Working from Home: Jane Ray

By Chris Stephenson

Carousel no.46 October 2010

I was describing to Jane Ray what 1 considered to be the most immediately sinking features of her distinctive style. Colour. Decoration. The hints of collage. The delicate brushwork. And then the almond-shaped eyes, the Middle Eastern features, the formal postures.
She was uncertain about the last. Not formalised, I quickly added. I had in mind her most recently-published book, Ahmed and the Feather Girl, a multi-layered fable about freedom, opportunity and scope.
The first spread shows all but one of the characters (the Feather Girl herself) decoratively assembled, ready for their story to begin and essaying their roles - juggler, acrobat, strongman, cruel old circus owner, the boy Ahmed meekly carrying firewood and water, etc. - reminiscent of figures in a frieze, or like characters in fairytales or certain sorts of plays who represent universal human types or activities.
So, I resumed, referring back to my list, where had it all come from? "I don't know," she replied, with a smile; then, after a moment's reflection, suggested that the features and stances probably harked back to the days she worked with ceramics, an early interest (she took a degree course in the subject at Middlesex University, before starting on her career as an illustrator). "I evolved a way of drawing on clay," spending days at a time in the Egyptian rooms in the British Museum. She said she "found Egyptian art aesthetically very beautiful," and hinted that that - "you know, Egyptian feet always turned sideways" - may perhaps have been part of what I meant about the "formal" aspect of her illustrations.
"Not just the British Museum," she continued. "I spent lots of time in lots of museums. I still like visiting them. I went to the Museum of Childhood for The Dolls' House Fairy" (her touching story of Rosy, whose worries over her sick father are diverted by the needs and antics of Thistle, the eponymous fairy visitor).
We were in Jane's compact studio at the end of the garden of her house in Muswell Hill, where she lives with her husband David Temple, conductor of the Crouch End Festival Chorus and other choirs, and their children, Clara, Ellie and Joe. "I love living here," she said, enthusiastic for the convenience of the situation as well as for the North London ambience. "I can catch a bus at the end of the road and be at Orchard Books [one of her publishers] in forty-five minutes."

