Honourable horses and exploding dogs
Gulliver's travels lasted for 16 years and seven months on and off. Chris Riddell, who illustrated the latest abridged account of the intrepid seafarer's adventures, went on four voyages lasting several months each, spread over 18 months. When he started work three years ago on Jonathan Swift's Gulliver, a retelling of Swift by Martin Jenkins for children aged eight or older, Riddell had just collected his first CILIP Kate Greenaway Medal for Pirate Diary. The lavish Gulliver edition was published last year by Walker Books, who also published Pirate Diary, and last week brought the artist his second Greenaway.
In plotting Gulliver's course, he created distinct palettes, styles and iconography for the four main kingdoms. The manic Lilliputians have a highly coloured setting and their obsession with egg etiquette is reflected in the prevalence of birds, eggs and egg-cups in fabric designs, furniture, buildings and warships, not forgetting the fashion for pet birds. The gentle giants of Brobdingnag, despite their florid complexions, ginger hair and sheer bulk, are placed in an incongruously delicate shrine to chinoiserie. The sepia tones of the land of the Houyhnhnms where honourable horses reign ("mine are more Thelwell than Stubbs", Riddell says, "but I enjoyed drawing them more than I thought I would") contribute to a more naturalistic and almost restful landscape for our hero's last adventures.
But the airborne kingdom of Laputa, ill-assembled by its distracted geniuses, is the masterpiece of the project. In this cloudy blue world, calculations run riot. The inhabitants and their clothes and homes all look good as mathematical formulae but turn out gloriously wrong in reality.
"This was a chance for me to have fun, to draw all the most bizarre musical instruments I could think of," says Riddell.
Sometimes a line in Martin Jenkins' text inspired a spread, elsewhere he reduced scenes to an intriguing hint: in the aerial view of the Laputa Academy, where Swift poked fun at his contemporaries' reverence for useless inventions, illustrations of the sunshine-from-cucumbers and food-from-human-excrement experiments leave nothing to the imagination, but the tale of the exploding dog is told in a professor's half-glimpsed doodle. The Laputians' treatment for dissembling politicians, starring a recognisable Prime Minister, gave The Observer's political cartoonist a chance to indulge himself. It is pure coincidence, Riddell insists, that he was working on this section in the aftermath of the Iraq war. "I love drawing Blair, and Brown's fun too. And I think I loved drawing Michael Howard as a vampire almost too much." He is proud to be part of a tradition of artists who combined political comment with illustrating for children: Edward Heath Robinson, John Tenniel, E H Shepard. "In both you study character intensely and you say things you can't get away with elsewhere."
Swift's swipes at politicians and governments, retained by Martin Jenkins in a text with appeal throughout secondary school and beyond, are a gift to an artist with an eye for the grotesque.
Through it all, Gulliver ages convincingly. He arrives in Lilliput on his first trip with the gung-ho air of a gap-year student, but the grey hairs increase page by page, and Mrs Gulliver looks increasingly aghast as her bedraggled husband crawls home between adventures and finally hunches over his memoirs, having decided he prefers horses to humans. Riddell is unlikely to reach the same conclusion: people and their peculiarities are at the heart of his work. His most recent stand-alone children's books, Corby Flood and Fergus Crane with his regular collaborator Paul Stewart, are fully illustrated adventure novels for seven to nine-year-olds which, like Gulliver and Pirate Diary, explore the rich variety of ruffians to be found on the high seas. For his next big project he'll be a little more landlocked: it's Don Quixote for Walker, in the same series as Gulliver.
Jonathan Swift's Gulliver, illustrated by Chris Riddell and retold by Martin Jenkins, is published by Walker Books