A Perfect Time for Alice

Well, what an interesting year this has turned out to be.... although by "interesting", I actually mean "unforeseeably crazy".  Maybe that's why "Alice" came to the fore?  Perhaps we have all fallen down a rabbithole...

Alice in Wonderland




Lewis Carroll was not the first to notice the craziness of hatters - apparently the phrase "mad as a hatter" was first used about one Robert Crab, an   eccentric Englishman who, in the 1650s, gave all his goods to the poor and lived on dock leaves and grass.

By the time Alice was written, the prevalence of erratic, flamboyant behaviour (along with less picturesque problems such as drooling, loss of teeth, and peeling skin) among those making felt hats was widely noted. It took longer for the cause to be discovered: the widespread use of mercury in the felting process.

A story passed down in the hat industry gives this account of how such a toxic substance came to be used: In Turkey camel hair was used for felt material, and it was discovered that the felting process was speeded up if the fibers were moistened with camel urine. It is said that in France workmen used their own urine, but one particular workman seemed consistently to produce a superior felt. This person was being treated for syphalis with a mercury compound, and an association was made between mercury treatment of the fibers and an improved felt. Eventually the use of solutions of mercuric nitratewas widespread in the felt industry, and mercury poisoning became endemic.

Fortunately, the Bizarrium's Hatter has only developed pink eyes and a pale complexion and is still quite a handsome chap.


Meanwhile, the March Hare and his Dormouse pal are just waiting for their tea....

11.08.2020 | 260 Comments

New Work in a New Style

Following on from my last post, when I was beginning to assimilate what I learned from Johanna of The Pale Rook...

Epona was my first real success at combining textiles, embroidery, and a little bit of painting into something that felt authentically "Bizarrium".

Magda adds some wire-work to the mix; iron wire will continue to rust and add to her texture.

Lavernia came next, with lashings of antique lace and a whimsical tail.

Just this week, I made Arunas with his quilted wings and tail.

Some may well be headed for Glastonbury very soon, others for the Emporium.  Do come back to find out...

03.01.2020 | 169 Comments

Experiments (Courtesy of the Pale Rook) and Hints of Things to Come

So, a couple of weeks ago I drove from Somerset to Glasgow to attend the first doll-making workshop given by Johanna Flanagan (she of the Pale Rook).  Not that I am an inveterate workshopper (this was only my second, the other being wirework which helped in the development of antlers and fairy wings), but I do believe this was rather special. I am certainly happy with what I learned...


Firstly, a stuffed doll flat-patterned on the spot, adorned with scraps of antique lace.


Then we explored a technique utterly new to me, and one that foxed me at first.  A wire armature padded with a touch of needlefelting, then bound with strips of gauze.  Building out rather than having any pattern at all. Over the course of the weekend I picked at it and developed an idea...but it wasn't until I was home and could take more time that her head was made.  And in case you were concerned, this hare is supposed to be gazing at the moon, not auditioning for a remake of Flashdance.


Over tha past week I have also made my first attempt at translating Johanna's teachings into something in more of my own style. In other words, big hair, more old lace, and black-smudged eyes.  A ways to go yet, but as a starting point she is alright, I suppose

Much experimenting to be done.

Expect new things and new directions in the new decade......

12.08.2019 | 228 Comments

A Cryptid for our Time


Much food for thought in "The Land of the Green Man" by Carolyne Larrington.


Zombies as the monster of choice for the status-driven '90s/early 2000s:

profound social fears generated by overcrowding & many other pressures of modern urban environments...The living dead are transformed as parodic consumers, armies that lurch through shopping malls in search of a nourishment which does not nourish.

Now we see the rise of the mermaid.

In sea-cold Lyonesse,/ when the Sabbath eve shafts down / on the roofs, walls and belfries / of the foundered town, / the Nereids pluck their lyres... / and the ocean water stirs / in salt-worn casement and porch.*

Mermaids inhabiting drowned cities, memories of past floods, warn of the irresistable power of rising water levels.  Legends reaching across the milennia to speak to our climate crisis.

