Every so often, I come across an artist that strikes me as exceptional. And although the artist in question may have gotten some recognition for his work, his or her fame and success does not seem in accord with his talent. In the medium of pen-and-ink, Brian Partridge is just such an artist. Consider what kind of world we would have if great artists were recognized and nurtured at a young age. At the very least, our man-made world would be one of much richer beauty.
Brian Partridge was born in 1953, in the small village of Silverstone on the edge of the Cotswolds. Adopted into a service family he travelled extensively, leading a peripatetic lifestyle until the age of twelve years. He had no formal art training, and astonishingly in view of his now apparent talent, he did not begin drawing seriously until he was twenty-five years old.
Meanwhile, he had discovered the world of secondhand book shops and developed a love for Victorian book illustration including John Tenniel’s drawings for the Alice books. Shortly afterwards he acquired Illustrators of Alice (1972) by Graham Ovenden and John Davis and found himself fascinated by the widely differing interpretations of Carroll’s stories by 20th Century artists around the world.
While visiting a postcard dealer friend of Partridge’s in Bath, he noticed a magazine for sale in a shop window called The Green Book, edited by Keith Spencer. It had an intriguing piece inside about the Ruralists so he bought it. As it happened, it was issue number one and there was a request from the editor for artists to send in black-and-white work. Partridge’s submissions were warmly received and many were published including several frontispieces. This was his first experience at being published. He became familiar with specific Ruralists such as Graham Ovenden through his Illustrators of Alice book, David Inshaw from a magazine article and Ann and Graham Arnold who knew of his work from The Green Book. Partridge was introduced to Ovenden for the first time in 1982 when he went to Barley Splatt for a long weekend in the company of Spencer. Later, he and Ovenden even invested in the magazine for a time.
In 1984 he became involved in an amateur production of Alice at Cheltenham’s Children’s Theatre. Besides designing and helping to build the sets, he found himself acting as stage hand, program seller and jack of all trades. This production had a profound effect on his development as an artist, and after the show’s finale, he began drawing Carroll-related themes for the first time.
By 1984, he had direct involvement with professional artists in the Brotherhood of Ruralists and exhibited for the first time that year through that organization. Impressed by Partridge’s latest inspirations, Ovenden suggested they collaborate on a book and together they came up with a concept for an edition of Alice in Wonderland. Ovenden would provide the photos for Alice which would be set in a ‘wonderland’ drawn by Partridge. This project was ultimately abandoned but the two did work together on the Acrostics which was handled in a similar vein.
Brian Partridge’s drawings are delicate and dramatic. They juggle with luminosity … Behind many of these pictures is a shape-shifter’s imagination like the Celtic. Women change into trees, saplings spring from their mouths. A girl’s body has a bird’s head, pinions for fingers. And is it ribbon or candle-smoke or tendril that winds among the trees? -Graham Ovenden, Inkscapes, Garage Press, 2018
At this stage, Partridge knew he was not skilled at drawing human figures and began to remedy that shortcoming in earnest. At first, Ovenden contributed some of his photographs of Samantha Gates for studies—even if it was necessary to trace them at first. One model, Gemma—just a chance acquaintance, borrowed for half an hour and then sent on her way—was used to produce a lot of the Alice drawings, mixed in with others, for another Alice project, this time drawn completely by Partridge. The artist considered the resulting efforts his first success at a believable likeness of a young girl. Lamentably, these fine images were not published at the time, but when a Japanese woman making a new translation of Alice saw the drawings, she wanted them for a book published in 2006. The cover, incidentally, is not one of Partridge’s designs.
In time, the artist had a portfolio of his own photographs so that any references to Ovenden’s photos is rare. A striking case in point is a drawing that has the unmistakable countenance of Samantha Gates, later turned into a Christmas card.
The next image was colorized and turned into a birthday card to celebrate Ovenden’s 75th birthday earlier this year.
This business of building a portfolio of model studies then took a dramatic turn. Some photographers are fortunate enough to have their own darkrooms to develop their images without prying eyes, but others with lesser means often depend on local vendors to process their film. Perhaps inevitably, the presence of nude child figures caught the attention of an overzealous technician who decided to inform the police. Partridge was subsequently arrested and charged. One of the bizarre consequences of these events is that communication between him and Ovenden was legally cut off due to Ovenden’s recent parole conditions. Fortunately, Partridge had not changed his address since 1994 and a couple of years ago, they were in touch again collaborating once again on new additions to Acrostics and other projects with Garage Press.
He also delights in irreverent portrayals of politicians as Wonderland characters; Michael Hesletine as the Hatter, Peter Mandelson with the Millennium dome on his head as the Duchess, William Hague as the Baby and Tony Blair as a manic Cheshire Cat. But he is also fond on loving tributes of worthy artists such as composers Edward Elgar and Claude Debussy. The Elgar drawings were done for a Ruralist Touring Exhibition of the same name. The Debussy drawing is considered another early success at including convincing child figures which are not to be seen in the Elgar drawings.
Other loving tributes included Princess Diana and Shirley Temple.
Until recently, Partridge had worked almost exclusively in pen and ink, producing drawings which were amazingly detailed, delicate and yet startlingly dramatic. When Tony Linsell first saw examples of his work at a Brotherhood of Ruralist’s exhibition in 1989, he immediately realized that this was the artist he wanted to illustrate his book, Anglo-Saxon Runes. It took Partridge more than two years to complete the thirty-one pictures for the book, but his drawings perfectly reflected the spirit of Anglo-Saxon folklore and tradition. A more recent book, Honeycomb, with poems by Pauline Stainer—a more modest project in size—contains fifteen of his superb drawings.
