A Kettle of Hawks

I love this two-colour scraperboard-illustrated little book.

From 8-8-80, it belonged to the collection of the National Library of New Zealand, and bears all the original inscriptions and stamps (including catalogue card in the back pocket and date due slip. The last time it was due back to the library was on 5 DEC 1991. But despite that 11 year pedigree, it was only issued seven times, which may account for the fantastic condition of the ivory pages…

Arnosky is a prolific and self-taught illustrator, author and naturalist. This book was published when he was 33, in 1979. Delving into his back catalogue is an interesting journey for many reasons, including his huge range of styles and media. But there’s something perfectly simple about ‘A Kettle of Hawks’ that resonates with me more than any of those full-colour cornucopia of wildlife.

The mark-making is varied and descriptive – the hatching describes a hawk’s breast swelling on an intake of breath, the filaments of feather, the hills and the sea in one image alone. There’s a beautiful variety in scene and viewpoint, from arresting front-on shots of birds swooping towards the viewer, to cosy moments inside a honey bee hive. Isolated fish still live in a three dimensional world through the use of tone and hue, with the closest fish described in a duck-egg blue through to black, the middle-distance fish in black and white only, sitting closer to the page, and finally a pair in black only- a silhouette. The full-page illustrations use that blue to good effect too – creating depth in the scene that balances the messy scraperboard.

Most pages are framed with a thin blue line, but some are not, and the ants dance freely out of bounds, anchored only by a pavement crack and a poem. Another lovely moment of balance against the larger illustrations and blocks of text.

I love, also, the conversational tone of the writing, and there is a strong sense of the author playing with these phrases as he treks through the Vermont hills. The information is clear and concise without being heavy, and just enough to pique the interest of the young reader to continue their adventure in the natural world…

‘They may never be too tired to honk up a good goose conversation with their fellow travelers.’






The Boy and the Taniwha

The Boy and the Taniwha by R. L. Bacon and Para Matchitt
First published by Collins, 1966.

This is the second edition, and has obviously lived quite a life, containing stamps for the ‘New Zealand Consulate General, New York’ and the ‘Embassy of New Zealand, 37 Conservatory Circle, N.W., Washington D.C., 2008’ on the dust jacket and front endpaper. I wonder where else it journeyed to find its way to me, in a local op shop, for a mere single dollar…

I was first attracted to the interesting tertiary colour palette, but a couple of other things have grabbed my attention about this book. The first is the teaching elements, including the captioned drawings on the end papers, and the introductory (and fairly incorrect) Māori pronunciation guide. I love that this moves the book from being a simple story book, into a teaching resource, and I guess that’s why it found its way to America all those years ago.

The second is the illustrator’s use of Māori patterns (or lack thereof). This confuses me a little as the elements mentioned above, and the story itself seem to go to great lengths to provide accurate explanations of elements of Māori culture, where the illustrations seem to delve into flights of fancy at several points. The artist seems to have been mainly a carver, which I thought would have signalled a keen interest in accurate representations of pattern, but perhaps not…

Matchitt employs swirls (or koru), a well-known Māori symbol, as well as the chevron/zigzag pattern (which can have many different meanings depending on context), but beyond this, seems to be working mainly in the decorative style of the 1960s rather than using further traditional Māori patterns. This may have been a deliberate design decision, but I think that it is detrimental to the story as a whole because the images are not really illustrations, more adornments, and they would have fitted better had they been more traditional, following the tone of the story.

I love the decision to have a ‘storyteller’ and a ‘painter’ rather than an ‘author’ and ‘illustrator’ – so much friendlier! Although, of course, it could be argued that both are storytellers, one visual and the verbal. Overall in the book, the strength definitely lies in the written story, with the pictures becoming fairly incidental.

There is a distance put between the reader and the storyteller, too, with the main character (the boy) being referred to only ever as ‘the little maori boy’ (note the total abandonment of macrons…) apart from when being directly addressed in conversation by grandmother. This distance is increased by the illustrations not showing faces until over halfway through the book (image below of the two characters sleeping), and then, only once. I would have loved to see the treatment of that sleeping scene used throughout the whole book.

