a DEVON TODAY article by Guy Cracknell
Brian Froud is an award-winning illustrator, author and world-renowned authority on faeries and faery lore. Much of his inspiration comes from the Dartmoor landscape in which he makes his home. He talks to Guy Cracknell about his work, his love of Devon, and how faeries changed his life forever.
I was first touched by the art of Brian Froud as an 11-year-old when I was shown a book called Faeries. I had never seen anything like it before. It depicted the inhabitants of the faery realms of the British Isles and described the folklore surrounding them. The paintings and drawings within were incredibly powerful, dark and magical, instantly banishing my childish ideas of faeries as small, sugary creatures that granted wishes and gave you ten pence for your lost milk teeth. The experience of reading Faeries was more than just an admiring browse through a book of beautiful artwork; it was a deeply emotional experience, and still is whenever I open my well-thumbed volume.
Now, years later, I arrive at the home of Brian Froud. Somehow the house is just as I had imagined. Nestling securely in a small valley on Dartmoor in Devon, the house is part of the landscape, built into, rather than on, the ground. Ivy and oak abound and the granite and thatch of its walls and roof ooze history.
"We came to a bonfire party here and discovered it was for sale," Brian tells me. "It had been on the market but no one wanted it. We saw it in the dark but we put in an offer for it anyway and much to our horror it was accepted! Suddenly we had a house."
A traditional Devon longhouse, it was probably built in late medieval times, on what is believed to be Anglo Saxon foundations. It was renovated in 1690, but Brian doesn't really know how old it is exactly.
"We moved in and found there were lots of bits of newspaper and old socks stuffed into the windows and when we pulled them out we soon discovered the wind came whistling in through the holes! It was cold, it was miserable. We lit the fire, but it produced so much smoke we ended up with tears rolling down our faces. We looked at each other and said "what have we done?". But in the morning the sun shone and we looked around and we thought "yes, this is going to be all right." It took a little while and the house needed proper attention. It was difficult though because we were still working in London and whenever we came back something would go wrong. Basically the house was sulking, but once we told it we were going to live here it cheered up! It had been neglected but being Grade II listed we were quite limited in what we could do, so we just listened to what the house needed and in the end it didn't need very much to allow it to be itself."
It does seem as though the house is a living thing and as we move through into the sitting room with its enormous fireplace and low ceiling, I feel as if I am being watched. The room is a treasure trove filled with an eclectic mix of tapestries, woodland masks and paintings, and other bits and pieces gleaned from years of research, travel and creativity. His wife Wendy, a renowned puppet designer and doll maker, makes many of the pieces. As I look around, I notice the numerous faery puppets, sculptures and figurines, and realize it is them that are watching me. It's a magical sensation.
With many faery eyes upon me, I ask Brian where his relationship with the faery world began? His passion for faeries and their lore was not a childhood thing but started in the late sixties in Maidstone, Kent, at the town's college of art.
"I had always wanted to be a painter and went to Maidstone to do a foundation year," he explained, "but I became fed-up with people who were rubbish at painting yet were erudite enough to declare their work as great art. It seemed to me it was the picture that should tell the story. So I became intrigued by advertising, because it seemed to me that at least advertising was honest, using pictures to get across an idea." Brian decided to do a degree in graphic design. It was while waiting for his interview that he made the discovery that would change his life forever - a book in the college library by Arthur Rackham.
"It was a revelation, an epiphany! There were these wonderful drawings of trees with faces and I suddenly realized that this is how I had felt about trees all along. I had gone to a village school in Hampshire surrounded by trees and in break times I was always climbing them. The drawings by Rackham told me that trees had personality."
Brian found the graphic design course incredibly boring so he resolved every project he was set through illustration.
"In a sense I was self-taught and when I left college, because of my enthusiasm, an illustration course was set up. But it was because of Rackham's illustrations that I became more and more interested in faery and folk tales and pursued the subject. One of the first books I was asked to illustrate was a Lamb's Tale version of A Midsummer Night's Dream and I was fascinated by the imagery within that."
So was it then that he realised faeries weren't all sweetness and light? "Yes, and through Grimm as well. The stories in that had a very dark side and I found that really intriguing."
Brian graduated in graphic design with honours in 1971 and spent about five years as a jobbing illustrator. He did anything that came along and quite enjoyed it. He was very facile and was able to adopt a number of styles, but he especially enjoyed research. "Problem was no matter how much research you did there was always someone who would write in to say I'd got the rigging wrong on a ship, or something like that. So I thought if I actually pursued painting faeries there weren't going to be too many people about who would say I'd got it wrong! So I became an expert in a field that there aren't too many others in."
It was while painting a picture of the ghost of Anne Boleyn at the Tower of London that Brian started to think seriously about what he wanted to do. He spent weeks researching the uniform of the guard who had spotted the ghost, including cap badges and buttons and so on before realising the figure of the guard was going to be in the background shrouded by mist!
"I thought "I'm wasting my time here"and I knew I wanted to do my own work, but quite what that meant I didn't know yet. I had started to paint some faeries that had no function; they weren't for any project, just for my own pleasure. And it was at this time I was sharing studio space in Soho with Alan Lee." Alan Lee is another internationally recognised artist who lives in Dartmoor and is particularly known for his paintings of Tolkien and mythology.
