Great Pucklands by novelist Alison Alison MacLeod appears in the anthology These Our Monsters, published in 2019 by English Heritage. The story focuses on the close bond between Charles Darwin and his daughter Annie. I found myself deeply bound up in both the story and the history that underlay it. A print-out of what I believe to be the only known photograph of Annie sat on my desk throughout the work, though I had no intention of making a direct likeness of it for the illustration. Somehow that wouldn’t have fitted with what I wanted to convey of Alison’s story. I needed to absorb the mood of the piece and somehow create something that had Annie in it, but transformed. Here’s the drawing.
I loved making it, and I kept all the sketches and studies preparatory to it. The ammonite and trilobite are from my small collection of fossils. Sometimes a story gets under your skin, and you have an imperartive to serve it well and to do it justice. That was the case with this one. But I also wanted to honour the person at the heart of it. This image was made for Annie Darwin, who died aged just ten in 1851, one hundred years before the year I was born.
The photograph we have of Annie Darwin is lovely. In a world where lives are charted every hour of every day, snapped on smartphones and loaded onto social media sites, and when it seems everyone on the planet is photographed incessantly from birth to death, a single, beautifully accomplished portrait of a child who clearly prepared and gravely composed herself for the momentous occasion, tugs at the heartstrings. Annie left behind so little: this photograph, a gravestone and the ‘box’ in which her parents preserved a small handful of mementoes. Perhaps it’s the modesty of what survives her that opens the door to creativity, because it gives the freedom to writers and artists to ‘imagine’ versions of her into life.
On Friday our friends Sarah Joseph and her son Sam came to Ty Isaf to be with Peter and me for my birthday. All of us now twice vaccinated yet still super cautious, we sat distanced in the dining room while Sarah and Sam pored over the Beauty and Beast drawings. (Soon to be dismantled from their hard-cover sketchbooks before scanning for the publisher and thereafter framing for the October book launch and Martin Tinney Gallery exhibition.)
With windows and doors open to a bracingly cool breeze, Sarah and Sam worked with admirable slowness through each of the – to date – forty illustrations. It was something Sarah and I had done regularly with her husband James throughout the long months of creating Hansel & Gretel, the publishing of which by Design for Today we were able to push through before James’ death in 2019, so that he was able to see what he had watched being made.
Before even the first studies had been made for Beauty and Beast, James quizzed me over how long the book might take, as he had plans to lobby his oncologist for more time in order to be able to be with us throughout the project. That was not to be – as he well knew – though he liked to pretend otherwise.
Long ago, when James had been a stage manager, and I a choreographer, we had been friends and co-workers travelling the world together. In time the habit had grown between us of him being my advisor in all things related to music. His knowledge was encyclopaedic and his skill as a musician ran deep. Throughout the preparations and rehearsals for the music theatre production of Hansel & Gretel that preceded the published edition of Simon Armitage’s libretto, James and I discussed the themes and studied the score together, and his insights brought depth and nuance to my understanding and direction of the piece. Through the incredible determination and support of his family he was even able to be present at the premiere of the work at the 2018 Cheltenham Music Festival, in his wheelchair, and loving every moment of the evening.
I’m going to be a little indiscreet here, and I apologise in advance to any of those who were present at the occasion I’m describing and feel uncomfortable about what I’m about to reveal.
Is this how it’s going to be from now on?
On Friday I was seventy. I should say I’ve never had trouble acknowledging the passing of years before now. This time, however, the number choked me. It seems so impossible an age, and not the person I see myself as being. Or perhaps I should say ‘saw’ myself as being, because now, I do. I have to.
In 2019 I was commissioned by a big organisation to lead on a project to design what was to be the major element of their creative theme of the year. The first meeting took place at the offices of the digital render company who would build and launch the project, so we could all talk and get the ball rolling on the design work. There were quite a lot of people around the table, including the digital company’s Managing Director. I was the only old man at the table. Most around it were in their late twenties to mid thirties. The M D looked super cool, a bit of a surfer-boy-turned-exec. He was, if I’m honest, a tad prickly, as he’d lobbied for his company to provide in-house design. Instead he got me. As the creative talk began and ideas flew around the table, I listened carefully before beginning to throw in suggestions that I could see were going down well with the team from the organisation who’d commissioned me. I could see I was making a lot more work for myself, but on the plus side all the thematics of the project were going to play to my strengths. Toward the end the MD turned to me and said that if I found the pace and demands of the project to be too much, his team would be happy to take on any work I wasn’t up to completing. The air around me turned to ice.
The MD was being a twat. But just as I drew a sharp intake of breath before releasing a fusillade, the Art Director of the commissioning organisation stepped in and quite sharply explained to the MD that there would be no designer on the project other than me. And that’s the way it went. I wasn’t yet out of the woods. The Project Manager at the digital company threw deadlines at me throughout the design process that would have daunted a man half my age. I worked through weekends and nights for three weeks. It was a sort of hell, though it was also exciting.
I never missed one of those deadlines, and I’m proud of that. And in the end the project looked damned good. The old man pulled it off.
I’m guessing there’s going to be more of this, as time goes by. People will look at me when I walk into a room, and make assumptions. That bothers me, a lot. Keep watching. I’ll let you know how it all works out.