An introduction to the Tristan and Isolde illustrations

The series is of twenty one illustrations, that were later made up as a unique artist's book. The original ideas for the illustrations were conceived in 1973, inspired by my reading the Penguin book translation of the story by Gottfried von Strassburg, an early 13th century version. The illustrations were mainly done with coloured inks, which proved to be prone to fading, so in 1984 they were hand copied on quality Arches paper, and re-done using conventional watercolours and gouache paints. A few more illustrations were added, to complete the main elements of the story, bringing them to the present number.

During the 1980s the illustrations were bound together as a book, and on occasions I showed it to friends, finding myself telling the story as the pages were turned. That led to my thinking of writing a simplified version of the famous story to fit each illustration. I then wondered in what style the handwritten text should be done. I had in mind those artist's books made in Paris in the mid 20th century, in which their own ordinary handwriting was used. But I wished for a text style that was in some way archaic, yet seemed somehow modern. In 1990 on a visit to Orkney I saw the Viking graffiti, 'twig' writing, inside the neolithic tomb complex of Maes Howe. That seemed useful as a base for my writing style. That it could be read, but seemed at first glance difficult to do so, as if really archaic.

The book was consigned to a drawer for years, and rarely seen, until it was shown recently to friends. With their encouragement I had the pages copied as the illustrations were mainly done in airbrushed watercolours and gouache paints which are fragile and easily damaged.

One of the illustrations and text pages was shown at the Royal Cambrian Academy exhibition on artist's books and illustrations, at Conwy in 2014. A video was made by The MOMA Gallery Wales of the book recently, compiled with an accompanying reading of the story, and presented at the gallery as a public screening in Machynlleth, in January 2019.

©2019 Malcolm Ryan

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