The long, languorous days of summer sing from the pages of Llewellyn Emery’s acclaimed children’s books Nothin’ But A Pond Dog and The Fires of Pembroke. Catherine Draycott’s accompanying illustrations capture the idle joy of the school break and the boundless imagination that can be sparked only by empty weeks stretching endlessly ahead.
The autobiographical books, which recall Llewellyn’s childhood growing up near Devonshire Marsh in the 1950s, effortlessly capture the Bermuda of days gone by and remind us of the value of storytelling and the power of our personal narratives.
The illustrations reside in the Bermuda National Gallery’s permanent collection. They recall a very different Pembroke to that of today; when the landscape was green and overgrown, a luscious playground for children to explore untended. Conceived on scratchboard, Catherine’s work echoes the enduring joys of childhood – climbing trees, fishing off the rocks and the unwavering bond that exists only between a child and his dog.
Catherine, who completed a BFA at the School of the Museum of Fine Art in Boston before going on to complete a Masters in Classical Archeology at Oxford, now works as Assistant Professor of Archeology at Durham University where her research bridges art history and archeology.
As children across the island get ready to go back to school, we sat down with Catherine to discuss her timeless illustrations and how, for her, painting has always been led by storytelling.
BNG: The books are autobiographical. How did you attempt to capture real people, in this instance children, who you only knew as adults if at all?
CD: I had a lot of experience figure-drawing, and could do that easily from my head, but the idea of how to capture the spirit of the children came from several things: one, we were both children growing up in Bermuda. I am not a ‘Pond Dog’, which is of course the heart and soul of Llewellyn’s book, but I could go for things that seemed to me to be shared memories, such as playing in the trees and fishing off docks. There are also more universal childhood experiences such as squabbling with siblings and resisting being dressed for church.
I was guided by Llewellyn’s words, but those memories of childhood helped, and he was able to check that it represented – or rather did not misrepresent – his memories. I was also very influenced by the illustrations of Ezra Jack Keats, whose books I vividly remember reading in the Youth Library in town as a child.
BNG: How did you work together as author and illustrator? What was your collaborative process when it came to developing the illustrations?
CD: Once I had the draft, I read through it thinking of what motifs might work as full page illustrations and what might be smaller motifs. I drew up some ideas and executed some of them in scratchboard to see what the effect would be in black and white. I showed them to Llewellyn and he was happy with most of what I did. It was an easy working relationship – he is a really easy-going person and it was such a pleasure doing these for his book. It was an honour and I felt a responsibility to get it right for him.
BNG: The images are engravings, created on scratchboard. Could you please explain the technique and talk us through your art making process?
CD: I honestly cannot remember how I came about trying the scratchboard. I had initially done some pencil drawings of my own dog to try to capture Barker, but they were too realistic – we needed something more fun. The drawings on which the eventual illustrations were based were in pencil and then ink.
The commission was for black and white illustrations. I remember thinking that painting in the figures of the characters could turn out heavy handed and lose the line. It may have been one of my friends, also an artist, who suggested I try the scratchboard. I liked that it had the effect of a wood-cut or lino-cut print, without necessitating the equipment – it was really very simple, although it could also be a bit frustrating when the black surface would come off in chunks and I had to do repairs. It is not a fine-quality material. However, the kind of mark making quality of cutting away made images that had a kind of folk-tale feel, which I thought complemented the contents of the book.
BNG: You once said of your work “I try to combine a painterly effect with narrative images in my art. I see myself as much as a writer as a painter, honing the craft of storytelling through paint.” Could you please expand on this?
CD: When I was at art school I started to write, mostly poems. I also read a lot of magical realism in poetry and stories. By the time I came out of art school I wanted to write nonfiction work and began a career as a freelance journalist.
I was still captivated by magical realism and that definitely affected the subjects I chose to paint. It was not enough to paint a portrait or still life, it always had to be a moment in a narrative – something that would make the viewer’s mind wonder what had happened or would happen. I’ve always felt that a lot of the best art is like that – it captures a moment of potential and that is why and how it resonates.
