Wonderland – ‘The White Queen’

The White Queen‘The White Queen’

The Queen's Armada‘The Queen’s Armada’

The Faraway Tree‘The Faraway Tree’

The Twilight Covenant and The Promise of Home‘The Twilight Covenant, And The Promise Of Home’

It has been 9 long months since I last released a new Wonderland photo. I can hardly believe it as I write these words, but I am now finally free. On December 29th I left a decade of fashion design behind, to follow my heart and step into the unknown territory of becoming a full time artist. I am a nervous mix of excitement, anticipation and quiet terror over what I have done, but in my heart I have no regrets. Things had reached a point where I simply couldn’t carry on, and trying to balance creating the project whilst coping with a demanding job had become impossible and was also making me seriously ill. So, here I am, on the other side of what has been one of the hardest decisions of my life, and only time will tell if this was brilliance or madness on my part.

Many things affected my choice, but back in April last year I had a chance meeting with an art curator whose words of advice heavily influenced this new direction I have taken with both my life and Wonderland. We met at point where I had naïvely thought leaving my job was imminent and that my work was strong enough to support myself. We spent 3 hours together in a hotel lobby, where he gently tore away every preconception I had about the art world. It was a wake up call like no other and one that I will always remain deeply grateful for, despite how hard it was to hear. Above all things he was from an older generation where the circus of the internets constant demands to create work quickly for the gratification of others was irrelevant. He thought my work had great promise, but questioned if it was my best. He told me to slow down, focus, and asked what would I be truly capable of if I pushed myself to my absolute limit? What would happen if I made less pieces, and instead invested all my time and energy into a singular vision with no compromises?

So this is the reason behind my radio silence. I have taken every last word of his advice and spent 9 months privately producing a handful of works that I feel are my very best. It has been extremely difficult not showing anyone what I have been up to, and even harder sitting on piles of unedited shoots, constantly having to go through the development of one character onto the next, without the satisfaction of releasing anything online. I have watched other photographers race ahead with their projects and felt isolated and panicked that no one would remember Wonderland when it returned. I have worked almost completely alone, apart from shoot days and the occasional help from Elbie, however, despite all of this I am so very glad I have gone through the process. I have learned a huge amount about being ruthlessly selective and balancing a body of work across a large number of shoots. For the first time ever I have found myself seeing Wonderland as a whole, contemplating the colour, scale and perspective of the new work alongside what I had already achieved with the previous pieces. I have also learned a very hard lesson about knowing my limits, as once again I made myself extremely unwell with stress and exhaustion, and its taken nearly 3 months to finally get better.

So before I go any further I should point out this entry is enormous as it took over 5 months to develop The White Queen pictures. It was the biggest challenge I have ever taken on, but I am so thrilled and proud of the results.

The concept of the queen started over 12 months ago when I had an extremely vivid dream during the early stages of Wonderland.  The dream was exactly how ‘The Queen’s Armada’ now looks, and to be honest I still find it quite overwhelming to think about how much I went through in order to recreate it so accurately. Wonderland is rooted in the stories my mother read to me as a child, and one of the most unusual illustrated books I can remember from our time together was ‘The Kingdom under the Sea’.

Back in the Winter of 2010 I had been researching the paper cuts of Hans Christian Andersen, when they triggered a faint memory of mum and the book. It took a while to recall the title, but after some digging online I managed to track down the original 1973 edition. Weeks later as I held it in my hands again, I couldn’t ignore the emotions I felt seeing the delicate silhouettes of the mermaids after all those years. It was such a powerful link back to my mother that I decided I had to attempt something that would bring them to life for the series, no matter how impossible that felt at the time, or how long it would take.

Over the months my mind was filled with the idea of paper coming to life. This led to the concept of pop-up books, which in turn became entwined with my plans to create a fearsome queen who would rule over the new darker side to the Wonderland story. The character evolved into a paper- cut Queen Elizabeth 1st commanding an armada of ships. It grew to the point I could almost touch them in my dreams and couldn’t think of anything else. I knew the scene had to pure white, static and stiff and the Queen’s costume to be sharp and unforgiving. It took a total of five months to design and make all the elements of the picture whilst I was still working at my job in the city. Whenever I felt I couldn’t carry on I remembered the curators words and kept going, even when well meaning friends suggested I should rest and let the concept go.

The White Queen’s costume

The finished steel ‘paper-cut’ galleon prop

The Costume

The Queen’s costume was definitely the most difficult piece I have made for the project to date and there were so many times I found myself staring at pile of unpainted fans losing the will to live. It was a long slow process, but I felt compelled to make something beautiful and permanent, as sadly so many of the previous Wonderland costumes were destroyed on the shoots, or had to be recycled into something else to save money.
The Queen’s skirt and collar were made from over 240 fine wooden fans flown over from China. They were the perfect material to work with as they had all the characteristics I was looking for – sculptural, hard, sharp and yet were also incredibly light with the same delicate appearance of lace. I deliberately left the bars of the crinoline cage exposed to suggest a prison and finished the front panels with a pair of Balinese shadow puppets, locking their hand together in a struggle as if guarding the queen’s body inside.
I also hand made all the accessories. The necklace and key prop were my favourites and were created from an eclectic collection of antique items I sourced from vintage fairs across 3 different countries over 6 months, as well as an old bag of delicate rabbit bones from a Scottish taxidermist!
I am especially proud of The White Queen’s key it is extremely important to the story, and will reappear at various points in the hands of different characters. It represents the cycle of beauty and death, a continuous flow from the form of the fairy through the body of the skeleton, down to the bare bones that make up the teeth. I think it is possibly my favourite prop in the series and one I will keep forever.

