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Mediæval Monsters

5 February 2015

Time passed 1pm. The merciless minute-hand was racing away from its ponderous little friend as I dressed, bade farewell to the receptionist at Albemarle College, and rapidly descended the steps into Marble Arch station. I was expected at The Book Club in Shoreditch before 2 o’clock.

As one life modelling job ends, so another begins.

At Albemarle I’d posed my unadorned body for four art students simply to observe and capture creatively. Life at the Book Club, however, would be very, very different. Here be monsters… moreover, mediæval monsters presented by Art Macabre in a sell-out ticketed event for between forty and fifty artists.

I made it there in good time for our 2pm start but the pressure was off anyway. My co-model for the afternoon – Melissa – was already on the scene, her lower half in period costume and upper half midway through being body-painted by Art Macabre creative czar, Nikki aka Raven Rouge.

Melissa would be portraying a complete menagerie of monsters during the first hour whereas after the break I would have but one universal role: the medico della peste… the pestarzt… the médico de la peste negra… the Plague Doctor.

The most iconic feature of a mediæval plague doctor is his beaklike mask. But how does one acquire such an extraordinary leather proboscis in this day and age? One looks no further than Art Macabre’s maker magnifica: Linsay.

For this special occasion she had surpassed herself to create an object of exquisite glory. Perfectly shaped, handsomely stitched, with glass eye-pieces to the fore and brass buckle fastening at the back, it would be my absolute privilege to model it – a work of art in its own right.

Death drawing enthusiasts were already upon our inner basement wall like bees over honeycomb as the more delicate details of Melissa’s headdress were being finessed into position. Linsay opened the doors and artists meandered in to seek comfortable vantage amid a cluster of tealights and chairs.

When the hubbubbing hoi polloi had hushed, Nikki strode out to our low corner stage. Beyond the curtains of our dim crimson ‘green room’, she welcomed artists and whet their appetites for astonishing sights to come. Melissa then emerged in full mediæval costume and posed as if listening to the whispers of a skull.

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This first pose was just a gentle scene-setter lasting three minutes. The second pose, however, whilst only lasting four minutes was more like a mediæval torture: in a static dance of death, Melissa would hold the skull high aloft and gaze into its eyes. Only four minutes? Go on, try it.

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After the longest four minutes of her life, Melissa lowered her arm; lowered herself into sitting position; and Nikki lowered Melissa’s top for a semi-naked pose of five minutes as ‘the mandrake‘. This presented the first major test of imagination for our artists: to depict her as half woman, half plant.

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Pose complete, Melissa uprooted and shed the last of her clothes, then turned away from the audience to reveal a broad face painted across her back. For seven minutes she would be a Blemmye – artists were asked to imagine her with no head at all.

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Next came one for the purist: a virgin. Not necessarily the Virgin, but certainly a virgin in a pose of seven minutes, complete with black-feathered companion. Upon finishing this, her penultimate pose, Melissa stole backstage for a last change of costume.

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Off came the horns that she’d been wearing up until then, and onto her head went the foam-made crown of a unicorn. Returning to the stage, she closed the first half of our session with a candle-cradling 10-minute seated pose.

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It had been a real tour de force from Melissa, all the more impressive for being her life modelling début. For my turn, I was stripped nude, put into a long black cape and the plague doctor mask, had another black cloth draped over my head, and was pressed under a wide-brimmed black hat. That was me sorted.

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With grotesque black claws on one hand and a long cane in the other, I was ready to meet my public. Nikki lead me onto the stage, introducing my character both visually and verbally, then left me in pose for an opening 10 minutes.

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After five motionless minutes, I started to ponder silently the possibility of suffocating in my mask and collapsing. I had become aware that my inward breaths were getting warmer and warmer as I recycled my own trapped carbon dioxide. What to do? Keep calm and carry on, of course.

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I didn’t collapse. Whilst it might have afforded excellent opportunities for the artists to observe a long reclining pose, it would have been rather unprofessional and somewhat undignified. The 10 minutes raced by as I mulled such thoughts.

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My second and final pose would again be standing, but this time 25 minutes, facing a different direction with a different stance. I found a good supported position and drifted into ‘the zone’, whatever that might be. I was savouring the weirdness of it all.

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Never before had I imagined myself stark naked save a cape and a leather mask on a London stage, standing before a live audience. Do not presume to know your destiny; life can always take you beyond the limit of your expectations.

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I could have stood there for ages. The hour of our ending was upon us, however, and Nikki drew the session to its close. Applause was very generous, and well deserved for Melissa and Raven Rouge. As is customary, Nikki invited all the artists to lay out their work around the room.

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I was keen to join in the admiration, but first had to stumble backstage and somehow extricate myself from mediæval bondage. The claw and mask were both affectionately and stubbornly attached. By adding brute force to my ignorance – whilst taking great care not to damage the mask – eventually I got free.

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When Nikki booked me for this event she had promised to make me “unrecognisable”. Proof of her success, as I returned in clothes to photograph the art, was that a couple of artists spoke to me about the plague doctor as “he”. Erm… that was me!

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This was my tenth Art Macabre death drawing salon. Whilst not their most glamorous location or the most challenging poses, it was perhaps the most enjoyable day so far. Well worth a dash from 21st century west end London into mediæval east end murk.

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p.s. this last drawing? By Melissa.

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