Illustrator and designer Jonathan Gibbs reveals the inspiration and process behind his cover for Henry II, part of the Penguin Monarchs series.
When you were approached about the commission, how did you research Henry II?
Henry II has been a bit different from some of my other recent commissions. [The cover] is a historic illustration in its feeling and style, but also with humour and human presence. I looked at images and objects that represented Henry II as a man, which were variable yet fascinating, as well as reading source material about his life and appearance.
My visual ideas for Henry II not only came from depictions of him, but also traditional representations of other kings. I looked at church brasses, engravings and paintings while researching the design. I was also influenced by the design of playing cards with their formalised and graphic clarity. I liked to use the edge of the image, giving variation and contrast to the outline shape, in relation to the interior composition – for example, in the position of Henry’s feet, sword and crown.
What would you cite as your main artistic influences for this particular design?
I have tried to develop my own way of drawing and illustrating, so my influences come from a wide scope of places. While researching Henry II I looked at a medieval rood screen in a Norfolk church with its panel paintings of saints as well as seeing Georgione’s The Tempest, recently up close and at length in the Acadamia in Venice. This is an extraordinarily beautiful and intriguing painting. On the same visit I had a good look at Barbari’s great map of the city and its corresponding woodblocks in the Coller Museum. In my own work I like the tactile, sensual quality of woodblock printmaking. Illustrating Henry II has allowed for this process in a rather classical manner.
Can you describe the process of designing and creating the woodblock print of Henry II that eventually became the cover of the book?
I made a few drawings, in pencil, for the position and setting of the figure. I wanted the elements of the picture to overlap in an abstracted manner, all connecting together to make the final image.
Henry II sits formally on his throne, almost theatrically, with his face as the focal point. It’s a wood engraving and white line image in which I have used a spit sticker to inscribe the figure into the surface of the wood. Although there is a drawing to work from, the engraving is made spontaneously – allowing for freely curved and decisive marks.
The Penguin Monarchs series offer short, fresh accounts of England’s rulers
from Aethelstan to Elizabeth II by some of today’s most remarkable historians in beautiful hardback editions. See the whole collection on the Penguin website.