By Nick Pelling 

I have to admit that I tend to regard The Crown Pub in Old Town as somewhere to get a pint of stout. Forgetting that it is also an Art gallery. Like most drinkers, I am usually rather blind to the art on the walls. But earlier this week
I slowly became aware I was surrounded by a unique set of square, symmetrical black and white prints. For a moment I thought they were by Aubrey Beardsley or someone like that, but a closer look revealed that this work was a very modern series of lino prints. Even more curiously, each intricate print contained within its frame a seriously enigmatic poem.

An even closer look revealed that each piece was based on the individual letters of the alphabet and that the prints formed a kind of stations of the alphabetic cross, wrapped around the whole pub -including the snug. Normally one would expect that alphabet-based art is aimed at children but the slightly sensual and twisted imagery suggested that this was rather more than ‘A is for Aardvark.’ And in terms of local artists, the black spidery ink-images had gone way beyond the usual fishing huts in a mackerel sky stuff. 

The brief blurb on the walls revealed that the poem/prints were created by two artists: Cara Hornett and Tobiah Robin. Two artists who also happened to be lovers. As it said on the wall, “we met and fell in love in our music lessons at school.” Talking to the two artists it became clear that they were that rare thing; a longstanding couple who could nevertheless spark off each other creatively. Even while arguing.

Tobiah explained that the twenty six alphabetical images contained personal truths about their relationship. I realised as I looked around the pub that this was a sort of lovers puzzle. But Tobiah reassured me that there is no right answer to this romantic riddle. He also felt that the work was neither for children nor adults, it was for all humans. Indeed, they both welcomed whatever readings anyone, of any age, might find.

The work itself was quite stunning: sort of evocative of late Victorian prints; the sort that seem to be slightly sinister or just a bit weird. Amazingly though the work does not have a whiff of retro styling: it is what it is. Whatever that is. 

Technically it is incredibly impressive, each print was exquisite in its precision. It is no easy thing to hand cut lino with a surgeon’s intricacy and to put down text and imagery in such a clean fashion. Sometimes the text appeared as black on white and sometimes in reverse. Talking to Cara it was apparent that Tobiah’s text would provoke the biggest technical problems: the slightest unevenness with the ink, would lead it straight to the bin.
Tobiah commented that although they worked in the same room, they would tend to avoid each other’s gaze or evaluation until something was done. That is the way, apparently, to avoid the paralysis of analysis: a stifling condition even singular artists know only too well.

I wondered if such a close partnership would generate rivalry. Particularly given that their creativity also extended to playing piano and violin and more. It seems that there is quite a heated debate as to who is the better pianist. Obviously collaborators can quickly become opponents. 

Art has always had its creative partnerships – Max Ernst and Leonora Carrington, Dylan Thomas and Caitlin Macnamara or Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, but in the big scheme of things, it is extremely rare. I know they are hoping that these dark prints will lead to a book and maybe beyond, My feeling was that this was a couple just at the beginning of their rise. If you want to say you saw it first in Old Town, I suggest you get yourself a pint of stout and a thoughtful packet of crisps and settle down for some contemplation in the corner of The Crown.


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