The graphic style is a little jarring for someone familiar with Māori culture, but it does create some interesting interpretations of quintessential New Zealand icons, such as the cabbage tree below. Fun fact from the book: the cabbage tree is not actually a variety of palm or flax, but the largest lily plant in the world…

So, a good story, a good teaching resource and an interesting interpretation of Māori culture, of its time. I’m not sure how it would fare today…

Side note: the artist, Matchitt, was fairly prolific, and was the main carver on a sculpture very well-known to me in my hometown of Wellington. Find out more about it here.

A pair of foxes

I couldn’t find a good term of venery for two foxes, but hopefully that won’t make this post any less eloquent. Neither should, I hope, the fact that these two books are brought together not only because of the fox connection, but because I desperately need to return them to the Library!


My Father’s Arms are a Boat, 2012 (original Nowegian edition published 2008)
Author: Stein Erik Lunde
Illustrator: Øyvind Torseter

This book finds its way back into my library pile, again and again. I am drawn to the huge feeling given in the combination of soft, simple words, and the tender, naïve illustrations. The combination of author and illustrator is perfect, and the whole book creates an atmosphere greater than the sum of its parts. A soft, dull ache, in moments so deeply raw and new…

A cool, muted colour palette combines with a rich fiery warmth and strong light and dark contrasts. This range gives depth, evoking the bright, harsh snow and deep dark shadows of night. There is a resonance here, with the feelings of the characters and ideas explored – the sleepy child who can’t sleep and is navigating a world beyond his years, and a father coming to terms with a situation beyond his control. The overarching sense of stillness and wonder creates a sophisticated world that doesn’t shy from the depth and difficulty of the subject matter, but presents a sense of reality and truth – it is ok for the reader to be joining this journey.

And the fox? It continues its own journey through the night, a bright spark of life in the cool darkness…

The Fox and the Star, 2015
Author/Illustrator: Coralie Bickford-Smith

WOW! I don’t know how I’ve missed this amazing artist until this book (especially seeing how much I have admired those Penguin clothbound classics…). You can find more beautiful work here.

This beautiful book cover reminds me of William Morris, which is lucky as this is clearly a huge inspiration for the artist. I love the intricacies and flowing patterns of the cover and endpapers, and this continues throughout the book, sometimes confined within a border, sometimes flowing off the edge of the page. Bickford Smith is clearly a master of pattern.

The whole story pulsates with life – small beetles, stars, spiderwebs and would capture the attention of even the smallest reader. There is a sense sophistication and refinement that is reminiscent of medieval illuminated manuscripts, which adds to the sense of this being a story for the ages – a folktale or fable. I love how Bickford-Smith uses the book as an object to aid the storytelling – a deep dark cover and very classic preliminary pages, but then she moves into a world of macro/micro, realistic description/conceptual symbols, creating a complex and intriguing journey. The typography also ranges from classic through to illustrative. I also love the bursting orange of the fox and leaves, first hinted at with glimpses of fur.

SO MUCH LOVE for these two books. Beautiful design, beautiful illustration, beautiful stories.



‘People of the Bible’, designed and illustrated by Denis Wrigley M.S.I.A., 1967


Religion has always been a bit of a mystery to me, and this volume is no exception. A first edition from 1967, ‘People of the Bible’ is a biblical encyclopedia with (as the end flap points out) ’77 illustrations in full-colour and 154 in black-and-white’. The reason i find this book hard to understand is because the illustrations are incredible, but the illustrator, Wrigley, seems to be a non-entity these days…


I love the idea that Wrigley both designed and illustrated the text, and I really think it shows, as there is a real cohesion to the book – everything flows, the small vignettes, the colour illustrations, the images bleeding off the page. I get the sense that this would have been beautiful as an animation or computer game as the bleeds really give a sense of movement and direction to each spread and the turn of the page.


The inner margins are set a little tightly, but are compensated for by wide outer margins that accommodate illustrations and captions. I also quite like the chapter headers in sans serif caps above a heavy rule, accompanied by a section of scripture hanging below, justified and aligned to the right, also in a bold sans serif typeface. However, the relationship between this group and the main body text, with inset quotes and drop caps, all serif, is a little jarring and adds to the full and busy quality of the spreads, perhaps unnecessarily.


