The art of illuminating poetry

15 September 2014

‘Fundamental to all my artwork,’ Stephen Raw says, ‘is a love of language and how that language is given a visual dimension through signs we simply call letters: never-failing sources of inspiration. Letters are images in themselves and, for me, that’s more than enough to be getting on with.’

Stephen is a textual artist who lives in Manchester. His work varies from paintings in exhibitions to cover designs, and he has exhibited around the world. Here he is talking about one of his most recent projects: illuminating the poetry collection Ritual Lighting: Laureate Poems by Carol Ann Duffy.

by Stephen Raw

Carol Ann and I have worked on a variety of projects and collaborations over the past ten years, since I first asked her if I could use a poem of hers in an exhibition I was having on the Southbank.

Since she became Poet Laureate in 2009, our collaborations have become more frequent. Ritual Lighting, which grew out of an exhibition about the poets laureate called Poetry for the Palace, is the first complete book where I've done all the 'illuminations’. Illuminations aren’t quite the same as illustrations (which implies I create pictures of the things Carol Ann refers to in her poems); they’re more like the work of the ancient scribes – which I’m drawn to – who decorated manuscripts.

Take the poem 'White Cliffs' in the collection: if I'd been an illustrator I might have done a painting of the white cliffs, but in my work I try to let the poetry do its thing by keeping the language centre stage. So I treated the work as a paper-cut piece. The final artwork has got to be about the largest paper-cut in the country at over 8 ft wide! I made reference to the white by having white on white paper; it has a sculptural feel that, for some, may well conjure up the texture of the cliffs themselves – without being too literal about it.

White Cliffs
Click to enlarge 'White Cliffs' by Carol Ann Duffy, illuminated by Stephen Raw.

In her marvellous poem 'An Unseen', Carol Ann is responding to a poem by Wilfred Owen called 'The Send-off'.

An Unseen

I watched love leave, turn, wave, want not to go,
depart, return;
late spring, a warm slow blue of air, old-new.
Love was here; not; missing, love was there;
each look, first, last.

Down the quiet road, away, away, towards
the dying time,
love went, brave soldier, the song dwindling;
walked to the edge of absence; all moments going,
gone; bells through rain

to fall on the carved names of the lost. I saw
love’s child uttered,
unborn, only by rain, then and now, all future
past, an unseen. Has forever been then? Yes,
forever has been.

I wanted to convey the angst of the words in the last four lines, so I didn’t want the letters to be calligraphically formal or pretty, both of which would be inappropriate. I have made a reference to the illuminated letters of ancient documents in my panel ('I saw') which in turn recalls the ancient notion that conflict can be a solution. In reality conflict always ends with, as Carol Ann writes, 'carved names of the lost.'

I previously painted a poem of Owen’s called 'The Next War'. Carol Ann had seen it when she opened my exhibition Was It For This the Clay Grew Tall? and thought the colour palette would be fitting for 'An Unseen'. She was right. Here’s the final illumination. 

An Unseen
'An Unseen' by Carol Ann Duffy, illuminated by Stephen Raw.