Michael Foreman: Telling Tales

Chris Beetles Gallery
Apr 28, 2017 1:59PM

The career of Michael Foreman has been so productive and multi-faceted, that each aspect of his work may be looked upon as a distinct and solid achievement. Michael Foreman: Telling Tales focusses on his work as an illustrator of fairy tales, myths and legends, and also of children’s classics. Equally significant exhibitions might celebrate his illustrations for magazines or those for his own writings, to suggest just two examples. Nevertheless, the present selection provides a substantial retrospective, charting as it does the artist’s developing achievement over four decades, from the 1970s until last year. In so doing, it overlaps with other dimensions of his working life, such as his regular and frequent collaborations with former Children’s Laureate, Michael Morpurgo, who appears here as the author of The White Horse of Zennor and Other Stories (2014), a book that evokes the spirit of the legends of Cornwall. The selection also provides an opportunity to see how Michael Foreman revisits and reinterprets certain texts, and particularly such fairy tales as ‘Inchelina’.

Underpinning the distinction of Michael Foreman’s art is his open and inquisitive response to new experience, be it his first visit to a place or his first reading of a text. He even considers the fact that, I grew up completely without books ... an advantage when I started as a book illustrator. I was able to approach all the old classics without being affected by anyone else’s interpretation.  (as he stated in Quentin Blake (ed), Magic Pencil, London: British Council/British Library, 2002, page 86)  As his mother ran a shop that was partly a newsagent, in the Suffolk village of Pakefield, the young Michael Foreman had had access to many magazines and comics. He had also absorbed the stories told by its customers who, during the Second World War, included sailors and soldiers. However, apart from the family Bible, there were no books. It was therefore something of an exception and a revelation that his English master should have read him and his classmates The Wind in the Willows over several Fridays, an encounter that he considers to have been ‘the most memorable part of my education’ (Michael Foreman, A Life in Pictures, London: Pavilion Books, 2015, page 68).  

If the young Michael seemed to lack academic opportunity or application – he left school without any ‘O’ Levels – he certainly showed an abundance of artistic promise, and was encouraged to develop it, so that the act of looking and drawing became his way of learning. When he reached the age of 11, he met the art teacher, Tom Hudson, who invited him to join the children’s art class that he held at Lowestoft Art School on Saturday mornings.

Michael has called Hudson ‘the man who changed my life’ and has described how ‘he took us sketching on the very first day ... Sketching gnarled old apple trees was such fun, I couldn’t think why I had never done it before’ (A Life in Pictures, page 46). Soon, he and another boy were selected to ‘design and paint a mural in the entrance’ to his school, the Alderman Woodrow Secondary Boys’ School, as part of the scheme implemented by the enlightened headmaster, Michael Duane, ‘to brighten the place up’ (A Life in Pictures, page 48). It was also Duane who arranged for him to go to the art school on two afternoons a week as well as Saturdays, so preparing the way for him to study there full-time from the age of 15.

Michael Foreman distinguished himself as an art student, graduating from Lowestoft with a NDD in Painting in 1958, and then moving to London to take a year-long course in Commercial Art at St Martin’s School of Art. Between 1960 and 1963, he studied Decorative Graphics at the Royal College of Art, while beginning to establish himself as an illustrator, and publishing his first book, The General (1961), which had a text by his then wife, Janet Charters, that reflected the worldwide fear of nuclear war. He not only graduated with first-class honours but also won a Silver Medal for Authorship and Illustration and a travel scholarship, which took him to the United States – remembered fondly as ‘the land of my childhood dreams’ (Michael Foreman, Travels with My Sketchbook, Templar Publishing, 2017, page 12).