The Galleons

Whilst working on the costume, I finally had to face the fact that I needed to design the galleon ship props myself after unsuccessfully approaching a few paper cut artists hoping for a collaboration. I have never done anything like this before, and had no contacts and no idea what I was doing. It was without doubt the most difficult challenge I have faced for the series and there were many, many times when I nearly gave up. In my ignorance I thought I could simply draw a galleon ship silhouette, take some of the book illustrations and work them into the shape. I presumed I could have the stencil cut in light balsa wood at any size I wanted, and that it would all be reasonably affordable….. I had no idea how wrong I was!
To start with the original ‘Kingdom under the Sea’ illustrations were actually fine ink drawings and not neat silhouettes suitable for a stencil. After I had finished my galleon outline, I roughly tried to place some of characters within its shape and slowly realised the enormous problems I faced with positive and negative space. I soon learned how no line could overlap or it would just simply fall out when the design was cut. Everything had to be supported, connected, and drawn in extremely sharp accurate detail –  basically everything the original illustrations were not. It was incredibly complicated, I had re-draw every single element by hand using a computer tablet and it took 70 agonizing hours to complete. The only thing that kept me going was that this prop, more than anything else in the entire project was a direct tangible link to my mother, and I simply couldn’t give up.

I could write forever about what happened next, how wrong I was about laser cutting and the costs involved. How I worked with a number of well meaning supportive factories who made me prototypes out of sympathy but constantly warned me my design was too complicated. 2 months later I was back to square one, the ships were too big and fragile for all the companies I contacted. I had hit a wall with no idea where to turn next.
Finally, weeks later through sheer desperation my research led me to a specialist steel factory which had machinery big enough to take on my idea and a state of the art nitrogen cutter gas cutter (the only one in the UK) which was capable of the detail in my design. As excited as I was, by now everything was spiraling out of control, I was completely out of my depth with an industrial factory and price tag to match. The costume was almost made, and in my head there was no turning back. I kept thinking of the curators words ‘no compromise’ and for the first time with the project I was faced with a serious and expensive investment. It was a huge leap of faith for me, up until now everything had been home made and we got through the tricky bits with smoke and mirrors, but now I had no choice. This had gone from being a hobby to my future and so I held my breath and placed the order.

On the day of the props being made, I arrived at the factory to be met with the sight of my design on the programmers monitor, covered in a star constellation of a thousand reference points for the cutting machine to follow. The amount of work that had gone into the preparations was completely mind blowing and extremely humbling. The factory owner said it was the most complicated design the machine had ever attempted and it had taken 24 hours of plotting co-ordinates to get this far. I felt extremely guilty but after a few hours of the machine jamming and nervous glances from it operators, the first test piece slowly began to take shape, and that was when everything took on a completely different emotional level.

I know I will always remember the moment the operator stepped out of the booth with a smile and handed me the first metal offcut to fall from the ship. I looked down and there in my palm was a tiny steel mermaid glinting in the light. In that moment, at the age of 35 I had suddenly found myself holding a physical fragment of a childhood memory and it was indescribable. Nothing could have prepared me for the lurch in my stomach and the flood of emotion that came with it, it honestly took my breath away. Within minutes the full ship was lifted off the cutting bed and all at once everything came to life. It was such an incredible feeling, the design had finally worked! I photographed the whole process, approved the sample and quickly made my excuses to leave as soon as I could. I was a wreck the relief was so overwhelming that I sat and sobbed in the factory car park until I was able to pull away. The ships were something so deeply personal to me that no one could have understood. I had pushed myself so hard to make them a reality and in the process created something unique and personal, with meaning, and that felt like a turning point I was really proud of.

Location / Shoot day.
The final hurdle was the fact that in my dream the queen was also walking on water whilst connected to her ships. I suppose you had to laugh really as this was making life about as difficult as possible, but I pushed on regardless. After several weekends searching I found the perfect place, a little ornamental island on a fishing lake. It wasn’t too deep and was shallow enough to build an underwater platform for the model to stand on. It smelt horrendous and had a slightly menacing atmosphere, which in the end was perfect for the mood I wanted to create.

By now it was October 2011, the development of the ships and costume had taken so long, that the shoot had been pushed back from July to October. I had been terrified of it raining on the delicate costume, bad light and freezing temperatures for a model standing in water. So it was a huge relief and bizarre coincidence that the UK had a 2 day heatwave the very weekend of our shoot. To be honest on the day it was hard going, the set up took 5 hours. Our model Ashleigh had the patience of a saint, but must have been bored out of her mind. I stood at the waters edge barking orders at poor Matt wading through the stinking slime, desperately trying to reposition the ships, constantly rushing from one to the other to stop them falling over. It was highly stressful and the late autumn sun was getting lower with every minute that passed.

