The Stories We Tell About Ourselves: Connecting to the Spirit and Soul of London with Johnny Cue, Artist and Creator of ‘London Lore Tarot’
Interviewer: Sue Terry Tarot on the Hill December 2016
Note: All ‘London Lore Tarot’ images Copyright (c) Johnny Cue 2016, used with permission
I caught up with London artist, Johnny McQuillan, aka Johnny Cue, a couple of days after the publication of his new and innovative tarot deck, ‘London Lore Tarot: The Tapestry of a City.’ This deck is an exciting addition to the world of Tarot, as it is the very first published deck to draw on the rich store of secret lore, myths and history surrounding and permeating London, a city that has been full of stories and magic for well over a thousand years. The accompanying booklet provides the essential details of the stories and the intriguing personalities found therein – fortune teller and healer Mother Redcap; Magus Doctor John Dee; the King’s Fool Rahere; King of the Britons Vortigern; actress Nell Gwynn. It’s up to the individual Tarot reader and the ‘curious traveller’, as Johnny says, to discover the nuances and connections for themselves. Living on a narrowboat on London’s historic waterways, steeped in spiritual connection to the land and its spirits, frequently traversing the city on his many research explorations, Johnny brings an original perspective to the art of Tarot.
Sue Terry: Johnny, I’d like to start by asking why you decided to create a Tarot deck based on the Lore of London?
Johnny Cue : The idea of creating a tarot was already something I’d considered, and put aside and come back to several times.. It’s a big project and it takes some motivation to get going! London has so many faces, and with 78 cards, 78 different stories, each with their own depth and meaning – I feel like it takes that much to even begin to capture the city. It took me around a year of independent research and drawing. What I find really hard to believe is that a London tarot didn’t already exist, but as far as I can tell this is the only one! The stories we tell about ourselves and our history and the places we inhabit are something that fascinates me.
Do you agree that stories are an important part of human development, the human experience? Yes – stories reflect how we place ourselves and our history in the land. They’re powerful, and they’re how we can really come to know the spirit of a place.
Sue: How have you defined the area of ‘London’ in the deck? Does it relate to a historic boundary, for instance?
Johnny: So many of the cards are just so unambiguously located in London – the Tower Ravens, for example, or the Ferryman’s seat in Southwark – that it wasn’t really something I had to think about. I knew more or less what stories I wanted to tell, and the places fit within our modern conception of London, so I just went with that. There is a lot of history in the deck, but it’s not meant to be something “of the past” – that’s why the Empress, Elen of the Ways, is drawn the way she is.
Ah, the important rediscovered ‘lost’ British Goddess Elen: can you say a bit more about her?
Elen of the Ways is an important figure for me. Lecturer, writer and publisher, Caroline Wise was really responsible for rediscovering Elen, from snippets in Celtic lore and other sources. Elen is distinctive: she’s horned and it is not usual for a Goddess to be horned. Elen is associated with greyhounds and with the land: specifically, the land of London. She’s the protectoress of London. Elen is one of London’s lost gods, but what I wanted to show was her alive and present today. I created her image by placing her in Trafalgar Square.
There may have been a bit of a Gaiman influence going on when I conceived of that card. In his fiction, the novelist Neil Gaiman uses the idea of gods and goddesses alive in the present, not as anachronistic forces. He plays with the idea that they are alive, but still ancient: I like that. Gods and goddesses, adapted and integrated, become part of modern life; that was wrapped up in my thoughts about my Empress/Elen card.
I love the High Priestess, the Submerged Forest: I think that that’s probably – well, possibly! – my favourite card in your deck. That seems to link with the ideas of goddesses and myths alive in the present…
Yes, the idea that myths and spirits are ‘in a box’, not part of modern life…well; let’s say I’m not a big fan of that idea! Myths are part of how you look at the world, what they mean from your personal perspective. I think that you can choose to incorporate myths and spirits of the land into your life, as living beings now, or let them influence your thoughts about how you relate to a place. You can treat myths like abstract stories if you like, but they are powerful.
