The Art of Brian Froud

By Terri Windling

 

To those of us brought up on modern fairy images (diminutive sprites with butterfly wings and twinkling, wide-eyed Disney cartoons), the 1978 publication of Faeries by two masterful British illustrators, Brian Froud and Alan Lee, came as a revelation. Here, in all their beautiful, horrible glory were the faeries of old British legends, undiluted by greeting card sentiment: gorgeous and grotesque (often at the same time), creatures of ivy, oak and stone--born out of the British landscape, as potent, wild and unpredictable as a force of nature. I was a student back in '78, slowly moving from standard literature studies to the more specialized realm of mythology. At that time and place, such studies revolved around the primitive and classical gods...but Faeries whetted my deep appetite for tales more humble yet just as enchanting: fairy and old wives' tales tales told over spinning wheels and cooking fires....and still recounted by country folk and storytellers today. Faeries, with its splendid illustrations (skillfully rendered, distinctly un-childlike, and filled with a sexy, sly humor), confirmed my own impressions gained from transcriptions of old oral accounts: that faeries are capricious, dangerous beings, beautiful and terrible all at once--a far cry from the insipidly dainty fairies of my childhood books.

Twenty years later, my student (let alone my childhood) days long in the past, I am sitting in my English home amid a faery infestation. One expects a spirit or two in a cottage like this one, four hundred years old--but this year there are faeries everywhere: on every table and every shelf, on the walls, on my desk, spread across the floor, leering, cavorting, beguiling, enchanting...catching my gaze as I cross the room, snagging my thoughts and imagination with elongated fingers and fathomless eyes, with their luminous color, dazzling detail and rich archetypal symbolism. My cottage, you see, is filled with the stunning new faery art of Brian Froud--images he has painted and drawn in the two decades since Faeries appeared. This art is, finally, to be made available to the world at large in a lavish edition called Good Faeries/Bad Faeries, to published by Simon & Schuster this fall. It has been my pleasant task to edit the text which goes along with the art: meditations on the nature of Faeryland, and on the pictures themselves.

"In the years after Faeries came out," Brian says, "I worked on many other projects. I designed two movies for Jim Henson: The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth; I published several other books, such as Lady Cottington's Pressed Fairy Book and The Goblin Companion. Yet of all these things, Faeries seems to have captured the imagination of the greatest number of readers. When I venture out of my studio to work on projects half way across the world, people still seek me out clutching old, well-worn copies of Faeries. They are of all ages and from all walks of life but they have one thing in common: an intense relationship with the book and immense affection for the imagery within. The faeries have entered their lives, and shaped their dreams, and touched their hearts.

"It has been twenty years since Faeries was published, and in that time I have never stopped my own personal intensive exploration of the faery realm. During those years, I met my wife, Wendy, a sculptor and dollmaker, on the set of The Dark Crystal; our son, Toby, was born; and we moved to a seventeenth century Devon "longhouse" built on Saxon foundations. Faery paintings and drawings began to crowd me out of my studio, spilling into the rest of house alongside my wife's mythic sculptures, woodland masks, and faery dolls. As this body of faery imagery grew, I also followed the faeries' footsteps in the study of world mythology, archetypal psychology, and magical esoterica. Through painting, I discovered much about faery nature in a daily, very personal way--and then found these discoveries echoed in myth, folklore, art, and visionary writings from cultures all around the world."

Now the result of this lengthy exploration has culminated in a fascinating new book presenting one artist's unique vision of the magical world around him, deeply rooted in nature and myth. "Faeries," Brian explains, "was a book about the past, concentrating on the folklore of the British Isles. The new book links past, present and future together- -looking at faery lore from all around the world, still alive to this day."

The world of faery is very much alive in Brian and Wendy's life. They are neighbors of mine in a tiny rural village in England's West Country--a land of rolling mist- covered moors, Bronze age ruins, ancient stone circles, castles perched on tall hillsides and deep green woods filled with twisted old trees. The Froud's thatched-roof farmhouse sits buried in ivy and roses down a quiet country lane. The old front door with its goblin door-knocker is certainly one of the gateways to Faery. Inside, it's the kind of magical house one usually finds only in fantasy books: full of carved medieval furniture, Pre-Raphaelite fabrics, costumes, masks, Victorian toys, puppets, old books, and art by two generations of Frouds (Toby Froud is a gifted young artist/actor, following in his parent's footsteps.) Faeries, goblins, trolls and sprites stare down from Brian's paintings on the walls, and cavort or snooze on every surface in the form of dolls and sculptures by Wendy. When I think of the enchanted atmosphere the Froud family has created here, in my memory the house is always candle- lit, always filled with friends, and always smells deliciously of Wendy's famous cooking. After an evening in that place, the feast devoured, the wine bottles emptied, the old rooms ringing with laughter and talk, even the most skeptical visitor will swear they've spied a faery or two...and take a lingering bit of magic away with them when they go.

For those who can't enter Faeryland through the door of a rose-covered Devon farmhouse, the art created by the Frouds offers the opportunity to enter that realm through the doors of the imagination. Indeed, countless enthusiastic fans around the world have done so, for Faeries was an international best-seller--and has influenced a whole generation of folklorists, filmmakers, writers and illustrators in the fantasy field. As for myself, I've been deeply inspired by Brian and Wendy Froud for many years now- -by their sparkling vision, their extraordinary talents, their richly creative way of the life, and the special magic of their friendship. It is a magic they generously offer up to everyone through their beautiful art...a vision of the spirited, animate world surrounding each one of us.

This article is displayed with the permission of Terri Windling. It may not be reproduced without permission.