Cover story

Behind the Brontë covers

Picture Researcher Lily Richards discusses the new Vintage Classics designs for the three novels by the Brontë sisters –Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

Just before working on a new design for three novels by the Brontë sisters, Vintage Picture Researcher Lily Richards had come across Sarah Gillespie’s show at Beaux Arts London. ‘I was captivated by her pictures from first looking at them, and knew that if we could work with her, we could make the most beautiful book covers.

In one of the happiest cases of serendipity the Brontë special edition set was briefed just a few days later. It was impossible to think of anything else for the covers – the marriage of her pictures with the spirit and prose of each novel is perfect.’ Here, Sarah tells us more about her approach to her work.

'Here, one could wander unseen. While such honeydew fell, silence reigned, such gloaming gathered, I felt as if I could haunt such shade forever.'

Jane Eyre, chapter 23

Rarely now do we wander unseen across the land. Rarer still does silence reign. Preoccupied as we are with ourselves, deafened, blinded, filled with human chatter, most of us have somehow lost – in my lifetime – the time, the emptiness to know for ourselves anything approaching the Brontë sisters’ intimate relationship with land and weather. 

We stand in quite a different way upon the land: we want for little and yet we ache for something more. Perhaps – to recall W. B. Yeats – deep down we yearn to 'press our hearts upon some loveliness we sense has long faded from the world.' 

It’s foolish to wish to turn back time but I hope in my work, through a process of long-looking and close attention, focusing on quieter moments of beauty and oft hidden lives, to reveal something of the natural world and the English landscape’s remaining loveliness.

No one can deny the emotional power of colour, but in recent years, perhaps in search of a quieter voice, I have chosen to work only in black and white, umbers and subtle shades of grey. Something interesting is always revealed in renunciation; the images demand a different form of looking from the immediacy offered by more strident colours.

It leads to the emotional delicacy I am looking for, hoping in my work to offer quieter intimations of frail beauty, fleeting pleasures, the delicate poetry of a shadow. Drawing in this way requires a willingness to be still, an emptying of the self, a stepping aside, an unfashionable degree of restraint in order to make something more like a mirror, or lens of oneself. 

What is revealed in return is a world of dancing atoms and temporal fragility, of moths, blossom, hares and birds, whose cycles of life and death so often remain invisible to human eyes, hidden within the enormity of the landscape or the dark of night, such as the Brontë sisters knew.

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