Never having been abroad before, Michael Foreman soon made travel essential to his development as an artist, and exploited the opportunities that it offered him to draw for himself and to commission. He spent four months of 1965 working in Chicago, as an art director at Playboy, and during the early 1970s ‘almost circumnavigated the world’, partly to undertake several assignments for Pegasus, the house journal of Mobil Oil. His colleague, the designer, Derek Birdsall, has explained that, he has followed the route of Marco Polo from Venice to Peking and travelled the length of the legendary Trans-Siberian railway ... His travels have also included Nigeria, Japan, Indonesia, Fiji and New Mexico. (Derek Birdsall, ‘Michael Foreman’, Graphis, 1 May 1977, page 64)

As a result, travel has enriched his experience and provided a plentiful source of subjects and settings. A visit to a place in which a story is set remains an enjoyable stage of his process of research.

It is therefore no surprise that one of the seminal books in his oeuvre should be called Michael Foreman’s World of Fairy Tales (1990), as he has illustrated an international range of traditional stories, and has tended to interpret them by emphasising their environmental dimensions, and linking their narratives to the world as it is now understood. This might be considered a spatial approach as against a temporal approach in which an illustrator responds to the illustrative tradition in which he is working and presents his drawings as the latest in a line of succession. This is not to say that Michael Foreman is not highly visually literate. He has the awareness and ability to draw on the broad history of images, and to weave such images into his own art. A master of technique, he also adapts his style and palette to create the appropriate intensity of mood, from the humorous to the horrifying.

When Michael Foreman received the commission from Victor Gollancz to illustrate a selection of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales, which would be published in 1976, he had been illustrating books for 15 years. Most of these were contemporary children’s stories, including several written by himself, and Gollancz’s commission marked something of a new direction. The format of the Hans Andersen volume called for each story to be summed up in one pencil vignette – to sit above each title – and one full-page watercolour plate. This was also repeated for a selection of popular folk tales by the Brothers Grimm, published in 1978.

The colour plates of both publications, and particularly those for the Brothers Grimm, achieve their visual précis of the narrative by way of a landscape or architectural setting. Though often dwarfing or marginalising the characters, they provide an echo chamber for the specifics of each tale. Compare the illustrations to ‘Jorinde and Joringel’ [8] and ‘Little Brother and Little Sister’ [9], both of which show the hero enduring a transformation.

Fig 8, Joringel trapped

Fig 9, Little Brother drinks at the third stream

In the first, the power of a witch is so strong that she not only literally petrifies Joringel but also detrimentally affects all that is around him, as is indicated by the constricted palette. In the second, which appears next in the book, a drink of stream water turns Little Brother into a fawn, but his vibrant, verdant surroundings appear more protective than threatening. Each image reflects the structure and tone of its tale, the one spare and despairing, the other complex and more hopeful.

Despite the manifest strengths of these two books, Michael Foreman stated, in an interview that he gave in 1983, that, I think I did Andersen before I should have done. It was the first classic I did. I’d much prefer to be doing it now. I had too much to find out that was not connected with the material in the stories. I was frightened by the practical problems. I know now how I think Andersen should be done and I’d like a chance to do another. (Pat Triggs, ‘Authograph no 19: Michael Foreman’, Books for Keeps: the children’s book magazine, no 19 (1983), page 14)

By that date, he had already successfully met the challenge of illustrating other classic fairy tales, as is demonstrated by his intensely hued images for Sleeping Beauty & Other Favourite Fairy Tales, a collection of French examples translated by Angela Carter and published to great acclaim in 1982. (It was winner of the Emil/Kurt Maschler Award and joint winner of the Kate Greenaway Medal.) Through his expert use of coloured inks, he created an extraordinary variety of atmospheric spaces, from the claustrophobic forest through which Red Riding Hood walks [37] to the Beast’s spacious dining table in ‘Beauty and the Beast’ [45].

