Designing The Twelve Days of Christmas

Liz Catchpole shares how she used iconic William Morris patterns to illustrate the beautiful V&A: The Twelve Days of Christmas book

You're a designer for Penguin Random House Children's and you illustrated the cover and insides of V&A The Twelve Days of Christmas. Talk us through the project.

The project came to me as an idea to illustrate the song ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’ using William Morris’s designs. It was part of an ongoing collaboration between Puffin and the V&A who hold the archive of Morris’ artwork. I was, of course, delighted to get the opportunity to work with such wonderful, iconic material but it soon became clear I’d need to introduce newly created illustrations over the Morris patterns to depict the subjects mentioned in the song, in order to make the book work.

The deadline was incredibly tight – there was about a month to complete the illustrations – and I had a very specific style in mind and so I began to create the artwork myself and was really happy with the results, so in the end I illustrated the whole thing.

12 days of Christmas
Illustration of a swan

How was it working with the William Morris designs?

The William Morris designs are incredibly inspiring in their style and beauty, and directly informed the look of the entire book – including the additional artwork.

His designs themselves are quite diverse stylistically though and so one of the major challenges on this project was to create a sense of visual continuity for the inside spreads. To do this I made a limited palette of colours selected from a range of Morris’ fabrics and wallpaper designs. I then colourised his patterns into a single tone from that palette, and these were used as the beautiful backdrop for the new illustrations. 

Where possible I used patterns that related in some way to the text, for example the ‘Two Turtle Doves’ spread design depicted birds, and when there were no directly relevant images available I tried to choose patterns that conveyed a ‘feel’ for the words. For example there were no Morris patterns which included swans and so I chose a ‘flowing’ design which might suggest water, and then illustrated swans over the top.

12 days of christmas
12 days of christmas

What overall style and effect were you going for and what was your inspiration?

In the spirit of the William Morris quote: 'Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.'  I wanted the whole book to have a beautiful, crafted feel so we bound the cover with cloth and blocked the new illustrations in gold foil.

For the insides each spread was designed in response to the main Morris background pattern. Some of the new illustrations deliberately repeat, as a fabric or wallpaper pattern would, some replace Morris’s pictorial elements and sit on top of the pattern and some are interwoven with it. Where possible the forms of my illustrations were as close as possible to William Morris’s in that, if he had incorporated a bird into his design, the bird I drew would be directly inspired by that.

12 days of Christmas
Illustration of Calling Bird
12 days of Christmas
Illustration of French Hen

The overall effect I was going for was a warm, contemporary classic gift book, which celebrated William Morris’s incredible work.

12 days of Christmas

What have you enjoyed the most working on this project?

I absolutely love designing so most projects I have are a joy but this was particularly special.

There were times when I wasn’t sure if it would all come together from a creative point of view and certainly I was worried about the short schedule but it’s incredibly satisfying to see the finished book looking so lovely and being so well received. 

I also really enjoyed the creative challenge. It wasn’t easy to bring so many of William Morris’s designs together and tell a story they were not originally created for.

It was great to see the spreads develop from rough sketches to final artwork as the Morris patterns and my new illustrations worked together and complemented each other.

What is your favourite spread from the book? 

I really like the ‘Eight maids a – milking’ spread. I’m a bit of a fan of an oak leaf and although the pattern is beautiful, it’s not related to milk maids in an obvious way; however, I chose it because it felt in some way pastoral and the illustrated milk churns and ‘maid’ seem to fit into it in a natural way. I especially like the area around her head which makes her look a little like she has antlers and flowers in her hair.

12 days of Christmas

What other projects are you working on at the moment that you're particularly excited about?

I’m currently working on some Classic Children’s fiction titles, such as The Secret Garden which are being given lovely new jackets in the style I developed for The 12 Days of Christmas. They are slightly simpler visually, still with a bold Morris background and the same colour palette, but this time with one main character on the cover. I’m really enjoying the exercise of trying to convey an atmosphere, a sense of the feel of the story with the artwork. 

This time I’m omitting parts of the foreground illustrations so that the Morris patterns show through and therefore become part of the main artwork. 

It’s actually very challenging and so it’s pushing me creatively and that’s the fun and exciting part.

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