The Woman of Faery
By Terri Windling via Realms of Fantasy
At the turn of the century, the "Golden Age" book illustrators Arthur Rackham, Edmund Dulac, Heath Robinson and Kay Nielson conjured such distinctive images of fairy tale lands that these images have been passed down to us along with the tales themselves, influencing the way we view magical stories, and the magic within our world. One man's work is doing that today. The faery paintings of Brian Froud have colored our vision of the faery realms with the rich, earthy tones of his own strong vision, as well as influencing a whole new generation of magical painters, book illustrators and filmmakers.
Brian Froud's work first became widely known in the mid-1970s, with the publication of the art book Faeries, which he co-created with Alan Lee. This was followed by The Land of Froud, a collection of paintings published in David Larkin's Peacock Press series. Soon after, Brian joined with the puppeteer and filmmaker Jim Henson to bring whimsical, magical worlds to life in the movies The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth, both based on Brian's art and designs.
It was on the set of the first film that Brian met his wife Wendy, an accomplished artist in her own right whose work (as a puppetmaker and sculptor) draws creative sustenance from the same mythic roots. Together they have created a unique, enchanted world that lies in the twilight shadows of our own, peopled with faeries and luminous creatures whose essence is starlight and moonlight, water and wood, ivy and stone.
If there can be said to be a painterly equivalent to the literary school of Magical Realism, then the work of Brian Froud exemplifies it, rooted as it is in the real world countryside of Dartmoor, England where he makes his home. It is a land of thatched cottages and winding hedgerow lanes, of old stone circles on the windswept moor and tumbled stone ruins in the moss shrouded woods. The Frouds live and work in an ancient thatched longhouse buried in trees and ivy. To open the heavy wood door of their house is to open a gate that leads back through time and into the faerielands.
Inside, there are faeries everywhere: in paintings on the old stone walls, lounging on shelves and tabletops, made of fimo and plaster, cloth and wood, leaves, feathers, fur and bone. Goblin faces hold up the stair rail; a Green Man watches from the huge stone hearth. Wendy's sculptures of faeries and Pre-Raphaelite ladies sit poised on stacks of mythology books, or snooze among the Morris cloths, looking so perfectly lifelike you find yourself waiting for them to wake.
Brian's studio is a mysterious place in the oldest corner of the house, with a low wood door that is always shut. In the years that I have known him I have been allowed into that private room only once, and thus I shan't describe it- we must be content with the images that emerge from the room like faery gifts. Brian has worked consistently and hard in the years since The Land of Froud was published, pushing further and further into the faery realm, bringing back bright visions like traveler's tales. When asked to show his recent work, he disappears behind the studio door and comes back with paintings under his arms, dozen and dozens of them, each one more exquisite that the last.
Here's a series of paintings, witty, wise and wondrous, created for each of the mystical Runes (from the book by Ralph Blum). Here's a whimsical series of Trickster spirits- the kind who misplace your car keys and throw out every other sock and snatch the words right out of you mouth. Here are faery creatures in their many guises: delicate maids with wings of light, earthy lads made of leaves and knotted roots, wicked-eyed piskies and sexy green sylphs, all creatures bound to the natural world and the forms of the deep English woods.
The faery beings he portrays, Brian explains, are not meant to be mere illustrations of archaic tales set Once Upon a Time. They are expressions of the vital energies that make up the world we live in now. Brian has long been a student of Celtic and world mythologies; like Joseph Campbell, he uses the potent symbols of myth and dream as guideposts to mark the lie paths we travel, the roads of transformation and healing, and the circular path that leads to wisdom.
Most recently, he's begun to explore archetypal images of women in a series of paintings (and eventually a book) he calls Women of Power. The images on these pages, most of them published here for the first time, are part of this new series of aspects of the Eternal Feminine: queens, enchantresses, seers, sibyls, huntresses and golden sphinxes. "the image of women," Brian comments, "has always been, in mythological terms, the spiritual expression of the deep inner rhythms of nature and the human soul. Theses figures represent not only the cycle of the year from spring to winter, but also the mythic stages of women: Maiden, Bright Mother, Wise Woman/Crone, holding the bright power of ancient feminine wisdom to illuminate the dark corners of the psyche."
In addition to this series, Brian has recently completed 50 paintings and drawings that explore the connections between man, myth and nature. These drawings are part of an unusual collaboration between the artist and four fantasy writers.
The artwork was created first, and then the images were divided between the writers (Charles de Lint, Patricia McKillip, Midori Snyder and myself [Terri Windling]), each of whom agreed to write a novella-length story inspired by Brian's pictures. The result is a four book series called Brian Froud's Faerielands. Volume One came out earlier this year: The Wild Wood, by De Lint.
In a more humorous vein, Brian's latest book, scheduled for fall publication, is a collaboration with Monty Python's Terry Jones. Called Lady Cottington's Pressed Faeries, it is a wicked and thoroughly adult faery book, inspired by the famous Cottingham "fairy photographs" championed by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. A new volume of Faeries is also in the works, collecting the beautiful unpublished painting that have sat tucked away in Brian's studio for far too long now. The faeries of the Dartmoor Woods will have to stop hoarding these paintings for themselves and be persuaded to let a wider audience see them, giving us all the chance to step inside Brian's luminous world and bring a bit of his magic back into our own.
The Frouds have created an enchanted environment in which to live and make their art. Their friendship is one I treasure, and the creative ferment of their lives fills me with quiet awe. But one needn't travel to English shores to enter into the Land of Froud. All you need is to look closely at a book or a picture created by Brian. Contained within each painting is a door into the Faery realms.
This article is displayed with the permission of Terri Windling. It may not be reproduced without permission.