by Terri Windling
The Froud family's thatch-roof farmhouse sits buried in ivy down a quiet country lane in England's West Country. Its old front door, with a goblin door-knocker, is a doorway into Faerieland. Inside is the kind of enchanted house one usually finds only in fantasy books: full of carved medieval furniture and tapestries, costumes, masks, old books, puppets and magical props from films. Faeries, goblins, trolls and sprites stare down from Brian's paintings on the walls, and cavort in the shape of magical dolls and sculptures created by Wendy.
Brian was born in Hampshire, raised Kent, and studied at the Maidstone College of Art. His deep involvement with folklore and myth began during his student days, he says, when he came across a book illustrated by Arthur Rackham in his college library. Rackham's goblins, faeries, undines, and tree folk re-awakening Brian's interest in the myths and legends he'd loved in childhood. He began to study the folklore of Britain, and then the tales of other lands, fascinated by the ways the magical traditions in all cultures shared common roots. When he left collage, Brian spent five years in London working in the field of commercial illustration, but he continued to paint mythic images and to develop a distinctive style of his own. (This early work was published in Once Upon a Time and The Land of Froud, both from David Larkin's Peacock Press.)
In 1975, Brian moved from London to a small Devon village at Dartmoor's edge, sharing a house with fellow-illustrator Alan Lee and his family. Inspired by the woods and hedgerows of Devon, and the ancient, myth-steeped landscape of the moor, the two collaborated on Faeries, an illustrated book of British faery lore. This marvelous, ground-breaking volume quickly became an international bestseller, and has influenced artists, writers, and folklorists all around the world in the decades since.
Brian's faeries and magical vision of the world so impressed the American filmmaker Jim Henson (creator of the Muppets) that he asked Brian to come to New York to design two feature films: The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth. Like Faeries, the films were ground-breaking -- pioneering new puppet design and performance techniques. It was on the set of The Dark Crystal that Brian met Wendy, who created the "gelflings" and other creatures for the film.
Wendy was born and raised in Detroit, Michigan. "Both of my parents were artists," she says. "I've been a doll-maker all of my life. At about age five, as soon as I could bend a pipe-cleaner and bits of fabric together, I started to make the kind of dolls I couldn't find in stores: centaurs, satyrs, fauns, unicorns, and faeries. I wanted to be part of a magical realm, and so I created one for myself."
Wendy studied music and drama at Interlochen Arts Academy, then fabric design, jewelry, and ceramics at The Center for Creative Studies in Detroit. After graduation, she moved to New York City and landed a job which drew all her training together: working as a sculptor and puppet fabricator in Jim Henson's Creature Shop. Wendy worked on a number of different Henson projects, making puppets for The Muppet Show and The Muppet Movie, and the original prototype for Yoda in Star Wars. It was on the set of The Dark Crystal, however, with its imagery rooted in folklore and myth, that she found her greatest satisfaction, working with the shy-but-brilliant English faery artist at the heart of the film.
She married Brian during the filming of The Dark Crystal, was pregnant when work on Labyrinth began, and soon after gave birth to Toby, their son. The timing was co-incidental, but perfect. Toby ended up with a role in the film: playing the baby stolen by the Goblin King (David Bowie) and rescued by his sister (Jennifer Connelly).
After the films were done, the Froud family returned to Brian's village on Dartmoor. Rather than squeezing into his old cottage, a tiny place in the center of the village, they renovated a rambling Devon "longhouse" out in the countryside: a thatched granite building dating from medieval times, built over older Saxon foundations. In this atmospheric place, they set about creating a thoroughly magical environment filled with faeries, goblins, trolls, William Morris fabrics, antique toys, and shelves crowded with folklore texts. Brian set up a painting studio in a large room to one side of the house's central hall, while Wendy created two work spaces: a doll workshop in the eaves of the house, and a sculpting studio in the garden.
Although the Frouds have never left film work altogether, during the years when Toby was young they chose to live more quietly in Devon, concentrating on creating art inspired by myths, legends, and fairy tales.
While Brian painted faeries and goblins, Wendy brought these same creatures to life in three-dimensional form, made of fimo, plaster, resin, cloth, feathers, leaves, and numerous other things -- mixing traditional art materials with found objects from the Devon woods. Some of Wendy's art is based on, or in dialogue with, Brian's paintings and sketches, while the rest explores a rich visual vocabulary that is uniquely her own.
