Jane Ray is an artist and author who has illustrated over 60 books for children, including fairy and folk tales from around the world and original stories by Carol Ann Duffy and Jeanette Winterson. In 2004 she illustrated a version of Romeo and Juliet adapted by Michael Rosen and we were privileged to host an exhibition of Jane’s original artwork for the book at the Shakespeare Centre here in Stratford-upon-Avon. In 2019 Jane created a picture book version of The Tempest in collaboration with Georghia Ellinas, Head of Learning at Shakespeare’s Globe, and this year Jane and Georghia have produced a beautifully illustrated retelling of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, published by Walker Books.
In the first part of this blog, published to celebrate midsummer, Adam Sherratt asks Jane about her ‘dream job’ illustrating A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In the second part we shall hear from Georghia about the importance of introducing children to Shakespeare at an early age and the exciting challenge of retelling his plays for the youngest reader.
I remember back in 2004 at the launch for Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet you were talking about the possibility of illustrating A Midsummer Night's Dream. This feels like a book you were destined to do. How excited were you at the prospect?
Jane: I have long wanted to illustrate this play, as many illustrators do. It feels almost like a rite of passage, but daunting too, to follow in the footsteps of Rackham, Blake and Landseer to name but three.... best not to dwell too long on thoughts like that! The story has an almost fairy tale familiarity - by which I mean, we know it so well, know the characters names and the settings so completely, that like Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast, it seems almost to be in one's DNA. As a child I saw magical outdoor productions on still summer evenings. I loved the music by Mendelssohn, and had been in school productions. I could see Titania, Oberon, Puck and Bottom in my mind's eye, clear, bright and ready to be committed to paper. In short - a dream job!
We see the story from Puck's point of view. What opportunities did this present visually? I love, for example, the spread in which we share his bird's‐eye view of the exhausted lovers.
Jane: Georghia's wonderful retelling gives us this single character narrative which, considering the complexity of the play, is extremely useful! To have Puck as this floating observer of the action means that we can see the world as he sees it, following the action through the woods. Puck, like Ariel in The Tempest, occupies almost a middle ground between the mortal and the supernatural, able to comment on both the magical and the mundane. Puck, like Ariel, has no wings. He is not a fairy, but more the spirit of the wood, Jack-in-the-Green - playful and mischievous, but without malice. It felt to me that Puck's natural place was in the trees, unseen but observing. As a child I spent a very large amount of time sitting in an apple tree in the garden, and can recall the exhilaration of fleetingly seeing birds up close, and witnessing unseen, through a canopy of leaves, what went on below....
And I decided early on with both The Tempest and A Midsummer Night’s Dream to dispense with any worry about the scale or size of Ariel and Puck, or the fairies - their magic was in part their ability to shrink or grow, Alice-like, to suit the story. This liberates you as an illustrator and means you can place the character wherever you wish, and wherever they want to go!
And with such a simplified text, what opportunities were there to fill in and tell more of the story through your illustrations?
Jane: The more a text is reduced, the more opportunity, indeed necessity, there is for the illustration to take on some of the heavy lifting of the story. So much can be conveyed visually with facial expression, and through atmosphere created with lighting and colour. I could tell the reader more about the relationships and feelings of the characters by the way they look at each other, or the way they stand.
You may have noticed too that I didn't give the lovers any shoes, wanting to indicate that they had strayed into an environment that, on this magical midsummer night, wasn't theirs, but that of the wild and supernatural. To dispense with shoes shows an informality, but also a vulnerability. They are out of their comfort zone!
Did you develop the visual storytelling in collaboration with Georghia?
Jane: We didn't collaborate on the plotting, as I remember - Georghia did her thing and I did mine. I love to be given a script, a text to respond to. There may well be constrictions or limitations, but that creates a framework on which to construct the visual scheme…
Your illustrations always have a beautiful jewel‐like quality. The stylised white dots that adorn the trees and flowers made me think of the Fairy's Song ‐ 'to dew her orbs' ‐ or Lysander's description of the moon 'Decking with liquid pearl the bladed grass'. I wondered to what extent you drew on the poetic imagery in the play for your paintings? I'm sure I saw some 'spotted snakes' in there too!
Jane: The beautiful poetic imagery, even though not much of it could be included in the retelling, was certainly inspirational for me. I have always responded to language, to written description and poetry. One of the first pieces of writing that made me realise I was an illustrator was Oscar Wilde's fairy tale, The Fisherman and his Soul. The descriptions drew pictures in my head and in the same way I used Shakespeare's language to inspire elements of the illustration, to feed the imagery.
The clothes and costumes in the book are beautiful. Could you say a bit about what inspired these and any research you had to do? I was recently looking at some 17th-century illustrations of body art in our collection, so I was also intrigued by Oberon's and Titania's tattoos.
Jane: I spent time in the National Portrait Gallery to get a sense of costume for the period, but I didn't want to go down the route of slavish devotion to accurate historical detail. Fascinating though that is, you can get a bit bogged down and I wanted to have a freer hand in designing the look of the book.
I didn't know about 17th-century body art - I will have to explore that! I have always loved the idea of drawing on the body, and the tracery of pattern that I used on the fairies’ skin was to make the link with the patterns in nature - those 'spotted snakes' and butterfly wings, hints of camouflage, silhouette and dappled shade...
How important is it that your books are not only introducing younger readers to Shakespeare's plays, but that they feel inclusive too?
Jane: This is absolutely vital. Children must be able to see themselves in the pictures and stories they read and if they can't, we are condemned to continue with the mono culture we too often see in theatre audiences. This is an area where the illustrator has power and responsibility - to be able to show characters of different ethnicities. I find it very exciting. To imagine a child saying 'that fairy/princess/king looks like me' is just wonderful.
The woodland scenes spread across two pages made me think of Maurice Sendak’s Where The Wild Things Are but also of Sendak's designs for the stage. Did the fact that A Midsummer Night's Dream is firstly a play influence your ideas for illustrating the book?
Jane: I think I have a tendency to see picture books in theatrical, and also cinematic form - small paper theatres, framed by a stage and the action moving across the double page spread like a cinematic panning shot.
And have you thought about designing for the theatre? It feels like this would make a stunning production.
Jane: I have always wanted to design for the stage. It has always influenced my illustrations and I often use the device of rich red velvet curtains to frame an image. I have an early memory of being taken to see a local amateur dramatics production - I can't even remember what it was - but being barely able to contain my excitement as we waited for the red velvet curtains to open and the play to begin... I'm trying to recreate that in the picture book - that drama and excitement!
Thank you to Jane Ray for giving us such a wonderful insight into her work and for generously sharing some of her preparatory drawings for the book for inclusion in this blog.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is available to buy from The Shakespeare Bookshop and our online shop.
Illustrations © 2021 Jane Ray