Charles Dickens enjoyed close collaborative relationships with the illustrators of his novels, but now it's rare to find a picture outside the world of children's books. Is drawing a lost art, or could we be on the brink of a new golden age?
There's no escaping Dickens this year, it being the bicentenary of his birth. And along with Dickens come his illustrators: Cruikshank and Phiz, obviously, but a plethora of others including Richard Doyle, Edwin Landseer and John Tenniel. It's impossible to detach the novels from the illustrations, not least because the author meant it like that. Only Great Expectations and Hard Times were produced without pictures. For the rest, Dickens kept an iron control over his illustrators... he gave them an outline of the plot before he wrote the text and he monitored the drawings to ensure that they matched precisely with his own conceptions.
The tangling of text and drawings was obvious from the start: The Pickwick Papers began with Dickens being invited to write stories to accompany illustrations by the popular artist Robert Seymour; it wasn't long before Seymour was illustrating him. In the other direction, his best-known collaborator, Phiz, controversially took credit for some characters in Oliver Twist.
All of which raises the interesting question of why it is that this kind of collaboration doesn't happen any more. Where is the Phiz to our Boz? Why don't contemporary novels have illustrations as standard? Why are illustrators corralled into children's fiction? Up until the Fifties and Sixties it wouldn't be unusual for a mainstream publisher to illustrate adult books. Now it's easier to count – you don't need all the fingers on one hand – the publishers that do. Is it that contemporary fiction happens all in the head and cerebral stuff doesn't really lend itself to images? Are modern novelists just too precious to collaborate with artists? Is it the additional cost in an already tight budget? Are modern illustrators just not that good?
Dan Franklin at Jonathan Cape is one of the few British publishers who bucks the trend. He commissions both graphic novels and illustration for adult fiction, the latest being woodcuts by Joe McLaren for Andrew Motion's sequel to Treasure Island, Silver, which is aimed chiefly at adult readers. He identifies two reasons why it's not common practice.
"I think a) it's fashion", he says trenchantly. "And b) there aren't that many great illustrators. It's rare you can come across someone who can draw. Even when you're looking for someone to do book jackets, it's hard to find someone who can draw the human figure – it seems to be unfashionable now."
Of course cost can be an issue. Commissioning an artist for a book could amount to £2,000-£4,000; small beer if you're talking about Julian Barnes but a big deal if it's a first novel for which the author is barely paid that much. But money isn't the real deal-breaker.
Simon Prosser, publishing director at Hamish Hamilton, is another publisher who is remarkable in the trade for habitually commissioning illustration for adult non-fiction, possibly because he started out as an illustrator himself. Why aren't there more like him?
"It might be", he says, "that illustration is simply unfashionable. I have a strong, deep attachment to books that were illustrated... I remember from my early reading, the classics of natural history, like Izaak Walton and The Natural History of Selborne and they were all illustrated." Which brings us to another issue, the dearth of publishers with some sort of visual grounding.
Does it matter if adult books are all text? Even the greatest enthusiasts wouldn't say you should illustrate everything. You wouldn't wish on any artist the job of drawing much of Virginia Woolf. But the possibility that illustrations could actually illumine writing and draw out elements of a narrative doesn't seem to count for much any more. And as Posy Simmonds, well-known as a graphic novelist as well as illustrator, observes, illustration can do many things for a novel: "There's lots of choice, whether to interpret, decorate, contradict. It can add to or detract from the writing." She herself has drawn pictures for poetry as well as prose, including Carol Ann Duffy's "Mrs Scrooge".
But there is a problem with the nature of modern fiction. As the novelist Piers Paul Read says, "illustrations are best suited to a novel with a strong narrative, that is to say, illustrating an incident – and there are fewer such novels around. No publisher has ever suggested illustrating one of my novels."
Quentin Blake is a genius of the genre, his collaboration with Roald Dahl being one of those instances of the sum of the whole being greater than the parts, like Ernest Shepard and Kenneth Grahame or William Blake and William Blake. But he didn't start out solely as a children's illustrator. He did book jackets for Evelyn Waugh and Kingsley Amis and illustrated Black Mischief and Scoop for the Folio Society; more recently he did drawings for a new edition of Candide.
He thinks that the nature of modern fiction is a challenge, but not an insuperable one. "Once novelists got into the interior monologue... that's what spoiled it for illustration", he says. "But there are things you could do that we've lost the habit of doing. There's a wrong assumption that you're going to draw exactly what the text says. But it calls for a bit of thinking. You don't always want to see what the protagonist looks like. Are you drawing surroundings, atmosphere, furniture? There are ways of contributing to novels. Commissioning drawing, I think, is a habit as much as anything. One doesn't want to say everything should be illustrated. But there are moments when something very interesting could be done. We've lost the habit of thinking like that."