Ever since I was a kid I’ve loved pictures and paintings that told a story. I never realised that this is why I don’t understand modern art – because it says nothing to me. There’s no curious little figure skulking away with a ladder on his shoulder towards the vague outline of a castle in the background, when you look at a pile of bricks, a porcelain urinal or half a cow in formaldehyde! I need my visual art to tell me a tale, and the more romantic the better.
So it was that there was always within me this incredible urge to create, to write stories and to make images by whatever means. The writing was informed by Tolkien (of course), Le Guin, Garner and a host of old and new writers. But the thing that always struck me was that my scribblings were always something I’d made up. Perhaps reinterpretations of traditional tales, but I didn’t feel they were real.
Likewise with my art. Not having spent enough time when I was young mastering the pencil and brush, the advent of computer technology which enabled the manipulation of photographic images, opened a new world of creativity for me. I embraced it with alacrity and embarked upon projects creating images informed by Dean, Froud, Waterhouse, Tadema, the Pre-Raphaelites, Mucha and the Art Nouveaou of the 19th Century and illustrators like Arthur Rackham. I was making fantasy art that resembles the art of the LOTR films, before they were made. I even sold them online….
But still it was all somehow hollow. I knew where it came from, and it didn’t feel real. In the end although satisfied with the individual images, in the end I knew it was all just my imagination and that really did not satisfy that urge inside. I wanted it to be real.
Now, these images of women and men in their fantasy worlds by nature involved medieval weaponry and armour. Not owning any, I was hiring gear from a film-props company at ridiculous prices based on weeks, when I only required them for hours.
A helpful chap at the warehouse, on signing out a couple of swords and some helmets one day, shook his head and said “I don’t know why you’re paying so much to hire this stuff…. Why don’t you just go to one of those re-enactment fayres and you can buy it all for a fifth of the price.”
I quizzed him further and discovered that there was a world of which I was completely unaware. Researching it all on the net that night, I discovered that there was to be a just such an event at a place called Tewkesbury in a fortnight’s time and I determined to go.
Arriving early, I was amazed to see an enormous medieval fayre spread out across acres of meadow, with everyone in medieval dress (well mostly – apart from grockles like me!) and selling medieval stuff. Everything from parchment to pole arms, quills to quintanes! And then, in the afternoon, there was this impressive battle with hundreds of men-at-arms and archers, marching out of my fantasy and onto the field before me.
Interestingly the Medieval bug did not bite me immediately. Of course I bought a carful of props, but I was still thinking photography. It took three years of attending various fayres and spending large amounts of money, before I realised that I badly wanted to be part of all this. I already had much of the clothing needed,. and so I started to dress up on going to the events. I gradually got to know various people and unobtrusively joined in the back line of archers on the battlefields. Eventually I bought a tent and by diverse means got to pitch it in the authentic camps. Soon nodding aquaintances became invitations to join a company and the rest is history.
I was home. I had found what I had spent nearly 40 years looking for… the real thing! Not just dressing up in medieval clothes, but a period – specifically 1459 to 1485 in England.
As I begand to read and deepened my knowledge of a period I knew nothing about, instinctively I knew in my heart of hearts that I was a liegeman of Richard of Gloucestre. It wasn’t a cerebral decision thinking, “Oh I like the Yorkists”, or “The Lancastrians were right…I want to be Lancastrian”, it was purely visceral. I just knew! And equally, my views on Edward IV’s choice of wife, the demise of the Earl of Warwick and a deep and abiding disdain and hatred for Henry Twydr, I found were all equally visceral and completely in line with being Richard’s man. Extraordinary! I don’t know where it came from, but there it is. It’s as though I inherited it all in my genes.
But what has this done to me? It has changed my life completely.
I had lived in England since moving here in 1986 without making any real friends. Oh, there were aquaintaces from work and through my wife, but no-one I held dear, knew I could rely upon and relate to. Through the Wars of the Roses re-enactment, I now have a family of firm friends in a way that I never had before. I am now part of a community with invitations to stay, to collaborate, to join them in the events of life, from parties at New Year, to the celebration of their weddings.
And because a lot of what we need for re-enactment is not available on the high street, I have redirected my creative abilities to making those things I require, in as authentic a manner as I can. Finally I am fulfilled. That niggling voice which always said “But you know you made that up – it isn’t real!” is not gone.
What I do is based on research and fact. I don’t care that the delightful image of curling oak sprigs and hunting scenes, or lords and ladies courting on horseback is copied from a 15th Century wedding box in the V&A. That’s what makes it fantastic. I am a prentice to masters who lived over 500 years ago, and as their prentices did then, I’m learning their crafts and making new “old” art. I haven’t taken a photograph in years, but I have tooled leather, written music and manuscripts in authentic style with authentic materials, carved wood, made furniture, stitched clothing and embroidered livery badges as well as fought with bow, pole arm and sword, played the medieval fiddle and learned to dance a measure in courtly style. It is wonderful!
Looking back what I have realised, is that I am an artisan, not an artist. Artists make up new things. I love reviving the old. I live, eat and sleep the late Middle Ages and it has fulfilled me in a way I never thought possible.
My only regret is that I found out so late in life!
(aka Ralph d’Aarken)