Robert the Bruce: an illustrated history

Jill Calder has illustrated a picture book on medieval monarch Robert the Bruce, published by Birlinn to coincide with the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn.

Jill Calder has illustrated a picture book on medieval monarch Robert the Bruce, published by Birlinn to coincide with the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn.

Robert the Bruce: King of Scots is written by James Robertson, a writer and founder of children’s publisher Itchy Coo. The picture book illustrates key moments in Bruce’s life and his reign as King of Scotland from 1306 to 1329, including Bannockburn, the murder of John ‘Red Comyn’ and his fabled encounter with a spider.

Calder was asked to work on the book by Birlinn creative director James Hutcheson around three years ago, and spent months researching costumes, architecture, lettering and weaponry from the period.

“Jim wanted to create a book that would appeal to adults as well as children, and thought my work would be quite well suited to that,” explains Calder.

“I was quite nervous at first, as I hadn’t really done anything historical, or illustrated a picture book before, but I did a lot of research. I borrowed hundreds of books, visited the National Museum [of Scotland] and Edinburgh Castle, and scoured the internet looking for  armour, clothing, books, art and everyday objects – anything I could find from the 12th to the 14th century,” she adds.

Calder also studied psalters (illustrated prayer manuscripts), as well as blogs written by re-enactment societies and costume designers who specialise in creating medieval garments.

The finished illustrations are beautifully drawn and Calder’s use of colour is striking. Her artwork depicts some gory scenes of violence and decapitation but bright golden yellows, oranges and reds add a lighter feel. Red and blue are also used to signify England and Scotland, says Calder.

“The book had to reflect the turmoil of the time – there are some girm scenes – but I wanted to pace this with some lighter moments. I’m known for a love of bright colours, and wanted to include an element of this in the book, so I used a palette of blues, purples and greys with strong red and golden shades,” she explains.

Calder produced several sketchbooks full of drawings and doodles for the book, some of which are featured on endpapers. “I have pages of drawings of Robert the Bruce’s eyes, nose and face, and a folder full of A4 and A3 drawings,” she says. “I always work in pencil and ink on paper first, and then I bring everything together with colour on Photoshop,” she adds.

It’s the longest project Calder, represented by Central Illustration, has worked on to date, but she describes the process as “great fun.”

“I’d love to do another picture book. It’s a different mindset to working on advertising or [magazine] illustrations, as you really have to pace yourself and I was worried I might get a little bored, but in the end, I really enjoyed it,” she says.

“It was a pleasure working with James, too, as he writes with a great understanding of how illustrators work. When I read the text, it was like images were popping out from the page,” she adds.

Robert the Bruce: King of Scots is published by Birlinn and priced at £12.99. See for details

Calder’s sketches of Robert the Bruce

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