"Alan and I used to work all day at our desks, say hello and goodbye, nothing more. Alan had, however, recently discovered Dartmoor and he knew that I was looking to move out of London. It seemed essential to me that the countryside was part of "the plan," although I still didn't quite know what that meant. So he said why didn't I come down to Dartmoor, rent some rooms off him and help pay the mortgage.
"So I came down in 1976. It was a long, long train journey from London, and then I had to get the bus from Exeter. This was before the A30 and it was a tortuous, winding road to Dartmoor and I thought "where am I coming to!" Then I arrived and went up to the pub and I heard the accent of the locals, this wonderful Devonshire burr, and the fire was burning and instantly I thought "this is home." And I stayed.
Not long after this he discovered the countryside and lanes around Dartmoor and even today he still finds it fascinating that he can walk in what is a medieval landscape, unchanged for centuries. He feels it's like stepping back in time. Then he fell in love with the trees, rivers and moss-covered rock of Dartmoor.
"It was an emotional response to the landscape," he says. "Everything seemed to have a life and a soul and I started to paint. The first thing I painted was a troll - a direct result of living here and what I consider the beginning of my mature style. Everything seemed to come into focus - the size I painted pictures, how I painted them, the subject matter - from living here in Dartmoor."
At that time, around 1976, there were large, paperback books being published about various artists including Rackham, Dulac and all the great Victorian illustrators. Brian and Alan Lee were asked to contribute some work for a modern anthology but they both said they did not have anything.
"Because of spending five years working as we did all our work had a function, such as a book cover with a strange space for the title and so on. The images weren't satisfying for us, so we said we'd paint things especially for this anthology. The publishers said they couldn't pay us for the work but we said that was okay and we'd just do it anyway. So I ended up on the cover, and Alan was on the back, and there we were sandwiching the best of British illustration, which was really nice.
"From that I was asked to create my own book which became The Land of Froud. It was part of this series on painters, but for years people thought I was dead because I was the only modern painter featured! It was after this, however, that my publishers asked both Alan and me to do a book on faeries."
Brian had already amassed a huge library on faeries and folklore so he did the research on them while Alan Lee concentrated on the more epic myths and legends, on which he was an expert. They started to create the images for the book, but when the publishers saw what the artists were producing they were horrified.
"We didn't realise," explains Brian, "what they really wanted was a follow-up to a book about gnomes, which had been a huge success. What they were expecting from Faeries was their pre-conceived idea that faeries were light and fluffy and funny creatures, but what we were doing was based on British folklore where faeries are in fact dark and green with little sharp teeth and quite difficult creatures to deal with. It was a big shock for them."
Thankfully, however, the publishers allowed Brian and Alan to proceed with the project and Faeries went on to be a tremendous and enduring success. Published simultaneously in the United States and Britain in 1977 it's now coming up to its 25th anniversary and there is talk of producing a special edition. In all that time it has never gone out of print, which is quite an achievement. Brian has signed countless copies over the years, and he is constantly amazed by the emotional reaction it provokes in people when he meets them.
"The copies brought along for me to sign are normally pretty battered because people really live with these books, and are extremely close to them. I remember once someone bringing me only a few pages to sign and it turned out he had recently been divorced. Faeries was one of the things that both he and his wife wanted, and as a result they had to split the book between them as neither could bare to be parted from it. "Some people who come to visit Dartmoor," he laughs, "look at the landscape and say it's really like this in the book and I say jokingly 'yes, I really haven't got any imagination at all you know,' which can leave them disappointed!"
After Faeries Brian spent the next few years working on the films The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth with Jim Henson. It was during his time on Labyrinth that he first met Monty Python's Terry Jones.
"We were getting close to filming Labyrinth when Jim said he thought we needed to tweak the script a bit. He liked a children's book that Terry Jones had written, and especially his sense of myth. So Terry simply looked at my sketchbooks and started to develop characters from even the smallest scribbles.
Once Labyrinth had finished Brian returned to Dartmoor as he wanted to start painting faeries again. His plan was to do a follow-up to the original Faeries book, but various publishers said that no one wanted large picture books anymore, and no one wanted to know about faeries.
"I thought what have I got to do prove to them that people are interested in faeries? It was at that point that I made the wonderful discovery of Lady Cottington and her pressed faeries."
Lady Cottington was an Edwardian lady who found that while writing her diary the naturally inquisitive faeries would try and take a peek at what she was doing. By snapping the book shut very quickly she was able to catch an image of the faery impregnated on the paper. Brian created a dummy book filled with these marvelous squashed faeries, but needed some help with the writing. He remembered Terry Jones and called him up to arrange a meeting.
We met for lunch in London. Terry said "I know you've got a project for me but I'm just too busy." So I told him the story of Lady Cottington, handed him the dummy book and he just laughed and said "I'll do it. In fact I'll not only do it, I'll buy you lunch!"
Several bottles of wine later, Brian and Terry Jones staggered around the corner to see his publisher. "It was only years later," Brian laughs, "that we found out he only agreed to publish the book to get rid of us!"
