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Ted Hughes and the Book Arts

The world of print mattered a great deal to one of England’s greatest twentieth century poets, Ted Hughes. I had already glimpsed this in 1983 when, a would-be poet myself, I was given a copy of the large square beautifully produced River, with photographs by Peter Keen.

I still treasure River for its mythic evocation of waterscapes. In my imagination at least they are very like the rivers of my Renfrewshire upbringing. It struck me straight away, though, that this was an unconventional Faber publication, and impressively so. Instead of the understated Pentagram graphic design, this was a book with full colour covers, with a larger shape that made it tricky to shelve – it was almost as floppy as a fish - and the paper quality, typography, and full-page photographs all made it as prize-like as a salmon itself.

Twenty years later, curating an exhibition on Ted Hughes for the British Library, I learnt that book design, an interest in the process of printing, and especially collaborative work with visual artists, was not the exception for Hughes but in fact a nearly life-long commitment. Faber had recognised this many years before River, publishing books by Hughes that broke their own established house style with striking visual accompaniment.

Events in the childhood and early adult years of the poet are likely to have made an impression on him in this respect. Hughes was born on 17th August 1930, living in the village of Mytholmroyd on the eastern side of the Pennines until he was seven. At that age he moved to the mining town of Mexborough, South Yorkshire, where his parents had bought a newsagent’s shop. This appears to have been a critical event, allowing him to encounter popular publishing at full throttle. Certainly, the riot of printed text and colour must have been an exciting contrast to the more staid confines of the town library, from which he nevertheless continued to borrow.

It was stories in comics, later described by him as “Fantastic Happenings and Gory Adventures”, that gripped Hughes as much as anything, and his first published poem, printed in his school magazine, told the ballad of a fictional sharp-shooter with the tough Western name of “Carson McReared”. Towards the end of his life, Hughes used several vividly illustrated small press publications to retell key parts of his childhood. I’d argue that the strong visual qualities of these books are in a sense answering reflections to those icons of his early years, collaboratively responding to the early excitement of seeing word and image so expressively integrated. His mother’s fears of the influence of American popular culture on the boys are portrayed in Comics (Alton: Prospero Poets, 1997) with beautifully delicate illustrations by Annie Newnham, and, more darkly, the little book, Football (Prospero Poets, 1995) tells the story of his father’s last days as a footballer for Hebden Bridge. The explosive colour images by Christopher Battye echo Mr Hughes’s experience of Gallipoli and the shameful behaviour of the football crowd in his last game. The collaboration with the photographer Fay Godwin, Remains of Elmet: A Pennine Sequence (Faber, 1979), was also a study in childhood memory.

Another influence on Hughes’s relationship to print was that of his English teacher, John Fisher, who had involved the young poet and his elder sister Olwyn in editing the Mexborough Grammar School magazine, The Don and Dearne. It was there that Hughes’s first writings were published, and presumably there where he gained his initial hands-on experience of controlling the presentation of his own texts (and those of others). This anticipated his later work as a founding editor of Modern Poetry in Translation, his work as an anthologist, and his co-ownership of a fine press, the Rainbow, not to mention his detailed engagement with the production of many of his collections. Several years later, a graduate of Pembroke College, he may also have enjoyed the lively presentation of the little magazines on the Cambridge scene, such as Chequer, Delta, and St. Botolph’s Review.

Two major events in the poet’s publishing history, however, seem to have set him on the course of illustrated editions of his work. The first was his entry into the world of writing for children. Meet My Folks!, illustrated by George Adamson, was published by Faber in 1961. Books for children are often more exuberant and inventive production-wise than the staid fare that adults more routinely read. The genre’s probable influence on the book arts can be seen, for example, in the very different approaches taken by Ian Hamilton Finlay’s Wild Hawthorn Press and Ronald King’s Circle Press (the latter a press that I am proud to say I have worked with on collaborative artists’ books). Adamson, an experienced cartoonist for Punch as well as an illustrator of covers for Penguin, Collins and other publishers, at first thought that Hughes, living in Massachusetts at the time, was American, and a New England look to the book’s eccentric family characters was adopted. They would go on to work on several other books for Faber and Puffin over the years.

It is true that the poem “Pike” had already appeared as a broadsheet, illustrated by Robert Bermelin for the Gehenna Press in 1959, but for Hughes, my guess is that it was the Adamson collaboration that opened his horizons to the integration of visual work within and across whole books. Several illustrated children’s books followed, some, as with Nessie the Mannerless Monster, spreading the illustration in, around and under the text (illustrated by Gerald Rose, Faber, 1964).

Then came what was probably the second jolt to Hughes’s conception of what his books might fully be. This was the production in 1967 of massive linocuts by Gavin Robbins, incorporating six poems within very eerie images. They were collectively entitled Gravestones, but their rounded, monolithic shapes made them more inscribed standing stones than the quiet slabs of a cemetery.

The precise history of these striking prints is not clear, but Robbins, a friend of Hughes, was a student at the Printmaking Department of Exeter College of Art, and the poet allowed him to use the poems for his college project. Only forty sets were made, although a book based on them was later editioned by Robbins. It is likely that word and image, incorporated so imposingly in Gravestones, renewed Hughes’s interest in the artistic impact that such collaboration could bring, and allowed him to see this work as important for adults as well as children. After this, it would not be long, especially with the friendship of Leonard Baskin of the Gehenna Press, before Hughes and his co-artists would adopt a monumental approach to the production of his books (‘quieter’ books were also within Hughes range, however). Highlights included Crow (1973), with images by Baskin, a book that, like River later, was taller and wider than the usual “slim volume”, and an early example of Faber’s liberal approach to the format of Hughes’s poetry collections. Hughes collaborated with several other presses, including The Old Stile Press for Earth Dances, with decorations by R. J. Lloyd (1994), and he even illustrated his own book, Earth-Moon (Rainbow Press, 1976).

The poet’s last translation, Aeschylus’s The Oresteia, was illustrated and realised by Baskin at the Gehenna Press, with seering portraits of the protagonists, and published in 2001, three years after Hughes’s death. It marks the culmination of a remarkable and perhaps still little-known engagement with text and image. Faber’s Collected Poems (2003), edited by Paul Keegan, documents the extensive use Hughes made of small and fine presses, presenting many texts he did not further collect in his lifetime. For Hughes as a brilliant writer within the book arts form, however, there is nothing more remarkable than the original artefacts.

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