Who do you think will be most drawn to your deck? Did you design it for general use, or is it particularly suited to magical practice?
I designed it mostly for people to get to know London, to connect to the spirit of the place. It can be used for more general divination or magic like any tarot, but the central idea was one of communicating with London and situating yourself within the fabric of the city.
Who and/or what are your main influences artistically?
That’s a good question! I’ve been drawing since before I can remember, so a lot of it’s just developed organically. I like New York artist, Will Eisner, who created the first graphic novel and I know his use of ink, has influenced the inkwork in this deck. I feel like statues have influenced how I’ve drawn a lot of the people, particularly ancient Mesopotamian and Greek marbles. I know that originally these statues weren’t as we see them today- they had colour and detail-but I took inspiration from their appearance and what’s been left out- the ‘blank’ eyes, for instance. For me, something about leaving out key details mean the images become more symbolic.
Yes, perhaps too much naturalistic detail in the cards wouldn’t work so well? This way people can interact with the cards more, put themselves in the picture? Yes- it’s complex, but I want people to connect with the images and in that way connect more strongly to the spirit of the place.
Why did you choose monochrome rather than colour?
Tarot cards aren’t that big and black and white is simple and striking. I felt like the more colour I added the busier it would get. In monochrome, the cards are bold and linked thematically – and when you’re talking about history and the stories people tell about places, a lot of the things that get remembered have that darker edge to them, which plays well in black and white. I did kick around the idea of adding more colour. I was thinking of adding accent colours in the images themselves, different blues in the suit of Cups, different purples in the Major Arcana. But in the end I thought it would detract from the artwork.
Can you give an idea of the creative process that you used? How did you select the stories originally?
I started by collecting stories. Some of them had already taken root in my head – Gog Magog and St. Bride, Moll Cutpurse, Crossbones Graveyard. Then came research, reading, keeping my eyes and ears open wherever I went in the city and chasing up all those stray “I wonder”s – I wonder what that name means, I wonder what that’s all about. I just had a long list of stories at first, anything that caught my attention or drew me in, and then I started matching them up to the cards. Wherever I saw something interesting, I’d set off chasing the meaning and the deeper associations.
That’s what’s great about London and what you’ve brought to this project: there’s so much still out there for people to discover, to follow up and make their own connections Oh yes, so many stories and so many layers to the city.
You decided to work with the traditional attributions and meanings or the cards familiar from the Rider Smith Waite deck, drawn by Pamela Colman Smith: was there a particular reason for this?
Well of course Pamela Colman Smith was born here in London! But really, it’s the deck I’m most familiar with, it’s the deck I think most people are familiar with. I didn’t want to create a whole new system – I knew the stories would do that to some extent, would add their own dimension to the interpretations, but I wanted that known structure to be there behind it. “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it”.
How did you decide to group the locations and their stories into each Tarot suit? Did any particular correspondences immediately leap out at you, or was it a slow process of experiment and choosing, to discover what worked best?
At first I thought I could sort them out very simply: the Tower Ravens in swords for air, the London Stone in pentacles for earth…but it just didn’t work. The meanings didn’t fit. So while I’ve tried my best along those lines (you’ll find Old Father Thames in Cups, for example), it really came down to which stories I felt resonated best with the traditional interpretations of the cards.
(image: Fournier Street, Spitalfields E1)
Which image was the most satisfying to draw, that you are most pleased with now that it’s finished?
Kate’s Cellar, the Hermit. That’s one of the cards that might push the boundary of London a little, but Epping has its own tube station, so I say it counts. And I’m glad, because there’s something about that card that just came together for me.
Can you expand a bit on your choice, the story behind Kate’s Cellar? It’s located East of central London, in Epping; a few different stories are attached to it. It was known as one of Dick Turpin’s hideouts, and the site of a Roman fort. But I discovered that there was a female hermit called Kate who lived there, which immediately made it the right location and image for The Hermit. A great many layers of story, myth and association there – a nice example.
Do you find any London Lore story challenging, or perhaps unsettling? Which and why?
