Brian Froud is one of the world’s most respected folklore artists. His new book is World of Faerie.
Don’t believe everything you hear about faeries. They aren’t always cute and kindly like a Disneyfied Tinkerbell. They’re not made-up, fluffy nonsense that should be confined to the nursery. Instead of faerieland, they’re inhabitants of this world, part of its fabric and spirit.
If you’ve had the chance to take in the artwork of the great Brian Froud at any time, you might have an idea of what we’re getting at. For more than 30 years, this British painter has made himself an expert conduit between fairytale creatures and human beings. Faeries, trolls and goblins are some of his favourite subjects and he has a keen understanding of their characteristics and their meaning.Strong imagination
Brian has numerous books to his name – The Land of Froud, Faeries, Good Faeries Bad Faeries, Lady Cottington’s Pressed Fairy Book – to name a handful. He’s also worked with Jim Henson, bringing many wonderful creatures and characters to life in the films The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth. Here’s a man with a huge and vivid imagination, which he’s shared with his fans through paintings, books and the big screen.
Talking to Brian, though, it’s clearly not just about imagination. He sees his work as being something that starts in reality, looking at the natural world. One of his early influences was Arthur Rackham.
“I loved his drawings of trees,” says Brian. “They were very expressive but they also had faces in them. It was a shock of recognition, because as a child I was always up a tree, always climbing trees, always exploring woods. When I saw Rackham’s stuff it reminded me of how I felt about nature. I felt that nature had a hidden life to it, that everything had a soul, a personality.”Painting trolls
Brian moved to Dartmoor in the mid-1970s after spending several years as an illustrator in London. He began painting trolls and other fairytale creatures that appeared in books of British illustration. Soon he was asked to put together a collection of his own work, which was released as The Land of Froud, and then with fellow artist Alan Lee he worked on Faeries, a book released as a follow-up to the popular Gnomes.
Great lovers of folklore and mythology from around the British Isles, Brian and Alan retreated to their own libraries and researched all they could about fairies. By referring to Irish, Welsh, Scottish and English myths and legends, they seemed to get the real low-down on faerie creatures. Accurately following descriptions of these mischievous and sometimes rather dark-hearted creatures, the pair gave their publishers a bit of a shock. Characters such as Jenny Greenteeth – who dragged children off into rivers and devoured them – were not the expectation of publishers who thought faerieland meant cute, sweet, pink and fluffy.
“It was really a reinstatement of the power of faeries,” says Brian. “It had been for a long, long time relegated to the nursery. It was thought to be a childish thing, the idea that they were fairytales and nonsense. Here we went back to the sources such as Yates’s The Celtic Twilight book and tried to portray them as they really are, with their power. Faeries were dangerous beings that you had to placate. You had to leave little gifts of food, you had to live with them really and be nice to them. If you weren’t they’d do dreadful things to you.”
This approach of going back to folklore and then painting, links Brian’s work with people deep in the past, who saw faeries and various other creatures as part of nature and the land around them. Brian himself loves England for its history, the layers of old stories and the sense that there are mysteries beneath your feet. He connects to this and understands it through what he paints.Real-life fantasy
As you might have gathered by now, painting is not a literal process for Brian. Whatever he’s working on, he wants to convey life, reality and feeling. “I’m always amazed when I look at American fantasy art. It’s what I would call over-rendered. Every surface is shiny. It means to me that your eye skids off the art. But not only does your eye skid off it, your emotions also skid off it,” says Brian.
“What I try to do is I leave out certain bits of information, so when you view it you have to add bits to it to complete it. In the completing of it, it imbues it with life because it means that it has a little bit of you in it and each time you view it, you’ve changed and it changes. You enter into a relationship with the image. That’s what we do in the art, and that’s what we try and do in the graphics.”
With his books, Brian has gone a stage or two further towards the goal of engaging the viewer or reader with the characters and the story. His secret is to make the book itself both a physical and an emotional experience. With a normal book, you pick it up, open it, page or read through it, reach the end and then close it. But Good Faeries/Bad Faeries, for instance, has two front covers. You can start by reading from the Good Faeries cover, then turn it over and flip it around and start reading about the bad ones. Your journey through it can start at either end.Pressed faeries
There’s no better example of the physicality of a Brian Froud book than Lady Cottington’s Pressed Fairy Book. First published in 1991, it was done with Terry Jones of Monty Python fame and has become a successful series. The way it’s painted and bound enables the reader to pretend to catch faeries by clapping the book closed and pressing them, just like the main character Angelica Cottington does throughout the book. This fun, physical idea is what helped Brian to convince Jones to write the book, and is a major part of its popularity.
“The book was a huge success, but it’s about belief,” says Brian. “It’s meant to be funny but the idea is like when you talk to people who don’t believe, but as soon as you say about squashing a faerie, and you go bang! in a book, they cringe. And I say, ‘See, you’ve changed! Now you’re believing.’ It is about allowing people to believe about faeries.”New book
The latest Brian Froud book is due for release at the start of November. Brian Froud’s World of Faerie covers 30 years of his work and, like previous releases, is designed to be more of an experience than a book. Filled with work old and new, and art directed by Brian himself, it welcomes you into his living studio and explains the meaning and the energy that goes into all of his paintings.
“We have blowups of paintings, with bits of landscape in the background. It’s about how when you pick up the book and open the page, it’s like what it feels like to look at one of my paintings for real. It’s not just illustration. I’m trying to drop you into the middle of the painting somewhere. It’s about how the painting feels and what the emotion of experiencing the painting is, all done graphically,” he says.