Making the Invisible World Visible:
Brian Froud Brings Folklore to Life

By Terri Windling

 

"Good Faeries/Bad Faeries", an extensive exploration of faery lore both ancient and modern, will appear on the bookstore shelves in October--and thus I've been asked by this magazine to interview the artistic genius behind it: English painter Brian Froud. This is a particularly congenial assignment since Brian is a neighbor of mine, living just a few miles away in the same small Dartmoor village. The Froud family's thatch-roof farmhouse sits buried in ivy down a quiet country lane, and its old front door (with a goblin door-knocker) is a doorway into Faerieland. Inside is the kind of enchanted house one usually finds only in fantasy books: full of carved medieval furniture, Pre- Raphaelite fabrics, costumes, masks, old books, puppets, Victorian toys, and magical props from films. Faeries, goblins, trolls and sprites stare down from Brian's paintings on the walls--and cavort in the shape of dolls created by his wife Wendy, a sculptor. On the day chosen for the interview I find the Frouds in the garden studio, building a three-dimensional Faerieland out of roots, bracken and moss. Wendy has created dozens of faery figures (ranging from a sensuous sleeping Titania to grinning goblins and trolls) and now they are being photographed for a book to be published next year. Brian fusses with ferns, mushrooms, and adjusts a goblin's foot; "morning mist" is created with bee-keepers' smoke, then the scene is ready to shoot. In-between photographs, Brian sits down to talk about the process of bringing myth to life--and how he came to devote so many years to the faeries of Dartmoor.

Brian's deep involvement with folklore and myth began during his art-student days, when he came across a book by Arthur Rackham in his college library. This master illustrator evoked the wonder of childhood with fey and richly animate landscapes, re-awakening Brian's interest in fairy tales and their imagery. He began to study the folklore of Britain, and then the tales of other lands-- fascinated by the ways the magical traditions in all cultures shared common roots. When he left collage, he spent five years working in the field of commercial illustration in London, but he continued to paint mythic images and to develop a distinctive style of his own. In the mid- Seventies, Brian's early mythic art was published in "Once Upon a Time" (a survey of modern English illustration) and collected in "The Land of Froud", both from David Larkin's Peacock Press.

In 1975, Brian moved from London to the misty Dartmoor countryside, sharing a house with fellow-illustrator Alan Lee and his family. The two collaborated on "Faeries", a lavishly illustrated book of British faery loreówhich subsequently became a best-seller on both sides of the Atlantic. Brian's magical vision of the world so impressed the American filmmaker Jim Henson (creator of the Muppets) that he hired Brian to create two feature films: "The Dark Crystal" and "Labyrinth". It was on the set of the first movie that Brian met Wendy, a puppet designer who created the "gelflings" and other creatures. By the time of the second film they'd married and their son, Toby, was born. (He played the baby stolen by David Bowie's Goblin King in "Labyrinth".) In the decade since, although Brian still designs for film and other media, he has largely concentrated on what could be called "faery portraiture"--producing a stunning body of work to be published this fall for the first time.

† "I've been actively engaged with mythic imagery ever since I picked up that Rackham book," says Brian, "but it really came into focus for me when I moved from London to the country. As I walked the extraordinary landscape of Dartmoor, I looked at the trees and the rocks and the hills and I could see the personality in those forms...then they metamorphosed under my pencil into faeries, goblins and trolls. After Alan and I published "Faeries", he moved on from the subject of faery folklore to illustrate Tolkien and other literary works...while I discovered that my own exploration of Faerieland had only just begun. In the countryside, the old stories seemed to come alive around me; the faeries were a tangible aspect of the landscape, pulses of spirit, emotion, and light. They "insisted" on taking form under my pencil, emerging on the page before me cloaked in archetypal shapes drawn from nature and myth. I'd attracted their attention, you see, and they hadn't finished with me yet.

