Interview on winning the V&A illustrated Book Award

Jayne Paddington of Southampton Solent University interviews me:

 

JP: Tell us about the book illustrations you created.

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The book had an unusual beginning. As an artist with a background in theatre, in 2017 I’d been commissioned by a music ensemble to helm a new production of Hansel & Gretel. The producer had seen and been impressed by the Hansel & Gretel Toy Theatre I’d designed for Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop (see above) and wanted to capitalise on the success of that. She’d begun talking with the composer she had in mind for the project, and as I was already collaborating with Simon Armitage on the revised and illustrated edition of his Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Faber & Faber, 2018), I suggested he join us as the librettist/writer.

 

Simon titled his re-working of the fairy tale, Hansel & Gretel: a Nightmare in Eight Scenes, and it previewed at the Cheltenham Music Festival in 2018 before a national tour and a London premiere at the Barbican. A recording of the piece was broadcast by BBC Radio 3 during Christmas week, 2018.

 

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At some point during the pre-production of the show Simon suggested we might work together to produce an illustrated book of his libretto/poem. We discussed the options for publishing and  I recommended we speak with Joe Pearson at Design for Today. When Joe agreed to undertake publication, work on the book began in earnest.

 

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Set in a war zone, Simon’s version of the fairy tale took a completely different tone to the original by the Grimm Brothers by changing the impetus for Hansel and Gretel’s journey from that of abandonment by feckless parents, to an agonised decision by a loving father and mother to send their children away from the bombings.

 

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By this simple change the story became one of love and sacrifice, rather than of duplicity and abandonment. He was very clever too at conveying the degrees to which children mis-hear and misconstrue, and his text is full of moments when the siblings’ actions are based on their misunderstanding of events.

 

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With regard to how the images were made, the overall intention was to capture something of the golden age of lithography printing that both Joe Pearson and I greatly admire. One of the hallmarks of the process is that the images are reproduced on uncoated paper and have a matt finish.

 

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Above: work underway on an illustration, and below: as it appears in the book.

 

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I made the drawings in black pencil, some on paper and some on granular lithography film, with occasional use of collaged textures that I produced myself by various means. I made separate ‘stencils’ in crayons and paints on lithography film for the colours. The layers of drawings and stencils were assembled digitally by the book’s designer, Laurence Beck, which was the point at which the colour was added.

 

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Below: detail of the image as it appears in the book.

 

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Another attractive hallmark of old-school lithography can be the slight mis-registration of the various colours. This is something I’d intentionally cultivated in my artwork for the book, and Laurence was very careful to reproduce the effect in the finished images.

 

JP: How did it feel to win? What will happen now as a result of winning?

 

It’s been a strange time to receive my V&A Illustration Award in a summer when the building has been closed. The event was originally to have taken place at the museum in June, but was indefinitely postponed at the time of lockdown. There was to have been an exhibition of the artwork at the V&A, and that too was cancelled.  I heard about the announcement not from the museum, but from a press release they put out. While it’s very exciting to have been honoured in this way, it can’t be denied that reading about it in an unexpected online press release has not had the excitement factor that an event would have brought to it. I’m guessing they will either hold a smaller event later in the year, or failing that I guess the trophy will be delivered in the post.

JP: Where do you find inspiration for your illustrations?

 

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When you’re working to a text by the poet laureate, you don’t have to look any further than the words. I knew Hansel & Gretel inside out because I’d already designed and directed it for the stage, so I had a very good starting point for the project. Nonetheless, the moment the stage tour was over I began from scratch again with the text, dividing it up and making a very rough dummy copy that set out lines-per-page and earmarked where the images might go. And because the publisher and I had considered that first dummy very carefully, though the details sometimes changed over the period of illustrating, the overall shape and number of pages remained pretty much as we set out at the beginning.

 

The next stage was to make a huge project-book in which I began the process of designing every visual element I intended to show: human characters and what they wear, settings and the moods generated by them, objects, animals and events.

 

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It was exhaustive and stretched to several hundreds of images. (Enough for three books really.) Even if something appeared only once – such as the ‘imagined’ hyena that appears early on – I drew it dozens of times to work out what the image would bring to the book.

 

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For a bridge described by the author as ‘arched like a hissing cat’, I made more than fifty drawings of arch-backed cats, hump-backed-bridges, cat/bridges and bridge/cats, gradually finding the hissing cat/bridge hybrid that best conjured the mood of the scene.

 

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Simon is an incredibly enriching poet to collaborate with, and to do justice to him I find ways of accompanying his texts in ways that will take the reader by surprise. I  begin with the words of course, but often the places most profitable for illustration are the spaces between them.

 

JP: What advice would you give to our students wanting to one day follow in your footsteps?

 

Well they can’t follow in my footsteps, and shouldn’t want to. They should find their own ways, and travel by routes of their own devising. My careers have been various. I didn’t start as an artist, but as a choreographer and director, so I came late to the easel and even later to illustration. My experience is that the wider your interests, the better you’ll be at whatever you do. I don’t go around thinking about illustration all of the time. I read (voraciously) listen to music, study history, try to understand the world, try to understand people and stash away everything I learn in the place marked ‘material to be be used on some future project!’ I study art of all varieties and periods. I collect art, vintage toys (particularly wooden building blocks), textiles, puppets, masks, comics, fossils and books. I’ve collected all my life, whenever I’ve had a bit of spare cash. Some of the things I’ve collected ended up in the stage production of Hansel & Gretel, and migrated from that to the book.