BNG: You completed a BFA at the School of the Museum of Fine Art in Boston, where you trained as a studio artist in ceramic design, painting, printmaking and drawing. How did you develop your practice?
CD: I started out doing ceramic design in Bristol, England, and then transferred to the SMFA, where I focused on drawing, print making and painting. It was when I was doing ceramic design that I started to read things like Leonora Carrington and became interested in surrealism and magical realist narratives.
I realised I wanted to focus on two-dimensional art and so I transferred to Boston. I was very lucky to be able to do so. It allowed me to immerse myself in drawing, printing and painting. It also allowed me to take academic classes, which has brought me to where I am now. I did printmaking of all kinds, but focused on oil painting. The style suited Llewellyn’s books. In fact, the technique of the engraved scratchboard is related to Sgraffito ceramic decoration, a technique of scratching and carving clay, so perhaps I had some sense of it from that part of my life.
BNG: You worked as an artist, illustrator and journalist in Bermuda before moving to the UK to complete a Masters in Classical Archeology at Oxford, the field in which you now specialize. Could you please tell us about your earlier career here in Bermuda?
CD: When I graduated and returned to Bermuda, I was interested in writing. The academic courses I had done had showed me that I was actually good at it. I wanted to go on to research in anthropology, but I had also done creative writing courses – mostly poetry. So I sought work writing, which I did as a freelance writer for the Bermudian, the Royal Gazette and the Bermuda Sun newspaper, as well as illustrating for the Bermudian Publishing Company, which is how the books came about.
I was very involved in the Bermuda Society of Arts, sitting on their governing body and coming up with various events and initiatives. I showed paintings in their members’ shows and was offered a show with Masterworks, so I added in doing my own artwork to the mix. After that, I got a full time reporting job at the Mid-Ocean News. But reporting, for me, ended up being frustrating, because I really wanted to be able to do research.
BNG: As Assistant Professor of Archeology at Durham University, your research bridges art history and archeology. What took you down this path? In what ways do your interests overlap?
CD: Having decided to go back to school, I had a choice between following the dream of anthropology or capitalising on my art background. I decided the latter was more sensible and did a course in Early European Art at Christie’s Education in London. I ended up doing a research report on a Roman statue of the Artemis of Ephesos in a museum in London and it was marked by a scholar at Oxford. I was encouraged to do a post-graduate degree at Oxford in Classical archaeology, which can be art-oriented. I opted to do an MPhil. It was terrifying. I stuck with it and emerged having done well and with a project idea for a DPhil (Oxford PhD) dissertation that was funded by the UK Art and Humanities Research Board (AHRB) as it was then.
My master’s degree focus was on ancient Greek and Roman art, but I became much more interested in the people who were not Greek or Roman, who don’t get as much attention. My DPhil was on art in Anatolia, modern Turkey. I am working on a book stemming from this, but my interests extend to looking at the environments in which the art was produced. These have often been neglected in favour of focusing on the forms and iconography of monuments in isolation.
The art not only shows what was important to people in these areas, but it also begs us to ask what life was like in the areas the art was made; how people made a living, and how the art and monuments in the built environments relate to that.
BNG: Do you still have a fine art practice?
CD: I don’t, although I have been known to do archaeological illustration. I am very interested in archaeological and scientific illustration and the boundaries between that and ‘art’: how one chooses techniques to convey complex information visually; what techniques do what; the aesthetic aspects of those choices, beyond conveying form and the value of the resulting drawing as an art object in its own right.
I often have ideas for drawings. I have bought a small sketchbook, pencils and charcoal with the intention of drawing miniature works; the idea being that it wouldn’t take much time to achieve something but I have yet to commit pencil to paper. I tend to be impatient with visual creating more than I am with writing, which is why I have gravitated to writing. The process suits me better in that sense as I am very busy with mounds of work, but perhaps I will stop avoiding it and do it one day.