‘Putz’, Pastille Burners and Palaces: the making of ‘Bird House’

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When Joe Pearson enquired whether I’d like to produce a title to fit in with his ongoing project of making both selected re-prints and new titles in the old Bantam series of tiny picture-books, I didn’t hesitate for even a moment before saying yes. I’d taken a lot of pleasure in Joe’s reprints of Hilary Stebbing’s two titles for Bantam, The Silly Rabbits and The Animals Went in Two by Two, poring over them repeatedly. I’m a big Stebbing fan but original copies of her books are hard to find these days, so the re-prints were an easily affordable treat.

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There are just fourteen pages per Bantam book plus front and back cover, a constraint that can either focus or defeat the illustrator/author. Stebbing rose magnificently to the challenge with vibrant images that all but leap off the page. The Silly Rabbits reprint has been at my elbow as inspiration throughout the process of working on my own book. If I could capture even a fraction of the vivacity of her approach, then I’d be content.

Joe came straight to the point with his suggestion of a subject: birds. There had been birds of many varieties in our first book together, Simon Armitage’s Hansel & Gretel: a nightmare in eight scenes, and Joe suggested that if time was too short for me to make new work, we might profitably look at some of the unused drawings made for that project.

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But once the idea was in my head, I was off like a rocket to make new work. I thought briefly about whether I’d write or commission a new story, but greedy for all the space I could grab for the illustrations, decided in the end to make a picture-book, pure and simple. I considered producing a sort of nursery primer Guide to British Birds, and began sketching. But the more I sketched, the more I realised that I wanted to make not a book of birds as observed in nature, but something imaginary.

My first thoughts focussed on combining birds with some of the foil crèches I’d collected which are a folk art tradition of the city of Krakow in Poland. Only a few weeks previously I’d been making assemblages for my Instagram page that combined foil crèches and vintage tinplate birds. So out came the clockwork cockerels again and the tiny wooden buildings from the Erzgebirge toy-making region of the Black Forest, and rather strangely it began to feel as though the idea might have been cooking in my head from a time before Joe came to me with the project.

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I began arranging the foil crèches on my work table, combining them with small painted wooden birds, another Polish craft tradition of which I have many examples.

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Below: Polish ‘folk art’ foil nativity from Krakow, to which I’ve added tiny painted wooden birds for the photograph. All things Polish and folk-artish in my collection come from the wonderful online emporium, Frank & Lusia.

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For about a day the title of the new book was to be Palace of Birds. But it changed as soon as I came up with the more direct, Bird House.

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Suddenly the dining-room table, where I’d temporarily set up my work space, was piling high with Polish birds, Russian tinplate chickens and foil crèches. Here a hen stands atop a ‘Head’ by artist Peter Slight.

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There were other possibilities stirring. I’d fairly recently acquired a box full of vintage Chinese chenille birds, and they too came out.

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Below: worktable with the many Polish painted birds that contributed their services to the project. Note the copy of Hilary Stebbing’s The Silly Rabbits.

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Ideas for bird houses developed fast. I researched at the computer, sketchbook in lap, filling it with drawings of Staffordshire pastille-burners in the forms of fanciful castles and follies.

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Below: project-book sketch of a Staffordshire folly and a Polish bird.

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Then there were vintage versions of the glitter-encrusted Christmas decorations known as ‘Putz’, which before World War II had been popular Japanese novelty exports to the US.

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I made many fully worked-up trial images in preparation for beginning my work in earnest. In this one from my project-book you can see how I adapted the Putz House shown above.

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And here – in a detail from the finished illustration – a change of bird strengthens the image.

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Recalling the china pagodas that decorated the goldfish bowls of my childhood, I began trawling for examples that might go nicely with my chenille birds. So many ideas, so little space!

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Below: project-book drawings of Russian clockwork chickens.

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Bird House will be published later this year. Produced in a very small edition, I suggest that if this book appeals and you fancy a copy, then you contact Joe at the Design for Today Instagram page. There you’ll find a post about it where you can leave a comment to notify him of your interest. On this one I fear it will be ‘reserve early to avoid disappointment’.

