Sunday, May 8, 2016

A time capsule

Recently my illustrations for Nadia Wheatley’s children’s book The Greatest Treasure of Charlemagne the King (Scholastic Australia, 1996) joined the permanent collection of the State Library of Victoria. (See Blog Post Sunday, February 21, 2016).
The Charlemagne archive

Not long after the drawings had departed for the SLV, I recalled two A3 sized portfolios, the existence of which I’d almost forgotten, containing ‘roughs’ for the finished drawings and other material related to the project. Fortunately, I was able to lay my hands on the portfolios fairly quickly. It had been many years since I’d viewed their contents; the experience was akin to opening a time capsule.

Working drawings, draft 13 of the story, and snapshots of the illustrations

Aside from the working drawings that were the basis for my oil pastel illustrations, there a were a number of pencil drawings that had also been submitted, but which, for various reasons, had been rejected.

In the same portfolio as these was draft #13 of the story - an earlier, wordier version. I seem to remember that Nadia deemed this draft a little too long for a picture book.

Left: proof of front cover; right: Korean language edition of Charlemagne

Several pages had yellow post-it notes attached. I have absolutely no memory of writing these notes, but have since figured out why I wrote them. As I mentioned in the blog post referred to above, shortly after the book’s publication, the illustrations were exhibited at the Literature Centre in Fremantle, and these annotations were very likely for the information of their young audience. After all these years, the notes read like fragments from a diary and unlocked some very happy memories.

By far the greatest treasure I retrieved was a delightful vignette written in Nadia’s own hand, intended to be incorporated into an illustration as a story that Alcuin the librarian reads to King Charlemagne. Nadia called it the Menagerie Page:

Charlemagne the King is so rich that he has his very own zoo, with animals from the four corners of his empire.

There are bears and badgers, snakes and seals, monkeys and mice and wolves and werewolves, eels and elephants, donkeys and deer, and even a rare spotted dodo. But of all the creatures in all the world, Charlemagne’s favourite is his fat white pussy cat.

As the post-it note attached to it explains:

One day Nadia came to my house to see the latest artwork for ‘Charlemagne’. We needed some text for the ‘book within a book’ on page 17. Nadia went up to my studio, shut herself in, and within 10 minutes had written this. I really treasure this page, because of course the fat white pussy cat is my cat Diva. Unfortunately, in the illustration, Alcuin’s head obscures most of the words!

Nadia knew full well how attached my partner Shane and I were to our two cats, Dorothy Parker and Diva. She and editor Robin Morrow even encouraged my idea to include them in several of the illustrations. As the note says, it was a shame that Alcuin the librarian’s head blocks off most of the text.

Last Monday afternoon I delivered the archive to Susan Long, Librarian, Collection Development and Discovery at the State Library of Victoria. I must admit it was rather hard to part company with the Menagerie Page, despite it having gone to such a fine new home.

The 'Menagerie page', my 'post-it note' and a photo of
 Nadia (RHS) and I with our Charlemagne teddy bears

The Greatest Treasure of Charlemagne the King was launched at Westmead Children’s Hospital in Sydney. The hospital presented Nadia and I with teddy bears dressed as King Charlemagne. (The bear who appears in the book is in fact based on Boodie, my childhood bear). From memory, the photograph reproduced above was taken by Nadia’s partner, Ken Searle.

(Click on above images to enlarge).