Sussex artist Christian Birmingham

PUBLISHED: 00:16 29 November 2010 | UPDATED: 18:14 20 February 2013

Sussex artist Christian Birmingham

Sussex artist Christian Birmingham

Christian Birmingham's atmospheric illustrations help to bring alive the traditional spirit of Christmas

Christmas, so the saying goes, comes but once a year... unless you happen to be Brighton illustrator Christian Birmingham.
For Christian, Christmas is an ever-present preoccupation no matter what the season. At the height of summer, as the sounds of ice-cream vans and frolicking sun seekers sail through his open window on Brighton seafront, Christian has been known to deck his room in Christmas baubles and garlands.
Why this apparently eccentric behaviour? Well, as one of the countrys best-loved artists and illustrators, Christian has breathed new life into many popular Christmas books, and his drawings of these apparently unseasonal decorations help create his evocative festive images.
His Christmas titles include Clement C Moores classic American poem, The Night Before Christmas (1995), Dickens A Christmas Carol (2000), Andersons The Snow Queen (2007) and Wenceslas (2005), based on the popular Victorian carol Good King Wenceslas (find out more about its Sussex origins on page 140.)
Perhaps its just as well he enjoys the festive season. Its probably because I dont have children, he laughs, a reference to the frenzied present-buying inflicted on most families. I keep it simple. I go to my parents for Christmas and we dont put up the tree and decorations until Christmas Eve. Then we have the minimum of nice food and presents.
Christian, 40, never planned to conquer the Christmas market. You could say he has been a victim of his own success. He was barely out of art college when his most successful commission to date landed in his lap, The Night Before Christmas. The book proved so popular that many commissions followed in a similar vein.
The book shelves of America are groaning with copies of that book because it has currently sold more than one-and-a-half million copies, he smiles. Its an iconic poem in the States and holds a real resonance, which I hadnt quite realised.
But Christian, of course, is being unduly modest. His traditional illustrative approach influenced by his great heroes from the golden age of English illustration, Arthur Rackham and Edmund Dulac captivated readers, brimming as they were with colour, mystery and atmosphere.
The figure of Father Christmas was based on a friends dad, smiles Christian, who depicted an over-sized Santa tucking into a plate of cookies and a warming glass of milk beside the hearth of a thoughtful well-wisher (see our cover image). I think the poem might have been written with illustration in mind because it naturally divides into a dozen or so illustrations with two verses per image. It was basically a case of doing what the verses dictated!
Christian, who spent his formative years in Cornwall, moved to Brighton four years ago, drawn by the light and the sea. My parents ran an art gallery near Polperro and mum had trained at the Royal College of Art in fashion design, so I was brought up to think of drawing and painting as a perfectly normal thing to do, he says.
An art teacher at his school noticed his precocious talent and Christian honed his skills by painting landscapes to sell in his parents shop mesmerised then, as now, by the effects of light on the water.
After graduating from Exeter College of Art & Design with a first class honours degree in graphic design in 1991, he moved to London in the hope of establishing himself as a professional illustrator, but it was some time before he found his metier. That day came when he picked up a chalk pastel.
An agent suggested I tried good quality pastels and sent me to a lovely old art shop in Great Russell Street called Cornelissen & Son, he says. Until that point, Id used only cheap pastels, which were very hard, like school chalk, and hadnt got on with them at all.
It proved a watershed. All the problems Id had with paint were obviated by pastels. You didnt have to wash brushes, prime canvas or stretch paper. And there were none of the problems of keeping the colour pure, none of the preparation or waiting for the paint to dry. I also loved the pleasure and immediacy of holding pigment directly in your hand in the same way that the early cave painters had.
From that moment on, leading publishers began to sit up and take notice and he went on to work with established authors such as Ian Whybrow, Geraldine McCaughrean and the former Childrens Laureate Michael Morpurgo. His trophy cabinet soon began to fill, too, and he was shortlisted for the Kurt Maschler and Kate Greenaway illustration awards, and won both the Smarties Prize and the Whitbread Childrens Book of the Year Award.
I was finally doing work that was natural to me, although people didnt seem to notice the medium so much as the style of the work. It seemed natural to refer to them as paintings because they were painterly and old-fashioned traditional, for want of a better word. And publishers responded to that because there are relatively few illustrators working in this style today.
After the phenomenal success of The Night before Christmas, Christian was asked to illustrate another childrens classic, A Christmas Carol. I hired the man I used for Scrooge from an agency called Ugly Models and took him to the home of the late Dennis Severs, an American artist who had lived in an old silk weavers house in much the same manner as its original occupants would have done in the early 18th century.
The whole thing was like a theatrical set to give the impression that the people in the room had just left, so a pipe would be left smoking on the table, the fire lit and the tea half drunk. There would even be sound effects of horses going past in the street.
I went there after hours, which was stranger still, and asked the model, dressed in a nightcap and gown, to pose in the four-poster bed at the top of the house for the famous scene where Scrooge is visited by the Ghost of Christmas Past. It was great fun to do.
Christian also drew from life models for his later Christmas books, The Snow Queen and Wenceslas, the latter, Geraldine McCaughreans reworking of the famous carol. His nephew and niece stood in for Kai and Gerda, and it was no coincidence that Wenceslas bore a striking resemblance to childrens illustrator John Lawrence, who posed draped in a voluminous velvet curtain.
In recent years, Christian has developed a parallel career as a landscape artist, taking inspiration from the spectacular promenade that runs beneath his Brighton window, as well as the sunlit canals of his beloved Venice.
But to children and parents up and down the land, its his illustrations that resonate the most and when better to share them than at Christmas?


can find out more about Christian Birmingham by visiting www.christianbirmingham.com. You can purchase his illustration artwork from www.booksillustrated.com

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