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History is not humdrum. It is, in fact, brimming with all manner of bonkers stories — some sensational, others salacious, plus a few that are downright absurd — and artist and self-confessed history-lover HP Fryer is here to prove it to us.

Queen Isabella of France, 2018, HP Fryer. Courtesy of the artist. All Rights Reserved.

History is not humdrum. It is, in fact, brimming with all manner of bonkers stories — some sensational, others salacious, plus a few that are downright absurd — and artist and self-confessed history-lover HP Fryer is here to prove it to us. 

Fryer, who is based in Melbourne but hails from New Zealand, is as much an academic as she is a   talented artist and illustrator. (She has a BA, double major in History and Philosophy, from the University of Auckland, and a BA in Illustration from Melbourne Polytechnic.) And it’s her passion for education — sharing knowledge and making it accessible, as well as quite fun — that proves to be one of the most striking aspects of Fryer’s artworks.

Fryer’s work explores the teaching of history through illustration, and her enthusiasm for her subjects is plainly contagious. The odd fellows who populate Fryer’s artsy world of historical tales look alive — animated, charismatic, and playful. And as well as being visually delightful, you’re basically guaranteed to learn something from them, too, which is never a bad thing.

Opening this October at Off the Kerb Gallery in Collingwood, Melbourne is Fryer’s latest foray into the very literal art of historical storytelling — The Tour de Nesle Affair. The new collection — and Fryer’s first solo showing — explores the very true and completely ludicrous story of the scandal that rocked fourteenth-century France, and changed history.

Marie Therese, 2018, HP Fryer. Courtesy of the artist. All Rights Reserved.

We caught up with HP recently to chat about all things Tour de Nesle, women in history, and what inspires her 

Okay, first things first — tell us about this exciting new show of yours, ‘The Tour de Nesle Affair’.
The Tour de Nesle affair was a 14th-century French scandal that has everything you could possibly want out of a story. It's also a story that isn't generally very well known.

The show is me experimenting with how to tell history in a more engaging way, through illustration.

How did you come across the story of the Tour de Nesle affair? Because it is bonkers, but it’s not particularly well-known — it doesn’t come up in high-school history class. 
I have always loved history, but my area of knowledge is mostly in British history, so I hadn't heard of the affair before.

However, one of the characters in the Tour de Nesle affair was a fascinating Queen of England, Isabella of France. A woman who led a successful invasion of England to rebel against her husband. A story in itself! So, I already knew a bit about her. I was reading a biography of her which briefly mentioned the affair, and I had to find out more. 

The story is more well known in France. There is even a series of historical novels about the scandal which are very popular. George R. R. Martin actually cited those novels as part of the inspiration for his Game of Thrones series, which isn’t really surprising, as the story is very Game of Thrones-esque!

King Edward II of England, 2018, HP Fryer. Courtesy of the artist. All Rights Reserved.

You’re obviously a history-lover, and this show is unmistakably a manifestation of that affection. What inspired you to draw on your passion for history to create this collection?
Honestly — I just want everyone to love history as much as I do! People generally think it’s a bit boring, and with the way, it’s taught a lot of the time I’m not surprised. But history is the story of humans and how they interact with each other. Humans are capable of the most bizarre, awful, extraordinary things.  So by telling these types of stories, I’m hoping to spark an interest in history in people.

How did you go about putting together the show and, I suppose, breaking down and working out the best way to visually depict the story? It’s a sweeping saga.
I had my grad show last year at Off the Kerb where I experimented with illustrating historical figures. A few people came up to me wanting to know more about the characters I had illustrated.  So I started thinking of ways you could teach history through illustration,

I chose the Tour de Nesle affair and set about trying to figure out how to tell the story. I had the idea of a detectives cork board like in a crime show. Filled with pictures of the suspects and newspaper clippings. I thought that if a detective was investigating the affair in the 1300s, he'd have the walls filled with portraits of those involved. Portraits linked along with the scene of the crime and pictures of the consequences of the scandal. The final show isn't actually designed like a detective's cork board, but that's how I decided what to visually include in the story. 

Your characters have a real warmth to them— they feel alive with a kind of humour; like they’re in on it. How do you inject that sense of liveliness into the long-gone characters you’re depicting in this collection, especially?
Thank you! I really aim to have humour in my work. History is full of tragedy, so if you didn’t inject a bit of humour into it, it could be a bit depressing. Because of its tragic subject matter, I think history is often illustrated really seriously. But while their circumstances were often sad, the people themselves were just as full of humour, sarcasm, wit, and absurdity as humans today are!

Marguerite of Burgundy, 2018, HP Fryer. Courtesy of the artist. All Rights Reserved.

Walk us through some of the technicalities — what’s your process? And are the pieces all gouache, or was there a bit of experimentation to get to the final finish?
I first had to spend a fair bit of time researching 14th-century costume. It’s a difficult period to get the look of as there aren’t any portraits from this era. Then I spent a lot of time sketching before I put my favourite sketches onto the final paper and completed in gouache. I also used colour pencils to add in any extra bits of details. But there was a lot of trial and error — I start things over much more than I’d like to admit. 

Talk to us a bit about the font you’ve used for your titles and annotations — what influenced it?
One of the lovely things about medieval images is the uneven handwritten fonts. In the 15th century, when portraits started gaining popularity, the subjects names are written in that sort of wonky serif script, and I love it. 

You’re obviously quite motivated by history and storytelling, but what inspires you just in general? 
I'm really lucky to have a really supportive family who constantly inspire me to keep going. Like lots of people, I often deal with periods self-doubt, and they're always there to motivate and encourage me. They're incredibly creative and intelligent people, so I can always find inspiration in talking things through with them. 

Louis the Quarreller, 2018, HP Fryer. Courtesy of the artist. All Rights Reserved. 

Do you have a favourite woman from history?
That’s hard — I have so many! Queen Elizabeth I is an obvious one, she was so intelligent and was my idol growing up. Another great one is Eleanor of Aquitaine. She divorced the King of France to marry the King of England and lived to the ripe age of 81 in the 12th Century. But there’re looooads of others, and if I get started, I’ll never stop.

Debuting your first solo show is an undeniably great way to close out your year — what’s on your slate for the next one? 
Next year I want to get started on creating books. I'd especially love to create children's history books. There are so many stories I want to tell, and I’m excited to tell them! 

Thanks to Hannah for taking the time to chat with us.

HP Fryer’s The Tour de Nesle Affair will be on view at Off the Kerb from October 18 to November 1, 2018. 

You can follow HP Fryer and see more of her work on Instagram, Facebook, and her website.

For more, visit offthekerb.com.au.
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