Illuminations

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Peter is in Edinburgh, where he’s to give the keynote address at the symposium Shaping the View: Understanding Landscape through Illustration, organised by Desdemona McCannon. Before he left we had several discussions about illustration, looking at definitions of the word.

il·lus·tra·tion (ĭl′ə-strā′shən)
n.
1. The act of illustrating or the state of being illustrated: concepts that would benefit from illustration; an idea that lends itself to illustration.
2. A picture or image that is used to decorate or clarify a text.
3. An example that is used to clarify or explain something. 
4. Obsolete Illumination.

It’s a tricky one to pin down, ‘illustrative’ having been used in modern times as a pejorative deployed by a curatorial elite set on defining boundaries that put ‘illustrators’ further down the pecking order of arts practices.

But tucked away at the foot of the list, I like the ‘obsolete’ definition, illumination. When my friend, the writer Marly Youmans asked me how I’d define myself in relation to my collaborations with her, I unhesitatingly wrote back, partly in fun, ‘illuminator’.

When growing up in the 1950s, my home, though full of books and music, had little on the walls that might be defined as art. There were mirrors and wall-lamps, and even pictures – if you include the rather unlikely though jaunty wallpaper of palm trees and desert islands that decorated our back parlour. But there were no paintings. So looking back, I begin to realise that my earliest experiences of the world as expressed in images, were through the pages of my childhood books.

The ones that stuck fast and have stayed with me over the years, are the Rupert Bear and Toby Twirl annuals. I learned to read on my father’s lap as he helped me make sense of the words under the pictures showing Rupert’s adventures with his pals. The speed with which I progressed was entirely down to wanting to know what happened next in the stories!

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The bucolic loveliness depicted by the illustrators of Rupert’s and Toby’s worlds, was simultaneously observed from life and imagined. Observed with enough tenderness and precision for me to recognise types of rural settings – my father was a wayleaves officer for the South Wales Electricity Board and often took me with him on field trips – and yet subtley different enough to open up imagination. The pine forests of the Rupert books were exactly like those I’d visited with my father, though with the added allure of being portals to other, more exciting realms, accessed by the simple means of climbing the trees, just as Jack had clambered up a beanstalk to find himself somewhere unexpected.

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Both the boy bear and the boy pig had the freedom to scamper about on their own business, and both were secure in the knowledge that ‘mum’ would have tea on the table when they returned, no matter how outlandish their adventures out of range of parental disapproval. I lived in the annuals, and later in the comics of my day, and after those in books that had no illustrations, excepting for those on their covers. Illustrations led me gently, naturally, persuasively to literature.

Landscape for me has always been where I’ve retreated to recover myself. So when my life in the theatre became too chaotic to endure, I bolted to the countryside. It was the natural place of healing, and it was where I took up brushes and began to translate my out-of-control feelings, into the painted worlds I felt safer in.

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I see now, though didn’t at the time, that the sense of comfort and balance I was trying to recapture, had its roots in those early experiences of discovering the world through the illustrations of Alfred Bestall, Sheila Hodgetts and others. And later, after I moved from landscape painting to explore further options, I came to understand enough of where my emotional responses to landscape had originated, to be able to reference the books of my childhood in paintings that openly acknowledged them. My Dream Farm is one of them.

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Perceived divisions between art and illustration are ones I’ve come to disregard. For me, the two are the same. There’s good and bad that flows from easel painters (for want of a better definition) and illustrators alike. The banal is bad regardless of whether found between the covers of a book or on the walls of a gallery, while the great is always illuminating, whether springing from the pens and brushes of Potter and Sendak, or from Hockney at his most sublime and painterly. (A man who excels at everything.) High and low are definitions I’m unmoved by. There is only excellence, and it all comes from the same source.

My picture book, Hansel & Gretel, is due out later this month. It’s taken a long time to make a book that has its roots so firmly in what I grew to love and trust as a child. The last page bears this text:

Clive Hicks-Jenkins is a painter who occasionally makes images for the covers of novels, poetry collections and plays. He has always wanted to make a picture book, and this is it.