However once everyone was ready, and Ashleigh was in position it was truly a vision as to behold. She was without doubt the embodiment of the queen I had dreamt of for so many months, as the smoke crept across the set the mood transformed and I found myself holding my breath behind the camera. It is usually at this point that witnessing the finished scene is a big moment for me and I stand back and take it all in, but despite those first thrilling seconds I was aware time was not on our side. The light was fading and I was staring at months of work and a huge amount of money, so I just went into autopilot taking as many pictures as I physically could, trying to cover all angles before it was too late.
The camera jammed halfway through, memory cards ran out it was chaotic, but after an hour of unbelievable pressure it was over.
The planks were laid in the water and Asheligh was carefully walked to edge of the bank. Dusk crept through the evening air, and before we knew it the light was almost gone. I managed the final shots just before exhaustion completely took hold of me. My close up with the queen felt strangely real as she gripped the bone key, and stared back with dark hollow eyes. She looked incredible, I had got everything I needed and before we knew it, it was pitch black and no one could speak they were all so tired.

Original location shown above, below setting up the picture, with poor Hannah as the body double for the model ! Plus an example of when smoke seriously goes in the wrong direction !!

The Faraway Tree

The last picture in the White Queen mini series was The Faraway Tree. It was now October 17th 2011 and it would be my final shoot of the year. We were all burnt out, and I was becoming quite unwell by this point, but we simply had to make the final push. I had named the picture in homage to another of my favourite childhood story books of the same title by Enid Blyton. It was a concept I had long wanted to create, and once I realized the potential of using the ships like shadow lanterns I felt we had to make this last attempt before the weather became impossible for us to carry on. Once again setting up the location was quite excruciating. The recent warm weather had turned and it was now cold, drizzling and very windy – basically the worst conditions we could have encountered apart from heavy rain. On the day of the shoot adrenaline was pumping through everyone as the boys scrambled up the tree with reels of wire in the fading afternoon light. I stood and directed the ships into position following a Photoshopped mock-up of the scene I had made as a plan for their positions. For any photographer reading this, I would like to point out this was a life saver on the day because there wasn’t any time to spend hours moving the ships into different positions, they were far too heavy and  it was extremely slow progress.  I made the plan by visiting the location the day before, and photographing the tree with Matt holding one ship beside it for a true scale reference. I then cloned the image and produce the rough placement for the ships. This was vital to getting everything ready as accurately and quickly as possible.

(photoshopped mock-up for prop placement)

As far as lighting went, it was the first time I have ever shot a scene at night. All the lighting was powered from one very small petrol generator, and I permanently had my heart in my mouth worrying it would just give up and choke on us. The bulbs were standard energy saving ones so they used less power, and all of it was run off a very long home made cable Matt had wired up. As the light finally disappeared, and the wind picked up, I remember standing in the dark thinking it was never going to work. The whole thing smacked of being a disaster, wires everywhere and expensive steel ships furiously flapping in the wind. I kept whispering to myself ‘it will be ok’ over and over again, nervously looking through the viewfinder waiting to feel something but the scene remained flat and uninspiring as the blank ships hung lifeless from a tree. Just as I lost all hope the roar of the generator broke the silence and the bulbs suddenly sparked into life and there before me was the most magical vision, everyone shouted an whooped, It was absolutely incredible. Elbie was jumping up and down, so was I, and I could see the relief on poor Matt’s face when the power kicked in. Genuinely it had to be one of the most beautiful things I have witnessed in the series so far. I had tears in my eyes the rush of emotion was overwhelming, it was magical … truly…. truly. My heart soared as the galleons lit up, and there before us were the perfect silhouettes of my childhood book illustrations brought to life. The sense of achievement after all the stress of the last few months was simply immense.

I know I will never forget that night. Once the picture was over and it was time to go I remember walking around in a daze collecting crates and wires, tripping over things in the dark, still thinking about what had happened. We dragged everything back to the car, and the look on everyone’s face was a picture. It had been relentless for hours, the pace of setting up, and then rushing to get the picture, to finally stop felt quite strange. Everyone was broken but so triumphant, we ended up throwing ourselves into a shaky group hug in the glare of the car headlights laughing and groaning, patting our backs ….we had done it! It was the final picture, and now the weather could do its worst, everything that needed to be done had been achieved.

While the others loaded the cars, I pretended I had forgotten something back at the tree and walked off into the night to just take a moment. I knew I had over done things again, my stomach was lurching with cramps and my skin was tingling. I couldn’t remember the last time I had sat quietly in months, but that night, it was honestly worth all the bad stuff that came afterwards. I had made two pictures that were not only for my mother, but they were direct, strong and unbreakable links to her and the memories I had. I felt like I had taken a few more steps away from my grief, and closed another door on the ghosts of hospitals ….. this was my best, and all I could possibly give.