Jane Russ is author of the upcoming Selkie story and thus commissioner of the book illustration work I’m currently beavering away on. She’s written a companion piece to The Hare Book (Graffeg, 2015) which will be published later this year and will be called The Fox Book.
She asked me to create an illustration for the new book based on the old folk tale of St Bridget and the Fox. The story is about how the canny animal-loving nun and a fox work together to save a condemned man’s life.
Book illustration process
I came up with some rough scribbles – some of the fox performing tricks, as he does in the story, one of the fox praying and another of the faces of both. Jane and I decided that working on the fox and the nun together would make a powerful image.
I played with different ideas of having them together, initially positioning them in a rather mischievous “madonna and fox” pose, but let that go and worked out something a lot more interesting.
Red in tooth and claw
The commission came at an interesting time – just the day before, a young dog fox had killed half of our chickens in broad daylight. Naturally I found the deaths upsetting but still, part of the natural order of things. If we as a community wish to keep chickens then the risk of predation is one we must take and we have been very lucky – the last fox incident was four years ago. The chickens are well locked up at night and so it seems that May is the month when hungry young foxes take the easier, if riskier, option of plump free-range hens from a house with 16 humans and four dogs to contend with.
I have always loved nature and foxes have fascinated me since I was very small, but this incident reinforced my belief that to make these animals uniformly cute or cuddly is to deny their essential nature – yes, they are beautiful, intelligent, playful and adorable to our eyes and yes, they are killers. I wanted to show intelligence but also wildness in the fox – an uncompromising potential for ferocity. Here, the kindness and quiet wisdom of Bridget is poised with the fiery nature of the fox – both self-possessed and determined in their own ways and both capable of working together to an end; yet each is a very different animal from the other. Anthropomorphising animals does them no favours – nor us.
Thus, am very happy with this book illustration. Jane’s husband thought it “very Eric Gill” which is a compliment of the highest order!
- The Fox Book, by Jane Russ, published by Graffeg, will be published in October 2016.