Welcome to our guest column series "Drawn from Memory: Reflections on the Art of Illustration."
JJ Books has invited well known writers to recall images that have inspired their work, from Brahma to Beardsley and beyond.
The acclaimed Tolkien scholar John Garth grew up with tales from Middle-earth and Narnia brought to life by the 'divine' drawings of Pauline Baynes.
It was an illustrator that taught me the joy of literature. True, Pauline Baynes had the marvellous accompaniment of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, but as a seven-year-old I drank in the pictures. For me, C.S. Lewis’s Narnia is always her world too, and I wince when I see latter-day jackets with tepid stand-in illustrations.
The impact of Baynes’s tangled trees and underworld caverns, inhabited by medieval figures and mythological or heraldic beasts, was immeasurable. With its nakedly religious denouement, The Last Battle does not quite work for me now – but the Puffin cover’s firelit fray still brings back the thrill of first seeing it. Lewis’s cruel Calormenes are a dated racial stereotype; yet Baynes, raised partly in India, passionate about Persian art, instils them with grace, culture, beauty and physical prowess.
The cover of my first The Lord of the Rings was from a 1964 Baynes: a soft Shire landscape misting into green-grey, with tumbled and tormented Mordor on the back – both framed by trees with furtive creatures among the roots. I’m sorry Baynes never got to work on a full-scale illustrated edition: she does not attempt J.R.R. Tolkien’s realism yet she matches him for sheer wonder.
Born in 1922, she had started at the Slade when war took her away to work for the Army and Admiralty; but she still managed to make some halting first steps as an illustrator. In 1948 Tolkien was shown sample drawings she had been invited to submit for his children’s story Farmer Giles of Ham. He loved her characterful, semi-comical, medievalesque handling.
It was the start of a hugely productive career in magazines such as The Illustrated London News, in advertising and greetings cards, and in books. These ranged from children’s fiction to The Puffin Book of Nursery Rhymes to Watership Down – its iconic cover as lifelike a study of a dead rabbit as can be imagined.
She was especially proud of her work on Grant Uden’s Dictionary of Chivalry (for which she won the Kate Greenaway Award) and Richard Barber’s Companion to World Mythology. When I sent her my own book Tolkien and the Great War in 2005, and mentioned these two titles as particular favourites, she responded: ‘It was especially nice not just to have the Lewis books mentioned, but appreciation of books that (like yours!) took a lot of reference and research.’ Though changing tastes in publishing and the decline of illustrated books meant commissions had long since dwindled to a trickle, she was still painting daily until her death of heart disease in 2008.
Picking a single favourite Baynes picture is almost impossible. But the jacket of a 1970s edition of Tolkien’s final story, Smith of Wootton Major, can stand for many riches. In other hands the palette together with the conglomeration of rock, bush, tree and pool would add up to something gaudy and overblown. But those rose pinks and scarlets are offset by deep greens and pale browns edging into gold. Perspectives sweep up in a dance of life. Smith, an explorer in Faërie, braces himself against a birch as a supernatural wind strips its leaves, and the swirling leaves frame the title cartouche. On the back, Smith is dazzled by the majestic King’s Tree, hung with fruit and leaves of every kind. Around the tree, beasts cavort as if they have pranced straight off the cave walls at Lascaux.
Everything in Baynes’s vision looks moulded by a divine enchanter. Her figures march out of heraldry. Her landscapes are irreducibly alive, rushing away into vertiginous upsweeps crowned by cliffs and beetling fists of granite. Bent by the wind, her trees are drawn bows that need no arrow to pierce the heart.
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