Before 2017, the last time I remember sitting down with a sketchpad and specifically drawing plants was on the Scilly Isles when I was about 11. We were on holiday on St Mary’s, marvelling at exotics like Datura, the strange new discovery of ‘Whistling Jacks’, the corn marigolds everywhere. I drew plant after plant, experimenting with pencil shading and watercolour paints, trying to shorten the gap between what I saw in real life and the picture that was appearing on the page.
Apart from dabbling in technical botanical drawing in sixth form, I hadn’t really made time for drawing since. So the challenge of producing the drawings for Botanical Tales was daunting.
Producing a book cover was definitely beyond my meagre drawing ability. What to do? One evening in Chagford during a Dartmoor Storytellers meeting, I mentioned that I needed to find an artist to help me with the book cover. A quiet chap in the corner, who often came along to the story nights, said, “I do that for a living….” and offered to help.
How lucky I was. David Wyatt’s cover illustrations have graced the work of Philip Pullman, Terry Pratchett, Diana Wynne Jones, Philip Reeve and many other fine authors. We met up in the Three Crowns and talked about options for the cover of Botanical Tales. I explained that I didn’t want anything twee or old-fashioned, not too ‘folky,’ and gave David a rough idea of some species to include – some from the stories, and some just because we could.
The result was stunning. David has done an incredible job with some very simple ideas. Here are bramble and ivy twining their way through the title, wild rose and bluebell. There’s rowan for protection, magic strawberries, flax from the Orkney story, and St John’s Wort to help banish Crooker. The cow-wheat along the Chagford footpaths makes an appearance, together with speedwell and quaking grass. This latter is one of my favorite British wild plants, back to that Buckinghamshire field when I was little, curious at this strange plant nodding its many heads in the breeze.
David has created his cover artwork magic using a slightly stylized approach, where proportions are distorted and seasons merge into one another. I find it a pleasingly dark image – can you see Lusmore’s foxgloves looming, triffid-like, in the background, and the dandelion down from Yallery Brown?
In addition to the cover, The History Press also asked me to produce a series of line drawings to be included with the text of the book. To be very honest, it was probably a combination of curiosity and pig-headedness that drove me to try drawing the pictures myself. The countryside around Chagford and Moretonhampstead was plundered for subjects, and photographs of plants from years past were consulted. My father, trained in architectural drawing, provided moral support and company. We sat in Mum’s garden last year for many happy silent hours, drawing and re-drawing and lamenting the structural complexity of cowslips and foxgloves.
The results are very simple drawings, some certainly better than others, but nonetheless I am quite proud of them in a small way. It’s been wonderful to re-discover drawing. The practice of drawing teaches many things, aside from focus and patience. Observing how a plant grows is one thing, but it’s quite another to understand it through drawing the lines and curves of the petals, the vein patterns on the leaves, the growth form and buds, the context where the plant meets the ground. It will be clear from the drawings inside the book that I have barely started…..
I can only admire the fluency of lines and the observation of shade and colour and character in the work of talented artists like David, and I am so grateful to him for doing such a good job with the cover of Botanical Tales.
But I would encourage anyone to try drawing plants for themselves, and just to experiment. There’s a different way here, without words, to discover the story of a plant – completely grounded in physical reality, and full of quiet wonder.
You can find out more about David Wyatt’s wonderful work on his website.
Order a copy of Botanical Folk Tales of Britain and Ireland directly from me here.