line drawing.  After all, who knows what a troll would really look like, so perhaps its best to begin with a misty scribble, and hope those deeply buried, ancestral memories will add some ingredients.
Which do you think was more fun to do…. or perhaps I have just made that pathetically clear…

Slap-head Shakespeare

One of the good things about Shakespeare is that no matter what idiot messes about with him, you can’t really do him any harm.

All on his sleeve... Prospero falls for the Faery Queen (Su Squire)

All on his sleeve… Prospero falls for the Faery Queen (Su Squire)

So as 2016 was an anniversary of his death… there was so much Shakespeare stuff happening that even I got involved, for a gig at the Elizabethan House Museum, Great Yarmouth.  With a delightful gang of other luvvies, I was Prospero from The Tempest for a day. With puffed sleeves and a magic walking stick, I messed about with a tragic Hamlet, a clever Malvolio and a beautiful Titania.

Having not given The Bard much thought since school, I discovered The Tempest is quite an interesting play.  Its full of special effects which must have been pretty whizzy in it’s time (1610, a far as anybody knows). On a magical island, a powerful wizard called Prospero rules over a mass of faeries and other-world beings, and using their powers causes a fake storm one night, to shipwreck his enemies as they unwittingly sail past.  It’s all illusion, no body actually dies, like in theatre itself…

To help me grasp the story, I was doing some drawings and sketches, and realised I could use them to help me explain The Plot to museum visitors.  After all, its definitely true that a picture says a thousand words…  So I put some into a folder to have with me – or perhaps I should call it a folio..? ho ho, boom boom.the-tempest-characters-by-jim-kavanagh
The nobles who find them selves shipwrecked on the island would, I assumed, be dressed as the wealthy folk of Shakespeare’s day, with ruffs, cuffs, slashed leathers and fur.  There’s only one female part, sweet young gal Miranda, but of course she would have been played by a boy in Shakespeare’s day.
So how did that go..?  Dresses & skirts were full coverings back then, so hiding any manliness below the neck wouldn’t be too difficult , but did they also use wigs, jewellery, make-up?  If you look at Queen Lizzie The First as an example of A Celebrity Woman of the time, then yeek, it could have been a pretty garish look…caliban-jim-kavanagh

Caliban was the tricky one.  Apart from  descriptions of him in the mouths of other characters (who basically all call him a mis-shapen monster), there are a couple of stage directions referring to his costume.
This is most unusual in Shakespeare, and unfortunately most unhelpful to an illustrator wondering what on earth his costume looked like.

All it says is that he is able to lie down and hide under his “gabardine”.  Two people looking under either end think he is a two headed fish.  See what I mean, not much help…

I concluded it must have been some sort of large, hooded cloak, with make up and garish colour.

These days, its hard not to imagine Prospero, the mighty wizard, as Ian Mc Kellen’s Gandalf, but there was no way I could afford such a great fake beard, so I had to rely mainly on the enormous sleeves.

prospero-caliban-jim-kavanaghHowever, my part in the continuing success of Shakespeare as the world’s most famous luvvy, ever, is not as intriguing as something which came to light roughly around the same time I was telling people all the world’s a stage, you know. (Yes, Prospero is the guy who says that one).
Thanks to a BBC documentary, we now all know that some fool can, and did, harm old Shakespeare, after all…

Missing: one head (used)  Distraught Owner: Shakespeare, William.

The BBC decided that a proper archaeological investigation into the 19th century rumour that someone had snuck in one night and nicked Shakespeare’s head from his grave was long overdue.
They didn’t dig him up, or even lift up the overlying ledger slab of his grave in Stratford Church (they weren’t allowed, not even the BBC), but instead used Geophysics scans to see what was in there.  And the scans indicated a nasty “empty space” where his head should be.

So its true – the story that A Gentleman had pilfered the most famous writer’s grave in Britain was A Fact instead of A Fiction.  And quite apart from the fact that I’m not surprised, as the general public will nick anything, I can understand why as well.  The daft notion of Phrenology was all the rage mid 1800’s : the study of cranial contours as a visual key to understanding personality.  The lumps & bumps on yer bonce could be read like a book as to what sort of person you were, or so it was widely believed.
Worthy Gentlemen with an interest in history were busy studying ancient skulls dug from Bronze Age burial mounds, and eminent lawyers bought casts of the heads of hanged murderers.

phrenology-shakespeare-jim-kavanaghProfessors of learning were even floating the notion of streaming school children according to how their cranial features indicated intelligence, honesty, empathy and other traits!
Who wouldn’t want to trace their fingers around the head of Shakespeare?
The real skull would be a Holy Grail for literary academics, poets and playwrights.  Casts made from it would sell by the thousand, across Europe and America.

