Beautiful Birds at Bonhams this Spring

Spring announces itself in many ways. In the book world, vernal book fairs and auctions tempts the frozen bibliophile our from hibernation with new treasures waiting to be explored. Bonhams welcomes the new season with a May 30 auction entitled, Wassenaar Zoo: a Dutch Private Library.
Comprised of 2,400 mostly ornithological volumes, the collection was assembled in the 1950s to accompany exhibitions at Holland’s now-defunct Wassenaar Zoo. The auction will include a near-complete run of folios by naturalist John Gould, works by French ornithologist François Levaillant and by Daniel Elliot, co-founder of the American Museum of Natural History. Their beautiful illustrations of pheasants, finches, and falcons fuse a delicate balance between art and scientific inquiry and remain highly coveted by collectors.

Representing the biggest names in 19th century natural history documentation, highlights from this collection went on display in New York earlier this month and are currently on view in Hong Kong. Another viewing will be held in London from May 23 through the 29th.
Interested parties may flock to the Bonhams book department at books@bonhams.com.

Image: Superb Fairywren The Birds of Australia. London, Printed by R. and J. E. Taylor; pub. by the author,[1840]-48. Plate 18 by John Gould. Courtesy of Biodiversity Library and Smithsonian.

Q&A with Jane Ray

@BoxerBooks Author-illustrator Jane Ray talks about creative influences, fairy tales, and offers advice to budding artists. #JaneRay #art

British author-illustrator Jane Ray has over seventy children’s books to her credit, filled with plucky mermaids, fairies, and ghosts, while clever illustrations have earned her a spot on the shortlist for the Kate Greenaway Award five times. Ray was recently nominated for the 2018 Hans Christian Andersen award,  an international prize often referred to as the “Little Nobel Prize.” Ray’s stories hail from all the corners of the world and are receptive to diverse creative influences. Her most recent book, The Elephant’s Garden (Boxer Books, $14.95), deals with hunger, greed, and temptation, but there’s no fire and brimstone here; Ray’s jewel-toned illustrations masterfully weave a beguiling tale set in a fantastical corner of India.

And that’s how it is with most of Ray’s books, wherein a deft master dazzles with lyric prose and illustrations to the point where the reader almost forgets that there’s a moral in there somewhere. Ray credits understanding parents and a lifelong love of reading and drawing for fueling her career. Ray kindly spoke with us via e-mail on March 22, 2017 about her early influences and artistic process, and extolled the virtues of toting sketchpads everywhere, because you never know when inspiration may strike.

You’ve written and illustrated over seventy children’s books, many of which focus on folk tales and fairy tales—your illustrations for Berlie Doherty’s Classic Fairy Tales put you on the shortlist for the Kate Greenaway Medal—what draws you to these stories?

RAY: I think it is the shape of traditional stories that I am attracted to. They are so familiar to us – you just start with “Once upon a time….” and we all know where we are! The archetypal scenarios of kings and princesses, three brothers or sisters, towers and palaces, poverty and wealth seem universal. I guess these stories relate to human concerns the world over – health, wealth, happiness, life and death.

What books did you read growing up? I understand yours was “a house full of books and music” and that you found school a distraction from your true calling. Did your parents encourage you to become an artist?

RAY: I was very lucky to have very encouraging parents – not to be underestimated. Important books were Alice in Wonderland, the Little House on the Prairie books, the Green Knowe Books by Lucy Boston, Tom’s Midnight Garden. I loved the illustrations of Beatrix Potter and Brian Wildsmith, Arthur Rackham and Jan Pienkowski. 

What pulled you to the story of The Elephant’s Garden? Where did you first encounter this story?

RAY: I found the story when I was researching an anthology that I put together for Boxer Books, called The Lion and the Unicorn and other Hairy Tales. It came from a collection of Indian folk tales in my local library. The original story was about an ox and a monk, but I felt an elephant had more appeal, and I wanted a child protagonist. That is the beauty of such stories – they belong to everyone and can be retold in any way, to fit your audience. Nothing is written in stone.

The illustrations for The Elephant’s Garden remind me of various jungle scenes by Henri Rousseau—what influences did you draw upon for this book?

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Text and art copyright 2017 Jane Ray. Reproduced with permission from Boxer Books.

