Frances and the Paper made of Iris and Reed



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.)


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.


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.”


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:…/…/10/birthday-boy/ )

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



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.


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.