*"Sunken Lyonesse" by Walter de la Mare



10.11.2019 | 56 Comments

Folklore and Fairies

It is exactly a year and a day since we moved to our barn on the edge of the Somerset Levels, which seems like a most appropriate time to ponder the Bizarrium's new direction - digging into folklore and fairytales.  Because doesn't everything take a year and a day in the stories?

The landscape here has a definite, distinctive spirit: the wide floodplains are a patchwork of small fields and patches of woodland beneath constantly changing skies, dotted with strangely uniform hillocks.  We are just eight miles from the most famous of these - Glastonbury Tor (pictured above) - which lies at the heart of Arthurian legend, and under which it is said the king and his knights still sleep.  The countryside is riddled with caves and bathed in mist, awash with tales of dragons, battles, witches, and giants, .

Add to that a house which began with stones taken from a small monastery destroyed by order of Henry VIII in the early 16th century.  It grew over the centuries, with the central courtyard dating back only to the 1780s - but my sewing room was standing when William Shakespeare was treading the boards of the Globe. 

Definitely time to dig into local lore.

Reading and doodling as ever.

In my diggings, I came across the warping of the word pagan.  Current usage is a direct consequence of the early Christian church co-opting it to mean "an unconverted member of a people that does not acknowledge the God of the Bible...having little or no religion and who delights in sensual pleasures and material goods", with added elements of druidism, goddess worship and even Satanism.  But the original (Latin) paganus simply meant a villager, someone rooted in nature and a particular patch of land.  Hence the French paysan and English peasant.

Dear reader, I think I may be becoming pagan myself.

Long, long ago - or perhaps not - when the Levels were awash with floodwaters and the safe paths were narrow, folks must choose carefully which nights to travel.  For when the moon was full and shone as bright as day, the way was clear and barely dangerous at all; but when she waned and the night was dark, the spirits of the marshes could come slithering out. Boggarts and bogles and all manner of oozing malodorous beasts would lurk and lure the traveller to an untimely end.

The moon heard rumours of what happened when she was absent, and one dark night took it into her head to visit the Levels for herself.  She cloaked herself in midnight velvet to smother her silver light, leaving only the faintest of glows around the hem to light her path, and stepped out amid the slip almost immediately into a deep and reeking stagnant rhyne. The goblins and gremlins leapt upon her as they did upon any poor lost soul, binding her fast with ropes of slime and roots of reed.  She struggled to no avail, succeeding only in dislodging her hood so that the full radiance of her face streamed up from the murky waters; the evil ones soon put an end to that by piling a cairn of stones upon her.

That brief flash of glorious light had been enough for one lonely traveller to make his way along the path, however - and when the next new moon failed to appear in the dark dark skies, he recalled that strange glow from the ditch. At the head of a group of villagers armed with lanterns and shovels, barrows and ropes, he led the way to the cairn which they heaved and hauled away.

The silver moon rose from the depths, becoming brighter and clearer until the villagers were all but blinded; they were forced to look away as she soared out of the water and back into the heavens, where she settled herself back amongst the welcoming stars.  But the moon has never forgotten the kindness of those villagers who saved her from the stinking waters - and she shines just as brightly as she can across the Levels every night, to guide the weary traveller safely home.


I certainly need to make another moon doll, but meanwhile have started making some of the creatures from the mind map above. 

Animal-headed folk in the pipeline include this hare along with a stag, horse, cat, hawk and fox - definitely planning to keep to locally-found creatures.  So no lions or bears, flamingos or pandas; but if these are well-received I may look at mice, badgers, perhaps even a cow.  Thoughts, dear reader?

