Illustrator Christian Birmingham
One of the country's foremost young artists and illustrators meets Mike Smith
The best children’s authors have the ability to transport their young readers into a land of make-believe, and the best illustrators of children’s books have the talent to make that land entirely believable. Some of the finest editions of children’s stories from authors past and present are illustrated by Christian Birmingham, an artist who has the wonderful knack of making fairy-tale worlds as real as the real world.
When I talked with Christian at the New Court Gallery, a light and airy public exhibition space administered by Repton School, where his work will be on show throughout September, I discovered that his success as an illustrator is based not only on his talent as an artist, but also on the meticulous preparation and stage-setting which he undertakes in response to every commission. In order to bring a text to life, he is even willing to step, quite literally, into the world that the author has created.
Explaining how he prepared for an assignment to illustrate A Christmas Carol, he said: ‘I hired a model for Scrooge from an agency called Ugly Models and took him to an old silk weavers’ house that was owned by the late Dennis Severs, an artist who had lived in the building in the manner of the original occupants and had even set up the top floor like a Dickensian theatre set. I asked my model to put on a nightcap and gown and posed him in a four-poster bed to await the visit of the Ghost of Christmas Past.’
Christian is best known for the illustrations he created for the Collins edition of Clement C Moore’s much-loved poem The Night before Christmas. The model he used on this occasion is the father of one his friends, a man who is the perfect embodiment of ‘St Nick’ as ‘a right jolly old elf’. His illustration of Father Christmas tucking into a plateful of goodies that have been left for him has become an iconic image on the front cover of a book that has sold more than 1.5 million copies.
The seeds of Christian’s career were sown in Cornwall, where he lived from the age of thirteen until he started college. Like many teenagers in the area, he picked up pocket money by working on a campsite during school holidays, but soon found that he could earn far more by selling his paintings in his parents’ art gallery near Polperro. His hero was the American illustrator Richard Scarry, whose drawings are characterised by great attention to detail, and Christian was so sure that he wanted to follow in Scarry’s footsteps that he by-passed the general training that would have been provided by a foundation course and went straight from A-levels to Exeter College of Art in order to study his craft.
After emerging from college in 1991 with a first-class honours degree, Christian got himself an agent and moved to London so that he could be at the heart of the publishing world. Up to this moment, he had produced pictures in a variety of media, but his agent advised him to choose the method that suited him best and stick with it. Christian said: ‘I selected chalk pastels because they give you the immediacy of direct application and, to my mind, almost recreate the method used by the ancient cave painters. In any case, I was never much good at washing out paints, priming canvases and waiting for paint to dry.’
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The agent also recommended that he should make exclusive use of high-quality pastels from Cornelissen and Son on Great Russell Street. This proved to be sound advice because several commissions followed almost immediately. One of the first was an assignment to illustrate The Magical Bicycle by the Derbyshire author Berlie Doherty, which brought him a prestigious short-listing for the Kurt Maschler Award. He was then asked to produce illustrations for the Collins edition of The Night before Christmas, which became the book that made Christian’s name. Since that time, he has created pictures for many other timeless children’s classics, as well as images for books written by several of today’s leading authors, including Michael Morpurgo, Ian Whybrow and Mark Haddon.
In addition to working as an illustrator, Christian produces pastel pictures of places that are special to him. His favourite locations include Cornwall, the county where he was brought up, and the coast near Brighton, where he now lives, but nowhere is more special to him than Venice. He says: ‘The sensation of entering Venice from the lagoon is similar to the experience of opening the first page of a book and entering a totally new world. The quality of light in the city is unique, perhaps as a result of diffusion in the moist atmosphere. In fact, Venice is the best place in the world in which to paint light.’
Christian always tries to capture the light effects in Venice at particular moments and, as visitors to the Repton exhibition will notice, he follows the example of the Impressionists by using ‘flicked’ marks that seem abstract in close-up but suggest concrete elements when seen in the context of the picture as a whole. The exhibition is being curated by Jeremy Bournan, who has taught at Repton School for 27 years and heads an art department that brings out the very best from its talented students. Several of Christian’s Venice pictures and a number of his book illustrations will be included in the show, but there will also be a collection of pictures of Derbyshire, created especially for the exhibition.
The story of how Christian stepped into the world of Derbyshire for the very first time is a 21st century fairy tale in itself. The tale begins with the purchase by Jeremy Bournan’s daughter, Myfanwy, of a number of Christian’s books as presents for young relatives. The illustrations made such an impression on Myfanwy that she decided to get in touch with the artist via the internet. Eventually, Christian and his admirer met face to face. They started dating and romance blossomed.
Myfanwy’s father was equally bowled over by Christian’s illustrations and decided to invite the artist to exhibit in the school’s New Court Gallery, which was created by the conversion of former squash courts, and in Gallery No 1 High Street, a commercial gallery which also showcases the work of Repton pupils. Deciding that he ought to create pictures of Derbyshire for the exhibition, Christian journeyed to the county and stayed with Myfanwy in White Edge Lodge, high on the moors above Hathersage. As soon as he arrived, the artist realised he had stepped into a special place. He says, ‘Like Cornwall, Derbyshire is a self-contained county with a unique character and a remarkable variety of scenery.’
Christian’s pictures of Derbyshire capture landscapes ranging from bleak edges and wild moors to lush valleys and soft pastures, but they also include depictions of Repton School and neighbouring Willington, where there is a large power station. Most artists would turn their back on the plant’s huge cooling towers, but Christian has included them in his landscapes because he sees them as interesting shapes that hint at internal structures comparable with Anish Kapoor’s giant vortex-like sculpture in London’s Olympic Park.
Christian looks upon Repton School as another self-contained place with a unique character. He likens passing through the archway at its entrance to the experience of opening a book and entering a world of the imagination. One of his pictures is a view of the school obtained from the tower of the parish church and one of the figures that can be seen in the school grounds from the bird’s-eye view is the artist. His presence is a reminder that Christian always steps into the worlds he depicts, because he believes that it is a necessary preparation for creating pictures that give us access to those worlds, whether they be fictional or real.
Christian Birmingham’s pictures of Derbyshire and Venice, together with a number of his book illustrations, are on show throughout September at the New Court Gallery and Gallery No 1 High Street in Repton. Christian’s illustrations are handled by Books Illustrated (www.booksillustrated.com). To learn more about Christian’s work, visit www.christianbirmingham.com.