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.