Looking at my shelves I realise how fortunate I’ve been as an artist to have collaborated on a good many interesting book projects. At the start of my career as a painter, Nicolas and Frances McDowall of Old Stile Press gave me multiple opportunities with their invitations to collaborate on volumes of poetry, plus the covers of two bibliographies. For them I made two volumes of works by the sixteenth century poet Richard Barnfield, The Affectionate Shepherd and the Barnfield Sonnets, plus The Mare’s Tale by Catriona Urquhart, an anthology of poems which memorialised the life of her late friend – and my father – Trevor.
At Old Stile I produced an illustrated edition of Peter Shaffer’s iconic play, Equus, which led to a commission from Penguin Classics to contribute an image for the cover of a new edition of the play in 2006, still in print today.
While at OSP I learned craft on the projects Nicolas chose for me, it would be fair to say it was in the books springing from my creative enthusiasms as an artist, that I’d find the most satisfying experiences. Simon Armitage’s 2018 revision of his translation of the medieval poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight for Faber & Faber gave the opportunity to use the fourteen-print series on the theme I’d made with Dan Bugg at Penfold Press, edited into illustrations for the edition. That led to a second collaboration with Simon of a much-loved fairytale for publisher Design for Today, Hansel & Gretel: a Nightmare in Eight Scenes, which won me the 2020 V&A Illustrated Book Award.
Next came a second book at Faber with Simon, by now appointed Poet Laureate. The Owl and the Nightingale was conceived as a companion volume to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and like its predecessor was a ‘translation’ of a medieval text.
Joe Pearson at Design for Today makes extraordinarily beautiful books which honour the great traditions of illustration, and after Hansel & Gretel in 2019, he invited me to make a child-size ‘pamphlet’ book, The Bird House, which enabled me to indulge my love of toy birds and toy buildings. No text with this one, just page after page of pictures.
Throughout the pandemic lockdowns I worked on my second ‘fairytale’ project for Design for Today, Beauty & Beast, in a reinvention by poet Olivia McCannon. Our starting points had been the eighteenth century French novella of the fairytale and the 1946 film La Belle et la Bête by poet/artist/director Jean Cocteau. However in Olivia’s hands the source materials were thrillingly transformed, underpinned by 21st century concerns about global warming and the destruction of environment.
For fifteen years I’ve been producing cover artwork and page decorations for the American poet and novelist, Marly Youmans. My most recent work for her has been a collection of poems under the title The Book of the Red King, and her novella-length narrative poem, Seren of the Wildwood.
This year I produced my second cover for Penguin, an edition of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, working with Penguin/Random House art director, Suzanne Dean.
Over the years I haven’t seen myself as being an illustrator so much as an artist with a wide range of interests, among which books are admittedly a bit of an obsession. Some of the book projects have been ones I’ve instigated and brought to completion with the help of others. Joe at Design for Today has been my major facilitator for the most significant ones, while others have come via publishing commissions. But however made, the books produced in collaboration with writers I greatly admire, such as Marly, Olivia and Simon, often thereafter cast their influences further into my practices as an artist. I have been majorly influenced and fuelled by poetry. It’s a persistent thread throughout my work at the easel, on the stage and in books. The past year has seen me working for Folio Society on a new illustrated edition of Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf, due out this summer. The project just dropped into my lap, brought to me by Folio Society art editor Raquel Leis Allion. I’d long wanted to work with the text, so it’s been a bit of a dream come true.