The Boy/Pig, the Handsome Chaps and the Scary Witch

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The Toby Twirl Story Book was published in 1947. I was born in 1951, and so perhaps the copy I read had been handed down to me from my older sister, Jacqui.

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Not only did the stories and images in the book capture my imagination, but the feel of it under my fingers, too. Printed simply in two colours per spread on heavy, absorbent paper, it was my love for The Toby Twirl Storybook that underpinned my approach to the illustrated edition of The Sonnets of Richard Barnfield, made in 2001 with Nicolas McDowell at The Old Stile Press.

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It was a long stretch from the adventurous Toby and his friends, to the lustrous boys of Barnfield’s homoerotic sonnets first published in 1595, but the idea of borrowing from The Toby Twirl Story Book was so fully formed in my head from the moment Nicolas suggested the project, that the edition didn’t so much as evolve, as explode with the swiftness of a Demon King in a puff of smoke out of a star-trap!

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The book took time to make, of course, as all beautiful things do, but the idea for it came to me in a moment, and I never swerved from my vision for it.

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And it would seem that the influence of The Toby Twirl Storybook in my work goes on, because it can be no accident that my first artist’s picture-book, due out this year from Random Spectacular, is to be a darkling version of that grimmest of the Grimms, Hansel & Gretel. The steeple-hatted witch of E. Jeffrey’s illustrations has always stayed with me, lurking in wait to scare another generation. She is the the stuff of my nightmares and dreams, and has clearly been biding her time, waiting for me to be ready for her re-launch!

She’s a little scarier this time around, and meaner too.

 

The Cuts that Kill

While there are myriad illustrated editions of Hansel & Gretel that explore the story in ways that remain essentially ‘Black Forest’ in tone… all picturesque woodland and iced gingerbread… few illustrators have taken up the challenge of radically reinventing the iconography of the story. An exception is the German artist Susanne Janssen, whose collage/paintings for Hänsel und Gretel, published by Hinstorff in 2007, eschew the usual gingerbread ‘gemütlich’, replacing the sugariness with a a bleak chill.

However, when I began searching for images to post online, I discovered a number at Janssen’s website that showed the original artworks in an uncropped state. Suddenly it was apparent how much of the quality of what she’d made, had been compromised by decisions to ‘tidy’ the edges of the illustrations for book.

In this image the top and bottom edges of the collage elements behind the witch, create a sense of the world skewed and out of kilter. It feels as though the stage has been shaken by an earthquake, and the scenery is buckling and falling.

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Below, in the published version, the crop has not only excised that sense of the chaotic, but it has also lopped off the witch’s feet. The result, to my eyes diminishes the disconcerting power of the original, intact image, where the irregular shape of the composition enormously enhances the sense of strangeness. Certainly the crop pushes the viewer closer to the action, but I really miss that sense of the jagged and incomplete.

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The same thing happens in this image, seen here with the edges of the composition visible…

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… and here as it appears in the book. Both Gretel and the witch have lost a foot, and I like the image a great deal less because of it.

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Despite these misgivings, Janssen’s vision of the tale is one of the most powerful I know, though I wish that the raw edges of the artworks had not been lost, and I wish too that the illustrations could have been printed onto matt paper, as I dislike the sheen of the art paper used. Nevertheless the book is one I repeatedly return to and enjoy, and the final image in it possesses such enigmatic beauty, that it’s stayed with me ever since I first saw it. The duck that will carry the children to safety on her back, floats like a ghost over a blood-red carp in the fathomless darkness beneath, its tail fluted and ruched like the dress of the witch dispatched in the oven. It leaves the viewer with a sense of something queasily unresolved, an evil that is not so much vanquished, as lying in wait. And for once, I find myself approving the crop, that in this case tightens the image and draws the viewer in to the mysteries.

