the one that got away

In the late 1960s I was an actor/puppeteer with the Caricature Theatre, a company that toured extensively. I’ve always been an enthusiastic early morning explorer when in new places, and for me one of the great pleasures of touring was discovering the byways of the towns and cities visited. Often I was rambling in the early mornings, long before businesses were open, and it was in this way I came upon a backstreet shop in Exeter that caught my attention. It had a window of the old-fashioned variety, not large, and situated at chest level… rather like a sweet shop… with a rail and half-curtain at the back, dividing the display from the interior beyond. There wasn’t much room for wares, and at this remove I can recall only one object on show, a framed gouache that halted me in my tracks the moment I saw it.  There was no label, but I knew it as the cover artwork for Alan Garner’s children’s fantasy novel, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, of which I had a much loved and dog-eared paperback copy.

Now this was not a grand-looking establishment, but a rather dusty shop, and the gouache was modestly framed. I got it into my head that it was something my meagre resources might stretch to. The director of the Caricature Theatre, Jane Phillips, had been known to allow me the odd advance against a Friday pay-day when on tour, and so I planned my financial strategy. But I needed to know the price of the painting. (Jane would want that crucial information before agreeing.) I returned to the shop the next day, and every morning thereafter in the hope that someone would be there. It had the air of one of those places that kept rather random hours. I raced to it after performances, but it was always closed. I left Exeter empty-handed.

The decades passed, but every time I picked up my well-thumbed Brisingamen, I thought about that backstreet shop with its shadowy interior and the little bit of magic I spied in its window, and I wondered how the gouache would have found its way there. I’d discovered that the artist was George Adamson, born in New York in 1913, but educated in the UK. He’d studied at Liverpool College of Art, and from the 1960s had illustrated Norman Hunter’s Professor Brainstawm books. But my interest lay only in his iconic covers for Alan Garner’s Brisingamen and Gomrath, and I still feel a frisson of childish excitement when I look at them.

Today I discovered that George Adamson died in 2005 at the age of ninety-two. His place of death… Exeter.

‘I could not have hoped for the mood of the book to be better expressed. George Adamson has caught it exactly. Fenodyree is just as I imagined him and the eyes are the best part of the jacket. I am delighted.’

Alan Garner


Alan Garner at the time The Weirdstone of Brisingamen was published in 1960.

25 thoughts on “the one that got away

  1. Prompted by being ask to name 7 favourite books and post them on Facebook, I chose The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath as a double bill. I searched the internet for the wonderful covers as I remembered them and discovered, for the first time, that George Adamson was the artist. I then had a deep yearning to actually see them in the flesh, and, crazy dream, perhaps even own them. That second search led me here to read your story which resonates on so many levels. And yes, how utterly thrilling to see a reply from George’s son Peter, and to know the artwork is out there somewhere…. If only that old curiosity shop in Exeter had been open! Can you remember where it was Clive? My uncle lives there and I visit him when I can…
    Adamson was the artist. I then had a deep yearning to actually see them in the flesh, and, crazy dream, perhaps even own them. That second search led me here to read your story which resonates on so many levels. And yes, how utterly thrilling to see a reply from George’s son Peter, and to know the artwork is out there somewhere…. If only that old curiosity shop in Exeter had been open! Can you remember where it was Clive? My uncle lives there and I visit him when I can…

    • Hello Hud

      Alas, we’re talking long ago and I can recall only that the shop was undistinguished in a back street. These days I’d take a picture on my phone, hunt down a contact number and not stop until I managed to find someone to talk to about the painting. But back then the world was so different. Moreover it was often the way for small shops to keep irregular hours. It wasn’t to be, and I missed the opportunity. Nevertheless it’s a good story. (-;

      • Hello Clive,
        Thanks for replying so quickly. Yes, I guessed it was long gone, a forlorn hope really! Nevertheless a great story indeed. I do hope that one day you or I get to see one of George Adamson’s wonderful covers of these books in real life. All the best, Hud

  2. My brother has alerted me to your wonderful story about our father’s book cover for Brisingamen. Naturally we knew the original paintings well: both covers had to be redone for the Penguin editions as they were of different proportions compared with the hardback originals; so there are (or should be) four separate paintings still in existence.

    The idea of author and illustrator looking similar is intriguing: I’m sure that there must have been underlying sympathies of imagination and attitude (as Garner’s approving comment confirms) and these may well show in their respective demeanours.

    Those interested in seeing more of George Adamson’s work will find extensive lists and more examples at:

    He went to live in Exeter just after the war, teaching etching and graphic design at the art school there before going freelance in the 1950s. So his book illustration work (and stacks of other things) were all done in Exeter. He made some striking illustrations of medical and mental disorders for Nursing Times, who commissioned an impressive front cover painting depicting schizophrenia. There were also Punch covers (notably for the Rome and Tokyo Olympic Games) and many cartoons, including Private Eye work. Professor Branestawm has been mentioned; he also did illustrations for Catweazle, and for the original editions of Ted Hughes’ books for children (Meet My Folks, How the Whale Became, The Iron Man).

