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The pen and the hand; Or the proper relationship between writer and artist

There it stood on the mantelpiece, among the other Christmas cards. Whose mantelpiece? I can't remember. I only remember the drawings. Of course it wasn't Leonardo. But I didn't need Leonado. I was after a happy imperfectiion, innocence without naivete and, as well, a sense of wonder. The flying horse did , indeed, look dejected, as though it had just received bad news. But the rider was joyfully waving his banner, sunlight behind him, snowlight before -- a paradigm of the human condition -- and, best of all, down in the castle courtyard, the horse, as he took off into the air, had left in the stone -- a hoofprint!

"But has she any experience?" the publisher wanted to know. He had seen my jottings on backs of bills, old envelopes, income tax demands; had offered to make them into a book, even give me -- to my surprise -- money for them, and on top of that a Lunch.

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Well, not really. But then, neither had I. I had lived, precariously and joyfully, on pittances from highbrow journals but never on what he called royalties. "H'm," he murmured, dubiously. And when he was shown the sketchbook results of my first conferring with the artist, he emitted another, more dubious "H'm." He looked as dejected as the horse and was clearly regretting the lunch. But I, with George MacDonald in mind -- "What will be well is even now well" -- was sure, either from obstinacy or instinct, that all he had to do was wait.

We walked, like explorers, in the park. "There," I would say. And again, "Look there!" And still Mary Poppins was not in the sketchbook. Other young ladies. But not she. Then, at last, in an attic, I came on the model, a foot-high wooden female shape ith bright black hair, bright blue eyes, and a perky, turned-up nose. (It is now in the Donnell Library in New York.) And suddenly -- you were right, dear George! -- Mary Poppins was there.

Of course, it wasn't all plain sailing. What voyage ever is? We exchanged roughs of stories and drawings. Copies of our letters are among my papers, along with my own poor sweeps of the pencil. "It's a bit like this." Or "Her toes turn outwards." Once, in a moment of exasperation, she flung at me accusingly, "All you need is a hand!" It was true. And, with her art and inventiveness, all shem needed was a pen.

Reciprocity was always present. Her brother, her famous father, and later, her husband (the late E. V. Knox, one-time editor of Punch) leapt into trees, went about on all fours, or flung themselves against garden rollers so that she could be sure of how trousers creased when asked to perform such feats. I introduced the man of music who, with a beard added, became Mr. Twigley. Our two dogs flew on balloons in the park and so, unobtrusively, did we, as we did in other walk-on parts in the drama of Mary Poppins.

It was not an easy assignment for an artist. To be asked to draw a young serving woman -- Mary Poppins is essentially a servant -- with the lineaments of a Dutch doll who at the same time emanates, with only implicit help from the text, a kind of inner grace is to tread a trickly middle line between, on the one hand, a silly ministering angel and on the other a mountebank. But this requirement, far more often that not, was faithfully fulfilled; most happily, perhaps, in the alliterated Latin version of the alliterated "Mary Poppins from A-Z." "Why not," I suggested for the cover, "a Poppins Pallas Athena?" And there she is, the goddess of wisdom, shield and carpetbag in one hand, spear and umbrella in the other; and beneath the battle maid's antique helmet, the familiar Dutch-doll face.

Now, all this is not just reminiscene, nor a bouquet tossed to Mary Shepard, though that it is wholeheartedly. It is also a signpost to what, in my thinking , is the proper relationship between writer and artist. The writer is only one half of a book; the other half is the reader. Very often it is the latter who perceives dimensions, affinities, meanings, that the writer has not -- or not consciously -- put there. And the first reader, bar the publisher, is the artist, who, unless he is a mere journeyman, will not want to illustrate a text with which he feels out of sympathy. Ha, he likes it! So, the writer whose initial experience has been fruitful -- who remembers Maillol and "Daphnis and Chloe," and Matisse and Montherlant's "Pasiphae" -- confidently, but, alas, naively, waits for the artist to make an overture. "Madam, will you walk, Madam , will you talk, Madam, will you walk and talk with me?" This seldom, if ever, happens. for now the writer is supposed to be dead. Any cri du coeur,m any picture dispatched as a guide to her own feeling in the matter (let it be "her" for convenience) lands up in the Lost Letter office. The artist, at all times, has access to the next, but at no time does the writer have a glimmer of what the artist is brewing. He is away on a spree of his own, putting a shine on the primal stone -- isn't that enough? No! The stone needs its own shine drawn from itself,m not a varnish superimposed. If one writes about a carpenter, one does not expect, when the pictures arrive, to see him portrayed as a walrus.

I once looked on with admiration when an editor, having received a package of superlative (metaphorical) walruses, ordered them to be repackaged and, together with a prodigious cheque, returned to the hand that sent them. "These pictures do not relate to the text. The book doesn't needm illustrations! she said. To be honest, very few books do.

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"In the beginning was the Word" (John 1:1) remains forever true. And the word, as it appears in print, needs to be served by both writer and artist, mutually and in harmony. Only thus will any concept be truthfully clothed with language; language in the deepest sense, not as phraseology merely, but language , whether written or limned, as a vehicle for meaning. Remember Auden, in his poem on the death of Yeats -- "Time that is intolerant/Of the brave and innocent/And indifferent in a week/To a beautiful physique/Worships language and forgives/Everyone by whom it lives." So, if the writer apprentices himself to language with a story of, say, an old man, will the artist equally serve the meaning if he depicts him as a pop-star? But children, say the moguls, relate better to youth than to age. Therefore, let us betray the text in order better to sell the text. But who wants a readership by default? And where is the book that is only for children? There is meaning for people of every age in the story of Little Bo-Peep. And the premise, anyway, is false. Children, if uncorrupted by corrupted dogmas, devised by a corrupted society, will relate to any age. I have unimpeachable evidence for this, having been a child myself.

From my first cry till this present moment, I have rejoiced in a gamut of intimates, which runs from those still in the womb to those who, after long busy lives, are sauntering towards tomb -- womb or tomb, it's the same thing. So don't shunt me off to Florida, angels, or make me a senior citizen. Give me, when the time comes, the crown of being a crone (the two words rise from the same root) and let me sit in a rocking chair, repeating, however cracked the voice, my liturgy of old wives' tales. The children, I promise you, will listen. And you, too, will listen, angels, as, in numbers never to be counted, you piroutte on the point of a pin, if I tell it -- and have it shown -- as it is.

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