Brian has largely concentrated on what could be called "faery portraiture," building a large, wide-ranging body of work informed by the colors, shapes, and textures of the land around him. "I've been actively engaged with mythic imagery ever since I picked up that Rackham book," he says, "but it really came into focus for me when I moved from London to Dartmoor. As I walked through the woods and over the moor, I looked at the trees and the rocks and the hills and I could see the personality in those forms, metamorphosing into faeries, goblins, trolls, and other nature spirits.
"After Alan and I published Faeries, he moved on from folklore to illustrate Tolkien and other literary works -- but I discovered that my own exploration of the Faerie Realm had only just begun. The faeries kept insisting on taking form under my pencil, emerging on the page before me, cloaked in archetypal shapes drawn from nature and myth. I'd attracted their attention, and they hadn't finished with me yet.
"I'm often called a 'fantasy' painter, " Brian notes, "but that's not quite accurate. My imagery comes from myth, folklore and the old oral story-telling tradition, not from fantasy literature; and although I did some commercial illustration in my youth, I don't see myself as an illustrator now. I publish books, but the paintings in them are personal visions and expressions, not illustrations of someone else's story. The pictures come first, and the text responds to the pictures, not the other way around. I have to confess that, unlike Wendy, I rarely read fiction at all. Most of my reading is nonfiction: history, mythology, archetypal psychology, and the like. I prefer the enchantment of a story told to one that is written down. In the oral tradition, where stories are told around the fireplace in semi-darkness, the words are alive: they leave the lips, enter into the air, and before they fall onto your ear they transform themselves into magic. They're not fixed; they change from telling to telling, and from listener to listener.
"I want my pictures to have that same quality of mutability. I don't like things to be fixed too solidly or explained too fully; I want each viewing to be like a re-telling of a tale, full of new possibilities. Back in my illustration days, I worked on a book called The Wind Between the Stars, and that was an interesting technical challenge, for how does one draw the wind? The work I do today still has that sort of challenge: drawing things that are normally beyond human perception, turning the invisible world of Faerie into visible form. Myth surrounds us every day, particularly in a landscape as soaked in history and old stories as Dartmoor. If I do my job well, not only does myth become visible within a painting, but that painting becomes a doorway into a new way of looking at the world. You turn and look at the land around you, and you begin to see the faces in the trees and faeries flitting through the shadows."
It is clear that his work gives Brian great satisfaction, but I've also seen him struggle with his art. What, I ask, is the most difficult thing about rendering his vision of the world and its magical spirit in paint?
Brian ponders the question, then answers slowly, "The hardest part -- or one of the hardest parts, because there are many hard parts -- is convincing the viewer that what I've depicted is true; that I've got it right. When Cocteau was making his classic film Beauty & the Beast, he was reaching for what he called 'the supernatural within realism' -- in other words, grounding fantastical elements with ordinary imagery, which gives plausibility to the first and enchantment to the second. I think this is important to mythic art no matter what the medium: painting, writing, filmmaking. You need realism as an underpinning, an anchor, for the magic.
"In order to obtain the 'supernatural within realism,' I usually start my larger, complex paintings with a human image," he explains. "The familiarity of the human form provides a touchstone and a reference; and then as we continue on in our journey around the picture, encountering stranger and stranger imagery, we have confidence that these faeries look just as they're supposed to look. We know that the distortions in their forms or faces are deliberate, not just a stylistic aberration or bad drawing. Every distortion in my paintings actually has a precise meaning behind it. In traditional lore, one often finds that faeries have some striking defect of form: some are hollow-backed or elongated, others have goat- or lion-feet. Heads, hands, and feet are often large in proportion to the rest of the body. This is due to the plastic nature of faery forms, which are often glimpsed in states of transition from one shape to the next.
"I start each painting by drawing a geometrical grid based on the Golden Section, a system of proportions and perspective developed by the ancient Greeks. The grid is overlaid with circles, triangles and the like, and where these things cross over is where I place the major figures. This gives the 'chaos' of a crowded painting an underlying structure of order. The central human figure is generally based on a photograph -- again, this provides an underpinning of reality for the more fantastical aspects. I take my own photographs of models: friends and neighbors generally. The imagery surrounding the central figure is always in relationship to it. These secondary creatures are often drawn from earlier sketches -- I have many, many sketchbooks filled with such things.