Inside, the studio, which came ready-built and was lowered into the garden by a giant crane ("Very exciting to watch"), holds everything necessary for secluded, concentrated work: a desk and a chair; mug and cups of brushes and paints, pens and pencils; a plan chest; bookshelves; books; an iconostasis of postcards on the walls; a stacked hi-fi. All of her painting is done here. The best place for writing, she says, is on her laptop in the front room, "overlooking the garden."
Earlier, when we were having coffee in her kitchen before moving down to the garden studio, Jane had touched on the petty nitpicking and attempted cultural vandalism, however 'well intentioned', that even someone of her standing has to occasionally overcome. "I had trouble with Eve's nipples in America," she said. "They wanted a well-placed butterfly, 1 thought it would look obscene." Her voice rose to an indignant chuckle. "And problems with black angels. In Holland, of all places. That really surprised me. It wasn't really racial: they thought angels should be golden haired. I've also had problems with things like pillar boxes ... But I like to see cultural differences. It's all a part of learning about other people."
Quietly, evenly spoken, and ever ready to see the funny side of things, she comes across as a complete professional who knows precisely what she wants to do; and as someone who, although always instinctively and unfailingly polite, suffers no qualms about resisting dogma of any kind.
Eight years ago Jane started to establish her credentials as a writer as well as an illustrator. (The Dolls' House Fairy and Ahmed and the Feather Girl, for example, are written, as well as illustrated, by her.) "I feel that I'm trespassing," she said. "I'm an illustrator first. When I'm asked at parties, I say I'm an illustrator, 1 illustrate books." She nodded and smiled, pleased with the accuracy of the statement. However, "Writing was the obvious way for me to go. I had so many ideas for stories in my head." (I entertained a fleeting vision of the inside of Jane's head humming with stories, like an industrious beehive on full time.) "It gives me a feeling of freedom to be in command of the whole thing, writing and illustrating. And when it's time for me to do the illustrations, I can tweak the text if need be. Which, of course, I can't do if I'm illustrating someone else's work."
The stories are "assembled" (her scrupulously chosen word) over months and years, "a little bit here, a little bit there. Then it's a matter of joining together. I might look back over my notes and think, Ah, I didn't realise it but this goes with that, and that with something else .. .There's a story here."
One obvious imperative in the making of a picture book is that words and illustrations should combine and work together, interlock as flawlessly as they possibly can, without either one usurping the work of the other and condemning it to redundancy For Jane, newer, though now no longer new, to writing texts than she is to painting pictures, the words demand a deal of wary attention, as they do for any writer. "1 whittle away at the text, getting rid of any unnecessary words," she said, and, with the radiance of someone who recognises gold when she sees it, "It's liberating to know just how few words you need!
"I find the writing very difficult. But" - she went on - "but I'm beginning to identify my 'voice'. At first I didn't understand what that meant. Now I do. For the first book I wrote, Can You Catch a Mermaid?, I listened to the editor too much, and made every suggested alteration - because, I said, you know about this. But there was something about the rhythm that was wrong." She frowned. "It never quite felt mine," she added, with no trace of rancour, as though grateful for having had the chance to gain experience from something that was, anyhow, now water under the bridge.
As with her assembling of story-parts, accumulation, the snapping-up of unconsidered items, also plays its part in Jane's long-term preparation for illustrating. "I start gathering fragments. All sorts. I can't explain them; they just take my fancy." She showed me one of her notebooks. It was small, square and leather-bound, a bulging scrapbook of fragments: cut-outs of paintings and picture postcards and advertisements and swatches of patterned cloth and paper - anything that catches her eye and might come in useful for sparking-off ideas, all combined with meticulous pen-and-ink sketches and handwntten notes. A cabinet of curiosities. An invaluable resource.
She reached onto a shelf beside her and handed me a small transparent packet of the kind that collectable stamps are sold in. The label on the outside said "1"; inside was an assortment of unused cigar bands, individually decorated with pictures of flowers; beautiful when closely examined. She found them tucked away in a shop and decided to add them to her collection, and knows they will
come in handy some day.
In a pile on her desk was the almost-completed artwork from the book she was currently working on, her version of The Twelve Days of Christmas. She explained that a trip she took with her husband to Bruges inspired the distinctive vernacular style of the buildings in the pictures she had drawn and painted. And the canals too, she added, for shipping the true love's gifts. 1 saw her dummy copy of the complete book, a miniature version in precise black-and-white ink drawings. How difficult was it to plan where the page-turns come, 1 wondered. "Once I've decided what have to be the spreads ... they establish the rest of the pages ... then the page-turns tend to solve themselves."
As we had mentioned spreads, we looked at one, from Ahmed and the Feather Girl, which showed Aurelia the Feather Girl's escape from her incarceration; a pivotal moment captured with breathtaking simplicity. Against the background of a warm blue night sky splattered with emblematic, golden stars, two diagonals cross in opposition; one, a downward-swooping line of bunting, reminding us of Ahmed's earthbound condition; the other, a string of light bulbs soaring upwards, joyfully echoing and illuminating the Feather Girl's freedom. The ingenuity displayed chimed in with something Jane had said earlier, about how the simplest devices on stage can produce outstanding theatrical effects.
It comes as no surprise that "doing the artwork is the best part of the job." Although, ''best of all is when the book is still a vision in the head, before any of the artwork has been done." But the promise of that vision is never fulfilled. "Which is probably how it should be," she acknowledged. "I use watercolour, gouache, watercolour pencil, ink, collage you name it." And she likes to work on other books simultaneously - through choice as well, sometimes, as necessity, when deadlines are looming. "There's a practical side too: if I get stuck on one thing, I can move on to another."
Though for the time being, it was back to The Twelve Days of Christmas. "It has to be delivered by next Wednesday. Oh, it's all right - it will be," she said. And I knew that it would.

The Dolls' House Fairy Orchard Books 5,99 ISBN: 978-1846169090
Ahmed and the Feather Girl Frances Lincoln 11.99 ISBN: 978-1845079888

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