Chris Powling talks to our cover artist – an American who has been laying claim to the English classics.
If you were asked to pick the right illustrator for a classic text from British children’s literature, the odds are you’d pass over an artist who has never been to Europe, who was born and raised in Los Angeles, graduated from the L.A. Art Center College of Design, and who lives in Colorado Springs, Colorado, USA. In short, you wouldn’t opt for Michael Hague.
Yet he’s illustrated not one such classic but several including The Wind in the Willows, The Reluctant Dragon and, most recently, The Hobbit (1984), Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1985) and The Secret Garden (1987). This year sees the publication of his latest project: Peter Pan. True, there have been other books as well – notably Mother Goose (1984) and Aesop’s Fables (1985) – but even with these there’s a hint of artistic activities not exactly un-American yet distinctly international in their appeal. So far, in fact, Michael Hague’s main concession to his home market is The Wizard of Oz (1982), a book that’s also travelled rather well.
Why, then, this fixation on classics? A blatant exploitation of the world-wide negotiability of visual images, perhaps?
Hardly. when the texts concerned are so long. If this was what he was after then he’d have concentrated on his successful collaboration with his wife Kathleen in producing picture books like Out of the Nursery (1986) and Numbears (1986). So how do we explain this preference for tales which may have stood the test of time but have also run the gauntlet of other interpretations’?
The answer he gave when I asked him, somewhat muffled by 5,000 miles of telephone link, was amiable but frank: ‘Because the classics are there… and because once I’d done one, the publishers went on wanting more.’ Well, maybe. An alternative possibility comes from his own afterword to Peter Pan: ‘As an artist I have not only the pleasure but the duty to daydream. It is part of my work. I have been a contented daydreamer all my life, often to the exasperation of those around me. I strive to create something from an empty canvas that becomes a whole ‘other world’ that people can visit for a while and totally believe in.’
Now that sounds more like it. For the various ‘other worlds’ Michael Hague has inhabited, very different though they are, have a distinct and instantly recognisable Hague-ness in common – a solidity, a draughtsmanship, an oil-rather-than-watercolour painterliness. It’s not that his Oz is the same as his Wonderland or his Land of Lost Boys no different from his Yorkshire. It’s just that the ways in which they’re alike is at least as much a factor in our total belief as the ways in which they’re not alike. For all his realism, his representational style, he’s not at all the kind of illustrator whose every detail carries an implicit guarantee of historical and geographical accuracy. The interiors and exteriors in The Secret Garden make this fairly clear. What he’s after is another sort of authenticity altogether – rooted in his own vision, his own response to a particular narrative. Just as Dickens’ London reminds us a lot of real-life London in the nineteenth century but even more of the London we encounter in other works of Charles Dickens, so Hague’s Misselthwaite Manor – whatever the quality of its resemblance to the manor imagined by Frances Hodgson Burnett – reminds us even more of the work of Michael Hague. And therein lies the problem. For an illustrator comes between a classic text and our perception of it – including our perception of it as modified by other illustrators.
Hence the appropriate comparison isn’t with literature at all, it’s with theatre. The latest Michael Hague is like the latest Jonathan Miller: you have a fair idea what to expect but not how it’s going to be applied. And whether the project is a success or not will depend crucially on the preconceptions you bring with you – the vital factor shouldn’t be whether the new version ‘fits’ so much as whether you’re induced to look at the text afresh. No wonder, when listing Rackham, Heath Robinson, N C Wyeth and Howard Pyle as his main mentors, Michael Hague adds the name ‘Walt Disney. I was always copying Jiminy Cricket and Pinocchio – and I see my pictures very much as “stills” from a movie.’ It’s a revealing comment, capturing perfectly the way in which a Hague colour-plate lies somewhere between the sharpest of photographs and the amplest of cartoons. His own development he traces ‘chiefly through my figure drawing. People tend not to recognise this, but my figures seem to me to be much better now-since I started using real models, for instance, my younger daughter for Alice and her big sister for Secret Garden.’
So where does he go from here? Who knows… though his own preference would be to ‘visit Arthurian Britain or Hopalong Cassidy’s Wild West’. What’s certain is that so far as the classics are concerned, the competition is hotting up. Michael Foreman tackled The Just-So Stories and The Jungle Book earlier this year and Anthony Browne is currently illustrating a new Alice. Charles Keeping’s Black Beauty is about to be published and Shirley Hughes is working on an enterprise she considers to be one of the most exciting she’s ever tackled. It’s… yes, The Secret Garden.
Personally, I can’t wait. Why should the wizard of Colorado Springs have it all his own way`? Mind you, Michael Hague may have plans of his own for developing what’s become his speciality. In 1988 he visits England for the first time.
(published by Methuen unless otherwise stated)
Aesop’s Fables, 0 416 52950 X, £6.95
Alice‘s Adventures in Wonderland, 0 416 59630 4, £9.95
The Hobbit, Allen & Unwin, 0 04 823273 4, £11.95
Mother Goose, 0 416 49430 7, £8.95
Numbears, 0 416 95690 4, £6.95
Out of the Nursery, 0 416 00852 6, £7.95
Peter Pan, 0 416 09392 2, £9.95
The Reluctant Dragon, 0 416 45280 9, £6.95
The Secret Garden, 0 416 02782 2, £ 10.95
The Wind in the Willows, 0 416 20620 4, £9.95
The Wizard of Oz, 0 416 01592 1, £6.95 pbk