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Russian Bird: the constant muse

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The Russian Bird is a marvel of clockwork ingenuity. Though a little faded from too much sunlight in her youth (we’re more careful with her now) her mechanisms are still strong.

 

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When fully wound she turns her head from side to side, her beak opens and closes, her wings flap, her tail bobs and she sings with considerable brio. Her voice, powered by bellows in her chest, while not the sweetest nonetheless has an impressive vibrato. I always think her more a music-hall artiste than a concert-platform diva. More Vesta Tilley than Dame Kiri te Kanawa!

There’s certainly no point in anyone talking while she’s performing because she drowns out all competition, which is pretty impressive for a lady of her small size and considerable years.

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She moved audiences when projected onto a screen during performances of Hansel & Gretel: a Nightmare in Eight Scenes, beautifully accompanying the music that conjured a forest full of birds. Here’s the sequence, though alas without the live music accompaniment. (She was not best pleased that the composer eschewed her voice, but stepped up to the challenge of conveying her role through the medium of mime like a born silent movie star!)

When the poem by Simon Armitage that had been the libretto of the production was published in an illustrated edition by Design for Today, the Russian Bird was awarded a double page spread, and in it she’s quite the Queen of the Forest surrounded by her retinue of smaller birds, all pecking away at Hansel’s path of scattered crumbs.

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Deeply conscientious about her duties as artist’s muse, she’s a tireless model and will go to any lengths to facilitate whatever’s required of her in the studio. For her forthcoming appearance on the cover of the picture book Bird House for Design for Today, she carried a Byzantine palace knapsack-style on her back, standing unflinchingly for an entire afternoon while I drew her.

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She’s made guest appearances in several galleries and museums. Here at MoMA Machynlleth she takes centre stage on the Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop Hansel & Gretel Toy Theatre that toured the country in the stage production of Hansel & Gretel: a Nightmare in Eight Scenes in 2018.

 

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You can see in these snapshots that she loves demonstrating to an adoring public that she’s the inspiration behind what is clearly – in her opinion – the most important illustration in the book of Hansel & Gretel: a Nightmare in Eight Scenes.

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She’s never slow to be my messenger, and friends are always won over by her bright eyes and sprightly demeanour.

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Below: in a tiny theatre of her own, produced in a small edition for members of the Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop Harlequinade Club.

 

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When not making public appearances, Russian Bird is tirelessly creative in the studio, always game to collaborate with other toys on making scenarios she thinks may offer me new pathways to paintings and illustrations. Here she is in a stunning tableau vivant interpretation of Death and the Maiden.

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Here we catch her giving one of her renowned masterclasses to an eager young student.

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None of us at Ty Isaf knows where we’d be without her.

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The Art of the Cover

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When the race has been run and my brushes and pencils have been set down, my output of book covers is going to be very small in comparison to that of any commercial illustrator. I pick and choose very carefully from the offers that come in, and I spend incalculable amounts of time reading manuscripts and making notes and developmental sketches. I care with a passion about what I make.

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Below: for Charis in the World of Wonders Ignatius took the unusual step of allowing me to design their publishing imprint for the front cover. Interestingly because the imprint is now so integral to the narrative imagery of Charis’s story, it has a much stronger presence on the cover than it might otherwise have had, though the publisher can’t have known that when granting me permission.

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Though things are different now, in the past I underwrote the time it took me to make book covers with the income from my work as an easel artist. I did it because I simply love books. I love the art of the book. I love the way that a cover can reach someone who may never walk into a gallery to look at art.

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I work with publishers I’m comfortable with and who are comfortable with me as we all progress toward the desired conclusion. I don’t make covers for books I don’t like, or for authors I’m not convinced by or for publishers who haven’t taken the trouble to discover how I think and work. I don’t have the time to make those kinds of errors.