"I always try to keep the drawing fairly loose; I don't like to get tight at this stage, which closes down possibilities. And even in the final stages of a painting I strive to maintain a looseness and a sense of...mystery. I find that in the fantasy genre, too many young painters over-paint their pictures; they're a bit too...over-wrought for my taste. They're much too bright and shiny. The artist has finished every detail, and every edge is hard and bright -- which doesn't allow me into their world, my eye slides right off that shiny surface. I prefer to keep my rendering as loose as possible, just on the edge of being finished. I want a painting to give just enough information for the picture to make sense; there should always be a little bit kept back, a few pieces missing, which the viewer must supply himself. In doing that, the picture comes to life. It becomes part of a reciprocal process, a communication. The painting allows you inside, where it can grow, and you can grow."
Despite the world-wide success of Faeries, and the huge acclaim he received for the Henson films, it often astonishes Brian's fans to know that it took him over ten years to find a publisher for his subsequent work.
"There were times when I thought I was mad to continue painting faeries," he recalls. "But I was driven to do it. I had a vision and I couldn't seem to let it go. So I said to myself: What do I have to do to convince a publisher that there's an audience for this art? I decided a humorous approach might open the door; it might perhaps be less intimidating. That's when the idea for Lady Cottington's Pressed Fairy Book came to mind.
This volume tells the story a Victorian young lady who "presses" fairies between book pages, much as her compatriots pressed and collected flowers. With art by Brian and text by Terry Jones (of Monthy Python fame), the book is utterly hilarious...and, like Faeries, it was a best-seller. To Brian's relief he had finally proved there was indeed an audience for his art.
More books in the Cottington series followed: Lady Cottington's Pressed Fairy Letters, Lady Cottington's Fairy Album, Strange Staines & Mysterious Smells, and, most recently, The Pressed Fairy Journal of Madeline Cottington. The latest volume was written by Wendy (as fine an author as she is a sculptor), telling the story of this mad, faery-hunting family from Victorian times to the present.
The success of the "pressed fairies" allowed Brian to publish his other paintings of the Faerie Realm, collected in books such as Good Faeries/Bad Faeries, The Runes of Elfland, and Brian Froud's World of Faerie, a sumptuous overview of his art. Although less whimsical than the Cottington series, these volumes also have their humorous side. "Just like the old faery lore," he notes, "moving back and forth between between light and shadow."
Meanwhile, Wendy was creating art for exhibition, teaching, writing, and publishing magical books of her own: the Old Oak Wood series for children (A Midsummer Night's Faery Tale, The Winter, The Faeries of Spring Cottage), and The Art of Wendy Froud.
Behind the scenes, she was also involved with Brian's publications, sometimes editing or ghost-writing the text. This evolved into full collaboration between the two artists in Trolls and Faeries' Tales, gorgeous editions designed by Brian, written by Wendy, and featuring art by both.
As our discussion ends, Brian sits back and reflects on his long journey with the faeries:
"After all these years of drawing, painting, and sculpting them, Wendy and I are often asked if we 'believe' in faeries. The best answer I can give is that I don't have much of a choice in whether I believe in them or not, for they seem to insist on my painting them. I paint by intuition, and faeries keep appearing on the page before me. Mind you, it's not that I lie around on a chaise longue waiting for inspiration to strike -- painting is a discipline and I'm in my studio working a regular work day from 9 to 5. But on a Monday morning I'm often not sure what exactly I'm going to be doing next. I'll get out my tools, I'll get to work, and something will demand to come through -- some creature will form on the page before me, demanding to say: Hello!"
"Faeries are spirits of nature," notes Wendy. "They embody the wild, mysterious and spiritual forces to be found in nature, and help us to reconnect with wonder and mystery inside our own souls. Our ancestors passed these stories and images down for hundreds, thousands of years. As artists, Brian and I are merely part of a long tradition -- giving old tales new life and passing them on to the generations to come. I look at my sculptures as signposts or gateways into the realm of Faerie. I like to think that they can help people find their own way into that realm."
"Traditional cultures have always recognized and honored the animate spirits of the earth," Brian adds, "but in western culture we've rather left that behind...to our spiritual cost, and ecological peril. Now we're beginning to recognize how important it is to have a vibrant relationship with the land beneath our feet...and that the old stories and mythic imagery can aid this process."
"In other words," says Wendy with a smile, "we need the faeries, especially now. So Brian and I will keep telling their stories, for as long as they want us to."
Credits & copyrights:
The paintings, drawings, sculptures, & photographs above are under copright by Brian & Wendy Froud, and may not be reproduced without their permission; all rights are reserved by the artists. The title of each artwork can be found in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.)
The text by Terri Windling first appeared in Realms of Fantasy magazine and The Journal of Mythic Arts; updated in 2017. All right reserved by the author.