Sunday, 29 September 2013

The Emperor's Nightingale

I first came across the work of Jane Ray long before I had children of my own and a re-ignited interest in picture books. Her rich, jewel-like, celebratory pictures of animals and people were produced on a range of wrapping paper in my student days. My friend, studying zoology at the time (but now a rather successful painter herself) who always had an immaculate eye for idiosyncratic interior design, snaffled them up and stuck them as a cheap and classier alternative to posters on her wall. I admired her and their verve and style.

Two or three years later and having taken my own career swerve and become a student midwife I went to weigh a baby in North London only to find another set of walls adorned with familiar pictures. On closer examination they turned out to be originals, and the baby belonged to the artist; Jane Ray herself. I was actually quietly starstruck -"The wrapping paper lady! In real life!" I probably spent far too much time surreptiously looking at pictures and not nearly enough time checking baby fontanelles and jaundice levels.

Fast forward about another 19 years (do us both a favour and don't add up too carefully here) and that baby has apparently grown up despite (or perhaps because of?) early student-midwife neglect to become a doctor himself and I have my own Jane Ray walls; although mine are decorated with shelves and face out spines of her lovely books. She was good enough to agree to come to the Fellow Reviewer's school and judge an art competition for them. I was still starstruck; probably rather more so since my knowledge of her work had expanded out from wrapping paper. I baked her a very sticky cake and then sort of forced her to eat it. Sorry Jane.

A new book by her then, and they come with pleasing regularity, is a cause for celebration. And "The Emperor's Nightingale' is a particularly fine one I think.
A collection of traditional tales and poems loosely linked by a birdy theme: It includes the familiar eg. 'The Owl and the Pussycat' and the less so eg. 'Jorinda and Joringel'. Some stories are left in their original form, some sensitively retold.
In contrast to her normal glowing palette of ?gouache and gold the illustrations in this book are all done on Scraperboard. The frontpage elucidates; 'the line is etched onto a thin layer of white china clay on board coated with black India ink.'
The results are stunning; the pared back pleasure of individual lines and cross-hatching can sing off the page. It seems the perfect medium for expressing feather and flight. The pictures are surprisingly diverse in style too; some like simple block woodcut pictures and others detailed and lifelike. The two colour contrast gives each picture weight and gravity. This feels like a very Proper book. A book that small hands will hold with respect and will still be earning its place on the shelf in years to come.
I love it.
And I want a piece of Scraperboard to make a mess of myself Right Now (stamps tiny foot).

'The Emperor's Nightingale and other feathery tales' by Jane Ray, pub. Boxer books, isbn 978-1-907152-59-7

A good Christmas gift (aagh!) for any bird lover perhaps?

With thanks to the Publisher for providing a review copy. Our opinions are our own.


  1. Lovely review. How fab you have a connection. And eek, I don't like to think about how not-so-long-ago 19 years was for me either ;-) This book is stunning, definitely needs to be on every gift list!

  2. We've really enjoyed the stories in this collection (tho there are some typos which are a shame), but I think the images would be more magical if they had been kept their original size (most of them really quite tiny), rather than blown up to 5,6,7 bigger than the originals. Imagine this book as a miniature book - there wouldn't be a better stocking filler / treat for christmas. As it is, it's definitely a good anthology, and an interesting departure for for Ray in terms of techniques, but it doesn't quite make a 5* book for me personally.

    1. Interesting thought Zoe...and a miniature book *would* be magical. I don't feel the increase in size is to the detriment of the art work though. I like the different scales in fact.

  3. Yes, sorry, went away and spent the afternoon cooking and worrying my comment had come across a bit harsh. I think the contents (words and images) are lovely, but just feel the finished book had the potential to have been a little more special.

    1. Ha! Your inner repressed art editor at work perhaps? I'm sure *you* could rustle me up a bit of scraperboard at least?

  4. What a lovely looking book, and particularly interesting to read about how your lives have connected so closely at different points!