"After completing the two Henson films, I returned to my Dartmoor studio and began to paint the faeries once more-- listening to the mythic voice of the landscape, transcribing it through images. Although I love book art and design, I lost interest in being an 'illustrator' --at least as so many modern illustrators (and art directors) seem to define the term: that is, they attempt to render a scene precisely as an author has described it. To me, this just isn't interesting. If a writer has already done a good job of painting a picture in a reader's mind, why should I reproduce it? I'm more interested in what takes place around the corner, what we haven't already seen, what lies "between" the words of a text. In book art, I want the picture to compliment or comment on the text without simply reproducing it, creating a world of its own that the viewer can step into and explore. I turned down illustration jobs and concentrated instead on painting my faery pictures-- pictures that would tell their "own" stories. From a purely commercial point of view, this seemed to be a risky decision....but I knew deep inside I was on the right track, and so I soldiered on. Increasingly my art fell into a grey area between what's commonly perceived of as 'fine art' (for gallery exhibition) and 'illustration' (for book publication). I intended my pictures for both environments, and this initially met with some resistance. For a long while it seemed as though no one but the faeries and my friends would ever see this new work.

"I'm often called a 'fantasy' painter, but my imagery springs from myth, folklore and the old oral story-telling tradition, not from the modern fantasy genre--although I'm enormously grateful for the support genre readers have given me over the years. I have to confess that (unlike Wendy) I rarely read fiction at all. Most of my reading is nonfiction: history, mythology, archetypal psychology and the like. I prefer the enchantment of a story told rather than one that is written down. In the oral tradition, where stories are told around the fireplace in semi-darkness, the words are alive: they leave the lips, enter into the air and before they fall onto your ear they transform themselves into magic. They're not fixed; they change from telling to telling, and from listener to listener. I want my pictures to have that same quality of mutability. I don't want things to be fixed too solidly or explained too fully; I want each viewing to be like a re-telling of a tale, full of new possibilities. Back in my illustration days, I remember working on a book called "The Wind Between the Stars" and that was a great technical challenge, for how does one draw the wind? Most of what I do today still has that sort of challenge: drawing things that are normally beyond human perception, turning the invisible world of Faerie into visible form. Myth surrounds us every day, particularly in a landscape as soaked in history and old stories as Dartmoor. If I do my job well, not only does myth become visible within a painting, but that painting becomes a doorway into a new way of looking at the world. You turn and look at the land around you, and you begin to see the faces in the trees and faeries flitting through the shadows.

"Part of the challenge in painting faeries is to convince the viewer that what I've depicted is true, that I've got it right. When Cocteau was making his classic film "Beauty & the Beast", he strove for what he called 'the supernatural within realism'--in other words, grounding fantastical elements with ordinary imagery, which gives plausibility to the first and enchantment to the second. I think this is important to mythic art no matter what the medium: drawing, writing, filmmaking. You need realism as an underpinning, an anchor, for the magic. In order to do this, I usually start my large, complex paintings with a human image. The familiarity of the human form provides a touchstone and a reference--and then as we continue on in our journey around the picture, encountering stranger and stranger imagery, we have confidence that these faeries look just as they're supposed to look. We know that the distortions in their forms or faces are deliberate, not just a stylistic aberration or bad drawing. Every distortion in my paintings actually has a precise meaning behind it. In traditional lore, one often finds that faeries have some striking defect of form: some are hollow-backed or elongated, others have goat- or lion-feet. Heads, hands, and feet are often large in proportion to the rest of the body. This is due to the plastic nature of faery forms, which are often glimpsed in states of transition from one shape to the next.

"I start each painting by drawing a geometrical grid based on the Golden Section, a system of proportions and perspective developed by the ancient Greeks. The grid is overlaid with circles, triangles and the like...and where these things cross over is where I place the major figures. This gives the 'chaos' of a crowded painting an underlying structure of order. The central human figure is generally based on a photograph--again, this provides an underpinning of reality for the more fantastical aspects. I take my own photographs of models: friends and neighbors generally. The imagery surrounding the central figure is always in relationship to it. These secondary creatures are often drawn from earlier sketches--I have many, many sketchbooks filled with such things. I keep the drawing fairly loose; I don't like to get tight at this stage, which would close down possibilities. And even in the final stages of a painting I strive to maintain a looseness and a sense of mystery. I find that some fantasy genre painters tend to over-paint their pictures; they're a bit too...over-wrought for my taste. When I look at them I find them much too bright and shiny. The artist has finished every detail, and every edge is hard and bright--which doesn't allow me into their world, my eye slides right off that shiny surface. I prefer to keep the rendering as loose as possible, just on the edge of being finished. I want a painting to give just enough information for the picture to make sense; there should always be a little bit kept back, a few pieces missing, which the viewer must supply himself. In doing that, the picture comes to life. It becomes part of a reciprocal process, a communication. The painting allows you inside, where it can grow, and you can grow.

