|Dancing with Giants|
September 2000 marked the release of the new unabridged, illustrated edition of Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’ Arthur. This deluxe hardcover is introduced and edited by John Matthews and includes thirty-two new watercolour paintings and thirty-one full page black and white drawings. As Malory’s latest artist I appreciate Pendragon’s invitation to shine a light into the hidden realm of the illustrator, moving through the challenges, approach, and creation of the art itself. Predictably, it has been an experience in the extreme – from the power and beauty of Malory’s world and the inspiring depth and breadth of the work, to the harrowing task of safely navigating such a book through the business world of the twentieth century.
It is an increasingly rare opportunity to illustrate a classic, and a heavy responsibility. Malory carries an added weight in the legend being a cornerstone of Britain’s cultural identity and the distinguished legacy of Le Morte d’ Arthur in art. The list of Malorian illustrators alone includes such great names as Aubrey Beardsley and Sir William R. Flint, to Arthur Rackham, Walter Crane, Howard Pyle and N. C. Wyeth in its adaptations.
The responsibilities of the illustrator go beyond one’s artistic contribution. In brief, their task is to work alongside the author, also fulfilling a role as storyteller: expanding, clarifying, and enriching the scene to say what the author has not. There are some additional challenges in illustrating Malory. One lies in breathing new life into the worn traditional scenes while remaining within the bounds of text and wider tradition. Another lies in ensuring that the different branches of Arthurian tradition that culminate in Malory, such as legend, romance and the Grail Quest, are adequately represented. Another practical consideration is the publisher’s design and format of the book, which in this case effected the choice of black and white illustrations. All this surveying of the restrictions and demands can be tedious but essential with a book such as this, where the artist is easily led astray by the many tempting sights.
While I have written a short piece on the art of Malory to be included in the book, I imagine Pendragon readers would be comfortable in following the illustrator a little deeper into the medieval forests, and appreciate what has to be a personal approach to the courtship between legend and art. Here the illustrator leaves off studying Malory to live it, and have it breathe through the art. It was for this experience of possession by the drama and intimacy with the characters that I chose to illustrate Malory. The Arthurian tradition is my home ground as an artist and author. It was my love of this old enchanted world that led me to paint as a teenager, and while I find inspiration in other realms, times, and characters, few rival the intoxicating effect I feel amidst the fertile Arthurian landscape. There is a danger in my use of the words ‘enchanted’ and ‘intoxicating’ as they may serve to perpetuate the dismissive stereotype of the mad artist. While there may be some truth to the madness – it is a temporary release. In my experience, the brief ecstasy felt in moments of high inspiration, is soon tempered with the very real difficulty of painting the vision seen in the throes of madness/insight.
Illustrating Malory was perhaps too intense to be enjoyable. It is not a gentle story, but a giant in carrying the archetypal force of mythology which can pulse or tear through the sympathetic illustrator. Visionary art, which Malory calls for on occasion, has its own moods and symbolic language especially suited to conveying the same mysteries and collective wisdom contained within the great dramas of mythology. A particularly potent magic can come where art and mythology intersect.
The art does not always chase the text as often assumed, rather it is a dance between the two, and sometimes they meet head on. The ‘Enchanted Ship of Twelve Maidens’ is an example of an image just seen in a flash rather than created in my head or built by the text. It was a scene which stayed in my mind to be recognized months later in Malory’s text. There were differences between the ships – Malory’s draped with fabric, mine with ivy, but light, mood, and setting are the same. Given its popularity at exhibitions, I like to think it has retained some of the flavour of its mysterious origins despite being appropriately dressed for Malory.
The ‘visions’ were often the result of a mind rubbed raw by the demands of work. I had no life or sleep schedule, rarely ventured outside or answered my phone. Like the knights on the Grail Quest I lived the agony of failed attempts, my studio floor a graveyard of ill-fated paintings – some stillborn, others with weeks of work before meeting disaster. Perhaps most telling was the feeling of being blistered by the demands of the work. The sensation began six months into the book and persisted until completion two years later. (I suppose one should expect blisters when living with a dragon.) I had help along the way. In this world I had the support of John Matthews who proposed this long overdue edition, and chose me as its illustrator. In the slippery realm of the artist, I had support in the friendship of fellow illustrator Alan Lee, whose voice of experience would always find me no matter how deep or entangled I became in Malory’s dark forests.
The rewards of illustrating Malory are worth the blisters. The story is so diverse and provocative that one rarely loses inspiration. After a month spent with the intense charge of Morgan le Fay, the following would be spent in the silence of the Wasteland. In this way I retained a balance both in mind and palette and an appetite for the next painting. One of the most appealing qualities of illustration is its diversity in subject and mood. The artist is licensed, in fact required to travel forbidden places and paint scenes which some may consider too disturbing in any other context. The illustrator is free to create the noise and heat of battle and conjure the cool menacing air of Chapel Perilous.
There has been humour, heartbreak, and breathtaking visions, and the continuous excitement of trying to capture the beauty of Malory’s scenes in watercolour. In the quietest moments, I liked to imagine ghosts roosting in my studio – from distant figures who may have existed and inspired the legend, to the storytellers, artists, and their creations that have served it. There are rewards in such good company and I feel most privileged to have contributed to a tradition so close to my heart.
Anna-Marie Ferguson (August 2000)
|As published in the Journal of the Pendragon Society Summer Issue 2000|
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