30 Years on: A Canoe in the Mist
I like anniversaries, especially when they concern my illustrations! So here’s another fond memory – this year is the 30th anniversary of the publication of Elsie Locke’s A Canoe in the Mist.
This was my third commissioned book contract, after Jeremy Strong’s Fatbag (A & C Black) and Roger Collinson’s Get Lavinia Goodbody! (Andersen Press), both first released in 1983. Like them, it was a commission for black and white text drawings to a novel. Unlike those titles however, both of which were fun, humorous books requiring comic drawings, this new commission was a dramatised narrative of real events during the catastrophic 1886 eruption of Mount Tarawera in New Zealand.
Canoe in the Mist follows the story of two girls during the eruption. Lillian Perham lives in the village of Te Wairoa with her widowed mother, where western tourists flock to view the famous pink and white terraces, natural stairs of silica pools on Lake Rotomahana. Set in a volcanic wonderland often described as the 8th wonder of the world, Lillian only has chance to see the terraces herself when she befriends Mattie, the daughter of visiting English tourists. But the day they set off for Rotomahana the waters of the lake are mysteriously lifted by a tidal wave, the tohunga sage of the local maori village propheses disaster, and a mysterious ghostly apparition of a canoe, waka wairua, is seen on the lake.
That night the volcano violently erupts, followed soon after by fissures underneath the lake that destroy the terraces and turn Lake Rotomahana into an explosion of steam and mud, burying the Maori villages of Moura and Te Ariki, killing 153 people. Caught in a deluge of debris and mud, the girls, parents and villagers struggle to escape a world that has been torn apart.
The commission came at the very end of 1983 from Jonathan Cape publishers, at that time based in Bedford Square, long before they were absorbed by Random House, I think it was simply a case of showing my work in their office at the right time. It was a fortuitous commission, coming soon after I’d moved to London, I threw myself into sketches straight away.
This was of course, long before the internet, so finding accurate reference material was going to be a struggle. Despite the book being a historical topic my editor was unable to provide visual references, I knew very little about New Zealand in the 1880’s, and despite my suggestion Jonathan Cape wasn’t about to fly me out there to do some ground research! However my local library in Crouch End was a tremendous help, especially on information on Maori culture. The publisher also passed on my queries to the author in New Zealand, who after a short while very kindly sent me a package of photos and cuttings outlining the region today and before the earthquake.
What I didn’t realise until much later on however, was just how deeply embedded in the background of the book the author was. Elsie Locke (1912-2001), writer, feminist, historian and peace campaigner, is today recognised as one of the most important figures of New Zealand culture of the last century. Although she passed away in 2001, the Elsie Locke Memorial Trust continues to promote her life, work and writings, and sponsors an annual competition for young writers in New Zealand.
I was a young struggling illustrator in London, for me New Zealand seemed a very remote and exotic place at the time, and yet the correspondence I exchanged with Elsie not only brought the region to life visually, it helped greatly to spark my imagination.
The drawings were largely crafted at my humble abode in London – this was just before I joined a studio so I was working on the kitchen table in a shared house. One morning in a curious parallel to the book’s plot I almost lost everything. I walked into the kitchen and found it awash with water – one of my house mates had run a bath upstairs then completely forgot about it – the bath overflowed, water poured through the ceiling into the kitchen beneath, the table was drenched, my drawings were soaked. This in itself wasn’t quite as much of a disaster as it sounds – indian ink is waterproof after all, but my flatmate had compounded the problem by pinning each wet drawing to the washing line with rusty old clothes pegs, which made horrible indelible brown marks and ripped the sodden paper.
So, many of the drawings were re-drawn from scratch, some of them several times, with time running out I finished the book in the much safer and more comfortable environment of my parent’s house in Norwich. But eventually all was done, the artwork was delivered.
This book was a major watershed for me (excuse the pun!). With the painful experience of my own little disaster in the kitchen flood I was desperate to find somewhere else to work, so straight after completing the artwork for A Canoe in the Mist I joined with my old friend, designer Andy Royston and co-founded Facade Art Studios in Crouch End, right next to the library that had been so helpful in my research.
Looking back at the drawings now they’re clearly an early work with some rough edges, also there were a couple of slips by the designer too – one drawing was reproduced back-to-front, in the case of another an inferior first version was printed instead of the intended drawing. Were I to illustrate the book again now I’d handle some drawings differently, and I certainly would not have given the art director more than one version of each drawing! But these were learning times, I was just beginning to find my feet as an illustrator, and to this day I’m proud of my involvement with the book, and the writer. A Canoe in the Mist was re-issued by Collins in their Modern Classics series in 2005, though, due to constraints of the series, sadly without any illustrations.
Interestingly, though the Pink and White Terraces were thought to be utterly destroyed and the area left largely uninhabitable, in 2011 parts of the Pink Terraces were re-discovered still in existence, hidden under thick layers of mud.
And there lies a strange parallel – I assumed my old drawings for the book had also been lost long ago, but recently was amazed to discover them in my dad’s loft, including some sketches and alternative versions that never made it into the final book. So for those who don’t know A Canoe in the Mist, or may only have read the unillustrated Collins Classic edition, here they are!