SEX, DRUGS AND BLASPHEMY IN 17TH CENTURY EDINBURGH
When it comes to creating a new book cover, many ideas are stillborn. In this case though, I found my inspiration quick – and fully formed.
Intimate and invasive, the exploration of a human body by another person (specifically in this case the insertion of fingers) may induce discomfort, pain or nausea; pleasure, embarrassment, or disgust. At the opening of Heather Richardson’s novel Doubting Thomas we are introduced to Dr Carruth, a 17th century Edinburgh surgeon who is about to assist in the autopsy of a heavily pregnant young woman. The subject’s abdomen is opened up but as he slips his hand into the cadaver his fine sleeve is soiled by the dark blood within the body cavity.
It’s almost a throw-away moment of clumsiness – but I saw that blossoming stain as a key moment: representative of everything that follows, and of the moment that his safe notions of religious truth begin to become irreversibly polluted. The effects upon the protagonist in this case are manifold: sexual, political and theological. They resound throughout the novel. That this pivotal moment comes so early in the book is not only structurally interesting but in retrospect is the keystone on which the whole arch of the story rests.
In designing a cover for a novel I’m attempting to distil the essence of the book into perhaps a single image, or at least find a visual that will represent the thing, do it justice. In many cases a front cover image will be needed before the book is even edited. It will often be required in a hurry. Reading a manuscript against the clock is not usually the most beneficial way of finding inspiration, and while many of the Vagabond Voices titles I have worked on have been dense and challenging, in the case of Doubting Thomas I felt no such pressure. Richardson’s prose is tightly written yet it overflows with potent imagery, leaving me with no shortage of material. Written as separate narratives from four different characters, the tale is told in a multifaceted and richly textured way.
As I’m reading, it’s my habit to scribble in the margins of my print-out as I come across moments that strike me as possibilities for cover ideas. With my designer’s hat on as I make my way through the book, I’m on the lookout for an ‘in’ to help me with the cover. Often, it’ll come gradually or towards the end of the book – a reveal, a twist, or simply an understanding will let something spring to mind. However in the case of Doubting Thomas the very opening scene of the book provides the moment, setting the tone as dark, visceral, intimate and willing to present an unvarnished truth: that what is concealed may be brought forth bloodily, messily but inevitably into the light.
I felt that a dramatically lit hand combined with an undefined fleshy, freshly exposed cavity waiting to be probed, would make for a suitably arresting image.
The title ‘Doubting Thomas’ most obviously brings to mind Caravaggio’s masterpiece of realist art: Jesus inviting his sceptical disciple to probe his wound with a finger or two. That painting certainly informed my thoughts as I set about designing the cover. However it was maybe more my intention to seek inspiration from the 17th century Dutch school of art in particular: dark, starkly lit, and concerned with depicting the earnest truth (or maybe it was just those ruffled sleeves on Rembrandt’s subjects that inspired me...) There followed for me then a very long series of thumbnail sketches depicting pretty much the same scene: that of the hand, sleeve and cavity.
After toying with the idea of revealing more of the cadaver, and from various intimate angles, I settled on a more conservative view of a nevertheless disturbing tableau. Eventually I set up my camera phone in my dining room and snapped my hand in a variety of positions until I found the pose I was looking for. I could use print-outs of my photos to draw from. The next night I rooted in my wife’s wardrobe for a flouncy blouse and pulling it over my right arm, again I took various snaps to guide me as to how the material would hang, and how the light would fall on it.
I blew the dust off my trusty tin of soft pastels, and proceeded to work up my drawing over 2 nights and 2 mornings. I had determined to keep this as old school as I could with as little digital footering as possible. Inevitably though I bowed a little to the electronic editing, and introduced a slight strategic blur in some areas of the drawing in order to create focus where I needed it most.
The extension of the artwork onto the spine and back cover was a later addition. Here I am harking back to early medical illustration, using inked line artwork to suggest an ‘engraved’ style. The wide, generously spaced typography came as a result of looking at medical treatises of the time which are fascinating and of course beautifully illustrated. A more authentic view of the past is found on the inside cover with a detail of mid-17th century Grassmarket – another important location in the novel – taken from Cassel’s Old and New Edinburgh.
“I’m very excited about this one!” was publisher Allan Cameron’s mantra throughout this project.