 

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The Oz Toy Book

It’s no secret that since I was a boy I’ve had a passion for making things out of paint and card. I seem to have had a pair of scissors in my hand for as long as I can remember. Here on the Artlog I’ve posted about my love of the art of ‘ Toy Theatre’, and I’ve written at length about my practice of making articulated maquettes out of painted card as a part of my discipline as a painter. There’s no doubt that the two are connected. ‘Cutting-out’ was one of the great pleasures of my childhood. All I can say is that had I ever laid eyes on the book I’m about to share with you here, I would have thought I’d died and gone to Cut-Out Paradise.

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The Oz Toy Book; cut-outs for the kiddies, was published in 1915 by Reilly & Britton. The publisher used artwork drawn by regular Oz illustrator John R. Neil, though neglected to tell the author Frank L. Baum about the publication, perhaps because it was originally intended as a promotional ‘give-away’ to encourage sales of the books. Clearly it was produced with much care, and so whatever had originally been intended, it was eventually released as a pay-for-product.

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When he found out, Baum was impressed neither by the the product… he never liked Neil’s illustrations… nor by the fact that the The Oz Toy Book had been published without his knowledge or permission.

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The book consists of 16 full-color pages containing 54 cut-out paper characters from the first nine Oz books. The sheets were perforated and held in place between its covers with ribbons, so they could be removed for cutting-out with no tearing from the spine.

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Baum persistently lobbied his publisher to release Neil, and made several suggestions for a replacement. However, due to his good relationship with the publisher, Neil remained, and Baum eventually desisted.

To date only four complete and intact copies of The Oz Toybook are known to have survived. In the image below, one of those copies has been dismantled and presented framed.

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In 1994, eighty years after the publication of the original book, illustrator Eric Shanower produced his own companion piece, The Oz Toy Book Volume 2. In comparison to the sumptuous, full colour character sheets of the original, this ‘second’ volume, is essentially a ‘colouring-book’, with all the images reproduced in black and white.

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All images of the 1914 book courtesy of the Mel Birnkrant Collection.

Read about the Monster Rupert Cut-Out Book HERE.

Vojtěch Kubašta’s Hansel and Gretel

I’ve long wanted Vojtěch Kubašta’s pop-up book of Hansel & Gretel, and now, with the excuse of ‘It’s research for my own Hansel & Gretel project’, I’ve finally found and acquired a pristine copy. Here it is in all its glory.

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In the Forest.

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The Witch beckons Hansel and Gretel into the gingerbread cottage.

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A clever slider-mechanism removes Hansel & Gretel from the corner of the cottage, shutters the left-hand window, opens the door to reveal the Witch, and has the children, now inside, waving from the right-hand window.

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There are lovely details in the picturesque interior.

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Hansel caged.

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Cage door up …

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… and down!

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The children slide the Witch into the oven on a wooden baking paddle.

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They escape, crossing a river on the back of a friendly swan.

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This edition published in 1976 by Artia, Prague.

Vojtěch Kubašta, genius of pop-up books, 1914 -1992

My Illustration Heroes. Part Five: Jeffrey Alan Love

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Jeffrey Alan Love is an illustrator. He makes dynamic images for a wide range of clients, but the published works of his I enjoy most, are his book covers.

Below, forthcoming from Small Beer Press in July 2016

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His drawing is sure and beautiful, as evidenced by a video at his Facebook page where with a few strokes of inky black, he trails an impressive horse and armoured rider out of a Chinese calligraphy brush the size of my fist.

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There are other videos there too, tiny, speeded-up microcosms of creativity, where he wields pens with a dexterity and flourish that ensure his drawings are never less than brimful with energy. He stabs with the nib, twists and drags it, trails viscous ink in filament-thin threads, or sweeps it into dense puddles of shadow. He is master of his tools, and that gives him leave to be playful.

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Love’s sketchbooks, pages from which are generously represented on his website, show an artist on top form. They’re full of wonderful textures and mark-making, a combination… judging from their mono-print qualities… of offset printing and stencilling techniques combined with ravishing brush and pen work. Whatever the means of their making, the images remain fresh. Never laboured, never over-wrought, they draw the gaze with their grace and sureness, and entrance with the dense, organic richness of their surfaces. This is an artist who works fluently and fast, and knows when to stop.

