Richard Hamilton

The heaventree of stars


View this artwork by appointment, at Tate Britain's Prints and Drawings Rooms

Richard Hamilton 1922–2011
Digital print on paper
Image: 530 x 375 mm
Purchased 1999


The heaventree of stars is a black and white image, showing a man and a woman lying in a bed top-to-toe under a crocheted bedspread. Above them the hazy night sky is full of stars, represented by white spots of different sizes. The stars are variously accompanied by their names and single Greek characters. Adding to the dreamy atmosphere, an old-fashioned jug in a bowl on a washstand floats at an angle in the sky. The print is the most recent addition to Hamilton’s ongoing set of illustrations to James Joyce’s novel Ulysses (first published in Paris, 1922). The project was begun in the late 1940s and to date comprises seven etchings created during the 1980s (Tate P77473, P77483, P77484, P77491, P77492, P77493, P77494), plus this digital print. Hamilton was first inspired by the idea of illustrating Joyce’s complex, experimental novel in 1947 while he was doing army service and began making sketches the following year, only to put the project to one side in 1950. It was not until 1981 that he made the decision to create one illustration for each of the novel’s eighteen chapters, and a nineteenth image – a portrait of one of the novel’s main protagonists, Leopold Bloom – destined as a frontispiece. He conceived these images as large intaglio prints. However in 1990, after creating He foresaw his pale body (P77494), Hamilton became tired of commuting to Paris, where he had been working with the master printmaker Aldo Crommelynck for twenty years, and abandoned etching. He spent much of the 1990s developing his skill in creating images destined for fine art printing on a computer.

The heaventree of stars is the first of the Ulysses prints to be created by digital collage and printed in inkjet. It is based on the novel’s penultimate chapter, the Ithaca episode, which Joyce wrote in a technical, denotative language, the anti-literary language of science. To create the image, Hamilton employed a mixture of photography and collage and drawing using Quantel graphics tools. First he photographed his wife, the artist Rita Donagh (born 1939), and his studio assistant, Nigel McKernaghan, lying in bed as Joyce’s two characters, Molly and Leopold Bloom, before re-photographing the bed and inserting the models’ heads into the new image. He and Rita sewed together hundreds of squares his mother had crocheted in order to make the bedspread that features on the bed. The old iron bedstead, that appears arbitrarily in the middle of the bedspread, and the ewer in the sky were discovered in an Irish cottage preserved in a folk museum and photographed before being added to the image. The artist collaged a scan of a map of the constellations into the sky above the sleepers. Finally he drew Molly and Leopold into the image digitally, replacing the photographs of the sleeping models with hand-drawing that merges seamlessly with the photographed elements. The relative positions of the earthly bodies – Molly and Leopold – correspond to those of the heavenly bodies, Ursa Major and Leo.

The studies leading up to the creation of The heaventree of stars were developed specifically from three questions asked in the penultimate episode of Ulysses: ‘In what directions did listener and narrator lie?’, ‘In what state of rest or motion?’ and ‘In what posture?’ (quoted by Hamilton in Painting by Numbers, p.33). Hamilton has explained: ‘Each precise question, followed by an equally precise yet comprehensive answer, establishes not only the sleepers’ physical relationship but their location relative to Earth, and to Earth’s motion in space relative to the universe. The chapter ends as they fall asleep in their “dark bed”.’ (Quoted in Painting by Numbers, p.33.) His print unites the elements evoked by Joyce’s questions and answers.

Hamilton is a consummate print-maker, having worked intensively with many different forms of the medium since the 1960s. His oeuvre includes progressive stages of images that may have started in one form and become combined with many others. Hamilton’s print-making embraces a wide range of techniques, often deployed in unorthodox ways or brought together in unusual combinations. One of his earliest prints, People, 1968, utilised photography, screenprint, letratone, retouching, spray and collage. Although Hamilton used a computer to generate imagery as early as 1971, it was not until 1987 when he first employed the Quantel Paintbox that he began to explore in a concerted way the potential of computers for making prints. Since this time he has increasingly exploited developments in computer technology. Despite the advances made since the late 1980s, a remaining obstacle has been the question of how to make satisfactory hard copies of his pictures. In printing from images held in computer files, scale and the permanence of inks continued to be unsatisfactory. In 1998 Hamilton indentified a set of long-life colour inks which answered these needs, a development which enabled the publication of A mirrorical return, 1998 (P78289), The marriage, 1998 (Tate P78290) and The heaventree of stars.

The heaventree of stars was produced in an edition of forty plus four artist’s proofs of which Tate’s copy is the thirty-fourth. It was printed by Ian Cartwright on Somerset paper at Circa, London and distributed by Alan Cristea Gallery, London.

Further reading:
Richard Hamilton: Painting by Numbers, exhibition catalogue, Alan Cristea Gallery, London 2006, pp.39-47, reproduced pp.46-7.
Stephen Coppel, Richard Hamilton: Imaging James Joyce’s Ulysses, exhibition catalogue, Cankarjev Dom Galerija, Ljubljana 2001, pp.9 and 60-63, reproduced p.63.
Richard Hamilton: New Technology and Printmaking, exhibition catalogue, Alan Cristea Gallery, London 1998, pp.30 and 35, reproduced p.31.

Elizabeth Manchester
June 2007