Neil Gower is an artist based in Sussex, England, at the heart of the South Downs. He graduated in 1984 from Brighton Art School and has worked freelance ever since. Best known for his work on book jackets and illustrated maps in the U.K., Europe and the U.S., his latest project, a book called As Kingfishers Catch Fire—in collaboration with author Alex Preston—is being published in the U.K. today. It represents a departure into something less graphic, more painterly. During one of his flights to New York City I asked him to talk more about why he’s become so taken by our winged neighbors.
After working on book covers that have such stylistic references to the past and eccentric views of the present, how did you decide to work on a book about birds?
I’m still trying to figure that out myself! Alex (the author) approached me to try a sample chapter, which I thought might be fun. I wasn’t really expecting the project to take wing, as it were. Then, before I knew what was happening, we had landed a publishing deal and a brief to produce 21 paintings, 50 line drawings and “the most beautiful book published in 2017.”
This is not a latter-day Audubon but it comes close. Did you have to practice a lot for this assignment? Did you have to teach yourself bird anatomy?
It was this type of comparison that terrified me the most when we embarked on the book. I had never painted birds before as such, and knew that ornithological art has a long and noble tradition. But the book is a celebration of how birds have been portrayed in literature, and I felt my first duty was to the writers down the centuries who had tried to capture birds in words. I decided to embrace the fact that I was “unencumbered by expertise” as a positive and to concentrate on the dazzling words and imagery in the hope that these would lead me to the essence of each bird by a different, new route. I deliberately painted the words, rather than the birds.
What is the focus of the project? Is it to preserve endangered species through art or is there another motive?
We wanted the book to be a celebration in equal parts of books, birds, paint and words. If it draws attention to the fact that some of the featured birds are, or have been, endangered, so much the better, but that wasn’t part of our initial vision. We simply wanted to create a beautiful object to do justice to the exquisite writing and creatures we were celebrating. The quote that best sums up the project for me is a line from Mary Oliver’s Snow Geese: “Oh, to love what is lovely, and will not last!”
What are your favorite parts of this book?
Having a guided tour through the most vivid and vaulting nature-writing from classical times to the present was a pure joy. I think I’m most proud of how each of the images relates to its respective chapter. I tried to make sure they all have great immediate impact, but also contain quieter resonances and references that only reveal themselves to the reader via the text. Aside from the paintings though, being able to devise the endpapers for my own book was a childhood dream come true, and I am particularly pleased with them. I am hoping the book sells in sufficient quantities for the publisher to make me a shirt in finest silk patterned with our endpapers.
You’re known for doing some amazing illustrated maps. Do you see your future in painting animals?
The one thing that has characterized my work to date—the book jackets and maps, etc.—is that it has involved combining imagery with lettering. The book has moved into more painterly territory, which I would definitely like to explore further; not necessarily with animals, but maybe on a project that involves travel and responding to place, landscape and light. Inspired by working on the book, I have also started writing, and it will be interesting to see what doors that opens up.