Eileen Cooper on illustrating Angela Carter

The acclaimed British artist talks illustrating her first novel in a Creative Boom exclusive, as The Folio Society releases a new edition of a 20th-century classic resplendent with Eileen’s art.

A tale of love, magic, circuses and lies, Nights at the Circus is now available in a glorious new edition from distinguished publishers The Folio Society. With illustrations by celebrated printmaker Eileen Cooper, the release marks the novel’s first-ever illustrated edition. The book also comes accompanied by an exhibition of Cooper’s work, with an introduction by renowned novelist Sarah Waters.

In our interview, we learn more about Eileen Cooper’s work and vision for the book, including nine original colour lino-cut collages and a monoprint title page spread. All of the pieces perfectly suit Angela Carter’s wildly original storytelling and gorgeously slippery language, and what Waters describes as the author’s unique power to ‘unsettle as well as to inspire and console.’

A Royal Academician, Eileen has credited fairy tales, mythology and the female figure as core inspirations for her work, making her the perfect artist to bring the late Carter’s lush imagery to life. Each illustration is bold, striking, impossible to look away from. The chapter headings feature the ordinary and extraordinary totems of the life story of the half-woman, half-swan Sophie Fevvers. The tale recounts journalist Jack Walser’s quest to expose Sophie as a fraud, but who instead finds himself captivated by her beauty and strangeness, in a book widely regarded as a classic of British literature.
Nights at the Circus is such a classic book, and I would love to know what the book means to you as both reader and artist. Also, how did the project come about?

Sheri Gee, Art Director at The Folio Society, had asked me if I was interested in illustrating a book for them quite a few years ago. My answer was an immediate ‘Yes’; then we decided to wait until the perfect book came up. I think it was clever of them to pair me with Angela Carter as there is a strong magic realist element in both our work.

I had read several of Angela Carter’s books many years ago, including The Bloody Chamber, which resonated with me. I hadn’t read Nights at the Circus, so this seemed like a real gift to me. Also, I hadn’t’ studied’ a book in this way since school!

The challenge for all readers is the sheer volume of characters Angela Carter presents us with. I particularly connected to the strong female characters and their journey both in terms of physical travel and individual growth. The main character Sophie is radical, exciting and funny, causing some controversy amongst feminists when the book was first published. It’s a hugely important and influential book. I’m very touched that I have had this opportunity to connect so deeply with it.

How would you say your pieces capture Carter’s vision?

This is a difficult question. I’m not an illustrator, so being an artist, I bring something to the text which is possibly more controversial than getting an experienced illustrator to do the job. I bring the wealth and depth of my own imagery, built up over 40 years as a practising artist. Perhaps some readers who love the book and know it in detail may take issue with my illustrations.

What do you think the author would have made of the final work?

All I can say is that I was inspired, and I learnt a lot about the book and Angela Carter. I believe she would have responded positively to my work; I’m sure she’d be open-minded and receptive to another creative wholeheartedly embracing her story. I feel very sad that she’s not here to see what I’ve done.

Have you worked with books before? If not, how was the experience for you?

I’m not an illustrator, so this way of working on a brief was new to me. Happily, I was given great freedom and some ‘artistic licence’. In fact, I did several more illustrations than were originally required.

I had previously done some small monochrome illustrations for a children’s book of poems by Carol Ann Duffy in 1995, with a full-colour front cover. That was the only other illustration project.

(read the full interview at Creative Boom)

Fairy Tale Day 2021: short stories from Grimm to Angela Carter

Delve back into your childhood or discover a brand-new book with our selection of tomes

(from the Independent)

Whether it was through stories read to us at bedtime or from a classic Disney film we watched a thousand times, everyone has a favourite fairy tale.

Perhaps it’s Cinderella, with her magical glass slippers, or Hansel and Gretel’s run-in with a cannibalistic witch and her house made of sweets, or maybe you loved it when Little Red Riding Hood bested the big bad wolf?

For thousands of years, fairy tales have been passed down from generation to generation. They’ve been danced to, sung about or in the case of any Disney blockbuster, turned into multimillion dollar films.

While many came about simply because there wasn’t much as to do, just as many were made up in order to force naughty children to behave (admit it, you were terrified of being turned into a pie when you were young!).

In honour of National Tell A Fairy Tale Day (26 February) we’ve reviewed some of the best fairy tale collections on bookshelves right now so you can delve back into your childhood or discover a brand-new story.

