The third instalment in our ongoing special feature entitled Fantastic Fantasy Artwork finds us talking to illustrator Portia Rosenberg about the delightful illustrations that she did for Susanna Clarke’s 2005 Hugo and World Fantasy Award winning Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell.
How did you come to be chosen to illustrate Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell?
“Susanna Clarke and her partner visited my Open Studio – in 1996, I think (when I took part in Cambridge Open Studios – where artists exhibit their work in their own homes or studios during weekends in July) – and she liked my drawings, particularly some I had done at college to illustrate ‘Oliver Twist’. That was how we came to meet. But it wasn’t until much later – around 2002/3, when she had finished writing ‘Jonathan Strange’, that she asked me to do a few drawings to accompany the manuscript when it was being submitted to publishers.
“At that time, we didn’t know whether the book would get a publisher offer, and if it did, I was convinced it was so unlikely for any publisher to have an adult fiction title illustrated, and if they did, then I didn’t know whether I would be chosen to illustrate it – so it all seemed very doubtful – which definitely heightened how great it felt when it did happen that way.”
How much of a free hand were you allowed in the creation of the illustrations and how much of an active involvement did Susanna Clarke take?
“I did the raven for the cover first – with some specifications about it being a silhouetted shape – although the bird was initially going to be rising out of a book. I was glad that I went for emphasising to some extent the sinister feel of it, through its stretched neck and especially the clawed feet – I like using that kind of exaggeration in the drawing to stress the point you want to communicate.
“I met with Susanna many times throughout the period that I was doing the drawings – which was do-able as we both live in Cambridge. I appreciated her feedback – I think the whole project really challenged me to try to tune into what needed to be represented. Sometimes I adjusted things and often re-did drawings which weren’t working. Also, Susanna supplied me with many useful reference materials and helped me to locate references, too.”
How was it decided what the 28 illustrations would specifically be?
“Early on, Susanna and I thought separately about which scenes in the text should be illustrated and then met to discuss that. The choice was based on several factors – scenes I was keen to draw, scenes which Susanna wanted to be illustrated, and scenes that made sense to illustrate – taking into account the consideration of not giving too much away, and the basic factor of spacing the illustrations out evenly throughout the text.”
Was it necessary to read Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (including extensive footnotes) from beginning to end or was it only necessary to dip in and out of the books for the passages that were to be illustrated?
“I would always want to read the whole text for a book illustration commission (and in any case, I needed to, in order to take part in choosing which scenes to illustrate). I want to make sure I have all the information that may be critical to what is represented, to try to be true to the facts of the story, but also I think it makes sense to go into the world of the story in order to have a chance at grasping and conveying it fully.
“One thought about the footnotes is that I enjoyed the ones containing powerfully evocative stories and characters themselves – for instance, the one describing Simon Bloodworth’s fairy-servant and the magical cupboard into which 17 people disappeared, in Chapter 5 – which conjures up imagery as equally inspiring as the main text itself.
Which characters really fired your own imagination? Alongside Strange and Norrell there is to be found a truly wonderful supporting cast: Childermass, Drawlight and Vinculus to name but a few.
“Yes – I love the characters, and the clarity with which Susanna communicates their particular qualities – including the gentleman with thistle-down hair too.
“Actually, as well as those character descriptions, the descriptions of magic are enormously inspiring, too – one that has stayed ingrained in my mind was of the ladies who Stephen dances with at the ball in Lost-hope House (at the end of Chapter 16) – one of whom wore ‘a wig of shining beetles that swarmed and seethed upon her head’ and one whose gown ‘was covered with tiny mouths which opened and sang a little tune in a series of high, eerie notes’ – I think those are fantastic ideas – as are the ideas of the stone statues moving in the way she describes, the ships made of rain and the horses formed out of sand – these are just a few of the many, many ideas in the book that definitely inspired me. Even if I didn’t represent those particular details at the time (though I might just have a go at them, now! – considering them again is inspiring, again) – I really got a sense of a complete and believable fantasy world which gives a solid context to the other scenes I had a go at.
Do you have any particular favourites amongst the 28 illustrations?
There are three that seem more successful to me than the others – the horse rearing whilst gripped by the mud-hand, Jonathan Strange stepping out of the mirror, and Childermass at his desk.
Looking back on all of them now (9 years after I drew them), I think that some anxiousness about the project shows – for example, with more confidence, I might have focussed in on details in those scenes, rather than trying to depict the whole context. I like to draw faces in particular and think those got a bit lost in the scenes. Also, I would have liked to capture a more lively and linear feeling. I think I was going for something else at the time – tone, atmosphere, light, solid dark shapes, more finished images as opposed to lively sketchiness – which may have deadened what my other less anxious work can achieve. Having said that, I do like the glow of light in many of the images.
Did you get much feedback on how they were received?
At the time (just after publication) I received lots of positive email messages via both the book’s and my own websites – it was amazing to get so many comments from people from all over the world – and I do still get occasional messages nowadays, too.
I will mention also the negative feedback (which I am interested to think about now, as it is useful to be able to look at my own work critically) – a comment online saying the illustrations were ‘astonishingly inappropriate’, ‘wooden’ and ‘sentimental’, and that illustrations more in the style of George Cruikshank would have fitted better. I think that I did overwork the drawings – and it is interesting to me that I could have approached the text in a different way which may have been closer to the livelier way I draw normally.