Meanwhile four fae are complete:





Each is unique, but they are all made of painted cloth with Teesdale locks for hair, and dressed in an assortment of vintage lace, silk and satin devore.  Their costumes are inspired by Renaissance dresses as a nod to Titania, with their puffed sleeves, breast-baring bodices, and double-layer skirts. Wings are the result of many many messy experiments - I was finally made happy by a combination of resin with silver wire.

They are available in the Itinerant Bizarrium shop.





09.01.2019 | 59 Comments

Developing New Dolls - and a Whole Host of Questions

Although the Bizarrium already includes a set of paper dolls featuring the characters of the circus itself, I have for some time been contemplating another group - this time focussing on women both famous and infamous.  I am thinking of a basic body for each set, with outfits for six or eight icons within each theme.

The first group is just underway, with this body:

Still work-in-progress (the face is yet to be finished, down-scaled and attached to the neck), and I am wondering whether I should have added underwear? Your thoughts?

This collection will be of historical icons :

  • Joan of Arc
  • Boudicca
  • Ada Lovelace
  • Amelia Earhart
  • Marie Antoinette
  • Elizabeth I
  • Empress Theodora

To this end, I have been adding to my inspiration book filled with Heroines collages

A first draft of Boudicca, just to check that the costume fits:

So the next question arises: traditional paper doll with costumes attached via little tabs, or should I experiment with magnetic papers?  If I can make it work, I rather like the notion of a little tin containing a magnetic set.

It may have struck you that these are all very white, western figures - a necessity if I am to use the same basic body.  So my second list is of heroines of colour:

  • Cleopatra
  • Josephine Baker
  • Sojourner Truth
  • Billie Holliday
  • Marie Laveau
  • Amina of Zaria
  • Queen Idia

To my mind, this is just balancing the books - recognising that not all significant women have had pale skin.  But I do fear that it may be perceived as "cultural appropriation".  Again, I would love to hear your thoughts.

Thirdly, there are the Bad Girls:

  • Elizabeth Bathory
  • Lucrezia Borgia
  • Alice Kyteler
  • Anne Bonny
  • Mata Hari
  • Bettie Page
  • Lizzie Borden

I do have a couple more groups in my notebook, but it is early days...

Do let me know your thoughts on underwear, whether it is alright to portray non-white icons, whether paper or magnets are the way to go...and of course, who you feel I need to add to the cast.


03.20.2018 | 34 Comments | in: dolls, inspiration, paper doll

More Theatre: Spanish Heat and Russian Revolution.

With no apology, I am returning to the subject of Carmen 1808, the musical version of Bizet's classic opera for which I recently designed costumes.For the first time, my work has been featured in one of those modern "EPK" things - an Electronic Press Kit!  So there is a beautifully-produced clip of the show in motion - and it makes me smile evry time I watch it.  The cast are gorgeous, taking up my challenge to ditch the glamour puss in favour of well-used sex kitten to splendid effect, and you may notice some rather nice reviews, too.

Adding to the general euphoria of a show well done, you may also notice a reference to some award nominations.  Another first, and so pleased that a veritable gang of fellow creatives are recognised.  Well done, chaps!

But no time for resting upon laurels (which I always thinks sounds quite painful anyway) - on with the next show.  And back to Mother Russia we go, to create a world for Chekov's Cherry Orchard.  The design brief is 1917, Bolsheviks and the Russian Revolution; beyond that, my notes from a chat with our director run to a single page: 

(A brief aside: my schoolteachers often remarked that my handwriting looked as if a drunken spider had wandered across the page.  Some things never change!)

From that basic information, I have put together a moodboard

Time to run up a couple of elegant frocks for Ranyevskaya and Pischik, whilst re-purposing the Soviet army coats one more time (they are currently masquerading as a Napoleonic firing squad in Carmen).  The actors are under orders to cultivate a range of moustaches and goatees, and I shall be spending this afternoon rummaging through costume storage in search of tweed.  



