Like quite a lot of people I know, I grew up with the stories of Middle Earth and Narnia. One of the earliest ‘proper’ books I remember reading was The Hobbit, a grey and battered paperback that had belonged to my dad when he was young. While I’m aware that there is much to critique in both these fantasy worlds – and indeed, I was already blisteringly angry with Lewis’ moralism by the time I finished the series – they were two of my earliest gateways to the wider world of speculative and fantastical fiction. And in the background to these early discoveries, unobtrusive but intrinsic (like the best of movie soundtracks), were the illustrations of Pauline Baynes.
The other week, I visited the Pauline Baynes exhibition (‘An Artist’s Imagination‘) at Farnham Maltings. I wasn’t expecting to love it quite as much as I did – but it was revelatory, seeing so much of her work in one place and realising how tightly woven it had been into the fabric of my childhood imagination. Aside from the fresh and charming illustrations she provided for Tolkien and Lewis, Baynes was best-known for her intricate medieval-style paintings, so it was quite a surprise to realise that she was also behind the more ‘realistic’ cover of Watership Down – another early favourite book.
The Baynes exhibition places familiar images beside previously-uncovered gems and snippets of hidden history. I was particularly interested by the details about her life, and relationship with her sister Angela, a strong stylistic influence who had mentored Pauline in learning to draw and paint and attended the Farnham School of Art five years before her, but who stepped out of the limelight as Pauline began to get more commissions. The exhibition described Angela as doting on and encouraging Pauline – I found myself wondering if Angela ever resented Pauline’s later fame, or if they stayed close until the end. If anyone ever decides to write and research a book about this, I’ll definitely be reading… I was rather surprised to learn was that Pauline hadn’t actually read The Lord of the Rings before creating her famous illustrations for the front and back covers – but her sister did read it, and painted her a massive oil painting with images of the landscape and characters as she imagined them, which Pauline then used as a source! According to my dad (the family’s resident aspiring Tolkien academic), this isn’t mentioned in any accounts of Baynes’ work with Tolkien: so this exhibition might be the first time this painting has ever been publicly displayed!
Bayne’s illustrations from Middle Earth and Narnia – the most obvious and expected parts of this exhibition – still managed to surprise. Perhaps it’s just my naïveté about how printing worked before the digital age, but I was truly impressed to realise that Baynes’ Narnia illustrations from inside the books were actually that small, rather than drawn bigger and scaled down: seeing the tiny pen-and-ink originals raised them in my estimation from ‘good’ to ‘astounding’, a level of skill in miniature that recalled the art on Russian lacquered boxes. The most compelling of her fantasy illustrations was one for which a source wasn’t given – an image of a girl watching over the edge of a ship as merfolk with long red hair rode seahorses below. The intricacy and delicacy of the brush-strokes was amazing: I spent quite a long time standing in front of it, drawn into the picture’s hypnotic world. I guessed that it was probably a plate illustration from a later edition of The Voyage of Dawn Treader (or something else related to Narnia), and having checked online, it is indeed a scene from Dawn Treader made for Brian Sibley’s The Land of Narnia. (Sibley’s blog has a digital version of this picture, but it’s so much better in person – greater range of colour across blues and whites, and more visible detail!)
I hadn’t encountered very much of Baynes’ medieval-style work before, and I was very taken with it. My absolute favourite of these was the giant picture of 149 traditional English proverbs (with answer key) – illustrated with a large cast of characters that defy modern ideas of perspective and proportion, it’s a bright and compelling image that skilfully references a much older artistic tradition while also containing hints of modern insouciance (check the king’s scandalised expression at the cat staring at him!). There is an online version of this available at the Mary Evans picture library – I’m considering getting a print of it for my room as a constant source of brain-teasing… There was also the rather more surreal dustjacket illustration to Grant Uden’s A Dictionary of Chivalry, which sees heraldic crests and human/animal figures overlaid with vivid brushstrokes onto a black background, like brightly-coloured ghosts.
Some more unexpected items included a silk embroidered waistcoat which Baynes used to display in her house (claiming it was formerly owned by the Prince Regent), Baynes’ final piece from the Slade School of Art (large, intricate, and definitely showing early elements of her medieval style), a large and arresting picture of Judgment Day (with demonic figures which recall the more macabre medieval woodcuts) and a newspaper double-page spread about the camouflage department in Farnham Castle where both sisters used to work (a very entertaining article in itself, with gems like “there still exists a stereotype that camouflage experts are dreamy-eyed artists who spend their time painting a tank to look like a soda fountain”, before assuring us that they are in fact very masculine soldiers indeed. Hee.) There was also an entire wall dedicated to Baynes’ illustrations for the unpublished Osric the Extraordinary Owl, written by Brian Sibley. All the birds’ feathers looked so soft I wanted to reach into the pictures and cuddle them! From what I can glean from the characterful and beautifully-textured illustrations, Osric visits doves, pheasants, peacocks and parrots and collects feathers from all of them – possibly with the aim of wearing them all? As someone who is determinedly never too old for children’s books, I very much hope it gets released eventually – it looks adorable.
Of all this cornucopia of beautiful pictures, only two were available to buy as postcards – both examples of Baynes’ commercial work and presumably linked to the exhibitions original remit as Farnham Maltings’ Christmas exhibition, they’re festive plates done for Tatler magazine and Huntley and Palmer’s biscuit company. I was interested to see how very Narnian they looked – the Huntley and Palmer advert has a procession of blue-turbanned women bringing boxes of biscuits down from a tall ice castle to load onto the sleigh of a jovial Santa evokes a mixture of Baynes’ Narnia illustrations, while the Tatler magazine’s icicle-covered winged-horse-drawn sleigh (with a dark-haired woman and young child seated together under a fur) felt very much like an image of a gentler White Witch and Edmund.
For a small (and as far as I can tell, rather unsung) exhibition, it’s – in my opinion – an incredibly interesting collection and definitely of value to anyone with an interest in Baynes, Tolkien, Lewis, or illustration more generally. Many of the pieces are on loan from private collections, and the Baynes estate (like the Tolkien estate) is known for being quite strict about copyright. It’s anybody’s guess as to when these will all be available in the same place again.
Because of the exhibition’s popularity, it has been extended to the 9th of February: I wholeheartedly recommend going along if you have relevant interests and it’s within easy access for you. Farnham itself is a charming Georgian town – with a castle! – and had it not been raining on the day I visited, I would have happily spent the afternoon there. Or if you can’t make it, then here are some places you can find Baynes illustrations online: the Pauline Baynes tribute website, Lora Bounds’ Pinterest board, Brian Sibley’s blog, and the Mary Evans picture library.
(P.S. If anyone’s interested, I’ve also recently written – in a very different register! – about children’s fantasy I grew up with at cinema/TV blog Squarise.)