After years of painting faeries, I'm often asked if I 'believe' in them. The best answer I can give is that I don't have much of a choice in whether I believe in them or not, for they seem to insist on my painting them. I paint by intuition, and faeries keep appearing on the page before me. Mind you, it's not that I lie around on a chaise longue waiting for inspiration to strike--painting is a discipline and I'm in my studio working a regular work day from 9 to 5. But on a Monday morning I'm often not sure what exactly I'm going to be doing next. I'll get out my tools, I'll get to work, and something will demand to come throughósome creature will form on the page before me, demanding to say: Hello! When I'm working at my best, I try to step aside and allow for this spontaneity; I try not to let rigid ideas or fussing about technique step in the way. In capturing faery imagery, I find it useful to have a variety of different tools at hand: acrylics, pencils, watercolor, photography. The large, formal paintings are done in acrylics, with imagery built up in layer upon layer. These can take up to a month to complete and are quite laborious--so more and more I've been enjoying working on a smaller scale: pencil drawings with watercolor washes that I can do quite quickly. There's something particularly magical about the smaller drawings, portraying the fleeting essence of Faerie and giving me moments of bright insight in ways that the larger works cannot.

"It's really quite extraordinary that it has taken over ten years to get this new faery work into print. There were times when I thought I was mad to continue on with it...but I was driven to do it; I had a vision and I couldn't seem to let it go. Despite the world-wide success of Faeries, there has been remarkable resistance from publishers about doing a new book on the subject. It was quite frustrating for many years. Publishers would ask me to paint dragons, or vampires or some other such thing--and they wouldn't believe that there was interest in the kind of art I actually do. So I said to myself: What do I have to do to convince a publisher that there's an audience for my faery art? I decided a humorous approach might open the door; it might perhaps be less intimidating than a 'serious' book on the subject. That's when the idea for "Lady Cottington's Pressed Fairy Book" came to mind. I asked my friend Terry Jones (of Monty Python fame) to write the text--and the success of that volume made it possible to do "Good Faeries/Bad Faeries", the book I always wanted to do. And I've found a good publisher who is supportive of the work. I suppose, in retrospect, that the time just wasn't right for the faeries prior to now. Fortunately that's changed. There have been two major movies recently ("Photographing Fairies" and "Fairy Tale"), and my wife has just been asked to work on a new animated faery film. The Victorian fairy art show was a big hit in both London and Canada last year, and is opening in New York this autumn--while the Burne-Jones show at the Met in New York is filled with fairy tales and myths. Even the fashion industry has jumped on the faery bandwagon. I'm not entirely sure why the time for faeries has come right now. Perhaps it's a "fin de siecle" phenomenon, since the last big interest in the subject was at the turn of the last century. Or perhaps it's simply the next trend after angels. Faeries are more intimate, less daunting. Angels are rather lofty, imposing creatures--whereas one can have a relationship with a little nature spirit at the bottom of the garden.

"Mythologists and psychologists like Joseph Campbell, James Hillman and Clarissa Pinkola Estes have done much good work to popularize the notion that the symbols of myth and folklore have much to offer to modern life. Traditional cultures have always recognized and honored the animate spirits of the earth, but in western culture we've rather left that behind, to our spiritual cost, and ecological peril. Now we're beginning to recognize how important it is to have a vibrant relationship with the land beneath our feet--and that the old stories and mythic imagery can aid this process. Joseph Campbell has said that artists are the 'shamans and myth-makers' of our modern world, charging us with the sacred task of keeping myth alive. I hope my pictures will do their part in helping to keep myth, and the faeries, alive for the next generations.

"I have several new projects in the works now, all involved with myth and spirit if not precisely with faeries. But I don't think I'll ever leave the faeries behind completely--I don't think they'd let me! Wherever fate may take me and Wendy next, I'm sure the faeries will come along, hanging onto my coat-tails as usual....There's an old story about a household faery that was so loud, unruly and generally annoying that the family of the house, unable to banish the creature, decided to move. They packed up all their bags and bundles and finally the wagon was ready to roll. Whereupon the faery appeared on the wagon, a big grin covering his face. 'Ach, and it's a fine day for moving house,' he declared, and went along with them."

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