Recently I’ve been reading Malcom Yorke’s fascinating biography of author/illustrator Mervyn Peake (1911-1968), one of my illustration ‘heroes’.
In 1947 Peake was interviewed on BBC Radio and waxed lyrical on the subject of book illustration. His ideas are so close to my own opinions on the subject I can’t resist quoting the great man’s words here:
For a book illustrator “above all things there must be the power to slide into another man’s soul. The power to be identified with author, character and atmosphere… It is fatiguing, exacting work. Fatiguing not only because if one sets oneself a high standard the very technique sucks up one’s energy, but fatiguing also because of the imaginative expenditure required if one illustrates, in the full meaning of the word.”
Peake warns against taking the text at face value, producing “literal drawings which do not interpret or transmute the words into another medium, but merely repeat what the author has just said… (such drawings) underline the surface of the story or poem. They make no attempt to capture the ‘colour’ of the writing.
“One might say that books have different smells. Wuthering Heights smells different from Moby Dick, Green Mansions smells different from Tristram Shandy. The book of Job, smells different – very different – from The Fall of the House of Usher. It is for the illustrator to make his drawings have the same smell as the book he is illustrating. Most celebrated book illustrators impose their celebrated techniques upon whatever book they are illustrating, graft upon it as it were their famous mannerisms to the discomfiture of the fastidious reader… At the same time I find it essentially insensitive, however beautiful the book production may be, to couple fine works of literature with the alien and haphazard burgeoning of the finest artist – haphazard in the sense that they are not interpretations of the text, but manifestations of the artist’s personality… In book illustration the artist must not only synchronize all the aesthetic elements with which the pure painter has to juggle, but he must have, over and above this, the power to identify himself with another personality – that of the author he is interpreting., and also with the mood of the book. He must have, in other words, not only an imagination but a pliable one – a wide one, one that is sensitive to the overtones of music and words, that miraculous coinage. He must slay his own ego in order to relive. He must have the chameleon’s power to take on the colour of the leaf he dwells on”.