To date I’ve made more covers for Marly Youmans than I have for any other author. She was the first to suggest I might come up with a cover image for a book. Until then publishers had asked only for permissions to use my paintings – or details from them –  for covers, and with mixed results. So the idea of making a cover from scratch was an attractive one. The first book for Marly was her novella Val/Orson, and I’ve been been working with her ever since. Thinking about it, I see a pattern emerges, and at the heart of it is the certainty that I don’t want to make banal covers. All the authors I enjoy working with create layers of mysteries and ambiguities in their writings, and those qualities give me the space to grow images that interest me. If I’m not interested, I don’t want to make the cover.

Below: the front and back wrap-cover for Val/Orson (PS Publishing, 2009), before the title and author were added. It was a hardback without a dust-wrapper, which is quite unusual.

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Below: front and back wrap-cover for The Book of the Red King. (Phoenicia Publishing, 2019) After Val/Orson I began to include title and author to the cover artwork of all my books for Marly, the better to integrate words with images. It’s a practice that whenever possible I’ve held to with other authors.

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Since becoming the artist most associated with the published works of Marly Youmans, other writers have approached me with requests to make covers for their books: Damian Walford Davies, Mary-Ann Constantine and most recently Simon Armitage, who wanted not just a cover, but my entire suite of fourteen Penfold Press Sir Gawain and The Green Knight screen prints to illustrate the Faber & Faber revision of his translation of the medieval poem. Simon and I have since produced Hansel & Gretel: a Nightmare in Eight Scenes for Design for Today, and I’m currently working with him on a yet-to-be announced book.

Below: Hansel & Gretel: a Nightmare in Eight Scenes (2018, Design for Today) and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (2018, Faber & Faber)

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I’ve been in love with books all my life. Because as a child I read prolifically and precociously, from the moment I was allowed out by myself I could be found in book shops where wall-to-wall paperback covers offered endless visual stimulation. I was gazing raptly at the covers of novels long before I experienced art in galleries. To begin with it was the covers that led my reading. At best the book cover can be an invitation to a new realm, but it needs to catch your attention or it’ll remain unexplored. When opportunities allow for an image to wrap to the back cover, I enjoy the possibilities of springing a surprise. The front cover for Judas (see below) only offers a part of the picture. The spine runs a centimetre or two to the left of the title, and so it’s only when the book is flipped in the hand that the monstrousness of the distorted animal becomes apparent.

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Whenever I begin making a cover, the guiding principle is to make it catch the eye of a passer by. I will never deceive, but there has to be an element of the sideshow barker calling attention to the tent and the wonders within. All I have to do is get the punter to the tent-flap, to lift it and to look inside. Thereafter it’s all down to the author.

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Charis in the World of Wonders by Marly Youmans and with cover artwork and interior decorations by Clive Hicks-Jenkins, is due out from Ignatius in the US in the Spring of 2020.

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Gentle Charis and her Friends at Ignatius Publishing

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We live in a world where there is so much by way of argumentative dialogues, endless competitiveness, jostling for pole positions, public crowing and an unwillingness to listen to others, that when creative endeavours are conducted with kindness and gentleness, it’s a blessed relief from what we’ve all had to become more accustomed to.

Marly Youmans and I have long been friends who like to collaborate. She is a wonderful friend, but also a poet and novelist greatly admired. I first came across Marly when I saw her name signed to a comment on a blog where she was defending me as an artist, though we’d never met or had any previous contact. I wrote to thank her and we became e-correspondents. Later she came to Wales to stay with us at Ty Isaf. She’s the narrator of a short documentary about my maquettes, a contributing author to the 2011 Lund Humpries monograph about my work and she was present at the Gregynog Gallery of The National Library of Wales for the opening of my sixtieth birthday retrospective of paintings. We’ve been working together almost from the start of our friendship. I make her book covers and when time and budget allow, the chapter headings and decorations too.

In part Marly moved from her previous publisher because of me. I’d decided I no longer wanted to work there, though I hadn’t expected my leaving would precipitate Marly’s departure. I had thought there would simply be a change to another artist, but I had not taken into account that though Marly is the gentlest woman, she is nonetheless stubborn about the things that matter most and her loyalties are fierce. I was rather shaken by the events, but though I repeatedly said that she should stay, she quietly went about doing things her own way.

