5 Minutes with The Lost Words’ Artist Jackie Morris
You can see a beautifully curated exhibition of The Lost Words - the Hay Festival Book of the Year 2017 - at Warwickshire's Compton Verney only until Dec 17.
Brilliantly talented Birmingham-born artist/illustrator Jackie Morris sounds like she has the best job in the world! She sits on top of a hill to paint overlooking the sea near her rural seaside cottage near St David’s in Pembrokeshire with her two dogs and cat for company.
The Lost Words by Jackie Morris and Robert Macfarlane is an illustrated collection of 20 spell poems to re-wild the language of children. Robert Macfarlane’s words interweave with Jackie’s stunning illustrations breathing new life into words of the natural world like Dandelion, Otter, Bramble and Acorn. The work stands against the disappearance of wild childhood. A survey of British primary school children found 8-11 year-olds were “substantially better” able to identify types of Pokemon character that species of common UK wildlife.
It has just won the most beautiful book award at the Books are My Bag Readers Awards 2017 (#BAMBReadersAwards) and was voted the Hay Festival Book of the Year 2017.
Muddy caught up with Jackie at The Lost Words exhibition at Compton Verney, an award-winning national art gallery, near Warwick, in Warwickshire, located inside a Grade I-listed Georgian mansion and set in 120 acres of Capability Brown parkland.
If you’re looking for something brilliant and thought-provoking to do this month, this has to be a real contender. And Jackie will be talking about the work and signing copies of the book on Sun Dec 3, 11.30am-4.45pm. Her other books include The White Fox and Tell Me a Dragon.
How did The Lost Words come about?
Two years ago, I asked Robert if he would write an intro for a book I was working on. He said: ‘Your work’s amazing’ and told me he’d been invited to do a children’s book and would I like to work with him on it. He put forward an amazing proposal which he took to his publishers Hamish Hamilton and they called an extraordinary acquisitions meeting. Within 24 hours it was signed off. Everything about this book is unusual. I’ve never heard of a book becoming an exhibition.
What’s the spell book all about?
This book is a creative protest. It’s a catalyst to getting these Lost words back into the minds of children. If we do not start changing the way we live, knowing it and owning it the decline will continue. Our book is about hope and creativity. Kids today know what trainers to buy but have not heard a lark sing. I was at a school in Bristol and asked a class of 6-year-olds who knew what a Wren was. Not one of them put their hands up. But now they do.
How did you feel when you’d finished the illustrations for the book?
I haven’t told this story before but when I was finishing off The Lost Words I was upset with one of my bluebell paintings, then I looked up and saw a skylark lifting into the sky. It was almost prophetic. When you have poured so much of yourself into a book over months, and have done your very best sometimes you just have to let go…
What was your reaction to first seeing The Lost Words exhibition at Compton Verney?
At first, I couldn’t walk in. It’s astounding for illustration to be given such respect. The way the gallery has curated with such attention to detail and care each room and the honouring of the words and illustrations together with astounding care to each room. I brought my parents. My mum, who is 84, isn’t too well and hobbled around. They hadn’t been to a gallery before and were a bit overwhelmed. It was lovely to show them. My dad is the one who used to take me out blackberry picking in Evesham.
Have you been surprised by the reaction to The Lost Words?
We were very well supported by the publishers’ (Hamish Hamilton) and the reaction we’ve had has been unbelievable! We are absolutely astounded by the support from indie bookshops. Both Robert and I are supporters of independent bookshops. I follow Tamsin at Kenilworth Books on Twitter – she’s a fantastic support of authors and leader in the campaign to stop the discounting of books.
Do you draw from imagination or real-life?
I do sketch from life I have a menagerie of stuffed creatures in my home and I also use photos. When I was painting Magpie and Wren my house was full of twigs and a real magpie was actually building a nest in a tree outside my studio. Rob had the same thing when he was writing Kingfisher. He was in Orford Ness in Suffolk, it was flat and dark and there caught in the snag of a stick was a Kingfisher.
I have an old RSPB bird book, which is actually part of the exhibition. I used to pour over that book as a child and copy the pictures. I also remember I Spy and Observer books which still hold value in second-hand bookshops.
Where did you grow up?
Birmingham. My grandparents were chain makers and my dad worked in a factory before we moved to Evesham. My uncle was a lovely man. He worked in a foundry all his life and died of lung cancer. I remember once being in his house and it was all silent apart from a bird outside. He said it was called a Storm Cock because it always sings before a storm – it’s also known as a Mistlethrush. His death made me very angry. After that I decided I couldn’t work for anyone!
How old were you when you knew you wanted to be an artist?
Six. I just painted and drew all the time, partly because I was very slow to learn to read. I thought in pictures as well as drawing and doodling. As a child and an adult, I was told I couldn’t be an artist by teachers and family so having an exhibition here is amazing!
Any advice for young artists?
It’s good to look how different people paint. When I was a kid I really thought everyone saw things like me.
I’d love to be on Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour – but with Robert.
Do you have a favourite wild animal?
I’m particularly fond of hares. I saw my first one springing up in a field in Broadway.
You mention that you were a single mum when your children were younger – what are your kids up to now?
Tom is 25. He graduated in Navigation at Plymouth Uni and is living at home at the moment. My daughter Hannah is 23, is studying marine biology at Plymouth and teaching yoga.
The Lost Words at Compton Verney runs until Dec 17, and visitors can explore the natural surroundings on two digital ‘spell walks’ by downloaded a special app on their smart phone. comptonverney Here’s a link to Jackie’s website and blog.