 

Below: from the shelves of my tinplate toy bird cabinet…

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… to the stage production of Hansel & Gretel 

 

… to a double-page spread in the book:

 

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This little cavalryman migrated from my sitting room…

 

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… to an animated sequence in the stage production …

 

 

… to a preparatory drawing for the book …

 

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… to full render separations on paper and lithography film …

 

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… to the final colour book illustration. (Detail)

 

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All my collections fuel my work. I never have to start from scratch with any illustration project. Somewhere in my collection, there will be a starting-point ready made. I just wander around looking at what I have until I find it. It’s a more organic process than trying to conjure something out of nothing.

 

Here’s a link to a little film about the making of Hansel & Gretel.

 

http://www.designfortoday.co.uk/hansel-gretel

 

Clive Hicks-Jenkins, 2020.

 

Hansel & Gretel: a Nightmare in Eight Scenes

Author: Simon Armitage

Illustrator: Clive Hicks-Jenkins

Designer: Laurence Beck

Publisher: Design for Today

6 thoughts on “Interview on winning the V&A illustrated Book Award

  1. At last I’ve had a quiet moment to sit and read your post and watch the videos, and it’s been an enriching time. Fascinating to read through the various methods, and how you work yourself so hard. Although I wonder at 50 illustrations of one subject, I know it’s incredibly easy to pile up that number, just tweaking one bit can throw everything else out, so you toil away, getting new ideas with each sketch, and how important all that work is, both mental and physical but fulfilling when you finally get a result. This book is so perfect in every way and such a treasured item on our bookshelves, I love touching its smooth pages. Thanks for these lovely quiet and informative moments. Xxx from a very hot and dry Dordogne……

    • And of course dearest Clive I missed out the most important bit which is CONGRATULATIONS! You are so utterly deserving, I do hope they will exhibit as intended, they should do, and not let a silly little thing like Covid get in the way of showing the public such wonderful art.xxxL

  2. Congratulations Clive! This is a well deserved accolade for a book which is a stunning example of two artistic imaginations that are obviously revelling in being in each other’s company. At its best, illustration expands and extends the meaning of what is written and it is my humble opinion that your finest and most sensitive work has emerged when you are fully immersed in the act of seeing beyond a poet’s words. This is an uncanny ability, only possessed by the finest of illustrators, and it is an ability which you demonstrate with great mastery in this book. It truly is a gift to be able to take the many complex emotions expressed in words and distil them into a single image, which is imbued with such power that it is capable of being delivered, like the most potent of arrows, straight to the hearts of all of us lovers of picture books.

    There are so many memorable examples of you “seeing beyond words” in this book that I find it hard to choose my favourite. I know the one that will always remain with me is your image of Hansel and Gretel’s mother buried, amongst wild flowers, with a grave-marker that Simon imagines has been fashioned by her husband from the children’s bunk beds, after a bomb has destroyed the family’s home. You don’t have to read the accompanying poetry to understand the deep significance of this single illustration and all it communicates about the overwhelming loss that war brings to ordinary people’s lives, as well as the many ways we find to deal with our grief, so we can go on. This same powerful message is there in one of my other favourite images of the Tree of Life, which accompanies the final words of a tale, which has been so memorably told, each man drawing demonstrably from the deep well of inspiration he finds in the other’s work.

    I love how this creative dialogue started with Simon’s translation of “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”, long before you met, to which you replied with your “Hansel & Gretel”. Simon expanded and extended your original ideas in his libretto for the stage, which then inspired you both to record this well-loved fairy tale, told anew through your collaboration, in what is now an award-winning book. I’m reminded, once again, of the collaboration between Ted Hughes and Leonard Baskin, where Baskin’s drawings were the starting point for both the poetry of “Crow: From the Life and Songs of the Crow” and “Cave Birds”, in what became an ever-evolving folk tale told by the two men in words and pictures, which marked a significant shift in Hughes’s poetry.

    The above musings leave me to wonder, after “The Owl and The Nightingale”, and the exciting promise of a modern-day illuminated text, what offering you will next bring to our Poet Laureate’s door, as it would appear to be your turn once again?! There is so much that inspires you that I can’t even begin to hazard a guess at which of your ideas might grab Simon’s imagination next and perhaps lead you both, ever onward, into new and uncharted territory, which is where the best collaborations have the potential to take us. We have such compelling evidence of what you bring out in each other that I have a feeling that this is a creative conversation which is only just beginning, and still has so many tantalising places left to go. I wish you both godspeed on your journey together and I look forward, with great anticipation, to the many riches that await us all.

    • Sarah, undoubtedly a part of the territory of being Laureate, is that the incumbent’s diary fills fast and very fully. Without doubt I caught Simon for Hansel & Gretel at a good time, in the little gap before he was appointed. So while I won’t be putting him on the spot any time soon regarding a future project of my making, I have been happy indeed riding pillion on The Owl and the Nightingale.

      We’ll see what the future brings.

      Thank for your kind and generous words.

  3. I’ve never met Clive, but I love him, his work, writing, collections, and above all his kindness, which emerges in so many ways (he’s actually taken the time to write to me personally about loss and other matters). I enjoy so much about him, including his award from V&A. Great start today–reading Clive’s post during breakfast of coffee and steel-cut oats from my barracks apartment, surrounded by books, paintings, and sculpture while considering how best to teach my students about Clive and his artistry when they return to campus next month. Very happy for you Clive and happier still to (sort of) know you. Very best regards to you and family.
    Cheers,
    Jack

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