“The subtle employment of negative space”

Illustration (1955) by Pauline Baynes: Jadis, Queen of Charn

“Met C S Lewis. Came home. Made rock cakes.” Brian Sibley (himself described as “magician of the airwaves” by Gillian Reynolds) noted in his Independent obituary of 6th August, 2008 for Pauline Baynes (born 9/9/22) this laconic record of one of only two meetings she ever had with the writer. The illustrator Baynes created “the perfect visualisation of his imaginary world”, Narnia. She named among her influences Angela, her brilliant elder sister, Rex Whistler, and E H Shepard, who became her friend and mentor. Sibley notes as a hallmark of her prolific and diverse output “the subtle employment of negative space”. Elaine Moss termed her “Mistress of the Margin”.

In the Second World War, the Baynes sisters joined the Women’s Voluntary Service, and were sent to the Camouflage Development Training Centre that the Royal Engineers had set up in Farnham Castle. From 1942 until the end of the war, the sisters worked in the Admiralty Hydrographic Department in Bath, making maps and marine charts for the Royal Navy.

In summer 1961, Pauline had a lunch date with Kaye Searle, on the day, in the event, that Kaye was to discover a letter from her husband Ronald to say he had left his home and family life in London for Paris. Other than to visit his parents, he did not return to Britain. (Pauline herself did not marry until she was forty, although she had many “interesting and highly enjoyable” but evanescent love affairs.) When Kaye told Pauline she was determined to follow him to Paris, Pauline encouraged her to “Be terrifically extravagant and buy lots of clothes”.

After twenty seven years of happy marriage, Pauline’s husband, Fritz Gasch, died suddenly. According to Valerie Grove, Kaye remained a steadfast friend: “Pauline was still in great demand, working feverishly on Narnia illustrations for Brian Sibley’s C S Lewis biography, and a new Tolkien; she felt “like a bit of elastic, fully stretched”.“ (Grove, 2010).

Without the encouragement of Lewis, Tolkien might never have completed The Lord of the Rings (1954), and it would have remained a private hobby. Lewis too owed a literary debt of sorts: in her Guardian Books feature of 9/10/04, Natasha Walter celebrates the “genuine Bohemian” Edith Nesbit, and notes the absence of whimsy from her imaginative work:

“The unsentimental precision about magic that she perfected characterises the best children’s fantasies that come after her. She showed writers how to make magic worlds thick with detail, sensual and solid. CS Lewis knew her work well and happily borrowed from her tone, her devices, and her effects. In The Magician’s Nephew , published 50 years after Five Children and It, a character from another world, Jadis, Queen of Charn, suddenly stumbles into London. She is followed by crowds of policemen and curious onlookers, to the horror of the children who feel responsible for her presence and for getting her away again. That scene echoes a moment in one of Nesbit’s best books, The Story of the Amulet, when a queen from ancient Babylon comes unexpectedly into London to jeers from the crowds: “Ere’s a guy!”

Both writers have fun exploring how embarrassingly out of place an eruption of magic would be in modern London. “Now I must go and see your King and Queen,” says Nesbit’s queen. “Nobody’s allowed to,” the children reply hopelessly. “Tomorrow I will begin the conquest of the world,” says Lewis’s. “I- I’ll go and order a cab at once,” replies the children’s uncle.“.

The blogger of The Bamboo Bookcase identifies further aspects of this theme in a post of 3/12/12:

“So much of The Magician’s Nephew reminds me of the E. Nesbit book The Story of the Amulet. Both books are about objects that allow their bearers to travel magically: Polly and Digory have magic rings that take them to different worlds, and the children in The Story of the Amulet have a magic necklace that lets them travel back in time. Both books have imperious ancient queens who appear in present-day London, scholarly gentlemen who are interested in Atlantis, and mystical scenes that take place at the beginning of the universe. But it’s fascinating to see C.S. Lewis’s different take on these ideas. E. Nesbit’s ancient queen is mildly annoying, her mystical scene is based on Egyptian mythology, and her Atlantean scholar is a kindly old man with a passion for learning. C.S. Lewis has a truly wicked queen, a mystical scene that is based on Genesis, and an Atlantean scholar — Digory’s uncle, and the magician of the title — who is pure evil.”.

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