Inspiration is on the Cards

Like just about everyone else, I had a deck of tarot cards when I was a teenager.  The book fell apart years ago (an aside - why were 70s paperbacks so very badly glued?), but I do still have the cards - an Arthurian deck by Caitlin & John Matthews.  

The imagery may have dated a little, but I feel they will prove very useful as inspiration for my upcoming Morte d'Arthur designs.  Justification, as if I needed it, for not throwing things away!  

In the intervening years, they have been sat on a bookshelf untouched because - like most of us - I never really got to grips with the whole Tarot system.  However, I recently discovered the Little Red Tarot site which stocks a plethora of gorgeous self-published decks (and don't we all prefer to support the independent artist!) and went on to take an e-course with Susannah Conway.  The result was a hit to my bank balance, but a shelf full of stunning imagery.

Allow me to share some of my favourites:

This is the Dreaming Way tarot by Rome Choi, illustrated by Kwon Shina - and having said that I prefer to buy indie pieces, this is a mass-produced deck available via Amazon.  But I do like its quirky attitude (the tea pot on the head!) and muted colour scheme.  And following the lead of Ms Conway, I felt free to cut the white borders off, re-writing the name of each card by hand - something I should be loathe to do to a less easily-replaced set.

This is Dame Darcy's Mermaid Tarot bought direct from her Etsy shop.  Now I'm not one for sugar-sweet mermaids with long pink tresses and Disney-worthy smiles cavorting with snow-white unicorns, I fear.  This deck has none of that, but rather is filled with hand-drawn sea creatures, pirates, camp sailors and - yes - the odd mermaid.  Excellent fodder for my mermaid journal...

Good lord, this one was pricey - but look how utterly beautiful!  Pagan Otherworlds features oil paintings by Linnea Gits and lettering by Peter Dunham.  It is redolent of all my favourite Renaissance masters - Botticelli, Lucas Cranach, Durer, et al -  mixed up with a Celtic mythos that appeals to my English heart. Cue gratuitous close-up..

Now I am saving my pennies for the accompanying book - also available via Little Red Tarot.  (I have no affiliation, by the way - just another happy customer!)

Santa Muerte by Fabio Listrani goes against so many of my preferences - mass-produced, saturated colours, a little bit big for my (admittedly small) hands.  But who can resist an entire deck of Frida-esque flowers, skulls, butterflies; despite all the bones it is full of joyous images (heart-shaped eye sockets, for instance) in true Day of the Dead tradition.  Indeed some of these cards have been tucked into the frame of my noticeboard whilst I work on my current Dos Fridas painting. (Which I'm sure will appear in a future post)

And finally the Vintage Wisdom Oracle, a collage deck by Victoria Moseley.  Whilst I'm not a great fan of oracle decks in general, I am invariably taken by a good photo-collage - especially when a bevy of vintage beauties are involved.  They are just so inspiring for both drawing and doll-making.  Again I have de-bordered the cards in order to focus on the imagery and make them easier to handle. 

So many pictures to look at, so many ideas to expand upon - and all packaged up in handy little boxes.  What's not to love!

02.20.2018 | 167 Comments | in: inspiration, tarot

Carmen 1808 - Costumes for Gypsies and Soldiers

As promised in an earler post, I have photos to share of seductive gypsies and handsome men in uniform.  The sheer scale of this production - seventeen cast members with assorted changes needing to be sourced/made in three weeks - meant that I did not have time to produce drawings as I did for Heartbreak House.  There was, of course, an initial moodboard :

I'm sure I have mentioned before how much I enjoy the hunt for inspiring images and the juggling of them into some kind of coherent reference collage.

As you may have gathered from the research, our story was relocated to a Spain occupied by Napoleon's forces during the Peninsular Wars of the early 19th century.  It was in part narrated by Fransisco Goya, whose observations of the horrors of the campaign led him to abandon society portraits and produce increasingly dark and disturbing images culminating in his print series "The Disasters of War" :

With this in mind, along with the fabulously grungy set by Justin Williams and moody lighting by Ben Jacobs, the costumes needed to look as un-costumey as possible whilst allowing Carmen to be an irresistable seductress.

