Picture books: The trials and tribulations of illustrating classic literature

Steve Dinneen
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Illustrations by Dave McKean from The Folio Society edition of American Gods © Dave McKean 2017 of Ulysses © John Vernon Lord 2017

The death of the novel has been greatly exaggerated. Last year physical book sales overtook digital for the first time in four years, with the former rising by seven per cent compared to a slight drop-off in ebooks.

What’s more, it’s the younger generation driving the surge, with the vast majority of children’s books sold in print, and more than 60 per cent of 16 to 24-year-olds preferring the printed word. In this ephemeral internet age, the tactile joy of turning a page is more alluring than ever.

This has led to a renewed interest in “prestige” publishing – special editions, coffee table books, hardback collections – the kind of thing you buy as much to display on your bookcase as to read. Comic publishers including Marvel and DC, both of whom have seen a rise in physical sales over the last five years, have been rushing out dozens of premium collections of their classic works, investing in anthologies that can top 1,500 oversize pages in thick paper stock, housed inside expensively built slip-cases.

“People will always collect things,” says Sheri Gee, art director at The Folio Society, a publisher specialising in illustrated copies of classic works of fiction. “Our books are treasured because of the experience – the materials, the design, the illustrations, the paper, the typography – things you can’t get with an ebook. We often find that people buy Folio Society editions of books they already own.”

Gee is responsible for commissioning the artwork in The Folio Society’s collection. Recent releases include Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Arthur C Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and James Joyce’s Ulysses. This begs the question: how on earth do you go about illustrating, say, Leopold Bloom’s oblique stream of consciousness?

“I was a bit overwhelmed when I was asked,” says illustrator John Vernon Lord. “But I thought it would at least be easier than illustrating Finnegans Wake, which I did before Ulysses. It was not easier. Both books required a great deal of reading, re-reading and interpreting.”

Vernon Lord’s response was a series of intricate, densely textured sketches, split into fractured geometrical spaces. They have the effect of washing over you, supporting the words in subtle and intriguing ways, rather than trying to act as a visual aid.

Illustrations by John Vernon Lord from The Folio Society edition of Ulysses © John Vernon Lord 2017

“I was moved, in some cases, to illustrate the parts of Dublin that are referred to in the text, since the city itself has a constant presence in the novel,” he says. “I spent a week in Dublin exploring these. Apparently, when Joyce heard about Matisse illustrating his novel in the early 1930s, he asked a friend if he knew of any weeklies that might have images of early 20th century Dublin to show the artist, so that ‘he might be able to conjure up the past better’. This suggests Joyce was expecting Dublin to be depicted in the illustrations, and I felt I should honour that.

“Other illustrations attempt to evoke a kind of stream of consciousness, which is a prevalent feature of the novel. Because the book has some loose relationship with Homer’s Odyssey, I also incorporated elements of classical Greek imagery.”

There is a pressure, he says, to avoid skewing the reader’s imagination by being too prescriptive with the illustrations. Just as watching a film adaptation before you read a book can make it impossible to re-imagine a character, so an illustration can alter the way you conjure a fictional world.

“Illustrators have to stir the reader’s imagination, and to do so without infringing upon the text. Striking a balance is the key. In the best cases, the words and pictures have a mutually supportive relationship, rather like food and drink.

“For instance, Joyce does not describe the settings in Dublin, he just gives them names – the Martello Tower, Eccles Street, the railway arch in Cumberland Street – so I could give readers a feeling of the locations, providing a context as to where the actual action takes place.

“First and foremost, an illustrator has to honour the text by illuminating it, but not be subservient to it. They should challenge the reader’s expectations, adding an extra dimension to what has been written.”

Artist Dave McKean says he took a similar approach, albeit with completely different subject matter. He illustrated Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, which takes place in a low-fantasy world where gods exist alongside humankind.

“Simply visualising a bunch of scenes from the book is of no use to anyone,” he says. “Neither should you nail down the characters too much – try to ‘cast’ them, define them as specific facial types – a book should live in the reader’s imagination. Instead I try to create atmosphere and conceptual ideas that work with, or comment on, the themes in the book.

“You have to do right by the book and not annoy the author. There are many authors who prefer not to be illustrated, and good luck to them, they’ve spent so long getting the ‘images’ to work in words, why over-egg the pudding with actual pictures?”

Illustration by Paul Cox from The Folio Society edition of Lord Peter Views The Body © Paul Cox 2017

McKean has something of an advantage here, having already illustrated the covers to Gaiman’s seminal Sandman series. His illustrations for American Gods are rich, semi-abstract pieces painted in shades of brown and gold with vivid flashes of blue or red.

“I thought the book generally existed in two worlds, one that looks and feels a lot like ours but with actual gods, and one more visionary world, so I tried to have dualities running through the images to reflect this.”

Paul Cox, who illustrated Dorothy L Sayers’s classic Lord Peter Views the Body, took a slightly different approach, integrating his images into the text and displaying them as close to the scene described as possible, which he says gives them an “interactive” quality.

“There is a certain presumption that adding images may irritate the reader when they have their own, very different take on how they perceive the book,” he says. “It’s a three-way relationship between the text, the image and the reader.”

The illustrations for these three books are vastly different in both tone and execution, but each succeeds in adding an extra dimension to the works, not necessarily shedding light on the narrative, but making the book itself a more desirable object. I ask Gee if she’s ever surprised by the final results.

“I see the roughs as the project progresses, but they can vary in quality, from loose sketches to tight pencil drawings. The colour finals are another thing: I’m always amazed. They really heighten the reading experience.”

For a full list of Folio Society books go to foliosociety.com

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