The London Magazine
‘Nights at the Circus, a personal interpretation’: Eileen Cooper on her illustration of Angela Carter’s novel
The characters of Angela Carter’s seminal novel, Nights at the Circus, have been brought to life by British artist, painter and print-maker Eileen Cooper. Published in 1984, Carter’s book incorporates multiple genres of fiction, including fairy tales and magic realism — themes that frequently appear in Cooper’s work. The opportunity for the artist to revisit Nights at the Circus arose when The Folio Society commissioned Cooper to create illustrations for a new edition of Carter’s novel.
Re-reading the novel elicited deep connections, says the artist, that tie Carter’s characters with imagery in Cooper’s own art. The result is a new body of work on paper which combines motifs inspired by the literary work and ideas drawn from her own imagination. A very personal interpretation of the story is told through the artist’s eyes. On the eve of her show at the Sims Read gallery, she spoke to The London Magazine about Carter’s writing, literary fiction and her artistic process.
I read Nights at the Circus about ten years ago and found myself marvelling at the fictive world Carter created, and your interpretations of the characters in the book are something akin to the ones I saw in my mind’s eye. Can you tell me the process by which you realised them?
I’m pleased to hear my illustrations resonate with your memory of the book. I have not studied a book in this way since I was a schoolgirl, however I found this to be a very enjoyable process.
The book has a huge number of characters, so out of necessity, I selected a few that I felt most connected to. Also, I was drawn to particular events in the story which I concentrated on and used in my illustrations.
Sophie Fevvers was a particular favourite of mine. A cockney virgin, hatched from an egg and an aerialiste, she was an extraordinary concoction. What did you make of her? And what do you think she represents in the book, and to you personally?
I adore Fevvers, her bawdy, larger than life personality and extreme physical characteristics, including, of course, a pair of wings. One can sense Angela Carter’s sheer enjoyment in writing about Fevvers and her journey. I think she’s a touchstone for everyone who feels they don’t fit in, while at the same time, she’s liberated by this. In the time the book is set – and still relevant when Carter was writing it, just as it is now perhaps – feminist freedom and the escape from oppression must be seen to be a key aspect of Fevvers and the other female characters.
Artists taking works of modern fiction to inspire a body of work is, as far as I know, quite rare. Do you think this is because the characters are too fully realised on the page, and because of that it becomes restrictive?
This is an interesting point. I know I’m in the territory of the illustrator by taking this project on and there are wonderfully gifted illustrators that could have done a fine job. However, I think it’s clever and daring of the Folio Society to commission an artist with little track record as an illustrator. Inevitably, I brought with me a wealth of my own imagery and interests.
I think if more opportunities arose, then certainly some artists would relish the prospect, as I did.
Angela Carter was a true innovator, and this book artfully melds feminism, post-modernism and magic realism together. Do you think it was this that drew you to it?
I immediately connected with the book. The circus, the aspects of performance and of course the wonderful female characters and their journeys and personal evolution all fascinated me. The book works on so many levels, and I’m sure I’ve only just excavated the surface. There are serious scholars who really do understand the breadth and depth of this book. At the same time, anyone would find it accessible, the narrative itself carries you along.
Are there any works of fiction or non-fiction that have had an influence on your work?
From childhood particularly, fairy tales (hence the connection to Angela Carter), fables, Greek myths, CS Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. Later, as a student, the transformation stories in Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
Have you read any books recently that you recommend?
I’ve been reading so much in the past year, always fiction. I recently discovered the books of Junichiro Tanizaki, I loved both A Cat, a Man and Two Women and the Makioka Sisters. I’m always on the look out for the new Michael Connelly for my ‘crime’ fix. Rose Tremain, Islands of Mercy, Elena Ferrante, The Lying Life of Adults. I’ve enjoyed the whole series of books by Mick Herron and Phillip Kerr. Both feature compelling anti-heroes. Finally, Delia Owens, Where the Crawdads Sing, and Sebastian Barry, A Thousand Moons.
The Folio Society edition of Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus illustrated by Eileen Cooper and introduced by Sarah Waters is exclusively available from 1st March 2021 at foliosociety.com/circus
Eileen Cooper RA (born 1953), studied at Goldsmiths College of Art from 1971 until 1974, before completing an MA in painting at the Royal College of Art in 1977. She has held teaching posts at St Martins School of Art and the Royal Academy Schools. Cooper became a Royal Academician in 2001 and served as Keeper of the Royal Academy between 2010 and 2017. She has had numerous national and international exhibitions, including solo exhibitions at the Royal Academy of Arts and Dulwich Picture Gallery, London. Her work is held in many important public collections including The Arts Council of Great Britain, the Victoria and Albert Museum and The British Museum, London.
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