5.3: This Septic Isle

Defining the focus

This final assignment builds on previous projects, evolving from exploratory work for one of the options in Project 3.3

An animation in After Effects based on a feminist and environmentalist interpretation of Shakespeare’s John of Gaunt’s ‘This Sceptred Isle’ speech from Richard II with photomontage of my own images and selection from Internet.

Choose some song lyrics or a line of a poem and typeset it to reflect the mood of the music or tone of the content. Attempt this task by working with digital or hand rendered typography. Now find or propose a physical way to extend your thinking, for example by using real materials or processes in place of your typography or as a filter to add to it.

I started by looking in more depth at typography, to stretch myself and follow up on some ideas that I had only touched on in previous projects – Book Design 1 and Project 3.1 above. And strengthening my skills in Illustrator workflow to encompass:

  • further exploration of expressive potential of different typefaces, particularly Adobe fonts, but also free fonts.
  • making Illustrator brushes from physical materials.
  • animation of Illustrator text to sound performance in Adobe After Effects.
  • seeing how the typeface, style and medium could create different interpretations of the same text.

The original inspiration was a set of photos of Pendinas Island (see ‘Lost in Blue’) from my work in St Ives for Project 3.1 that evoked the phrase ‘Sceptred isle’ and ‘precious stone set in a silver sea’ from Shakespeare’s John of Gaunt speech ‘This Sceptred Isle’ from Richard II. I thought this would be a good starting point for exploring links between romantic and real views of ‘England’ – underpinned by my anxiety around Brexit.

I started by downloading the text

William Shakespeare Richard II John of Gaunt’s death-bed speech in Act 2, scene 1

The text of the whole speech is quite long, and I decided it would be more interesting to focus on different interpretations of the first part to fit this on one page as an interesting graphic, rather than a more mechanical typesetting of the whole text.

This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house
Against the envy of less happier lands;
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England,

But section the continued text also contributed some interesting ideas that could be incorporated in some way:
this nurse, this teeming womb of royal kings,
Feared be their breed and famous by their birth,
Renowned for their deeds as far from home
For Christian service and true chivalry
As is the sepulchre, in stubborn Jewry,
Of the world’s ransom, blessed Mary’s son;
This land of such dear souls, this dear dear land,
Dear for her reputation through the world,
Is now leased out – I die pronouncing it –
Like to a tenement or a pelting farm.
England, bound in with the triumphant sea,
Whose rocky shore beats back the envious siege
Of watery Neptune, is now bound in with shame,
With inky blots and rotten parchment bonds.
That England that was wont to conquer others
Hath made a shameful conquest of itself.

I also downloaded a video of four different performances of the text:

  • Edgar Wreford’s theatre performance in 1960 – when the British Empire had just gone – is obviously by a weakened and dying man sitting in his death bed.
  • John Gielgood’s BBC TV close-up performance from 1978 – just before Margaret Thatcher – is angry and pedantic.
  • John McEnnery’s theatrical pacing from 2003 – height of Blairism and the start of the Iraq War – is rambling and delusional, often staring into some distant vision.
  • Patrick Stewart’s performance from 2012 – under the Cameron coalition government – is much more nostalgic, longing for a beloved past land that he is about to leave.
John of Gaunt’s speech performed by four different actors: 1) 1960 Edgar Wreford 2) 1978 John Gielgud 3) 2003 John McEnnery 4) 2012 Patrick Stewart.

These theatrical performances pointed to an interesting set of four animated text interpretations where the typography and also the pace of animation would illustrate the very different moods.

Developing the underlying concept: Sceptred Isle to Brexit ‘Sceptic Isle’ to questioning our ‘Septic Isle’

In order to firm up these ideas – and possible links to a fifth contemporary Brexit interpretation – I did a Google search on ‘Shakespeare Sceptred Isle’. This produced a number of interesting contextual commentaries that question the commonly held romantic ‘patriotic’ assumptions about the meaning of Shakespeare’s text.