RAY: I had been experimenting with cut paper as a medium – there is a freshness and brightness to the technique which felt right for this story aimed at the very young. It is also a technique common to several different cultural traditions – Polish and Mexican to name but two….and Matisse of course!

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The Flamingoes by Henri Rousseau

 

What is your philosophy when it comes to creating a well-crafted children’s book? How do you know when the text and art are in perfect pitch?

RAY: When I’m illustrating my own text, it’s a constant backwards and forwards process of balancing text and image. I always find that the story can be pared down considerably once I start on the pictures – visual action reducing the need for explanation in the text. But you also don’t want to sacrifice the poetry and balance and rhythm of the words – hence the to-ing and fro-ing, trying to find the right balance.

What’s your creative process? Does it vary whether you’re collaborating with an author or working on your own project?

RAY: Yes, very much. When I’m working on someone else’s text I have a ready-made frame work which, by and large, I will adhere to. There can be, hopefully, some give and take between author and illustrator, the author willing to be flexible about issues that arise in the illustration of the text, but ultimately I am always very conscious that I am entrusted with someone’s “baby,” their precious story, and I want them to be happy with my interpretation.

When I am working on my own text, it is a much less defined process, a more organic process, with text and picture developing alongside each other, constantly responsive to each other.

What kind of research do you conduct for your projects?

I’ll do some basic research into historical or national costume, though I’m never too hidebound by this. Similarly, I’ll look at cultural and national ideas to provide background and some sense of the story I’m illustrating and/or writing about. Ideas for books come from so many different places – current events, dreams, ancient stories, poems, conversations with children, my work as Artist-in-Residence at a London center for refugees – and these circumstances all bring their own references and backgrounds which serve as source material for each projects.

How do you create your artwork? What kind of materials do you use?  I understand you used collage for The Elephant’s Garden.

RAY: Yes – I use a lot of collage. I love the variety of texture and pattern that it brings, and also the references – fragments of newsprint for example. I also use watercolor, water color pencils, inks, gouache, and I’ve done a series of books using scratchboard, which looks a bit like engraving. My work is multi-layered – I always have a struggle with providing roughs because so much goes into the actual making process that can’t be shown “in brief.”

I don’t use the computer at all – I just don’t have those skills. I also rather like the physical processes of putting paint on paper.

Could you talk about your work with the Foundling Museum? I read that you were recently working on a picture book for them.

This was a while ago now and was a part of another project, In The Picture, which aimed to get images of disability into children’s books. But the experiences I had at the Foundling Museum fed directly into the novel Heartsong, written by Kevin Crossley Holland, which I illustrated recently. It is set in 18th-century Venice and is about the foundling children at the Ospidale de la Pieta, where Vivaldi was priest and composer and taught promising young girls to sing and play music to astonishing standards.

 

Do you have any advice for budding artists? So many children enjoy art, then reach seven or eight years old and either love it or decide they’re no good and give it up.

My advice is to get the sketchbook habit – to get into the habit of looking and drawing, to note things down, to collect images and ideas, snippets and fragments that intrigue and delight, or even scare you…In a sketch book you can make mistakes and change your mind, you can turn the page and do it differently – it doesn’t have to be a masterpiece. There is room to discover who you are as an artist and what you like and what makes you tick.

Have there been any projects that didn’t turn out as planned? (For better or worse?)

I always have a vision of how a book is going to be – and it never turns out like that! But that’s half the fun!

How has your work changed over the years?

I have got much more disciplined about producing the art work. I used to let things go that, looking at them later, I regretted. I have got technically more dexterous I think, simply through experience and practice. I am always wary though, of losing freshness and spontaneity – one needs to keep a childlike, open quality in one’s work.

Do you visit schools? What is that like? What kind of questions do children ask?

I often visit schools and find it both stimulating and exhausting! Children ask all sorts of things – from, “How old are you?” to, “How do you think of stories?”

What are you working on now?

A story about a unicorn – a Scottish folk tale.

 

Final Installment–Q&A with Jim Arnosky

In this last chapter of our conversation with Jim Arnosky, we talk about the author’s favorite animals, Frozen Wild, climate change, and giving nature a chance. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this series. It was a great pleasure to speak with Arnosky, and I hope his words provide value to budding artists everywhere. 

