Poetry By Heart Blog

Illustrating ‘The Witch': artist Ben Westley Clarke explains how he went about it

3rd February 2020

Witch BWC

In this blogpost, artist Ben Westley Clarke explains how he went about illustrating Mary Elizabeth Coleridge’s poem for Poetry By Heart. This is designed to accompany Mike Dixon’s resource for creative explorations of a poem which can be found in the Poetry By Heart Teaching Zone.

The first, and perhaps the most important thing I did, when I began work on illustrating ‘The Witch’, was to write the poem down in my own rough, barely legible handwriting. This gave me a feel for the length of its lines and stanzas, as well as its structure and rhythms – I knew that nothing else would give me as much insight into how the poem was made. It helped me to give equal attention to words or phrases that I might normally skip over. The more I read the poem, the more the initial idea I had in my head of a stereotypical witch, with a pointed hat and a broomstick, dissolved. It gave way to a more shadowy, mutating, ambiguous character. I noted the persistent parallels between this old, ragged woman and the memory of her more nubile, less browbeaten self.

 

Small-ish pencil drawings formed the basis of my preparatory work. I continued to be drawn to the references to the old woman’s youth throughout the poem, as well as, towards the end of the poem, the mention of the figure who greets her to ‘lift her over the threshold’. The word ‘threshold’ is ambiguous – it could be a physical threshold (the woman coming in from the cold) or it could be the threshold between life and death. I conceived of this helpful figure as mirroring the old woman – perhaps she is a younger version of her. Are both characters facets of the writer’s personality? I was also drawn to the regular description of the hostile weather environment, which conjured images of snow, blowing leaves and bare, twisted trees.

 

I remembered drawing old bodies in life drawing classes – I had noted their androgyny and sometimes exaggerated features. Their crumpling, sagging skin reveals, more than younger bodies do, the skeletal structure underneath. The ‘carrying over the threshold’ reminded me of so many themes in religious painting – especially the Pieta – the Virgin Mary carrying the dead Christ. In particular, I thought of Van Der Weyden’s ‘The Descent From The Cross’, a painting I had drawn from at the Prado Museum in Madrid, in which a group of mourning figures supports Christ’s body as it falls.

 

I made a large number of loose sketches, all based on my memory of bodies. I also drew from a handful of photographs of old faces. I formatted the drawings so that there would be one for each stanza of the poem. I then went about drawing up a final design, over which ink was added. My illustration feels to me like one potential visualization of many, but I’ve tried to ensure that it is lucid and that it transports the viewer.


About Ben Westley Clarke
Ben Westley Clarke (b. Ipswich, 1990) studied painting at the Slade School of Fine Art and later at the Royal Drawing School. Ben lived in London for 10 years before moving to Madrid in 2018, after he received the Richard Ford Award to study at the Prado Museum. Ben is primarily a painter who works from both observation and memory. He is interested in empathetic depictions of human figures in Art History, from Velásquez to Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. Drawing is the lifeblood of his work. He has been involved in a number of educational projects over recent years, including the execution of a mural commission for a primary school in the Community of Madrid, and the direction of Family Art Workshops at the Royal Academy of Arts. Ben is also a curator and tattooist.

Share via