Lady Cottington's Pressed Fairy Book went on to be a bestseller in Britain. But, Brian explains, no one had really seen it; it was a mystery as to why it was selling. "What was happening," he says, "was that the staff of the bookshops were buying all the copies for themselves and friends, so for months the public never got to see it!"
Later, the book was published in the United States and around the world in a number of languages. Its success meant Brian now had the proof that large picture books did sell, that there was an appetite for faeries, and as a consequence was able finally to realize his dream of creating the successor to Faeries.
Before its publication, however, Brian released books based on his goblin paintings from the film Labyrinth. These included The Goblins Pop-Up Book and The Goblin Companion, which expanded the world he had created for the film.
"Terry Jones worked with me again on The Goblin Companion, and we created a sort of reference book based on those wonderful Victorian encyclopedias. The way in which Terry and I work is with me supplying the images and Terry fitting words around them. As I've said, I always feel the picture comes first, the story later, which is why I've never really wanted to illustrate an existing text, except perhaps Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake."
This is the way Brian works now, with his paintings often inspiring authors to create stories from his remarkable imagery. It's a process he's found intriguing, as it's the picture generating the words, rather than the other way around. For the follow-up to Faeries however, Brian wrote the text himself. Good Faeries/Bad Faeries is not about folklore as the original was; rather it's an exploration of the faery realm today, exploring the spiritual nature of faeries and how they affect the human world, for good and bad.
"It's a hard thing to explain to publishers that people have this emotional relationship with my books. When people bring me the original Faeries to sign, I notice they always hold the book against their chest, almost like there's a heart connection going on. I realised that people also had this physical connection to the book. I'm always looking for new ways to bring books to life, so I thought I'd design Good Faeries/Bad Faeries in such a way to get people truly physically involved."
Brian's design for the book allows it to be read one way until you reach the middle, and then makes you rotate it so that you can read the rest of the book. It's also very difficult to find an image again once you've seen it. "But that's the point," Brian says. "I'm always interested in taking people on a journey. With Good Faeries/Bad Faeries you start fairly safe and comfortable with gnomes and pixies before moving into a deeper, more spiritual feel. It gives the book incredible energy and a healing aspect that people relate to. I'm always being told how Faeries and Good Faeries/Bad Faeries have helped people, and how teenage girls especially find the faery world helps them through their own particular emotional journeys."
Good Faeries/Bad Faeries is a very personal book and one which, Brian finds, is an intensification of his art. "When I was struggling to get it published, people would say why don't I do a book about dragons as they are popular at the moment, but I felt that faeries were a direct expression of how I felt about the world, myself and landscape where I live. This book isn't fantasy, it's reality, which gives it an intensity."
Good Faeries/Bad Faeries was published four years ago, and continues to sell. It's a phenomenon about Brian's books that he finds difficult to explain. "My books have a longevity, they just keep selling. They may not sell loads in the beginning, but people keep buying them."
I asked Brian about his techniques. He used to work almost exclusively in watercolour, using a very earthy palette of greens and browns. These days, however, he utilises acrylics as he feels they give his more spiritual paintings luminosity unattainable with watercolour alone. He also uses coloured pencils, inks and gouache to achieve the beautiful effects within his paintings.
"I often just grab whatever's next to my right hand," he says. "The biggest secret is knowing when to stop. One brush stroke too many can tip the balance of a painting. I'm also amazed that a painting which took a day can have the same emotional intensity as one which took three months." Brian and I continued to talk at length about the faery realm and folklore, but I couldn't help but ask him about the forthcoming films of Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings, the latter of which has been designed by his friend Alan Lee.
"I haven't read Harry Potter, but my wife and son have and enjoyed it, and if people's imaginations are sparked by it then that's important. Lord of the Rings will be fantastic if it's done well, and artistically it'll be a triumph -well it had to be with Alan working on it! What intrigues me most is that both films approach the idea of good versus evil on a grand scale, and I think the films will have a particular resonance in the light of current world events, and give people an emotional tool to deal with them."
And what of the future? Brian has many projects he wants to do, to take people somewhere else in the ever-expanding world he is creating. He admits that publishers don't yet "get" some of his books, but he asks them to wait, as it will all make sense eventually. "I'm telling only one story, but I'm just telling it in different ways."
There is another Lady Cottington book in the pipeline, as well as projects with his wife Wendy, a book about Runes (with a professor of mythology) and possibly a story about trolls. His most recent work has been The Faeries' Oracle, which is a tarot deck based on his paintings from Good Faeries/Bad Faeries. It has been immensely popular in the United States and has just been released in Britain.
I wished I could talk to Brian for the rest of the afternoon and beyond, but in this timeless house time had caught up with me. There's so much more to tell, but there simply isn't the space. As I photograph Brian in his studio I feel privileged to have been able to walk in his world.
"For years when I told people I painted faeries they instantly thought of those bright, shiny nursery rhyme beings, but when I showed them what I did it shocked them, but somehow they had always known that's what faeries are really like. Even now, someone might ask me what I do and when I tell them they say "oh, you did that book," and they know, they just know, which is wonderful."