Basbanes: Your most recent book, Frozen Wild, explores what winter is throughout the globe. Did you travel into the winter landscapes? 

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Arnosky: Well, I couldn’t get to the Antarctic and couldn’t get to the Arctic. My concern wasn’t that yet another writer would go to the Arctic and see it and then turn around and tell us what’s there. My concern was, do children even know what this place is, or where it is? The biggest, most important thing I could tell children was that the Arctic is an ocean for the most part, with the North Pole is in the frozen center of it, and that Antarctic is a continent.

B: And that there are animals at either end.

A: That ‘s right. In the Antarctic you have the shoreline of this massive frozen continent, and in the Arctic you have this beautiful, incredible north country, all the way around the ocean up there. You also have the ocean in the Arctic, which has lots of animals in it. Whereas the heart of Antarctica is desolate. It’s so cold and it’s so uninhabitable—it’s an entirely different place, not just upside down Arctic.

I think children have to understand why we have winter–because of the tilt of our axis. What makes winter where you live? What makes winter where somebody in Argentina lives? When winter happens, what survives it? What’s under that ice? So you have all these different layers of one subject that I wanted to try and get in the book. I started at my home, and went out as far as I could go, and then came right back to my farm, my home, and my winter. I wanted to explain winter and cold weather to children, and how remarkable it is that animals can survive in these changes—you know, without having the benefit of heated homes or clothing like we have.

B: Well, some do, like the beaver, I had no idea they stay warm by building lodges.

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An active beaver lodge in winter. Public domain image 

A: Yes, they have a chimney in the thing because they don’t put mud around the top, so it’s just wood piled on wood from the center, but the beavers pack mud around the wood so that the air can’t get out. However, the air can go straight up. And when the temperature dips to ten below, which we get a lot of back here in northern Vermont, you can actually see the steam, the body heat coming out of the top of the beaver lodges.

When I wanted to sketch a beaver lodge in winter, I had to snowshoe down to it. Perhaps this was foolish, but when I got to the pond, I expected that the ice would be thick. As I snowshoed across the pond, the ice broke, and I fell in. I was lucky in the sense that I had always used this certain kind of a hitch—it’s a figure-eight hitch on my snowshoes rather than buckles. If those shoes had been buckled to my feet I would have drowned, but with mine, a circular turn of the foot releases you from the shoe. So I lived. This is all part of the experience of creating a story, and in my field as a naturalist, it’s doubly important to go out into nature and observe it firsthand.

B: You don’t mention climate change or global warming in the text, but you do cite quite a few books about it in your notes. Is that a conversation you think  children should be having? You don’t want to scare kids, but is a topic children should at least be aware of?

A: Well, unfortunately I think that global warming is a subject that remains misunderstood because a lot of people respond to it by things they see on television.

B: And it gets very political.

A: And politics boggles it all up in people’s minds. I’ve been asked twice to write a book about global warming, and in both cases I said no. You have to write about global warming properly. You have to write about what happens to our northern oceans and southern oceans when freshwater mixes with salt water in too large a quantity. You have to talk about whether or not people or animals are in danger in by it, because in some cases, the animals just simply migrate someplace else. You have to talk about whether or not we think animals like polar bears might move a little further south eventually, at least those that survive. We don’t know a lot about it. And I thought that’s an awful lot for me to squeeze into thirty-two pages of a picture book, when I’m just trying to tell children what winter is. This is a book about what we already know about, and that was my goal—to write a book about what makes it cold outside, and how the animals survive in that cold. So I thought talking about climate change in the middle of the book would throw the whole thrust off, which I explained to my editor. And she suggested I write about it in an author’s note at the end.

B: Do you have a favorite animal? 

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Wood duck image source: Wikimedia Commons.

A: I’ll always love wood ducks. I’ve painted them, and I’ve drawn them, but it’s never as beautiful as the actual wood duck. I can’t duplicate what nature has done. They have a plume behind their head, they have a multi-colored bill. There’s an iridescence to them. They can look black, green, very much like a mallard in that case, then they’re almost like the harlequin duck. Yet, when you see them in their habitat, they blend perfectly! The wood duck was on the verge of extinction because of its beauty. It made a wonderful mount for duck hunters. It came back because people kept private flocks of them on their property.  Their wings were clipped so they couldn’t fly away. And yet, some must not have been clipped right, because some of the wood ducks flew away, and they ended up repopulating their entire range.

