Michael Smith

Michael Smith (1963 – present) is a British author, translator and printmaker who studied history at the University of York and went on to study a masters in medieval languages and literature. He also received tuition in printmaking from Sue Jones at the Curwan Print Study Centre in Linton with certification awarded by Stanley Jones MBE. Smith has made many images on the subject of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight which can be viewed at his website (see Smith, 2022) dedicated to his prints and translations of that poem and other Arthurian narratives and British myths. Regarding his long engagement with Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Smith comments:-

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, is a fourteenth century poetic masterpiece. No mere Arthurian romance, it is a work of huge religious, spiritual and mystical power. In subjecting its hero to the hardest of temptations, it reveals the hollowness of the chivalric ideal, the weakness of men and the loneliness of the human condition. As well as its great literary merit, it also allegorical, carrying a profound message for contemporary kings and nobles (Smith, 2019).


His translation of the poem was published by Unbound in 2018. Smith kindly offered the insight below when I asked him in 2021 about his influences and creative process for the images displayed below:- 


I attach an importance to replicating the naive nature of mediaeval illuminated manuscripts where often figures are out of proportion to themselves, other figures and to their environment. The figures frequently occur without emotion, illustrating a passage or highlighting some religious moment. It will be seen from the image of Gawain being handed the axe, for example, that the Green Knight appears as a benign creation (which in many ways he is - also a trapped soul not a monster of his own making). The illuminations to Cotton Nero a.x assume that the reader places more emphasis on the text and its impact rather than the illustrations; I have tried to achieve this with this illustration.
 

With Gawain on the bridge, again I have chosen a disproportionate imagery where the knight appears to have his arms held in an awkward fashion; similarly, the wodwose appears displaced, emotionally, from his environment although it is clear that he is afraid of Gawain. The idea of the wodwose himself is drawn from a mediaeval image of green men but also from the effigy in a church at Aldbury near Tring in Hertfordshire.
 

The Green Knight in the forest again is disproportionate. I wanted to capture the sense of him in the woodland landscape to which he disappears to "who knows where" twice in the poem. His decoration and clothing is based on that described in the poem. The detail of the mullets was not possible so I instead used stars to emerge from the hooves of the horse as if to give him a magical appearance. This particular image was produced from three plates, using the wet-on-wet method to enable the colours to interact with each other on the laying of the plates.
 

An additional feature of the compositions is that the linocutting process takes turns as you go along. Sometimes, for example in the Gawain/Axe composition, I am cutting the brickwork when it dawns on me to change the cutting so that, as you can see, a section of the wall becomes lighter, which then serves to highlight the characters within it. Often this process is completely accidental but you follow it as you are inspired. I never work from an original drawing but produce a rough sketch on the block and then develop the detail from there. Sometimes the process works, and sometimes it is a complete failure!
 

One thing that emerges from this work. When you base your illustration on mediaeval illuminations, you soon realise that the illuminators themselves, far from being abstract in their work, are instead observing their world very closely indeed and, in the case of mechanical devices, fully understand what they are recreating. Similarly with fashion and armour (Smith in correspondence with Michael Eden 2021). 
 

References 
 

Smith, M. (2018) Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Unbound.
 

Smith, M. (2019) Sir Gawain and the Green Knight – a Bewitching Masterpiece of Mediaeval Poetry – #FolkloreThursday. [online] Folklorethursday.com. Available at: <https://folklorethursday.com/legends/sir-gawain-and-the-green-knight-a-bewitching-masterpiece-of-mediaeval-poetry [Accessed 19 May 2022].
 

Smith, M. (2022) [online] Mythicalbritain.co.uk. Available at: <https://www.mythicalbritain.co.uk [Accessed 19 May 2022].

Images shared with the kind permission of the artist 

Green Knight in the Forest B.jpg
Wodwose and Sir Gawain
Gawain receives the Axe B.jpg
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