Ignatius are the publishers of Charis in the World of Wonders. Marly gently brokered an arrangement that her editor there would look at my work, and if the Ignatius team were confident that Marly and I were a good match, then we would all proceed together. From the outset the mood has been collegiate. Everything discussed with thoughtfulness, everyone with eyes on the goal to make a beautiful book. I doff my cap to Roxanne Lum who guided me through the way things are done at Ignatius and who was so receptive to my ideas, and to Diane Erikson who has worked so hard to make Charis in the World of Wonders the lovely edition that it is going to be.

This week Marly and I saw the almost finished page layouts, with my drawings in place making the announcements to the eleven chapters. The matching of images to chapters was done at Ignatius. I offered no guidance and as it happened neither did Marly. Both of us agree that whoever made the matches did so with great care. Marly writes:

“Diane,
Well, I shall let Clive be the arbiter of images! But we are both entirely pleased with the care for clarity and detail, as well as the beautiful spacing that really gives the pictures so much more presence. And I have to say that I’m happy that Ignatius is so responsive and also so polite in working with a visual artist. That made me glad, as Clive is dear to me.
Just now I went through the list, and I do suspect that somebody has thought carefully about placement, where possible. It is absolutely right that the horse begins and the ewe (so many good symbolic sheep associations) ends the story. I especially liked the amusing placement of the rabbit for Wedlock (preceded by the ancient emblem of married constancy, the swan), the owl for a chapter of wild wanderings, and the open-mouthed dog for the “frampled” household chapter. Some were logical, like the bird at a chapter with birds, or the various domestic animals scattered in chapters set in villages. Somehow I really like the luminous peacock–the most mystical thing in the group–as an image representing “Path in the Dark.” The squirrel with his little acorn bag (I know it’s not that, really, but it looks that way, accompanied by Far-faring!) is another that amuses me. And the cockerel crowing out the news of the epilogue…
So yes, I do think that we are happy and content. Thanks to all who helped to make us feel so pleased with the way the book-to-be appears: well dressed and lovely.
In good cheer,
Marly”
(Forgive me Marly for sharing the e-mail. I think it illuminating to show how well things may be done when a team toward the best outcome. This has been the most positive experience. I’ve been extremely lucky with all my book commissions throughout 2019, for Design for Today, English Heritage and Phoenicia Publishing, every one of which has been a pleasure.)
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Above: sketch from my project book of the Ignatius imprint for the cover.

Reinventing Count Dracula

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On the cover of the myths and legends-inspired short story anthology These Our Monsters just out from English Heritage, I depicted Dracula because both the undead Count and his creator, Irish author Bram Stoker, appear in Graeme Macrae Burnet’s The Dark Thread. Burnet’s brief Whitby-set conjuring of Dracula as imagined by his author sent me to my bookshelves to take a look at how the Count is described by Stoker in the 1897 novel. In films Dracula has been depicted as darkly handsome with a deadly allure and sensuality. But that’s simply not the way Stoker introduced him:

Below: the first ‘Dracula’ sketch in my These Our Monsters project-book

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“His face was very strong, aquiline, with high bridge of the thin nose and peculiarly arched nostrils, with lofty domed forehead, and hair growing scantily round the temples but profusely elsewhere. His eyebrows were very massive, almost meeting over the nose, and with bushy hair that seemed to curl in its own profusion. The mouth, so far as I could see it under the heavy moustache, was fixed and rather cruel-looking, with peculiarly sharp white teeth.”

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From Christopher Lee in the 1958 – 1973 Hammer franchise to Gary Oldman in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (Francis Ford Coppola, 1992) via Frank Langella reprising his Broadway success as the Count in a Dracula (John Badham, 1979) with a distinctly erotic charge, the ‘Prince of Vampire’s’ cinematic appearances have been constantly in flux, endlessly reinvented to suit the tastes of the age. But the bushy eyebrows and the mouth-obscuring moustache were left between the pages of the original novel, film-makers preferring the undead to be smooth-faced. (Gary Oldman sported a trim moustache and goatee with shoulder-length curls as he pursued Winona Ryder throughout much of Coppola’s film, more dreamy musketeer than vampire Count, so she understandably buckled at the knees when he swooped in for a lick!)