There are lots of animal stories like that–crocodiles, beavers, deer. Anytime you give an animal a chance to rebound, they will, and in a big way.

Lewis Carroll’s classic Alice in Wonderland celebrates 150 consecutive years in print, and it seems every where you look, there’s a book, exhibit, or documentary extolling the various virtues of this timeless tale. Even the British Royal Mail Service got into the spirit by commissioning a special series of stamps. The work was completed by none other than Kate Greenaway Medalist Grahame Baker-Smith. Regular readers of this site might recognize the name: In 2013 Baker-Smith illustrated an edition of The Selfish Giant (Folio Society), and we spoke then about his work. (You can read the conversation here.) Once again, the illustrator generously answered a few more of my questions and sent some stunning sketches he prepared  for this most recent assignment. Join me down the rabbit hole with Grahame Baker-Smith as we talk about inspiration, design, and illustrating a legacy.

Who was your design inspiration for Alice and the other characters? (If I may be so bold, there appears to be a family resemblance between you and the Alice character.)

Well spotted Barbara! My ‘muse’ for Alice was my youngest daughter, Lillie. She very patiently and graciously let me take pictures of her doing things like pretending she was falling down a rabbit hole or being squished in the White Rabbit’s house – for which she had to sit scrunched up beneath my table.

Lillie is actually very dark-haired but the Royal Mail wanted a light brown hair color, so in the stamps she looks to me like Lillie but wearing a wig.

How did you choose which scenes to create?

The Royal Mail left the composition to me but had a ‘shopping list’ of scenes they wanted covered. It was a shame there couldn’t have been more than ten designs as characters like the Caterpillar and Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee had to be left out.

After 150 years, there’s been plenty of variations in art for the book. What’s it like tackling such a legacy?

Initially slightly terrifying! But, I reminded myself of the fact that the Royal Mail chose me for the thing that I do, so I tried to blot out everything I’d seen and play my natural game. I thought of the set of stamps as pages in a book. It was fabulous when [publishing house] Walker DID actually make them into a book. [The book is published in the United States by Candlewick Press.]

What was your work medium?

Well, everything begins with drawing, lots of drawing, in pencil, crayon, and pen. I tend to paint faces and other parts in acrylic. These are scanned into Photoshop and the rest of the design is built around it using Photoshop vector tools and brushes. I used crisp, clean shapes in Photoshop and minimal texture because of the size of the finished stamp. I needed something that would be very defined and positive at a small scale.

Did you create the pieces on a small scale, or work large and scale down?

Again this was a specific part of the brief. The printing of stamps needs to be very fine to hold the color, tones and textures at stamp-size. So the original images were 170 mm square, four times the size of the finished article. The DPI or print resolution was 600, usually 300 DPI is standard for print.

Did you read Alice in Wonderland growing up? (Or as an adult?) If so, was there a particular illustrated edition that resonated most with you? (Or not at all?)

I didn’t read Alice growing up. It’s one of those stories that, because of endless adaptations, you feel you know even if you’ve never read the book all the way through. I haven’t read it all the way through even now – I really should!

As for illustrations, Tenniel’s are so much a part of the whole legend of Alice it’s difficult to think of it without seeing his version; I also think they are marvelous illustrations anyway.

How do you perceive this story – I’ve spoken to some illustrators who viewed the tale as a whimsical fantasy, and others who saw nothing but a total nightmare, and illustrated it as such.

When I read the chapters pertaining to the scenes I had to illustrate I was enchanted by Carroll’s imagination, it seemed wild and unhinged. The feeling was of someone so in command of his literary prowess that he could conjure virtually anything into being and somehow make it work. I also felt there was an underlying truth that held it together and gave it – despite the utter madness – a gravity. It has something to say about the contrariness of people, the randomness of life and events. Characters like the Cheshire Cat seem to know so much about other people and the way the world really works while the Queen and King, with all the trappings of power, are unconscious beings who, through being unaware cause chaos and feel quite destructive and dangerous individuals.

Grahame Baker-Smith’s commemorate stamps are available through the British Royal Mail here, and the book, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, published by Candlewick Press, is available for $8.99.