There are many illustrations, falling mainly into a few categories – large colour illustrations, large grayscale illustrations, large  pen and ink  drawings, and the same range of media as vignettes. I just love the secondary colour palette combined with the strong textural elements because they give a sense of sumptuous visual richness. Wrigley also reference egyptian art and greek vases in his extensive use of profiles and silhouettes which not only adds depth visually, but also in historical and cultural context. It makes me happy. A note also on the distinctive hatching, which could be described as a basket weave, sometimes describing form – clouds, fabric folds, mountains, other times it is decorative, supporting a figure or scene. This technique provides continuity across the different media and sizes which is satisfying.


So, a very talented artist and designer, fairly prolific yet totally unknown… I’d love to learn more about this mysterious artist…

While trying to research the elusive Wrigley, I came across the cover for another book he designed and illustrated… ‘What Became of the Maori?’ with a less than accurate moko and face tattoo… so for all his brilliance, even he didn’t quite get it right all the time…

‘Lineliai’, a Lithuanian Artefact

Lineliai, 1960, front cover

‘Lineliai’, poem by E. Mieželaitis, images by A. Surgailienės.

This book arrived to me in a parcel from a close friend, following a trip that included Lithuania, a country I know next to nothing about. It was accompanied by a white and red woven bookmark from Latvia. Fortunately there was also a postcard which tells me that my dear friend ‘…went into a second hand bookshop in old town Tallin and thumbed through the children’s books when [she] came across this beautiful one! [she] stupidly asked the shopkeeper what the title said – turns out it’s in Lithuanian[…]’. No kidding.

She later said she would like to keep this if I didn’t like it. She can’t. I do.

Upon further investigation on both our accounts, we could find some information about the poet, but unfortunately none about the artist. I believe, and I could be wrong, that this is the first edition of this book, published in 1960 with a print run of 25,00 copies, each costing 2 rubles (the new value of the ruble being 20 kopecks). The cover is paper, like the pages and it is saddle stitched with two staples, a rather flimsy artefact, but a beautiful one!

Lineliai, 1960, title page

Eduardas Mieželaitis was a poet and the story told in this book is about the life cycle of flax. From the pages we see the sowing of the seed in ploughed fields, the sun growing the plant which provides a home for birds and insects, harvesting, making bushels, the day is over, processing the flax, spinning, weaving. While I’m sure the language is beautifully lyrical (despite not understanding a word), I love the naivety and crudeness of the lino?cuts. These clearly reference the traditional folk art of Lithuania, with bold patterns embossed with smaller v-gauges adding texture. These small marks create a beautiful rhythm that works in harmony with the strong shapes created by the people and environment of the story.

The colour palette is slightly subdued but adds a richness in support of the strong graphic nature of the medium. The format, too, benefits from a wide white border on each spread, balancing with the text boxes to provide a counterpoint for the highly patterned and textured borders and images. It reminds me in this regard of medieval illuminated manuscripts, without the minute detail but still presenting such strong visual appeal.


A last mention goes to the depictions of old/archaic flax practices that (when they appear) sit always to the left of the main illustration creating a time sequence old-new. This adds another layer to the story and provides a sense of tradition, ‘what we do today follows what we have done in the past’.


Side Note: Reading about the history of Lithuania, I was delighted to see a rich history of arts, literature and culture, including a period that saw book smugglers saving the Lithuanian culture from Russification! (it’s little wonder these guys make great books when they have a ‘day of the book smugglers’!). Read more about these antiheroes here, here, and here.

(Carving) the First Post: E. Mervyn Taylor

I am leaving. A part of me is staying right here, on these shelves. I want to make a scrapbook, memory, archive of these bound journeys. I’ve spent months toying with the idea of making a blog for this purpose, and the thing that’s stopped me? Indecision. I can’t decide on the ‘proper’ book with which to start…

So, now with mere weeks to record and archive before my new adventure, I’d better get cracking…with… (my index finger runs down the spines, over the shelf edge and along the next shelf, my eyes closed)…

This one. It’s got a dust jacket with a tear, it’s probably old. (Better open my eyes now…)

Hmmm. It’s not a picture book. Well, it’s a book with pictures… I love this book. Good choice.

