The Folio Society has published some beautiful illustrated editions of classic novels this year, from A Clockwork Orange to Day of the Jackyll. Here, Nate Evuarherhe, assistant librarian at the V&A Museum, speaks to illustrator Sean McSorley about his artwork for a new edition of Joseph Conrad’s troubling novella, Heart of Darkness…
The cover of the Folio Society’s new edition of Heart of Darkness features a striking visual pun that sets the tone for the decidedly menacing illustrations that sit within its covers.
A crumbling steamer anchored on a riverbank in the heart of the rainforest belches out rust-red wisps of smoke that rise and merge to form the deathly eye-sockets of a skull. Death, decay, and alienation: the main themes in Joseph Conrad’s well known text are vividly captured in new designs and illustrations by London based illustrator, Sean McSorley.
A recent graduate of Camberwell College of Arts’ illustration MA, McSorley won the Folio Society/House of Illustration competition in September this year. The prize was the chance to deliver his own book commission for the Folio Society, working with its experienced art director Sheri Gee and the publisher’s literary editors.
With hand-crafted end papers, a slipcase and six full colour illustrations, McSorely has taken Conrad’s semi-autobiographical account – the book tells the story of an ivory trader who travels down the Congo, and was inspired by Conrad’s own trips to the region in the late 1800s – and distilled it through his own imagination. “Visually, I tried to bring out some of the themes and motifs that exist in the book,” he explains.
“There is this idea of decay: all the European characters in the book all seem to fall apart spiritually, physically and emotionally. They’re all in this state of decay, and I used the motif of decayed rust to create some consistency in the images and string them all together.”
McSorley’s colour palette of rusty reds, murky greens and corroded crumbling browns is achieved by his inspired use of monoprinting; a technique that he says provides a library of textures and gradients and “has the appeal of accidents happening”.
Marks on an acrylic sheet take on a variety of forms and textures when transferred to paper, leaving the creative process open to chance and discovery. Combined with ink drawings and Photoshop editing, McSorley’s final product is the outcome of a process that is at once instinctive, spontaneous and yet highly methodical.
His approach to interpreting the text is also an intuitive response to strong visual elements in the narrative. “When I was reading, an image popped into my head and I knew it would make a good picture,” he says. He then worked with Gee, art director at the Folio Society, to decide on further scenes and the level of detail required.
“The editor and art director were very passionate about the book and paid a lot of attention to detail,” says McSorely. “When you’re reading [it], it’s not necessary to have those details in your head, but when you’re illustrating the text, those details need to be there.”
Praised for their atmospheric and dream-like quality, McSorley’s illustrations occupy the numinous space between literal representation and interpretive evocation of the spirit and tone of Conrad’s haunting text.
Nate Evuarherhe is assistant librarian at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. His research focuses on 20th-century and contemporary book design and illustration, and he has previously written for Illustration Magazine and Matrix.
Heart of Darkness is published by the Folio Society and priced at £29.95. The binding is three quarter-bound in cloth with a Modigliani paper side, and the spine and slipcase are blocked in silver foil. Art direction by Sheri Gee. For details or to order a copy, see foliosociety.com. More of McSorley’s work is at seanmcsorley.co.uk