Fig 37, Red Riding Hood

Fig 45, 'May I sit here and watch you eat your supper, Beauty,' he asked

With Michael Foreman’s World of Fairy Tales (1990) and then Classic Fairy Tales (2005), he gained increasingly greater freedom to select the stories that he wished to illustrate. In both volumes, he revisited Hans Andersen’s ‘Inchelina’ (or ‘Thumbelina’) [125, 132-133; 223-224], while in the latter he reinterpreted a number of fairy tales, applying loose, but bright watercolour washes to vigorous pencil under-drawing. Though landscape remains important, as in the Forest of Thorns that surrounds Sleeping Beauty [205] or the lily pad on which Thumbelina is imprisoned [224], there is much greater focus on the figures. This allows for an exploration of such character traits as the vanity of the Emperor who is duped into displaying a non- existent set of ‘new clothes’ [220-222] – and, where appropriate, for comedy to be brought to the fore.

While the European fairy tale has provided the staple fare of many an illustrator, Michael Foreman has made an enterprising speciality of interpreting an international range of legends, myths and folk stories. This has allowed him both to apply his first-hand experience of many places and to test his stylistic versatility.

Fig 125, The Moonflight of Inchelina

Fig 132, They Came To The Warm Countries

Fig, 133, Inchelina is Crowned

Fig 223, And there, in the heart of the flower sat a tiny girl

Fig 224, It will be like an island for her

Fig 205, The Forest of Thorns

Fig 20, He had a different outfit for every hour of the day

Fig 221, He gave the rogues a great deal of money

Fig 222, Oh! How beautiful are our Emperor's new clothes

While the European fairy tale has provided the staple fare of many an illustrator, Michael Foreman has made an enterprising speciality of interpreting an international range of legends, myths and folk stories. This has allowed him both to apply his first-hand experience of many places and to test his stylistic versatility.

In responding to Eric Quayle’s versions of The Magic Ointment and Other Cornish Legends (1986), he was able to express his deep affection for the county that has become his second home by presenting it as both ruggedly beautiful [107 & 110] and wildly primeval [100-101]. Then, in approaching Quayle’s companion set of Japanese legends three years later, he channelled the influence of such classic Japanese printmakers as Hokusai so completely [see 117] that he signed the resulting drawings with a Japanese monogram version of his name. Their exquisite delicacy contrasts with the exotic luminosity of those for The Arabian Nights (1992) and the awe-inspiring grandeur of those for The Songs my Paddle Sings: Native American Legends (1996) [see 169]. An anthology of international stories about the world’s origins, Creation (1997) is in itself a showcase of Michael Foreman’s ability to balance versatility with unity, a sense of the gentle community of nature linking such different cultures as those the Inuit [175-178] and the Ashanti [181-183].

Fig 110, She sought a resting place

Fig 107, She always kept to the river, snaking her way up the waterfalls

Fig 101, Good Dog Devil

Fig 100, In an instance she felt herself flying through the air

Fig 117, The Shining Princess

Fig 169, Experience versus youth and persistence

Fig 175, After a very long flight the crow noticed that it was getting lighter

Fig 176, His grandfather tied a piece of string on to the ball for him, so he could play

Fig 177, They ran about in the light, amazed at how easy it was to see things

Fig 178, The chief and his hunters shot arrows at the crow as he flew higher and higher, but he was much too quick for them

Fig 181, Snake grew longer and longer

Fig 182, All the animals worked hard and at last the crops were planted

Fig 183, The poor animals were heart-broken that their crop had been stolen  and they sent for the spider, Kwaku Ananse

In parallel with his activities in conserving and communicating the world’s wealth of traditional stories, Michael Foreman has worked closely with a modern master of the literary fairy tale, Terry Jones, of Monty Python. He has particularly enjoyed the surprising opportunities that their working relationship has given him, and his responses have created a symbiosis of image and text as close as that developed by Hans Christian Andersen and his first illustrator, Vilhelm Pedersen.