    Yes, illustrators are often forgotten, even when their work is unforgettable — so thank you, Clive!

    • Hello Peter. What a thrill to hear from you. I’m so pleased that you and your brother came upon this post, and that you enjoyed it. It was such a curious little episode in my life, and I never look at my copy of the book without a pang of thwarted desire! But my pleasure in the cover (or indeed, the covers of both books) isn’t at all diminished by the fact the Brisingamen gouache was not to be mine. I’m sure that someone, somewhere, is greatly enjoying it.

      My partner Peter Wakelin grew up on the Prof Brainstawm books, and so his heart beats a little faster to those images. Your father’s work clearly touched many thousands of children, and that’s a very great achievement in an illustrator’s life. You must be very proud of him.

  3. Dear Clive,
    many thanks for uploading your paperback cover of The Weirdstone; I have had hardback copies of both it and The Moon of Gomrath for years but this is the first time I’ve seen all the artwork. I finally plucked up the courage to write to Alan earlier this year thanking him and asking a couple of questions but as yet I’ve had no reply but I know he gets inundated so I don’t mind – thanks once again.

  4. I’m struck by the resemblance between George Adamson and Alan Garner in the two photos above – something about their expression makes them seem almost like brothers. If not literally so, they must have had a lot in common in any case.

    • Quite right Natalie. In fact so alike that I removed the first photograph of Garner I posted, in which he was quite a bit older, because I thought there was the possibility of people thinking it was Adamson. I changed to the earlier photograph now up, but not even the disparity of years between the two men in the photographs can disguise the likenesses they bear to each other.

  5. What a startling and attractive cover, I can see why you were so delighted by it. I’m happy Adamson spent his life abroad, I envy that.

    What a frustrating experience, to be tantalized by a treasure just out of reach, would have driven me loopy.

    When you speak of childhood artists and authors who inspired you I am reminded of my own very fortunate experience. In my own (chaotic) childhood, I sought solace with a collection of children’s’ literature called “My Book House”. Published in the teens, illustrated almost exclusively by a fellow named Donn P. Crane. Crane really influenced my aesthetic with his beautifully rendered illustrations. Years later on my other blog Babylon Baroque I posted an inquiry to who he was, as my research came up blank. To my great delight his great grand-daughter responded, she has provided me with tremendous information, art work from the family’s private collection, tidbits concerning his rather unhappy, or at least unsatisfying career, and most especially valued friendship. We correspond off and on and she is always very lovely. I’m hoping Adamson’s family reaches out to you as well. Please make sure you have this post tagged… or whatever they call it… so searches provide your link. It would be lovely to hear more about this gifted artist. Once again thanks for another intro.

    • Leonard, once again you’ve hinted at a past that I’d love to read more about. Perhaps one day you’ll post more about your background. Bear in mind the Artlog was originally started in order to help me explore my past in preparation for the biographical chapter of the then forthcoming Lund Humphries Monograph. It got me into the habit of writing and exploring the past, and I think that was probably a good thing.

      As suggested by you, I’ve now tagged this post with ‘George Adamson, illustrator’. Thank you for reminding me.

        • Leonard, my sweet boy, you don’t have to whine. Good writing isn’t therapy, it’s exploration. Moreover, when writing for an audience, as we do on our blogs, it behoves us to be selective about what we include. I promise you there’s plenty in my past that’s both tawdry and with the potential to get me whining, but I’ve attempted to turn it into something more creative and rewarding. I’m betting you could do the same.

          Just a thought.

  6. I loved that book too! I read part of it to our year six class and several went and bought it. Great cover, mine is a modern version and not as characterful. Spending time working in Bolton atthe Octagon Theatre and visiting Alderley Edge on days off – the sense of place was right there.

  7. What a wonderful cover, and a lovely story seeing that painting in the shop window. I have quite a few books like this on my shelves, tatty, but much loved, I wouldn’t part with them for any money. Some of the cover art and design of these books is beautiful, I wish there were more exhibitions devoted to them

    • I always mean to make more posts about illustrators who have been rather forgotten. I should think many visitors to the Artlog will have fond memories of favourite ibook covers from their formative reading years.

  8. What a lovely story, Clive! I was half expecting it would end with your finding the gouache again or meeting the artist but somehow just writing this is enough. And I love the tattered cover of the book – maybe you could do a painting based on it?

    • Natalie, I think the interest for me always lay in two things: my attachment to a book I’d loved as a boy… The Weirdstone of Brisingamen was published as a paperback in 1963, so I would have come across it when I was twelve… and the sense that something significant had happened in that moment of discovering the gouache in the most unexpected place, because it seemed the painting was meant for me. In the event it clearly wasn’t, but those kinds of extraordinary moments catch the attention, because they’re freighted with personal meaning.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s