Unusual for me in that it was not just a cover job, this was a commission for ten (nine, as it turned out) full-page illustrations. Aliyyah is Chris Dolan’s follow-up to Potter’s Field, his Glasgow-based contemporary crime novel, and it marked a characteristic change of tone and direction for him. Basing his story loosely upon one by Robert Louis Stevenson, Chris described Aliyyah to me as a fable of sorts, or a modern addition to Tales from the Thousand and One Nights in scope and setting, with touches of Eastern mystery, Western technology and Shakespeare’s Queen Mab making an appearance. Something simultaneously timeless and contemporary was what he was aiming for, with an unspecified setting, in an undefined time period, peopled by characters with clouded backgrounds.
If that sounds a little vague, it was fitting. My understanding of the story was to be built up only gradually as the text was fed to me in sections practically as they were ripped from the typewriter. I designed the cover without having read the full manuscript, but I had enough knowledge of the story to complete that first important stage. Allan needed the front for advance publicity and thankfully my approach of a very linear, almost Art Nouveau style was met with approval. The author had a notion that this little book would be a one-off “special”, perhaps designed to look like an old, found object, without even a author’s name on the cover. Although that didn’t quite come to fruition, I had the idea that the title — this unfamiliar word, “Aliyyah” — should become part of the pattern, an element of the overall design. Because it was not a particularly recognisable word anyway, I felt I could afford to make it almost suggestive of Arabic script, and more decorative than legible.
I decided I had to wait until the text was completed before I could make an informed decision on which were the key scenes I should illustrate. During our correspondence Chris supplied me with a list of suggestions which happily tallied almost exactly with my own choices. Publisher and author waited patiently for my first batch of pencils, which I had promised several times but which proved, ah, reluctant to make their appearance. When they finally did, they were met with great enthusiasm, much to my relief. The guidance I had received was that these should be reminiscent of the Victorian style of book illustration: full page, bound in a simple hand-drawn line frame, and with a legend beneath drawn from the body of the text. While it is one thing to draw inspiration from the greats such as Rackham, Goble and Beardsley, it was quite another to get down on paper the images I saw in my head, and to produce work of any kind of quality. I wanted to create something stylised and elegant, using negative space and line pattern to create balance. And I had to do justice to the quality author’s jewel-like tale.
Happily, both Chris and Allan are generous in their advice and appreciative of the artist’s role. In fact, they trusted me to do pretty much whatever I thought worked — which is music to the ears of the illustrator, but perhaps risky unless you are familiar with his or her body of work.
Having read the text I began to sketch thumbnails in my diary at a very small scale — an inch or two — to see what might work. Moving up in scale for the final pieces I tried to bring them all along concurrently to maintain consistency; however, my memory was letting me down at this stage — For example, when I drew the scene in which Haldane experiences what he takes to be a vision of Aliyyah floating in the dark evening sky. I had the notion that he was walking through the orchard, and so drew the brightly lit young woman partially obscured by a lattice of branches. In fact there were no trees in this scene, and I had concocted them entirely. I quite liked the way they looked, and was disappointed to discover they would have to be chopped down. Chris, however, didn’t object even after I pointed this out, and so the trees remain in the final illustration.
The balance of tone throughout the batch veers between clean, white empty spaces — whitewashed interiors, sunlit fountains — and dark, dense texture and movement: night woods, library shelves creaking with leather-bound volumes, swirling smoke and curling drapery. Throughout cover, illustrations and text drop caps I threaded a recurrent motif in the form of the damaged radio from the crashed helicopter that has been salvaged and becomes the soldier Haldane’s only chance to bridge the gap between his enforced, enclosed recuperation and the army life and colleagues which remain elusive in his memory and throughout the tale itself. Its form of a dark, square box, with circular detail and tentacle-like cables was a counterpoint to the more natural forms of the fig trees, flowers and rippling water of the gardens surrounding his rescuer Duban’s house in the idyllic enclosure.
I can admit to a minor lack of satisfaction in my final submissions, in that despite trying to work them up to a finish simultaneously, my style wavered from drawing to drawing just a little too much. The earlier illustrations show a more regimented, laboured line style (such as the white bedroom) as opposed to the looser, more free line evident in the latter drawings such as the homecoming. On a more technical note, I drew these on my favoured tissue-like layout paper which develops a pleasing, crinkly quality as it is worked upon. However, in retrospect a more stable surface might have given me a cleaner line. Furthermore I should probably have worked on a slightly larger scale to allow more control in my line work. These drawing are reduced only to 90 or 80 per cent on the page. Lesson learned for the next time, perhaps…
Maybe these are quibbles only the illustrator could raise; on the whole I’m satisfied with the result. More importantly, Chris Dolan is enthusiastic in his appreciation — and happy to have them alongside his story.
This blog first appeared on Vagabond Voices.co.uk