Soon after leaving Art School in 1957, I was commissioned to illustrate two books, An Afterthought by J.M. Barrie (a brief sequel to Peter Pan) and The Kingdom of Carbonel by Barbara Sleigh (a children's book about a magical cat). A much greater challenge came in 1960 with The Folk Songs of North America by Alan Lomax, a substantial volume of 623 pages. For this I provided four full page illustrations to preface the book’s four sections, The North, The Southern Mountains and Backwoods, The West and The Negro South and 26 small illustrations to be scattered throughout the text. All the illustrations were pen and ink vignettes. (Full colour was rarely an option in those days being expensive)
Between 1966 and 1972 I worked on a series of condensed books for Readers Digest. For the first of them, The Guardian by Sacha Carnegie, a World War II novel written from the German point of view, I produced a set of line and wash vignettes, using a water-soluble black Pentel. For All Men are Lonely Now, a Cold War thriller by Francis Clifford, I used Dr Martin’s Watercolours and worked in duotone (black and one other colour). Apart from the vignette on the title page, my illustrations took the form of dramatically lit scenes, somewhat like film stills.
The Queen’s Confession by Victoria Holt, was a biography of Marie Antoinette, the last Queen of France who died on the guillotine, a victim of the French Revolution. To enable me to realise the elaborate eighteenth century costumes I enlisted the help of Desmond Heeley the theatre designer. Given the chance to blossom into full colour at last, I began to work in Indian ink and gouache, the medium I was to use on all book illustrations thereafter.
The King’s Pleasure by Norah Lofts centred on the life of another unfortunate Queen - Katherine of Aragon, first wife of Henry VIII. Since Katherine was unable to provide the king with an heir he divorced her before going on to marry, divorce or execute a succession of other noble ladies in his quest for a son. To depict the high drama of the Tudor Court, I adopted a formal style, somewhat reminiscent of stained glass and drew upon the expertise of theatre designer Alix Stone to ensure that the costumes were authentic.
To stand in for the deeply rural settings of Precious Bane, Mary Webb’s gothic romance set in nineteenth-century Shropshire, I recruited the trees, meadows and stretches of water in London’s Hyde Park. They served surprisingly well. (Published in 1924, the novel’s doom laden narrative was memorably parodied by Stella Gibbons in Cold Comfort Farm, 1932).
Work on several other condensed books followed, including Summer of the Red Wolf by Morris West and Anything for a Quiet Life, the autobiography of the actor Jack Hawkins for which I put together a montage of his best known film roles.
In 1976 the publishers Mitchell Beazley commissioned me to illustrate A Good Age, Dr Alex Comfort’s primer on how to grow old gracefully. Drawing on a wide range of photographic reference, I produced a number of portraits of well known people who had managed to retain their vigour well into old age. Once again I used Dr Martin’s Watercolours, a brush and liberal amounts of water to create a set of vignettes that could comfortably be integrated with blocks of text.
Once my work on A Good Age was done, Mitchell Beazley enlisted my help with their next project, a gay counterpart to Alex Comfort’s The Joy of Sex. The world was a very different place in the mid seventies - the gay revolution was still in its early days and the spectre of AIDS had yet to fully reveal itself. To a diffident gay man like myself, it seemed the perfect moment for such a book.