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Much of his work is genre, fantasy of the Tolkien variety. He relishes the elegant sweep of impossibly long horns atop tiny heads, and his armour bristles with spines and reptilian plating. He takes the visual styling of the Samurai and sends it spinning into the stratosphere, making caves of helmets out of which glimmer baleful eyes.

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Then there’s a variety of imagery that reminds me of Weird Tales and ‘Noir’, a Mickey Spillane world gone literally to the devil!

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If he doesn’t already know them, I want to introduce this artist to the short stories of Robert Aickman (1914 – 1981), an until-quite-recently lamentably neglected British writer of wonderfully twisted tales. (Aickman has long been revered by genre writers who know what’s what!) Jeffrey Alan Love would rock Robert Aickman. Some enterprising publisher needs to put the two together.

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Jeffrey Alan Love’s website may be found

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and his Facebook page

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Jeffrey Alan Love

Gold Medal (Books), Society of Illustrators 56

Academy of British Cover Design Award (Best Series Design with Nick May/Gollancz)

Academy of British Cover Design Award (Best Science-Fiction/Fantasy with Nick May/Gollancz)

Nominated for World Fantasy Award – Best Artist (2015), BSFA (British Science Fiction Association) Award for Best Artwork (2014) , Spectrum Award (Books, 2014), Spectrum Award (Institutional, 2014)

 

My Illustration Heroes. Part Four: Atak

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I love my copy of Pierre-Crignasse so much, that I keep it by the bed. With illustrations by Atak and a ‘reinvention’ of the Heinrich Hoffman text by the comic book artist Fil, it’s a version of Hoffman’s Der Stuwwelpeter (Shock-headed Peter), the rhymes and illustrations for which were a significant part of my childhood.

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Just look at him! there he stands,
With his nasty hair and hands.
See! his nails are never cut;
They are grimed as black as soot;
And the sloven, I declare,
Never once has combed his hair;
Anything to me is sweeter
Than to see Shock-headed Peter.

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Konrad, as depicted above by Atak, bleeds to death after his thumbs are scissored off in punishment for sucking them! I greatly like the vintage Mickey Mouse, the Blue Meanie from Yellow Submarine, and the Batman ‘action-figure’.

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Atak is the nom de plume of Georg Barber, a German artist from Frankfurt. Rich with cultural references and boldly graphic, his illustrations combine unfussy brushwork with an admirable directness of expression more usually the province of the outsider artist.

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Above: Friedrich is a bully and a torturer, but gets his comeuppance when the dog he has brutalised, bites him on the leg. The boy falls ill and dies in short order, and the last image shows his mother, another victim of his bad-temper, looking rapturously happy as she feeds the dog, sitting in Friederich’s place at the dinner-table!

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Atak’s direct-from-the-heart expression can be a little misleading, because when you start looking closely at his work, his draftsmanship is impeccable and the textures are ravishing. He is a painter to his fingertips. His vitality flirts with the notion of crude, though is far from it in detail. On top of all this, he conjures worlds I want to wander freely in. Page after page unfolds, offering enticing vistas, swathes of uncharted terrain and characters I long to follow. He layers his surfaces seductively, making no attempt to obliterate what he has chosen to abandon beneath by painting over. The paintings feel like pools you look into, with layers and layers beneath their surfaces. He is the real deal. Seek him out.

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Der Struwwelpeter oder lustige Geschichten und drollige Bilder was originally published in 1844, and such was its popularity that it was translated into English four years later as Struwwelpeter: Merry Tales and Funny Pictures. That ‘Merry Tales’ is a tad misleading, because while the jauntiness of the verses and their sprightly gallop might lend a gloss of merriness, the horrors that unfold within them have probably given nightmares to more children, than saved the lives of those dissuaded from the cautionary exhortations not to play with matches.

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In 1998 the text was set to music by the Tiger Lilies for a stage production, and with such mesmerising effectiveness that I simply can’t read the verses any more without hearing Martin Jacques voice in my head.