So our dear Bard, having lived through a bit of British history still famous for it’s beheadings, now found himself about 200 years later joining a long line of headless Tudors.
Anne Boleyn, Catherine Howard, the Thomases More and Cromwell, Mary Queen of Scotts… even the odd dashing alpha male like Walter Raleigh, whose head, so they say, was lovingly kept in a velvet bag by his wife ever after.

Will would surely be amused, because thanks to Hamlet, the sure fire way to suggest “Shakespeare”, if you’re a cartoonist, is to draw someone talking to a skull.   In fact, that image even just about does for saying “theatre” in general, a most useful, universally recognised visual cliche.
Boom, boom!

The lovely ironies continue: ‘t was A Gentleman who carried out the deed, of course. But being A Gentleman, (wether of Verona or anywhere else) there’s no way he would be getting down on his hands and knees in a midnight church and ruining his nails scrabbling under a stone slab in the earth.
He employed two fellas to do the slab-shifting & digging bit, so the story goes.
One can have guess at The Gentleman, just another privileged chap on the make, who suddenly sees a way to dig up a fortune…  but what were the other two like?
If Shakespeare had been writing this himself, in one of his plays, the cast list would label these lower class roles as The Mechanicals. Think of Peter Quince and his friends in Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Shakespeare often uses his working class, ordinary folk, to provide the comedy moments : Dogberry, the bumbling constable of the Watch (Much Ado), Captain Fluellen, a fine son of Wales (the Henry plays).

Did our two lads have some wise cracks to make in the spooky, flickering lamp light, as they argued over which slab to lift?

Was one the crafty rogue, stroking his chin like the builder you’ve just asked for a price, and the other the unwitting clot, who always spoils his mate’s schemes at the last minute…

An empty church, one flickering candle in a horn lantern, in the dead of night…
But first of all, you have to get in.  Its most likely Our Gentleman wanted a trouble free heist, so I’d guess breaking in was too risky.  In those days every church had it’s Sexton, another character quite a few steps down the social ladder from Gentleman, and never as well paid as his master, The Rector.
Shakespeare-land is full of servants & maids who are easily persuaded to the skulduggery needed to make his plots work, so lets speculate that here again life mirrored art, in the grubby details of a little bribe.
Our miserable Sexton needn’t have known what the plan was, just to pass the church keys under the table in the tavern late one eve, in exchange for a guinea that would keep him in coal for that winter.  Blame him not, good Gentles all, for I am sure Will never would.
Oh, and as to those keys, I’ve had a few keys to mediaeval church doors in my hand, and believe me, they generally are really that darn big.  So here they are, then, the conspirators..

But the plot gets even better, because after the exciting “Night Scene: a church, enter The Mechanicals, with lantern” , The Gentleman couldn’t sell!  It seems Will’s skull was just too hot to handle.  So our tale then turns to another, much favoured dramatist’s cliche ; how to get rid of The Body, or parts there-of.  Don’t scoff, this is a very old scene, long predating Alfred Hitchcock movies or Arsenic & Old Lace.
It was a very popular motif in mediaeval tales: wives trying to dump murdered husbands, husbands to hide their wives’ dead lovers, (after unintentionally fatal beatings delivered in a jealous passion), and other accidental deaths galore to cover up in sacks, chests, and cupboards.  Its an old gag, and was great fun for storytellers, playwrights and players.  There were no “actors” back then, remember – the makers of theatre & other live entertainment were still mere Mechanicals in the eyes of The Gentlemen classes.
Oh, how ’tis different now…  Will’s headless body spins in it’s grave every time An Actorrrr gets a knighthood.

What did happen next?  The BBC documentary went to a lot of trouble to examine a potential candidate, found in another church, but it turned out to be a lady.
So where Shakespeare’s skull ended up is still a mystery…
Pity, as that would leave plenty of room for further tales from this fascinating Fact.  And the trouble is, there’s little chance of proving to whom a random skull may belong, so there’s little chance of ever returning it to Will’s grave.
It may well still be out there somewhere, anonymously floating about in the lives of antique dealers, obscure auctions, turning up in house clearances, causing an awkward moment on the Antiques Road Show, brought to school for a Show & Tell morning…
Could our disappointed Gent sell it today, do you think?  Probably – people buy anything on eBay.