“The landscape here is both wild and uncontainable, but also delicate and full of treasure.” ~ Rowena Dugdale
Books act as journeys in the sense of the times, places, ideas and experiences through which a reader voyages, and often they are no less propelling and enlarging of view for their authors. In the years that it took me to write Irreplaceable I travelled from the evocative marshlands of north Kent and a joyful community meadow in the middle of Glasgow to a coral-fringed island in the Indonesian archipelago and a hilly rainforest in north-east India, home to a tribal people called the Nyishi as well as hornbills, elephants and tigers. In some way each of these unique places, or the wildlife found within them, were threatened with destruction, and so their stories necessarily carried me onwards, with the generous and selfless help of local people, into the lives of those communities passionately seeking to protect an inimitable part of the wild world they felt close to and cared about. On these journeys people shared with me not only their fears and hopes for the future of their particular place, combined with a sense of responsibility to a more inclusive concept of home that includes the other-than-human too, but also their indelible connections to the natural world. But one journey into the resonant wonders of the wild didn’t ask any physical movement of me at all.
That journey began when I opened an email from my editor one evening. I felt a nervous anticipation, knowing that the book’s artwork and words would live together for the duration of the edition. While we’re told to never judge a book by its cover, that adage ignores what should, ideally, be an inseparable element of the overall object. It would be like inhabiting a room without seeing the colour of its walls. I needn’t have worried though. In the striking triptych of images that the artist Rowena Dugdale had proposed for the front cover and the luminous montage for the back I saw the compressed reflection of the book’s themes in a beautiful blend of landscape and the finer, more intimate, notes of place. Alongside the elemental drama of the Torridon Hills of Wester Ross, Rowena had turned pale stamens and a feather into a graceful white shell; she’d transmuted the glowing pollen of a willow catkin into a burning sun that hung above an inky sea. These were the first images of Rowena’s that I’d ever seen, and they sent me along a path through the rest of her elegant and compelling work. Based in the Scottish Highlands, Rowena combs her home ground for the resonant particularities of her art: lichens, feathers, filaments and seed heads. She brings sea and shore and mountain together, sometimes overlapping different times and topographies so that they fuse together in poignant collages and montages. She interlaces life in all its varied profusion into works of earthy grace. I had the great pleasure of speaking to Rowena not only about the book’s cover but also the wider context of her craft.
Rowena Dugdale: We had parallel experiences. My nervous anticipation began when Penguin Random House art director John Hamilton started following me on Instagram. When he messaged about a possible cover commission I was delighted but also terrified. What if I didn’t enjoy the book? What if it was something beyond my interpretation or comprehension? As soon as he told me it was non-fiction, nature/environment and sent me the chapter titles as a taster I was totally onboard. The manuscript was sent digitally and he suggested I only need dip in here and there but I requested a paper copy so I could properly read it and make notes. A huge tome of single-sided print arrived and for the next three days I cleared my diary and read through it from cover to cover. I was totally absorbed and swept along; it was a book that spoke to me and I feel so honoured to have played a tiny part in making it come to fruition.
Julian Hoffman: Much of your work, both as an illustrator and a textile artist, is a hybrid exploration of nature, utilising photo montage, drawing, scanned objects, collage, experimental photography and found materials to not only evoke the ghostly beauty of the natural world but also its interconnected and ephemeral depths. It feels like you’re putting a lens up close to all its subtle complexity. How did the natural world became the primary focus of your art? And how did this multiplicity of practices and approaches emerge in response to it?
Rowena Dugdale: It was inevitable. I was allowed to grow up feral amongst the woods and hedgerows of Somerset. Also, I was very short-sighted so enjoyed studying things close up. Our primary school only had thirty pupils; we certainly didn’t have a curriculum or exams, we just examined frogs from the school pond and danced round a maypole. Remembering back, the countryside was bursting with life – hornets, cuckoos, slow worms, black crickets, massive ant hills, oak trees, ladybirds, sweet chestnuts that we’d harvest, wildflowers that my dad would test me on to see if I remembered their names, as he set me more of a curriculum than my school did. All these fragments stayed with me and have informed my deep love of, and curiosity about, the natural world. I am never happier than when wandering through a boggy ditch examining flora and fauna close-up with my camera. Weaving them into my illustration and textiles work is a real delight.
The multiplicity of practice emerged through my desire to use photography creatively but not quite knowing where to channel it. I studied textile design at the Edinburgh College of Art in the 1990s. Digital textile printing was still in its infancy and it wasn’t possible to easily create photographic textiles, so I sidestepped into illustration where my photographic montages and collages translated to print. Only twenty years later did the textile technology catch up and let me create the photo-textiles that I’d always hoped to create at art school.
Julian Hoffman: Can you describe your textile work a bit more?
Rowena Dugdale: It became apparent during my textiles degree that I didn’t quite fit the world of studio textile design. Also, the photo-realistic textiles I loved were out of reach on a small scale, needing multiple silkscreens and technical precision to accurately register the screens. Digital printing was in its infancy. After graduating I happily found my illustration niche and for fifteen years my collage/montage style was used on editorial, books etc. I wasn’t an illustrator in the traditional sense, but projects such as AS Byatt’s Folio Society edition of Possession worked out well for the very reason that the author categorically didn’t want illustrations of people or faces. During this period, the physical collages I made were replaced by a digital workspace – Photoshop – and although the transition made jobs more streamlined and efficient I missed the physical process of making artwork with so much screen-time involved in complicated multi-page illustrations.