The Old Bailey unsettles me. It’s not even a story exactly, but the idea of this one site where for over a thousand years we’ve imprisoned and executed people, and tried them for all the worst crimes. It’s how far back it goes that gets me. A thousand years, and so many people brought there against their will.
It leaves a strong mark on the site, surely? Yes, lots of violence and bloodshed and justice all playing out over a massively long period of time: it’s got to leave something behind.
Which is your favourite, or that means most to you?
I’m quite fond of the Greenwich witch bottle as the four of wands, protecting the home. But my heart goes to the people, the characters in the deck – Vortigern and Rahere, Mother Redcap. I’m bad at favourites, actually having to pick just one!
Was there a story or tradition that you’d have liked to have included, but had to leave out? What was it?
The one that jumps out at me is a story I heard about the statues of Sekhmet at the British Museum. (image of Sekhmet statues in British Museum, below left)Supposedly back when the statues were first transported from Egypt in 19th Century, they unloaded them on one of the bridges that cross the Thames, and one of the statues – I don’t know if it was knocked, or what happened, but it ended up at the bottom of the river. I believe they’ve had the ancient Egyptian ‘Opening of the Mouth’ ceremony performed on them since then, to invite the goddess to take up residence – but I don’t have a citation for that one!
There’s also a half-envisioned card: I live in Uxbridge, and when I first moved there I wondered “where’s the river Ux?”. But they were a Celtic people, before the Romans. They built the bridge. So I have images in my head of the Ux, of their bridge in the nighttime…but it’s not really enough, it’s too peripheral, there’s not enough of a story there.
How long have you been studying and practising Tarot?
I first picked up a deck in my late teens, so that must be about ten years ago now. I know that doesn’t hold a candle to some of the readers out there, but I think it’s a reasonable chunk of time!
How has Tarot helped you in your life?
When I started out I used it as a tool for divination, but these days I use Tarot in my spiritual practice. My spiritual path is Lucumi and in my practice I keep an altar to the ancestors of blood (relatives), place and spirit; tarot is one of the avenues I use in working with those spirits.
What are the main things you’ve learned since first opening a Tarot deck?
Oh, everything. When I started I really had no idea what I was doing, I just jumped right in. I had a fuzzy idea of the significance of each suit, and a few key words for the cards, but I didn’t understand how the different cards could relate to each other, or that there was more than one way to use a tarot deck. I’ve come a long way since then.
I love the London Lore deck and the way it helps you make new connections, stimulates new associations and meanings as you read with it – what have other readers said?
I’m finding that ‘London Lore’ is a Tarot deck particularly suited to reflective readings. It’s open to subjective interpretations, as much as defined ‘meanings.’ Feedback I’ve received from the first readers to use the cards is that you have to slow down and concentrate, because it’s not the familiar ‘RSW’ imagery. You have to reflect, let the cards speak and nuances emerge.
What do you hope that people will gain from the London Lore Tarot?
I hope that drawing on the lore when interpreting the cards will engage people with the stories on a personal level. I’d really like people to develop a relationship with the stories of the places in the cards, not only enjoying the history in an ‘abstract’ way. The stories help you become connected to London’s deeper layers, to what’s underneath the surface; that’s really helpful in a Tarot reading. Cities are alive, and I feel like the London Lore Tarot deck is one way to develop that relationship.
You’ve certainly created a wonderful deck, that’s sure to be a very special guide and key to London’s deeper mysteries, Johnny. Thanks for taking the time to discuss it with me and to share your insights.
All images (c) Johnny Cue 2016, used with permission
Interview (c) Sue Terry 2016
‘London Lore Tarot: The Tapestry of a City’ is available from Treadwell’s Bookshop and Online Store
‘The Secret Lore of London’ edited by John Matthews and Caroline Wise
‘Finding Elen’ by Caroline Wise
‘London Lore’ by Steve Roud
The novels of Peter Ackroyd, especially ‘The House of Doctor Dee’; ‘Hawksmoor’