CHRIS REVIEWS: Chris Riddell and John Vernon Lord (in conversation, 2018)

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 a sample from john vernon lord’s journal

a sample from john vernon lord’s journal

“Yes,” Riddell said. “That would be a tragedy.”

We saw Chris Riddell and John Vernon Lord in conversation this evening at The House of Illustration, in Granary Square, behind King’s Cross. They sat side-by-side at the front of a small gallery. Hung about the gallery’s walls, and layed out with care in many cases, were samples of Lord’s work—illustrations of Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake and Alice in Wonderland and Humpty Dumpty, among others. There was an overhead projector between them and on this Riddell flipped through some of Lord’s sketches, pausing to let Lord talk of his work and to ask his own questions.

In one image of Dublin, Riddell asked about the railings along the side of the road. “It says something, I think,” he said, “these railings. It says something about your work. They’re perfect.”

Lord said, “Well. They’re the right number. I went to Dublin and I sketched and I took photographs because you can make mistakes in drawings about things like the number of railings.”

“Yes,” Riddell said. “That would be a tragedy.”

Lord was a teacher of Riddell some years ago, and, at times, it felt like we were dropping in on the middle of conversations they have been having for decades. Riddell at once gently teasing and truly in awe of the other’s attention to detail. They spoke of what they liked and didn’t like about their own, and each other’s, work. Lord, generally, the more self-deprecating. On one of his drawings: “It’s a good idea. I just wish I had drawn it better.”

They spoke, too, of keeping a journal. Riddell put one of Lord’s journals on the overhead and flipped through revealing art as detailed and surreal and--for me--sometimes so much better, than his official illustrations. There were anagrams and lists of words and sometimes the same word repeated over and over in varying size and shade. Riddell asked why. “Why did you write this?Why did you draw this?” Lord shrugged. “For fun,” he said. “For fun.”

It is not a terribly common thing listening to an illustrator talk at length about their work. Let alone two. After all, the idea of a reading doesn’t quite make sense for illustrators. This is a shame. I’m not sure why, but there often seems to be a kinship between a certain whimsical type of illustrator and a lover of words. I find more to love in much of Riddell’s work than most of the fine art I see in a year. I wonder how many fine artists keep journals in which they write the same word over and over. More than you think, possibly.

One of the more interesting conversations of the night revolved around the hanging of illustrations in a gallery. Both seemed uncomfortable with the idea. Both spoke of how the removal of illustrations from books tore them from their context. “That,” Riddell said, perhaps speaking at his most absurdly literal, “is the difference between fine art and illustration. Fine art has no context other than itself.”