Michael has memorably matched Terry’s more bizarre imaginings in his illustrations to both the short stories and longer narratives. For who can forget the rheumy, globular eyes of the ‘hideous monster’ in ‘Tim O’Leary’ in Fairy Tales (1981) [27], the terrifying ‘dog-headed warriors’ in The Saga of Erik the Viking (1983) [64], or the extreme carnivorous appetites of the Offal Abbot in Nicobobinus (1985)? [91] Such superb coloured set pieces are complemented by pen and ink drawings that, in their dynamism, help move the action forward. Michael has said that Terry’s ‘cinematic’ writing is ‘difficult to illustrate’ as, during the course of a single sentence ... his viewing angle can change, zoom in, out, up, down, swing round to the rear and end in a close-up or high helicopter shot. (A Life in Pictures, page 147)

Fig 64, The Dog-Headed Warriors Began To Leap Out Of Their Strange Craft

Fig 91, Nicobobinus and The Offal Abbot

Fig 27, Out Jumped A Hideous Monster with Great Claws and Bulging Eyes

Nevertheless, his very awareness of this difficulty helped him raise his game, and increasingly vary his viewpoints in his illustrations to many texts, not only those by Terry Jones. Compare the image, In the Clutches of the Dragon [97], which appears late in Nicobobinus, with The Lamplighter [98], for Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses, which was also published in 1985. Both employ a high aerial perspective, though to very different effect.

Fig 97, In The Clutches Of The Dragon

Fig 98, The Lamplighter

Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses, which had first appeared in 1885, was one of the many classic books that Michael Foreman encountered only when he was commissioned to provide a set of illustrations. He has responded well to the work of Stevenson, and particularly to such tales of mystery and adventure as The Body-Snatcher and Other Stories (2007) and Treasure Island (2009) (the last of which he had heard read at primary school.) Though more naturalistic in content than the writing of Terry Jones, these books make similar demands in calling for the representation of heightened action. And as Michael Foreman has called Terry Jones’s writing ‘cinematic’, so he has provided some filmic solutions to the challenges of Stevenson’s Treasure Island, for instance using panoramas to dramatise Jim Hawkins’ arrival on shore [233] and the attack on the stockade [238].

Fig 233, How My Shore Adventure Began

Fig 238, The Attack

Because he is free from preconceptions or the weight of tradition, Michael Foreman is often more attentive to a text and quicker to provide a novel insight than many a more scholarly illustrator. So his Alice (2004) is nothing like the blond who appears in Sir John Tenniel’s set of illustrations for the original edition of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865). However, she is reminiscent of Carroll’s model, the dark-haired Alice Liddell, who is known through the writer’s photographs [see, for example, 197].

Fig 197, 'Oh, Please Mind What You're Doing!' Cried Alice

His approach can also be refreshingly personal, as when he based the home of the Darling family in J M Barrie’s Peter Pan (1988) on his own house by the Thames in Fulham [114]; or, as when he first illustrated Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory with a fat Willy Wonka, because, having grown up in a sweet shop,

I knew that if I was the owner of a chocolate factory, like Willy, I would not be able to resist helping myself to more chocolate than was good for me and I would get fat. (A Life in Pictures, page 145)

Unfortunately, Dahl wanted a thin Willy, so he had to redraw him [77-78].

Fig 197, Peter Pan Disappeared Out The Window

Fig 77, Charlie and Willy Wonka

Fig 78, Charlie and The Chocolate Factory

And then there is his special, enduring affection for Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows. Having known it since it was read to him in childhood, and having come to venerate the illustrations that both E H Shepard and Arthur Rackham made for it, he was still able to create his own highly individual response in 2001 [193]. This was sparked by his reading, while on holidays in Fowey and Falmouth, that, ‘Grahame’s imagination had been lit by Cornish light’ – as, of course, has his own (A Life in Pictures, page 68). Michael Foreman has developed much of his art from such moments of direct connection with a person or a place, and it is this that has helped him contribute so clearly to the telling of tales.

David Wootton, March 2017

Fig 193, Greatly Alarmed, He Made A Grab At The Side Of The Boat, And The Next Moment - Sploosh!

Chris Beetles Gallery