This is my first (and limited) edition of ‘Engravings on Wood’ by E. Mervyn Taylor (Mermaid Press, Wellington, 1957).

Engravings on Wood, 1957

A previous owner has made the note on the front cover ‘a limited edition’, another has written, ‘To Mother from Tim, Xmas 1962’. How many shelves this volume has graced before mine, it feels like it has many stories beyond those captured in the engravings on the following pages.

The paper is a little foxed, the binding coming loose, but the majestic, sophisticated lines carved fluidly into the wood provide a sense of elegance that makes each image stand strong against the tattered edges. The rich crimson endpapers are heavily textured to touch, providing a juxtaposition to the smooth black and white images and text on the internal pages, and referenced in the red text on the dust jacket.

There are times when Taylor’s work reminds me of Eric Gill’s, ‘Māori Girl’ and ‘Māori Boy’ gaze at each other across a disheveled gutter, separated sections. They have more tonal value than Gill’s prints, but the sense of strength and refinement are shared. Taylor also captures a world in the gazes, one a steady, calm meeting of the world, the other slightly downcast, perhaps looking inward, perhaps disappointed, perhaps tired, perhaps introspective. Both figures bring life that makes the rectangular edge of the block a mere bounding box, just a frame for the viewer to connect with these perhaps imagined figures.

Maori Girl, Maori Boy

This book contains a range of Taylor’s engravings, from the above portraits to tailpieces, bookplates and full illustrations. I love the scale of Taylor’s work, and the physicality. Being a printmaker, I love to push myself to work at small scales, creating minute marks that later become pinprick stars amongst the night sky of ink. The tonal contrast comes with the territory of wood engraving, but there’s such variety in this 4 x 6 cm block that I’m peering into a tiny world – a lush deep legendary country that is like, but not quite, my own.

Other favourites in this volume include the Māori myths, which are so rich in in depth and technical understanding, I could spend hours trying to decipher the mark-making. The mystical swirls entice the viewer in the world of legend, and having seen some of these as originals in Te Papa, there’s time a-plenty to explore these worlds and still be engrossed. To move from these rich worlds, there’s elegant simplicity in the small tailpieces and other engravings, which are just tiny, perfect forms, rich in tonal variation, shape, and texture.

Te Kotuku Rerenga Tahi

A note too, on the type, old style caps and numbers in Perpetua create a good relationship with the carved lines in the images, tiny balance points on a sparse page. I also like the heavier weight of Albertus Titling, used for the cover and title page and perhaps chosen for the letterforms resemblance to chiselled bronze forms, referencing the books subject matter. I love the idea too, that Taylor set the type for this book himself, alongside poet, Denis Glover.

‘Engravings on Wood’ has two companions on my shelf. The first is Bryan James’ ‘E. Mervyn Taylor – Artist: Craftsman’, a comprehensive biography that includes not only many more wood engravings and other printmaking techniques, but also insightful preliminary sketches, graphic art, sculpture, watercolour, and some stunning colour work for posters and murals.

Colour work

The second companion is a small book, ‘New Zealand Birds’ illustrated by E. Mervyn Taylor with notes by Dr R. A. Falla. This was published by Price Milburn in 1960 after first appearing for the Primary School Bulletin in 1949. I’ll write later about that NZ publishing power-house! I think what i love the most about this book is that these would have been enjoyed and understood by so many children, where wood engraving is such a rare medium for this audience these days. I love the framing of the Ruru illustrations, and the delicate visual balance and character of the Poaka too.



E. Mervyn Taylor Books

Side note: As I read up on Taylor for the purpose of this blog post, I discovered that we share more connections than a love of printmaking! Taylor was involved in the long-running institution of the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts (NZAFA) as a council member in the fifties, something I wish I’d known when I’d interned in the gallery a couple of years ago.