A series on the Zodiac is one of his color examples. They were designs for postcards published by P.H. Topics. Each design included a portrait of a girl in front of a stained-glass window. The colors, images of the plants and animals and a little roundel, are all symbols associated with each star-sign. The originals were watercolors with ink to lend definition.
But undoubtedly his most remarkable work to date is his complete set of illustrations for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and a series of stunning drawings of Lewis Carroll, Alice Liddell, her sisters and other real people associated with the famous author. The artist’s affinity with the Alice books is instinctive. He has been a member of the Lewis Carroll Society for years, and the Society has specially commissioned work from him, including the jacket designs for its most prestigious publication to date, Lewis Carrolls’ Diaries. His work is avidly collected by members of the society, and those who cannot afford his drawings, collect his postcards and was onetime voted favorite postcard illustrator in a survey organized by The Picture Postcard Annual.
A selection of his illustrations including the Alice in Wonderland book, the more recent work based on Through the Looking-Glass and many other examples are now featured in Inkscapes, a hand-printed edition published by Garage Press. More accessible to the general public, however, are two key commercial productions: Drawn Into Wonderland (2004) which gives a behind-the-scenes overview of his Alice-themed work and the aforementioned Japanese version of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
Partridge’s work has appeared in a wide variety of magazines and journals and he was kind enough to provide a complete bibliography. Now that he and Ovenden have rekindled their collaboration, the artist has the chance to display his singular wit and imagination through storytelling. His latest project is a ghost story called A House Best Avoided (2018) which he believes could turn out to be one of his better efforts. The intent is to include about eight new drawings, a design for the cover and incidental ornamental work as needed. Upon completion, he plans to reciprocate for this opportunity to publish by illustrating a book of nursery rhymes for Ovenden. This is an excellent new creative outlet for the artist as the challenges of making drawings becomes increasingly onerous.
Ed: Until such time that the Garage Press page is established, serious collectors interested in purchasing any of the Garage Press, hand-produced volumes including Inkscapes should express their interest through our contact page and your message will be forwarded to the order fulfillment department. -Ron
A Selected Bibliography
- Honeycomb, Pauline Stainer, Bloodaxe 1989
- The Gardener’s Song, Lewis Carroll, Redlake Press 1990
- Calendar (with Sue Cave), Simon Rae, Redlake Press 1990
- Sold with All Faults, Graham Ovenden, unpublished 1990
- Anglo-Saxon Runes, Tony Linsell, Anglo-Saxon Books 1992
- Skeffington Hume Dodgson, Edward Wakeling, Lewis Carroll Society 1992
- The Celtic Year, Shirley Toulson, Element Books 1993
- Anglo-Saxon Mythology, Migration & Magic, Tony Linsell, Anglo-Saxon Books 1994
- The Angel With The Hawklure, Pauline Stainer, Privately Published 1997
- Acrostics, Graham Ovenden, Artist’s Choice Editions 2003
- Drawn Into Wonderland, Brian Partridge, P H Topics 2004
- Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll, Ronso Fantasy Collection, Japan 2006
- Inkscapes, Garage Press, 2017
- The Mysterious Reappearance of Abigail Thistlewaite, Brian Partridge, Garage Press 2017
- A House Best Avoided, Brian Partridge, Garage Press 2018
ILLUSTRATIONS AND COVER DESIGNS
- Nine poems, Eve Machin, Ruralist Press 1987
- Great Tew, Simon Rae, Ruralist Press 1989
- Secret Garden, Ruralist Press 1989
- The Orange Dove of Fiji, Edited by Simon Rae, Hutchinson 1989
- Some thoughts on Alice, Ruralist Press 1990
- Little Egypt, Pauline Stainer, Ruralist Press 1992
- Anglo Saxon Riddles, John Porter, Anglo-Saxon Books 1995
- First steps in Old English, Stephen Pollington, Anglo-Saxon Books 1996
- The Diaries of Lewis Carroll (in ten Volumes), Lewis Carroll Society 1993–2007
- English Country Lanes, Elisabeth Chidsey Smith, Settle 2002
- Thalia, Privately Published, Leeds 2003
- Life & Work of Phillip Dodgson Jaques, Lewis Carroll Society 2004
- Diana in Art, Mem Mahet, Chaucer Press – Pop-Art Books 2007
- Emblem of My Work, Laurence Sterne Trust 2013
ARTICLES AND REPRODUCTIONS
- The Continuing Tradition, David Paul, Gallery Chichester 1985
- Other Worlds Exhibition Catalogue Bearnes, Torquay 1989
- Graham Ovenden Monograph, Academy Editions 1987
- The Ruralists Art & Design, Academy Editions 1991
- “On The Spot”, Article by Roger Moss Create March 1993
- The Other Alice, Christina Bjork Douglas & Mcintyre / Raben & Sjogren Books 1993
- The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction & Fantasy Art Techniques, John Grant & Ron Tiner, Titan Books / Running Press 1996
- “Phantasmagoria – an Appreciation of Brian Partridge’s Work”, Pauline Stainer, Inkscape Magazine 2001
- The Ruralists & Brian Partridge, Kimie Kusomoto Mischmasch, Japan 2006
- Ancient Landscapes – Pastoral Visions Exhibition Catalogue, A C C Editions 2008
- Living Next Door to Alice – the Postcard World of Brian Partridge, Picture Postcard Annual 2010