An added complication was the casting of our leading man - a Spanish soldier rather than bullfighter in our world - who just happened to stand 6'7" tall.  Have you ever tried to hire a uniform for someone that height?  Let me save you the effort and tell you now - they don't exist.  The only answer was to build both Spanish officers' outfits.

So it was that I barely escaped from my workroom - but I think it was worthwhile.  Judge for yourself from these photos by Scott Rylander:

And last of all, our homage to El tres de mayo de 1808 en Madrid 

So, another project crossed off the list and just one more production in this first theatre season of 2018.  I have promised myself a week off (at least, a week away from my sewing machine) before beginning to grapple with The Cherry Orchard.  The rest of Sunday will be devoted to curling up on my chaise with a good book and a glass of wine - tomorrow I break out the paint brushes...

02.11.2018 | 25 Comments | in: costume design, gypsies, theatre

Reading for Persistent Resistors

Before I get into anything else, may I take a moment to congratulate a friend on finding THE best thing for a left-leaning queen to wear on the Womens' March in NYC:

Even though I am not a Cher fan, this makes me smile a lot.  Thank you, Thom.

On the book front, I have been dipping into a few feminist volumes of late.  By far the prettiest must be "Literary Witches".

The illustrations are enchanting - my especial favourites are Agatha Christie with her tea-table set with poison and a noose, Anais Nin writing her diary whilst floating amid mermaid-selves, and Alejandra Pizarnik alone amid dead birds and paper dolls.

Then there is the writing : "When she brushes the carpet, Emily (Bronte) imagines she is smoothing the moors for Heathcliff's perfect feet.  He'll come in, Emily dreams, like the wind she walks against - muscular gusts, clenched hands snarling under her coats".  Isn't that a perfect blend of her torrid imagination and the drabness of Haworth daily life?

Less successful, for me, is "100 Nasty Women of History"

I can cope with the four-letter words and the tone, which is clearly aimed at non-historians - in fact, full marks for reaching out to spread the word of feminist icons old and new.  Even better is the massive range of women included here, ignoring the obvious Joan of Arc, Amelia Earhart et al in favour of Ching Shih, Nana Asma'u, Lotfia Elnadi, Irena Sendler and Coccinelle.

What disappoints me is the lack of detail, although one assumes this is necessary if one hundred lives are to fit in one volume. The reduction of the entire ancient Egyptian civilisation, for instance, to "those great lovers of cats and triangles" in Hatshepsut's story which is given less than two pages all told.  Or the one-and-a-half pages in which Khutulun wrestles her admirers on the understanding that "should the suitor win, then YOLO, they'd get married" - who wouldn't want to know more about this Mongol princess.  I suppose the idea is to pique interest, and on those terms it does work.  

In other words, mixed feelings on this one - but overall worth the investment if only to discover new stories to pursue elsewhere.

Since I only began reading last night, I can't give a definitive overview of this one yet:

But, oh boy, it seems like something to sink the teeth into.  If I may quote one of the reviews from the back cover: "Ages before the most qualified presidential candidate in history was called a 'nasty woman', women were long vilified for their power, intelligence and prowess - except they were called witches.  To understand the current misogynistic political climate...look no further" (Alex Berg)  

Discussing not just archetypal goddesses and witch trials, but reproductive rights, pornography, and the image of the witch in various media, I suspect this one will end up with many notes scrawled in the margins.

So there you have it, this month's Bizarrium inspiration : one piece of intellectual eye-candy, one superficial yet worthwhile breeze through history, and one challenging volume of gender studies.

Do you have anything to recommend?  I'm always happy to have an excuse to visit the bookshop....

01.21.2018 | 25 Comments | in: inspiration, reading, resistance
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