Joe McLaren, Illustrator
Yesterday, I took a trip down to Rochester to deliver an advance copy of my London Album to illustrator Joe McLaren in person, as a gesture of thanks for drawing the pair of dogs that are the symbol of Spitalfields Life Books.
Joe McLaren at Rochester Castle
“When I realised I was an illustrator and not an artist, it was such a relief because I didn’t have to philosophise any more,” admitted Joe McLaren with a self-effacing smile,“now I do what people pay me to do to earn the butter for my bread.” Yet, in spite of his modest demeanour, Joe’s distinctive graphic illustrations are to be found on book covers in every bookshop in the land.
Joe and I were standing on top of Rochester Castle with panoramic views across the Medway and he explained that this part of the country has strong family connections for him. “My grandfather, Bernard Long, joined the Merchant Navy in Chatham at fourteen in 1925 and retired at sixteen to join the Royal Navy. By the end of World War II, he was Captain of a minesweeper and then he retired to Leyton where he became a police detective,” Joe revealed, “My mother remembers visiting them in their small house in Vicarage Rd.”
After graduating from Brighton College of Art and a spell in London, Joe and his girlfriend moved to a remote house in Lower Higham, upon the dramatic landscape of the Kent Marshes, where she had family and he found himself caring for the abandoned church of St Mary’s which Dickens featured in ‘Great Expectations.’ “I used to ring the bells once a year on New Year’s Eve,” Joe informed me fondly, “and we turned it into a cinema and showed David Lean’s film there. ‘Great Expectations’ was my first Dickens novel and I loved it, even though I had to read it at school.” Subsequently, Joe featured the church of St Mary’s in his cover design for a new edition of the novel.
While in London, David worked in the basement of Smythson in Bond St, applying the gold letters to monogrammed leather cases. “In 2008, I saved up enough money to live for three months and left to become a freelance illustrator,” he recalled, “If I ran out of money, I would have gone back to my old job but, after a couple of weeks, David Pearson rang up to commission me and it went from there. We’ve been friends ever since.” Book designer David Pearson compares Joe McLaren’s work to that of Reynolds Stone, the celebrated wood engraver who supplied vignettes for the covers of early Penguin Books, and Joe has created motifs in a comparable vein for David’s contemporary reinventions of Penguin designs.
“I have been influenced by Edward Bawden and he was influenced by heraldry,” Joe confessed, “Everything I do is in a flat space, so it doesn’t matter where the light’s coming from, you are portraying the thing itself.” There is a certain unique clarity of line and an intensity of image which characterises Joe’s work, making it instantly recognisable, catching the eye and then holding its focus.
Yesterday, Joe was working on a scraperboard view of Rochester Castle when I interrupted him. Few use scraperboard anymore, it has become a degraded technique that is consigned to children’s kits in craft stores, yet Joe excels in exploiting its unique graphic potential. Invented a hundred years ago, it was an innovation for engravers when images could be reproduced for printing using photographic technology and there was no longer any need to engrave onto metal plates.
Standing there upon the outcrop over the Medway on that bright autumn day, the sunlight imparted a crisp edge to the buildings, highlighting the lively textures and contrasted forms of the diverse architecture in Rochester and giving everything the appearance of a Joe McLaren illustration. In this inspiring environment, with family history and literary association enriching a landscape full of visual drama, Joe has found his home.
Selected Poems of John Betjeman, commissioned by Miri Rosenbloom for Faber & Faber
Secret Lives of Buildings by Edward Hollis, commissioned by David Pearson for Portobello Books
We, The Drowned by Carsten Jensen, commissioned by Suzanne Dean for Vintage
Some Thoughts on the Common Toad by George Orwell, commissioned by David Pearson for Penguin
Why Look at Animals? by John Berger, commissioned by David Pearson for Penguin
Memory Place by Edward Hollis, commissioned by David Pearson for Portobello Books
The Once and Future King by T.H. White, commissioned by Clare Skeats for Voyager Classics
Silver by Andrew Motion, commissioned by Suzanne Dean for Vintage
The Christmas Books by Charles Dickens, commissioned by David Pearson for Whites Books
Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, commissioned by David Pearson for Whites Books
Logo for the Owl Bookshop, commissioned by David Pearson
Illustrations for Alice in Wonderland for Whites Books
Illustrations for Potty! a cookery book by Clarissa Dickson Wright, for Hodder & Stoughton
Symbol for Spitalfields Life Books, commissioned by David Pearson
Illustrations courtesy of Joe McLaren
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Here follow some snaps from my Rochester trip
Eastgate House in Rochester High St
Lodging House for Poor Travellers, founded 1579 in Rochester High St
Old wooden house in the Cathedral Close, Rochester
Charles Dickens’ writing cottage transplanted from his garden to a park in Rochester.
Old yard off Rochester High St