Saturday, 10 August 2013

A painted ship upon a painted ocean

I often get asked what books I enjoyed when I was young and the question and the answers I give are usually confined to the literary merits of the books in question.  But this is rarely the only answer I could give.

I will often say - quite truly - that I loved the work of Rosemary Sutcliff, for instance, or Henry Treece. But whilst I did indeed love their books, it was the illustration work of Charles Keeping that first made me take them from the library shelf.

I have always sought out illustrated fiction and was (and am) an avid reader of comics.  I trained as an illustrator and was an illustrator for twenty years before I began my career as a writer.  More and more, I find myself recalling what an impact illustrations can have when paired with the right story.

My next book, The Dead Men Stood Together, is my take on Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.  The poem was read to me when I was young - about eight or nine - and I think it must have been the strangest thing I had heard up to that point - with perhaps the exception of Greek myths (another minor obsession of mine when I was young).

I don't know if I was shown the famous Gustave Doré illustrations to a nineteenth century edition of poem then, or whether that came later, but it feels like they have always been linked.  I find it hard to think of the poem without thinking of his work.  Doré's incredible imagination together with his technical ability and the hallucinatory quality of the metal engraving technique, seems to be a perfect match.  He also produced extraordinary images for Dante's The Divine Comedy.

I know that for some people illustrations are an intrusion, but all I can say is that is never the case for me unless the illustrations are poor or mismatched.  Timidity in illustration is a curse, and illustrators who are over-respectful of the work they are illustrating rarely produce anything worth seeing.  'Classics' still get illustrated, but rarely by anyone with the chutzpah to take on the work and bring something fresh to it.  I don't blame the illustrators - I think this is a problem at the commissioning stage.  Books do not need to be illustrated.  They should only be illustrated if the illustrations are going to add something.

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner has been illustrated many times by many different illustrators, but it must have been difficult for them to escape from Doré's shadow.  The British writer and illustrator, Mervyn Peake, was one who managed this brilliantly in the twentieth century, when he illustrated an edition during the second world war.  Peake's illustrations are disturbing in a different way to Doré's, who in the main is simply visualising Coleridge's words.  Peake brings a dark, psychological edge to his work.  These illustrations seem to reflect Peake's own fragile mental state at the time.  A few years later, in 1945, he would be one of the first civilians to see the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps, when he visited Belsen as a war artist.  

Doré's work seems perfect until you see Peake's.  And that's how it should be.  Each illustrator should make us look at the words again.  But how many of today's publishers would commission an artist like Peake to illustrate a classic work?

And why - and I am asked this a lot too - if I am such an admirer and proponent of illustrated fiction, do I not illustrate my own work?  Well, more and more, I am beginning to wonder about that myself....

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