Cover Design: Ted Hughes’ Nature Poems
As part of our 90th celebrations, we commissioned five printmakers to design artwork for new editions of some of Ted Hughes’s most popular nature poems.
To celebrate the first day of spring, we asked Eleanor Crow, who selected and commissioned all five of the printmakers, along with the printmakers themselves, to tell us a bit about the process.
Eleanor Crow, Senior Designer at Faber & Faber
For this series, I first reread the books and thought about the printmakers who might be appropriate for each title. I selected some printmakers I had worked with before, and others whose work I had admired but had not previously commissioned.
Andy Lovell, with his dark stylised woodlands and wonderful sense of form and texture, seemed appropriate for The Iron Wolf. I asked him for an illustration of the wolf as a strong silhouette, with a landscape featuring the rusty moon, the river, the wood and snow.
For What is the Truth?, many birds feature in the poems and I thought that the work of Mark Hearld would be ideal. He conveys the strength, force, wild nature and dignity of birds in his wonderful prints and collages. He was delighted to be asked, as this was his favourite poetry book as a child. I love the striking pose and sweep of the tail feathers of his cockerel illustration.
Sarah Young has many sensitive animal drawings and prints in her portfolio and she seemed a natural choice for A March Calf. I was delighted that she went to a nearby farm to draw the calves as the basis for her print. She beautifully conveyed the atmosphere in the poem ‘Birth of Rainbow’, which was part of the brief.
This morning blue vast clarity of March sky
But a blustery violence of air, and a soaked overnight
New-painted look to the world. The wind coming
Off the snowed moor in the south, razorish,
Heavy-bladed and head-cutting, off snow-powdered ridges.
Flooded ruts shook. Hoof puddles flashed.
I chose Angela Harding for The Thought-Fox. Her prints combine fluid and bold natural forms with striking graphic qualities and she has a wonderful sense of rhythm, pattern and subtle colour. I loved the discreet footprints and the half-seen, half-imagined fox in the distance of her final artwork.
Season Songs is separate from Ted Hughes’s four books of animal poems, but is nevertheless full of nature poems, hence sitting happily with the others in the set. Angie Lewin was the perfect choice for this title. Her beautiful prints of natural forms are strong and expressive yet full of intricately designed detail.
Each printmaker also supplied an endpaper design to be printed in one colour. It’s a wonderful set, and I’m pleased we have been able to continue the Faber tradition of commissioning printmakers for these lovely hardback gift sets of poetry titles.
The illustration brief that I received for the cover of The Iron Wolf was concise and to the point! ‘We would like an illustration of the wolf, as a strong silhouette, with a landscape featuring the rusty moon, the wood, snow . . .’
On reading Hughes’s poem, the solitary, predatory nature of the wolf came across so strongly, so it seemed only right to make the wolf centre stage on the cover, howling at that ‘rusty Moon’. Having worked out the rest of the composition for the image, I spent a day in the print room monotyping textures and shapes that evoked snow, forests, moons (and wolves) allowing for serendipity to play its part. From these I then collaged the illustration together with each colour representing a different layer in the printing process. The end papers were an opportunity to expand visually on the description of the landscape that is so strongly evoked in the poem and almost give an overview of the wolf’s terrain that was pictured in my head. I wanted to keep it very loose and quite abstract and let the mind fill in the gaps!
As always the design and production values of these Faber Poetry series are fabulous and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed being part of this project and working in such good company.
It was such a pleasure to be asked to design a cover for Ted Hughes’s What is the Truth?. I was given the landscape format of this book, with black and white illustrations by R. J. Lloyd, on my eighteenth birthday, and it was a huge inspiration for me, each animal caught, sharp-eyed, full of character and life, with graphic punch and a compelling presence on the page.
I worked my cover in French sepia ink and paste paper collage, the cockerel framing the title, his tail plumes cut paper as though he might crow and strut off the cover at any moment.
I was very happy to be asked to do one of the covers and endpapers for this series of Ted Hughes’s animal poems. ‘Birth of Rainbow’ was the poem I was asked to look at – it’s about a newly born black calf, ‘wet-fresh from the womb’.
A friend luckily knew of a farm nearby that had some newborn calves. So on a sunny morning I sat in heaps of straw trying to draw these beautiful calves. They had no idea of personal space, which was lovely, but made drawing even more difficult! My efforts were not great but trying and watching them gave me so much more of a feel for them. If I possibly can I always try to draw from life initially.
I did a lot of versions, some with the calf with its mother, but it just worked better without. I wanted to retain the simple freshness and immediateness of the calf, so I made a very simple card cut for the animal and another for the landscape, a fresh bright morning with moors and windblown trees.
All the marks are made by impressions and cuts into cardboard. I make these with anything that comes to hand – one of my father’s sculpture tools makes the lovely regular lines on the back cover. I then sealed it with button varnish to protect it, rolled up some ink and printed it on an etching press.
If it were to be a print I’d then proof it, making all adjustments with inks and more blocks until it was right. But as it was an illustration with deadlines, I took the prints, scanned them and then used the computer to bring it all together.
It was a great pleasure to be commissioned by Faber & Faber for this collection. I have been a Ted Hughes fan since my days as an art student, which is now 40 years ago – eek! Many of his poems have been a great inspiration for my work, but ‘The Thought-Fox’ in particular is a poem I have read many times. It is a strange thing that, though the words in the poem stay the same with the passing of years, the poem holds a different emotion and meaning. So I was very excited to receive this commission and work with book designer, Eleanor Crow, who always treats my illustration work with great sympathy and adds her own creativity to the whole process. I have worked with Eleanor many times now and it is a very important part of the process to have confidence in the designer.
The initial part of the commission is to digest the brief and send a number of sketches – this may take some time as all sketches are sent to the Ted Hughes estate for approval. Once the design has been chosen I transfer the image onto a vinyl block. This is double sided Japanese Vinyl especially for printing – the design is carved out with a fine tool. So I have to work in negative and reverse the image – like working in a mirror.
Once all the carving is done I apply ink with a roller to the surface of the block. The printing is done with an old fashioned press called an Albion press. Once I am happy with the black and white I create stencils for the colours, these are hand cut paper stencils, which are printed with a silkscreen mesh. There is a different stencil for each colour. Once all the colour work is done I reink the block and over print the colour using the Albion press. Once the print is dry I post to Eleanor, who then does all the digital work. It is an exciting part of the process to see the typography added but even more exciting when you receive the finished book.
Another great joy of this project was to be part of a series and see my work with other great illustrators, I feel very honoured to be included in their company.
Many of my limited edition prints depict plants in their native landscapes, so I was delighted to be asked to illustrate the cover of Season Songs.
The process began with the making of notes and quick sketches, responding to elements in Hughes’ poems. The line ‘Grass in a mesh of all flowers floundering’ from ‘April Birthday’ resonated with me and became the starting point of the cover image. A windswept, starry landscape can be glimpsed through poppy seed heads, grasses, stitchwort and a fallen feather.
When creating my linocut prints I’ll begin by referring to rough drawings in my sketchbook, developing a colour composition for the finished image, which is then scaled up and traced down onto the surface of the lino. At this stage I’ll work further into the drawing, working directly on the lino with waterproof pens and then begin to cut the block with U- and V-shaped gouges.
The cutting process transforms my drawn lines, giving a sharp, graphic quality when finally inked up and printed onto fine Japanese paper. A separate lino block is created for each colour and I’ll print these in turn, layering the inks to build up the finished linocut image. As I print a proof of each block, I’ll often make small amendments to the cut image and experiment with different colours – it’s always exciting to see how the finished print develops during this proofing process.