A Tribute to Errol Le Cain.
In January we heard the sad news that Errol Le Cain had died. Phyllis Hunt, his editor at Faber for 20 years, recalls that relationship.
I first met Errol Le Cain in 1967. A literary agent had brought me a typescript and a sheaf of illustrations for a story about King Arthur; he had received them from a friend of the artist, who was said to be too shy to approach a publisher except at third hand. Once our enthusiasm for his pictures had been reported to him this terror must have abated, for I next remember visiting him at the Richard Williams Studios. He was indeed very shy but also very forthcoming, and this combination of diffidence with a readiness to meet everyone more than half-way was always characteristic of him. It was a most endearing quality.
It must have been soon after this that I asked him to dinner, to meet two Faber authors. Unluckily it was a wet night, and Errol (who never learned to drive) arrived drenched, his usual slightly forlorn air exaggerated to caricature by the rain dripping from him in all directions. My other guests were kindly people, but I could see they were wondering where I had picked up this curious waif and stray, until he produced proofs of his illustrations for The Ancient Mariner, and converted them instantly into devotees. These pictures were done for a de luxe edition and printed on paper said to be made from seaweed. (The firm that published it was short-lived, perhaps not surprisingly.) Errol’s work was very striking, but I wish he could have illustrated the poem again after his style had matured, especially as he told me he would have liked to attempt an entirely different interpretation after reading Empson’s fascinating if perverse defence of the Mariner. This was only one of many projects outside the children’s book field that we discussed half seriously: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Omar Khayyam, Archy and Mehitabel. For children’s books, of course, the possibilities were endless. There was never time for a fraction of what he wanted to do.
He was fascinated by myths and legends of all times and places, and there was a certain strangeness in his art that made him the perfect illustrator for fairy tales. It’s impossible to forget scenes like the desolate castle in Thorn Rose or the silver and golden forests in The Twelve Dancing Princesses. Among the books of this kind Cinderella was his favourite, partly because he considered it the archetypal fairy story and partly, I think, because it included a brilliant use of techniques suggesting animation: the mouse develops into a horse stage by stage and Cinderella passes from riches to rags as she runs wildly through the darkness.
His first book, King Arthur’s Sword, was entirely serious, but humour was already creeping into his second, The Cabbage Princess, where an absurd tale about a king whose ill temper leads to the transformation of his daughter into a cabbage is treated with baroque grandeur. There is something very characteristic in the charm with which Errol invested the mutated but still ravishing princess. He was never more inventive than in his most comic works, Mrs Fox’s Wedding, Christmas 1993 and Growltiger’s Last Stand, a dazzlingly witty treatment of three poems from T S Eliott’s Practical Cats.
After King Arthur’s Sword a new picture book for Faber followed almost every year. But this was only a small part of his output; there were commissions for other firms, both British and American, and above all his regular work for the Richard Williams Studios. His film animation was as brilliant as his illustrations and in fact occupied most of his time; he regarded his books as holidays, and they were his nearest approach to a holiday, for he almost never stopped working.
While he was still living in London I could occasionally tempt him out. I remember an expedition to Midhurst in search of family connections; his exotically mixed ancestry, mainly Malay and French-Canadian, unexpectedly include a Sussex streak. We couldn’t find any trace of his relations, but it was a happy occasion; a day off was so rare for him that he enjoyed it like a child.
After he moved to Herne Bay and later to Bristol I inevitably saw less of him, though he always brought his artwork to the office in person and I would collect an audience to admire it. When I retired in the autumn of 1987 he came to my leaving party and seemed to be in excellent form. A few months later he fell ill and I never saw him again, though we talked on the phone. In our last conversation, not long before Christmas, he sounded entirely himself and was full of projects for the future. It is tragic that none of them can be realised.