We looked for tomes that included a wide variety of tales and particularly focused on collections that included stories from around the world and that are often overlooked. We’ve tried to find books that have something for all ages as well. Finally, these books had to be beautifully designed.

It’s time to pull out a blanket and snuggle up with tales of princes and princesses, magical creatures, evil villains and worlds plucked straight for our imaginations.

You can trust our independent reviews. We may earn commission from some of the retailers, but we never allow this to influence selections, which are formed from real-world testing and expert advice. This revenue helps to fund journalism across The Independent.

‘Angela Carter’s Book of Fairy Tales’ by Angela Carter, published by Virago

It wouldn’t be a round-up if we didn’t mention something the queen of feminist fairy tales herself, Angela Carter. Of course you’ll have likely heard ofThe Bloody Chamber (which we decided not to include here as it’s so well known), but another wonderful offering from the author is Angela Carter’s Book of Fairy Tales. This collection features tales about all sorts of women, from crafty deviants to maidens who aren’t quite damsels-in-distress, and compiles stories from all parts of the globe.

The book itself, which is beautifully illustrated with woodcuts created by Corinna Sargood, has been split up into 13 sections that deal with certain themes: “Good girls and where it gets them”; “Married women”; and “Clever women, resourceful girls and desperate stratagems” are a few. These tales are often gory and include a lot of adult humour – it’s probably best to not give this to anyone younger than 13 years old.

Why we are living in ‘Gothic times’

“We live in Gothic times,” declared Angela Carter back in 1974. It’s a theme Carlos Ruiz Zafón took up several decades later: “Ours is a time with a dark heart, ripe for the noir, the gothic and the baroque”, he wrote in 2010. Both authors had good reason. The Gothic has always been about far more than heroines in Victorian nightgowns, trapped in labyrinthine ancestral homes, and along with the supernatural, its imaginings probe power dynamics and boundaries, delving deep into disorder and duality.

If the 1970s (think the oil crisis, Watergate, a spike in “skyjackings”) primed readers to be receptive to such elements, it was a decade destined to be far outdone by the start of the 21st Century in terms of horror and upheaval (9/11, the global financial crisis, an intensified fear of climate apocalypse). The world seems to have grown only more uncertain in the years since, and it’s certainly tough to rival the age of Covid for gothic motifs made manifest. Claustrophobia? Try successive lockdowns spent working, learning, and socialising from home. Isolation? Ditto. Fear of a past that can’t be exorcised? Sounds a lot like “long Covid”.

Gothic literature is as long-lived as any curse or fanged anti-hero. Two-and-a-half centuries have passed since it was born into a Britain on the cusp of the Industrial Revolution’s wrenching change, and while the genre has never really left Western culture, there’s no doubting that this is boomtime for narratives that dare to peer into the darkest corners. As Stephen King puts it, in words crying out for a gothic font, “We make up horrors to help us cope with the real ones.” So, no, that sound you hear isn’t some heavy-footed ghoul advancing up the stairs, it’s the thud of new Gothic-inflected tomes hitting the shelves by the dozen, and if most were written pre-pandemic, their themes and imagery nevertheless speak to us with eerie clarity in the present moment.

In coming months, fans can visit a castle-turned-girls’ boarding school that harbours tenebrous secrets in Phoebe Wynne’s Madam (Quercus), reimagine the life of Pride and Prejudice’s Miss Anne de Bourgh in Molly Greeley’s The Heiress (Hodder & Stoughton), and learn about the true story of an engineer and a medium in Big Brother finalist AJ West’s debut, The Spirit Engineer (Duckworth). The past oozes into the present in AJ Elwood’s The Cottingley Cuckoo (Titan), based around the famous Cottingley fairy photograph hoax, while Lizzie Fry’s The Coven (Sphere) imagines a world in which witchcraft is real, and a demagogue US president is out to hunt down its practitioners.

Feeling pre-apocalyptic? Sue Rainsford describes the lives of twins holed up on an abandoned commune in Redder Days (Doubleday). Want a horror hybrid? Catriona Ward’s twisty The Last House on Needless Street (Viper) features a missing child and a woman out for revenge. Meanwhile, in The Deception of Harriet Fleet, Helen Scarlett (Quercus) adds feminist riffs to a Victorian narrative, Karen Coles’ The Asylum (Wellbeck) draws on family history to explore mental health mistreatment, and Edwardian West Yorkshire provides a tantalisingly lonely setting for Mrs England (Manilla Press), Stacey Halls’s account of control and deception.
(read the full article at BBC Culture)