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The changes wrought in translation are understandable. A film is not a book and an illustration doesn’t have to follow to the letter the text that underlies it. For my own Dracula I invented an ancient-parchment complexion, criss-crossed with lines. I ditched Stoker’s description of pointed ears (too Spock-like for a post-Star-Trek generation) but stuck with the straggly moustache because I liked the idea of the unholy trailing and dripping mess it would make when the vampire fed. I retained the unibrow, though replaced Stoker’s description of the Count’s sombre dark garments with the dandy’s delight in exuberant colour. My sartorial Dracula has a very fancy waistcoat!

Below: the cover art underway. Whitby Abbey is just an outline at this stage.

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Stoker can’t have known and couldn’t possibly have imagined the popularity of his monster reinvented into a plethora of iterations, and that’s not including the Dracula-inspired inventions that go by other names in cinema and fiction, starting with director F. W. Murnau’s 1922 silent film Nosferatu which unwisely drew on the novel without acquiring permissions from the author’s widow. First she lobbied the producer with demands for compensation, but when it turned out there was no money to be had, gained a court order requiring that all the prints of the film be destroyed. Today there would be no Nosferatu had a few prints not slipped through the net.

The Count from Transylvania has stuck like a burr in the imaginations of creators and audiences. We can’t get enough of him. I loved honouring the tale on the cover of  These Our Monsters. I read not only Burnet’s story in order to make the cover, but Stoker’s novel too. (Twice.) I’d illustrate it in a heartbeat were the offer to come my way.

Below: my first version of the cover, with the lettering given more space and the EH logo placed bottom left.

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Below: wrap around dust-jacket in a storm of my trademark oak leaves.

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Frances and the Paper made of Iris and Reed

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Frances McDowall, who died on Friday morning, has been much on my mind. Twenty years ago Frances played a significant role in bringing the Old Stile Press edition of Richard Barnfield’s The Affectionate Shepherd to fruition. Every time I open my copy of the book Frances is present in it, our work together literally bonded into the pages.

Nicolas McDowall had been taken by examples he’d seen of the printmaking technique known as Heliography, and asked me to produce images for the Barnfield project by those means. He felt the process might be an interesting way to capture much of what he’d been so attracted to in my drawings. As I proceeded with the work I discovered there were endless difficulties that Nicolas hadn’t identified at the outset, and as I struggled to originate drawings by his suggested technique of scratching into emulsion-coated sheets of glass, Frances began the epic task of making the paper for the entire edition of 200 books.

Below: a surviving fragment of a glass plate and the image as it appears in the book.

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Frances was heroic. It took forever to complete the vast amount of papers required and the processes were painstaking and physically exhausting. Later Nicolas too ran into problems at the press, so it might be fair to say that on The Affectionate Shepherd we all three suffered for our arts. (For a couple of years I was never without elastoplasted fingers because the thin glass plates persistently shattered under the pressure of my styluses. By the end of the project I had broken approximately eight glass plates for every one brought to completion.)

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Though the journey was fraught with problems at every stage and it’s a fact that we never again made a book in that particular way, somewhere along the pathways of agonising frustration, wrong turns and undependable techniques, the magic began to happen. Today when I look at the book, Frances’ ravishing sheets, striated and wrinkled and patterned with the marks of the organic ingredients and the drying processes, make a wonderful ground to the meanderings of my lines impressed into their surfaces. In a raking light the marks of my hand and her craft merge into a book the like of which I’ve never seen before or since. Sometimes the ink lines look almost like dark hairs looped and curved and trapped into the paper.

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In the colophon at the back of the book, the paper is described thus – perhaps by Nicolas or perhaps by Frances:

“All the paper used in this edition (including the endpapers) was made by Frances McDowall. The furnish used consisted of a mixture of Abaca and Jute, with an admixture of reeds and irises for the endpapers.”

