We challenged four poets to create an original piece inspired by a painting of their choice from Art UK.
The last one throwing shapes on the dancefloor, every time. He greets each group of high-heeled girls with cheesy chat up lines. And never talks about his life – you'll ask, but he won't mention.
The painting: Bonjour, Pierrot! by Ethel Wright
The character of Pierrot was originally created in the seventeenth century and first appeared in a Molière play, Dom Juan, performed by a group of Italian players in Paris. Pierrot has typically been defined by his naivety and his lovelorn nature – the trusting fool, always in pursuit of someone who turns him down.
In an edition of Pearson's magazine, published in 1898, a reporter gives us an insight into why Ethel Wright chose to paint Pierrot:
'It was during the young artist’s sojourn in Paris to study in Julien’s celebrated school that the idea of painting Pierrot came to Miss Ethel Wright. It was a daring experiment for the young artist to choose such a subject for her first Academy picture, for though Pierrot is as familiar to Parisians as Punch and Judy is to Londoners, we neither know him nor sympathise with him... I asked Miss Wright to tell me her conception of Pierrot. She said: "Oh, I suppose a silly, light-hearted, good-natured, love-sick boy whose business it is to fall in love with every girl he meets". It is really a sort of stock character, like the clown and pantaloon in a pantomime, or Agoust in the circus.
Miss Wright had seen the character both on the stage and at the students’ fancy dress balls, and she had enough of the light-hearted, mental agility of our French neighbours to understand Pierrot. The idea possessed her to make the character familiar to English audiences, and, carrying out what she saw in her mind’s eye with a certain ‘chic’ quality, her ‘Prodigal’ was, as I have said, one of the successes of the Academy.'
(Information courtesy of Gallery Oldham).
The poet: Rowan McCabe
Aware that poetry isn’t a proper job, Rowan McCabe decided to create his own profession and became the world’s first and only Door-to-Door Poet. Knocking on the doors of strangers, he asks them what is important to them; he then goes away and writes a poem about this, bringing it back and performing it on their doorstep. He's trying to prove absolutely anyone can enjoy poetry and that strangers really aren't as scary as they seem.
Dismissed by many as impossible, Rowan began the project in October 2015, starting in his home town of Heaton, Newcastle upon Tyne. The following year, he received a grant from Arts Council England to tour the project around the North East. Since then, he's written a poem about equality for a German migrant, a poem about his first ever visit to a mosque, and he's knocked on doors in 'the roughest street in Stockton'.
Rowan performs on stages as well as doorsteps and has appeared at Glastonbury Festival and the Royal Albert Hall. He was the winner of the 2015 Great Northern Slam and his work has been featured on BBC Radio, BBC Breakfast and Channel 4's Random Acts website.
I think that's the sign of a good painting – I didn't need to know the backstory, I could feel it from the start.
What drew you to the painting you chose?
The minute I saw it, it struck a chord. The idea of the clown who's hiding a lot of sadness – I think we all know someone like that. I've got to admit, I didn't know anything about Pierrot until I finished the poem. The odd thing was, once I found out how influential this character had been on culture for hundreds and hundreds of years, it didn't actually make me change anything I'd already written. I think that's the sign of a good painting – I didn't need to know the backstory, I could feel it from the start.
Why did you choose to write about mental health?
Mental health problems have affected me, my family, and my friends. There's nowhere near enough help for people who are struggling and can't afford private healthcare. It's ridiculous. What the painting really reminded me of was that sometimes a person can seem really silly and fun, but be hiding a lot underneath the surface. It felt important to talk about that.
What were the challenges in writing a poem specifically about a painting?
I think you have to forget about the painting for a while. The idea has to come from somewhere inside of you that reflects who you really are. Even if the journey you take to get to that point leads you miles away from the picture you started on, that's much more important than just describing something that's already been done.
How long have you been performing poetry?
Since 2011. I started going to performance workshops called Scratch Tyne, run by Kirsten Luckins at Apples and Snakes. It pretty much taught me everything I know. I'm in a great position now where I co-run Scratch Tyne and I'm trying to help new performers the way Kirsten helped me.
What would your advice be for someone trying performance poetry for the first time?
Never stop. Also, if you live in England, contact Apples and Snakes and get involved with things they're doing in your area.
Where can people see more of your work?
I'm at the Edinburgh Fringe this year, 4–5pm at the Banshee Labyrinth every day (except Thursdays). Or you can check out my work as the world's first Door-to-Door Poet.
The gallery: Gallery Oldham
Gallery Oldham provides a wide range of exhibitions and activities targeted at different audiences of all ages within Oldham and the surrounding area.
Current and forthcoming exhibitions feature artworks and items from Oldham’s diverse collections alongside newly commissioned art, international work, touring exhibitions and work produced with local communities.
The gallery has paintings by local artists such as Helen Bradley, William Stott, Sheila Dewsbury and Alan Rankle. The collections also include works by John Everett Millais, Howard Hodgkin, John Constable and Laura Knight.
If you're feeling inspired, you can explore art near you by finding your closest venue: there are museums, galleries and more from all over the UK.
Or, you can keep looking at artworks online. Why not try exploring paintings tagged 'Manchester', or look at other paintings that feature a dog? Pierrot himself is in good company: you can explore other clown-themed paintings. For more poetry, check out the other films in our 'Art Speaks' series, by Sabrina Mahfouz and Sophia Thakur.
- Ethel Wright, frustrated with her work always being seen as 'women's art', became active in the women's suffrage movement. Her support for the movement continued as she had paintings displayed annually at the Royal Academy
- Wright painted a portrait of Christabel Pankhurst, who co-founded the Women's Social and Political Union and advocated militant forms of action in the suffragette movement. The portrait was put on public display in the National Portrait Gallery in 2014
- Apples and Snakes, mentioned by Rowan, are England's leading organisation for performance poetry and spoken word. As well as helping poets to develop their skills, they put on events all over the country