Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Artist's roughs for 'Mr Stephenson's Regret'

The artist Peter Fussey is now working on the front cover of my new book Mr Stephenson's Regret (provisional publication date 25 February), so I thought it might interest readers to see how the cover is taking shape through the early roughs against the brief given, and to get a flavour of our conversations about the image.

As the novel is based on real historical figures and events, the cover challenge is a tricky one for Peter, and a challenge for me to provide a coherent brief. I am anxious to convey the historical context while retaining the look and feel of a novel. I want to include the essential element of the railway/the steam train while emphasising the personal, especially through my central character Robert Stephenson, upon whose life, relationships, and inner thoughts the story revolves. I want to give the casual browser in the bookshop an immediate sense that this is a story with a historical context, but is certainly not a history book.

After entertaining and dismissing several possible scenes from the novel as the basis for the cover, we settled on one which alludes both to a significant event in the book - the unveiling of the Rocket at the Rainhill Trials - and the relationship between Robert and the woman who became his wife, Frances (Fanny) Sanderson.

I have a scene in the novel where Robert takes his new wife for a ride on the footplate of the Rocket during a break in the Rainhill Trials. I dismissed the notion of the two of them actually riding the train (the wind in Fanny's hair) as over-romantic, settling instead for a simpler image of the two of them together in front of the train.

Our attention should be on the couple, who should be shown not in the giddiness of young love (which would strain against the sombre title of the book) but in a state of thoughtful stillness. In the immediate context of Rainhill, I suggested to Peter, Robert would be looking slightly anxious, Fanny holding in some excitement. Perhaps Fanny's head is a little cradled into Robert's shoulder - the merest trace of incipient sexuality behind her affection. They will not be looking 'at the camera' as it were, but somewhat abstractedly into the middle distance. Penny for their thoughts.

They are at this point in their early-to-mid twenties, and dressed in late Regency middle class clothes, quite smart though Robert, lately returned from three years in South America, might look a little more informal than some of his contemporaries in this situation - no top hat, for example, and not too much fuss around the collar. The couple would indeed look quite 'modern' for their time.

One of Peter's challenges is that most of the images that exist of Robert are when he is older. This is the youngest-looking we found:

Robert Stephenson

Of Fanny there are no images at all (how females are so often shunted to the side of history), just this brief contemporary description: not beautiful, but she had an elegant figure; a delicate and animated countenance, and a pair of singularly expressive dark eyes. At least there is plenty for the imagination to work on.

Peter worked first on a black-and-white sketch of the scene, his aim to get the composition right, begin to render a faithful impression of the Rocket, and make a start on the faces and forms of our two characters. Here is Peter's first rough:

There's a lot I like about the rough, particularly Fanny's face - she is how I imagine her to be. The man too looks like Robert, though I wonder if he's looking a little older than he should be at this stage, and a little too formal. His coat seems very wintry when placed against Fanny's lighter wear. (The Rainhill Trials took place in mid-September.) Also I'm not sure about him appearing to stare at us directly from the picture - Fanny's abstracted look by contrast is excellent. The hands obviously need work. I love the composition and the typeface. The Rocket looks great in the background, and I like Peter's use of the steam to bed in the author's name.

I've passed these comments on to the artist as he develops the cover further. Before working more on the characters Peter has spent some time on the train and in adding colour to the background. Last night he sent me this:

I feel this is really coming to life now, and I'm looking forward to seeing the cover progress to a final version. Your comments at this stage would of course be welcome.


  1. The colors are gorgeous! I think you're right about Fanny's face being perfect, but Robert's is still too much like a formal portrait. This will be wonderful when you get it all done. Good luck, David

  2. Thanks, Zan Marie. My feelings exactly.

  3. It's looking good. You are right on about the difference in formality between Fanny's gaze and Robert's. It's almost as if the two of them were photoshopped in from separate pictures. The colors on the background are beautiful.

  4. Very interesting, David. The cover suggests a human story behind an historic event, so a success, I think!

  5. Useful comments, Kate and Emma. Thanks, both.