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It’s a crisp and matter-of-fact account of a process that was fuelled by energy, passion and the overwhelming imperative by all of us to create something beautiful to frame Barnfield’s poem. Published originally in 1594, the only surviving copy of the first edition of The Affectionate Shepherd available in the UK to view is at the British Library, which is where I went at the outset to examine it. ( I had an alarming encounter there that nearly scuppered the entire enterprise and that you can read about here: https://clivehicksjenkins.wordpress.com/…/…/10/birthday-boy/ )

To my knowledge the Old Stile Press book published in 1998 is the only illustrated edition of the poem.

 

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Below: pencil study made in preparation for The Affectionate Shepherd

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‘The odds are high in the making of any book: here the choices entailed a far greater than usual amount of experiment and work by the artist, paper-maker and printer. The result of their collaboration is a triumph.’

Jeremy Greenwood for Parenthesis Magazine.  1998.

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Edward Carey’s ‘Little’

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Among the contributors to the short story anthology that’s being published by English Heritage this month, is Edward Carey. When I saw his name on the list of writers responding to some of the English Heritage sites with mythic/folkloric associations, I recalled reading a glowing review for his novel Little. I duly acquired a copy and read it.

Edward is both a writer and an artist. He makes images to accompany his novels. Little, illustrated throughout with many drawings, is a staggering feat of research married to imagination, a compelling, page-turning history of Anne Marie Grosholtz, better known today – thanks to waxworks attractions around the globe bearing her name – as Madame Tussaud.

The book nailed my attention. Here was a writer who’d uncannily entered the mind of a known eighteenth century woman, channeling her into a first person account with her character fully formed and vibrant throughout the narrative. The Marie of Carey’s Little feels utterly real and present. Moreover he magnificently and dreadfully sets her down in that bloodiest period of civil unrest, the Revolution. A clammy sense of dread pervades the second half of the book as Paris sinks into malign chaos. The aristocrats and their supporters may have been the first to be rounded up and executed, but in the ensuing upheavals of rival factions, civil dissolution and score-settling, you could go to the guillotine at the whim of a jealous neighbour because you’d violated a dress-code. The world had turned in on itself and gone mad.

It’s been said that in later life – and with her waxworks a famous attraction in London – Marie Tussaud’s published account of her early life may have stretched the facts to better make a story. She claimed to have been a teacher of art to the King’s young sister Elizabeth, living for nine years by invitation of the royal family in the palace of Versailles. She claimed to have known the King and Queen. Later, back in Paris in the cataclysmic turmoil of ‘la Terreur’, the story goes that she was forced to take plaster casts from the decapitated heads of people she had once known in order to make wax effigies of them to be displayed and ridiculed. Whatever the truth of that, Carey makes the idea viscerally plausible, and his accounts of what it must have been like to carry out such grim work are convincingly and startlingly detailed. If Marie Tussaud – a great show-woman and self-promoter – did partially manufacture her history, adding a darker lustre to justify the more outrageous elements of her waxworks attraction, then Carey has done a magnificent job of adding flesh to the bones. She owes him a huge debt of gratitude, because she’s now going to be better known as the Marie of Little, than as the Madame Tussaud of her biography. He’s even made her portrait for the book in a pastiche of her times, which will now be the one I feel most truly represents her.

 

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Ed’s short story for the English Heritage collection gave me wonderful inspiration for the illustration I made to accompany it. A few weeks after I’d completed and submitted it, the editor Katherine Davey told me that he’d asked her to pass on how much he liked the image, and enquire whether I’d agree to be contacted by him. We started e-mailing each other almost immediately, and we’ve been e-mailing ever since. We’ve exchanged drawings. I’m now the owner of a delicate pencil image he made for Little, one of many in the book which are supposed to be the work of Marie’s hand. By way of exchange Ed has the drawing of a ‘goblin child’ I made for his title story of the English Heritage anthology, These Our Monsters.

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It’s a wonderful swop. I particularly like that the drawing I have is of a model of Marie created – in the novel – by the young man she loves. It’s a rather grotesque wooden doll that could be mistaken for Mr Punch’s Judy, so it couldn’t have been better chosen for me given my passion for puppets. What a happy experience working on this project has been, and what a lovely drawing transaction.

 

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