Working with illustrators: Roland Pym

Biddesden House, from Biddesden Cookery (1987)

In 2019 Mount Orleans Press will bring out three titles illustrated by Roland Pym. Biddesden Cookery is a reprint of the original by Mirabel Helme (née Guinness), first published in 1987.  The two other titles are On a Bat’s Back, A Poetry Anthology for Children, edited by Mirabel Helme and The Rape of the Lock by Alexander Pope. Both were illustrated in the late 1980s. The commissions for the drawings were made following the publication of Biddesden Cookery; as the demands of jobbing printing at The Letter Press overrode the financial risks of publishing the two projects were sadly put in a drawer; but not forgotten.

            Motif for The Rape of the Lock

I was lucky to meet Roland Pym. Staying at Biddesden for weekends in the late 1970s one gradually became aware of him. Gradually because he was quiet-spoken, not exactly shy but certainly a bit reticent. As a good friend of Bryan Guinness (Lord Moyne) he was often there. And wherever Roland was in his long life (1910-2006) evidence of his presence could be found in the work he left behind, such was his prolific output and obvious enjoyment in it. His obituary in the Daily Telegraph recorded a wartime experience in the desert: ‘When his unit briefly took Rommel’s headquarters Pym did a mural of Kentish oast houses, and wondered what the field marshal made of it when he retook the position shortly afterwards.’ That was typical of him, both in his enthusiasm for painting and the slightly quizzical amusement as to what the German’s reaction might be. At Biddesden he painted three trompe l’oeil windows and a number of pictures. More important were the many illustrations in the Visitors’ Books;  beautiful, fanciful and spontaneous, toying with themes and stories which wove their way through the life of the large Guinness family.

One of the trompe l’oeil windows at Biddesden

Roland Pym’s career after the Second World War focussed on theatre design, murals and book illustration. He designed opera sets for Lohengrin at Covent Garden and Eugene Onegin in Paris, painted murals for Lord’s pavilion and the Queen’s Retiring Room at Westminster Abbey. However in the biographical ‘blurb’ he provided for the book jacket of Biddesden Cookery the commission he chose to highlight was the State Saloon at Woburn. Alan Powers, in his obituary for Pym in the Independent, recorded that on his first meeting the Duke of Bedford Pym confessed his greatest ambition was to paint the Saloon. He was promptly commissioned.

Roland’s book illustration began before the War. By 1987 he had illustrated 30 books, eight by Bryan Guinness. Although he was then 77 it was by no means the end of his career: after Biddesden Cookery he illustrated two short stories by Rosaleen Mulji which I printed at The Letter Press, The Tale of a Little Horse-Radish (1989) and The Captain’s Wife (1990).

Johnny & Jemima, the 1991 reprint of the 1936 original, and the back cover of The Pursuit of Love (Folio Society, 1991)

In the 1990s he went on to do some very good work for the Folio Society illustrating Nancy Mitford novels and culminating, in his 87th year, with Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (1996). The style of these last books was very developed, a long way from the early style of Johnny and Jemima written by Bryan Guinness some 60 years before; I reprinted this at The Letter Press in 1991.

Canto I, The Rape of the Lock

The mock-heroic tone, the water sparkling sunlight and the light frivolity of The Rape of the Lock were I thought ideally suited to Roland’s style; in any case, he gladly accepted the commission and produced full page colour illustrations for each of the cantos, as well as many little motifs for decorating the pages. At the same time Mirabel Helme commissioned the drawings for On a Bat’s Back, a project which was very much a sequel to Biddesden Cookery and drawn in a very similar style.

One of the drawings for A Bat’s Back

As ever Roland was very professional and prompt in completing his work. I remember going to see him with Mirabel at his home Foxwold to discuss the drawings. Happily these will now, finally, be published: slightly less promptly than they took to be drawn, but better late than never.

Biddesden Cookery
Mirabel Guinness, illustrated by Roland Pym
ISBN 978-1-912945-03-0
June 2019

On a Bat’s Back, A Poetry Anthology for Children
Edited by Mirabel Guinness, illustrated by Roland Pym
ISBN 978-1-912945-02-3
June 2019

The Rape of the Lock
Alexander Pope, illustrated by Roland Pym
ISBN 978-1-912945-12-2
September 2019

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