Monday, 11 October 2010

Vultures Pick my Bones

I wouldn't say I love them, but I've no problem with vultures, they're a crucial part of the eco-system, their talent for waste disposal is unparalleled, without them we'd be in big trouble. In India the catastrophic decline of the vulture population has led to epidemics and streets filled with rabid feral dogs.

To my knowledge there are no vultures in Queen's Park, not that I've seen anyway, though I have my suspicions about some locals. The closest we get is magpies, not quite on the same level.

It's not the feathered variety of vultures I'm thinking of, but the literary kind. The sort that, when you're gone, take what remains of your reputation, and clean, strip, sell and market your work. I refer of course, to those efficient scavengers the galleries and bookshops.

I've been an incurable fan of antiquarian bookshops since I can remember, the smell of musty volumes on dimly-lit shelves bent with the weight of the printed word, the anticipation of discovering a valuable gem missed by the shop owner, sold for a fraction of it's true worth. The joy of perusing beautifully crafted tomes I could never afford, as well as more commonplace insights into everyday life of yesteryear. Then, as I began working and budget increased, I slowly started to accumulate work by my favourite illustrators - first editions of E. H. Shepherd, Rackham, Dulac, Ardizzone, Peake. As I don't drive and had no interest in sports, collecting books was one of the few areas I'd reward myself, what more fitting way to celebrate my publishing royalties than buying books by my long-gone heroes.

I avoided book dealers when I lived in Japan, I saved my old book hunting for my trips back to London, and kept the books in the UK. There are antiquarian bookshops in Tokyo (especially in the Jimbocho district), but the kind of books I sought (Golden Age Illustrated Children's) are imported and vastly overpriced, while the Japanese climate is never kind on printed paper.

Part of the dry-case collection while in Japan
I eventually shifted my UK collection to Tokyo, but invested in a humidity controlled dry case due to the intensely damp, sultry summers. Such precautions were absolutely necessary. My books have travelled from one side of the world to the other and back again, I've cared for them like my own offspring. 

Now I'm based back in London the lure of the old bookshop beckons once more.


For me, antiquarian bookshops are the ultimate tribute for an illustrator. After you're gone, when all that's left are your old books and a few precious originals in galleries and private collections, to have your work exalted in price and preserved on bookshelves is a wonderful thing.

Perhaps this has always been my ambition as an illustrator. It was the pursuit of old drawings by artists 100 years ago that made me want to be a book illustrator in the first place. For me the greatest indication of success is not a big house, or a fast car, or even winning the lottery, though these may be very pleasant things. Its the arrogant hope that in 100 years time I'll be remembered well enough that my yellowing books remain on some collectors shelf, long after my passing, that someone, somewhere, values my work well enough to sell it for some ludicrous figure on abebooks or whatever antiquarians use in future. That young poverty-striken students go scrabbling around in musty old shops looking for my work in the way I sought my favourite artists.

Well, we can dream can't we? The paradox is that you've got to be dead before this happens. I comfort myself by thinking if I end up obscure and penniless I can at least tell myself "ah yes, but in 50 years I'll be a household name" and drift away with a smile on my face. I'm an optimist you see, you have to be in this business.

This is why, conversely, I never worry about fame. You just get on with the job. Do your best, and tell yourself that someone, someday, will appreciate your efforts, even if you're no longer around. Your day will come, so why worry? Trusting in the eventual triumph of your own genius can be very comforting, it allows you to get on with things rather than worry if people like what you do. The fact is it really doesn't matter as long as you're paying the bills. The miseries only step in when you're not drawing, for if you're not creating something, you're not adding to your stockpile of creativity, your insurance towards immortality!

Some are lucky enough to be living legends, to have their work prized during their lifetimes. In the antiquarian book trade this often pushes up the prices of your back catalogue. What would really make me happy, more than the sale of zillions of copies of my latest work, is finding that some big-selling success makes my first, badly drawn rare book for which I was paid a pathetically small flat fee suddenly becomes hot property on the antiquarian market. When people seek even your immature work, now surely that is when you've really "made" it. Recently I bought an early Arthur Rackham illustrated first edition, Maggie Brown's Two Old Ladies, Two Foolish Fairies and a Tom Cat, published in 1897, years before he became famous and a time when Rackham was just starting to hone his familiar style. Its a rare item and a key milestone in his career, being one of his earliest fairytale works and the first time he was published in colour, but to a layman it's actually not that spectacular as a book, copies of it could easily be hiding overlooked on some old bookshelf. Nevertheless it's rarity pushes it up to the same price range as his later gorgeous gift books like Rip Van Winkle and Peter Pan. The artwork is laced with anticipation of what was to come.

So yes, kindly vultures do pick my bones please, pick them clean and sell them for half the price of a house, though I've no plans of kicking off the old mortal coil yet. Actually, come to think of it I've some artwork and books here which I'd be willing to part with while I'm still alive, surely that's worth a bob or two? And folks if you do have any of my books don't lose them, you never know, they could be a wise investment. Trust me, I'm an optimist.

3 comments:

Helena Pielichaty said...

John, I had this forwarded by Enid Stephenson. I think this is a fantastic initiative and post. I'm going to tweet a link to it right now.

mai s kemble said...

well how about this?
I promise my nephews and nieces will know your work?
:)

anne.laleman said...
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