Once upon a midnight dreary,
while I pondered weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,
While I nodded, nearly napping,
suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping,
rapping at my chamber door . . .
Paper engineer, David Pelham, has re-imagined Edgar Alan Poe‘s haunting poem; The Raven, through incredible paper craft; he is here today to share the process and inspiration for creating this awe inspiring book.
UNDER THE SPELL OF ‘THE RAVEN’ by David Pelham
In the grey drab days of the late 1930s my earliest memory took shape from within the confines of an iron-framed, high-sided hospital bed. Three years old and recovering from an emergency operation, I was visited by a very kind but rather gaunt giant of an uncle in a dark overcoat. I can still see him looming above me as he reached deep into his pocket, slowly withdrawing the most wonderful, the most dazzling and exciting toy I had ever seen: a toy that awoke in me a visual sense that has influenced and enhanced my life ever since.
It was a magical clockwork butterfly, its shiny tin wings printed in rainbow colours. To me it was the toy-most toy imaginable, joyful and strange, with wings flapping, colours blurring and merging to make more colours. This thrilling piece of clockwork poetry delighted me as it flitted noisily about upon my bed-tray, while outside the dark clouds of war were gathering ominously.
Today, over seventy years later, I still vividly recall my infant joy at the sight of my wonderful tin butterfly, and I believe that something of its bright colours and the visual excitement it gave me during those dark days have stayed with me, and have had a strong influence on my novelty books for the young.
I have had a lifelong passion for kites; their design, construction, performance, and, of course, their bright colours. In the mid 1970s while art director of Penguin Books I wrote The Penguin Book of Kites which is still in print today. This book later led on to a further large-format volume called Kites to Make and Fly, published in 1981 by Pan Books. When detached, the pages could be cut, folded and glued to create ten kites.
During the process of designing these paper kites I became captivated by the creative potential offered by the simple, low-tech immediacy of constructing three-dimensional sculptural forms out of nothing more than folded paper and glue. After an intensive period of self-instruction and exciting experimentation I found that my hitherto flat creative efforts were almost magically lifting off the page as pop-up entities into a dramatic extra dimension. This discovery had set me free, and my love-affair with pop-up books and paper engineering began.
The idea of treating Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven in pop-up form was first suggested to me in 2013 by my wife, Jacqui Graham. Jacqui works closely with Clive James and would regularly check James’s sales on the Amazon bestseller list and elsewhere. While doing so she was struck by how often The Raven topped the poetry charts both in the UK and the US. After some further checking she was also struck by the number of distinguished translations of the poem that exist.
As she knew that my interest in the works of Edgar Allen Poe goes back to my schooldays, and that I had previously considered other Gothic ideas, she suggested that The Raven might make an interesting proposition. As usual she was right, and I spent the next six months or so pondering on the notion, assessing how best to distribute the eighteen wonderful stanzas of the poem through the seven spreads of the book in such a way as to maximise the drama, impact and dimensional potential of each spread while completely respecting and staying true to the text.
So vivid is the imagery of the text it was not long before I had the book planned and, while the paper engineering had its challenges, the structure of each individual tableau began to slowly emerge from the seven spreads of the book.
Pop-up books vary widely in complexity, and the degree of complexity obviously very largely governs the cost to the publisher, The Raven is a complex book with some very challenging assemblies and, while designing the book wasn’t easy, the real work starts when the printer is sent a blank dummy of the proposal. This assembled blank is accompanied by a make-up sheet showing all the die-cut shapes arranged jig-saw style. The pieces are grouped along with the concertina pages into which the pieces will eventually be fitted.
These sheets are generally referred to as ‘nesting sheets’, and if the complex die-cut pieces exceed the available area on the sheet then it’s back to the drawing board for modifications. This takes time of course, so the designer is then caught between – not so much as a rock and a hard place – but more between a budget and a schedule.
On receiving the designer’s blank dummy and the nesting sheet, the printer then cuts and assembles a number of copies of the blank, carefully timing the assembly process in order to help establish an overall manufacturing cost.
Several of these dummies are then sent to the publisher and the designer for approval. Much later they will send out printed proof sheets for the approval of the designer and the illustrator.
From the outset of The Raven project I had hoped to persuade the artist and engraver Christopher Wormell to illustrate the book. I had admired his work for many years yet had neither met nor worked with him. Prior to our first meeting – in order to convey something of the illustrative technique I wanted – I prepared a further dummy by montaging each spread with blowups of Victorian engravings to suggest the mood I had in mind. To my delight Christopher was very enthusiastic, and I knew at that moment that this book was no longer ‘my’ book but ‘our’ book, and that with Christopher on board it could become very special.
Communicating mainly by email I would send Christopher the refined die-cut shapes showing my rough drawings, along with reference material and so forth, and by return I would receive his preliminary sketches. These were magnificent, strong and assured drawings of such confidence and brilliance that they constantly brought to mind my complete dismay that drawing, the rudimentary skill of visual creativity, is – to our shame – no longer taught in our art schools.
Drawing is the discipline that lies at the very root of creative endeavour, as important to artists, designers, architects, engineers and scientists as is the written word. Similarly in music the understanding, appreciation and practice of scales and chords must form the rudiments of any real musician’s craft, so the ability to draw is essential to any real artist or designer.
The study of drawing not only concerns itself with making marks, it also develops scrutiny and perception, sharpening our ability to look rather than to simply see. It is an essential skill; a means of enhancing our perception of the physical world around us; a skill that helps us not only to observe, but also to convey, develop and present our creative concepts.
Although Christopher had never previously tackled the demands of a pop-up book he took to the task quickly and positively, constantly providing work that far surpassed that which was expected from the brief.
Some months later I was holding an assembled pass-proof, apprehensively turning each page, carefully scrutinising each little tableau in turn, checking that every one of my detailed adjustments had been carried out by the printer, the die makers and the assembly teams. All was in order. I was holding the result of three years of intensive work in my hands and it felt good.
The Raven: A Pop-up Book is out now. Find out more and buy your copy on our website.