With a yearning to make things again, the textiles crept back in. A combination of advancing digital print technology (the ability to upload and print your own artwork on any fabric of your choosing) and the opening up of online marketplaces such as Etsy meant that I could design and create textiles, make the items myself, and then offer them directly to customers. This simplicity appealed to me very much. As the orders expanded I hit a crossroads of whether to grow or to keep it artisan. With textiles being one of the most polluting industries in the world it didn’t sit comfortably with me to contribute to that burden and become a business that would possibly make big amounts of stock that may or may not sell. I have instead stayed micro and bespoke and it fits my lifestyle – making functional (and hopefully beautiful) things that are informed by the place around me and that have a transparency and honesty of process. These photo-textiles are inspired by my love of colour, texture and juxtaposition of objects and scale.
Julian Hoffman: You designed a particularly evocative cover for Richard Mabey’s Nature Cure, which was at once stark and yet hopeful, beautifully tying a score of bird song to an otherwise stripped-back and winter-still landscape. As that book is largely a chronicle of the author’s descent into depression and the healing potential of intimate contact with nature, I’d like to ask how you approach a book in order to visually translate its essence? How do you envisage the artwork in its role as a close companion to a book’s words?
Rowena Dugdale: That translation feels like a distillation. Reading through a book there are paragraphs that jump out as being visually amenable, and those paragraphs distill down further to individual words that spark images or colours or a feeling. Richard Mabey’s Nature Cure was an interesting one in that I’d been illustrating his monthly writings for BBC Wildlife magazine so I felt I knew his work and style well. The design was quite subtle and muted for a cover design but I’m glad they ran with it, even though he later confessed it took a bit of time for him to like it. The joy of being an author is that at least if you don’t like the cover you know the next edition will be different!
Irreplaceable went through several quite major design alterations and that is where the tricky nature of cover design comes into play – knowing that compromise is inevitable. The original front design was the feather/catkin filling the whole cover. This passed through several design meetings but got pulled at quite a late stage and at that point I thought the whole concept might have been rejected which I felt desperately sad about as I’d really got attached to the feather/catkin combo. Thankfully the addition of the landscape and the catkin sun pulled the design back together. I felt a great deal of relief when art director John Hamilton emailed to write “I am scared to say it in case it backfires but I love it, totally beautiful.” With luck it gives a flavour or feeling of what the book may hold – as an illustrator that’s all you can hope to achieve.
Julian Hoffman: It was an enormous delight to see what you did with the endpapers for the book too, transforming photographs I’d taken of a starling murmuration off Brighton Pier into a gloriously tinted vista of birds with great depth, movement and mystery. What is your aim when working with found or already existing images? What do you see as the role of photo montage and the layering of images in the larger imagining of your art?
Rowena Dugdale: It was wonderful to work with your supplied photographs, it added a greater meaning to the whole piece for me and I was so pleased when they appeared in my inbox. Working with found or supplied imagery is something I very much enjoy – again it goes back to that feeling of distillation or emotion, adding an atmosphere without distracting from the original source, or juxtaposing images from various sources to give them a different meaning.
Julian Hoffman: In an earlier conversation I learned from you that the willow catkin on the front cover of Irreplaceable came from one of the remnants of the ancient Caledonian pine forest in Scotland’s Beinn Eighe reserve and that the bird feather, which you think might have come from a great skua, is one that you found on Big Sand beach near Gairloch. I love how these very specific and tangible notes to the images deepen the way I see them; so that they’re not isolated in time on the cover of a book but belong to actual, living places. Can you tell me about your relationship to place and how it influences both your life and work? And what the Scottish Highlands in particular mean to you?
Rowena Dugdale: Sense of place is something that has deepened considerably since I moved to the Northwest Highlands, and harks back to those formative years in Somerset. The time spent in between, living in cities, was wonderful for different reasons but I didn’t ever see the trajectory of the setting sun over the course of a year, know the wind directions, see whole weather fronts passing over my head or hear the same cuckoo returning year after year with his wonky, unmistakeable call. The landscape here is both wild and uncontainable, but also delicate and full of treasure. I’m an incomer and that brings its own set of (fairly minor) issues, but the landscape doesn’t know that and doesn’t judge. That I can absorb this and reflect it in some small way in my own work is a privilege.
Julian Hoffman: With each passing day we learn more and more about the collapse of the natural world, from tumbling insect numbers to increasingly fragmented habitats and places of wild significance. Where do such dwindlings place you as an artist who works so closely with the living world? And is there a way back from the brink?
Rowena Dugdale: What I especially loved on the first read of Irreplaceable is that the overriding tone isn’t hand-wringing but truly hopeful. So much has been lost but it’s incredibly important to absorb and appreciate those things that remain. Moving to the Northwest Highlands made me realise that the wild fringes are incredibly precious and fragile. Also that these landscapes aren’t just barren, brown, treeless ‘empty’ places – the peatlands are incredible ecosystems of their own. My camera is my sketchbook and I love shining a light on the tiny worlds that could be overlooked. As you say, communities really do play the key role in action, and information (both visual and written) is power.
I’m extremely thankful to her for the luminous work she’s done on behalf of the book, and we both owe a debt of gratitude to John Hamilton, who commissioned the cover for Irreplaceable – his last for Hamish Hamilton before his untimely death. A lovely remembrance of John and his exceptional career can be read here.
Irreplaceable is published on June 27th and is now available to pre-order at any of your favourite booksellers, including all local independent shops and online sellers, as well as at these following links: