Drawing Narnia

I don’t buy new books. I prefer musty old hardback cloth-bound entities with pencil comments in the margins, books that wait politely for bookmarks to work their way through from front to back, loved books, donated books, books that say “flup” when you close for a while, pending more adventures.

The Narnia books are an exception. When I was a little girl, C.S. Lewis’s Narnian Chronicles came out in Penguin paperback, and when I came to buy another set recently, the seven books in first edition were fetching £22,000. So I bought the ones I had as a little girl, and found I did not mind because they still had the one element which made them what they were besides the text: the magical illustrations.

The illustrations were from a hand I especially love: that of Pauline Baynes, English born, who spent her early years in India where she remembers teatimes were characterised by tea with a little trained monkey who would join her for tiffin. Forced to return to England aged five, her nun-teachers made fun of her idiosyncratic style and her ability to speak Hindi.

Pauline always knew she wanted to be an illustrator and worked her way through school loving art, graduating to the Farnham School of Art and later the Slade School of Fine Art. She adored the classic illustrators Gustav Doré, Edmund Dulac and Arthur Rackham and Ernest Shepherd as well as the illuminated manuscripts of mediaeval times. Her War was spend making teaching models at Farnham Castle and maps and charts, and in 1948 she sent a set of interpretations of Luttrell Psalter Marginalia to publishers George, Allen and Unwin. Where J.R.R Tolkien spotted them, and asked for illustrations for his ‘Farmer Giles of Ham’. He was delighted with the result, and his close friend CS Lewis saw her work. She was commissioned to illustrate all of the Narnia Chronicles for just £100 a book.

Her illustrations are more than the sum of their parts, and for generations of readers she defined Aslan, Mr Tumnus, the Pevensie children and the successors, and so much more. To this day, when I see my small dog stretched out on a step, guarding. I am reminded of her illustration of Maugrim, chief of police for the White Witch of Narnia. And there are so many other books she truly, really illuminated. Sitting next to me is a copy of Grant Uden’s Dictionary of Chivalry, which she said was her favourite work. Each picture has a simple, open clarity, a celebration about it which is utterly disarming. She came under criticism for poor anatomical drawing even from Lewis: but time has rendered her work timeless.

Pauline Baynes lived much of her life in a little village near Farnham, England named Dockenfield. She died at 85, having nursed her parents during their dotage and married late to the love of her life, a landscape gardener. In the little arts and crafts church in the village, she created a tiny stained glass window here all the other windows are clear glass.

Today I went to see it. It is, as with all her work, disarmingly simple, a shepherd and sheep picked out in blue hues, the expression on the face of the shepherd unmistakably hers.

As with all her work , simplicity is they key. Tolkien did not have her illustrate the Lord of the Rings because his work required illustrations “more noble or awe-inspiring” than she could create. And my blood boils, for – for me – the space in her illustrations is a context for us to wonder at life. We are allowed, for a little while, to become children again and see life for all its infused magic. Tao-like, a truly humble illustrator, in Pauline’s work awe and nobility come from what is not said or preached in her work. She leaves us to complete an illustration using our own lives.

Pauline Baynes died in 2008: her main archive is stored at Williams College, Williamstown, Massachusetts, inits Chapin Library of Rare Books, with a smaller one at the University of Oregon. For me, many of her illustrations are a meditation.

And tonight; I’ll be meditating on The Good Shepherd to see what may rest between the lines.


9 thoughts on “Drawing Narnia

  1. A, quite literally, fantastic reminder of Baynes’ sterling work – the stained glass window with the sheep is an excellent example of how she could suggest character or movement with the minimum of fuss. I agree that her anatomical details sometimes left something to be desired, as for instance the horses in The Horse and His Boy which would have fallen sideways if they’d moved the legs on one side of their body in tandem with each other! But her faux medieval drawings for Farmer Giles of Ham are exquisite, vignettes that capture the spirit as well as the charm of the story.

    1. It is so strange to see that you are re-reading the horse and his boy as it lies on my bedside table with a bookmark half way through! I loved your post on it. She loved mediaeval drawings didn’t she – and I imagine the Farmer Giles illustrations were close to her heart.

  2. What a delight to once again be taken on an adventure with you, Kate. I, too, have a deep love of books, and nothing makes me happier than time spent in a good used book store. I don’t often know the stories behind the illustrations or illustrators, but I do appreciate. And thank you for the excellent piece of history highlighting the very talented Pauline Baynes. I hope I might find an example of her work in some of my exploring. Peace-filled meditations, my friend.

    1. Hello Debra! Lovely to hear from you! Book shops are full of adventures, aren’t they? I am always amazed at the meticulous work behind the illustrator’s craft. To me the Narnia books would not be whole without Pauline’s illustrations.

  3. Pauline Baynes is one of my favourite illustrators as well! I can’t imagine the Narnia stories or some of Tolkien’s tales without her illustrations.

  4. I have been saving this post to read and finally today, sat down to do it. Admittedly, I do not know Baynes yet her drawings did grace my Narnia books also. Such a shame that I was so desperate to crawl through the furs that I missed these. And 22,000 for the hardbound – gasp! Thank you for this post. It’s so good to hear from you.

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