For Artists Alan Lee & Brian Froud, Life Is a Faerie Tale Come True
In publishing circles the late '70s may be remembered for celebrity memoirs, but it was also a time to make big bucks from little people. The current case in point is a handsomely illustrated, delightfully droll collection of fanciful folklore titled Faeries. The faerie godfather of the work is New York publisher Ian Ballantine, who admits he lifted the idea from the instant popularity of Gnomes in 1977. But the gnome tome was a Dutch confection, and in hopes of a fresh look he turned—and wisely—to two 31-year-old British illustrators, Brian Froud and Alan Lee. It took nine months of research and work at the drawing board and typewriter neither had done text before) to finish the compendium of pixies, goblins, knockers and other sprites of dubious pedigree. Despite its $17.50 price tag, Faeries wafted straight to the best-seller charts—and hasn't been dislodged for 16 weeks.
As in any collaboration, compromise was a necessity. "We traded," recalls Froud. "Alan would give me a nasty goblin if I'd sacrifice a noseless brownie. We tried to fix it so each of us would have his share of nasty and pretty ones. The nasty ones, of course, are always much more fun." The partners obviously respect each other. Froud describes Lee as "a magnificent watercolorist, a master of his medium," while Lee considers Froud "superb at highly detailed work and bursting with vision and vitality." In personality and style, Lee is the introvert, Froud the extravert. "It makes a nice mix," says Lee. "I quieten him down; he livens me up."
Growing up in Hampshire, Froud absorbed the countryside by "getting right into it"; he preferred painting scenery for school plays to sports. After getting a degree in graphic design, he created his first commercial effort—a cat-food can—forever lost because the manufacturer scrapped the product. Since then he has illustrated six children's books and published an anthology of his designs.
Lee is a Londoner who from age 8 sketched "panoramas of knights besieging castles—drawing was the only thing I was good at." He studied design at Ealing College of Art (a classmate was Freddy Mercury, now lead singer of the rock group Queen). One of Lee's jobs was with an ad agency, doing a "self-portrait" of Leonardo da Vinci munching chocolates. Like Froud, he went on to illustrate books.
The two artists occupied neighboring studios in Soho when in 1975 Lee invited Froud to move into his small row house in Chagford. It was nothing personal—Lee's girlfriend Marja was already there, and what he needed Froud for was the $80-a-month rent. "Alan had too much room," explains Froud, "and too much mortgage." A year ago—after Lee and Marja had had two children and finally wed—Froud moved up the road to a bachelor cottage, where he enjoys "situations" (a euphemism for women). But the artists still meet at the nearby Moor Park Hotel for a gin and tonic (Froud) and lager-and-lime (Lee).
The good faerie is keeping an eye on the partners. Lee is designing a book of Welsh legends. Froud is in the States, and his imagination will have to undergo a sea change. He proposes doing an "adult fantasy" film with Jim Henson, maestro of the Muppets.
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