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.