Monday 21 September 2009

Jump into the World of the Story and Rummage Around: An Interview with Jonathan Burton

Jonathan Burton is an extremely talented illustrator who recently completed designed and  illustrating the Folio Society edition of PD James's Cover Her Face. He was kind enough to agree to be interviewed about this project, his own history, and his ambitions. You can see more of his work at his website and at his blog (with more information on the Cover Her Face process collected here).

CAUSTIC COVER CRITIC: What's your background in design and illustration? How did you get into the field?

JONATHAN BURTON: I studied general Art & Design at three colleges in the North of England which were in Scunthorpe, Blackpool and Bradford. I then specialized in Illustration to do an MA at Kingston University, London, which was the course that really motivated me and made me fall in love with image making. Too many years at college though, too poor for too long.

CCC: Folio work with a wide variety of artists, not just a few regulars. How did you being the designer/illustrator for this book come about?

JONATHAN BURTON: I'd sent the Art Director several mailshots over the years so when they called I assumed they had found me that way, but that wasn't the case. The Art Director had found me by chance at They called and asked if I'd like to illustrate Birdsong which I got very excited about so spent that Christmas immersing myself in the book. The first image I sent was refused by the novels author Sebastian Faulks who had the final say, the second one was refused too. I was really disappointed but in retrospect I think my drawings were too descriptive for the tone of the book and I should have taken a step back. A softer feel may have been more appropriate.

The Art Director and Editor at Folio were really enthusiastic about the work I'd done though and straight after offered me Cover Her Face. PD James accepted the first image (hooray) and it went from there.

CCC: Often cover designers don't even have the full manuscript to work from, but you had lots of detailed internal artwork to do, and the posts on your blog show lots of close reading to get the scenes and characters right. What was that experience like?

JONATHAN BURTON: It was so interesting to jump into the world of that story and rummage around. I imagined I was making a film where I was casting director, costume designer, prop collector, continuity checker.... the lot. Everything was noted down - characters age, clothes, hairstyle, what was where in each room and even as to where the light was coming from for each scene in particular for the overhead 'crime scene' which became the most complex illustration. PD James is so descriptive of her environments that I couldn't stop myself putting every item and person in their correct place. All of that research into detail became incidental only serving to make the settings more authentic as the most important thing to get across was the sense of drama.

CCC: Do you have any interest in sequential art/comics? I can imagine how cool Burton's Lives of the Composers would be!

JONATHAN BURTON: I love Chris Ware, Seth, Daniel Clowes, Charles Burns, the Blab comic... all the Fantagraphics books basically.

I've always felt intimidated by the huge amount of work that must be involved in creating a comic book but recently, after working with Folio and now trying to wrestle a children's book to the ground, I've discovered that it's the background work where the fun is at, so I think that if I could devote myself to it I'd really love it. Lives of the Composers, I could get into that.

[NB: Jonathan has created illustrations of many of the great composers for Classic FM in the UK. Here are  Dvorak...



..and Beethoven.]

I moved to France a few years ago and the Bande Dessinée is taken very seriously here, and seeing the festival of BD at Angoulême has shown me that the market for comics is enormous. Likewise the amount of competition.

CCC: Dream job: Folio ask you to choose any book at all to work your magic on--what would you choose?

JONATHAN BURTON: Lady Chatterley's Lover is such a great book and the 1920s setting would be interesting to explore. I've also recently read the epic The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber, set in a sleazy Victorian London. That would be a huge project.... I'm drooling now. Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, too, while I'm at it.

CCC: Is there any neglected book you'd love to draw to people's attention as something they should seek out?

JONATHAN BURTON: I'm not sure this is neglected as every Art student in the UK would have had it rammed down their throat but I've recently got back into Ways of Seeing by John Berger. It accompanied a 1970s BBC TV series which is now available on Youtube. The 70's style of programme has really dated but the ideas are still very interesting. With you being a critic of book design though I should point out that it's also a very ugly book! All the text in large bold type with black and white photos haphazardly placed throughout. Strange that it's about how we see images yet it's so carelessly designed. Never mind, the ideas are good.

CCC: Thank you, Mr Burton!

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Further reading from the archives: for another take on Cover Her Face, see here, and for more on Ways of Seeing, see here


Bob Fingerman said...

Great interview. Burton's work is pretty fantastic, too. I especially like the portrait of Éric Satie. Wonderful.

Ian Koviak said...

This one is just wonderful:

what a great cover it would make...

Matthew Adams said...

I really like the Dvorak illustration.

vaubu said...

Really neat images, thank you for sharing!