Gaunt is certainly obsessed by a romantic ideal of the English past and possibilities of greatness and dramatic landscape (like that at the end of Cornwall). But the speech itself is primarily driven by anger about the corruption and decline brought about by Richard II’s fiscal mismanagement. As stressed in the Norton article, a paranoid England never was an Island, but part of a conflicted Great Britain with Scotland, Wales and (at that time the whole of) Ireland. Its isolation from continental Europe was more from necessity than choice. And England was dominated (as now) by London that was far from the romanticised landscape.

My Google search on ‘Sceptred Isle’ also led me to a couple of You Tube videos. The first is an interesting, if somewhat random, compilation of images by Adrian Grant, that summarises his associations wit Great Britain (mostly England) from cottage landscapes and scientists to the Beatles and Banksy. The comments from 2018-2019 were also interesting in the ways they linked to arguments for Brexit.

Adrian Grant 2013: A roughly chronological tribute to Great Britain and all who sail in her. Music from Ralph Vaughan Williams, Fifth Symphony, part 3 – Romanza . Recent viewer comments from 2018-2019 refer directly to Brexit. For example Paolo Rubini (Italian origin??) writes: ‘a very lovely montage that encapsulates how I feel about this badly betrayed Sceptered Isle. We’re Brits, never never shall we be slaves.’ Simon Nicklin ‘ Makes me feel so proud’

The other interesting video from the Google search was the explicitly Brexit-related ‘This Sceptic Isle’ by Peter Hitchens described by one of the Brexiteer commentators as a ‘must-see for Remainers’. Though contrary to his assumption that this would convert, in fact it just confirms the roots of Brexit in the racism of Enoch Powell and the neo-liberal economics and Eton circle of Margaret Thatcher. With the Labour Party largely changing from scepticism to appreciating the important role of the EU in protecting worker’s rights.

From UK Conservative You Tube channel 2015 Full documentary presented by Peter Hitchens about the history of the UK’s relationship with the EU.

But as I was working on this project and particularly as we entered pre-election mode there was discussion of a lot more than Brexit: Extinction Rebellion and looming climate change, reports of health impacts of air pollution and government inaction, programmes about Britain’s role in the Cold War and development of nuclear weapons as we celebrated the falling of the Berlin Wall, role of UK in global money laundering and modern day slavery etc etc, etc, etc… So I started to think of a broader theme and the title ‘Septic Isle’ came to mind.

Typographic visual experiments

I then used my creative design toolkit to explore different typefaces (Adobe and other free web fonts) and layout possibilities. Before then honing these down to five versions for animation. Starting with a much broader experimentation enabled me to play and think freely, throwing up interesting possibilities that I would not have thought of through a more directed start. It was still possible using Illustrator to do this quite quickly – using type only was much less time consuming than the wider experimentation with image and text in previous projects.

I also sketched images that came to my mind to both explore my reactions and possible approaches – these can be seen and are taken further in Project 5.2 The Island. I also started to play with possible images for animated type pictures taking inspiration from Ian Hamilton Finlay, Tomato and other designers of typographic art. All this pointed to a range of different interpretations that could be translated into different typographic treatments.

1 Define It

2 Make it Bold

3 Let’s look at the Real Thing

4 Introduce time, motion and sound

5 What is the Key Moment

6) Create a variation

7) Connect play, fantasies and daydreams

8) Combine seemingly arbitrary content

9) Erase the distinctions between original and copy

10) Consider again your motivation

11) Make it Obvious

12) Make it Ambiguous

13) Remind yourself

14) Bounce around at speed

15) We’ve got a problem Houston

9) Erase distinctions

Shakespeare fonts


Visuals and Tim Gillian’s Monty Python

In terms of visuals I wanted to bring together the modern day serendipity of the ‘Sceptred Isle’ video above with political satire in answer to ‘the Sceptic Isle’ in a way that would be manageable for my current skills in After Effects animation. By chance as I was looking for possible animation styles, I saw a TV programme with clips from Monty Python. Terry Gilliam’s eccentric mix of collage (in some ways echoing the work of Sara Fanelli) and slapstick satire looked very relevant as a potentially new way of photography-based working. So I looked in much more detail at his work.

Adobe Photoshop for the iPad to export layered Photoshop files that could then be imported for animation into After Effects.

Adobe Audition and Garage Band.