Each book in our Little Histories series is illustrated by a different contemporary artist-illustrator, whose specially commissioned work is designed to enliven and enhance the text. The wonderful illustrations for John Carey’s A Little History of Poetry were created by Nick Morley, an artist specialising in linocut who is based in Margate, UK. From a menacing Cyclops to illustrate Carey’s commentary on ancient Greek epic poem The Odyssey, to a depiction of the trailblazing American poet Emily Dickinson writing at her desk; Nick has brought poetry to life through his linocuts!
We chatted with him to find out what inspires him, how poetry has influenced his work and his latest projects.
What influences your work? Do you draw inspiration from poetry?
I’m fascinated by natural history prints, especially Thomas Bewick, Ulisse Aldrovandi and Konrad Gessner. Other historical influences include the woodcuts of Albrecht Dürer and William Nicholson and the linocuts of the Grosvenor School artists (especially Sybil Andrews). I’m also a big fan of Raymond Briggs. I did a poetry module at University as part of my Fine Art degree but I think I made the right career choice becoming an artist and illustrator.
Can you walk us through the process of creating linocuts?
I start with a loose pencil drawing, which I then work over in pen or I scan it and rework it on the laptop using a Wacom tablet to draw. There’s usually a lot of indecision and editing involved at this stage. When I’m happy with the design I transfer it to the lino block using a print-out and a piece of carbon paper. Then I carve the design using a variety of gouges. Things always change during the carving stage too so I never know exactly what the end result will be until I print it.
Your illustrations for John Carey’s A Little History of Poetry are wonderful! How did you go about designing and creating them?
Thank you! I was very lucky to be able to choose which poems and poets to feature from each chapter. I looked for poems with strong visual images in them and I tried to select as many women poets as possible! In some cases, I used artworks and artifacts contemporary to the poem as a starting point, and I tried to get as much variety as possible into the designs to reflect the broad diversity of the poems.
Do you have a poem or poet that you particularly enjoyed reading and creating a linocut for?
A. E. Housman’s poem from A Shropshire Lad really resonated with me and was one of the few illustrations which came quickly and easily. Unlike most of the others, it is entirely from my imagination. I enjoyed revisiting Sylvia Plath’s poems too but they were too difficult to illustrate. Sometimes the power of the words can’t be matched by an image.
What would be your dream project? Can you tell us about any projects you have worked on recently?
This project was pretty good! The Little History series is beautifully produced so I am really proud to be a part of it. I’d love to illustrate a classic children’s book one day. I’m currently working on my ongoing series of linocuts of animals and a new book cover for the BFI Film Classics series.
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